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Civil service head hits back over CSA criticisms

Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service, has said that departmental chief scientific advisers do not need to be represented on management boards to be influential.

O’Donnell was speaking at a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee hearing on the role of CSAs. Science minister David Willetts backed the view when speaking during the second half of the session.

O’Donnell argued that since policy was decided by ministers with advice from departmental officials, a place on the board was irrelevant to the extent of an adviser’s influence.

“You have this image that the only place people are discussing these things are on the boards. That’s not the way it operates,” he told the committee.

O’Donnell also defended the lowering of the civil service grade of the CSA position within the Ministry of Defence.

“You’re very grade-ist in this committee,” he said. “I don’t think you should get over-obsessed about grades. What’s really important is international credibility of the person in that [role].”

Commenting on the Treasury’s internal appointment of James Richardson as CSA, and on the number of civil service roles already held by Richardson, O’Donnell said that “being part of the system” was an advantage.

“You have this view that civil servants therefore can’t be independent. That’s the complete opposite of my view,” he told the peers. “The idea that someone has to come in from outside … I find very insulting.”

O’Donnell further defended Richardson’s function as CSA along with other Treasury responsibilities on the grounds that it was possible to do more than one job at the same time.

He described the appointment of a CSA at the Treasury as a step in the right direction and that science advice at the Treasury may “evolve” with time.

Phil Willis, committee member and Liberal Democrat peer, told O’Donnell that he had put in a freedom of information request for data on how often departmental CSAs met ministers. He said he had received replies from all departments except the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which had argued that providing the information would “prejudice the effective running of government”.

Asked by Willis whether he had been involved in the DECC’s decision to decline, O’Donnell said he had given no such advice and that he would investigate why the request had been turned down.

He also argued that a CSA’s influence may not necessarily be best judged by the number of meetings with a secretary of state.

Willetts and health minister Freddie Howe largely supported O’Donnell’s comments about CSAs on management boards.

Although the Department of Health’s CSA, Sally Davies, was member of the board, said Howe, such a position was not essential as long as there was adequate access to ministers.

“The discharge of the [CSA’s] functions doesn’t necessarily, I think, require that the CSA should necessarily be on the board. I think it is possible to discharge them without that,” added Willetts.

Willetts also reassured the committee that his department, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, would fill the CSA vacancy before Christmas, along with the recruitment of a deputy CSA.

However, he said, the CSA would probably be hired on a part-time basis, partly to give the appointee the possibility of keeping up-to-date with developments outside Whitehall.

On suggestions that the government lacked social science advice and needed to appoint a chief social scientist, Willetts said the government was “open minded” on the issue and looked forward to the committee’s advice on how such advice could be strengthened.

The committee chairman, John Krebs, asked whether CSAs should be able to go public in situations where ministers did not listen to their advice.

Both Willetts and Howe said there were instances when the public interest rightly overrode scientific evidence. Willetts described the question as odd and said decisions could not be made purely on scientific evidence without judgement by democratically appointed ministers.