The Civil Service
The Civil Service executes government decisions and therefore plays a vital part in British Politics. The Civil Service currently employs at about 500,000. It is split into a number of departments attached to a government department. A Cabinet minister heads one of these departments and those civil servants within that department are meant to work for that minister in carrying out government policy. This specific to roles is very important as a government minister is a working MP and has been elected by the voters in his/her constituency. Civil servants are not elected; they apply for a post in the Civil Service and any promotion within the Civil Service is dependent on decisions made within the Civil Service itself - not by the electorate.
The Civil Service in Britain is very hierarchical. At the top are the Permanent Secretaries and the so-called 'mandarins'. These hold the most senior positions in the Civil Service.
Their tasks are many and varied. The
advise ministers on policies
pertinent to their departments. There have been criticisms that
these senior civil servants are in a position to be too
influential especially as they are non-elected persons. However,
they argue, with some legitimacy, that governments may come and
go and inexperienced minister may be appointed, but they remain
where they are with both the expertise and experience a new
minister is almost certainly going to lack.
they prepare policy papers and speeches for ministers
they deal with a minister's correspondence and help to prepare him/her for questions that might arise in the House of Commons
they maintain a minister's official diary and minute meetings
they can consult with pressure groups to develop their knowledge on certain issues.
In the past, claims have been made that these posts have only been open to privately educated, Oxbridge males. There have been attempts in recent years to correct what was seen as something from a bygone age. Appointments to these posts is now very specific to ability as opposed to background and gender. However, there are those critics who feel that not enough has been done to bring a gender balance - let alone an ethnic minority balance - to the senior positions within the Civil Service.
The next layer down is the permanent career official who works within a government department and carry out government policies. As with all civil servants, these people are meant to be neutral in a professional sense. They might have their own political views, but these must not be allowed to interfere or jeopardise their work. In theory, this level should not have policy making powers, but they might be called upon to give advice if it is thought that their knowledge on a topic is sufficiently expert. This layer of civil servant will be very knowledgeable about issues such as costs, technical problems involved in some aspects of proposed government policy etc. Such expertise is called upon and ministers might legitimately ask such people to make an input even if they are non-elected persons. If a civil servant does give an input to a government decision regarding policy, he/she remains anonymous. If the policy is a success, the minister takes the credit, if it is a failure, the minister involved takes the blame.
While the civil servant works for the department (and therefore the government) he/she is in, there are a number of legally enforceable restrictions placed on all civil servants.
civil servants can vote in elections,
but while they are a member of the Civil Service, they cannot stand
for a political office.
all civil servants are bound by the Official Secrets Act, and they may not speak to the media or write about their experiences without permission. This came about after the Clive Ponting incident during the Thatcher years whereby civil servant Ponting, released to the media that the Argentinean warship the 'Belgrano' may well have been attacked by a British submarine outside of the exclusion zone imposed during the Falklands War. Clearly such information could have been damaging to the government. Ponting argued that he felt it was only right that the public knew the truth. Now, what is made available to the media/public comes from the government alone. senior civil servants must not be politically active.
Civil servants must not be members of extreme left or right wing political parties - though they can be members of mainstream parties.
Some civil servants in sensitive posts (such as in the Defence Ministry) can have their private lives investigated by the Security Services.
The Civil Service has a vital role to play in British Politics, but it has not been without its critics in the recent past and one of the most vociferous while she was in power, was Margaret Thatcher.