PM denies Whitehall leadership strains
Tensions between ministers and civil servants over autonomy are overstated, David Cameron tells Liaison Committee
The prime minister last night dismissed suggestions that there are serious tensions between senior officials and ministers over leadership in the civil service.
At a session of Parliament’s Liaison Committee, Public Administration Select Committee chair Bernard Jenkin asked the prime minister how he felt about perceived strains between officials and their ministers.
Jenkin asked: “We’re seeing in this Parliament Sir Jeremy Heywood’s leadership statement, trying to encourage the civil service to develop stronger leadership but we also see some ministers openly challenge officials, claiming they have too much autonomy.
“As minister for the civil service, what do you feel about this tension, and how should it be addressed?”
Cameron said he did not feel that tensions were serious.
“I don’t think the problem is as great as your question poses,” he said. “Of course you get tensions, in any government, between some ministers and some civil servants.”
He added: “Of course, departments have vital aspects of autonomy in that the cabinet secretary, or whatever departments, have got important responsibilities [and] they need to be able to carry them out. They need to have the freedom and the agency to do that as part of the government’s plan.
“I think it’s important that we reform the civil service so that we keep the best of what is an amazing, impartial, professional, dedicated group of people who have the health of the country as their vocation. We keep the best of that, but we improve where there are weaknesses.”
The prime minister also told the committee that ministers will lead on any government negotiations in May.
When asked by Political and Constitutional Reform Committee chair Graham Allen if he would authorise civil servants to support government-building discussions if required, Cameron said: “As you’d expect, I’ve had brief discussions with the cabinet secretary about the cabinet manual and all that is said there, but I’m confident that our system is capable of dealing with these things.”
He added: “Officials advise, and ministers decide, that’s the way it works. What worked last time was that two parties came together with quite different agendas, but elected politicians were able to sit down...and good decisions were made.”
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