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A permanent secretary is the most senior civil servant of a ministry in the United Kingdom, charged with running the department on a day-to-day basis. Similar offices, often employing different terms, exist in many other Westminster-style systems and in some other governments.
Permanent secretaries are the non-political civil service heads (and "accounting officers") or chief executives of government departments, who generally hold their position for a number of years (thus "permanent") at a ministry as distinct from the changing political secretaries of state to whom they report and provide advice.
Permanent secretaries are appointed under a scheme in which the Prime Minister has the final say in the recruitment process; the PM now chooses directly from a list created by the Civil Service Commissioners, rather than only having a veto over the Commissioners' preferred candidate.
Some permanent secretaries do not hold the position of permanent secretary, but still hold that grade. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 explains that a permanent secretary, for the purposes of section 2 of that Act, is a person serving in government in any of the following positions: Permanent Secretary, Second Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Secretary, Chief Executive of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Chief Medical Officer, Director of Public Prosecutions, First Parliamentary Counsel, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Head of the Civil Service or Prime Minister's Adviser for Europe and Global Issues.
When Lord Grey took office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1830, John Barrow was especially requested to continue serving as Secretary in his department (the Admiralty), starting the principle that senior civil servants stay in office on change of government and serve in a non-partisan manner. It was during Barrow's occupancy of the post that it was renamed permanent secretary.
Permanent secretaries are the accounting officers for departments, meaning that they are answerable to parliament for ensuring that the department appropriately spends money granted by parliament. Permanent secretaries are thus frequently called for questioning by the Public Accounts Committee and select committees of the House of Commons. The permanent secretary usually chairs a department's management board which consists of executive members (other civil servants in the department) and non-executive directors. In the 1960s the permanent secretary to Tony Benn when he was Secretary of State for Industry was Peter Carey. After Benn spent government money on worker cooperatives, notably a motorbike company (Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative), Carey went before the Public Accounts Committee and expressed the opinion that his minister's expenditure had been ultra vires. Benn was soon moved to the Department of Energy, while Carey received a knighthood in the following honours list.
Some larger departments also have a second permanent secretary who acts as deputy. In the early 1970s, in a major reorganisation of Whitehall, many smaller ministries were amalgamated into larger departments. Following this reorganisation, virtually all departments had second permanent secretaries for a time, though this is no longer as common.
The most senior civil servant is the Cabinet Secretary, currently Mark Sedwill; he is also the Head of the Home Civil Service. The holder of this office is distinct from other officials of permanent secretary rank within the Cabinet Office. By convention, the Prime Minister is Minister for the Civil Service and as such makes regulations regarding the service and has authority over it. These duties are delegated to the Minister for the Cabinet Office.
Permanent secretaries are usually created a Knight or Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath after five or more years of service in the grade or on retirement if not already holding the title (although the Permanent Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be created a Knight or Dame Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George instead). The most senior permanent secretaries, such as the Secretary of the Cabinet, may be created a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, and even be given a life peerage after retirement. For salary comparison purposes, the permanent secretary is deemed broadly equivalent to a general and to a High Court judge.
Current UK permanent secretaries
Below is a list of the individuals in the UK government at the grade of permanent secretary.
In the Commonwealth
In Pakistan, the equivalent position is called Federal Secretary and is the highest ranking permanent civil servant in a federal ministry.
In Australia, the position is called the "departmental secretary", “secretary of the department”, or “director-general of the department” in some states and territories.
In India, the equivalent position is called secretary to the Government of India and is the highest ranking permanent civil servant in a department.
In Hong Kong, heads of policy bureaux, secretaries, were filled by civil servants until their titles were changed to permanent secretaries in 2002, when political appointees filled the positions of secretaries under the second Tung Chee Hwa government. Since August 2005, the Office of the Chief Executive also has a permanent secretary. His ranking is, however, lower than most other permanent secretaries according to the pay scale.
In New Zealand, the civil service head of a ministry is ordinarily entitled “chief executive”, though there are still some positions which still carry the title of secretary (Secretary of Education, Secretary of Justice, Secretary of Transport). In some cases (such as the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, Ministry for Primary Industries, Department of Conservation, Ministry of Health) the title is “director-general”. Organisations with enforcement powers, such as the Inland Revenue Department and the New Zealand Police, are headed by commissioners. The New Zealand Customs Service is headed by the Comptroller of Customs. Civil service heads are officially employed by the State Services Commission, further separating them from the politicians who hold ministerial positions.
In Singapore, permanent secretaries have to retire after a 10-year term even if they are younger than the official retirement age of 62. This was introduced in 2000 as part of the Public Service Leadership scheme, to provide opportunities for younger officers from the Administrative Service — the elite arm of the Civil Service — to rise up the ranks.
In Sri Lanka, a permanent secretary is the administrative head of a ministry and is appointed by the President of Sri Lanka. Traditionally if the appointee is a serving member a public service, he or she would leave the service for the duration they would hold the appointment. Following Ceylon's independence from Britain in 1948, permanent secretaries were commonly appointed from the Ceylon Civil Service, with a few exceptions such as the permanent secretary to the ministry of justice which would be an officer of the judicial service. In the recent past it has been common for permanent secretaries to be appointed from outside the public service, with some on political grounds at the discretion of the president on the advice of the minister in charge.
Outside the Commonwealth
In Germany, the equivalent office is called Staatssekretär (state secretary). It is not to be confused with the "parliamentary state secretary", who serves as deputy to a minister, often with a more specialised field of responsibilities. The parliamentary state secretary is always a political position, and not part of the civil service.
In Italy, the highest civil service official in a ministry or department is either a segretario generale (secretary-general) or a direttore generale (director-general), while the position of sottosegretario di stato (under-secretary of state) is a political one and ranks below the ministro segretario di stato (minister-secretary of state, the head of a ministry or department) or the vice ministro (deputy-minister), both political posts as well.
The Japanese equivalents are the administrative vice-ministers.
In the Republic of Ireland, the position of "secretary-general" of a department is almost identical to that of a permanent secretary in the British civil service, with the exception that since the introduction in the mid-1990s of the Strategic Management Initiative, the post is no longer permanent, but carries a seven-year time limit. This coincided with the introduction of the change of title from the previous title of “secretary”. Irish government departments may also have a “second secretary”, which is equivalent to the Second Permanent Secretary grade in the British civil service. See also Civil service of the Republic of Ireland.
- Cabinet Secretary
- Her Majesty's Civil Service
- Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service
- Yes, Minister, a satirical examination of role of a permanent secretary
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