Mandarins who live for ever: John Garrett sees the Civil Service heading for collapse - except for one small, elite group

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The Independent Online
IF MORE and more government employees are on short-term contracts; if they are not subject to centrally determined pay grades or conditions of service; if the greater part of every government department is organised into virtually autonomous agencies; if every possible government activity is contracted out and if the legal obligation of ministers to provide public services is abolished (the latest idea), then we have in prospect nothing less than the end of a national Civil Service.

This withering away of the state is being examined by the Treasury Select Committee in a series of public hearings held weekly in the House of Commons. Mandarins, trade unionists, academics and other experts appear before the committee and muse on the future of the Civil Service. Tomorrow afternoon the committee will be talking to the Civil Service Commissioners about the eccentric way in which we recruit our higher civil servants. Witnesses usually talk about the sanctity of Britain's public service ethos, the importance of the highest standards of administration and the need to attract the cleverest recruits - while the entire edifice is crashing around our ears.

The committee's investigation is developing some constitutionally important lines of inquiry in a way different from its predecessors. Whereas the Fulton Report on the Civil Service of 1966-68 was greatly concerned with the formation of the mandarin class, and the English Report of 1977-78 with the management skills of the mandarins, this investigation is considering the purpose, ethics and accountability of today's disappearing Civil Service.

Is the civil servant's duty solely to the government of the day, or to some embodiment of the national interest (or are they always the same)? Should there not be a Civil Service Act that sets out the accountabilities of civil servants and their relationships with ministers and Parliament? Should civil servants have a legal right to join and remain in a trade union? Should potential whistle-blowers have somebody other than the Head of the Civil Service to turn to?

At present, the Civil Service is governed by the Royal Prerogative - that is, by virtually unchallengeable ministerial proclamation. The duties of civil servants in relation to ministers are set out in the Armstrong Memorandum. This says that civil servants owe their first duty to the Crown, which to all intents and purposes is the government of the day. What civil servants can say to parliamentary committees is set out in the Osmotherly Rules, 66 paragraphs of warnings against saying too much. Neither set of guidelines (orders?) has ever been debated or approved by Parliament, although they in effect limit the scrutiny of government by select committees.

Unfortunately, as in so many areas of parliamentary activity, MPs are not much exercised by these arbitrary limits placed by the executive on their powers: 14 years of one-party government seem to have made Parliament indifferent to such matters. The Treasury Select Committee could do democracy a good turn by defining in legislative form the scope of the Civil Service, its rights and responsibilities. The Civil Service establishment, however, has let it be known that such a definition would be 'inflexible', meaning that it might limit the ability of mandarins and ministers to keep their accountability to Parliament indistinct.

Another set of issues with which the select committee must grapple relates to the breaking up of departments into agencies, privatisation and market testing. 'Next Steps' agencies, ostensibly named after the 1988 Treasury publication Improving Management in Government: The Next Steps, are the executive, technical and scientific divisions of government departments that have been established as separate entities with substantial, and growing, autonomy in pay and personnel management.

Some 60 per cent of Civil Service employment (350,500 staff) is now in 89 agencies. They are headed by chief executives and managers who are rewarded by performance pay schemes and whose performance will be measured by fairly innocuous indicators of customer service (eg, the length of wait for a passport or a vehicle licence) and by ferocious indicators of efficiency - that is, reductions in staff numbers, or body count, to use a term now chillingly familiar in agency circles. Ironically, the agency concept was developed from a suggestion in the Fulton Report which was proposed by Robert Sheldon MP and myself in a 1973 Fabian tract Administrative Reform; the Next Step.

The agencies we proposed, however, were clearly within departments and designed to abide by central Civil Service pay and employment rules. Our intention was to break the power of the mandarins by putting large sections of the Civil Service under the control of professional managers and technocrats who might then rise to take charge of the policy-making and general management of departments: a typically Fabian takeover. Unfortunately, the Thatcher government adopted the agency idea primarily as a means of cutting staff costs.

Worse was to come, as the agency initiative has been overtaken by market testing: putting as much Civil Service work as possible out to tender with private organisations. Already, 40,000 Civil Service jobs appear to be at risk from this process, which could be terminal for most manual, clerical, executive, technical and scientific civil servants.

The tendency in these select committee inquiries is to concentrate exclusively on the top 3,000 civil servants in the mandarinate and to forget the other half million. For years they have had pay increases below the rate of inflation and now they are losing the benefits that went with being a civil servant, including long-established rights of consultation on working practices and conditions.

Guess who escapes the carnage? When a department has been divided into agencies, privatised and market tested to the limit, a small policy core will still remain, stuffed with the mandarins of the higher Civil Service, following their calling of keeping the minister out of trouble. Preponderantly white, male, public school, Oxbridge arts graduates, they have been largely untouched by the turbulence in the Civil Service or social change outside it. The Fulton Committee thought that their lack of familiarity with science, technology and management and the exclusiveness of their social origins gravely handicapped the effectiveness and adaptability of central government in Britain.

What spectacular staying power they have] A study four years ago showed that a higher proportion of the cadre of Permanent Secretaries (holding the top jobs in departments) came from public schools and Oxbridge in 1986 than in 1900. It appears that they have become slightly more exclusive since (an earlier study showed that the only educational factor associated with career success in the Civil Service was attendance at Oxford University).

It is not only the old chaps at the top, either. Year after year the 'fast stream' new graduate entry into Civil Service administration, whose members receive accelerated promotion to the highest policy-making positions, has been two-thirds male, about half Oxbridge and two-thirds arts graduates (the Civil Service Commissioners no longer record schools attended).

Many is the year when not a single polytechnic graduate has made it into the elite. A decade or so ago Sir Douglas Allen, Head of the Civil Service, was tackled by a select committee on bias in the selection process for fast streamers. One possible explanation, he said (though distancing himself from it), was that there was 'a correlation between the talents which the Civil Service is looking for and the ability to get high incomes, that those talents are inherited and therefore rather more public school people come in because they have inherited some talents and their parents have been wealthy enough to send them to a public school'.

Sir Robin Butler, the present Head of the Civil Service, recently assured the Treasury committee that the distinctive principles of the service - impartiality, integrity, objectivity, selection and promotion on merit - were still in operation. Some of those principles have been publicly dented by a series of blows, from Westland to Matrix Churchill. Selection and promotion on merit is true only if you define merit as having the traditional characteristics of the mandarin. Sir Robin and his peers sincerely believe the service has not been politicised, but when an activity that was carried out by a government department, such as training, is handed over to local agencies run by boards of ministerial appointees, an amount of impartiality must have gone down the drain.

Those of us who advocated Civil Service reform in the Sixties had modest aims: to open up the top management levels to technocrats, to liven up the institution by replacing some Poohs with a few Tiggers. Today we can only be appalled by the wrecking of Britain's public service tradition.

The author is Labour MP for Norwich South and a member of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. His book 'Westminster; Does Parliament Work?' is published by Gollancz at pounds 17.99.

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