Opinion: Dave Penman, FDA

Why are select committees so rude? Yes, they must challenge witnesses – but there’s no need to be disrespectful


By Dave Penman

17 Dec 2014

It’s not often that I’d recommend a viewing of select committee evidence as an enjoyable way to pass the time. But I did watch John Manzoni, the new civil service chief executive, give evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in late November. He was refreshingly frank and straightforward; it’s really worth a watch or a read of the transcript.

We at the FDA welcome Mr Manzoni’s appointment and look forward to working with him. I am sure that his promotion has also been warmly welcomed across the civil service. He’s a former CEO of an oil and gas company, and was one of the most senior executives at BP. He brings a wealth of experience, and had already made an impact during his short time at the Major Projects Authority.

The PAC is conducting an inquiry into the work of the chief executive of the civil service. Given that he’s only six weeks into the job it feels a little premature to me, but maybe they’re bored. I’m sure it’s not that they wanted to try to catch him on the hop before he was up to speed. With decades of senior management experience in multinationals and appointed to work at the heart of government, he’s got just the kind of expertise and role that the PAC regularly suggests is lacking in the civil service. I was expecting him to be welcomed with open arms.

The opening exchange went like this.

Chair: “We are going to break with tradition – I am going to go to Stephen Phillips first.”

Stephen Phillips: “Welcome. Congratulations on your appointment. What is the point of you?”

Now the PAC certainly has a reputation for this style of questioning, but personally I find it not only gobsmackingly disrespectful, but also symptomatic of a very negative approach adopted by some politicians in both government and parliament. This is not the first exchange at a select committee that has raised an eyebrow. Of course, committees such as the PAC need to robustly examine witnesses, but I’ve seen them question the intelligence of some civil servants and almost ritually humiliate others. It’s hard at times to see where the public scrutiny ends and the self-promotion begins. 

Ministers, as we know, are not averse to a bit of civil-servant-trashing themselves. One of the biggest complaints we get from members is that they’re tired of being thanked in private and criticised in public. Whether it’s ‘scars on my back’ or ‘enemies of enterprise’, ministers and prime ministers have often felt the need to publicly criticise the very individuals they rely on to deliver the government’s agenda, undermining that essential trust.

Not all politicians are the same; and many, in pursuit of creating a better society, have made sacrifices that most of us would struggle to imagine. Despite public cynicism, I firmly believe that the vast majority are still driven by the desire to make things better. But that is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for an approach and behaviour – from more than a few – that is at times patronising, arrogant, or dismissive of others who are similarly committed to public service. It took the unions representing staff in the House of Commons four years to get a credible ‘respect’ policy to govern the behaviour between politicians and those working within the Commons. Unfortunately, this achievement has been undermined by making training on the policy mandatory for all staff, but not for all MPs.

Each government goes through its own highs and lows in its relationship with civil servants, but my worry is that a culture of disrespect in Parliament permeates through our politicians – who at some point in their careers may become government ministers.

This in part explains why there were understandable reservations about the recent announcement by the Civil Service Commission on the appointment of permanent secretaries. It provides, for the first time, a formal role for the prime minister in selecting a candidate – rather than simply allowing them a veto. This is a subtle but important difference. However, there are a number of checks and balances, and candidates need to be ‘above the line’: appointable in the eyes of the panel. So the prime minister can choose between candidates of almost equal merit.

We supported the changes brought in by the commission. They are not without risk. But the reformed process will be transparent and will balance what is clearly a cross-party demand for greater involvement of ministers in selection with retention of the principle of appointment on merit. 

Nonetheless, it should come as no surprise that civil servants are wary of the power of patronage being handed to politicians who routinely treat others in a way that would simply not be tolerated in modern society – at least outside the hallowed halls of parliament.

Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union

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