New cabinet secretary Simon Case has admitted to MPs that there are gaps in his CV as a civil service leader – most notably that he has never led a major government department.
Case’s comments came in an evidence session to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee yesterday, where he appeared alongside civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm.
Committee chair William Wragg wasted no time in asking Case, who succeeded Sir Mark Sedwill as cabinet secretary last month after serving as permanent secretary of No. 10 Downing Street, whether he considered never having been at the helm of a department was a disadvantage.
“It’s a question that I asked myself before applying, as you would expect, to try and understand whether this was a bar,” Case replied.
“There are cabinet secretaries in the past who also haven’t been permanent secretaries. I discussed this question with a number of former cabinet secretaries and current permanent secretaries to get their views and concluded that it was not an issue.”
Case said said he determined that the most important factor was having had experience of being at “the centre”of government, and his ability to form close relationships with ministers from a number of administrations and their teams.
“It would be impossible and foolish to hide from the fact that there are gaps in my experience, not having been a permanent secretary of a large department,” he said.
“But we all have gaps in our CV. And that’s why, right from the outset, I approached the job as leading through a team with Alex, and other permanent secretaries. We all make up for each other’s strengths and weaknesses and experience.”
Case said he had a track record of giving difficult advice to ministers and prime ministers, but declined to go into specific details of situations when he had said "no" to a top politician.
“I wrack my brain through ministers and prime ministers that I’ve worked for and I’ve certainly not worked for anybody who didn’t welcome – sometimes – difficult advice,” he said.
Later in the session, Case was asked whether officials should continue to “robustly” speak truth to power.
“I say to all civil servants that they absolutely must keep speaking truth unto power fearlessly, in line with our values,” he replied.
Case told MPs that was what ministers wanted from the civil service, and that they would complain if they were not given honest, evidence-based opinions.
“My experience across a range of administrations has been of ministers, special advisers, officials all working really very closely together to solve huge problems and deliver for the country,” he said.
Elsewhere in his evidence, Case was asked whether churn among permanent secretaries represented a problem for Whitehall, following the departure of several top figures in recent months.
“I don’t think there’s an underlying problem,” he replied.
Case confirmed to MPs that his appointment as cab sec was made on a five-year, fixed-term basis along the same lines as other perm secs. The appointments are renewable, however.
He also told MPs that a decision had been taken that his former Downing Street role would not be “back filled”.