UK Politics

PMs 'should not decide' on top civil service jobs

Whitehall sign Image copyright PA

Prime ministers should not be allowed to choose between two candidates for top civil service jobs, MPs have said.

A parliamentary commission has proposed creating this power, but the Public Administration Committee said such a move risked decisions being made for reasons other than "merit".

Currently the prime minister has the power only to veto or accept the final candidate picked by the civil service.

The government said ministers should have a "stronger role" in recruitment.

The coalition's Civil Service Reform Plan, set out in 2012, said it was time to increase the role of ministers in selecting permanent secretaries - the top civil servants in each Whitehall department.

It said the prime minister should have a say in the final part of the recruitment process - that is, choosing between the top contenders - rather than simply being able to veto or accept a single pre-selected candidate.

This would increase government accountability, it was argued.

'Proper debate'

In its report, the committee said an update to the system would be "timely" and that it welcomed the intention of recruiting "the best people for the job".

It agreed with the government's suggestion that the secretary of state running each department should be involved in the recruitment process, but said the final decision made by the prime minister should not go beyond that of a veto.

The committee's chairman, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, said: "It may be right to give the prime minister or the secretary of state a choice from a list of differing candidates, but it does risk the final decision being made for other reasons, not on merit."

He added: "We know that there are voices now arguing for much more political control over civil service appointments. There needs to be a proper debate about this."

There was a "danger" of encouraging "an expectation that the government of the day is entitled to choose its permanent secretaries".

The committee called for further official investigation of the issue.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "We note the view of the [committee]."

He added: "The relationship between ministers and their permanent secretary is the most important in any department.

"Given ministers' direct accountability to Parliament for the performance of their departments and for the implementation of their policy priorities, we agree with the findings of the Institute for Government and Institute for Public Policy Research that ministers should have a stronger role in the recruitment of a permanent secretary."

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