The "challenge" provided by civil servants on controversial immigration policies is an invaluable part of the "robust policymaking process", Home Office permanent secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft has said in a rare public interview.
Speaking to CSW before a row in which home secretary Suella Braverman accused “activist” civil servants of blocking ministers' attempts at immigration reform, Rycroft said it is the job of officials to provide "maximum challenge" and that "the more challenge you can get in early on" before policy is finalised, "the better for eventual policy".
An email was sent out to Conservative Party supporters this week, signed by Braverman, which said “an activist blob of left wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party" had "blocked” measures to stop asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats to reach the UK.
The comments have been widely condemned and prompted both the FDA and Prospect unions to write to the prime minister.
In an interview for CSW's upcoming spring issue, Rycroft said civil servants were giving “maximum support” to government policies that are in place. But, he explained, “before ministers decide on a policy or a new process, our job as civil servants is to provide maximum challenge".
"It’s all part of the robust policymaking process. That necessarily needs to be behind the scenes, and we need to have the latitude and the openness to have that sort of challenging conversation. I firmly believe the more challenge you can get in early on, the better for eventual policy.
“After ministers have taken a decision, our job changes. Our job isn’t then to challenge it, just because we happen not to agree with it. It’s irrelevant whether we agree with it or not. If a minister has decided it, and it’s lawful, our job then is to implement it."
In one example of this challenge, Rycroft last year requested a ministerial direction to press ahead with the proposed scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for "processing" and settlement.
He wrote to then-home secretary Priti Patel saying there was not "sufficient evidence" that the policy would achieve its aim of deterring people from crossing the Channel to claim asylum in the UK, and that it would therefore provide value for money.
Speaking to CSW about the letter, Rycroft said: “The direction was not saying ‘it cannot be value for money’. The direction was saying ‘we just don’t know yet whether it will be value for money, and so we cannot go ahead with spending without the direction.’”
The Rwanda scheme faced opposition from human-rights activists, and was challenged in a High Court case, which ruled in December that it was lawful.
If that had not been the case, Rycroft said, “obviously we wouldn’t have gone along with it and it wouldn’t be right to loyally support it now".
He added: "It’s not for us as individual civil servants to decide, in our own internal legal system, that it is unlawful. So that’s why my maximum support mantra applies also to Rwanda.”
The perm sec was responding to concerns expressed by civil servants in an online meeeting last year that by implementing the Rwanda scheme they would be breaking the law.
Asked about staff’s concerns, Rycroft said the policy was “a very sensitive topic with only a small number of people who even knew about it, nevermind had the opportunity to challenge it”.
“Everyone else had to take my word for it that there was a robust level of challenge beforehand,” he said. “And there was – I’m very proud of what the small number of people involved beforehand did do by way of stress-testing and improving the policy.”
“Of course there is still space for challenge in implementation. You can always improve the implementation process. But you no longer, as a civil service, have a particular role in opposing that policy. And that’s really important. Whether you’re a member of a union or not, your job as a good civil servant, thinking about the civil service code and the value of impartiality, is to get on with it," he added.
After the CCHQ email emerged this week, FDA union general secretary Dave Penman wrote to the prime minister suggesting Braverman may have broken the ministerial code by failing to uphold the impartiality of the civil service.
He called the comments “extraordinary” and a "cowardly attack on civil servants".
“As you and the home secretary are well aware, civil servants advise and ministers decide. Once a decision is made, civil servants are tasked with carrying out the settled will of government,” he said.
The PM's press secretary has since said Braverman did not "see, sign off or sanction" the email, which was sent to a CCHQ mailing list. A minister would "usually" a minister would sign off emails sent in their name, they said.
A Conservative Party spokesperson said: "This was a CCHQ email and the wording wasn’t seen by the home secretary. We are now reviewing our internal clearance processes."
Matthew Rycroft's interview will be published in full in CSW's spring issue next week. Contact email@example.com to make sure you get your copy