Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has told MPs that reports the prime minister's chief adviser Dominic Cummings had forecast a “hard rain” for the civil service were wrong.
The assertion came in an hour-long appearance before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, in which Gove was asked about his reform agenda for Whitehall – trailed in June’s Ditchley Lecture – and plans to reduce staff churn between departments.
Gove said he was working on an outline paper to put “flesh on the thin bones” of what he said at Ditchley, and pledged: “Reform and change is something we’ll be doing with the civil service, not to the civil service”.
He was asked about Cummings’ warning to government special advisers – also reported in June – that “a hard rain” was coming” for Whitehall, and that reforms would make “the centre of government smaller, empower departments and change civil service fundamentals to improve performance”.
PACAC member Tom Randall suggested to Gove that if he was planning to work with civil servants on reform, they weren’t going to be “subject to hard rain”.
Gove said that to the best of his knowledge the phrase attributed to Cummings at the Zoom meeting was wrong.
“I wasn’t in the meeting,” he said. “I have colleagues who were. They don’t recall him – and there were three of them – having said that. So my understanding of the reporting is that it was a rare occasion on which there was a mishearing. That’s what I was told. I’ve never heard him use that phrase.”
Committee chair William Wragg subsequently asked Gove whether his forecast was instead for “balmy sunshine”.
Gove’s lengthy answer did not include the word “no” but did include the phrase: “I think that all of us in government face some challenging times ahead”.
Committee member David Jones asked Gove about proposals to reduce inter-departmental churn among civil servants.
The Cabinet Office minister repeated the accepted wisdom that the phenomenon was driven by the way the civil service is structured in terms of opportunities for pay rises and promotion.
“There are tools in the toolbox for permanent secretaries and others to encourage people to stay in particular posts” he said.
“There’s something called the pivotal roles allowance that allows greater reward to be given and other appropriate bonuses. But there’s often an incentive, if you look at the past, for people to have to move department and have to move responsibility in order to secure promotion, and I think it’s become more acute recently.”
Gove said that he and Cabinet Office perm sec Alex Chisholm were looking at different ways to change the system to give departments more flexibility so that people could “rise within their profession, get that reward in terms of status, income and other areas, without […] having to leave the department and move into another area”.
“I hope we can improve the situation,” he said. “But I think there will still be some moments when ministers or permanent secretaries will regret the fact that someone they very much want to hold onto will be lost to them. But hopefully the situation will be better.”
Elsewhere in the PACAC hearing, Gove was asked how concerned he was about the high number of permanent secretaries leaving their departments this year.
Gove said that 2020 was not a record year by the standards of the past two decades.
“Historically it’s been the case that in other years there has been bigger churn at the top,” he said.
“In 2005, 12 permanent secretaries moved on; in 2007 [the figure was] 11, and that’s more than have done this year. So I think it’s important to look at it in a historical context.”
Gove was also quizzed on whether it was clear in Whitehall where accountability lay between civil servants and ministers.
“Yes. The buck stops with ministers,” Gove replied.
Committee chair Wragg asked the Cabinet Office minister whether he thought it was peculiar that no Department for Education minister had resigned over this summer’s exams chaos when “very senior officials within the department and an agency fell on their swords”.
“I would say that the challenges that were faced by governments across the United Kingdom as a result of the Covid pandemic were unprecedented,” Gove said.
“There was a broad consensus that an alternative method of assessment had to be found. … But because it was unprecedented it was a challenging delivery environment.”
Ofqual chief executive Sally Collier resigned from her post last month and DfE perm sec Jonathan Slater was sacked by Boris Johnson. Wragg did not refer to either official by name.