George Osborne pays tribute to Sir Nick Macpherson as Treasury perm sec marks final Budget

Chancellor pays tribute to "great public servant" – but SNP MPs jeer reference to "impartiality"

By Matt Foster

16 Mar 2016

Chancellor George Osborne has used his Budget statement to pay tribute to outgoing Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson.

Macpherson steps down from his role as the Treasury's most senior official at the end of the month, to be succeeded later in the year by prime minister David Cameron's top Europe adviser Tom Scholar.

Speaking from the despatch box as he set out the latest Budget, Osborne said he wanted to thank Macpherson, who he described as a "great public servant".

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"He has served as permanent secretary to the Treasury for ten years, under three very different chancellors," said the chancellor.

"Throughout he has always demonstrated the great British civil service values of integrity and impartiality. He's here today to watch the last of 34 budgets he's worked on and on behalf of the House and the dedicated officials at the Treasury I thank him for his service."

That reference to Macpherson's impartiality drew jeers from some Scottish National Party MPs, however. The Treasury perm sec came under fire from the pro-independence side in the Scottish referendum campaign for making public his advice warning on the impact of on sharing the pound with an independent Scotland. MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee last year concluded that the advice should not have been published.

Macpherson is Whitehall's current longest-serving perm sec, and as well as working for Osborne, has served under Gordon Brown, and Osborne's immediate Labour predecessor Alistair Darling. 

Speaking to CSW, Darling – who worked with Macpherson at the height of the 2007-8 financial crisis – praised the outgoing perm sec's "clarity of advice" and "ability to remain calm in the teeth of a crisis".

"When I was there he was leading the Treasury through a time of acute crisis," the former chancellor said. "The Treasury was very much on the frontline, whereas traditionally the Treasury isn’t. I know that he was very highly thought of by his staff and because of that he could motivate them and get people to work all hours of the day and night, which doesn’t always happen in a department.

"It’s very easy for ministers to blame civil servants for their own shortcomings. But the fact that Nick was, if you like, a traditional civil servant in the sense that he believed in the integrity of the civil service regardless of whichever ministers may come and go – I think that was hugely valuable."

Darling said it was "a tribute" to Mapcherson that "all the chancellors that he’s served have decided that he’s a good thing and he should stay".

"If you look at the numbers of permanent secretaries that were chopped in between 2010 and 2015 – that certainly didn’t happen at the Treasury. Gordon thought highly of him, I thought highly of him, Osborne thought highly of him. And in other quarters people say “Well, isn’t that terrible?” No, it’s not. Because I think what all of us are looking for is the same thing – somebody who’s a check and a balance on what we might want to do. "

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