Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Public Accounts Committee, meeting on Thursday, 4 March 2021

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr William Humphrey (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Cathal Boylan
Miss Órlaithí Flynn
Mr Harry Harvey
Mr David Hilditch
Mr Maolíosa McHugh
Mr Andrew Muir
Mr Matthew O'Toole


Mr Ian Watmore, Civil Service Commission
Mr Stuart Stevenson, Department of Finance
Mr Kieran Donnelly, Northern Ireland Audit Office

Inquiry into Capacity and Capability in the Northern Ireland Civil Service: Mr Ian Watmore, First Civil Service Commissioner (GB)

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Good afternoon, Mr Watmore. We can hear you loud and clear. You are very welcome to the Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee (PAC). In a moment, I will ask you to make a short presentation, and then, if you would be so kind, you can answer questions. Mr Watmore, so that you know, in attendance from the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) are Mr Kieran Donnelly, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG); Mr Rodney Allen, a director of that office; and Mr Stuart Stevenson, the Treasury Officer of Accounts (TOA), who joins the meeting remotely. The floor is yours, Mr Watmore.

Mr Ian Watmore (Civil Service Commission): Very good. Thank you very much, everybody. I hope that you are well this afternoon.

I will not keep you long with opening remarks. The job of First Civil Service Commissioner was established back in 1855. In that period, the Civil Service of the day was judged to be a mixture of incompetence and nepotism. The so-called Northcote-Trevelyan principles were established for open, fair, meritocratic recruitment and professionalisation of the Civil Service etc. In order to make that happen, the Civil Service Commission was established. I have 24 predecessors, the first of whom, I think, started in 1855. I think that I am the twenty-fifth person to hold the job. I have held it for nearly five years. These days, we have a five-year fixed term. My term is up in September, so I am four and a half years through my five years.

For over a century — for 150 years, really — the principles of the Civil Service Commission were done by custom and practice.

They were finally put in statute in 2010 under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 — "CRAG" as it is known — which was almost the last cross-party Act of the Gordon Brown Government before the 2010 election. That is the basis on which we operate today. The commission, as established by that Act of Parliament, has a variety of roles, responsibilities, methods of recruitment and all the rest of it. Principally, however, when it comes down to it, it exists to oversee two things: first, recruitment in the Civil Service; and secondly, the code of behaviour that civil servants operate to once they are inside the system. Far and away, the volume of work is associated with recruitment, but it is equally important that we address the code.

When it comes to recruitment, the Civil Service that we cover, and I heard the question towards the end of the previous session that you asked of Deirdre, is the whole of the Civil Service in England, Scotland and Wales. That is all the big Whitehall Departments, such as the Home Office and the Treasury, plus the Scottish and Welsh Government's Civil Service teams. That is what we cover. The figure varies, but it is around 420,000 people. In a given year, average recruitment into the Civil Service is about 10%, so around 40,000. In a peak year, it has been nearer 60,000, but let us assume that it is 40,000 for the purposes of this conversation. That is what we are governing. We need to assure ourselves that those 40,000 people are recruited into the Civil Service openly, fairly and on merit. We do that by laying down recruitment principles, which are published documents that you can read at your leisure. Those recruitment principles are then devolved for the vast majority of that 40,000 recruitment to Departments. Departments then do their own recruitment against the principles. We audit them on an annual basis and mark them in our annual report as to whether they have been compliant, noting breaches and that sort of thing.

When we talk about the very senior end of the spectrum, we are talking about people at the Civil Service grade of permanent secretary at the top; of director general, which is the old deputy secretary job next down; and of director, which is the third tier of the Civil Service. We are talking about all permanent secretaries, all director generals, and the director cadre recruited from the outside, as opposed to those already in the system. It probably ranges from about 150 to 200 appointments a year in that group. The Civil Service Commission directly chairs the panels for those 200 people. I will call it 200 in round figures. I personally chair nearly all the panels relating to permanent secretary grade and another 100, which is 10 to 15 a year. The rest are spread amongst my team of commissioners. All panels operate to the same recruitment principles. When it gets to the most senior end of the spectrum, however, we directly chair the panels. Below that level, or in the case of directors within the system, Departments do the recruitment and make the appointments themselves. We audit them on a select sample basis.

The Civil Service code has some elements that have to be there under the terms of the Act, such as impartiality and objectivity. The code is written by the Cabinet Office, but it has to have those elements in it. We operate as, if you like, a court of last resort on people's adherence to the code. If somebody in the Civil Service is deemed to have broken the code and is challenged on it, there is an initial investigation in the Department. Whatever the Department finds can be challenged to us as, if you like, a court of appeal. Very occasionally, we uncover something quite nasty. We have one or two examples of that, but, the vast majority of the time, we find that the code has either not been broken or, if it has been broken, it was done inadvertently and not maliciously. Generally, we feel good at the end of the year that recruitment is adhering to our recruitment principles and that the code is being upheld. That is incredibly important for the integrity and impartiality of the Civil Service going forward and for its professionalisation and ability to serve the public.

When I came into post four and a half years ago — these will be my last opening remarks — I took all of that as read and took the advice of my predecessor. I had already been in the system and in the private sector, so I had experience of both sides of the coin. With my fellow commissioners, I judged that we should have some specific priorities for our five years in office, and we chose the following four, three of which I think are timeless.

The first priority was that, whatever the big projects of the day are in the Civil Service, you sometimes have to take a slightly different approach. At the time when we came in, the whole Brexit thing was under negotiation. We had just had the referendum, so there were a lot of moving parts around the system to deal with then. More recently, there has been COVID. There is nearly always a big issue of the day around which you have to be flexible. The first area that I think is timeless is diversity. By diversity, I mean all aspects of diversity, such as gender, ethnicity, social mobility etc.

The second area is what we call 21st-century skills, which are the sorts of things that the Civil Service usually buys in — I heard a little bit about that at the end of the previous session — from the marketplace at quite a high rate, when it could instead recruit and develop it for itself. By that, I mean IT, digital and commercial skills: that sort of thing. It is about how we can enable more good people to come into the system with those skills.

The third area, which is one that I am particularly proud of, is what we call our "Life Chances" programme. It was designed primarily to make the Civil Service truly representative of the society that it serves but also to give a chance to people from a difficult background, usually supported by government policy. We picked three cohorts to start with. The first was people who were in prison. As we all know, offending rates are massively impacted on by the chances of getting a job, and getting a job is hard when you are an ex-offender. We started to recruit people directly from prison into the Civil Service. The second group is military veterans. By that, I do not mean four-star military generals, but people coming back from Iraq and places like that. As we all know, those people often struggle to assimilate back into society and end up homeless and having difficult life experiences. The third group is care leavers: people who were brought up largely in care and from difficult backgrounds who are struggling to get work. We provided avenues of employment for those three groups.

Over that period, we have been very successful on all those fronts. We have enabled the resource movements for Brexit and COVID without threatening our core principles, and we have significantly improved certain aspects of diversity, particularly gender. We recently peaked at 18 female permanent secretaries out of 40, so it is very close to 50:50, with 18 being at least four or five more than the previous record. We still struggle with ethnicity at the top level, but we are making progress further down the grades, so there is hope for the future. We have done well on diversity, although there is always a lot more to do.

On skills, we have been successful in recruiting a lot of good commercial people. The Crown Commercial Service (CCS) has some fabulous people. We have a lot of very high-end digital capability in the system now, so there has been lots of success there. The Life Chances programme is going gangbusters. We are now possibly the second-biggest employer of ex-offenders outside of Timpson, the well-known employer on the mainland. We have veterans from the military starting to join in numbers. About a year ago, I had the privilege of being in a room with 100 care leavers, and their passion and enthusiasm for joining the service was immense. Those are really my remarks.

We started a long time ago. To recap, we were put under a legal framework in 2010. Most of our focus is on recruitment, where we are a direct manager of the most senior recruitment and an overseer of broader recruitment. We push particular priorities that meet the issues of the day. When people are in the system, we oversee the Civil Service code to make sure that people continue to behave with impartiality and all the other key behaviours. It works well. The Civil Service continues to be ranked, based on the most recent OECD survey that I saw, as number one in the world. That is mainly down to the excellence of the civil servants, but key components are the Northcote-Trevelyan principles CRAG and our role within those as enablers of a modern, professional service.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Thank you very much. I will now open up the meeting questions from members.

Mr Harvey: It is good to see you, Mr Watmore. You are very welcome.

Mr Watmore: Thank you.

Mr Harvey: You talked more about recruitment, but you did mention behavioural problems. How many cases involving behavioural problems do you deal with in a month or a year? Are those varied? Can you give us any examples?

Mr Watmore: By "behavioural", do you mean where people breach the code?

Mr Watmore: OK. As I say, we are an appeal court rather than the main court, if I can use that analogy, so a lot of cases that are challenged are dealt with inside Departments, and we do not necessarily get sight of those. I would say that the vast majority of Civil Service code cases that come to us start off as HR cases in disguise. They are not really Civil Service cases. They are people using the code as part of a HR dispute. Once we have screened those out, we as commissioners probably end up hearing 10 a year, or something like that. In most of those cases, there are often learnings but no great problems.

I will tell you about one case that I can remember from early on in my time as a commissioner, just to give you a flavour of the issues. We are not talking here about people knocking around inside Downing Street. The Civil Service has, as you know, very wide tentacles, and the particular case in my head is that of a civil servant who worked for the Food Standards Agency (FSA), looking at the standard of food in an abattoir. He felt that there was some data manipulation going on outside his office or his environment. He challenged his Department, but it did not find in his favour, so he came to us, and we took up the case. We investigated it, got in the Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) and all of that, and found that he was correct. It then turned out that, although data manipulation had been going on, it was not dangerous to human health, so we were protected there, but it led to quite a big cultural change in that part of the agency, and, as a result, the integrity of what the agency was doing was restored. It therefore sometimes starts a long way out but ends up raising very important issues. Such cases do not happen every week or anything like it, but when they do happen, they are very important and need to be dealt with properly.

Mr Harvey: Very good. That is very interesting. Thank you very much.

Mr Muir: Thank you for your evidence, which is greatly appreciated. I do not know whether you have, in your role, had sight of the Audit Office report on capacity and capability that we are considering, but if you have, given the issues raised in it, what lessons can Northern Ireland learn from GB, or indeed England, about the changes required? What are the key things that we need focus on in the future?

Mr Watmore: I hesitate to suggest that you should learn anything from us; I will let you deduce that. I joined the Civil Service in 2004, after a private-sector career.

I am one of those curious people who have done both sides of the coin. What I have found is that, overwhelmingly, the skill set that we already have in the Civil Service is massively undervalued. The people are utterly brilliant, are usually very passionate about what they do, have deep skills that lots of the private sector would kill for and, and, and. The first lesson is that the Civil Service that we have is often very undervalued.

The second thing to say, however, is that the Civil Service struggles to be representative of the society that it serves. Perhaps that did not matter as much in the past as it does now. That matters more today. Unless the Civil Service at all levels, particularly starting at the top, reflects the society that it serves, it is on a sticky wicket. That is why I push the diversity card so hard. It is not a tick-box thing at all; rather, it is about diversity being good for the integrity and the presentation of public service.

The third thing to say is that there is a lot to be gained from the right sort of recruitment from the marketplace. I like to think that I have contributed as a civil servant with my private-sector background. I certainly learned a lot as well, and I can think of many colleagues who feel the same. For example, the new national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove, who, you would assume, has spent his entire life in the security world was an investment guy who came into the Civil Service to look after the shareholdings of government. He developed his skill set in different Departments and ended up as the national security adviser. There are therefore lots of good examples of people coming across and developing. Equally, there are lots of bad examples of the opposite, where people come in from the private sector with the mindset, "We know best. You are a bunch of dullards in the Civil Service, and we are here to tell you how to do it". Those people last a while, but they are dead people walking almost from the first five minutes, because the system is absolutely world-class at ignoring them. There is therefore a lesson on both sides, in that, if you get the right people in from the private sector, they can work well with the people who are already there, and they can make the whole thing much better, whereas, if you get the wrong sort of people in, it is a waste of money and antibody rejection occurs. Those are some of the big conclusions from my time.

Mr Muir: You mentioned recruitment from the marketplace. There is a quite high vacancy rate in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS). My colleague Matthew O'Toole has referred to the age imbalance in the workforce. Some of the reasons that have been cited for the number of vacancies are to do with the pandemic. From your perspective, how much has the pandemic hindered workforce recruitment? Moreover, how much should age imbalance be a concern?

Mr Watmore: I do not know enough about your data to comment, but I have not seen that as being a massive problem for us. I said that the Civil Service has tried to be very flexible to enable a surge of recruitment when it is required. For example, when the Chancellor announced a year ago the first furlough scheme, HMRC or DWP — whichever bit of government it was that was handling the furlough scheme — suddenly needed a surge of staff to be able to deal with implementing it, and we enabled that. The recruitment happened relatively swiftly and easily. That recruitment happened, and we felt that it did not compromise our recruitment principles. There are occasionally jobs for which it gets very difficult to fill a role. Those are usually at the top end, where it is usually either a very specialist role or the post has not been thought through properly. In my time either as a civil servant or at the commission, I have never found there to be a particular problem with recruiting. Part of the reason for that is that the system at large, and this has nothing to do with me, is very good at projecting the fact that, if you are really good at something, there is nowhere better to ply your wares than in the Civil Service of a country such as the UK/GB, and that is because of the scale and complexity of the challenge.

I used to do IT in my background. I worked for all sorts of companies, including retailers and banks — you name them, I worked for them — but nothing was ever as hard as it has been in government. The reason for that is that government has scale, with databases of 60 million people rather than six million. It also has complexity. If a bank does not want to serve a group of the population because doing so is too complex, it does not bother. Government does not have that choice, so scale, complexity and meaningful outcome are the things that we trade on when we are pitching jobs to the market. The best people, with the right motives, are attracted by that and not by pay, which is never going to be a key card that we have to play.

Mr Muir: That is very useful, because, although our Budget for next year is largely flat for resource, there is an increase in capital investment. There is also the COVID funding for the support schemes. One of my ongoing concerns has been about not having the resources and skills to deliver that capital investment. Money was handed back at the end of the last financial year, so there is a real need to fill those vacancies and to get in that talent. The staff who are there at the minute are making really valiant efforts, and what they have managed to turn around in very short timescales is really admirable, but the resource firepower is not there to be able to do that. It is interesting to hear that recruitment has not been an issue of concern from your perspective.

Mr Watmore: I suggest to you that you have a great opportunity to market your Civil Service as a great place in which to make a difference. I grew up in an era when Northern Ireland was a no-go zone. Fifteen years ago, I went on holiday there and had one the best holidays that I have ever had, touring the Mourne mountains, travelling up to Larne and going across to Stranraer on the ferry and all that sort of stuff. It opens your eyes. I still think that a lot of people have a closed view of life in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, you are doing so many interesting things. Forget Brexit and all the noise around that. You have scale. Is it 1·3 million people that you have?

Mr Muir: It is 1·8 million.

Mr Watmore: There is enough scale there to be challenging, but, more importantly, you can make a real difference quite quickly. I would be marketing your country to the sorts of skill sets that I am talking about. If you have unspent capital because you have HR shortages, there is a great opportunity to get people over for a period from wherever, probably from the mainland but perhaps from elsewhere in the world. Those people could go and make a big difference quickly in a place that really matters. That would be a great message.

Mr Muir: Thank you very much, Ian. Once COVID is over, if you come back over again, I promise to buy you a pint. That is the deal.

Mr Watmore: That would be very kind. Thank you very much.

Mr O'Toole: Thank you, Ian, for giving evidence. Further to what was asked previously, as a Civil Service commissioner who is based in Whitehall, what is your perception of the Northern Ireland Civil Service?

Mr Watmore: I was a permanent secretary in the Civil Service in three Departments, and I have now done this role. I have always had the same view of the NICS, which is that it is a highly motivated and highly talented bunch of people serving a community that has had its moments and continues to do so. It has, however, always felt slightly hermetically sealed, if I can put it that way. That is why I was making the pitch the last time to open up your borders, whether that be geographically or by skills and sector. The NICS is a great organisation as it is, but it could probably do more to infuse new skills from outside and become more diverse, in all the meanings of the word. I do not mean just in personal characteristics; rather I mean having more skills drawn from the private sector, more people from outside Northern Ireland going to work there and that kind of thing. That is what I have always thought. I have never thought that there is a problem with the organisation; I just think that it is a bit closed and a bit hermetically sealed and that, if it could open up, it would be even better. That is my summary.

Mr O'Toole: That is fair. I do not think that many people would argue with that, and, having gone through it, we certainly would not.

One thing that emerged from an Audit Office report in Northern Ireland and subsequent testimony that we received is a belief among some that the Civil Service Commissioners in London — you — have more of a strategic HR function when it comes to permanent secretary recruitment. You said that you sit on all permanent secretary boards. What we heard is that, in relative terms, you and your organisation take more of a front-footed approach to consulting with the Departments about their leadership needs. I am not sure whether that is in CRAG. Is that specifically in the legislation, or is that an informal role that the commission has accrued for itself?

Mr Watmore: OK. That is a very good question. I hope not to take too long answering it, because there is a lot in that.

First, I do not think that it is officially stated in CRAG that we should do permanent secretary recruitment, for example. It would happen if they were bringing them in from outside. If it was an open competition, we would do it, but not if it comes from within the system. However, the commission has a sort of memorandum of understanding (MOU) agreement with the Cabinet Office to chair all the panels, on behalf of the Prime Minister, for permanent secretary posts, and everybody, I think, believes that it works well.

I sit on the senior leadership committee, which, for want of a better phrase, is the talent management group in the Civil Service in GB. It is usually chaired by the Cabinet Secretary or, in this case, the head of the Treasury — Sir Tom Scholar — chairs it. It has most of the senior permanent secretaries around Whitehall on it, and I represent the commission. We do regular talent or pipeline management of people who are coming through the ranks to try to see when they are coming up for promotion and whether they are ready for the permanent secretary role, and there are lots of schemes to try to train them up etc. We take quite a long look at the pipeline and start to see the talent that is coming through the system.

As for what happens when a permanent secretary vacancy occurs, let us take my current one as an example. It is for the MOD and arose because Sir Stephen Lovegrove, whom I mentioned earlier, has been appointed by the Prime Minister as national security adviser, so his role is vacant. The first thing that we did was to work very closely with the Civil Service HR function, which has a special group that deals with the senior leadership, and a job description was agreed with the MOD. I then rang the Secretary of State for Defence — I had the call with him a couple of weeks ago — to get his assessment of what is really important in that role, and we weaved that into the job requirements. We also had a conversation about whether we would advertise openly — sometimes, it is to the whole-world market, and, sometimes, it is Whitehall only. In this case, for obvious reasons, it was a Whitehall and securocrat group that we are going for, for the role.

I chaired the panel and decided the panel that would oversee that recruitment. There is nearly always a senior person from the centre, and, in this case, it was Sir Tom Scholar from the Treasury. I had two non-executive directors whom I asked to sit on the panel from the MOD board and an external person who knows about the security world but is not directly from Whitehall. We had a panel of five. We then advertised the job across the Civil Service job site. I forget how many people applied, but we will say that it was a dozen — it was a number in that area. As a panel, we then shortlisted them to four, and those four are now in the final throes of the competition. They are meeting the Secretary of State, with one of my staff in attendance, for a sort of fireside chat. We are doing a psychological assessment and a staff engagement exercise, and then we will have a final interview process, which will take place next Tuesday. We, as a panel, will then recommend to the Prime Minister any and all candidates who are appointable, with all the strengths and weaknesses and so on, and then it becomes a PM decision. That is how it goes from a long way out to an actual decision. I feel actively involved throughout that process.

Mr O'Toole: That is really interesting about the strategic bit at the front end. You talked about the talent management pipeline, the MOU with the Cabinet Office and sitting on the senior leadership group. Presumably, in those senior leadership conversations, permanent secretaries — maybe it is not as naked as this; I do not mean that there is anything inappropriate about it — say, "This is my recently appointed director general". You are talking about people in their 30s and 40s and whatever who are the permanent secretary of five or 10 years' time. That is what the conversation is, I presume.

Mr Watmore: Yes, primarily. For example, I think that there are 160 or 180 director generals in the GB Civil Service. All of them will be mapped on to a grid of talent, both performance and potential.

Mr O'Toole: I have two further questions. Obviously, it goes down the chain to people at senior executive officer (SEO) and grade 7 level who are being talent managed in to middle management and then the Senior Civil Service (SCS). Do you see a potential tension between that front-footed strategic role of talent management and your role as a guardian of the merit principle? Is there a tension there that has to be managed?

Mr Watmore: I have not found there to be. That is because the talent management system is taken across. You look at a person and say, "What are their core skills? OK, they might be very good at big operational-type stuff", so, you immediately say, "Well, they could be good for DWP, HMRC or one of the big Departments". Somebody else might be a good economic policy type, in which case you might say that they would be good for Transport or for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) or something. We, as a group, try to look at people and say, "This is most likely where their long-term career is going to be". That enables the Civil Service to put the right training and mentoring in place to develop them. Specific competitions are open to any and all people to apply for. We take it on the merits of the application, not on any previous version of the world.

Mr O'Toole: That makes sense, but it is true to say that the strategic, forward-looking talent management bit is based on an MOU and custom and best practice that you developed rather than the legislative basis, which is CRAG, and then everything going back to Northcote-Trevelyan, which is the fundamentals.

I have one final question. I do not know whether you are aware, Ian, of practice in the Northern Ireland Civil Service around talent management. When it comes to appraisal, there are only two boxes in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which are "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory". If you were to place that system in one of two boxes, would you put it in "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory"?

Mr Watmore: I am thinking of the Clash song 'Should I Stay or Should I Go?'.

I do not want to criticise other people's HR systems, but I would never have thought that two boxes are enough. I also do not think that four-, five- or six-box systems work, either, because, in the end, most HR systems, public or private, end up with three boxes: the top box for the really good people; the second box for the mass of people whom you want to keep, develop and reward; and a third box for a very small number of people whose performance you want to improve. I have always thought that that is the right system for HR, but I do not know enough about yours to comment further.

Mr O'Toole: OK. Thank you, Ian.

Mr McHugh: Tá failte romhat, Ian. You are very welcome. I am glad that your last experience on holiday here in Ireland was good. Hopefully, you will come back in the future.

Thank you for your presentation. I was a wee bit surprised that you mentioned that Trevelyan established in the Civil Service openness, fairness and appointment on merit. His reputation here in Ireland during the 1850s was a whole lot different. Notwithstanding that, I was particularly interested in one area that you mentioned when you said that you had taken pride in the Life Chances programme. You also commented that the Civil Service should reflect the community that it serves. We have a lot of people who fall into those categories; ex-prisoners, military veterans and care leavers. I am not aware of a Life Chances programme here in the North of Ireland. I am to be corrected on that, but I am not aware of one. How did you go about establishing it and ensuring that that type of initiative was developed?

Mr Watmore: It was the usual chance coalition of three things going on at the same time. First, we had a Minister for the Cabinet Office who was interested in that from a political point of view. He wanted to see it. Often, you will find in government — you will, often, find it yourself — that, when politicians come up with policy agendas, one of the levers that they will try to pull is in their own backyard, whether it is in their Department, procurement budget, or whatever. Sometimes, that can be burdensome. When a Government say, "We want to reduce prisoner reoffending", one of the questions is, "Well, what are you doing about taking people into your employment?". We happened to have a Minister who was very keen on that, Ben Gummer, at the time when I started. Secondly, we had a Civil Service leadership who were similarly minded. Thirdly, the commission felt that it was part of our brief to develop the way in which the Civil Service would recruit in order to broaden its reach and become more open and meritocratic.

We put the idea into practice. Then, it got really hard. As I have told people on many occasions, the difference in recruiting between nought and one person from that background is the same as recruiting between one and 100. The first time that we tried to recruit an ex-offender into the Civil Service, we had every roadblock under the sun come out. It was like whack-a-mole; you whacked one down and another one would come up. It took about a year from agreeing that it was a good thing to do to getting the first person in through the door — or at the door, in one case, and in another door. Fortunately, the first two recruits turned out to be really good people. That word spread, and, all of a sudden, it became an OK thing to do. Ever since then, we have grown. As I say, I think that we have just now cumulatively reached 100.

Ten years previously, I had a similar experience to that in my Civil Service job. I had policy responsibility for apprenticeships. John Denham was my Secretary of State. We went around the Department together and found that we had no apprentices. I said, "I will recruit one for my office and one for your office, John". It was an absolute nightmare to do, but, once we had done it, we set a trend. Two became five, five became 10, and now thousands of apprentices are recruited to the Civil Service every year.

You need a coalition of interest to start something like that. Then, you need real persistence and patience. It will go from nought to one, one to 10, 10 to 100, and then it becomes mainstream and you can move on to the next category. That is my learning from it.

Mr McHugh: You are to be congratulated. It is a wonderful initiative. Very well done. It reflects that persistence. We all know that most things that are worthwhile, very often, require that persistence and determination by someone at the helm to make sure that it happens. Hopefully, we can examine those possibilities here. Thank you again.

Mr Watmore: Good. Thank you.

Mr Beggs: Ian, thanks for coming before us and giving us of your experience. You have indicated that your Civil Service produces a good practice guide for over 400,000 staff and the 40,000 new recruits each year. Can you think of any reason why the good practice guides that are applicable in England, Scotland and Wales should not be applicable in Northern Ireland?

Mr Watmore: Deirdre and I speak often, and we see the world through the same pair of eyes in lots of ways. I would ask her to answer that, but my assumption is that the principles in our recruitment are principles that could and should apply to you. The practicalities may need a bit of local tweaking to fit your environment. The political class in Northern Ireland is in a different system from the political class of Whitehall and Westminster etc, so you might need to do some tweaking. However, I would have thought that the principles should be the same really.

Mr Beggs: Yes. I understand that Northern Ireland civil servants can slide across to the national UK Civil Service: is that correct?

Mr Watmore: Can people in the NICS apply to jobs in the UK Civil Service? I think that that is right. I do not think that we treat civil servants in NICS like a third party. I think that they are open to apply to what we call Whitehall-only competitions. I will check for you afterwards and let you know if I have got that wrong.

Mr Beggs: I understand that someone who is working in the national Civil Service and wants to come back here — perhaps they have an elderly parent here — would face difficulties; do you ever hear of that?

Mr Watmore: I have not had that one raised to me; sorry.

Mr Beggs: OK. In the Audit Office report, we learnt of high levels of agency workers and vacancies and that over 300 people were given temporary promotions for over a year. Those are huge problems. That is managed by our commissioners, the board of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the permanent secretaries. Who would be held accountable for such poor outcomes in GB? Nobody seems to be accountable here.

Mr Watmore: It is a good question. Most of the problems or issues that you raise there would not be Civil Service Commissioner issues, unless people were using their contractual position to try to bring people in from the outside because they did not want to put them through the recruitment; someone could challenge on that basis.

Is it a good idea to have large numbers of vacancies filled by contractors and all that sort of stuff? Obviously, it is not, managerially. In the equivalent job when I was permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, a lot of those issues would end up on my desk. The Minister who I was working with at the time, Francis Maude, would regard himself as responsible as well, even if most of the issues were actually being played out in other Departments. We would regard it as our problem. The politicians in Westminster would certainly regard it as our problem, because I would be summoned to the equivalent of the PAC in Westminster and hauled over the coals. It is seen as a Cabinet Office leadership role in Westminster and Whitehall.

Mr Beggs: OK; thank you. You have also indicated that you are involved in about 150 or 200 recruitments a year, primarily of permanent secretaries and at various director levels. We have been advised that our commissioner is involved in anything at grade 5 and above. How does that compare with you? I am not quite sure where our grade 5 is comparatively.

Mr Watmore: OK. Grade 5 is below the level that we, as commissioners, would deal with directly. We are responsible for the system of recruitment of everybody, from the most junior grade up. However, we do not chair recruitment panels at grade 5 level. We do that at the level of what used to be called grade 3 and above.

Mr Beggs: How many grades are there between grade 5 and grade 3? Are there others?

Mr Watmore: In the modern Civil Service, there are four grades in what they call the Senior Civil Service — permanent secretary, director general, director and deputy director. The deputy director maps on to your grade 5 and the director maps on to your grade 3, if you still operate that. The director general is at grade 2, and the permanent secretary is at grade 1.

Mr Beggs: OK. That has been very helpful, thank you.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): How are you recruited and appointed as commissioners in Great Britain?

Mr Watmore: How are we recruited and appointed?

Mr Watmore: In my case, it was through a sort of Grand National course of obstacles. It started as an open and public recruitment, so I applied like anybody else and was shortlisted and interviewed by a panel that was chaired by the Cabinet Secretary and the head of the Treasury of the day and an independent person. They came forward with, I think, a two-person shortlist — it might have been three — and we were interviewed individually by David Cameron. He decided that I would be the person to do that job. However, he said that I could not take up the post until after the Brexit referendum.

Obviously, he did not survive the referendum, so I assumed that my life in the job had ended, but I was re-interviewed by Theresa May. When she put me forward, I had to be cleared by the Opposition parties — in those days, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, based on the highest voting levels of the previous election — and by the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales. Then, I had to go in front of a multi-party Public Administration Select Committee scrutiny hearing, which was chaired by Bernard Jenkin. Once I got through all that, the appointment had to be put to the Palace to be recommended.

It was a hugely long and drawn-out process that took over a year and was slightly complicated by the Brexit referendum. It is a two-day-a-week job, so I have often joked that it was one Prime Minister for each day. It was a heavy process and rightly so, because it is important to get somebody who is genuinely supported by the system and by the Opposition to the current Government. Otherwise, it could easily be a crony-type appointment.

There has to be a minimum number of commissioners; I think that it is seven. I cannot remember whether that includes me. I think that it has to be seven including me, so six others. We flex the number according to the volume of work, and I have been operating with 10 others for the last period; that is 11 including me. We run those same appointments as an open competition, but, now, I chair the panels with a senior Cabinet Office official and some independents. We, the commissioners, make recommendations to the Prime Minister, who puts them straight to the Palace, which, then, makes the appointments.

If there was an attempt by the Government, for whatever reason, to force commissioners on to the commission — it has never happened in practice, so it is only an if — as the first commissioner, I have an option to say no. I do not know what the right word is, but I can blackball somebody if I feel that they are being forced on the commission and are not going to be the right person for the job. I cannot force somebody into the commission, but I can block them.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You are normally one of seven commissioners, but you said that you have been operating with 11. Do you or the commission have the power to co-opt people?

Mr Watmore: No. Seven commissioners is the legal minimum. The commission is not deemed to exist properly under the law if it does not have seven commissioners. However, because of the volume of work, we judged that 11 or 12 was the right number of people. I have also tried to have two groups of five or six, so that one group comes in and develops experience. Everybody is on a fixed five-year term, which cannot be extended beyond the five years, but they can leave if they want to. It is very difficult to force a commissioner out. You would have to be found guilty of real criminal behaviour or whatever before you could be forced out. Once you are in, you are in for those five years: no more, no less. I have tried to have cohort A come in and work together as a group and then cohort B come in, two to three years later, and repeat, so that you always have a mixture of experience.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Continuity. Yes.

You mentioned some 100 offenders or reoffenders who have been brought into the Imperial Civil Service. What category were those offenders?

Mr Watmore: I do not know about all of them, but I know about the first two. One was a drug dealer from Liverpool, who, as you can imagine, was quite good at lots of skills but had just wrongly applied them, for want of a better phrase. He got his life sorted out and had logistics, commercial, leadership and all those other skills. We have people from a range of backgrounds, but, to be honest, that is privacy stuff that I will not get into. There are risk assessments, so they would be unlikely to be taking people who are —.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): On that issue, your earlier comment about being supported by the system is important, because, obviously, there are particular difficulties in Northern Ireland with people in criminality, organised criminality and so on that we have to consider.

Mr Watmore: Yes. They are risk-assessed by the justice system: prison governors, people at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and so on. It is not our decision to just yank somebody in. However, we changed the rules to enable the system to appoint them and to encourage people to apply. It was about matching the demand with supply. Those people would never have thought of a career in the Civil Service, and, if they had, they would have been knocked off at the first hurdle previously. It was really a bit of a matchmaking exercise, if you like.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. That is good. No other member wants to ask a question.

Thank you very much for your attendance and input and for giving us an insight into the commission that operates with the Imperial Civil Service across the water. Thank you very much for your expertise and candour.

Mr Watmore: Thank you for your time, all of you. I hope that you have a good conclusion to your inquiry. I loved my time in Northern Ireland and not just on holiday. I come back quite regularly.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Yes. When you come to Northern Ireland on holiday, it is a requirement that you become a persuader for others to come here on holiday. We do not want just you to come back; we want you to make your friends aware that it is a good place to holiday as well.

Mr Watmore: I do.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I know that you are keen on cricket. We have some very good, lovely, picturesque cricket grounds, and you would be very welcome to come here. Mr Hilditch and I are vice presidents of cricket clubs. Be aware that cricket is a huge sport in Northern Ireland.

Mr Watmore: I am aware. I have just returned from India, where I spent more time quarantining than I ever cared to. I think that the ratio of quarantining to Test match days was about 5:1 [Laughter.]

I look forward to some good recreational cricket.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): It sounds as though you spent more time in quarantine than some of the English batsmen spent at the wicket, unfortunately.

Mr Watmore: One of the journalists from 'The Times' tweeted that to me. She wrote that I was on the telly more than the England batsmen were.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. Thank you very much. Enjoy the rest of your day. Thanks.

Mr Watmore: Thanks.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Mr Donnelly and Mr Stevenson, do you have any comments that you would like to make?

Mr Kieran Donnelly (Northern Ireland Audit Office): Not at this point, Chair, thank you.

Mr Stuart Stevenson (Department of Finance): No specific comments, Chair, thank you.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Thank you very much.

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