Pols undermining Britain’s civil service

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The British civil service has prided itself on being politically neutral in providing unbiased advice to ministers. It has also largely avoided being corrupted by political cronyism. Sadly these traditions are being undermined by British politicians.

The rot began in the 1970s when the Labour government appointed “political advisers” to work with civil servants to try to ensure that the advice given to ministers took more account of political (i.e. electoral) considerations. Unelected political advisers were not, however, at this stage given control of civil servants.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher generally accepted the traditional role of the civil service and usually respected those who stood their ground in arguments with her. But she did not suffer “fools” gladly, and woe betide anyone who did not have all the facts at his/her fingertips.

She was renowned for her preference for those she regarded as “one of us,” but this was a principle she applied more to members of the party than to civil servants. Thatcher tried hard to introduce a presidential form of government into Britain, as she did not accept that, as prime minister, she was merely first among equals. She was determined to get her own way and ruthless in enforcing her will. Her successor, John Major, had a difficult task in controlling a divided party and was not able to impose his will in the same way as Thatcher had done.

When the Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair came to power in 1997, civil servants on the whole welcomed the change. The Conservatives had been too long in power. Sleaze was rife and many ministers did not seem up to the job of running the country. A new broom was needed. Unfortunately, Blair and his coterie of ministers were suspicious of a civil servants that had worked under the Conservatives and were determined to bend the civil service to their ways of thinking.

It was, of course, right to expect that civil servants should put into force the policies of the new government, but it was also their job to give unbiased advice about the possible pitfalls and the legality of government policy. The new ministers did not welcome warnings from civil servants.

Layers of political advisers were introduced into government departments determined to ensure that the wishes of ministers were not undermined or thwarted by unelected officials, and that policies were presented in the best way for the government. One or two political advisers were given authority to direct civil servants and the advice of civil servants was filtered through political advisers.

Presentation often took precedence over policy formation. News management was a prime concern of the Prime Minister’s Office where public relations was in the hands of the ruthless, egocentric and brash Alistair Campbell.

Blair did not care for the way in which government had been run in the past by the preparation of submissions and memoranda weighing carefully the pros and cons of policies and then deliberating the issues in Cabinet or in Cabinet committees. He found this cumbersome and time-consuming. His preferred method of work has been to discuss policy issues with his closest personal advisers in shirt sleeves gathered round his sofa. These discussions were rarely properly recorded, and even the decisions were not always adequately conveyed to those responsible for carrying out the decisions.

Ministerial suspicions of civil servants and fears that civil servants would obstruct reform led the government to employ increasing numbers of outside consultants to inspect and advise. Ministers seemed to believe that this would lead to more objectivity while forgetting that outside consultants, keen to increase their future chances of earning fat fees, were more likely than civil servants to provide advice to the liking of ministers.

Suspicion of civil servants has also led to increasing numbers of top appointments being advertised in the private sector and the appointment to plum jobs of outsiders who have been offered salaries way above those that would be paid to a career civil servant in competition for the job.

Ministers, who are nominally responsible for their departments’ mistakes, have often blamed civil servants even when failures arose as a result of policy errors that they as ministers had made. The Labour government, eager to get value for the large amount of taxpayers’ money that it has fed into the National Health Service and schools, has tried to do so by setting more performance targets without thinking through the implications of such targets.

The Labour government, in its anxiety to meet the concerns of the electorate as expressed through the popular press, has rushed through a huge number of new laws, many of which have not been properly thought through.

As a result, law-enforcement agencies have had difficulties in understanding and implementing the complex, new legislation. A law that is simply on the statute book does no good for the public.

The government has also frequently made the error of imposing new tasks on civil servants without providing them with the means or staff to carry out these tasks. This has particularly been the case with the immigration service. Of course, the size of the civil service should be kept to the minimum needed, but if the government demands that new and ever tighter targets are achieved, it must be willing to provide the means to achieve them.

The British Home Office has been said by its new minister to be “unfit for the purpose.” He has called in consultants and is proposing an overall shakeup in its staff including “sacking” a number of senior civil servants. This is likely to be costly and may not be effective. The new minister is the political bruiser John Reid, who has so far held so many different posts that few can remember how many times he has changed his job in the government.

All of this has hugely undermined civil service morale and its ability to maintain political neutrality. This is a serious issue. A politically neutral civil service is a defense against corruption that will be enhanced by the feeling that appointments are saved for friends and cronies. The British civil service has so far maintained its ethics and its expertise, and must be able to serve the next government whether Labour or Conservative. Blair’s government is, however, fast undermining one of Britain’s best traditions and institutions.

Despite some unfortunate incidents, the Japanese civil service has remained, at the higher levels at least, free from serious corruption. The government should note the decline of civil service morale in Britain and take care to ensure that the abilities and independence of Japanese civil servants are maintained.