01 April 2019

To prepare for the possibility of government, it is vital that opposition parties meet with civil servants – but the process needs to be reformed, argues Dr Catherine Haddon.

The Prime Minister is reported to be considering whether to call a snap general election to break the Brexit impasse, but how prepared is the civil service for any potential change of government? In the run up to a general election, convention dictates that meetings can be held between the official Opposition and the civil service. While Labour has made repeated request for access, these formal contacts have not yet been granted.

The current convention is that these contacts are authorised only by the Prime Minister, with talks permitted during an election campaign. This arrangement can prove controversial – and risks undermining the value of the meetings. So, it would make much more sense if limited contact could happen at other times, and if the Cabinet Secretary, not the Prime Minister, decided when that contact could take place.

The PM’s control over the talks undermines their usefulness

Every prime minister since 1964 has authorised these talks, with successive prime ministers recognising how necessary they can be for a new government – while acknowledging that their party will one day be in opposition again.

The talks are essential, as they give the civil service an opportunity to prepare for what can be huge changes in departmental machinery and policy. They consist of a few meetings between shadow secretaries of state and the permanent secretary of the department they shadow, they can be one-to-one or include wider teams and they are restricted in what they can discuss. The talks warn the civil service of likely machinery of government changes or big policy areas that imply big changes. The guiding rule is that permanent secretaries must not provide policy advice.

Some prime ministers have been generous in allowing prolonged access – in the run up to the 2010 election, Gordon Brown allowed nearly 18 months for these contacts. In 2017, because of the snap election, Labour only had the period of the election campaign.

However, prime ministers sometimes hold off authorising the talks because they fear that it implies an election is likely or because they are so helpful to their opponents. Due to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the next election is not scheduled until 2022 – but the political realities of a minority government make an early snap election far more likely.

The Cabinet Secretary should decide when access talks take place

Fixed-term parliaments are a good reason to consider changing the rules around this kind of contact. Outside of an election period, the Cabinet Secretary should decide when to allow a limited number of meetings. While there will be some concerns that this would hand too much authority to the Cabinet Secretary, plenty of rules are in place that determine how the meetings can happen.

The current guidance would ensure that civil servants are not stepping beyond their bounds and, like other kinds of meetings with the Opposition, incumbent ministers should know they are happening – though in this case they will not know the content of the meetings. But there are also grey areas in the current approach that depend hugely on civil service propriety. 

Permanent secretaries must make sure the contacts are limited – departmental resources must not be used inappropriately, and the civil service’s first priority is to serve the Government of the day. This must still be the guiding principle. Likewise, permanent secretaries must make sure the discussions are ‘factual’ and do not provide policy advice. Nothing would change there. Permanent secretaries must ensure any contact doesn’t undermine the trust of their current ministers. That would still be the case.  

Limited civil service contact could be of real benefit to new governments

The bigger issue is that this could place the Cabinet Secretary in an awkward political position. Deciding whether to have meetings could be seen as implying an election is likely – which is a good reason to allow these meetings to happen at any time, not just in a pre-election period.

The Civil Service Code and guidance are both absolutely clear that civil servants should not do anything that calls into question their political impartiality. This would have to be the case with any contact between permanent secretaries and the Opposition. Limiting the number of any meetings that can happen in a given period and ensuring department ministers know they are happening would guarantee they are not over-used, something that might also focus the minds of those involved with them.

New governments want to hit the ground running. But if the civil service isn’t forewarned about the Opposition’s plans, then future governments should massively change their expectations about their early days and weeks in office.

The practice of pre-election contacts will, and must, continue, but a more sensible approach is needed. A very limited amount of contact on a very narrow front can have a very beneficial impact for new governments. It does not need to be so complicated.

Please note: the commenting function has been temporarily disabled while essential server upgrades take place.