Civil servants and Parliament

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…

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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7 Responses to Civil servants and Parliament

  1. Dave H says:

    I made an observation in an email the other day after listening to a feature on my local radio station. Various local government types were calling for more legislation to deal with a problem, and someone connected with the relevant trade organisation was pointing out that the existing legislation is perfectly adequate if only it was used correctly by the officials concerned.

    My observation was that this scenario is not uncommon, it can be found across a whole raft of different areas where existing legislation is being ignored and people are calling for more powers. From what you write above, it appears that the malaise extends all the way to the top of government service, where those responsible for using or complying with the legislation fail to understand it and so do nothing except call for more laws.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave H: I very much agree. This ties in very much with the evidence I gave to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the Commons. When there is popular concern about something and demands that ‘something must be done’, the government responds by introducing legislation. One of the arguments for a committee on legislative standards is to ensure that the government have actually considered alternatives when they bring a Bill forward. The problem often is not the absence of appropriate legislation, but the enforcement of existing legislation.

  2. franksummers3ba says:

    Dave H,
    “My observation was that this scenario is not uncommon, it can be found across a whole raft of different areas where existing legislation is being ignored and people are calling for more powers.” this is indeed relevant to Lord Norton’s point about enhancing the constitutional acuity of those in governance. The entire world exists in a state where the pace of blurry and unfocused constitutional change is too fast and its course too little considered for civilization’s needs. This is often precisely lack of expertise in using current powers makes it exigent to demand powers that do not fit into the polity’s constitutional scheme. This isolates the law-abiding and careful actors in various powers and enhances the powers of those who are ruthless, dishonest or incompetent which is terrible for the future of the world..

  3. ladytizzy says:

    “We are pulling back the curtains to let light into the corridors of power.”
    Francis Maude

    Going well, isn’t it? It isn’t uncommon to hear public sector employees despairing of the general public (or Parliament) – “If we could only stop attending to their needs, we’d get far more work done”, or similar. Certainly, this one wishes the politicians would stop interfering with his vital work, again: (Part two, in a series of five.)

    PS Sir Bob Kerslake is accepting the blame for the franchise mess:

  4. Croft says:

    If I remember LN, the last (only?) perm/under. sec. to be sacked was 1937? The record of accountability for failure at the top of the civil service is a joke.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: In a formal sense, that is correct, though it appears generally accepted that if there is a serious clash between the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary, the Permanent Secretary is expected to fall on his or her sword.

      • Croft says:

        ‘fall on your sword’ in the civil service means retire with a payoff (directly or indirectly) before you take into account gold plated pension. But I wasn’t thinking of personality clashes so much as outright failure or incompetence which is simply not punished at the top.

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