Case for the defence: Cab sec rebukes civil service ‘blob’ slurs in forthright PACAC performance

Case slams ‘cowardice’ of those attacking the civil service, explains why perm secs are not ‘cowed’ by sackings and reveals he flagged up 'forceful' communication from Nadine Dorries to senior politicians
Case at PACAC. Photo: Parliamentlive.tv

By Tevye Markson

13 Jul 2023

The cabinet secretary stood up for civil servants in a session with MPs this week, slamming criticism of officials as “insulting and dehumanising”.

In a hearing which focused heavily on relations between ministers and civil servants, Simon Case told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee any minister labelling the civil service with terms such as “the blob” would be engaging in “self-defeating cowardice”.

The head of the civil service also explained why high-profile sackings of permanent secretaries have not put senior civil servants off giving “vigorous” advice to ministers and set out the work government has been doing to improve civil service morale and pay satisfaction after 2022’s poor staff survey results.

A confident Case also revealed he has flagged up “forceful” messages sent by from former culture minister Nadine Dorries to senior civil servants over her rejected peerage, and outlined plans to update guidance for officials in light of the Sue Gray civil service-exit saga – which you can read here.

‘Blob’ attacks ‘insulting, dehumanising and totally unacceptable’

Last week, Rishi Sunak defended the civil service when asked by the Liaison Committee about the increasing use of the term "the blob" to describe it, saying all officials he has worked with have been "incredibly hardworking and diligent".

This week, Case not only defended the work of officials but also rebuked polticians who have publicly criticised the civil service.

"The last five years or so have seen, I think, an increased number of attacks on civil servants individually and collectively by significant political figures which has undoubtedly undermined the good functioning of government,” he said.

He said this has improved, however, since Sunak became prime minister in November.

"I'm very happy to say that under this prime minister things have changed,” Case said. “The tone has changed quite significantly.”

Asked about the moniker "the blob", which has been used by former ministers including Jacob Rees-Mogg and was deployed in a CCHQ email to attack civil servants earlier this year, Case called the term “insulting, dehumanising and totally unacceptable”.

He said he would be surprised if any current ministers were using language like this to describe the civil service, “not least because if they were it would indicate something akin to self-defeating cowardice”.

“Self-defeating because [you're] insulting the people who work for you, who are delivering public services on your behalf, advising you day in day out. Cowardice because you know these people can't answer back,” Case added.

“Public servants do an awful lot for this country and they deserve respect,” he added.

When there are legitimate frustrations, there are proper processes to raise issues, Case said.

“But that does not mean that it is okay to take to the airwaves, anonymously or named, to use unacceptable language about people who are working unbelievably hard day-in and day-out in this country to deliver the public services that people need and deliver the advice that ministers want,” he added.

The cab sec said he wasn’t aware of any current ministers using the term, other than the high-profile case earlier this year attributed to Suella Braverman, which she later distanced herself from.

“The vast majority of ministers, current and former, go out of their way distance themselves from this sort of dehumanising language of the blob,” he said.

“They think it harms the government, it harms the institutions, that are important in this country. They think it's wrong and improper.”

In March, Greg Hands, the chairman of the Conservative Party and a minister without portfolio, was forced to apologised after a letter was sent from CCHQ in home secretary Suella Braverman’s name criticising an “activist blob”, which included civil servants, for “blocking” the Rwanda scheme. Case said this was “dealt with very quickly and satisfactorily”.

The term "blob" is the latest in a line of phrases used to express frustration with the people running the country,  such as “the establishment” and “the system”, Case said. But he said the latest incarnation feels a bit more concerning.

“I fear it is being used in a very modern, dehumanising way,” he said.

Perm secs not ‘cowed’ by sackings

Case seemed to hold little back in the session, especially compared to PACAC performances under  Johnson's premiership.

As well as decrying attacks on civil servants, Case came to the defence of his perm sec colleagues when asked if the increase in high-profile sackings of top civil servants might have the “chilling effect” of making senior officials afraid to give robust advice.

Top officials dismissed in the last few years include Treasury perm sec Sir Tom Scholar and national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove under Liz Truss' short period in power, and DfE perm sec Jonathan Slater during Boris Johnson's time as PM.

On the question of whether these events had affected the SCS's ability to speak truth to power, Case said: “Actually, you’d think it might but I don't think it has."

“I've not seen any of them be cowed by anything that's happened, they keep giving vigorous advice,”  he said.

“Because they care about what they're doing, and they know that their advice is about making a difference for people in this country. And, in the case of many departments, for lots of people around the world.”

On the Case: How civil service leaders have responded to pay and morale concerns

Case also outlined the work the civil service has done to address morale and pay concerns in the civil service after poor People Survey results in 2022.

He said civil service leaders have “worked really hard with ministers and indeed the unions to secure the highest pay increase for our civil service for 20 years”, referring to the 4.5+5% pay award and 1,500 cost-of-living payment for delegated-grade officials.

“It’s actually the first time, certainly that I can remember, that the pay award we've got for the delegated grades in the civil service is comparable with other public servants. Usually, in the past, civil servants have been awarded significantly less than teachers and nurses.”

Case also alluded to the frustration of tackling pay concerns in a fragmented system. Asked what civil service leaders are doing to address concerns about officials in different departments receiving different pay awards, he said: "We are going through this process to align the grades and pay within departments. It's a long, slow process…I hope one day we will actually have one civil service in relation to pay instead of what we've got at the moment, which is lots of different departments.”

The cab sec quickly moved back from this radical suggestion, however. When asked if this would mean “one civil service, one negotiation”, Case said: “I’m not sure I will sign up...I'm not sure ministers will thank me.”

Pay is just one element of a four-part action plan which includes improving prospects – by improving skills and training and giving officials clear guidance and career development plans – and improving HR and recruitment processes “that drive [civil servants] mad”, Case said. The other part of the action plan is improving pride in the civil service, which dropped three percentage points in the most recent People Survey. Case told the committee there has been progress since the poll, with another staff survey undertaken three-months’ later showing overall morale is improving in “quite a lot of places”.

Cab sec flags Dorries communications with senior politicians

The cab sec also revealed he has referred former culture secretary Nadine Dorries to senior politicians over messages sent to senior civil servants.

PACAC chair William Wragg asked Case if he was aware of "any rather forceful communications" sent by Dorries to senior officials. According to Wragg, Dorries had threatened to use "the platform of the Commons and indeed her own television programme to get to the bottom of why she hadn't been given a peerage".

Case said he was “aware of those communications” and had flagged them to the chief whip and Speaker of the House.

Asked if he had taken legal advice on whether the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 could "come into play",  Case said he was "seeking further advice on that question”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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