Officials are 'carrying the can for ministers' failure', says ex-civil service head – as unions blast Slater sacking

Boris Johnson accused of throwing civil servants "under the bus" by firing DfE perm sec
Lord Bob Kerslake said the decision to fire Jonathan Slater was a "disgrace". Photo: CSW

The former head of the civil service has said officials are "carrying the can for the failure of ministers" as unions hit out at the prime minister for sacking Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater following a row over A-Level results.

Lord Bob Kerslake, who left government in 2014, said it was a “disgrace” Slater had been sacked while education secretary Gavin Williamson has stayed in place throughout this month’s qualifications row – which led to protests, and then a major government U-turn on how exam grades were calculated.

Slater’s sacking followed shortly after the resignation of Sally Collier, chief executive of Ofqual, the exam regulator at the centre of the storm.

“I know Jonathan Slater well. He is an extraordinarily experienced and capable civil servant. And I believe there was nothing wrong with the quality of his advice, there's everything wrong with the quality of the minister receiving it,” Kerslake said.

The ex-civil service chief, who has worked as a Labour adviser, said civil servants were feeling “undervalued and insecure” and that “they don't think the relationship is working between civil servants and ministers”.

“This is really not good stuff. I think we're going to see a diminishing trust between the civil service and ministers which is crucial and an unwillingness to give the honest advice that's needed,” he said.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union that represents senior civil servants, meanwhile said civil servants were being “discarded without hesitation to keep scrutiny from the government’s door”.

“If it wasn’t clear before, then it certainly is now – this administration will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability.”

Writing for CSW today, Penman said Johnson’s decision to push Slater out could partly be attributed to “the instinct to throw red meat at a baying audience of commentators and backbenchers”, as well as “the desire to avoid at all costs a political resignation – which now appears to be a matter of principle for this PM”.

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, said there is an “insidious approach being taken by this government with regard to the public servants who serve it”.

“The government needs to re-establish trust with those who serve it. The government has said it wants to reform the civil service but has not articulated fully what it means by that. If you want to drive positive change this is not how you do it,” he wrote for CSW.

Slater’s exit comes amid a string of high-profile departures from government. Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill will step down in the coming weeks, as will Foreign Office perm sec Sir Simon McDonald. Ministry of Justice perm sec Sir Richard Heaton announced last month that he would not seek reappointment at the end of his five-year term this summer.

Those departures come after the high-profile resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam from the Home Office in February, and the departure of Clare Moriarty after the closure of the Department for Exiting the European Union at the beginning of the year.

The Labour Party has called for an investigation into the events, accusing the prime minister of “meddling” in the civil service.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes said there had been “a very disturbing pattern of civil servants time and again taking the fall for the incompetence and failures of ministers”.

“We certainly need more transparency and an investigation would be the right way to go about establishing whether there were any issues in both of these departments [DfE and Ofqual],” she told the Today programme.

“The way that the government would typically undertake an investigation within the civil service would be to appoint somebody from either from outside or from another civil service department to look at what what what had gone on.

"A summary sacking of the permanent secretary at the instruction of the prime minister is a very unusual way for the government to be meddling in the civil service.”

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