The Cabinet Office has announced that the government’s preferred candidate to be the next head of the civil service commission is the former Labour MP and now crossbench peer Gisela Stuart.
The commission’s job is to safeguard an impartial civil service. It has been doing that since 1855, as long as the civil service has been established in anything like its modern form, and its existence and role were enshrined in legislation in 2010. The commissioners are independent of government. They regulate the appointment of the most senior civil servants and determine complaints about whether there has been a breach of the civil service code.
Being seen to be impartial is vital. Being an ally or ideological fellow-traveller of the prime minister is not. For this reason, Gisela Stuart looks like the wrong appointment.
Most “First Commissioners” have been ex-civil servants or senior figures from the public sector. But there is no reason at all for the role to be the preserve of former mandarins. Bringing in someone with a different background is a good thing, and (as the government notes) a review of the commission in 2014 concluded that the lead commissioner should have more distance from the civil service. There is also no bar to politicians being appointed as civil service commissioners, though while in office they must “not hold any paid or unpaid posts in a political party and/or campaign for or against a political party or engage in any other party political activities”.
However, the job has not been held by a politician since 1909, and there is a good case for that to continue. That is not a comment on Gisela Stuart’s competence. She is experienced, a former minister and chaired the Vote Leave campaign. She clearly has many skills and is a strong candidate for any number of public appointments – she already has jobs at the Royal Mint and Wilton Park, a venue for major foreign policy events.
But asking a political figure, known to be a close ally of current senior ministers, to lead the very body that exists to ensure that the civil service can serve governments of any party is a mistake. It fails to recognise that perceived – as well as actual – impartiality is necessary for credibility in this role, will make civil servants less likely to speak honestly to ministers, raises concerns about how the impartiality principle in the civil service code is to be overseen and encourages a creeping politicisation of the civil service. The government’s announcement implicitly acknowledged the problem, stressing defensively that “from 2017, Baroness Stuart has contributed to public life with non-partisan roles”.
The particular nature of this job means that there are safeguards built into the appointment. Ministers must consult with opposition parties and the devolved administrations before selecting their preferred candidate. We do not yet know whether there were objections. But when the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee conducts its pre-appointment scrutiny, MPs must press hard for reassurances from Baroness Stuart about how she will address these points.
This appointment suggests that ministers want to use Stuart and her fellow commissioners as a way to accelerate civil service reform. While there is plenty to reform in government, it not the job of the commissioners to deliver it.
It is the responsibility of the prime minister and Cabinet Office ministers, as well as the head of the civil service and permanent secretaries, to reform the civil service. The job of the commissioners is to assure ministers, civil servants and the public that the best people are being appointed to the right jobs. Radical government reform should sit alongside the defence of an impartial civil service that is as willing and able to serve future governments as the current one.
Undermining the commission’s impartiality will ultimately damage the government’s plans to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the civil service. A demonstrably independent, non-partisan commission would be a strong ally for ministers who want to attract and appoint the most talented people to government jobs.
Ministers, and ultimately parliament, should retain control of the civil service. The government’s reform plans include a commitment to “ensure that ministers have visibility of senior civil service appointments in the departments they lead”. And ultimately parliament can legislate for whatever civil service it considers fit to implement government policy.
But ministers in fact already have quite a lot of influence over who gets top civil service jobs. Secretaries of state are consulted on role specifications, they sign off the job selection panel and they meet and feed in views on shortlisted candidates. If ministers disagree with a panel’s recommendation they can demand a reconsideration. The prime minister has to approve all director general appointments and can select successful permanent secretary candidates from those who are deemed capable of doing the job. Throughout, it is the civil service commissioners who provide the critical assurance that appointments are made from a pool of people selected on merit.
Ministers might wish to argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with politically aligned officials. Plenty of democracies see a turnover of bureaucrats when governments change, and it may be that ministers feel that is the right model for the UK. But if that is so they need to make the case and change the law, rather than appearing to subvert civil service impartiality with a political appointment to a post whose very function is to safeguard impartiality.