Ministers get new powers to hire and fire Civil Service advisers

  • @oliver_wright

Civil Service mandarins are to be put on fixed-term contracts and ministers given the power to hire teams of political advisers paid for by the taxpayer, in the biggest shake-up of how Britain is governed for decades.

Under proposals, expected to be announced next month, Cabinet Ministers will be able to personally appoint teams of external experts, political advisers and seconded civil servants to run new expanded private offices.

At the same time all permanent secretaries will be put on four year fixed term contracts and given specific targets by which their performance will be assessed.

However the Government is expected back down in the face of opposition from senior civil servant from plans to give ministers the final say over the appointment of permanent secretaries. This process will continue to be overseen by the independent Civil Service Commission – with only the Prime Minister able to veto appointments.

The most controversial area of the reforms is likely to be the significant increase in the number of political special advisors employed by Government and paid for by the taxpayer.

When the Coalition came to power David Cameron placed great emphasis on cutting the number of advisers across Government from 82 to 61.

But since then the numbers have crept up again and many Cabinet ministers believe that in order to be effective in their jobs more still are needed.

Under the plans a Cabinet Ministers would have much greater freedom to make personal appointment to their private offices of both political advisers and policy experts.

They system would be similar to that in countries such as Australia and Canada where around 400-600 Government positions are political.

The changes are believed to have broad cross-party support but will raise concerns that it will lead to a more politicised civil service.

However today, the independent think tank the IPPR, which was commissioned by the Government to make recommendations for civil service reform, backs the move. The idea also has support from the Institute for Government.

It says, while it is aware of the arguments of politicisation, there is a “compelling case” for strengthening the level of support given to Secretaries of State.

“The job of governing is harder today,” they write. “Societies are more complex, legitimacy is harder to achieve, and power is more diffuse, weakening the capacity of government to deliver economic and social change.”

“…One of the strengths of giving ministers greater control over the shape of their office is that they will be able to use it to ensure they have at their disposal a full range of skills and expertise to do the job.”

The IPPR report, which has been delivered to the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, also recommends several other reforms which are under consideration by the Government.

They suggest seconding civil servants to the Opposition parties to advise on policy, help with research and provide a link between officials and potentially the next Government.

They also argue that senior civil servants in key operational roles, for example dealing with major Government programmes should be held accountable by Parliament. Currently only permanent secretaries can be called before select committee to give evidence.

Mr Maude is due to respond to the IPPR report next month at which point he will set out the Government’s plans for more political advisors and fixed term contracts for Permanent Secretaries.

Yesterday he said: “We are rightly proud of so much that our Civil Service does. But it would be arrogant to assume that there is nothing we can learn from how other countries do things. 

“I welcome this report which makes an important contribution to the debate. We will consider it carefully as we formulate the next steps of our reform programme for the Civil Service.”

Margaret Hodge MP, the Labour Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, also backed the IPPR’s findings.

“The IPPR report is significant because it shows how it is possible to strengthen the accountability of senior civil servants to Ministers and to Parliament without politicising Whitehall.

“These are sensible measures that should command cross-party support.”

Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government added:

“This report addresses pressing and important issues. It should now permit a more reasoned debate, setting out in detail the experience from overseas and allaying some of the fears over politicization.”