29 June 2012

The House of Lords Constitution Committee is conducting an inquiry into the accountability of civil servants. On each Wednesday through June the Committee has been considering the constitutional position of the Civil Service following the changes of 2010. The Committee is exploring how the traditional strengths of the Civil Service may have been affected by those statutory changes.

What is the impact on the convention of ministerial responsibility -that civil servants are responsible to Ministers, and Ministers in turn are responsible to Parliament?

A growing perception is that the convention is no longer effective in holding the government to account, and that it does not adequately reflect the distribution of power and responsibility between Ministers, civil servants and special advisers.

The Committee’s concerns include:

  • whether the convention of individual ministerial responsibility remains the most appropriate and effective way of holding the government to account? If not what should replace it?
  • do the civil servants’ and special advisers’ codes of conduct require amendment? Should they be set out in statute?
  • what influence, if any, should Ministers be able to exercise over Civil Service appointments?
  • to what extent does the Civil Service act as a constitutional check on the actions of Ministers?
  • are there any circumstances in which civil servants should be directly accountable to Parliament? Could that risk the politicisation of the Civil Service?
  • should the Osmotherly Rules, covering civil servants and their relationships with select committees, be redrafted?
  • what is the influence exercised by special advisors both in theory and in practice?
  • what are the current accountability mechanisms for special advisers? Is there a case for increasing their accountability to Parliament?
  • are the accountability mechanisms for non-ministerial Departments effective? Where should the balance lie between accountability and independence?

Submissions from an impressive list of experts have been considered. Much of what is said has relevance to the New Zealand State Services. A cat was put among the pigeons this week when the Chair of the UK Public Accounts Committee accused senior civil servants of  hiding behind their Ministers to avoid accountability for maladministration. This, in the same week that the Head of the Civil Service, when asked to evaluate his effectiveness gave himself (“a tough marker”) a 7 out of ten.