Big names unite to defend civil service impartiality

Written by Beckie Smith on 11 July 2019 in News
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Sir David Normington tells event that attacks on officials could be "passing phase" or "existential threat"

Sir David Normington, who contributed to the collection of essays. Photo: Photoshot

Top politicians and former civil servants have said the nation's leaders must do more to stand up for civil servants after months of attacks on their impartiality and integrity.

In a series of essays published by the Smith Institute and commissioned by the FDA union, ex-officials and politicians including former head of the civil service Lord Bob Kerslake, first minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and former first minister of Wales Carwyn Jones have said civil servants’ role in providing impartial advice to ministers without fear or favour must be protected.

In the collection, Kerslake calls for a “public campaign to recognise and celebrate the enormous importance of having an impartial civil service”, while former first minister of Scotland Lord Jack McConnell writes “the independence of civil servants to serve the elected government of the day must be protected.”


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Speaking at the launch of the report last night, Dave Penman, FDA general secretary, said the union had commissioned the collection after a period of sustained criticism of civil servants by politicians and in the media.

"We are seeing, increasingly, a modus operandi of attacking civil servants and that has been an absolute feature of the last few years, when politicians have refused to defend the impartiality and integrity of the civil service," he said, citing attacks on former US ambassador Sir Kim Darroch, European Union adviser Olly Robbins and cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.

Sir David Normington, a former official who served as permanent secretary to the Department for Education and the Home Office and then as first civil service commissioner, was among a number of contributors who reflected on their essays at yesterday's event.

“We don't know whether, however much this seems like a crisis, it's just a passing phase and it will all settle down, or whether there is something here which is an existential threat to the British way of government,” he said.

But he warned there were “certainly some risks”, even if the situation had not yet reached crisis point. “For instance, we certainly have some populist politicians who delight in making no distinction between politicians and civil servants and lump them all together as part of a Remain conspiracy.

“Even among politicians in the mainstream parties, there are some politicians who are at best careless – and that's a polite word – in blaming civil servants for the Brexit outcome, who really have no interest in views outside their own.”

Jill Rutter, programme director at the Institute for Government, said the attacks on civil servants were concerning and questioned whether if they continued, there would be any incentive for civil servants to “stick their neck out” and provide advice to politicians that they may not want to hear.

Rutter said Olly Robbins in particular had been treated as a "human shield", and that it was to Theresa May's "eternal discredit" that she had not publicly stood up for him and told politicians not to criticise him publicly for implementing her Brexit strategy.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP and chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, said a "false narrative" had emerged among some of his Eurosceptic colleagues "that there is a deep state that has beguiled politicians about out relationship with the European Union and is now preventing us from getting out".

He said the UK's next prime minister would need to "show some leadership to the Whitehall machinery", noting that civil servants had been put in an "impossible position" as cabinet divisions have meant there has been a lack of political direction on how to implement Brexit.

However, he said he had some sympathy with his colleagues' concerns, saying they were "buttressed by something that is perfectly true, which is that most civil servants subscribe to what has until fairly recently been a perfectly orthodox consensus" that a desire to leave the EU was seen only at the "uglier fringes of politics, not to be taken too seriously".

He said this theory was supported by several examples of former civil servants who had been "quite vociferous and vocal about their anti-Brexit views", including Sir Robin Butler, who described the UK’s exit from the EU as "a dagger to my soul".

The event at the House of Lords took place just hours after ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch announced his resignation following a row over leaked emails that he said had made it “impossible” to stay in his role.

Normington said it was “troubling” that Darroch had been “deliberately targeted and he could do nothing about it” after memos he had sent to ministers calling the Trump administration “dysfunctional” were leaked to the press.

But Penman said that after months of political attacks on civil servants, "no one is surprised that individuals are being targeted; nobody is really surprised that politicians will try and oust individual civil servants because we have got really used to that, and we've got used to that."

"It creates an environment where civil servants feel alone," he said, adding that the circumstances around Darroch's resignation had damaged the morale of civil servants who would not believe that politicians would defend them from criticism should their advice be considered "inconvenient".

Commenting on the report, John Manzoni, civil service chief executive and permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office, said: "Impartiality is at the heart of the civil service and is one of the core values that helps ensure we are serving the public to the highest possible standards. 

"There are thousands of civil servants across the country who help ensure that the needs of the people of the UK are met and the government of the day's policies are delivered with honesty, integrity, objectivity and, ultimately, impartiality."

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Beckie Smith
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets @Beckie__Smith.

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