Permanent Secretaries: Appointment and Removal (Constitution Committee Report) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Cabinet Office

Permanent Secretaries: Appointment and Removal (Constitution Committee Report)

Lord Thomas of Gresford Excerpts
Thursday 9th May 2024

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I have the privilege of serving on the Constitution Committee under the excellent and careful chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and I commend her on what she has said. It is a privilege also to follow the noble Lord, Lord Maude, with his great experience, which I am afraid I do not have.

In April 2022, Sir Matthew Rycroft, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, wrote a letter to the then Home Secretary requesting a ministerial direction in relation to the Government’s Rwanda policy. He said that although he was satisfied that it was regular, proper and feasible for the policy to proceed, he could not quantify its effectiveness as a deterrent to the small boats phenomenon with sufficient certainty to provide him with the necessary level of assurance over value for money. As we know, the ministerial direction was given and the policy proceeded. The responsibility for ensuing expenditure rests firmly with the Government and cannot be blamed on civil servants. I always take comfort from my Welsh family motto, which the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, will appreciate, “Ar bwy mae’r bae?”—“Who can we blame?”

That episode was an example of a Permanent Secretary doing his job. His message was no doubt unwelcome to his political mistress in a very sensitive area of government policy, but Sir Matthew is still in his job. By contrast, Sir Tom Scholar was removed from his position as Permanent Secretary in the Treasury in September 2022 by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, not for anything that he had done but because he represented “Treasury orthodoxy”. That was a highly political decision. I do not think we realised at the time that there was a “deep state” bent on ruining the ministry of Liz Truss in her short-lived tenancy of No. 10.

That was not the only threat to stability. We had observed under Boris Johnson the rule of the spad, Dominic Cummings, who claimed that he had appointed personally the Cabinet Secretary. As for another senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, he wrote in an email:

“I will personally handcuff her and escort her from the building. I don’t care how it is done, but that woman must be out of our hair”—

I shall leave out the embellishments that he gave to that message.

It is clear that, in recent times, successive Governments have pushed the fuzzy boundaries of our unwritten constitution. The ballot box does not convey unbridled power to election winners. The sovereignty of Parliament, important as it is as a principle, is subject, as Winston Churchill wrote in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, to the rule of law. That includes international law. The judiciary is independent. Another principle of our constitution over the years is an apolitical Civil Service which does not

depend on political patronage. We can see the origins of this in Samuel Pepys’s time, the 17th century. It was written of him by a contemporary that he introduced

“The principal rules and establishments in present use”

in the offices of the Admiralty, and that he demanded

“Sobriety, diligence, capacity, loyalty, and subjection to command”.

Where any of those virtues were found wanting,

“no interest or authority was capable of moving him in favour of the highest pretender”.

The Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854 enshrines, as our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, put it in 1999 in his Founder’s Day address at Hawarden Castle, the home of Mr Gladstone, the

“core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer … loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next”.

Those are the core principles.

Recent shenanigans seem to be a threat and an affront to these principles. The essential challenge with which the Constitution Committee sought to grapple was whether in the modern era Ministers should be able to choose their own teams of civil servants, those with whom they felt comfortable. I detected some of that wish in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Maude. In America, the spoils system of patronage in relation to the civil service was abolished in the 19th century, but since Secretaries of State are appointed directly by the President and do not have to be Members of Congress, their immediate executive staff are deemed to be outside the American civil service, and they of course change with the Administration.

The Constitution Committee in this report reaffirmed that the current recruitment principles strike the correct balance in maintaining an objective, merit-based approach to recruitment, particularly for Permanent Secretaries. Any move towards greater ministerial involvement would risk upsetting that balance. We held that it is unhelpful for Ministers to seek to personalise appointments and assert their authority because, among other things, it risks Civil Service turnover coinciding with ministerial churn. It creates a perception of politicisation of appointments and damages institutional knowledge. Political alignment should never be a factor. We also called for departure processes to be formalised to guard against the improper removal of civil servants. In particular, we urged that Ministers should be required to explain any decision to replace a senior civil servant to the Civil Service Commission, and called for more transparency about the role of the Senior Leadership Committee, which we termed an opaque body—a word that the noble Lord, Lord Maude, has taken up.

In their response, the Government said that they shared the committee’s belief that the impartiality and perceived impartiality of the Civil Service is a central tenet of our constitution. The Government also accepted that broad political alignment should not be a relevant consideration in the appointment of civil servants. The one area which was disappointing in their response was the Government’s reaction to our desire to ensure due process when senior civil servants are dismissed on conduct or performance criteria. We called for the intervention of the Civil Service Commissioner, but the Government’s view was that formal human resources processes already exist around performance management, conduct and discipline issues.

I am hopeful that the rot has been stopped. The continuance of Sir Matthew Rycroft in office, despite his warnings over the Rwanda policy, is encouraging. Ahead of us, we have the prospect of a change of Government, and we shall follow with interest how well the loyalty and expertise of the Civil Service, and particularly its Permanent Secretaries, translate into a new environment.