Alasdair Palmer: Yes Minister, you need impartial advice

WE are very fortunate in Britain in having a basically honest Civil Service that gives objective and impartial advice to Ministers.

We tend to assume that decent government officials are part of the natural order of things. Unfortunately, they are not.

Most countries of the world have thoroughly corrupt governments: those with political power use it to enrich themselves and their cronies. Officials regard it as part of their role to facilitate politicians’ thieving. That was how most government officials in this country understood their role until the reforms of the second half of the 19th century.

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Those reforms changed a system in which people were appointed as government officials through patronage, usually because they were relatives or friends of politicians in power, to one where appointment and promotion were based on merit.

The reforms eventually created a culture of honesty, objectivity and integrity in the Civil Service. That helped to ensure that Britain has enjoyed relatively uncorrupt government for the last 100 years. As Lord Butler, who was Cabinet Secretary for the decade between 1988 and 1998, has observed, an independent Civil Service, with officials who are “not beholden to Ministers for their jobs... has lent a great deal to the integrity of British public life. It has been an important part of keeping our government straight”.

Many other countries look on enviously at the independence and integrity of our Civil Service. But here, our politicians seem determined to undermine it. They are doing so in a typically British way.

No one has announced that they want to get rid of a Civil Service that is based on the values of honesty, objectivity and integrity. Senior politicians of all parties frequently state how much they value an independent Civil Service. But they have consistently diminished its role. They are replacing it with advice from individuals appointed through political patronage. Tony Blair arrived in 1997 accompanied by more than 70 special advisers. David Cameron, who promised to reduce that number, has more than 100.

Special advisers are beholden to their Minister for their job. They are emphatically not independent and objective.

It is frequently claimed that because the number of special advisers is miniscule they don’t matter. This is a mistake. Special advisers carry the authority of the Minister they serve. In any hierarchical organisation, it is the people who are at the top, and who have access to the boss, who count. Special advisers have that access. Civil servants, increasingly, do not.

I witnessed the effects of the change when I was at the Home Office as a speech-writer for the Home Secretary. Civil servants are intimidated and insulted by special advisers, and kept out of key policy discussions.

It requires considerable self-confidence for a civil servant to tell a Minister that their plans are not going to work. In between them and the Minister stand the special advisers.

It is not in the least like the television show Yes Minister, in which wily and all-knowing civil servants run rings around dim and ignorant Ministers.

In reality, Ministers are neither dim nor ignorant, and civil servants, even very senior ones, are not wily. They are respectful rather than manipulative. Their advice is often ignored or blocked.

Does it matter? Yes. As citizens and taxpayers, we have an interest in ensuring that every government policy is based on a fair, impartial and rational assessment – not on political prejudice.

It is increasingly hard to find a Minister who only pursues policies that have survived rational and impartial scrutiny: that advice is often ignored in favour of the endorsement of special advisers. The more civil service advice is replaced by counsel from special advisers who are neither independent nor objective, the more likely it is that government policy will just serve the interests of Ministers and their supporters.

We are a long way from the situation where the Civil Service is replaced by a system based on jobbery and patronage, and the corruption and misallocation of government funds that goes with it. But if we don’t watch out, we could find ourselves on the slide which leads to that result. And that would be a catastrophe.