The fiasco over the franchise for the West Coast mainline reminds us that civil servants are far from infallible. One area of concern has always been their attitude towards Parliament. Some appreciate the role of the institution, but others have tended to be somewhat dismissive or simply know very little about it. There have been cock-ups as a result of officials not even knowing the correct address for one House or not knowing they were required to send certain documents to parliamentary committees.
When the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill was going through Parliament in 2010, I was able to achieve two amendments to it. The principal one imposed a duty on the Minister for the Civil Service (the Prime Minister) and constitutes section 3(6) of the Act:
“(6)In exercising his power to manage the civil service, the Minister for the Civil Service shall have regard to the need to ensure that civil servants who advise Ministers are aware of the constitutional significance of Parliament and of the conventions governing the relationship between Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government.”
I have variously pursued the matter to to see to what extent the Government are ensuring that this statutory requirement is met. One concern derives from the demise of the National School of Govermment and its replacement by Civil Service Learning, where the emphasis is on e-learning, complemented by some class-based courses. As far as I can see, the motivation for signing up for a course rests with the civil servant. It is not obvious to what extent those officials advising ministers are required, or encouraged, to take courses on Parliament. This is something I shall be pursuing.
I may also be exploring to what extent ministers and civil servants in the Cabinet Office have actually received any training in constitutional issues…