Sir Martin Donnelly, a former permanent secretary in the business and international trade departments, has said there are occasions when civil servants feel uncomfortable with government policy, but this can be dealt with in a professional way.
Speaking following an outcry after some MPs, including Brexit minister Steve Baker, appeared to question civil service neutrality over Brexit, Donnelly said all civil servants he worked with “loyally” carried out ministers’ policies.
He described one occasion when in government where he thought a policy area was contentious. “I wondered whether any of the people who might have to work on it after an election would not feel happy. So, I said to them, ‘If you don’t want to do this, that’s fine. Tell us now and we’ll find other things to do, no problem.’ They all said, ‘No, we’ll carry on’.
“And they did, they did a brilliant job. I think sometimes it’s good to recognise that people may have personal issues with – very rare, usually – policies, but let’s just handle that openly and professionally.
“I think what we must ensure we do though, is go on telling truth to power in a way that power listens to.”
Donnelly was speaking after a lecture on the post-Brexit challenges for government and business, which was widely trailed because the views he expressed directly contradict those that international trade secretary Liam Fox, Donnelly’s former counterpart in the department, made in a speech on 27 February.
Fox warned that joining a customs union with the European Union would be a “complete sell out of Britain’s national interests”.
But Donnelly, in a speech at King’s College London yesterday, said Britain would lose its economic advantage by leaving the single market and the customs union, a decision that would be like “swapping a three-course meal for a packet of crisps”.
Fox responded to the intervention by accusing Donnelly of “sticking to the patterns of the past”, and dismissed his views as those of someone who had been “professionally committed” to the EU and would therefore want to adhere to its established ways of working.
The former official, who served as permanent secretary at the then-Department for Business, Innovation and Skills from 2010 until he set up the new Department for International Trade in 2016, yesterday called for the Brexit debate to focus on evidence.
“Nobody has a monopoly of wisdom or insights or experience in this area,” Donnelly said, adding that it was important to “work bottom up” from the available evidence to try to understand the impact of Brexit, and maximise the positives and minimise the risks as much as possible.
Asked by Civil Service World if he was concerned about suggestions that some ministers are not listening to the evidence provided to them by officials, Donnelly said: “I am happy to say that in my time in government, I saw officials giving honest advice and ministers receiving that advice.
“And that is what they pay us to do, because frankly if you just want people to agree with you, you can get that much more cheaply.”
He added that it was important to keep reminding politicians and citizens why the current system is good for everyone. “[And] why it’s better than the alternatives, why moving to more political patronage, as many countries have, does not produce the same level of honest analysis of evidence and options and bringing them forward,” he said.
Donnelly added that the current system also allowed for civil servants to produce the groundwork for new policies another party might bring in.
He said: “It is to the credit of successive British governments that they have allowed civil servants in the 12 months before an election to do work on other policies. It is to the credit of civil servants that I’ve worked with that they carry out loyally whatever those policies are.”
In his speech Donnelly outlined many reasons why leaving the EU would necessarily make things more difficult for British businesses. He suggested that if Parliament does vote to leave the single market, the most important thing government can do to mitigate those difficulties is to create a professional, user-friendly visa service for businesses.
“This in my view would be best organised separately from the current visa system with different targets and incentives for staff in a new Business Visa Agency,” he said.