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Appointment and removal of senior civil servants must not undermine civil service impartiality

20 October 2023

The Constitution Committee publishes its 17th report on the appointment and removal process for permanent secretaries.


Integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality are the core values of the civil service and define its constitutional position in the governance of the UK. In particular, impartiality–the ability to set aside personal opinions and serve equally well governments of different political persuasions–is fundamentally important. Civil servants are appointed on merit and while there have been varying degrees of ministerial involvement in the process over the years, the principle of impartiality has been maintained.

Several recent departures of permanent secretaries or civil servants of equivalent seniority have been controversial, raising questions as to the degree of ministerial involvement in the appointment and departure process, and whether there exists a desire to appoint politically sympathetic candidates to these positions.

The report considers the way very senior appointments and dismissals are made and whether current processes allow the appropriate amount of ministerial involvement.

Key conclusions

  • The level of formal ministerial involvement in appointments, as set out in the Civil Service Commission Recruitment Principles, strikes the correct balance in ensuring ministers could be confident in the quality of those appointed while maintaining an objective merit-based approach. Any move towards greater ministerial involvement risks upsetting that balance.
  • Certain high-profile departures might have reflected a desire among ministers to personalise appointments and assert their authority. This is unhelpful, not least because it risks civil service turnover coinciding with ministerial churn, creating a perception of politicisation of appointments and damaging institutional knowledge. Political alignment should never be a factor in deciding on a permanent secretary and the Cabinet Secretary has a vital role to play in ensuring such changes in personnel, if necessary, are done with due process.
  • Departure processes should be formalised to guard against the improper removal of civil servants: minsters, including the Prime Minister, should be required to explain any decision to replace a senior civil servant to the Civil Service Commission.
  • The appointment process for the Cabinet Secretary/Head of the Civil Service should be regularised, in line with that for permanent secretaries.
  • The Civil Service Commission Recruitment Principles, the Senior Appointments Protocol and the Cabinet Manual should be updated to reflect current practice.
  • There should be more transparency over the role of the Senior Leadership Committee.
  • The roles of the Civil Service Commission, Senior Leadership Committee and ACOBA in regulating moves in and out of the civil service, and how those bodies interact, should be reviewed.

Chair’s comments:

Baroness Drake, Chair of the Constitution Committee said:

“A small number of recent high-profile removals of senior civil servants on what appeared to be political or ideological grounds together with some recent departures and appointments that have been conducted in the public eye, might be seen to reflect a desire on the part of ministers to personalise appointments and assert their authority. This practice should be avoided. It risks senior civil service turnover coinciding with ministerial churn, creating a perception of politicisation and damaging institutional knowledge.

“We reject the notion that broad political alignment should be a relevant consideration in the appointment of senior civil servants. The role of the civil service is to provide honest, objective and impartial advice to the Government.

“We were told that ministers were not sufficiently aware of the extent of their influence over appointments, or the limits on it. It is incumbent upon permanent secretaries to brief incoming ministers on the degree to which they can be involved in the appointment of senior civil servants, and to repeat this briefing when a relevant vacancy arises. This will help to avoid tension during the recruitment process and reinforce ministerial ownership of the process and the quality of those appointed.

“The Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service has a vital role in ensuring that individuals are not removed from their posts by a secretary of state or a Prime Minister without due process.”

Further information