It is sometimes suggested that British civil servants have "jobs for life". The truth, as ever, is rather different and more complex.
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.
But 'jobs for life' disappeared many 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.
The Four Year Rule
There was a significant development in 2004 when the civil service reform document included this announcement:
The effectiveness of an organisation can suffer either if an individual stays in a post too long and cannot adapt to change, or if turnover is too fast and people leave posts before the key objectives have been delivered. A four-year posting norm has been adopted by the Civil Service Management Board and is being applied to the Senior Civil Service retrospectively (including, at their own suggestion, Permanent Secretaries). While it will be variable according to business needs, retention beyond four years will be at the discretion of the organisation rather than the individual. The onus will be on the person moving on to find an alternative role in the department or elsewhere.
The clear aim was to force the weaker performers either to resign or to find new jobs - which would be difficult if their reputation preceded them, as it usually would. This new approach was to be coupled with "better performance management" of "the 20% of people who are contributing least to their Department's objectives". The result was indeed more frequent early retirements of those whose careers had 'plateaud'.
It is reasonable to ask, of course, why poor performers could not simply be dismissed. The answer is that it can be difficult and time-consuming to performance-manage to dismissal senior staff whose objectives are often inevitably somewhat vague, and who can often say, with some force, that outside factors got in their way. This applies just as much to private sector employers, but they normally simply pay senior executives enough money to persuade them to 'resign' without making a fuss. The media would almost certainly object to the civil service 'rewarding failure' in this way - as does the Treasury. So poor performers had to be winkled out by firm use of the four year rule.
But the rule has an obvious downside which is that a Minister or other stakeholder will soon learn that the average experience of senior officials is less than two years, so they are often insufficiently familiar with their subject area to be able to give reliable advice. The four year rule has therefore subsequently been abandoned by every department apart from the Business Department. Further detail in in 'Notes' below.
The Law & Appeals
In theory, civil servants are servants of the Queen who can dismiss them whenever she likes:- "the Royal Prerogative". But no-one would dare do that in the modern world and it may now be illegal under Human Rights law.
Civil servants are not however covered by the statutory redundancy payments scheme available to other workers, but are instead covered by the much more generous Civil Service Compensation Scheme (CSCS). Indeed, the CSCS provides that those covered by the CSCS never receive less on redundancy than they would under the statutory scheme. The Government attempted, in 2009/10, to make the CSCS less generous but one out of the six main civil service unions resisted the changes. The courts then held that the legislation under which the scheme was made required that the scheme could not be altered without the agreement of all of the civil service unions.
Dismissed civil servants used to be able to appeal to the Civil Service Appeal Board, which I understand to have probably started life as an 'in house' version of the Employment Tribunals available to other employees. But it became part of the internal appeals mechanisms which employees could use before deciding when and whether to take grievances and claims to Employment Tribunals, or to the courts for breach of contract. It had by the late 2000s developed quite a poor reputation - at least amongst senior civil service managers. It certainly added yet another big hurdle in the way of any attempt to dismiss a poorly performing official. Whether for those or other reasons, the Board was abolished in 2011.
Role of Ministers
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.
A somewhat extreme case of Secretary of State bringing about the dismissal of an official is summarised here. But note that the official in question, Martin Sixsmith, had been recruited relatively recently into the very senior position of Director of Communications.
Another interesting minister-inspired dismissal was that of Derek Lewis who had been brought in from Granada TV (!) to run the Prison Service, then an Executive Agency, by Home Secretary Ken Clarke. He was sacked in 1995 after some high profile high security escapes, including IRA terrorists, for which he was blamed by Ken Clarke's successor, Michael Howard. Mr Lewis threated to take the Home Office to court for unfair dismissal and received a generous settlement.
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: 'The aim of the programme, which has been developed in consultation with staff, is to ensure that Defra's senior management has the right skills, competences, behaviours and attitudes to meet ever-changing circumstances and demands. The emphasis is on developing leadership skills for improved service delivery. It is one of the conclusions of the Joint Strategic Review, a review of Defra conducted by Defra and the Prime Minister's Office of Public Services Reform (OPSR). Defra is in the lead among Government departments in introducing such measures. The article's statements about demotions and a three-year 15-20% redundancy target are exaggerated.'
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 he thought the programme was a helpful exercise. He said there had been consultation with the FDA, and made the point that any suggestion that the programme was politically driven was wrong. "Defra management proposed this exercise and it is being seen as something of a pilot, so we're watching it very closely," he said.
The Times' reported next day that, as might be expected, some of those "culled" would be asked to take early retirement (with suitable compensation) whilst others would be transferred to other jobs/departments - although it seems odd that other employers should be asked to take those deemed not to have appropriate skills etc.
"I was only obeying orders"
I have been asked what would happen if a civil servant were (say) to place a contract when they should not have done - perhaps under pressure from a (corrupt?) Minister? Much would depend on the reason.
a) If the civil servant had been given reason to believe that the contract should be placed - i.e. that all the proper procedures had been followed (including any necessary Ministerial authorisation) and the money was available - then they could not be blamed and the fault would lie elsewhere.
b) If they placed the contract in good faith, but had not followed proper procedures, then that would be regarded as a serious error which would lead to disciplinary action and maybe even dismissal.
c) If they placed the contract in bad faith (e.g. because they had been bribed) then that would be a very serious offence including under criminal law and they would not only face dismissal but also prosecution.
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.
See also my "No! Minister" web page ...
"I didn't know what my officials were doing"
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 '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 employee rights and protections that are available to their private sector counterparts.
1. The 'four year rule' was first conceived in 2003:
- Sir Andrew Turnbull, Letters to Colleagues: 25 April 2003: “I have asked the group to … challenge our assumptions about a lifelong career in the Service … examine our expectations about career paths in the SCS, including length of tenure in post”. 4 July 2003: “The sub-group have been examining how we can achieve … More active career management – supported by postings that are time-limited …”. 22 Sept 2003 “… [The Civil service Management Board] agreed that we should … introduce time-limited postings …”
- January 2005 Cabinet Office evidence to Public Administration Select Committee, para 20 – 'more active career management, including the introduction of time-limited postings for the SCS. The new four year norm for postings will ensure that people are staying long enough in post to see through the delivery of longer-term objectives; but that talent is refreshed.'
- Public Administration Select Committee - Skills for Govt - 9th Report 2006-7:- Evidence page 68 : 'The four-year norm for SCS postings was introduced to encourage a more forward-looking and proactive approach to career management of the SCS. It was designed both to avoid too frequent moves by encouraging longer, more effective periods in post linked to delivery of programmes, but also to change the possible perception of the SC as a comfortable environment with a guarantee of a job for life, to one that offered a full career for those who continue to earn it through performance and updating their skills.'
I am not aware that the rule has ever been rescinded although it is not now followed by any department, save possibly the Business Department.
2. UKIP politician Paula Walters was held to have been fairly dismissed in 2019 after tweeting, for instance, that she could not "tell the difference between a migrant and a terrorist". The Employment Tribunal found that she was “unable to define political correctness in a way that was cohesive in the sense of her beliefs being intelligible and capable of being understood ... The claimant’s belief that she should be able to say anything about anyone is not worthy of respect in a democratic society. Her belief put her in inevitable conflict with the fundamental rights of others, rights protected under the Equality Act 2010,”