Prime minister Boris Johnson has told MPs that the civil service needs to become “faster” and “better” at responding to the needs of the public as part of the reform agenda trailed by chief adviser Dominic Cummings and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.
Johnson made his comments at a meeting of parliament’s Liaison Committee yesterday that was dominated by the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The prime minister was asked about the timing of a lessons-learned inquiry into the nation’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. He said he did not believe it would be “a good use of official time at the moment”, suggesting civil servants and health professionals still had their work cut out.
He added: "We’ve been having a long discussion about the very pressing need to ramp up our testing operation. Huge numbers of officials across government across the country are involved in that right now.”
William Wragg, who chairs parliament's Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, asked why the prime minister believed the civil service required reform.
Johnson replied with gushing praise for the work of the civil service but went on to say that he believed its response to Covid-19 showed areas for improvement.
“I think that the civil service does an outstanding job. That’s the most important thing to say,” the prime minister said. “I venerate our civil service. They are fantastic public servants and I think that they deliver extraordinary things every day for the British public at every level of government.”
However, he continued: “I do think – perhaps – that one of the lessons we need to draw from this [pandemic] is maybe there are some times when we need to move faster. Project Speed is of great value, I think, to the workings of our civil service and we certainly won’t be shy of reform where it is necessary.”
Wragg – whose PACAC panel last week quizzed Michael Gove on his vision for change in the civil service – asked how Johnson envisaged reform taking place and when.
“There are changes and what I hope are improvements going on the whole time,” he said. “But I wish to stress to the committee that these are not being done in any spirit of disapproval of the ethic of service or performance of our civil service.
“Our civil service do an outstanding job. What we want to do is to try to make sure they can perhaps respond faster, better to the needs of the public.”
Wragg asked whether the prime minister anticipated any reforms altering the established relationship between ministers and civil servants.
“No. I think the Northcote Trevelyan principles are extremely important,” Johnson replied, referring to the 19th century report considered to define the impartiality and integrity that underpins the work of the civil service.
In a clear reference to this summer’s algorithm-generated exam results fiasco, which saw the chief executive of regulator Ofqual resign and Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater get sacked, Johnson was asked when a minister should resign rather than officials.
“I believe that ministers should indeed be responsible and indeed I, as the minister for the civil service and prime minister, take full responsibility for everything the government does,” he said. “Ministerial accountability is really before parliament and the electorate. "
Wragg asked Johnson – in whose name Slater was fired last month – whether ministers could dismiss civil servants.
The prime minister replied: “A minister is entitled to make clear that he or she believes that operation of the department would be better if things were different.”
Elsewhere in the committee session, Johnson predicted a gloomy outlook on testing, the financial impact of another lockdown and Covid-19 mortality rates.
He admitted that at present the country did not have enough testing capacity, was some way off pregnancy-style testing kits, and that the financial consequences of a second lockdown would be disastrous.
On the number of deaths that are likely, following on from the rise in cases, he said: “The incidence amongst the 80-plus group is now 12 per 100,000. Only a few days ago it was about half that. It is growing.
“And alas, although the number of cases… is obviously far smaller than it was in the spring, we must expect those infections, proportionately, to lead to mortality. That is the reality.”
On Brexit, he accused the EU of not acting in good faith in efforts to strike a trade deal, particularly on the issue of food being sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland in future and whether the EU would approve imports.
This came just hours after Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said the opposite: that the EU was acting in good faith.
Johnson said: “Perhaps they will prove my suspicions wrong.”
With additional reporting by Kate Proctor of CSW's sister title Politics Home