By Tamsin Rutter

08 Dec 2017

The former Treasury solicitor shares his reflections from a Whitehall career with Tamsin Rutter

Who? Sir Paul Jenkins joined the civil service in 1979 and rose to become Treasury solicitor, the UK’s chief legal official, between 2006 and 2014. During this time he created a shared legal service within the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, now called the Government Legal Department. He was also head of the Government Legal Service, head of profession for 2,000 lawyers across government, civil service diversity champion and permanent secretary to three attorneys general. Since leaving the civil service he has joined Matrix Chambers and has a practice specialising in investigations and inquiries. Next year he’ll be treasurer at Middle Temple.

The venue

Christopher’s martini bar and restaurant in Covent Garden

The menu

                Starter :Maryland crab cake and tuna tartare with guacamole

                Main: Mac & cheese with lobster and blackened salmon

                We drank: Sparkling water, a double espresso and a black coffee

We discussed

His first year at the Bar

I didn’t enjoy it tremendously, which was sad in a way because I’d wanted to be a barrister since I was a child – they used to recreate famous trials from the 1920s and 30s on the radio and I used to love it.

I’ll never forget the first time I realised my client was lying to me. As a barrister, you know it’s your job to help articulate what the defendant might not be able to articulate. But it was still a terrible shock that he was lying to me. I did it just long enough for the same clients to come round again and expect me to tell the same lies. 

But I also realised I really wanted to do public law. Then I saw an advertisement for the Treasury Solicitor’s Department (TSol).

His first few months in government

My father was a junior civil servant, and there was a radio programme when I was a kid called The Men from the Ministry, which was a much cruder caricature than Yes, Minister. They spent the whole of their time working out how to do nothing. I remember as kids we used to tease dad – he’d come home with his briefcase and his rolled umbrella and we’d say, “You spend the whole of your day doing nothing”.

When I arrived in the civil service, there’d been a huge amount of pressure to get me in, so I’d extricated myself from the Bar as quickly as I could. But I turned up, and nearly left after six months because I had no work at all. 

I arrived five months before Margaret Thatcher, and when she turned up there was this big thing about the civil service being unbelievably inefficient. I didn’t buy that, I’ve never bought that. But, crikey, the bit of the civil service that I was in when I joined was overstaffed and underworked.

Staff inspectors

We used to have these things called staff inspectors. They descend on you from some central unit and talk to you about what you do. I’d been there about six months, the staff inspectors were due, and I asked my boss: “What do I tell them? I haven’t got any work”. He said just tell them you haven’t really got time to talk to them because you spend your day jostling the urgent with most urgent, and could they come back another day. So I trotted this out and they went off and I never saw them again.

Coming out at work

People would have thought the civil service was very liberal and it probably was by the standards of the late 70s, but I remember as a young gay bloke – who wasn’t out – enduring what people would think of as harmless banter. One our bosses wasn’t married and was a bit “scented”, as they said. There was banter over coffee, speculating on this man, and I found it desperately embarrassing. I thought: ‘I’m going to blush in a minute, then they’ll all know, my dreadful secret will be out.’ That didn’t last very long. It took me a couple of years and then I was out, and telling them not to be so bloody awful.

“I didn’t agree with an awful lot of what I had to do over 35 years as a civil servant, but God I enjoyed doing it.”

His proudest achievement

The thing that sticks in my mind is the National Lottery. In 1992, John Major rather unexpectedly won the general election and he gave David Mellor a new department, the Department for National Heritage. It was my first job as a departmental legal advisor, and on day one, three of us sat down and we invented the Lottery between us. We took the two sentences on it that were in the Tory manifesto and within 18 months we had the National Lottery Act on the statute book.

That time he saved Christmas

In my first year as Treasury solicitor, just before Christmas, someone came to me and said, “Bad news Paul, we can’t pay the staff”. TSol is run as a sort of business: it charges its clients, and it’s not allowed to make a profit but it can’t make a loss either. We only had money in the bank if the clients paid their bills and they’d closed down their payment systems for Christmas.

The good news is the Treasury solicitor owns the Bank of England. So, I phoned up my bank and said: “Hello, it’s your owner here. Can I have an overdraft?”. So we paid the staff, they got their Christmas. But it made me realise that we were a very unsophisticated business, and I spent my first four years turning it into a modern model business within government.

Salaries in private practice

The government has to compete for lawyers with the private sector, and it’s never going to compete on money. Money in the private legal sector is extraordinary. There are barristers chambers now that will pay their trainees £60-70,000 a year, which is what really quite senior lawyers are getting in the Government Legal Service. Many of my new recruits had taken a big pay cut.

What the civil service offers instead

The strapline for a while was “law at the heart of government”. The GLD does a lot of law that is not very different from private practice, but the government is your client and that brings all sorts of interesting challenges. Where the work is completely unique is on the advisory side, where you’re advising officials and ministers on what the law is and how to develop it. 

Flexible working

The other critical thing we were able to offer was a range of alternative working patterns and that attracted people with caring responsibilities, who are disproportionately women. City law firms, if their employers asked to work part-time, they’d say, “Absolutely. Obviously the clients won’t put up with that so you can’t have a client-facing role. You can go into knowledge management”. If I had a pound for every lawyer I’d recruited that had been threatened with knowledge management in a city law firm, I’d be rich.

When I arrived in TSol, 80% of the lawyers did not work full time, five days a week in the office. They were home working, part-time working, job sharing.

His time as civil service diversity champion

We did a lot of good but there were times when ministers who I needed to support me in delivering the diversity agenda thought, maybe rightly, that there were more pressing priorities in terms of civil service reform. I found this deeply frustrating. It meant we didn’t have a strategy for the last year or so, and it felt like we were floundering. 

What’s happened since I left is wonderful because, essentially, Jeremy Heywood took it over. If you’re head of the civil service, people will follow. Whenever I talk to civil servants now, they get diversity. There’s no sense that it’s not a top priority even in difficult times.

The wellbeing of government lawyers

There are people in the GLD whose job it is, in effect, to represent the interests of people who they probably know are terrorists. The justice system can’t allow them to have a private solicitor because the only way they can be defended is by somebody who knows a lot of the intelligence background. But put yourself in the position of a lawyer who has joined the civil service thinking they’re going to represent the government, they’re going to be on the side of the angels. There are big wellbeing issues here.

How he’d feel if he was delivering Brexit

During my career I spent many a long happy night negotiating directives in Brussels. I would find it, personally and emotionally, deeply challenging to be unscrambling 40 years of work.

I talk to my former colleagues both on the policy and the legal side, and they are brimful of professionalism trying to make it work.

But there’s definitely a sense of enormous frustration that one picks up around Whitehall because it’s still a task which is struggling to find political direction.

If he’d have signed up for DExEU as a young lawyer

Absolutely. Some people say nobody good wants to work in DExEU, or they’re losing staff. People come and go, that’s inevitable. But most of the bright 30-35 year olds who I hired to be private secretaries when I was permanent secretary, they were queuing up on day one to go and work in DExEU and they love it, professionally. You join the civil service to work at the heart of government and you’ve got the biggest peacetime project probably in the history of the nation. I didn’t agree with an awful lot of what I had to do over 35 years but God I enjoyed doing it. And this is just it writ large.

What he thinks of former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude

Occasionally a bit of grit in oyster of the civil service is no bad thing. I wouldn’t have delivered the single shared service that is the Government Legal Department without help from Francis Maude.

Why he wanted the shared service

One of the frustrations I had was that it was difficult to make things happen quickly, particularly in terms of deployment of lawyers. There was an awful lot of negotiation with the other big beasts in the Government Legal Service – everyone gets very protective of their own people.

My successor tells me the proof has really been in Brexit – he needs to have the right lawyers in the right place, and he’s just been able to do it. Ten years ago you’d have had to sit down and negotiate. 

His advice on fostering joint-working across government

In some ways it was easier for me because the core of it was there already. There were about 2,000 lawyers in the Government Legal Service, and roughly 700 worked for TSol. I was also head of profession for all the lawyers – that role went back 20 years whereas very few of the other professions had that.

It’s about getting the narrative right, explaining to people that it’s not just some power grab. That was a failure on Francis Maude’s part – ministers sometimes think, not unreasonably, that they’re in power and they should be able to dictate what happens. But human nature is such that people will always come more willingly to a project if they understand why and if they think it might actually be a good idea.

“Whenever I talk to civil servants now, they get diversity. There’s no sense that it’s not a top priority even in difficult times.”

His relationship with ministers

I was permanent secretary to three attorneys general and I knew them all beforehand. I was always very fortunate because we never had a crisis in the very early days, before we’d built a relationship of trust and confidence.

I’ve known Patricia Scotland since we met on day one at Bar school. It’s quite strange having a good friend as your minister when you’re a permanent secretary. When she was attorney general, there were allegations in the newspapers that she’d employed a housekeeper who was an illegal immigrant, which was true. The issue turned on whether she’d done the checks or not. There was a classic media feeding frenzy, she was trapped in her house by journalists. My job was to advise her but also to be very forthright – we needed to get to the bottom of it. 

Why he left the civil service

It was a very difficult decision. I was Treasury solicitor for eight years, longer than anyone’s done it in modern times. There was an election looming and I thought I either had to sign up to stay after the election or go now. So I thought I’d go, and the only sad thing was we hadn’t quite finished putting the Government Legal Department together. We’d got almost everyone in but we hadn’t proved it had worked. It’s all going swimmingly, I hear.

Life after government

I learnt very quickly that one didn’t talk about retiring because it made you unmarketable. Old people retire. 

I have a very varied life now. I try and spend at least one day a week with my dog and my partner in the garden, even if the BBC come down with a news crew to record an item. I do quite a lot of work with Middle Temple, and pro bono work with Justice, the big legal charity. I’m also building a quite a niche practice as a barrister doing investigations and inquiries, some for government. At Matrix Chambers I get quite a lot of Brexit work – advising Americans on Brexit is fascinating.

Designing his coat of arms

One of the more bizarre things about becoming treasurer of Middle Temple is that I have to have a coat of arms, which has a motto at the bottom. I didn’t want any Latin because that’s not what state school boys have, so I’m having: “Speak truth unto power”.

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