Covid Inquiry: Civil service churn 'disastrous' for UK, ex-minister says

Oliver Letwin says most officials knew less than him about emergency planning by the end of his spell as a Cabinet Office minister
Oliver Letwin. Photo: Covid-19 Inquiry

By Tevye Markson

21 Jun 2023

Civil service churn is “disastrous” for the country, ex-Cabinet Office minister Sir Oliver Letwin has told the Covid Inquiry.

Letwin, who was responsible for resilience as government policy minister from 2010 to 2016, said he regularly came across officials who knew less than he did by the end of this period.

He told the Covid Inquiry that the government should create a cabinet-level minister position with exclusive responsibility for resilience, who sticks to it throughout a government’s time in power, and has officials who are “committed” to it for the same period “and, with luck, longer”.

Letwin, who described the current state of critical national infrastructure in the UK as “wildly un-resilient”, said changing this trend of high turnover would be “really critical” to successful emergency planning preparation.

Currently, “the entire structure of the civil service means that you can't really make progress in a career without going through endless different jobs, one after another, which I regard as a disaster for the country. Particularly disastrous in the case of things that have very long lead times and where learning from experience is critical,” Letwin said.

Letwin acknowledged it would be difficult to ensure continuity with every ministerial post, but he said for resilience, “if we were really taking it with the seriousness we need to take it, I think we would have people who were there right through.”

The resilience minister should be senior and close to the prime minister, Letwin said, adding that “the appointment of a junior minister will achieve nothing" in this domain.

Letwin said he "regretted" not putting more of his focus into pandemic flu during his time as minister, as it might have led to him asking officials to prepare for the "tiny possibility" of a non-flu pandemic like Covid-19. Letwin said this preparation would have cost "a tiny amount of money".

'I kept on coming across officials who knew less than I did'

Although Letwin said resilience was only a relatively small part of his brief, he praised then-prime minister David Cameron for giving him longevity in the role. But he said this also exposed the lack of experience among civil servants.

“By the end of my time working on these things for five years, with the exception of one or two people in the Civil Contingencies Secretariat who were continuing their role there and knew an awful lot, I kept on coming across officials who knew less than I did, me as the amateur, because they'd actually been in post for next to no time whatsoever,” Letwin said.

The former minister said this meant that by the time those working in resilience got trained up, they were quick to move on.

Asked whether he felt there was a case for introducing a formal system of training of ministers who deal with civil emergencies, Letwin said: “Not only a case, I think an overwhelming case.”

But he added: “If you're a minister responsible for anything a fortiori, resilience... [or] health, defence, for six months, you could have training for the first two months but by the time you're finished your training, you've practically finished your job.

“If you're an official that does a job that's related to the crucial interests of the United Kingdom for 18 months, and you have training, which usually takes six months to arrange and six months to conduct, again by the time [that's finished] you're off.

“So isn't just a question of training, it's a question of training and having a system which keeps both ministers and officials in post long enough so they can use the training.”

In December, the government published a resilience framework which committed to launching a UK Resilience Academy to ensure the UK has the “best people leading and working in government and across the wider resilience sector”. It also committed to appoint a head of resilience, with both targeted to be implemented this year.

Letwin said it is important that the head of resilience, “is parallel in stature” to the national security adviser and has “direct access” to the prime minister.

The framework says the head of resilience “will complement the existing role of national security adviser” and “will not duplicate or cut across the responsibilities of existing senior officials or lead government departments but will provide leadership for the system”.

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - Unprotected departments face cuts of up to 2.9% under Labour's plan – IFS

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