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Confused, minister? So are we

Vernon Bogdanor argues for a strong code of ethics to clarify the roles of politicians and civil servants
Is there any place for the public service ethos in an era of executive agencies, contracting out and market testing? Is the managerial revolution in the civil service compatible with its traditional values: integrity, impartiality and accountabili ty to Parliament?

Tomorrow, the Government will publish a White Paper on the civil service. It will have to answer two fundamental questions: whether traditional notions of ministerial responsibility need to be revised in the light of the massive devolution of power to agencies; and whether shared understandings of appropriate relations between ministers and civil servants have become so eroded that a code of ethics is needed.

The British constitution, Gladstone said, "presumes more boldly than any other the good faith of those who work it". That good faith can no longer be taken for granted. The managerial revolution in the civil service has not been accompanied by any serious thought as to its constitutional consequences.

When the Next Steps programme began, ministers insisted that ministerial responsibility remained unimpaired. Now they are trying to offload responsibility on to the agencies. After the Parkhurst escapes, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, declared in the Commons that he was "responsible to Parliament for policy" but not for operational matters, which were the responsibility of the director-general of the prison service. It is hardly surprising that Sir John Woodcock, in his report on Whitemoor Prison, concluded: "There exists at all levels within the service some confusion as to the respective roles of ministers, the agency headquarters and individual prison governors." Nor is it surprising that he said there was difficulty in determining what was an operational matter and what was policy, "leading to confusion as to where responsibility lies".

The White Paper must dispel this confusion. Nothing can be more demoralising for a public service than finding itself continually blamed for failure while ministers resolutely take the credit for success.

The White Paper must also tackle the need for a code of ethics. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee has recently reiterated the case for such a code, and ministerial resistance to it seems to have collapsed. The danger now is that ministers will propose a vacuous code full of worthy generalities which fails to answer questions such as: "Is a minister entitled to ask his or her officials to help draft a party conference speech?' or "What should a civil servant do if he or she believes that a minister is seeking to mislead Parliament?"

To be effective, the code must be buttressed by an independent appeals procedure. Some have proposed that the arbiter should be the Civil Service Commission or a committee of senior Privy counsellors. But these bodies would be unable to ensure compliancewith their findings. The best arbiter would be an Ombudsman for the Civil Service supported by a Commons Select Committee as a court of appeal, should ministers ignore the Ombudsman's findings.

These reforms would help. But they are not an instant cure. For there is a deep-seated conflict between the commercial ethos of the market and the public service ethos of the civil service. To resolve that conflict requires not a White Paper but a radical change of heart; and of that there seems to be no sign.

The writer is Reader in Government, Oxford University, and a Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford.