Letter: Civil servants should not become political scapegoats

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The Independent Online
Sir: If civil servants are now to be held responsible for policies as well as policy advice and implementation ('Five-year contracts urged for senior civil servants', 11 March), why bother to have ministers? There has been extensive press coverage over the last two days on the role of civil servants and their terms of employment, but the issues have been in the public eye since the Matrix Churchill and Norman Lamont's expenses affairs.

The argument, emanating from Graham Mather, is that top civil servants should be held accountable for policy blunders. To facilitate this, they should be placed on fixed-term contracts.

Senior civil servants in policy development and implementation may neither originate nor approve policy but have to put it into practice. The danger with the hire 'em and fire 'em approach espoused by Mr Mather is that it provides ministers who are increasingly shunning responsibility for their own mistakes with a perfect scapegoat. Were civil servants responsible for the poll tax fiasco? Were civil servants responsible for the mistimed entry into the ERM and the failed attempt to shore up sterling? Were civil servants responsible for government inaction over Leyland-Daf? Making it easier to fire senior advisers would simply provide the ultimate escape route.

Is a five-year contract system more likely to prevent the 'stop- go' economic policies condemned by Mr Mather or exacerbate them? Five-year contracts coincident with parliaments would lead to even greater swings in policy without the continuity provided by permanent staff. It would certainly lead to greater politicisation of the Civil Service overall.

Short-term contracts are likely to make civil servants less critical of policy ideas hatched up by ministers or Tory Central Office to cope with political crises such as rising crime figures, rather than improving the quality of advice.

Which would be the short-term employee's greater risk: pointing out to Kenneth Clarke that locking up young offenders will do little to solve juvenile crime (though it might ease political pressure) or quietly getting on with organising the building of the units?

Yours faithfully,

BILL BRETT

General Secretary

Institution of Professionals,

Managers and Specialists

London, SE1

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