Former civil servants call for end to row over Whitehall appointments

Lord Richard Wilson and Dame Janet Paraskeva tell MPs that “blame culture” in the civil service is unhelpful

Senior former civil servants have said that the public row between ministers and Whitehall officials – with each side publicly criticising the other – is “unhelpful”.

Dame Janet Paraskeva, who was first civil service commissioner from 2006 to 2010, and Lord Richard Wilson, former cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, told the Commons public administration select committee’s hearing into the future of the civil service that the present “blame culture” was unhelpful. Wilson told the committee that the government needed “a strong team working together on the basis of trust”.

Tensions between ministers and officials have grown over disagreement about the way permanent secretaries are appointed. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, wants to give ministers greater say over appointing the heads of their Whitehall departments. On Monday, the civil service commissioner Sir David Normington strongly defended the existing way of appointing permanent secretaries, saying that the need to enhance Whitehall skills should not be used as “cover” for more political appointees.

Normington, who is reportedly being lined up for a key role in establishing the board of a new press regulator, told an audience of senior Whitehall figures at the Institute for Government thinktank on 28 January that the civil service commission is “totally opposed” to any step towards greater politicisation of the civil service and that giving ministers more choice over the heads of Whitehall departments would increase neither the capability nor skills of the civil service.

“The emphasis should be on increasing the skills and capability of existing civil servants … and whether ministers have choice [over the appointment of permanent secretaries] has little to do with that,” Normington said, adding that he regretted the way the debate had developed since the first proposals for greater ministerial involvement in senior appointments. “They have opened up a much wider questioning of whether the present model of a UK civil service – politically impartial, recruited on merit through fair and open competition – is still valid.”

Paraskeva said there needed to be a proper discussion about the way top civil servants are recruited. “If we are looking at a new civil service model where ministers select permanent secretaries, we need to take a step back and see what the government want,” she said. Otherwise, the government would risk “slipping down a slope we weren’t intending to travel”.

Paraskeva added that if a permanent secretary were chosen as “a person of the secretary of state”, then they might be expected to move or resign if the secretary of state then lost his or her position. This, she said, undermined the permanence of the role.

Wilson argued that permanent secretaries were a “source of advice, experience and knowledge” and that they needed to be encouraged to stay in their positions for longer. He also felt that new ministers were not always told what to do if they were unhappy with their private office, or how to handle appointments.

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