Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Free the bureaucrat?

I’m beginning to enjoy this leadership contest in a way that I hadn’t expected, in that the normal rush to the centre ground of the Party has been replaced by an almost exhibitionist desire by both candidates towards the radical cutting edge. First, that terribly clever Mr Huhne casting doubt on the efficacy of Trident, now that terribly enthusiastic (and no less bright) Mr Clegg announcing that he won’t be carrying his ID card if they are introduced. As a bureaucrat, I find myself cheering (albeit slightly nervously) from the sidelines.

As a civil servant, I am denied certain freedoms, of association, for example. There are limits on my political activity which date back, not to the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, which was laid before Parliament on 23rd November 1853, but to an Order in Council dated 29 November 1884, under a Gladstone administration (astonishingly, he had been the Earl of Aberdeen’s Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Northcote-Trevelyan Report was actually published), which stated that “a civil servant standing for election in a constituency must resign his post when he announces himself as a candidate”.

I do tend to take these restrictions upon my freedom for granted and, to a greater extent, actually accept them. It is not unreasonable for an incoming administration to expect the loyalty of the Civil Service, and I feel that my duty is to carry out the bidding of the Government of the day, regardless of my personal stance, as they are representing the view of an elected majority (my emphasis).

However, as a civil servant, the Government controls my salary and working conditions, has disciplinary power over me through my management chain, and can prevent me from fulfilling a role within my political party of choice without meaningful right of appeal. Committing certain offences may result in my dismissal under circumstances that probably wouldn’t arise in the private sector. There are certain business sectors from which I am effectively barred, and the holding of a directorship is almost impossible to countenance (although, curiously, I am a company director through my involvement in a think-tank – and yes, I did obtain permission). So, whilst young Nick can talk about not carrying his ID card, that freedom to protest probably isn’t open to me.

It does raise an interesting question, all the same. In an increasingly politicised civil service, is it reasonable to insist that the various political restrictions placed upon my colleagues and I remain as they are? If I were, heaven forbid, to decide to run for election in a Westminster constituency, is it fair that I have to sacrifice my career prospects, regardless of the likelihood of my being elected?

Political parties have made very little effort to examine how the Civil Service should work, seeing it predominantly as an obstacle to reform or, if we’re lucky, a means towards social engineering. Perhaps it is time to look at what this country actually needs by way of administration, who should do the work, and what you need those people to be. Whilst they do that, it might be nice if they gave some thought to our rights and freedoms…


Duncan Borrowman said...

Party staff on Cowley Street contracts also have the same restrictions on standing for Parliament.

Anonymous said...

Not quite true Duncan. Some party staff have rather greater rights and freedoms than others. It's at the discretion of the Chief Executive.

A little like Animal Farm. 'Some animals are more equal than others'. And let's not pretend otherwise.