Pin-stripe power

Civil servants have always had many detractors and few defenders. Among the latter was Bernard Shaw, with his back- handed tribute that “even those public departments that were bywords for incompetence and red tape were far more efficient than the commercial adventurers who derided them”, and Sir Leo Chiozza Money who, with experience to guide him, presented an argued case on the same lines of comparison with private industry. Among the criticisms may be listed that the numbers of civil servants needlessly keep on increasing and that they enjoy a privileged position in respect of pay, holidays and pensions and finally, that it is they and not the government who run the country. The criticisms are mostly based on ignorance of the facts and disregard of the purposes for which capitalism needs a civil service and the interest capitalists have in running the service as cheaply as possibly.

The numbers of civil servants have indeed increased enormously, from 21,300 in 1832 to 521,000 in 1982. As the population is now four times what it was in 1832 this means that, relative to population, the civil service has been multiplied by six. (These figures all exclude the postal and telecom services whose staff were, until 1969, civil servants, and the industrial civil servants employed in government dockyards and the Ordnance factories.) But the increases have all been the result of the government taking on additional functions called for by capitalism as, for example, in the fields of Income Tax. Customs & Excise, Education, Factory Acts and latterly the social services.

Governments have always been aware of their need to overhaul and reorganise the civil service periodically, to bring it into line with new functions and to keep the cost down. This began with a Report on the Civil Service in 1853 and a corresponding report in 1854 on the Post Office staff, and has been followed by several other enquiries including three Royal Commissions in this century, 1912, 1931 and 1955. Further enquiries and reorganisations have been undertaken under the present government. Some of the recommendations of the 1854 Report have a modern ring. It proposed paid holidays for lower grade Post Office staff—not in their interest, but in that of efficiency. The principle was laid down that it is possible to recruit suitable staff at low rates of pay by holding out the inducement that some of them may get promotion to a more highly paid grade. It observed that “subsistence allowances” to meet necessary out-of-pocket expenditure arising out of the job were not intended to be an undercover method of getting more pay.

The idea that civil servants are privileged appears to be based on the suspicion that this half-million strong army is a self-governing body which fixes its own pay and conditions in defiance of efforts of Parliament and government to control them. There was some justification for this in respect of the smaller body of civil servants before 1853. Each department had its own arrangements, appointment was by patronage or influence or the actual sale of jobs, and there were no qualifying examinations. This was progressively altered between 1853 and 1870, by which time most features of the modern system had been established. Successive governments and committees of enquiry have considered all sorts of methods for fixing pay and conditions, including leaving them to market forces, so that pay need only be enough to attract a sufficient number of applicants

Of course the civil service would, if it could, be “privileged” but no government or committee has accepted the claim made by civil service unions that the government should be “a model employer” in the sense of setting a “good” example to all other employers.

The idea of fixing civil service pay in relation to movements of outside pay, which had long been operated in the Post Office, was recommended by the Tomlin Commission in 1931 and in a much more elaborate form by the Priestley Commission in 1955. Under the latter comparison is made grade by grade with outside comparable work, taking into account not only pay but hours, annual leave, pensions and so on. Two particular points of criticism have been that full account in making the comparisons has not been given to the fact that civil service pensions are kept in line with the rise in prices (“index-linking”), and that in the depression little or no weight has been given to the civil servant’s security of employment. Both have been under review.

Have governments then been unable to control the size and pay of the civil service? Actual events show otherwise. All awards of the arbitration tribunals have been subject to what is called “the overriding authority of Parliament”, meaning that the government reserved the right to disregard an award. When the Thatcher government, at the end of the abortive strikes of civil servants in 1981, promised arbitration it was “on the understanding that the government reserves the right . . . to ask the House of Commons to approve setting aside the Tribunal’s award on grounds of overriding national policy”. On occasion awards have been disregarded, arbitration itself has been suspended, as also the agreed application of the “fair comparison” operatives. Civil service pay was subjected to the “economy” cuts in 1931 and the present government has fixed overall limits on expenditure. From time to time the numbers have been drastically reduced as between 1945 and 1960 with the loss of 80,000 jobs and again under the Thatcher government with a reduction from 571,000 in 1977 to 521,000 in 1982. More cuts are threatened.

If Sir Chiozza Money were alive today and making his comparison between the size and efficiency of the civil service and the position in industry he would certainly want to look into what happened in the fourteen years 1953-1967. For those years the government Statistical Office published figures showing the changes that had taken place in respect of the staff employed in manufacturing industry as a whole. The staff were divided for this purpose into “wage-earners” and “salary-earners” and presumably a large proportion of the latter were doing jobs similar to those of the clerical civil service.

While during those fourteen years there was hardly any increase in the number of civil servants, manufacturing industry showed a fall in the number of wage earners from 6,160,000 to 5,780,000 but the number of salary earners in manufacture went up from 837,000 to 2,040,000, an increase of 1,203,000.

No doubt the employers would say that the increase resulted largely from the masses of paper work thrust on industry through legislation on taxation, factory acts, and the provision of information to government departments; but it is factors like these which have explained the increase in the number of civil servants in those periods when the civil service was growing.

All of the above relates to the civil service as a whole. A different interpretation of civil servants “running the country” concerns only the permanent officials at the top of each department who are in direct contact with the political heads, the Ministers. Professor Brian Chapman has defined their role as being “To advise, warn, and assist those responsible for State policy and when desired, to provide the organisation for its implementation. The responsibility for policy decisions lies with the political members of the executive, and customarily civil servants are protected from public blame or censure for their advice”. In the modern British civil service it has been accepted that, whatever their own political views may be, those permanent officials will give their advice objectively, irrespective of the politics and policy of the government. (In America the “spoils” system has operated, under which the incoming administration appoints its own political supporters in place of the old lot.)

In practice governments have not always been satisfied to rely on the permanent officials either to carry out their internal administrative responsibilities or their work of advising Ministers, as when Thatcher appointed Derek Rayner from Marks and Spencer to secure economies of staffing and Professor Walters as adviser on economic matters.

Ministers in charge of departments are there to see that the permanent officials carry out cabinet policy. They work under considerable disadvantage. They are not, and are not intended to be, expert in the work of the Department, and may be shifted, at the will of the Prime Minister, from one Department to another. That they immediately make speeches about the work of their new department is possible only because the permanent officials provide them with informed briefs.

Opinions on how the system works vary greatly. Some politicians have said that they have had the fullest co-operation. Others (the late Richard Crossman is one) have complained of greater or less degrees of obstruction. The Times, (20 December 1982) pin-pointed the problem in relation to the Defence Department when John Nott resigned and a successor had to be chosen: “There is undoubtedly a mammoth administrative challenge if the Secretary of State is to run the three services, rather than the three services running the Secretary of State”. In the Defence Department and all other departments the government has its remedies. It can change the Minister, choose the men it wants to be the top permanent officials and of course it controls the finance.

So what remains of the charge that government policies are determined by the permanent officials in the Civil Service? The case with which different governments adopt different policies, and the same government goes in for U-turns, shows it to be baseless. The same, or the same kind of. permanent officials were there when steel was nationalised by the Labour Government. de-nationalised by the Tories and re-nationalised by the next Labour government. The same applies to the “privatisation” policies introduced by the Thatcher government. The permanent officials went along with Labour and Tory Keynesian policies for thirty years after 1945 and then fell in with monetarist policies when the Thatcher government came to power.

If there are Labour Party members who complain that the old Keynesian rubbish did not solve the unemployment problem, and Tory Party members who complain that the Thatcher government’s old monetarist rubbish has likewise failed, they really cannot blame the Civil Service permanent officials. They brought it all on themselves, as the determination of both parties to perpetuate capitalism.

Edgar Hardcastle