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The Conservatives have overseen a damaging “politicisation” of the civil service,with senior officials ousted and appointed due to political considerations, rather than merit, according to a new parliamentary investigation.
The House of Lords Constitution Committee launched its inquiry into the recruitment and departures of senior civil servants after both Rishi Sunak’s predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson were involved in the controversial departures of senior civil servants.
Baroness Drake, Chair of the Constitution Committee said they found that there had been a series of “high-profile removals of senior civil servants on what appeared to be political or ideological grounds”.
She added that these decisions “might be seen to reflect a desire on the part of ministers to personalise appointments and assert their authority. This practice should be avoided. It risks senior civil service turnover coinciding with ministerial churn, creating a perception of politicisation and damaging institutional knowledge.”
The peers warn that this politicisation risked damaging “confidence in the impartiality and integrity of the processes by which they are appointed and removed” while “impugning the effectiveness of [their] role.”
The issues highlighted in the report included the resignation of Mark (now Lord) Sedwill as Cabinet Secretary because he could not get on with Boris Johnson and the decision by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, then Chancellor, to sack Sir Tom Scholar, the permanent secretary at the Treasury because they wanted to end “Treasury orthodoxy” in government, a decision which ultimately led to a disastrous collapse in the markets and a big increase in inflation and the cost of living crisis.
Under existing rules permanent secretaries can only be removed for misconduct or incompetence. The peers made it clear in the report that in Sir Tom’s case it was neither.
Lord Sedwill told the inquiry that Sir Stephen Lovegrove, the former national security adviser, was dismissed “without merit” when he left in September 2022. He was moved to the position of Defence Industrial Adviser.”
He described their removal as a “deliberate signal to Whitehall that political alignment with the new Government’s views was the key criterion and that capability, loyalty and performance were not.”
The peers also warn that it was “unacceptable” that special advisers who are political appointees, should have any say in appointments or resignations of civil servants.
This followed evidence from Alex Thomas at the Institute of Government, that a special adviser such as Mr Cummings might purport to have recruited or dismissed officials: “We only have his tweets and evidence to go on it, but I think that Dominic Cummings’s sense of, ‘I appointed so-and-so’, or ‘I dismissed so-and-so’, is deeply unhealthy.”
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The report reveals that Rishi Sunak has quietly extended the range of people in Whitehall he can appoint to include director generals as well as permanent secretaries, covering a much wider number of Whitehall appointments.
The report also discloses the existence of a shadowy body called the Senior Leadership Committee, which appears to decide when external people can be recruited to work in Whitehall. The committee describes the body as “opaque” since its membership, terms of reference and record of discussions are never published. Simon Case, the present Cabinet Secretary, promised peers he would remedy this.
A Government spokesperson said: “The Government is grateful to the Committee for its report and will carefully consider its findings”.