Lighting The Blue Touchpaper

I am becoming a little anxious about the possibility that the Civil Service Bureau might make a mess of implementing what is basically a very sensible policy.

Let us start with the good news. The proposal to raise the normal retirement age for future recruits to the civil service from 60 to 65 is eminently reasonable.

Some people might cavil a little: why has it taken so long to reach a conclusion other governments came to years ago; why do we need to consult yet again for four months on a proposal which is essentially derived from the population policy review which was itself the subject of umpteen months consultation just completed.

But let us not quibble, rather we should celebrate that we have finally got there.

Now for the reservations. The first concerns how to treat those civil servants already working in the government. The second concerns the separate and slightly different proposals in respect of the disciplined services.

Serving officers will, under the detailed proposals being put forward, be allowed to apply to work past 60 if they wish to do so and their applications will be considered by heads of department according to various criteria. Assurances have been sought, and given, that the procedures for assessing the applications will be fair and transparent.

Pardon me for saying so, but I have my doubts. What I see here is a recipe for favouritism, the cult of the personality, even – smack yourself for even having the thought – corruption.

The obvious question that arises is why not give blanket approval in advance to every officer who wishes to extend his service. That was the policy adopted decades ago when the retirement age was raised from 55 to 60. If you wanted to stay on the old terms, you did and went at 55. If you wanted to switch to the new terms (which involved a slightly different pension formula) that was your choice and you could go at any time between 55 and 60, subject to giving one year’s notice.

Now I searched everywhere in the consultation paper for a reason why this practical – and clean – arrangement was not being proposed this time round. The nearest thing to a reason (actually it is more of an excuse) we are offered is the adverse effect on the morale of junior officers who will now have to wait a bit longer to be promoted.

I reject that line of argument completely. There is no guarantee of promotion in the civil service. Moreover if your performance is going to get you there, it still will and you will still have the same length of time in the more senior position as you would have had, because the new retirement age will apply to you too.

It is simply not right to delay implementing a sound policy which is in the best interests of the community because a few civil servants might have to wait a bit longer than they had anticipated to be promoted. They need to grow up.

It is noteworthy that a former civil service secretary writing in this newspaper also favoured the complicated approach being proposed, but without offering a reason.

Unless this aspect is amended, millions of man hours will be spent devising criteria, processing applications, handling appeals etc all at the expense of departments carrying out their primary functions. Is our civil service so generously staffed that we can afford this massive diversion of resources?

The proposal with respect to the disciplined services is slightly different. It suggest the normal retirement age should go up from 55 to 57, and can then increase to 60 one year at a time subject to a medical.

At first glance that seems a reasonable idea. After all, when we use the expression "disciplined service" most people have in mind a 20 storey building on fire and courageous firemen wearing breathing apparatus running up the stairs to carry overweight citizens to safety.

We certainly want these guys (and gals) to be fit and strong. But some 90 per cent of a fireman’s time is spent on other work which does not require such a high level of fitness. For example sitting in offices examining town planning layouts or building plans. Then there are the routine inspections to check fire escapes are not blocked, fire fighting equipment is in good condition and so on. Walking down a 50 storey building checking floor by floor that everything is in order can be done perfectly well by a 60-year-old in normal health.

And we haven’t even considered the case of those disciplined departments such as Immigration and Customs where the physical burden is much less.

So my message for the civil service secretary is a straightforward one: you are on the right track at policy level, now simplify the implementation.