Monday, October 11, 2010

The Unaccountable Civil Servant

I was interested in this extract from Jonathan Powell's new book. For the uninitiated, Powell was Tony Blair's chief of staff.

It is also desirable that No 10 staff should not be directly answerable to
parliament. There was a precedent that protected staff from appearing before
select committees that helped my brother, for example, during the Westland
Helicopters scandal that led to the resignation of Michael Heseltine from Mrs
Thatcher's government in 1986. Unfortunately, Alastair Campbell killed this off
by volunteering to appear before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee during the
Gilligan row. I tried to persuade him not to do it, but he dismissed my
opposition by saying it was just because I was afraid of appearing before the
committee myself. A prudent prime minister would re-establish the precedent. The
public sparring should be left to elected politicians rather than courtiers, who
should not be turned into political figures.

So he thinks that unaccountability to the public is a privilege of being unelected?


Nigel said...

Not such a bad principle - The Prime Minister should take responsibility for his staff's conduct. Mcbride...

richard.blogger said...

Iain, civil servants serve whoever is in control. They are not (or at least should not be) political. Let the politicians slug it out in public over policy. Civil servants merely implement the policy, they do not create policy and so should not be "accountable" for the policies made by the politicians.

That's pretty obvious, right? Or maybe you think that civil servants should be the human shields for politicians making unpopular policy (or policy they have no mandate to make)?

Anonymous said...

Careful Iain, that is seditious and lead you getting into trouble.

Anyone who thinks that being a civil servant absolves them of the right to public censure by what are our highest courts is deluded and plain wrong.

Matthew said...

This is simply a reassertion of the doctrine of ministerial accountability. Ministers are solely responsible to Parliament for the exercise of powers and administration within their departments. Civil servants are accountable to ministers. Pretty simple and pretty sensible.

Houdini said...

It is also desirable that No 10 staff should not be directly answerable to

When the likes of Campbell, and perhaps others, were chairing intelligence committees, they were wholly unqualified and only because it was being politicised,to chair which sent our troops to war, then they should be accountable.

Perhaps that is the sort of thing Powell would like to avoid though........

Paddy said...

There is surely a difference between a member of the Civil Service, who should be seen as impartial and offered some protection from taking flak, and a political appointment, like Powell or Campbell, who should be more accountable for policy.

That said, it is quite common for Permanent Secretaries to have to give evidence to select committees. Not sure why Downing St staff can't be made to testify too(senior staff, that is. we can protect the tea ladies)

Penfold said...

Powell is of course articulating the mantra of politicising everything, so as to achieve total control. But like all of the left they want that total control without the inconvenience of being held accountable or responsible.
The left have always felt uncomfortable with the trappings of democracy, preferring the proverbial smoke filled meeting rooms of the night, following by the pronouncement in the morning and the expectation of cheers of relief and joy as the stage managed crowds react to the prompts.

Thorpe said...

The only select committee I follow (Defence) regularly has senior military and civil servants giving evidence, and that evidence is very often about policy-making rather than facts or outcomes. Why should the fact that someone works in No 10 shroud them from similar scrutiny? They are after all still paid by the taxpayer.

Interesting use of the word "courtier" as well. Clearly Jonathan Powell thinks himself somewhat grander than run of the mill Permanent Secretaries and the chiefs of the armed services.

Unsworth said...

So who does Pole think he should be accountable to - and how, ultimately, is he accountable to the taxpayer? If I'm paying his (vastly inflated) wages I want some sight of the contract, and the option to hire and fire.

Nigel said...

"Courtiers' ? ?? ???

No further comment necessary.

Keiran Macintosh said...

Richard Blogger - they're not civil servants, they're SpAds.

And they are political, think Alastair Campbell - a true Labourite. Think Andy Coulson - a true blue tory.

Being paid up party members as they are, and being employed for that reason, they should not be afforded the same unaccaountability as civil servants.

Andy Coulson is actually a particularly good example. I would be flabbergasted and dismayed if he wasn't subject to full public scrutiny over the phone hacking scandal. Having him hidden away from view because he is an officer rather than an MP would seem madness to me.

Anonymous said...

As others say - there seems to me to be a difference between a career civil servant and a political appointee.

When Blair allowed Campbell to give orders to civil servants they should have gone on strike - it was a shameful decision.

Victor, NW Kent said...

Well it is the department of IDS and you are a colleague of Petrie Hosken so you should know that a young woman phoned in to her programme today and claimed that, of a welfare budget of £199-billion, almost all went to state pensioners and only 1% to benefit claimants.

That shows how poor is the communication about benefits.

johnpaul said...

did you see Shami Chakrabarti talking oabut this on Andrew Marr, she said that LAbour was happy to have authoritarian laws until it effected them, Excluding the peerages act was passed in 1923, It reminds me of those who criticise the police until they need them, she compared the cash peerages inquiry ,to Walter Wolfgang being evicted by security guards at the labour conference,what this has to do with autoritarian Labour laws I don't know

................................. said...

"So he thinks that unaccountability to the public is a privilege of being unelected?"

Err, almost by definition, Iain.

Surely it's for the elected politicians who appoint the aides to be responsible for their actions. They do, after all, their master's bidding.

Jimmy said...

You don't have to interfere with the principle of Ministerial accountability to believe civil servants' evidence might be helpful.

DespairingLiberal said...

Er, yes. It has ever been so. At least, that's how the mandarins see it.

All a bit odd though, as Campbell was no more a "civil servant" than he was an elephant trainer.

Cynic said...

... and he sees himself as a courtier