Uncovering the hidden wiring of Whitehall

January 10, 2022

Lord Hennessy spent his entire journalistic career writing about the machinery of government in Britain. His classic 1996 work “The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing The British Constitution” set out how the British Constitution operated in practice and revealed the often obscure nexuses of administrative power.

However, since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 and the advent of GOV.UK, we know more about government in the United Kingdom than ever before. This begs the question: is it still possible to uncover, as Hennessy did, invisible strings across Whitehall that keep the show on the road? If so, what are the most obscure yet important committees and regulations within British public administration?

Perhaps a good place to start would be the Civil Service Senior Appointments Protocol. Why is this document so important? It is often said that “personnel is policy”; the Civil Service Senior Leadership Protocol sets out the procedures for filling vacancies in the 200 most senior positions in the Civil Service.

The Protocol was jointly signed in 2011 by the then Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, and the then First Civil Service Commissioner, Sir David Norrington. Despite the fact that both of these distinguished civil servants have stepped down from their roles (over a decade ago, in the case of Gus O’Donnell), the protocol is still extant.

Under the terms of the protocol, decisions about filling vacancies within the “Top 200” Civil Service jobs do not go through the ordinary procedures for other vacancies in the Senior Civil Service. The Protocol makes clear that they are instead reserved to a body called the “Senior Leadership Committee of the Civil Service”. Crucially, under the provisions of the Protocol, the Senior Leadership Committee of the Civil Service can authorise the appointment of a candidate without having to undertake a recruitment competition.

Very few details about the Senior Leadership Committee are publicly available. Its exact terms of reference, rules of procedure, and the frequency with which it meets are unknown. No minutes of its deliberations have ever been published. Indeed, the Civil Service Senior Appointments Protocol is one of the few documents in which clear allusions to the Committee’s role are made.

At least the Civil Service Senior Appointments Protocol is actually published. The same cannot be said of the “Deed of Indemnity” executed by HM Treasury and the Bank of England in 2009.

The legal basis of the UK’s Quantitative Easing programme (worth around £875 billion, or 40% of GDP) is partially dependent on this contractual document. The Deed sets out the terms of operations of the UK’s Asset Purchase Facility and commits the taxpayer to paying any financial losses suffered by the Bank of England that might result from its quantitative easing programme.

Despite the fact that this document commits the UK’s taxpayers to a potentially unquantifiable liability, the Deed of Indemnity is not a public document.  This secrecy is remarkable, given the fact that it is an important feature of the UK’s QE programme. Now that we are entering a new period in global monetary policy, with interest rate rises on the horizon, this document is of increasing importance.

In July, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee, which includes the former Governor of the Bank of England among its members, recommended that the Deed should be published. This recommendation was met with short shrift by the Treasury, who made it clear that “the decision not to publish the Indemnity has been carefully considered and is consistent with the approach taken since the inception of the Asset Purchase Facility.”  The exact form of these “careful” considerations remains a mystery.

Whether it is the selection of the UK’s most important civil servants or the basis of the UK’s QE programme, “the secret world of Whitehall” (as documentary-maker Michael Cockerell refers to it) continues to play a pivotal role in the government of the United Kingdom. These are two nexuses of administrative power we know about, veiled as they are in obscurity. There will almost certainly be others that remain unknown. What are they? As British civil servant Henry Taylor observed in 1836, “a secret may be sometimes best kept by keeping the secret of its being a secret.

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