Case: More formalised process for perm sec exits would ‘benefit everyone’

No question of poor performance by Tom Scholar prior to sacking, Case says
Simone Case. Photo: Parliamentlive.tv

By Tevye Markson

19 Jul 2023

A more formalised process for permanent secretary departures would “benefit everybody”, cabinet secretary Simon Case has said.

Speaking at a House of Lords Constitution Committee session on the appointment and dismissal of permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants,  Case said “a little bit more structure and format around” departures “probably would be a confidence-building exercise for everyone involved”.

There have been a series of high-profile sackings and departures of perm secs in the last few years, including Sir Tom Scholar and Sir Stephen Lovegrove last year and Jonathan Slater in 2020.

Currently,  there are some formal processes related to performance management,  conduct and discipline issues,  Case said,  but there is no formal guidance on how departures should be managed.

In comparison, recruitment must be carried out according to the Civil Service Commission principles of merit on the basis of fair and open competition, and there are various rules on how to achieve this.

Case said he would be “open” to more structure because “it would benefit everybody to have absolute transparency” around the departures process.

The cab sec said it might be “sensible” to involve a body like the Civil Service Commission in a more formalised process “because,  after all,  they are part of protecting and preserving the impartiality and the role of [appointment] on merit, [which] perhaps should apply to departures”.

However, Case said he recognised that civil service commissioner Stuart was “cautious” about getting involved in a more formalised departure process.

Appearing alongside the cabinet secretary, Jeremy Quin, the minister for the Cabinet Office was less sure on the benefits of a more formal process.

“We’re talking about a very, very rare scenario here,” Quin said. “Working to formalised situations is actually quite rare and is handled by existing processes as it arises.”

“This is an extremely rare circumstance,” Case agreed. But he added that “a little bit more transparency around the process for managing [departures] I think would provide the assurance that I think many people would want about the management of these issues”.

Case,  who answered most questions from the committee,  with Quin largely a bystander,  also confirmed that there were no performance issues with Scholar before he was sacked by then-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng in September.

Asked if there was “no question of bad performance in Scholar case,  Case said: “None whatsoever.”

Case added: “The person who really has to explain why they thought this was a good idea was the former chancellor and perhaps you will have the chance to ask him that question.”

Scholar left his position after 38-day-chancellor Kwarteng said it was “time for new leadership at the Treasury”. It followed vows from Liz Truss her successful Conservative Party leadership campaign to take on the “Treasury orthodoxy”.

Case's Constitution Committee appearance on Tuesday followed a confident, candid performance by the cab sec at last week's Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, where he argued sackings had not put perm secs off from giving robust advice to ministers, and lammed “insulting and dehumanising” criticism of civil servants.

Using civil servants to try to break up UK would be 'unusual and worrying'

The cab sec also told the group of peers he is looking into the Scottish Government’s use of civil servants to work on plans for independence from the UK.

In May,  Scottish secretary Alister Jack raised concerns about the "constitutional propriety" of civil servants supporting the Scottish Government's minister for independence and asked Case to provide assurance that "no UK civil servant will be engaged in this new department".

Asked if it would be a “a bit unusual and a bit worrying” if Scottish civil servants were “effectively supporting ministers who want to break up the United Kingdom”,  Case responded: “I agree with you, I think it would be unusual and a bit worrying, which is why we are looking at the specifics of cases that you and other members raise regularly in correspondence.”

Case said “civil servants in Scotland and Wales can only spend their money on areas that are within their competence”,  adding that the constitution is a reserved matter.

He said new guidance on what work is appropriate work for civil servants could be issued within “weeks”.

 

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