100 not out: Dave Penman on a century of the FDA

The FDA has been batting for the values of the civil service for a century. This role remains as critical as ever, says general secretary Dave Penman

Whitehall perm secs and FDA reps: FDA union leaders including Dave Penman meet with cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill and permanent secretaries from across government as part of the FDA’s centenary celebrations

By Dave Penman

08 Feb 2019

Birthdays are a bit funny: the more you have, the less you tend to like them. As a sprightly 51-year-old — no stop, really, oh that’s very kind — I’ve recently celebrated a biggie and am not looking forward to any further milestones. For organisations, however, longevity rocks and the one I’ve been part of for nearly 20 years is now celebrating its centenary.

The creation of the FDA is in itself quite an extraordinary feat. Imagine the political situation in early 1919, only two months after the conclusion of “the war to end all wars”. While there was peace in Western Europe, political turmoil still gripped much of the world in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. These were the circumstances in which a small group of senior civil servants, part of the “First Division” as it was known then, sought to establish a trade union for those at the very heart of government. Thus the Association of the First Division of Civil Servants was born.

Not only was the concept of the FDA groundbreaking, but our founders also had the foresight to recognise that our members’ interests lay not only in personal issues like pay and pension arrangements, but also in the integrity of the roles they performed. Our first rule book sets out just two objectives for the union: representing the interests of members and promoting the “efficiency” of the service.


We’ve found a third objective that the FDA has been true to almost since its inception: championing equality. We started campaigning for equal pay rates for men and women in 1935 and achieved it 20 years later. In 1944 we had our first female president: a remarkable woman called Alex Kilroy, who fought alongside her union to abolish the marriage bar for female civil servants. By the 1970s, we were fighting discrimination against gay and lesbian staff. From negotiating equal survivor pension benefits to challenging bullying and harassment, the FDA has always been, and always will be, a powerful advocate for those in marginalised groups. 

We have also championed the right to belong to a union. The FDA fought the ban on trade union membership in GCHQ, and members took almost unprecedented strike action as part of that fight in 1984. When the ban was lifted by the incoming Labour government in 1997, it paved the way for the FDA to extend membership and union support to staff in the Secret Intelligence Service, followed a few years later by the Intelligence Service.

Over the years the FDA, never standing still, has grown in numbers and influence. We merged with other unions and organisations representing similar groups of staff. We now represent prosecutors across the UK, tax professionals, education inspectors, diplomats, lawyers, economists and statisticians. We stand for those who formulate policy, advise ministers and deliver vital public services. In 2005, we set up a unique joint venture with Unison – Managers in Partnership – to represent senior managers in healthcare, and in 2015 we extended membership to HEOs and SEOs through our Keystone initiative.

So what of the FDA today, 100 years on? We’re still a strong, pragmatic advocate for our members, whether we campaign on pay, pensions, redundancy terms or work-life balance. We’re five years into a legal challenge to secure equal pay in HM Revenue and Customs and have been the lead union in challenging bullying and harassment in the civil service and parliament.

We continue to add to our unrivalled reputation for defending members, often in the most difficult circumstances. We stand up both for individual civil servants and the civil service’s commitment to impartiality, integrity and professionalism. Whether it’s the cases of Clive Ponting, Derek Lewis or – more recently – Brodie Clark, the FDA has been unafraid to challenge governments and ministers to defend those principles. Most of our work goes on away from the glare of publicity but is valued nonetheless. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” could have been a fourth objective for the union, had Teddy Roosevelt not bagsied it earlier.

“Our founders recognised that our members’ interests lay not only in personal issues like pay and pension arrangements, but also in the integrity of the roles they performed”

These values are under attack like never before, with Brexit acting as a lightning rod for ideologues who would happily sacrifice the foundations of good government to further their cause. Too often, the FDA is the lone voice defending those striving to deliver the best possible outcome for the country amid a deafening silence from ministers and prime ministers, who find it too politically convenient to let civil servants take the blame.

I wrote this on Burns Night, so it seems fitting to end with his words: “Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Gey few and they’re a’ deid.” So raise a glass, mug or thermal coffee cup to the union, and our next hundred years.

Current FDA general secretary Dave Penman (second left) with his predessors John Ward, Norman Ellis and Jonathan Baume. Photo: Stefano Cagnoni

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