Michael Gove’s civil service plans threaten impartiality, says union leader

·2-min read

Secretaries of state will have “greater involvement” in the recruitment of senior civil servants working in their departments under new plans outlined by the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove.

His comments on Tuesday prompted concern from one public – sector union leader that the government was threatening to undermine the impartiality of the civil service.

Speaking at an event in London, Gove said: “We will ensure that ministers have visibility of senior civil servant appointments in the departments they lead and provide the prime minister and cabinet secretary with the broadest possible choice of new permanent secretaries and directors general.”

Asked by the Guardian if this meant that ministers would be given an enhanced role in the recruitment process, Gove said: “I think greater involvement in that role. Ultimately, I think we need to make sure that ministers and civil servants work effectively together.”

At present, permanent secretaries are appointed under a scheme in which the prime minister has the final say in the recruitment process. A shortlist of candidates is drawn up by the civil service commissioners.

Dave Penman, the head of the FDA union, said Gove’s suggested plans were worrying. “The vague assertions over ministerial involvement in the appointments of permanent secretaries and directors general will raise alarm bells.

“Ministerial involvement in selection not only threatens the impartiality of the civil service but will inevitably lead to greater turnover as successive ministers seek to build their own team around them, the very opposite of what they say they are trying to achieve.”

Gove also listed “real weaknesses” in government that he said had been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic. He said these included: problems over PPE procurement and test availability; the clarity of data required for decision-making; the structure of Public Health England; and the Cabinet Office’s “own coordinating function”.

Gove said: “All these, and a number of other areas, all rose to the surface during the crisis. Now these weaknesses, these problems, these failures have been recognised, they’re being addressed. But the deeper factors that impeded effective delivery must also be faced and reformed. The forthcoming public inquiry into Covid-19 will help us to do just that.”

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