This is a summary of the constitutional and ethical framework within which UK civil servants work. I hope it will provide sufficient information for many readers, but there are links to more detail and analysis if you need them.
The framework is often referred to as the Westminster Model of government. This phrase is useful for many purposes but please note that it has no precise or widely agreed definition.
Note, too, that the model has come under intense, and maybe increasing, criticism. Many argue that senior officials should face greater public and Parliamentary scrutiny. Others point out that ministers are reluctant to acknowledge the extent to which they have delegated authority to Arms Length Bodies - possible fearing pressure to introduce new forms of scrutiny and oversight over which ministers would have less control. It is interesting, too, that recent developments have strengthened the position of senior officials who wish to challenge the feasibility of Ministers' policy decisions - that is the government's ability to carry out the proposed policy effectively and credibly. These developments are summarised here, in a separate section of this website.
It is also important to be aware that there are separate interesting questions concerning the effectiveness of Cabinet government. Does modern government need a strong centre and, if so, what does this do to the role of Cabinet Ministers? The 1960s Labour Government had two-day Cabinet meeting. Would that be unimaginable today, or a welcome development? A 2005 House of Commons Research Paper discusses these issues in some detail.
The UK Constitution
The UK's constitution attributes power to Parliament, to the Executive, and to the Courts. The relative power of each body varies with the subject matter. For more detail on this see note 1 below.
Although often referred to as 'unwritten', much - indeed most - of the UK's constitution is clearly set out in writing. A 2021 blog by David Allen Green provided links to four places where the constitution was already set out in writing, including the Cabinet Manual, The Judge over your Shoulder, and Erskine May.
The United Kingdom is a Parliamentary (rather than Presidential) democracy. All key decisions are made in the form of legislation by its sovereign parliament and there is no higher authority. (See also Note 2 below.) Legitimacy and democracy are maintained because ministers are answerable to Parliament, and the House of Commons is elected by the people. Subject to complying with the laws made by Parliament, day to day decisions are taken by Ministers (and if necessary by the whole Cabinet) and implemented by a neutral civil service.
Put shortly, therefore, there is a simple chain of command. Civil servants are accountable to Ministers who are accountable to Parliament, whose Members are accountable to their constituents. (See also Note 3 below.)
Civil Servants and Ministers
The 1918 Haldane Report recommended the development of deep partnerships between Ministers and officials so as to meet the more complicated requirements of busier government as substantial executive ministries emerged from the first world war. The relationship between civil servants and Ministers became one of mutual interdependence, with Ministers providing authority and officials providing expertise.
As a result, the UK Civil Service has no 'constitutional personality' or any responsibility separate from the Government of the day. It is there to provide the Government with advice on the formulation of the policies, to assist in carrying out the Government's decisions, and to manage and deliver Government services.
It is implicit in the Haldane settlement that there is little room for non-civil service appointments within government. Experts are usually hired for a fee rather than recruited on permanent contracts. There are now more political appointees than there were but, even today, the number of such Special Advisers is strictly limited. The aim is to avoid the problems that are so apparent within the American constitution where 2,000 senior posts are presidential appointments so that many candidates are unqualified and many posts remain open long after the arrival of a new president. The UK system also reduces (but does not entirely eliminate) the dangers of groupthink. And ministers continue to receive much policy and political advice from outside their departments, including from constituents, party members the media and think tanks.
It also follows that civil servants:
- cannot express their own opinion of government policy, even in court or in front of a Parliamentary committee, and
- must loyally carry out Ministers' decisions with precisely the same level of energy and good will, whether or not they agree with them.
These rules are collectively known as political impartiality. It is off course the case that no employee - public or private sector - can expect to be allowed (publicly) to criticise his or her employer's policies. But civil servants aren't allowed to support them either! This is because the Government's policies might change overnight - under a new Prime Minister, for instance - whereupon previous support for policy A would overnight become seen as criticism of replacement policy B. It also follows that civil servants cannot be directly questioned about ministers' policy decisions.
And the need for political impartiality means that the civil service is appointed on merit, through open competition, rather than patronage,
When they exercise powers on behalf of ministers, civil servants are governed by the Carltona Principle.
The UK Civil Service is particularly renowned for its duty to Speak Truth to Power. (The difficulty in doing so, and related issues - including advice on how to speak truth persuasively - are explored in my Understanding Policy Making website. )
Ministers want (or should want) honest advice, which may be critical of their policies. Such advice must be delivered privately. in case it were subsequently to be used to criticise a minister.
Civil servants are nevertheless accountable for the way in which they deliver ministers' policies and spend public money. They are in particular directly accountable to Parliament (and not to ministers) for the stewardship of public funds, including the regularity, propriety, value for money of public expenditure.
Civil Service Ethics
Officials work within strict ethical constraints, and must demonstrate the highest pecuniary and moral integrity. They must not be motivated by the desire to make money.
The Civil Service Code supplements the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (The CRaG Act)and provides a clear, helpful and commendably brief summary of the values that are common to all civil servants of all grades, and the standards of behaviour that are expected of them. The code defines the civil servants' four core values in the following way:
- ‘integrity’ is putting the obligations of public service above your own personal interests;
- ‘honesty’ is being truthful and open;
- ‘objectivity’ is basing your advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence; and
- ‘impartiality’ is acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving equally well Governments of different political persuasions.
Taken together, the CRaG Act and Civil Service Code say that officials:
… must: set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully, and correct any errors as soon as possible;
… must: provide information and advice, including advice to Ministers, on the basis of the evidence, and accurately present the options and facts; take decisions on the merits of the case; and take due account of expert and professional advice.
… must not: deceive or knowingly mislead Ministers, Parliament or others; and
… must not: ignore inconvenient facts or relevant considerations when providing advice or making decisions; or frustrate the implementation of policies once decisions are taken by declining to take, or abstaining from, action which flows from those decisions.
It follows from the above that Civil Servants must refuse to take part in any activity that involves telling lies to anyone, or involves misrepresentation to Parliament. Officials may not for instance transmit to Parliament an answer to a Parliamentary Question which they know to be inaccurate or misleading. But they are not under any obligation to correct a Minister’s misrepresentation, whether deliberate or otherwise. (There may be exceptions to these rules if national security is threatened, but these are never of concern to the vast majority of civil servants.)
In addition, the Seven Principles of Public Life encapsulate the values and behaviour appropriate to the public sector, and apply as much to the civil service as to other holders of public office. The seven principles are: :
Can this model of government possibly make sense in the 21st Century? There are plenty who say not! Follow this link for more detail and analysis.
- The Armstrong Memorandum & the Osmotherly Rules
- The Carltona Principle
- Stewardship of Public Funds
- The Seven Principles of Public Life
Other interesting issues are explored in these other web pages:
- The Civil Service Code
- The historical development of the Westminster Model
- Various attempts (some successful, some not) at Civil Service Reform.
- The rules which govern officials' behaviour in the weeks before General Elections.
- Despite the clear rules in the Civil Service Code, and in the Armstrong Memorandum, there have been a number of instances of senior officials speaking out in support of, or sometime even against, Minsters' policies.
Note 1 - Citizens' fundamental rights and legal duties do not necessarily derive from Parliamentary enactments. The 2019 Miller (prorogation) Supreme Court judgment showed that there can be rare occasions when Parliament is constitutionally so weak that it requires the protection of the courts. Much more frequently, the courts are asked to carry out judicial reviews of the executive's decisions. And Human Rights legislation permits the courts to quash secondary legislation.
Note 2 - A decision by a UK Government to sign an international treaty does not create rights and duties in national law which are enforceable in UK courts. Only UK legislation can create or revoke such rights and duties. European Union law was accordingly incorporated into UK law by the European Communities Act 1972. That legislation could not and did not fetter the ability of successor Parliaments to revoke or amend the 1972 legislation.
Note 3 - The Johnson Government in effect challenged the authority of Parliament - and in so doing challenged UK democracy - when it sought the lengthy prorogation of Parliament in the autumn of 2019. This challenge was rebuffed by the UK's independent judiciary in the Miller case.. (There is a nice summary of the UK's semi-unwritten constitution in that 2019 Supreme Court judgment - see esp. paras beginning at 39, and 55. )