A plan to give ministers a bigger say in the appointment of their departments’ permanent secretaries has been blocked amid fears that it could lead to the politicisation of Britain’s impartial civil service.
Francis Maude, Cabinet Office minister, had been pressing for secretaries of state to be allowed to choose their most senior civil servants from a shortlist of approved candidates.
But the Financial Times has learnt that Sir David Normington, head of the Civil Service Commission, which oversees Whitehall appointments, will this week reject the proposal.
He is expected to announce that an independent selection panel, chaired by the commissioner, will continue to decide which candidates to recommend.
Mr Maude’s plan added to a growing level of concern at senior levels in Whitehall that ministers were trying to wield too much political control over the civil service machine. David Cameron last month took the unusual step of overruling the head of the civil service to quash the appointment of climate change expert David Kennedy as permanent secretary at the energy department.
Secretaries of state can veto a recommended candidate if they believe they could not work with them but Mr Maude wanted a bigger ministerial role in order to increase the accountability of civil servants.
However, combined with a number of other measures that Mr Maude is implementing, such as involving ministers in civil servants’ appraisals and publishing the objectives that permanent secretaries must meet, senior Whitehall figures feared the proposal would dilute the principle of political impartiality at the heart of Britain’s civil service.
The Commission will for the first time publish a document listing all the ways ministers can already influence appointments while stopping short of giving them the final say.
Government officials made clear that Mr Maude had not ruled out legislating to give ministers more power over appointments.
One said: “Setting out the ways in which ministers can currently influence appointments is a step towards what we want but we’ll keep it under very close review and legislation remains an option if it doesn’t work in practice.”
The civil service reform plan Mr Maude launched in June stated that, while ministers already had a role in the recruitment of permanent secretaries “we believe there is a case to go further”.
Mr Cameron threw his weight behind the proposal in July, telling MPs on the Commons liaison committee: “I do not think there is anything to fear. You would have good control because the appointments panel would have sifted out any weak candidates, inappropriate candidates or candidates who could not work with a government of a different colour.”
Tensions between ministers and mandarins were raised by a speech in October in which Mr Maude said senior civil servants had sometimes obstructed the delivery of government policies, an assertion which caused considerable offence in the upper reaches of Whitehall.
Peter Riddell, director of the Institute for Government, a think-tank, said: “Secretaries of state understandably want to have a permanent secretary whom they trust and with whom they can work, but that must be someone identified as suitably qualified and impartial by the appointments process.
“What matters is trusting relationships at the top.”