Trust in civil servants rising; politicians least trusted group

The level of public trust in civil servants has risen dramatically over the last 30 years, a poll by the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute has found, while politicians are firmly ensconsed at the foot of the table.

By Matt.Ross

20 Feb 2013

Asked whether certain groups can be trusted to tell the truth, 53 per cent said they trust civil servants – a big rise since the question was first asked in 1983, when just 25 per cent trusted them. Civil servants now stand below the police and ‘the ordinary man/woman in the street’ (trusted by 65 and 64 per cent respectively), but above pollsters and trade union officials (41 and 34 per cent).

Ipsos MORI’s head of political research, Gideon Skinner, said “the pattern is quite interesting and quite clear. In 1983 the figures that civil servants were getting were better than politicians and government ministers, but not massively; now they’re in the middle of our index.”

The civil service retained a net negative figure – with more people saying they didn’t trust officials than said they did – “throughout most of the ‘90s, but since 2000 it’s been more balanced,” said Skinner. “Over the last 30 years, it looks as though there’s been a general improvement in trust in the civil service.”
No other group has had trust in it rise so far: trade union officials have seen a rise since the 1980s, but their net figure remains negative.

Meanwhile, levels of trust in politicians remain very low. Between the early ‘90s and 2009, trust in ministers and in ‘politicians in general’ tended to be slightly higher than trust in journalists – but, perhaps as a result of the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal, politicians now sit at the bottom of the table. Just 18 per cent say they trust them to tell the truth; bankers and journalists, meanwhile, tie on 21 per cent. Skinner comments that “it looks like the expenses scandal brought trust in politicians down; there’s maybe some signs of a tiny recovery since then, but it’s not terribly consistent.”

Worryingly, younger voters seem more suspicious of politicians than older generations, with 39 per cent of 18-34 year olds saying that disgraced Lib Dem politician Chris Huhne’s behaviour is typical of most MPs, compared to 29 per cent of over-55s.

Asked for a comment, former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull suggested that given the low levels of trust in politicians, the attacks on the civil service by some ministers are likely to have a limited impact. “If you’ve got one group, who are trusted by 18 per cent of the population, saying: ‘These people are useless’, there’s a question over whether people will believe them,” he said. “There’s half a million civil servants; they live amongst the people. Most people will think: ‘I play football with a civil servant, and he’s okay’.”

Lord Butler, the cabinet secretary for a decade until 1998, said the rise in trust in civil servants might be “the obverse of the decline in trust in politicians: perhaps people feel they’ve got to rely on the civil servants to keep the politicians straight.” Asked why trust in politicians is low, he said the public are “always demanding the impossible, so politicians come under pressure to deliver it.” So they promise the undeliverable, and people are “regularly disappointed that these promises aren’t being achieved.”

Ipsos MORI interviewed 1,018 UK residents on 9-11 February.

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