It has emerged that there was an alarming rise in the number calls by senior civil servants for Ministerial Directions in the dying months of the last Labour government.
The call by a senior civil service mandarin for a ministerial direction is considered as the ‘nuclear option’ when the minister and his civil service staff are at loggerheads over policy implementation. It is a formal request for what amounts to a written order from the minister so as to absolve the civil service from all responsibility of the decision.
In the last months of the Labour government five of these were made when civil service chiefs disagreed vehemently with the wishes of ministers.
According to the Guardian, on top of these five, nine were made last year as well as five the previous year. This contrasts with an average of two a year between 1990 and 2005.
Where a minister wants a policy followed through it is the job of the civil service to advise on implementation issues such as finance, administrative and legal matters as well as giving it a ‘common sense’ check.
Within this the civil servants must leave their own individual political leanings in a bag hanging from the coat-peg outside the office. They have to be rigorously impartial so as not to frustrate the aims of the elected party. In this the civil service have a fine record, which puts the outgoing ministers in a very bad place.
The relationship between ministers and civil servants is crucial to the working of good government. Both must act in the best interests of the public. The government by acting to their mandate, the service ensuring it is implemented in the most efficient way.
But there will be some cases where the politics outweigh the costs. There will be grey areas and grey cases. But then there will be cases where politicians, purely for their own political ends, overstep the mark. That is what appears to have happened here. In these circumstances it is the civil service’s job to point this out and object in the strongest way possible if the minister ignores the advice given.
It is unforgiveable that an outgoing administration can spend so freely, in some cases totally against all advice, then for the outgoing Chief Secretary to leave a note saying: "Dear chief secretary, I'm afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam." At least when the Reggie Maudling (Tory) left a similar note for Labour’s Jim Callaghan in 1964 he said “Sorry to leave it in such a mess”.
The now redundant ministers have no further accountability (mores the pity), the rest of us have to bear the repercussions for many years to come.
What we should be asking is whether the ministers in these cases totally believed that what they were ordering was in the best interests of the country. If so, fine. But if, as some aver, they acted out of narrow political bias, or worse in pursuit of a scorched earth policy, then their position could in the eyes of some be seen as tantamount to treason.