Select Committees and Civil Servants

Civil servants appear in front of Select Committees on behalf of their Ministers and under their directions because it is the Minister, not the civil servant, who is accountable to Parliament for the evidence given to the Committee. 

Since 1980 the approach of successive governments to the relationship between civil servants and select committees has been framed by the Osmotherly Rules, named after the civil servant who wrote them.

Alice Lilly, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, says the key principle behind the rules is that “ministers are directly accountable to parliament, and governments over time have taken that to mean that civil servants, when they appear before committees, do so under the direction and instruction of their ministers. Governments have always been concerned not to undermine that principle of ministerial accountability.

A civil servant’s select committee performance has a big influence on their reputation and career prospects. Former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell says: “It is an important test as you become more senior. When politicians are trying to get a particular angle or get you to say a specific quote, it does require a degree of training and understanding of how to perform publicly, and that’s part of the skill set of the modern civil servant.”

Former head of the civil service Lord Bob Kerslake says judgments can be unforgiving: “Appearances are definitely watched and assessed by ministers and special advisers: you can do 90 minutes perfect and one small thing that is perceived to be wrong, and that’s what’s remembered.”

Dame Helen Ghosh had just such an experience as Home Office perm sec when she appeared before the Public Accounts Committee. Discussing security plans for the London Olympics due to take place the following summer, she described the original and subsequently discredited estimate for the number of security guards needed as a “finger in the air” exercise. This did nothing to improve her relationship with then home secretary Theresa May.