Gisela Stuart hits out at ‘wrong and counterproductive’ criticism of civil servants

Civil service commissioner and ex-MP also says she is “amused” at the suggestion she cannot be impartial
Gisela Stuart. Photo: UK Parliament/CC BY 3.0

By Tevye Markson

13 May 2022

First civil service commissioner Gisela Stuart has criticised “unfair” attacks on civil servants.

Briefings against officials are “not just wrong, they are also counterproductive”, Baroness Stuart, who was appointed to the role in March, told the FDA union's annual conference. “ They don’t make things better but risk putting talented people off working in government,” she said.

Stuart used her first speech as civil service commissioner to address months of negative briefings on civil servants’ hybrid-working arrangements by ministers and in the press. Government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has been especially vocal in his criticism of officials working from home, as well as suggesting jobs should be cut as the civil service is not providing “value” for the taxpayer. 

She added: “Politicians can answer back when they feel they have been unfairly attacked and criticised, civil servants can’t. If they do, it is usually a resigning matter.

“You have to rely on others to make your case and defend your professional integrity. I know that the FDA has spoken up in the past, as have other trade unions, and I am glad they have done so. And we all should speak up when we see integrity and professionalism undermined."

Before Stuart's speech, FDA general secretary Dave Penman had slammed the government's "culture war" on flexible working, asking the prime minister to "step back and let those whose job it is to run the service get on with it". He also criticised government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg's for leaving “crass, condescending, passive aggressive little notes” at civil servants' desks.

Asked by CSW what role she saw for the commission in defending civil servants, Stuart said the commission's "strongest lever" is making sure when civil servants make complaints that departments take responsibility.

"But if it doesn't work, we're still here," she added.

She said she is also "quite serious about the civil service code being something that should not just be ‘when you start the civil service have a read and that’s it’".

PACAC approved the former Labour MP and Vote Leave chair's appointment as commissioner of the  civil service watchdog in February despite raising concerns about her suitability for the role, specifically whether she would be impartial.

Stuart is the first politician to hold the position in more than 100 years.

Replying to a question from CSW on how she would respond to concerns about her impartiality, Stuart said: “I’m always slightly amused that there seems to be a presumption that once you've been a politician, you're kind of infected with a virus for the rest of your life.

“I entered the House of Lords not affiliated [to a political party] and am now a proper crossbencher, which requires a year's quarantine period where you show through good conduct that you've shaken off the urge to be party political.

“I think I've probably shaken off that urge since 2017 when I stepped down. And I think impartiality is something you can never prove, you can only show it in your conduct.”

As first civil service commissioner, Stuart sits on the recruitment panel for permanent secretary roles and oversees civil service code complaints.

Explaining her ambitions for the role, she said she wants to “put greater focus on persistent poor performance”.

“As a regulator we don’t have the power to sanction but we can make sure that our findings are taken seriously and that action is taken to improve performance,” she said.

Stuart also wants to shorten the time it takes to recruit staff, adding that talented candidates sometimes" either drop out or take on other roles” if recruitment processes leave them waiting too long.

“This is wasteful for those who have applied and dropped out and for vacancy holders if they don’t get the best people into post,” she said.

Stuart also anticipates more work for the commission. Last year’s Declaration on Government Reform set out plans to make all civil service roles “external by default”, opening up all vacancies to the wider employment market .

The commissioner said she “would expect a government announcement on how this might work in practice before too long”. This model would substantially increase the number of recruitment competitions that the commission oversees and so Stuart said the watchdog will need to evolve.

Stuart said helping the civil service to attract and recruit people with the skills and abilities it needs – on merit – is at the core of her role.

She said the commission expects departments to make sure recruitment processes are fair and open and that they have a strong and diverse field of people applying.

But she expressed disappointment at progress towards making the senior civil service more representative.

“Recently I have paused and reflected on the fact that the current cabinet is ethnically more diverse than the senior levels of the civil service. [Former Treasury second perm sec] Dame Sharon White was the first black person to become a permanent secretary in 2013. Suma Chakrabarti served as the perm sec in the Ministry of Justice from 2007 to 2012.

“I assumed things were beginning to change, but they have not.  It is not good enough for us to talk about the need to change without being prepared to accept that this includes each and every one of us.”

She said the commission is starting a pilot– initially with the MoJ – to develop potential leaders with backgrounds and skills that are currently under-represented in the workforce.

 

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