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FREEMAN WARNS AGAINST POLITICISATION OF CIVIL SERVICE

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'Making civil servants directly responsible to parliament, and allowing them to express their own views on the poli...
'Making civil servants directly responsible to parliament, and allowing them to express their own views on the policy advice given to ministers could lead to politicisation of the civil service;' Roger Freeman, public service minister, has warned.

In a speech on ministerial accountability at the Civil Service College yesterday, Mr Freeman said:

'Were civil servants able to account directly to parliament and to express their own views on the policy advice given to ministers, the clear logical line of democratic accountability would be broken. Civil servants would be serving two masters - parliament and ministers.

'Once civil servants cease to report to parliament on behalf of ministers and begin to speak for themselves, giving their own views when asked about policy options and the advice offered to ministers, we would - in my view - be giving unelected officials the political influence that can only be earned in a parliamentary democracy through election. Elected ministers would be eliminated from the accountability loop. I believe that the inevitable outcome could be the politicisation of the civil service.

Mr Freeman went on to respond to the argument that the chief executives of next steps agencies should be directly accountable to select committees. He said:

'There is a very important distinction between managerial and constitutional responsibility. In pursuit of the most effective delivery of public services, ministers have, under the Next Steps programme, given chief executives personal responsibility for the management and performance of the executive activity in question.

'What Ministers have not done is abrogate their constitutional accountability for the function in question. With the exception of a number of statutory office holders, parliament confers functions upon ministers and not civil servants. The minister remains accountable to parliament whether the functions are carried out on his behalf by civil servants within the department or by civil servants assigned to an agency in that department. In short, the agency is delivering the public services for which the minister is accountable to parliament.

'The Next Steps initiative has not changed the current constitutional convention. What it has done is to enhance the exercise of accountability through clearer public definition of roles in published framework documents.

'I know that one idea is that certain agencies might be converted into legally independent bodies so that the chief executive - as a statutory office holder - would be directly responsible to parliament. This is a possible working model. The irony, however, is that MPs would be denied the opportunity to hold a government minister to account on the floor of the House. This, in those very areas where the business in question is so sensitive that it is difficult to conceive that MPs would not, at moments of serious public concern, want anything less than a ministerial statement and an opportunity to question and hold a minister to account.

Concluding his comments on accountability, Mr Freeman said he had invited the public service select committee to comment on some draft guidance which could be issued to all civil servants responsible for drafting answers to parliamentary questions. He said:

'Our purpose is to underline our commitment to providing parliament with full and accurate information, the corollary of our doctrine of accountability highlighted in Sir Richard Scott's report.'

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