Charles Clarke: Politicians who ‘slag off’ civil service are ‘completely wrong’

Civil servants who challenge ministers’ ill thought-through policy ideas are generally blamed for blocking change and become the “butt of hostility”, former Labour minister Charles Clarke has said.

By Winnie.Agbonlahor

16 Sep 2014

Clarke (pictured), who was home secretary from 2004 to 2006 and education secretary from 2002 to 2004, said yesterday that in his experience as minister, “politicians who slag off the civil service get it completely wrong.”

Clarke spoke during the launch of his book ‘The “too difficult” box’, held at the Policy Exchange headquarters in Westminster last night. The book outlines a number of serious long-term problems which governments tend to put aside because they are too difficult to solve in the short term.

Asked to what extent this problem is caused by issues to do with the civil service, he said that “what happens is, if a politician and a government are very clear about what they want to do, the civil service works generally loyally to try and help the ministers do what they're trying to do and understand the issues.”

The role of civil servants is, “by definition, to say: ‘Have you thought about x, y or z to implement this? How are you going to overcome that burden?’”

However, he added: “If the politician hasn’t thought through properly how they're going to implement the question then the civil servants, or the [entire] civil service even, becomes the butt of hostility as being the people who are blocking the change that everybody wants.”

Clarke, himself the son of a former permanent secretary, added that like ministers and journalists, many civil servants live “within the M25 in a fairly middle-class approach and don’t often get outside their normal circuit.”

While he said that most ministers – unlike civil servants and journalists – do have regular dialogues with local people in their constituency work, he added that “politicians need to do that better.”

He concluded: “I'm not in favour of saying that civil servants have become a block to all of this; there are occasions where the civil servants are the blockers, but I don’t think that's generically the problem.”

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