The chair of parliament’s powerful Liaison Committee has expressed concern at the government’s “pattern” of scapegoating civil servants and agencies for issues that ministers are ultimately accountable for.
Sir Bernard Jenkin said that if the trend continued it would hamper the effectiveness of departmental staff and stifle the free flow of information between officials and ministers that is vital for Whitehall's smooth running.
Jenkin’s comments came in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, against the backdrop of education secretary Gavin Williamson’s lack of public support for the head of exams regulator Ofqual over the debacle surrounding this year’s A-level and GCSE gradings.
“I am concerned that there's a sort of pattern setting in under this government that something goes wrong and it is the permanent secretary's fault or it's some public body's fault, but it is never the government's fault,” Jenkin said.
“Ministers have to make decisions – they either support their people or they get rid of them and get new people, and they can't have a halfway house.”
Jenkin said he believed the civil service was in need of reform, and that he supported proposals made by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove at the end of June.
But he cautioned that the only way the civil service could deliver what ministers wanted was if there was “a free and open and trusting flow of information backwards and forwards from ministers and officials”.
Jenkin added: “If the whole discourse between ministers and officials becomes stifled in an atmosphere of blame and fear, then I don't think civil servants will be able to support ministers very effectively.
“Who is going to stick their head over the parapet, tell the minister the bad news, if they're going to get blamed for it? There needs to be a much more collaborative approach to running the government than has been demonstrated.”
Jenkin said examples of the problems with ministers’ current blame culture included the “scapegoating of the departing cabinet secretary and other permanent secretaries”.
Jenkin said there was a sense “that somehow it’s their fault that a government has made announcements about things that haven’t gone right; it’s not the minister’s fault”.
He said the government needed to recognise that there was currently a good opportunity to reform the civil service, improving both the leadership of officials and that of ministers in the process.
“It’s for ministers working with the civil service to put these things right,” he said. “If ministers are at loggerheads with the civil service, a great deal of energy will be wasted, a huge amount of unhappiness created, good people will leave."
Jenkin said that the civil service would outlast the current government, and that ministers needed to recognise the risks if relations with officials did not improve.
Jenkin’s full World at One interview can be heard here.