Articles about the UK Civil Service and Regulation

Civil Service Ethics – in 700 words

Now seems as good a time as any to publish this beautiful summary of the ethics of the UK civil service, taken from a 1949 Handbook for the New Civil Servant.

“The first thing that strikes many people, when they come into a Government office for the first time, is the importance that the Civil Service attaches to papers – files, memoranda, written records of all kinds. A good deal of the work of the Civil Service, of course, is done by telephone or by personal conversation, but you will find that anything important or new has to be recorded on paper somewhere, sooner or later; and in all probability a large part of your work will consist of dealing with papers – reading them and writing them.

You may think this is a slow and cumbrous way of doing things; but there are two reasons for it. The first is the Parliamentary system of government. Parliament has the right to inquire into any action taken by a Government Department, and a Parliamentary Question may be asked at short notice, perhaps a long time after the event, perhaps in absence of the civil servant who actually took that particular action. So that Parliament may get the information, it is essential that there should be a written record of the action and, as far as possible, of the reasons for it. Secondly, the written record is necessary to preserve the impartiality of the Civil Service to the public. The Civil Service cannot, as a private business sometimes may, give one customer a bargain and make up for it by charging another customer extra; it has to deal with all on the same terms. Therefore, there must be a written record of what has been done in the past, so that it may be done again in the future when the same problem arises. That does not mean that the Civil Service is bound by precedent. Very often there will be no precedent, in other cases it is clearly right to modify earlier policy. But this should be done not by intuition but deliberately after considering what previous practice has been.

Another thing that may strike you is that very few problems seem to be settled by one person alone: the papers may sometimes pass through several hands before a letter is answered or a decision given. This is partly due to the need for looking at the records – a job which is done by the juniors – partly because very often a subject will concern more than one branch of a Department. The process need not cause delay and is essential if there is to be a consistent policy.

From the very first you must learn to be precise and honest in your work. You must fully appreciate the problem to be solved; you must then collect and check all the relevant facts, and set them out clearly and fairly. Don’t take anything for granted: there is always more than one point of view, and it may be dangerous to accept somebody else’s statement without verifying it for yourself. Don’t be lazy and try to pass off a guess as an accurate figure or statement; it may not be questioned, but if it is you must be prepared to justify it. If you see a snag, or a difficulty, or a point which you don’t understand, don’t ignore it in the hope that nobody else will spot it; it is your job to straighten it out, or if you can’t, at least to point it out to your chief and let him deal with it. Whatever shortcomings civil servants may have, they must never be found wanting int his kind of honesty.

Moreover, you must be accurate. You must learn the importance of using words in their exact meanings, so that they convey, to somebody you have never seen, exactly what you intend to convey, and not just something roughly approximating to it. If there is any ambiguity in your phrasing somebody is sure to misunderstand; so say what you mean, simply and clearly. Keep your sentences short and avoid officialese. Read “Plain Words,” the book by Sir Ernest Gowers, published by the Stationery Office at 2s.”

[Rebecca Gowers, Sir Ernest’s great-granddaughter, has created a new edition of ‘Plain Words’, updating it to reflect modern English usage.]


Martin Stanley

Editor:  Understanding the Civil Service


Hornchurch & The Bouncing Bomb

Can anyone help solve this mystery?


This – surely unique – bomb-proof building was constructed at great expense a couple of years before the Second World War. It sits in the grounds of a house in Emerson Park, Hornchurch, then owned by a senior naval architect called Lazarus Serafim Polychroniadis. He had left Athens to make a career in England at the end of the 19th century and was particularly knowledgeable about the effect of water pressure. His daughter Dorothea worked for Winston Churchill during the war and it is believed that Churchill visited the Polychroniadis family during the war.

The 5 metre square building has extremely thick concrete walls and was provided with its own heating, ventilation, and flushing lavatories. . The only external ‘window’ was a pressure-defying re-purposed submarine hatch. And the only external door was made of strongly reinforced steel, whilst its hinges, too, were made of very thick steel. A 10 ton crane stood outside, powered by non-domestic three phase electricity, which is used in industry etc. to power large electric motors of the sort that are to be found in big cranes.

Here are photos of the submarine hatch (from outside), steel door (from inside) and a hinge (from outside the building).

7 8  9

It seems clear that the building was used for some very special war-related development work, possibly connected with bombs which were designed to bounce off the surface of water and then detonate at specific depths and water pressures.  London Gardens Online says that “Wartime experiments were carried out [in Capel Nelmes, Hornchurch] including development of the bouncing bomb across flooded land.”

The building is not far north of RAF Hornchurch, which may well have supplied the necessary labour and expertise.  And the soggy Rainham and Hornchurch Marshes lie near the Thames just south of the airfield.

There is however no known link with Barnes Wallis and the team who later developed the ‘Dambuster’ bombs.

Can anyone help with further information, or suggestions about avenues of investigation that might be followed?  (We are already in touch with the War Museum and Kew)  If so, please email Martin Stanley .

Regulating in a Digital World

The hatred and bile hosted by Facebook and Twitter, the death of Molly Russell, Trump’s (and pre-referendum) fake news , etc. etc. have caused all right thinking liberals to crave new regulation and a new regulator.  But might they come to regret their enthusiasm?  Today’s (9 March) House of Lords report adds to the pressure for regulation, and contains much useful material, but its recommendations deserve critical scrutiny.  Here are some thoughts, in the order in which text appears in the report

The cornerstone of the report is its assertion that “… a large volume of activity occurs online which would not be tolerated offline”. (Summary)  Well … maybe it wouldn’t be tolerated in The Times or on Sky News,  but it is certainly tolerated – or at least unregulated – in private groups, in playgrounds, and in some recent newspaper headlines aimed at Brexiteer ‘traitors’ and Judicial ‘enemies of the people’.  So the recommendation in the Summary that ‘the same level of protection must be provided online as offline’ looks to me to be a serious over-simplification.

Another recommendation is that ‘[internet] services must act in the interests of users and society’.  I would hate to be a regulator tasked with enforcing that principle.

Still in the Summary, whilst I can see the case of an oversight regulator (‘the Digital Authority’) I doubt that it should have the power to ‘instruct’ other regulators what to do.  This would be a recipe for regulatory confusion.

The next para refers to network effects as though they result in an inevitable (and implicitly near permanent) ‘winner takes all’.  But this suggestion has been debunked by MIT’s Catherine Tucker who points to the once apparently inevitable domination of Microsoft and MySpace, the ease of switching between Lyft and Uber, and relative failure of Google Plus.  ( I strongly recommend her very readable articles here and here.)

There is an important discussion (paras 27-32) about the advantages of principles-based regulation over rules-based systems.  It’s all very seductive, but it ends by noting that “No form of regulation will be effective unless it is enforced.  Enforcement mechanisms must have sufficient resources and be rigorously applied.”  And that is indeed the problem. It can make sense to allow industry to find its own best way to meet a regulatory objective, having provided it with advice and guidance – but not if some in the industry are ill-disposed to regulation, and/or if non-compliance can be dangerous.  Remember Grenfell Tower.  Again, I would not like to be responsible for defending the enforcement record of an “unaccountable,  non-elected” regulator charged with enforcing their Lordship’s principles.

Much of the rest of the report contains useful material and sensible recommendations about data protection, competition law etc.  But Chapter 5 dives back into controversy as it tackles the hot topic of ways to curb bullying, online abuse, extremist content and political misinformation.  The discussion is of high quality, as one would expect from their Lordships, and they in particular say very sensible things about improving content moderation by Facebook and the rest.  They also broadly support the Carnegie Trust/Woods/Perrin ‘duty of care’ proposals under which action against online service providers “should only be in respect of systemic failures” rather than individual instances of speech.  The report also endorses the ‘Digital Authority’ recommended by Doteveryone. (Click here for more detail.)

But the report then seems to go further and faster than Perrin and Woods and leaps to the unqualified conclusion that ‘the precautionary principle’ requires ‘the remit of Ofcom [to] be expanded to include responsibility for enforcing the duty of care’.   (The principle supposedly applies because ‘the scale and risk of these issues is unproven’.)  However, the report does no more than nod at the concerns about the encroachment of free speech and general regulatory morass in which Ofcom could so easily find itself. Graham Smith has written very elegantly about this – see here and here, for instance

More particularly,  is Ofcom seriously intended to hold Twitter, Facebook, Mail Online etc. to be held to the same standards as printed media? Would Ofcom have to consider requests to ban Labour’s alleged ant-semitism as well Tommy Robinson’s alleged racism? Would a duty of care mean a refusal to republish President Trump’s many lies, or the views of anti-vaxxers?

I do like the Perrin/Woods approach, and I am convinced that we face problems that are so severe that something needs to be done to address them.  But i don’t think we can sensibly expect Ofcom to undertake this new responsibility without a lot more thought and guidance than this report appears to offer.


Martin Stanley

Editor, Understanding Regulation website



1949 Handbook for the New Civil Servant

I am hugely grateful to the IfG’s Tim Durrant for letting me publish a copy of his civil servant father’s 1949 induction handbook. Astonishingly (or maybe not), a very high proportion of it could just as well have been written in 2018.  Here are some excerpts to whet your appetite.

This first excerpt  is equally valid today, I think, except for the unfortunate reminder that the post-war civil service was very male dominated:-


This is definitely good advice:-


Most of these attributes are equally important today, although I fear they seldom feature in annual reports:-


And here is a reminder that women’s equality was some way in the future:-


Follow this link to read the whole handbook – It’s only 21 pages.

The Understanding the Civil Service online library contains a large number of other interesting documents.

It also contains a fascinating history of women in the civil service, together with some inspiring stories of ground breaking female civil servants.


Martin Stanley

Editor:  Understand the Civil Service  and  Understanding Regulation .

The DPP Should Be Allowed To Talk About Resources

These are some thoughts in response to some interesting questions that arose following soon-to-retire Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders’ interview in the Observer in which she said that her organisation and the police were critically short of the skills and resources required to combat crime … to which The Secret Barrister responded

“Gosh. If only this Alison Saunders, talking honestly about the chronic under-resourcing of the Crown Prosecution Service, had been DPP. Instead for 5 years we’ve had that obliging civil servant blithely insisting that all was well as the CPS burned.”

I chipped in with the standard line that civil servants may not publicly attack Ministers’ resourcing decisions – or any other Ministerial decisions for that matter.  This generated some challenging further comments and questions.

  • The Secret Barrister pointed out that “Alison Saunders went out of her way to pretend that there were no problems. That was the issue that really grated.”
  • Michael Heery pointed out that officials in the health sector have gone much farther than DPP in talking about the effect of cuts.
  • Jonathan Potts asked “Is the answer for the DPP to be not a civil servant?
  • AJP Wood asked “Surely Civil Servants already aren’t allowed to be anything other than honest per the Civil Service Code?:- [Civil Servants] must not deceive or knowingly mislead ministers, Parliament or others.”
  • And ex-Home Office Lorraine Rogerson noted that previous DPPs were not from a Civil Service background. Prosecution decisions constitutionally independent. The AG also independent. Cutting funds undermines independence. But it is a public service & has also to be accountable. AG’s role, influence and relationship with DPP (and championship of prosecution services) crucial. DPP has to maintain a network of support as well as being independent.

So here are some further thoughts from me.

First, it is very hard to understand, let alone defend, the artificial borders between various parts of the public sector such as

  • the principal government departments,
  • non-ministerial government departments (NMGDs) such as HMRC, the CPS, the CMA, Ofsted and Ofgem), and
  • various non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) such as NHS England, the Environment Agency and the Financial Conduct Authority.
  • And then there are local authorities, various types of school, the police, the BBC, and so on.

There is even, as Lorraine Rogerson points out, a distinction between those NMGDs that have operational independence but a close relationship with a Minister (such as HMRC and the CPS) and those that are even more independent (such as the economic regulators).

Second, I do not find it difficult to defend the obligation of near public silence that is imposed on those – such as Permanent Secretaries – that give policy advice to Ministers.  It is better, as AJP Wood suggests, that they should say nothing rather than make misleading statements about the abilities of their organisations.

But, third, I think that we should now be quite grown up and allow the (civil servant) Heads of NMGDs (such as DPP Alison Saunders) to have the same freedoms as the (non-civil servant) Heads of NDPBs (such as the NHS’ Simon Stevens).  Of course they shouldn’t mount all out attacks on those that appoint and fund them, but Parliament and the public are surely entitled to hear their honest opinions about the strengths, weaknesses and resources of their organisations.  Simon Stevens seems to have walked this particular tightrope with some skill, and has gained resources for the NHS.

The case for such openness is strengthened by the fact that an independent prosecution service is a cornerstone of the justice system and indeed the constitution. However, as many – not least The Secret Barrister – have pointed out, the Criminal Justice system has been shamefully denied resources. Expecting the DPP to remain mute like a senior Mandarin is therefore quite wrong; the whole point of the role is independent decision making.

And there is a wider governmental question here.  Oppositional voices, challenge, and creative tension should all be welcomed and indeed promoted if good services with integrity are to be delivered and improved.

I would therefore like to see Alison Saunders’ successor – whilst technically remaining a civil servant – insisting on the same freedom of expression as his colleagues in the health service and other important pubic roles.  This would also free him from worrying about breaching the Civil Service Code, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Many thanks to Lorraine Rogerson for helping me write this blog

Martin Stanley

Editor:  The UK Civil Service and Understanding Regulation

Bullying and Performance Management

Dame Laura Cox QC today published her report into bullying and harassment in the Palace of Westminster.  It contains some very helpful general advice and definitions, especially for managers (a) who receive complaints of bullying, or (b) who are concerned that they may be accused of bullying when trying to improve the performance of their staff.

Apart from two comments, the following text is taken almost verbatim from Dame Laura’s report.

What is Bullying?

The report contains two useful definitions of bullying:

  • Behaviour that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.
  • Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

The report notes that bullying or harassment:

  • may be by an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people.
  • may be obvious or it may be insidious.
  • may be persistent or an isolated incident.
  • can also occur in written communications, by phone or through email, not just face to face.

Whatever form it takes, bullying is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.

Performance Management

Staff who are facing criticism of their performance may feel that they are being bullied by their manager.  The report offers this sensible advice:

  • When introducing new standards of performance, a good manager will usually involve all the members of the team in agreeing them, rather than seek to impose them without discussion and with accompanying threats of disciplinary action if they are not met.
  • Positive contributions and improvements in performance will be monitored, acknowledged and rewarded openly, rather than dealt with arbitrarily, involving obvious acts of favouritism, or just ignored altogether.
  • A failure by someone to achieve the required standards will be dealt with initially as a performance-improvement issue, the employee being treated with civility throughout and with the provision of appropriate support, rather than pressure to conform being exerted using sarcasm, ridicule, threats or humiliation, often in the presence of others in the team.
  • An under-performing employee should know from the start that their performance is under investigation, and why, rather than learning only after the event that it has been under investigation for some time, and that disciplinary action is now imminent.

Comment: This advice is sensible but I would add that I think it unfortunate that HR professionals generally refer to formal performance management warnings etc. as ‘disciplinary action’.  The word ‘discipline’ implies serious fault – such as bullying – and should, I think, be reserved for genuinely bad behaviour.  Under-performing staff need to have their performance managed – if necessary to the point of dismissal – but they will often be in the wrong job for their skills and experience. I don’t think that they should be ‘disciplined’.

The Need for Full Records

The report notes that:

  • Patterns of behaviour are extremely important in tackling bullying. It is always right to consider whether the “perpetrator” was under acute pressure and just having a bad day, for example, and whether this was just an isolated outburst with no lasting effects and the behaviour was out of character, or whether such incidents had happened before.
  • It is therefore important for organisations to maintain reliable records and to log reported incidents and their outcomes accurately, and to have systems in place to enable patterns to be picked up and their historical and systemic significance understood.

Comment:  The implication of the above advice is that an isolated outburst is bullying and should be recognised as such.  But, if reported to the employer, it should not lead to formal disciplinary action against the bully, if he or she appreciates that their behaviour was unacceptable, and if the behaviour is not repeated.

Martin Stanley

Editor      The UK Civil Service and Understanding Regulation websites

West Wylam Colliery Medal

I would be delighted to hear from anyone who can help explain the background to this 1894 medal.

It was awarded by the men (not the owners) of West Wylam Colliery, (near Newcastle upon Tyne) to a fellow miner, Thomas Gribben, who saved another man’s life.

If you can help, please email me at .

Martin Stanley

thomas gribben full

Would Civil Servants Refuse To Tax Non-EU Imports following a Hard Brexit?

There has been an interesting exchange between Dr Richard North and George Peretz QC concerning the implications of Brexit without a prior withdrawal agreement.  It is clear that it is now far too late for us to be able to apply border controls and charge tariffs on post-Brexit imports from the EU, even if we wanted to.  But would we then also have to allow all other imports to arrive duty-free?

In short:

  • Both Dr North and Mr Peretz agree that WTO treaties require the UK to remove tariffs from all its imports if we continue to import goods from the EU without tariffs and customs checks. This would no doubt be disastrous for many UK industries – and maybe for the Exchequer.
  • But Dr North says that the UK could ignore the WTO until the successful conclusion – many years later – of other countries’ challenges to our decisions.
  • Mr Peretz says that the UK could not and should not act in such flagrant breach of its international commitments.

I would add that UK civil servants may not accept instructions to do things which are very  likely to be illegal or improper, and this includes actions which would contravene our treaty obligations. So I do not think that HMRC and other officials could be asked to impose tariffs on, say, Chinese imports whilst simultaneously allowing EU imports to arrive duty free.

In more detail:

Here is Dr North’s argument:

“[Mr Peretz notes that WTO rules] “make it hard for the EU to give the UK benefits that it doesn’t give other third countries”. … if the UK’s policy response to the problems of ‘no deal’ is to waive tariffs and checks on imports from the EU, it will also have to waive them for imports from (for example) China and the US in order to avoid well-founded claims of discrimination”.  Noting that this is “unlikely to be politically attractive” (as well as potentially hazardous), what he doesn’t take on board is the very nature of the WTO as a body dedicated to facilitating international trade. As such, the WTO relies on negotiation as its main tool and regards the treaty law as a adjunct, to be used when all else fails and then only to achieve an effect. It is not a legal authority which regards the rule of law as a sacred principle or any part of its duty implementing the letter of the law.

Reflecting this, many of the WTO treaty provisions (and their predecessors in GATT) are not actionable merely on evidence of a breach. The WTO Agreement sets the additional test of requiring the aggrieved party (or parties) to have suffered injury – known in technical terms as “nullification or impairment”.  Given this requirement, one can imagine a post-Brexit UK which, in order to keep goods flowing and to prevent the ports being clogged, decides to maintain its existing checks on what were EU third countries but decides to waive checks on EU produce which, until very recently it did not check at all.

In those circumstances, where the UK is maintaining the status quo, one has to ask whether any of the erstwhile third countries are materially disadvantaged. And, if they feel they are, their option is to go through the dispute procedures, potentially taking several years before an actional judgement is made, which in any event only allows the aggrieved parties to impose sanctions which have an effect on the target county similar to the damage originally sustained.

One can easily imagine the situation where the UK will take the political judgement that it should waive WTO rules. And even if it is later found to be in breach, such modest sanctions as may then apply – some time in the distant future – are nothing compared to the damage that might otherwise have been caused.

Similarly, if the UK decides to invoke the national security exemption, its lawyers will doubtless be able to keep any complainants tied up in the minutia of international law and WTO precedents so that, by the time anything is resolve – if, indeed, it is – the crisis will have been long past.

Crucially, this means that many of the headline effects of Brexit will not materialise – or are capable of mitigation to such an extent that they will scarcely register as much more than minor perturbations. The really damaging effects will be longer-term and far less visible, the cumulative effect discernible only from periodic trade statistics.

Here is Mr Peretz’s argument:

[Dr North] is of course right to point out that WTO enforcement requires a complaint showing harm, takes years, and results only in permission to take action if the defendant government fails to respond. … But … he ignores three important political points …

First, the UK Government has always had a firm policy of complying with its international obligations, whether enforceable or not. That is a real constraint on policy.

Second, there will be real political consequences for the UK if it proceeds in a way that is in breach of its WTO obligations. Such conduct is not consistent with the Government’s stated aim of being a leading free-trade voice in the WTO. And nor is ignoring your international obligations a good look when negotiating free-trade agreements with numerous third countries in a hurry (as the UK will have to do in the weeks after a no deal, given that it will have fallen out of all the EU’s existing FTAs).

Third, his suggestion that the UK might seek to take advantage of the “national security” provisions of GATT – when the UK has, rightly, been one of the leading critics of President Trump’s abuse of that provision – is pretty odd in political, as well as legal, terms.

I would add only that a fundamental element of the UK constitution is that government departments are headed by ‘Accounting Officers’ who are directly responsible to Parliament (not to Ministers) for ensuring “regularity, propriety, and value for money” – and the first of their basic “dos and don’ts” is “don’t break the rules”. I would accordingly be very surprised if any Accounting Officer has told Ministers that tariffs could be imposed on non-EU imports in the circumstances described earlier in this blog.

Some further reading may be found on my “No! Minister” web page and, more generally, in the “Speaking Truth to Power” area of the UK Civil Servant website.

Martin Stanley

Free Trade is Not Always the Right Answer

Parts of the current Brexit debate remind me of a similar Michael Heseltine inspired debate back in 1994, when I and others were advising him on industrial policy. One of my contributions to the debate can be found by clicking here.

In short, I was concerned that the most ardent free traders did not recognise that it had often made sense for the UK and other countries to protect ands subsidise our industries:

  • in the face of imperfect markets, foreign protection, and overseas product standardisation, and
  • so as to help industry get to market first, and to overcome barriers such as high research costs.

I concluded that “Our consideration of trade issues needs to be more thoughtful.  We need to analyse our success and our failures, and the success and failures of our competitors … Above all we need to think in dynamic and strategic terms, deploying negotiating and tactical skills, rather than starting from static and unreal assumptions and assertions.”

For the avoidance of doubt, the paper was for internal use only, and contains the unspoken assumptions that the Single Market – driven forward so strongly by Mrs Thatcher – was an unalloyed blessing as it removed so many non-tariff barriers which had previously locked us out of many European markets. It also assumes that the EU’s State Aids regime was generally very sensible. If it has any modern relevance, it may help explain why post-Brexit trace negotiations will be complex and difficult, and will need to involve industrialists and officials who have deep knowledge of their sectors both at home and abroad.

(A previous blog explains how non-tariff barriers such as product standards can be such effective weapons in the hands of governments that want to exclude competitors from their markets.)

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understand Regulation website




Can Civil Servants Really Speak Truth to Power?

Civil servants are proud of their duty to ‘speak truth to power’ – that is to provide honest, impartial and sensible advice to Ministers. But it can be difficult to do this without damaging the official’s  relationship with Ministers.

There is little or no internal training or advice on how to offer persuasive advice, not least because no official training material can admit that some Minsters can be very difficult clients. I have therefore added a new section to my Civil Service website.

The first set of pages explain why it can be difficult it can be to speak truth to power, and in particular why it might have become more difficult in recent years:

There are then some hints and tips about:

Last, but not least, I examine the extent to which civil servants are free – or even under a duty – to say “No! Minister”.

Those particularly interested in these last three pages might also like to read and respond to the IfG’s current discussion paper on Accountability in Government.

As ever, comments and corrections would be very welcome – to please.

Martin Stanley

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