28 July 2012

Do civil servants need to be more accountable?

The House of Lords Constitution Select Committee apparently thinks so.  Leading members seem keen to identify a process by which the Civil Service is accountable to Parliament; that senior officials’ have a duty to Select Committees  concurrently with the responsibility to their Minister.

The Constitution Select Committee at its final session examined Lord Butler the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service from 1988 – 1998 together with Sir Jeremy Heywood, current Cabinet Secretary, and Sir Bob Kerslake current Head of the Civil Service. Their contributions reinforced the consistent evidence earlier this month of four previous Cabinet Secretaries – permanent heads are accountable to their Minister, and their Ministers are accountable to Parliament.  There can be no other accountability.

Lord Butler was not opposed to exploring accountability arrangements in other countries – and made a reference to New Zealand – but was emphatic that  “…civil service accountability cannot override the responsibility to their Minister”.  He seemed as convinced as Lord Wilson and Lord O’Donnell had been when giving evidence, that the Osmotherley rules remained the authority for select committee appearances. If more clarity is needed, select committees should place greater importance on examining Ministers. 

Heywood and Kerslake would not accept that the Civil Service had a role as a constitutional check on the actions of Ministers. Kerslake echoed his predecessors commitment to the convention saying that  “…civil servants should be responsible to Ministers and Ministers responsible to Parliament”.  Heywood’s view was equally consistent with others who had held the Cabinet Secretary post, that the obligation of civil servants is “…to support our Ministers and provide confidential advice to Ministers and not break that confidentiality…”

The Constitution Select Committee will have to be creative in developing a convincing argument in its report  that civil servants have a duty to Parliament in addition to responsibilities as traditionally understood and in the convention expressed in the Osmotherley rules.

The prospect in New Zealand of legislating a chief executive’s accountability to Parliament may be implicit in the notion of stewardship explored in the Better Public Services Cabinet Paper (Paper 6). Stewardship historically has connotations of responsibility to the monarch. Does this mean the Crown, the Ministers of the Crown or the Crown in Parliament?