Neutrality of civil servants

The concept of permanence in the civil service requires that civil servants are able to serve governments of any party with the same degree of commitment. Therefore a corollary of permanence is political neutrality:

· their advice is expected to be non-partisan

· they do not undertake work which is of benefit to one party

· senior civil servants are restricted from taking part in party politics even outside of their professional roles.

Whilst neutrality is an ideal state, in practice absolute neutrality is difficult or even impossible to achieve:

· civil servants work in a highly political environment and to be able to do their job effectively they must be aware of the political effects of their advice

· being restricted from party political activity does not prevent civil servants from having political views

· their educational and social background is likely to colour their attitudes

· the institutional ethos of the civil service, and its permanence, leads to the creation of established policy preferences and a “conservative” attitude towards undue change in any direction.

As with the undermining of the concept of permanence, the concept of neutrality has been weakened significantly in recent years and there has been a process of politicisation taking place:

· Mrs Thatcher’s preferences for “one of us” appointments can be seen as undermining neutrality

· the guidelines for civil servants produced by Sir Robert Armstrong (Cabinet Secretary) in 1985 state that civil servants are obliged to act in the interests of the government and that there is no alternative “public interest”, as claimed by Clive Ponting

· on a number of occasions, the last Conservative government attempted to use civil servants to draft political speeches, criticise opposition policies, etc

· it has been argued that the civil service was politicised simply because of the fact of the length of time in office of the Conservative government - any civil servant who wanted promotion would be likely to give the advice ministers wanted to hear, not necessarily impartial advice

· civil servants helped conceal the actions of ministers in the “arms to Iraq” case

· the increasing use of political advisers, albeit on temporary contracts, clearly is contrary to the idea of neutrality.

Although this increasing use of political advisers has been criticised (most recently by the Conservatives) as a way of paying party officials with taxpayers’ money, it can be argued that it is more open and honest than pressurising permanent and neutral civil servants to act in a political manner.