A civil service trade union boss has lambasted the “extraordinary” comments made yesterday by Brexit minister Steve Baker, who accused civil servants of undermining Britain’s EU exit after a confidential economic analysis was leaked to the media.
Baker – who last year proposed emergency legislation that would allow ministers to sack civil servants seen to be obstructing Brexit – also accused civil servants in his own department of producing a substandard analysis. He told Parliament that official economic forecasts “are always wrong”.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, the union for senior civil servants, described the comments as “an insult” to civil servants, and he questioned how a minister who refuses to believe an analysis drawn up by his own department can retain the confidence of the prime minister.
Meanwhile, other pro-Brexit government sources have reportedly accused civil service head Sir Jeremy Heywood of conspiring with the Treasury to produce an unauthorised and flawed analysis, according to The Times.
The paper said that most ministers didn’t know about the analysis until they received an email from Heywood last week, inviting them to be briefed on its findings. Heywood defended the civil service’s Brexit record following a separate criticism last week.
The analysis, carried out by civil servants and leaked to BuzzFeed News, suggested that Britain would be worse off under any Brexit scenario. It said that even if the UK were to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, the UK’s economic growth would be 5% lower over the next 15 years – and 8% lower in the case of a “no deal”.
Baker dismissed the report’s conclusions, saying that it was “not a forecast for our preferred outcome of the negotiations” and “does not yet properly take account of the opportunities of leaving the EU”.
Responding to an urgent question from the shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, Baker said: “It is an attempt to undermine our exit from the European Union. It has not been led by my department.
“It is not yet anywhere near approved by ministers. Even the ministerial team in my department has only just consulted on this paper in recent days, and we have made it clear that it requires significant further work."
He also said he was unable to name a single civil service forecast, leaked or otherwise, that had been accurate.
“No, I’m not able to name an accurate forecast, and I think they are always wrong and wrong for good reasons. My longstanding views on the flaws in the epistemology of the social sciences and consequences for econometrics are long set out,” he said.
"How can civil servants in Mr Baker’s department, who are working harder than ever before, now have confidence in a minister who stands at the despatch box and openly questions their professionalism?" – FDA's Dave Penman
The House of Commons should display a “healthy scepticism about economic forecasting”, he added.
The FDA’s Penman said: “Steve Baker’s comments in Parliament are supposed to represent the considered view of the government. His remarks today not only insult the dedicated professionals working in his department and across the civil service, but they epitomise the current state of affairs in government.
"We have just witnessed the extraordinary scene of a serving minister telling the House that, whatever analysis his own department comes up with, he simply won't believe it. The public will rightly ask how this fingers-in-ears approach is supposed to help the country navigate such a complex and unprecedented challenge as leaving the EU.
“How can civil servants in Mr Baker’s department, who are working harder than ever before, now have confidence in a minister who stands at the despatch box and openly questions their professionalism? The real question, however, is how can a minister prepared to undermine the government he serves retain the confidence of the prime minister?”
Labour plans to call a Commons vote today which could force the government to publish the reports.
Starmer will again use ancient parliamentary rules which would make the result of the vote binding on ministers – a procedure successfully used to force the release of separate government assessments of Brexit's impact, and the impact of Universal Credit.
Starmer, writing in The Times Red Box, also accused ministers of undermining officials. “Government ministers commissioned these papers. To now rubbish them as a first line of defence for not disclosing is frankly ridiculous,” he said.
“In my experience, our civil service do the best they can in sometimes difficult circumstances, whether or not they like the instruction they are given. To dismiss their work rather than engaging with the outcome or substance is not good government.”
No 10 insisted that the leaked analysis was incomplete and had not been approved by ministers. Prime minister Theresa May has said that Parliament will be provided with the appropriate analysis on which to make an informed decision when it comes to vote on a final Brexit deal.