By Patrick Diamond
Professor of Public Policy, Queen Mary, University of London and Director of the Mile End Institute

The UK Civil Service Code has three components: it defines the overarching values of the British civil service; it articulates the standards of behaviour with which civil servants are expected to conform; and the Code clarifies the ‘rights and responsibilities’ of civil servants in their contractual relationship with the state. The Code reiterates that the purpose of the civil service is, ‘to support the government of the day in developing and implementing its policies, and in delivering public services. Civil servants are accountable to ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament’. The core values of the civil service are integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality: 

  • Integrity: putting the public good before private interests. 
  • Honesty: being open and transparent at all times. 
  • Objectivity: making decisions and giving advice on the basis of the best available evidence. 
  • Impartiality: dutifully serving all governments regardless of their political or ideological complexion. 

The Civil Service Code in practice 

There are distinctive versions of the Code for the Home Civil Service, the Diplomatic Service, the Scottish and Welsh Administrations, and for special advisers who are temporary civil servants appointed as political aides to Ministers. The civil service in Northern Ireland has its own code of ethics and appoints civil service commissioners. Devolution itself has raised constitutional questions about the regulation of civil service conduct. Although the UK retains a unified civil service, officials who work in the Scottish Government must remain loyal to the government of the day both in London and Holyrood, a precarious balancing act given ongoing controversies over Scottish independence, as well as tensions in the devolution settlement. 

The Civil Service Commission has a statutory duty to promote and uphold the Code. In practice, the role of the Commissioners is to oversee civil service appointments to ensure that the principle of merit-based selection is upheld, and to hear appeals from civil servants under the provisions of the Code. The Code has been reviewed and updated on several occasions since it was introduced. The Code was amended in 1998 to reflect the new arrangements for devolved government. In 2015, the Code was altered to clarify that civil servants must have contact with the media only when authorised to do so by their Minister. Nonetheless, its core values have remained largely unchanged.  

In Britain, civil service commissioners were first appointed in the wake of the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1853. Sir Charles Trevelyan was a dedicated Victorian reformer, then serving as Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. Stafford Northcote was a Conservative politician and close ally of William Gladstone. Their report made the case for a meritocratic, uncorruptible civil service loyally serving the government of the day. Although ad hoc guidance had been published in the century after Northcote-Trevelyan, it was not until 1996 that the Major Government introduced a code of ethics in the wake of the Nolan Commission on Standards in Public Life following the ‘Cash for Questions’ affair. 

The significance of the Constitutional Reform Act 2010 

Yet it was only the passing of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (2010) under Gordon Brown’s Government that gave the Civil Service Code statutory force in legislation. The 2010 Act, ‘establishes a statutory basis for management of the civil service’. The purpose of the legislation was to bolster the convention that the civil service is a non-partisan institution intended to serve all governments, while reinforcing officials’ responsibility for upholding the integrity of the civil service. The Act further clarified the role of special advisers as aides to Ministers who must not interfere in the line management of civil servants. 

Despite the 2010 Act strengthening the statutory basis of the Civil Service Code, there is still much debate about the Code’s limitations in upholding standards and safeguarding political impartiality. A spotlight was shone on the current arrangements by Sue Gray’s report into Downing Street social events held during Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. Although the media focus was inevitably on whether the Prime Minister must resign given police investigations and the serving of fixed penalty notices (alongside the accusation that he misled Parliament), the Gray report highlighted how flagrantly the Civil Service Code had been breached by senior officials and special advisers.

There was particular criticism of senior leaders for failing to create a culture in Whitehall that ensured the spirit of the Code was upheld. So far at least, the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, has survived in his post. In response to the Gray report, the Prime Minister promised to review the Civil Service Code and the Code for Special Advisers, focusing in particular on how they should be enforced – although it is the Prime Minister who is ultimately responsible for special advisers’ conduct in Number Ten. 

Political impartiality? 

In recent decades, the Civil Service Code has served its main purpose of articulating the central objectives of the permanent bureaucracy and establishing ethical norms by which civil servants must act. Nonetheless acute tensions remain, not least in relation to the principle of ‘political impartiality’.

The ambiguity going back to Northcote-Trevelyan is that senior civil servants are expected to be ‘political’ (that is, aware of the political dimensions of policy advice) while remaining overtly non-partisan and largely anonymous. Their guidance on policy must, of course, reflect the prevailing political context (for example, is there a majority in the House of Commons for a proposed item of legislation?) even if they do not support any particular political party or publicly advocate a policy stance.  

Problems arise, however, because there is greater pressure on officials to enthusiastically support the current government’s policies, blurring the boundaries of political impartiality and drawing civil servants into the public realm. The body of codified guidance encapsulated in the Civil Service Code and underpinned by legislation is necessary but no longer sufficient for a world in which traditional principles are under constant challenge.

For instance, civil servants are told they must be ‘honest’, open and transparent, but in practice they advise Ministers and may find it necessary to keep information confidential. Likewise, officials have to remain ‘objective’ and make recommendations based on empirical evidence, but whose evidence and how is that evidence selected? Ministers and senior officials need to ensure that the Civil Service Code is regularly updated to reflect the emerging dilemmas of governance.