HMRC chief Jon Thompson reveals he faced death threats after setting out Brexit customs costs

Thompson says that it is incumbent on civil servants to tell truth to power after speaking of personal impact of comments on Brexit


By Richard Johnstone

11 Oct 2018

Jon Thompson, the head of HM Revenue and Customs, has revealed that police have investigated two death threats he received after setting out the potential cost to businesses of post-Brexit customs options.

In a session at the Institute for Government today, Thompson said that his evidence to the Treasury select committee in May that the ‘maximum facilitation’ proposal – the favoured solution of some Brexit supporters to use technology to solve customs issues – would cost firms up to £20bn a year had led to “very significant personal consequences”.

“We have had to literally change how I travel and what my personal security is. We have had two death threats investigated by the Metropolitan Police for speaking truth unto power about Brexit,” he said.


However, he insisted that it was incumbent on him as a civil servant to act with integrity and give ministers the best advice. “Civil servants do that and we’re really rather good at it, but in the end it’s a democracy. You give a minister your best advice – they may not agree, but in the end it is a democracy and when they make government policy you have to go implement that as best you can.”

Thompson’s comments on the cost of max fac arrangements, which would mean the UK would not have to follow EU rules on goods, were highlighted by Brexit opponents as illustrating the cost of leaving the EU single market and customs unions.

Asked by CSW what the impact of the death threats had been, he said that he “didn’t  anticipate” what would happen.

“You know you’re in a [significant] moment because the question is a very powerful one and the answer is very stark,” he said.

“The first I knew it was significant was when my 28-year-old son text me with, ‘you’re trending on Twitter’. [I thought] 'oh, is that a good thing? I don’t know'.

“I didn’t realise it would result in that, but I think it is absolutely incumbent on us to stick to the fundamental principles of the civil service, which is to give ministers the best advice that we can, and in a democracy minsters make the decisions.

“If what we are going to do is back away from that, for whatever reason, I don’t think that’s right. For me that is about personal integrity, and sometimes it is really really difficult – and it is tough with ministers – but it is the right thing to do.”

He added that the fact he had revealed the £20bn figure provided a boost to staff in HMRC.

“Colleagues at HMRC sit round and watch if I’m at a select committee and they give me feedback, which I want to encourage them to do because it is that kind of organisation, but I didn’t realise it had so much resonance in the organisation – that there’s the boss telling it as it is, we know that is true, we have that information and ministers have that information too.”

Earlier in the session, when Thompson set out his vision for the operational delivery profession that he leads, he said that he had sat down with the heads of other professions across government to develop ideas since taking up the post in February.

After speaking with Chris Wormald, who as well as being the permanent secretary of the Department of Health and Social Care is the head of the policy profession in government, they agreed all civil service fast streamers would undertake an operational delivery placement.

“Both of us wondered if there was enough understanding on both sides between policy and operational delivery,” Thompson said of his conversations with Wormald. “The initial decision that we have taken is that from this point on, all fast stream entrants into the civil service will have at least one placement in operational delivery, so that they get great experience in policy in and around Whitehall, but they also see what public service delivery is like on the other side of that equation. We think we need to expose people to both aspects of that relationship.”

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