Johnson urged to ‘be a leader for the civil service’

FDA’s Dave Penman urges PM to remember it is officials who will deliver his policies
Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

17 May 2021

Prime minister Boris Johnson needs to do a better job of leading, inspiring and supporting the nation’s 400,000-plus civil servants to maximise his chances of delivering key policy objectives, the chief of the FDA union has warned.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman told the union’s annual delegate conference that after a 15-month spell in which public-sector workers had gone above and beyond the call of duty to keep the nation afloat amid the coronavirus pandemic, it was time to “heal the wounds” caused by attacks on the civil service.

Penman, whose union represents senior civil servants and other public-sector leaders, said 2020 had brought an onslaught against the professionalism, integrity and impartiality of the civil service and its leadership that made attacks over Brexit look “amateurish”.

He cited briefings against senior civil servants and the resignations of Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam, chief legal adviser Sir Jonathan Jones and the PM’s own adviser on standards Sir Alex Allan as particular low points.

Penman said the PM’s decision not to accept Allan’s findings that home secretary Priti Patel had bullied staff and broken the ministerial code had been the nadir.

“We cannot have one rule for ministers and one for civil servants when it comes to bullying in the workplace, and that we need to go to court to try to enforce this is frankly disgraceful,” he said.

Last month the High Court agreed to conduct a judicial review of Johnson’s decision that Patel did not break the ministerial code.

Penman also used his conference speech to warn that the Greensill Capital lobbying affair had exposed a tendency for those in and around 10 Downing Street to “leap at the chance to sacrifice the civil service” to save their own reputations.

“My plea to the prime minister – who, remember, is also the minister for the civil service – is this,” Penman said. “Whatever your ambition, to level up, save the union, take back control or build back better, it is your civil servants who you will rely on to deliver it.

“As prime minister you need to lead them, inspire them and support them. It’s time to heal the wounds, and a good place to start would be ensuring that ministers will be held to account for the same standards of conduct as their civil servants.”

Membership surge

The FDA’s annual report, published ahead of last week’s virtual conference, detailed a surge in membership at the union over the past 12 months, driven by a hike in headcount at its Keystone section for senior executive officers and higher executive officers.

According to the report, FDA membership hit a record high over the past year, surpassing the 13,000 mark after an increase of 15.7% when figures for Keystone were included.

It said Keystone membership had increased by 55.9% and that its headcount was “fast approaching 1,000”.

The report credited the FDA’s high-profile campaigns calling for independent processes to deal with bullying, harassment and sexual harassment with raising the union’s visibility in the workplace.

It added that one of the most popular member benefits for the Keystone section was access to FDA Learn courses, webinars, and the union’s work with employers and equality networks.

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