Brexit minister apologies after questioning civil service impartiality for second time in a week
Union slammed DExEU minister Steve Baker after he refused to dismiss “conspiracy theory” claims of civil service bias
Steve Baker, a minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union, has said he will correct remarks he made that appeared to accuse civil servants of deliberately developing analysis to favour a continued close relationship with the EU.
In DExEU questions in the House of Commons today, the minister was asked by leading Brexit supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg to confirm he had been told by Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Research, that officials in the Treasury had “deliberately developed” a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union were bad for the UK economy.
Rees-Mogg, a backbench Conservative MP, asked Baker whether, if this were correct, he agreed it was against the spirit of the Northcote-Trevelyan rules that govern civil service impartiality.
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Baker replied that Rees-Mogg’s “account is essentially correct”, even though Grant has disputed this version of events.
Baker added that “at the time I considered it implausible because my direct experience is that civil servants are extraordinarily careful to uphold the impartiality of the civil service”. He also stated he “did not in any way seek to confirm the truth” of the allegation, adding there was a “need to proceed with great caution because it is essential that we continue to uphold and support the impartiality of the civil service.”
However, Grant subsequently claimed that he had only told Baker that he was aware of research carried out by the Treasury that showed that the economic benefits of free trade agreements with countries outside the EU were significantly less than the costs of leaving the customs union. One government analysis, leaked earlier this week, suggested that Britain would be worse off under any Brexit scenario. It said that even if the UK were to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, the UK’s economic growth would be 5% lower over the next 15 years – and 8% lower in the case of a “no deal”.
“I did not say or imply that the Treasury had deliberately developed a model to show that all non-customs union options were bad, with the intention to influence policy,” Grant said in a statement.
Following Grant’s comments, and the publication of the tape of the event, Baker said he would apologise to Grant and correct his comments to the House.
“As I have put on record many times, I have the highest regard for our hard working civil servants,” he wrote on Twitter. “I will clarify my remarks to the House.”
2/3 The audio of that conversation is now available and I am glad the record stands corrected. In the context of that audio, I accept that I should have corrected the premise of the question.— Steve Baker MP (@SteveBakerHW) February 1, 2018
3/3 I will apologise to Charles Grant, who is an honest and trustworthy man. As I have put on record many times, I have the highest regard for our hard working civil servants. I will clarify my remarks to the House.— Steve Baker MP (@SteveBakerHW) February 1, 2018
FDA general secretary Dave Penman said Baker's comments risked “seriously undermining the government he is a part of”.
“To stand at the dispatch box and refuse to challenge a half-baked conspiracy theory about the civil service – one that is even now being disowned by its supposed source – is the height of irresponsibility from a serving minister,” Penman added.
“It is not good enough for Mr Baker to simply shrug his shoulders and allow unfounded accusations about officials to go unchallenged.”
Baker’s comments come just two days after the minister – who last year proposed emergency legislation to allow civil servants seen to be obstructing Brexit to be sacked – said Whitehall economic forecasts were “always wrong”.
These comments followed the leak of the economic analysis earlier this week, which Baker dismissed as "an attempt to undermine our exit from the European Union. It has not been led by my department".
Penman reiterated that every day civil servants put their personal views aside and work tirelessly to implement the decisions of ministers – “and they do so with a professionalism that puts the likes of Mr Baker to shame”.
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