It is often suggested that British civil servants have "jobs for life". The truth, as ever, is rather different and more complex. This note represents the view of an informed amateur. As ever, I would be glad to be corrected (by email to email@example.com) if I am wrong.
UK civil servants in practice have the same - but no more - employment protection than other employees. (See the notes below for one exception to this.) This means that a civil servant who mis-behaves is entitled to a fair hearing and to be punished - if that is the right word - in proportion to the misbehaviour. A really serious offence would certainly entitle his/her employing department to suspend him/her immediately on full pay and then dismiss him/her without compensation. But summary dismissal (or suspension without pay) before a proper hearing would not now be considered fair in the UK.
There was a significant development in late 2003/early 2004 when it became clear that senior civil servants would in future have time-limited postings with a norm of 4 years. This was to be coupled with "better performance management" of "the 20% of people who are contributing least to their Department's objectives". The result appears to have been rather more frequent early retirements of those whose careers have 'plateaud'.
But "jobs for life" probably disappeared years ago. There have been dramatic reductions in total civil service numbers. Only c.16% of all civil servants retire at or above their normal retirement age. Over 60% resign to follow other careers etc. And even in the higher paid and older Senior Civil Service, only between 22 and 31% of those leaving from 2006-7 to 2009-10 did so via retirement. The balance of between 69 and 78% resigned, left at the end of their contract, took early retirement etc.:- i.e. were forced, encouraged or lured to leave in various ways. And that figure rose to 83% in 2010-11.
Ministers may not dismiss civil servants. Civil servants are employed by their departments and are disciplined and dismissed by other civil servants - and if necessary by the permanent civil servant head of the department, the "Permanent Secretary".
It is however relatively common for a Minister to indicate that they find it difficult to work with a particular official with whom they come into frequent contact, including in particular their Permanent Secretary, Private Secretary, press officer and driver. Put simply, working styles or personal chemistries may simply grate and it is better that the official is moved so that issues can continue to be dealt with effectively without personalities getting in the way. This should not reflect badly on either the Minister or the official - unless it happens often to either.
There was, for instance, a wholesale clear-out of Directors of Communication in the first couple of years of the post-1997 New Labour administration. And the incoming LibDem/Conservative government did not waste much time in dismissing the Ministry of Defence's top civil servant, Sir Bill Jeffrey, in 2010, along with Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup.
Some eyebrows were raised when the Financial Times reported on 13 January 2003 that Margaret Beckett, the Minister in charge of the Department of Environment, had "ordered a ruthless clear out of senior officials in her department who lack the right skills or attitude. A leadership review of more than 500 managers ... will force out an estimated 15 to 20 percent over the next three years". But a Departmental press notice issued the same day made it clear that the Minister had merely "sanctioned the clearout", thus preserving the important rule that the Permanent Secretary decides these things, although he will certainly and rightly have consulted his Minister both whilst developing his plans and before deciding whether to proceed. The press notice made it clear that:-
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's World at One on the same day, Jonathan Baume, General Secretary of the First Division Association (the union for senior civil servants) said that ...
I have been asked what would happen if a civil servant were to (say) place a contract when they should not have done - perhaps under pressure from a (corrupt?) Minister? Much would depend on the reason.
Our procedures do not allow Ministers to tell civil servants to place contracts in the absence of proper procedures such as advertising, tendering, etc. So a civil servant who complied with such a Ministerial order would fall under category (b) above and would be disciplined. The correct thing to do, if a Minster asks a civil servant to ignore proper procedures, is to ask the Minister to sign a "direction" which is then published. Ministers will not of course sign such directions unless they have a very good reason to do so which they are willing to defend in public.
Ministers would nowadays not be expected to take responsibility for errors made by civil servants, unless they were involved in some way and might have been expected to spot that something was going wrong:- as stated by Maxwell Fyfe in connection with the Crichel Down case 1954.
All in all, therefore, our system has lots of what we call "checks and balances" which ensure that things seldom go badly wrong. But civil servants can be - and are - dismissed, and they if necessary have access to all the European style employee rights and protections that are available to their private sector counterparts.
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