Leading Article: Mandarins cover their own backs

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YESTERDAY'S Civil Service White Paper sounds threatening to Britain's bureaucrats: perhaps 50,000 job losses, an end to centralised pay bargaining, control of career structures devolved to individual government departments and more outside competition for top posts. There is enough there to worry more than the 500,000 staff who have already faced the uncertainties of contracting out, market testing and transfer to Next Steps agencies.

Where, they will wonder, is the hard evidence that Britain's bureaucracy can manage with nearly 10 per cent fewer staff? Will each department merely waste money by duplicating pay negotiations now organised by a single group? Amid financial constraints, can the Civil Service manage to draw enough able recruits, given that in the Eighties there were too few well qualified applicants.

These are questions that William Waldegrave should answer. But his sentiments nevertheless appear to be correct. Most lumbering organisations as large as the Civil Service could be made more efficient. More than 30,000 jobs have gone in the last 15 months alone and the state has not fallen apart. There is a desperate need to improve the openness of Whitehall to external influences. So far the few intrepid arrivals from outside have felt thwarted and depressed, buried by the dominant culture.

The bigger issue is whether Mr Waldegrave's bold rhetoric will be matched by radical action. The Mandarinate may have sabotaged the White Paper. The 1993 Oughton Report, on which it is based, spoke of advertising 20 per cent of senior jobs. This is a tiny proportion, given that insiders will almost always enjoy a strong advantage over would- be late entrants. Yet Mr Waldegrave failed to offer even that unambitious figure. Instead a small committee will keep an eye on the policy - headed by none other than the top mandarin, Sir Robin Butler.

The White Paper speaks of flattening out the senior civil service. Its implication is that top posts would disappear. As in the military, older staff who did not make the grade would be encouraged to look elsewhere. Yet, again, there is no figure for such cutbacks.

Pay flexibility to ensure comparability with the private sector is promised for top posts. In other words, the senior folk expect a pay rise. But there is no talk of pay cuts for those positions whose responsibilities have withered away. The Permanent Secretary at the Department of Social Security no doubt will still enjoy a fat salary even though executive agencies now do much of his work.

The final, biggest concern about yesterday's White Paper is whether it leaves politicians free to put their ideological stamp on the Civil Service. With all these outsiders arriving, who will ensure the neutrality of appointments? Mr Waldegrave gives that task to the Civil Service Commission, run of a government branch civil servant. If Parliament wants to save the impartiality of Britain's bureaucracy, it should take charge of that most important job.