The Week

The Week 20 October 2023

Rachael Powell
Research Assistant

I don’t know about you, but here at Reform we have been waiting (im)patiently for the publication of Lord Maude’s 'Review of Governance and Accountability'. With leaks this week suggesting it will set out some pretty radical conclusions, we’re hoping it will be published before our event, ‘In Conversation with Rt Hon Lord Maude’, next Wednesday. Either way, with both Labour and Conservatives making plans to reform Whitehall, that conversation will not be one to miss.

So what are we now expecting from the review? Firstly, Lord Maude is likely to recommend abolishing the role of Cabinet Secretary and replacing it with two new roles: a Permanent Secretary of No.10 and a separate head of the civil service. Our recent report, ‘Breaking down the barriers: Why Whitehall is so hard to reform’, set out some of the debate on this issue – with those we interviewed feeling that splitting the Cabinet Secretary from the Head of the Civil Service (which happened in 2011, only to be merged again) was highly challenging — because, as long as it exists, the role of Cabinet Secretary will have the crucial proximity to the Prime Minister, leaving the other roles underpowered.

Lord Maude summarised the problem at our panel from the Conservative Party Conference: “no one is in charge of the civil service.” Currently, he argued, the Cabinet Secretary does not have the time to truly manage the civil service and make reform happen, as it is always a “part-time job”.

The suggestion of therefore re-establishing the role of No.10 Permanent Secretary is an interesting one. It could be a move that would see No.10 absorb more functions of the Cabinet Office, and transform No.10 into a true department — a model that is frequently suggested and eventually given up. The current Cabinet Secretary was himself at one time the Permanent Secretary of No.10 under Boris Johnson. But the risk would surely be that everyone would treat the person in this role as the ‘new’ Cabinet Secretary. We await the detail.

Lord Maude is also likely to propose huge changes to the Treasury. Again, at our panel, he made the case that the centre of our government is “archaic”, as no other comparable country has a single ministry of finance where control of public expenditure is all dealt with in one place (budgetary, financial, and economic). The leaks suggest that Lord Maude will recommend spinning out a separate budget ministry and handing control to the new head of the civil service to allocate money to departments, leaving the Treasury with the responsibility for taxation and economic growth. This is an interesting take on an old proposal: Giles Wilkes and Stian Westlake made a lasting contribution to the debate with their case for splitting it up. It is interesting to see a variety of fault lines along which this Whitehall behemoth could ultimately be divided.

The relationship between ministers and senior officials is a challenging one to get right, as we also discussed in our barriers report. Maude is expected to suggest that ministers should have greater influence over appointment of their most senior officials. This could, in theory, ensure greater alignment between ministers and officials, but will be controversial among some civil servants. The main opposing argument is that civil service impartiality is vital, and this change may lead to a civil service that is at risk of becoming politicised.

But none of this is confirmed yet: we will have to wait for the publication of Lord Maude’s review. It is perhaps telling that the reported reason for its delayed publication is “institutional resistance” from Whitehall (denied by civil servants).

Our in conversation event next Wednesday is starting to look very timely — as is our upcoming event with former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell at the RSA. Sign up for both now to avoid disappointment!

Now for our read of the week…

Along similar lines, the outputs from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry have offered insight into the relationship between ministers and scientific advisers. Away from the slews of WhatsApp messages embarrassing almost everyone involved, we heard from Professor Neil Ferguson, member of the SAGE group at the time of the pandemic. We all remember the well-known phrase ‘following the science’ from the Covid era, but Prof Ferguson said during Module Two of the inquiry that “there is no such thing as really following the science”, and policy is determined by politicians.

The then Chief Scientific Adviser’s diary from the pandemic claimed that the Government cherry-picked scientific advice, and used scientists as “human shields” to defend their policy decisions. The Government ‘following the science’ was, perhaps, a confusing statement, as there is no monolithic scientific consensus — rather, there is a variety of views and perspectives among scientists, all informed by the available evidence.

Policy also does not exclusively follow scientific advice, as ministers must also consider economic and social factors too. One group of academics from Liverpool University argue that ‘evidence-based policy’ is ultimately unrealistic, as policy should instead be ‘evidence-informed’. They suggest that scientific advisers are reluctant to give policy advice due to fear of blame for policy decisions. It seems that there are major questions to be asked about the role of scientific advice in policy decisions and where the accountability should lie for ‘evidence-based’ policy decisions.

So it’s good news that we have a paper on that very subject in the works! Watch this space.