FDA chief warns of ‘systematic and deliberate undermining’ of civil service impartiality

Written by Jim Dunton on 10 May 2018 in News

Dave Penman tells union conference conspiracy claims from both ends of political spectrum are a threat to the fabric of Whitehall

FDA general secretary Dave Penman. Credit: Civil Service World

Politicians at both ends of the political spectrum are creating a fact-phobic environment that is a calculated affront to the civil service’s tradition of giving impartial advice to ministers, FDA general secretary Dave Penman has warned.

Speaking at the union’s annual delegate conference, Penman said that while the “systematic and deliberate undermining” of officials was most acute among hard-Brexit proponents, left-wing politicians were also pursuing an anti-civil service agenda.

Chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins has been the subject of intense media attention, most recently in relation to reports that Brexit secretary David Davis called for him to be sacked. Another recent high-profile attack on officials came when Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees Mogg and junior Brexit minister Steve Baker both accused Treasury officials of lacking impartiality in producing an analysis that was in favour of the UK remaining in the customs union. Baker subsequently issued a clarification insisting that he had not sought to portray Treasury officials as biased.


In his conference speech, Penman said the current political landscape was increasingly polarised, with “ideological evangelists” seeking to undermine the civil service’s values of impartiality, integrity and professionalism when objective analysis did not suit their particular agenda.

“These ideological evangelists are believers and don’t welcome facts that don’t fit their narrative. They don’t welcome truth being spoken to power because they have an unshakeable belief in only one truth,” he said.

“On the right we have seen the systematic and deliberate undermining of the civil service by those who are troubled by the challenging facts around our exit from the EU. They have sought to paint the civil service as a Remainer resistance movement, undermining the will of the people.

“There has been a constant drip feed of stories as fantastical as the targeting of Leave donors for tax liabilities to the digging up of essays written by civil servants at university.

“All are deliberate; a constant whispering in the ear of the public that the civil service is about to betray the will of the people.”

Penman said that as Brexiteers railed against the civil service for defying the will of the people, aides to Jeremy Corbyn were pedalling similarly unconstructive narratives.

“On the left, the civil service is being painted as part of the establishment conspiracy by those around the Labour leader who openly suggest that, once in power, the civil service will seek to undermine the will of a socialist government.

“Like a chapter from Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup, it's somewhere between a half-baked undergraduate hypothesis and getting your excuses in early.”

Penman concluded that as ministers became “increasingly unwilling” to defend their own officials it was up to the FDA to be the voice standing up for senior civil servants in the face of “unfounded attacks and conspiracy theories”.

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