Sedwill warns civil servants must 'step up another gear' amid rising Brexit pressure

Written by Beckie Smith on 1 October 2019 in News
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Cabinet secretary says he will "resist attempts to draw the civil service" into Brexit debates

Sedwill (left) with Boris Johnson and ministers in Downing Street. Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA

Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, has warned that pressure on civil servants is only set to increase as Brexit draws nearer, but has pledged to “resist” attempts to bring officials into political debates on the issue.

In a letter to senior civil servants, Sedwill acknowledged that Brexit was an “unsettling period” for officials, and also revealed he would spend time visiting both public and private sector bodies to better understand the "pressures at the sharp end".

“The new government has set an ambitious agenda and a breakneck pace as they develop their domestic programme and seek to deliver Brexit by 31 October," he said.


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“I am really proud of how the civil service has responded, particularly in accelerating Brexit preparations, demonstrating once again that we deserve our rating as the world’s best civil service,” the letter, which was leaked to Sky News, read.

But Sedwill warned that work is set to intensify as the European Council summit on 17 October – after which the prime minister must ask for a further extension of the Brexit deadline if the UK and EU have failed to agree a deal – approaches.

“With only a few weeks to the crucial October European Council and the decisions thereafter, we must step up another gear,” the cab sec said.

Sedwill, who is also the head of the civil service, also revealed he was embarking on a listening tour to gauge how different sectors were responding to Brexit.

"I am spending much of this month on the road to see the wider public leadership and our partners in the private sector and civil society countrywide to ensure I understand clearly the challenges and pressures at the sharp end," he said.

And he pledged to protect civil service impartiality, stressing that decisions over Brexit are “political issues and they are politicians to resolve”.

"I realise that this is an unsettling period. Brexit polarises public opinion and civil servants are not immune from those pressures,” he wrote.

"The record level of public trust in the civil service is a precious asset we must all protect.

"At the heart of that trust is the citizen's confidence in our commitment to our values and serving with integrity the governments they elect.

"Our advice must be candid. Our attitude must be can-do.

"Rest assured, I am mindful of my own constitutional responsibilities, but I will continue to resist attempts to draw the civil service into the argument."

Commenting on the letter, Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect trade union, said Sedwill was "absolutely right that the civil service has been put under strain by Brexit, not least due to the rise in inflammatory and dangerous rhetoric towards dedicated public servants by senior political figures".

Prospect last month urged Sedwill to ensure that officials would not be put in a position where they were asked to break the law, and Graham today he urged Sedwill to “take the lead and give clear guidance on how to respond to the possibility of a constitutional crisis that will place impartial civil servants in an incredibly difficult position”.

Last month Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union hit out at "tactical political game playing" and warned Boris Johnson not to force civil servants to break the law by ignoring parliament.

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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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