Sir Paul Jenkins obituary: Jonathan Jones and Lord O’Donnell share their memories

The Treasury solicitor from 2006 to 2014 died on Monday 26 February. His successor at the Government Legal Department and the former cabinet secretary pay tribute to this exemplary civil servant and friend

Sir Paul Jenkins being made Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Credit: Lewis Whyld/PA

The most convivial of company

Everyone who knew him has been deeply saddened and shocked by Paul Jenkins’ death. He was recovering in hospital from surgery which was thought to have gone well, but died suddenly on Monday morning, 26 February. The many tributes and reactions describe a pretty special person.

I worked with Paul in my first government legal job at the Office of Fair Trading in about 1990, when he was legal adviser to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (both bodies since abolished). As is the way with government legal careers, our paths criss-crossed over the years until he became Treasury solicitor in 2006, having in the meantime served as legal adviser to the Department for National Heritage (now DCMS), the Lord Chancellor’s Department (in various manifestations, now the Ministry of Justice), and the work and pensions and health departments. He held the post of Treasury solicitor for eight years: for part of that time I was his deputy before succeeding him in 2014.

"People responded to his authenticity and the twinkle in his eye, as well as the sheer good sense of what he had to say"

Paul was widely respected as a wise lawyer and adviser, a consummate administrator, a reforming and inspiring leader, and a fearless champion of diversity in all its forms. He was also, simply, a great and much-loved human being. His friends and admirers are innumerable, spanning the law and the civil service (of course), but also politics, the arts, the media, and many parts of the globe. He was the most convivial of company (and would incidentally have recognised that as a euphemism), traded in what Dominic Grieve QC MP described at Paul’s leaving party as “weapons-grade gossip”, liked to hobnob and was not above a bit of name-dropping: he relished mentioning that the Queen once remarked that he was her longest-serving Treasury solicitor.

But he didn’t care about grade; junior staff and students loved him; and across the civil service, the legal profession and beyond there are hundreds, probably thousands, of people whom he supported, encouraged, mentored, inspired, and generally cheered up. I am very proud to include myself among them. There are many stories of his kindness and generosity. When my house was badly flooded one winter, I got back to the office to find he had put a bottle of whisky on my desk to soften the blow (he knew me quite well).

Paul was disarmingly frank about his own limitations and dislikes. He didn’t take naturally to public speaking or set-piece presentations. By his own admission he completely dried up during his interview for the job of Treasury solicitor. But he obviously got over this, and people responded to his authenticity and the twinkle in his eye, as well as the sheer good sense of what he had to say.

After leaving the civil service, Paul practised from Matrix Chambers, primarily in the field of public law, governance and inquiries. He also took to Twitter, which he found to be the ideal medium for sharing his wisdom and pictures of his dog Jack, but also to sound off about what he saw as the folly of Brexit and the shortcomings of the current political class. This didn’t seem to rule him out from doing reviews or other work for government – indeed it left no one in any doubt about his independence, so often made him the ideal choice. He remained a strong advocate for the civil service, and GLD in particular, in uniquely challenging times.

Paul’s final role was as treasurer of Middle Temple, an institution which he loved and to which he led me back as a “bencher”. He saw it as particularly important to support students and those coming into the profession – as he felt the Inn had supported him when he came to the Bar as a relative “outsider”. Middle Temple Hall was where he chose to hold parties celebrating his civil partnership with Rene Hansen in 2009, and later his departure from the civil service in 2014.

It is particularly sad that he will not see through a term of office as master treasurer which would doubtless have been productive and reforming, but above all fun. I can’t resist adding that, when recently he saw what he regarded as an unpromising seating plan for a Middle Temple dinner, he texted me: “Crikey you’re sitting between [X] and [Y]. I will be in Pegasus [wine bar] from 5.30 if you feel the need for prior fortification.”

RIP Paul, much missed lawyer, public servant, inspirational leader and friend.

Jonathan Jones, Treasury solicitor and head of the Government Legal Department

Enormously respected

I will always remember Paul being with me at times of crisis offering wise counsel, combining his immense legal expertise with an understanding only shared by the very best policy advisers. Here was a man enormously respected by the judiciary but also aware of political realities. He would explain tersely what one interpretation of the law might imply, knowing this was utterly undoable, and then, with a twinkle in his eye, describe an alternative approach that was both legally correct and politically attractive.

As the longest serving Treasury solicitor in nearly half a century he was indispensable to a series of attorneys general and senior officials. I will remember him for his amazingly wise advice: Paul was a lawyer who helped you get the best possible result even if this meant telling you that you needed to approach the problem in a completely different way. In my time we had complex issues ranging from how to handle returnees from Guantanamo Bay to how to ensure first rate legal advice was available to all minsters during the period of austerity. Paul created a single shared legal service that increased both efficiency and effectiveness.

"He was not content just to be a great role model: he was determined to help others facing prejudice"

Paul was so much more than a great head of the government legal service and Treasury solicitor. He was a genuine champion for diversity, knowing from personal experience what is like to be part of an excluded minority. Indeed his parents, of whom he was very proud, were both civil servants but his mother, who was more senior, had to resign when she got married. Those were not the most enlightened days in the civil service. Paul experienced prejudice at first hand so it was a delight to all of his fellow permanent secretaries when he became the first one of us to celebrate entering into a civil partnership.

He was not content just to be a great role model: he was determined to help others facing prejudice. As the head of the legal advisers in government he oversaw significant improvements in their gender and ethnic diversity. He also mentored numerous individuals who were facing obstacles for one reason or another. I made him diversity champion for the civil service and he achieved a lot but I know he was frustrated by lack of ministerial interest in this agenda.

He was also enormous fun. His irreverence was revealed for all to see when he took to Twitter post retirement. His private, blunt assessments now reached a much wider audience. He made no secret of his dismay at the prospect of Brexit and how badly it was being handled by the Cabinet. Yet as a civil servant he always demonstrated honesty, objectivity, integrity and impartiality even when he had his misgivings about the direction of policy.

After retiring he rejoined Matrix chambers where he had started his training. He took on the post of treasurer at the Middle Temple where for years he had enjoyed the company, the gossip and the food and wine.

He will be sadly missed by all who had the honour to work or play with him. He could have no better legacy than a civil service which strives to reflect our society in all its dimensions and a legal service that continues to speak plain truth unto power.

Gus O’Donnell, cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011

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