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Coffee House

The gumming up of Whitehall

17 December 2012

12:36 PM

17 December 2012

12:36 PM

Tony Blair is paying a visit to journalists in the Commons this week for a festive lunch. Last week, David Cameron complained to lunching hacks about the ‘gumming up’ of government; perhaps the former Prime Minister will wish to add his own thoughts today on the ingredients of that sticky gum that makes the progress of the Whitehall machine so glutinous.

One of the gummy bits in Whitehall at the moment is the way permanent secretaries are appointed. Last week the Civil Service Commission blocked plans by Francis Maude to allow ministers to pick the most senior civil servants in their departments from a list of approved candidates, opting instead for an independent panel to recommend candidates.

The Commission’s rationale for blocking Maude’s plan is that it could have diluted the neutrality of the civil service. John Reid was on the Daily Politics a few minutes ago, arguing that the change would politicise senior civil servants. But those developing the reforms argued that it would simply allow a Secretary of State to choose someone they believed they could build an effective working relationship from the list of those already approved. Ministers still wouldn’t have the opportunity to sneak in someone who would compromise the political neutrality of the service, as all candidates would have been vetted.

Caroline Spelman spoke to Coffee House last week about the importance of giving ministers a say in the appointment process. It is something all three main parties support: this is, after all, a unique situation where they all have very recent experience of government or are currently experiencing government. Jack Straw told the Chamber in June that when he was a minister ‘the point I made to those departments was that if I was to take responsibility for the whole department and for the work of that permanent secretary, I needed to have some confidence in the individual at the official top of the organisation’.

This is not actually a civil servants vs ministers row: those in the civil service are also keen to avoid situations where a personality clash meant the most senior civil servant in a government department wasn’t getting on with the most senior minster. But even on this, there are scars trailing down some backs. I understand that one Labour minister was once told that if they didn’t pick the preferred candidate for their permanent secretary, Whitehall would block everything they tried to do. The risk of having a permanent secretary thrust upon you as a minister is that they could act as a gum themselves.

The dilemma for Maude is whether he now waits to see how the next two appointments – the new Permanent Secretaries at DECC and the Home Office – work out, or whether he legislates to give ministers more power over appointments, against the Commission’s wishes.

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