Government rides roughshod over civil service rulebook

by Tom Watson

New answers to FoI requests released to me this week, show that the cabinet office has breached the civil service recruitment principles 30 times to make appointments, using an exemption to the rules aimed at helping the unemployed.

Exception one of the civil service code has been used to appoint people like Katharine Davidson, Michael Lynas, Kris Murrin and Rishi Saha, who formerly held political posts in the Tory and Lib Dem parties.

Rishi Saha is head of the government’s “digital communications”. How can the interests of the civil service be served by allowing a post like this to be filled without a trawl of the very best digital specialists in the country?

More importantly, how could cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, have allowed his appointment to take place? It’s a clear breach, one where the interest of government is not served by making a political appointment to a non-political job.

Civil servants will feel very uncomfortable reading the new figures. The cabinet office refused to give me the names of 30 people on the list but I have a hunch that a number of them are also former staffers from the political parties.

No wonder David Cameron sacked his tax-funded vanity photographer, Andy Parsons, and quickly re-hired him at conservative central office. He must have been worried that lobby journalists might take a deeper look at all the other former party staffers who found themselves appointed without fair and open competition.

Why is this important and why will civil servants be privately wondering why Gus O’Donnell has not acted to stop these abuses?

It goes back to the very foundation of the modern civil service. Back in 1853 – Stafford H. Northcote and C.E Trevelyan reported to Parliament on “the organisation of the permanent civil service”. They said:

“Numerous instances might be given in which personal or political considerations have led to the appointment of men of very slender ability, and perhaps of questionable character, to situation of considerable emolument, over the heads of public servants of long standing and undoubted merit”.

They went on to say “it ought, therefore, to be a leading object with the government so to regulate promotion by merit as to provide every possible security against its abuse”. Their solution was a set of principles that are drummed into the modern civil servant. They’re in the DNA of the system. The two that apply in these cases are:

“Recruitment should be entirely on the basis of merit by open, competitive examinations”;


“Promotion would be on the basis of merit not on the grounds of preferment, patronage or purchase”.

To be clear: I am not saying that all of these breaches are illegitimate. But some of them are. Some appointments are, in my view, so flagrant an abuse of the system that they warrant further Parliamentary scrutiny.

So far, across the departments that have answered my freedom of information request, I have identified 266 appointments that breach the civil service principles of open competition based on merit. By far the largest number of breaches are at the Department for work and Pensions – not surprising given that exemption one is about helping the unemployed.

The cabinet office does not have this excuse. I want to know more and I think it in the public interest that we get an explanation. I’m forwarding the findings to members of the public administration committee, who are responsible for holding the cabinet office to account.

The list of all exemptions to the civil service recruitment code and the chart showing the breaches of the rules by each department are below.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.


Exceptions to civile service recruitment principles.

1. Short term appointments up to maximum of two years to provide managers with the flexibility to meet short-term needs, and to enable departments to appoint individuals who are eligible for support under government programmes to assist the unemployed. Any proposal to extend an appointment made under this exception beyond two years requires the approval of the Civil Service Commission.

2. Permanent appointments to administrative (i.e. old style AA and AO) and industrial grades of individuals who have been appointed through exception 1 at or after 12 months of that appointment on the basis of a fair and objective process approved by the Commission and subject to its audit.

3. Appointments of individuals with highly specialised skills and experience for up to two years to allow highly specialised people to be brought in without a competition for a particular one-off job on the basis that such a process would be a mere formality. Any proposal for a longer appointment at the outset or to extend an appointment made under this exception beyond two years requires the approval of the Civil Service Commission.

4. Secondments of up to two years to facilitate interchange between the Civil Service and other employers. Any proposal for a longer secondment at the outset, or to extend the appointment beyond two years or to convert it to a permanent appointment without fair and open competition, requires the approval of the Commission. RECRUITMENT PRINCIPLES November 2010

5. Re-appointment of former civil servants to enable individuals who were previously civil servants by virtue of an appointment on merit through fair and open competition or by a process approved by the Commission and who meet the competences required for the new post to re-enter the Civil Service.

6. Transfer of an organisation into the Civil Service to enable departments and agencies to gain or retain the expertise of its staff. (If the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) apply staff have an automatic right of transfer.)

7. Transfers of individuals into the Civil Service to enable departments and agencies to make use of their expertise. Transfers of staff from another civil service in the United Kingdom may take place freely provided they were appointed on merit through fair and open competition. Transfers of staff from other public bodies (e.g. non-departmental public bodies) need the approval of the Commission.

8. The recruitment of disabled people to enable departments and agencies to recruit participants in the government scheme (currently entitled “WORKSTEP”) to promote the employment of disabled people.

9. Assistance for disabled people to enable departments and agencies within the framework of appointment on merit through fair and open competition to offer encouragement and assistance which are not available to other candidates. This enables departments and agencies to guarantee an interview or to modify other selection arrangements used for non-disabled candidates.

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9 Responses to “Government rides roughshod over civil service rulebook”

  1. Tacitus says:

    Another example of the old boys network governing us.

  2. Guido Fawkes says:

    Think the get out is that they are all on short-term contracts.

  3. P I Staker says:

    Do Labour uncut support the Labour cuts?

  4. GeoffH says:

    What a bl**dy nerve. This from a member of the party that in the immediate aftermath of the ’97 election completed a clean sweep through Whitehall and changed all senior departmental Press Officer chiefs on Alistair Campbell’s orders.

  5. It doesn't add up... says:

    You mean the Civil Service no longer has a Common Purpose?

  6. jorvik says:

    And Labour didn’t ever put their people into the Civil Service. You have a short memory Tom. Remember Alistair Campbell and a good day to bury bad news!!!

  7. vern says:

    It’s your time you are wasting Tom. Come to think of it, i have wasted my time too reading this utterly pointless article. Are you sure Labour nmever acted in the same way Tom? People in glass houses!!

  8. Paul says:

    Tom, like the vast majority of ministers in the last admin, you made made horrifically slow progress in office. Some ministers are just a bit slow, most others are not in post long enough to make a difference. But what they all have in common is a senior civil service beneath them that is so poor that even the best, most dedicated, most long serving ministers struggle to make change for the public good. It’s a Skoda that still thinks it’s the Rolls Royce it was when the archaic rules you quote were written. It’s only real skill is in managing upwards (ie flattering ministerial egos).
    So rather than bash the opposition for trying to sneak a few half decent people in at the top (as you lot did), why not do the country a favour and push for wholesale reform of the senior civil service. You might start by calling for every civil service postion to be prominently advertised and open, not only to every existing civil servant no matter their current rank or number of promotion points accrued (I joke not), but to anyone else in the country who thinks they are qualified. The current closed system does not even get close to the first of the grand principles you quote – “Recruitment should be entirely on the basis of merit”.

  9. Alex says:

    I have been told by the Civil Service Commission that the Civil Service Code’s requirement to appoint on merit and under open and fair competition only applies to persons applying to join the Civil Service – apparently, once you’re in the Civil Service, the way a department fills vacancies internally is not governed by this principle.

    Under a Cabinet Office sanctioned system, there is a four stage process for filling vacancies internally: firstly, to try to fill vacancies on level transfer (nobody below the grade of the vacancy will know that a vacancy exists; secondly, if stage 1 doesn’t get the vacancy filled then only people who have been labelled ‘surplus’ are allowed to apply; thirdly, if stage 2 doesn’t work the job is advertised for 10 days within the region to find a suitable candidate – usually this is not long enough; stage 4 involves advertising the post externally. Outside that four stage process is a very opaque method known as a ‘managed move’ which basically means an employee can be moved by management discretion to another job without giving any other employee a chance to be matched to that role. Not surprisingly, this method is used very frequently.

    The pitfalls of such a system should be obvious, and I don’t believe it is conducive to finding the best person for the job. In the department where I work, some employees have been deemed surplus for over 6 years but are still doing the type of work they’ve always done – though I have never been deemed surplus and have been moved around to 5 different posts in years (only once was I required to apply) and in my most recent role was told I had a new job on the Friday before I started on the Monday!

    To summarise, where there is a desire to create a level playing field to fill vacancies, in practice it hardly ever is the case.

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