Perm secs churn is not evidence of civil service politicisation, Sedwill insists

Outgoing cab sec waves aside concerns as IfG sets out challenges for his successor
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Boris Johnson is not trying to politicise the civil service, despite concerns over the large number of permanent secretaries who have left government in recent months, Sir Mark Sedwill has said.

The now ex-cabinet secretary said in an interview with Sky’s Off the Record podcast that turnover at the top of the civil service is “natural” and not a cause for concern.

Asked whether the departure of seven permanent secretaries this year could indicate that the prime minister – and his top adviser Dominic Cummings – are “politicising the civil service”, Sedwill said: "I think it is natural that there is that kind of churn, but I don't want to get into every individual decision that's been made either by the individuals themselves or about them.

"This government, like others, wants to ensure there is proper political leadership of government. That doesn't mean politicising the civil service. No one's ever asked me, for example, which way I voted. I've never seen a desire to have a civil servant of a particular political affiliation."

As well as Sedwill, this year the heads of the Foreign Office, Ministry of Justice, Home Office, Department for Education have all left their posts or announced plans to leave this year. Former Department for Exiting the European Union head Clare Moriarty also left government after the ministry closed at the beginning of the year.

The Sedwill interview was recorded before the resignation of Government Legal Department head Sir Jonathan Jones in a row over the government’s plan to publish legislation that ministers have since said will break international law.

And it was also reported this week that Rowena Collins Rice, director general at the Attorney General's Office, is shortly to leave her post for another public appointment.

Sedwill did, however, acknowledge that civil service impartiality had come under pressure over the last few years.

"It certainly has been challenged, and I think the 2014 and 2016 referendums probably meant that it was challenged, in that those were essentially so existential a set of questions about the United Kingdom's national identity and place in the world,” he said.

"That particularly the protagonists on either side of that found it hard to retain the confidence that everyone – whether it's the civil service or indeed in other parts of government – was simply discharging their responsibilities with the neutrality and impartiality that we prize,” he added.

The interview was published the week Sedwill handed over his post to Simon Case, and amid warnings that Case would need to restore the civil service’s reputation as an impartial organisation and to restore civil servants’ trust in ministers.

The day the appointment was announced, former cab sec Lord Gus O'Donnell said Case now faced a challenge “to restore trust in government and restore the civil service’s trust”.

“At the moment we’ve got ministers blaming civil servants for everything, talking about reform without explaining why they want that reform and what’s going wrong at a ministerial level... now he needs to get the trust across the civil service and his fellow permanent secretaries,” Lord O’Donnell said.

And in a blog post yesterday, Institute for Government senior fellow Catherine Haddon set out some of the other major hurdles Case faces in his first week on the job.

He must decide how to tackle the government’s admission that it is willing to break international law in attempting to pass legislation to amend the Brexit deal – which triggered top government lawyer Jones’s resignation.

“Case not only has to tackle Jones’s grievances and the fallout from his departure, but he must also consider where he stands on this issue,” Haddon wrote.

“The Civil Service Code makes clear that ministers cannot ask civil servants to break the law, but how much does Case personally object to recent developments, and how does he explain his position to the thousands of civil servants who will also be asking themselves where the line is drawn?”

He must also make a ruling on a report into allegations home secretary Priti Patel broke the Ministerial Code by bullying staff. “There has been an internal battle between Downing Street and officials over the conclusions of the report, delaying its release,” Haddon said.

The publication of the investigation, which was announced after the resignation of Rutnam, who claimed Patel had created a “culture of fear” in the Home Office and had failed to distance herself from briefings against him in the press, has been delayed for several months. 

“To whom will Case lend his authority? This is a difficult task if the report says one thing but the government wants it to say another,” Haddon added.

Haddon said Case “may face a battle” over the government’s drive to get civil servants back into the office. Case’s predecessor wrote to permanent secretaries last week calling for them to get 80% of officials back to the workplace at least one day a week by the end of the month.

But the move has received pushback from unions, with PCS branding the call “irresponsible” and saying it could even respond with industrial action as a last resort.

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