Coffey memo riles DHSC and UKHSA staff

Style-guide tips channel Jacob Rees-Mogg after new health secretary's appointment
Photo: Belinda Jiao/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

16 Sep 2022

New health secretary Thérèse Coffey has reportedly angered staff at the Department of Health and Social Care and the UK Health Security Agency with a “patronising” memo setting out her English-usage preferences.

The memo, titled “New secretary of state ways of working preferences” went out on the DHSC intranet and was subsequently forwarded to UKHSA staff.

It featured calls to avoid policy-wonk jargon, double negatives and Oxford commas – but also encouraged staff to “be positive” and flag up achievements “if we have done something good”, according to a leaked version seen by the Financial Times.

The paper said the communication had been received particularly poorly at UKHSA, where hundreds of jobs are at risk as part of a restructuring of the organisation.

It quoted one staff member describing the memo as “super patronising” and out of touch with issues affecting the organisation.

“It does make you consider if you’re in the right place when a new minister comes in with this,” they said.

“The idea that we have to frame issues positively indicates a person who doesn’t want to deal with problems, so that’s not encouraging.”

CSW understands that the latest guidance was not sent out by Coffey herself but was issued by her office to staff at DHSC and UKHSA.

New business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg notoriously handed Cabinet Office staff a style guide with proscribed words and phrases shortly after he was appointed leader of the House of Commons – a cabinet-level role – in 2019.

His banned list included “hopefully”, “very”, “due to” and “equal”, as well as “yourself”, “ongoing” and “unacceptable”, and the Oxford comma. The guide also instructed staff to use imperial measurements, even though most people of Rees-Mogg's age and younger are more familiar with grammes, metres and litres than ounces, yards and quarts.

Dave Penman, general secretary of public-sector leaders’ union the FDA, said it was not unusual for new secretaries of state to set out their requirements of staff. But he questioned the judgment displayed in the Coffey memo.

“Ministers will inevitably have different ways of working which need to be communicated,” he said.

“Leadership though, is about understanding how messages will be received and their impact, particularly on a workforce exhausted at all levels and whose entire focus is on the nation’s health.”

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