Photo Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Senior MPs and trade union figures have rallied around HMRC permanent secretary Jon Thompson, who yesterday revealed police had investigated two death threats after he set out the potential costs of post-Brexit customs options.
In a event at the Institute for Government yesterday, 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.
The comments led to condemnation from politicians across the political spectrum as well as trade unions.
Nicky Morgan – the chair of the Treasury Select Committee to which Thompson gave the warning – told CSW’s sister title PoliticsHome it was "appalling that a public servant should be threatened for doing his job".
"I am sure Mr Thompson considered what he said very carefully. As someone who has also been threatened it is deeply concerning that this is what Brexit seems to have done to public life."
Fellow committee member Wes Streeting, a Labour MP, meanwhile told this site the threats were "chilling".
"To see a public servant subjected to death threats for giving evidence to our committee in good faith is an affront to our democracy," he said. “It’s time for decent people on all sides of the Brexit debate to unite against the poisonous elements on the fringes who seek to intimidate and threaten public figures.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake, speaking on behalf of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign, said: "The Brexit vote uncovered an ugly underbelly in British society – people who denounce as traitors those who don't support their Brexit views or set out the financial consequences of Brexit.
"Britain has a deserved reputation as a tolerant nation. The Brexit vote should not jeopardise this."
A spokeswoman for the prime minister Theresa May said: "It is completely unacceptable for death threats to be made against anybody."
In his comments yesterday, the HMRC chief said he "didn't anticipate" the scale of the backlash to his warning.
"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'."
He added: "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."
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of the trade union Prospect, which represents professionals, managers and specialists in the civil service and the wider public sector, said he had written to Thompson to offer support.
His message, seen by Civil Service World, expresses “shock at what you have had to endure and the threats highlighted in the recent CSW article”.
He added: “It is the job of civil servants to provide objective and impartial advice and to do that without fear nor favour. It is a cornerstone of our democratic process and something we should celebrate and do everything to uphold.
“I wanted to convey our best wishes. Please do say if there is anything that we can do jointly to ensure the fundamental contribution the civil service makes is recognised and that we stand together to condemn the hateful behaviours you and others have been subject to.”
The FDA trade union's national officer for HMRC Jawad Raza told CSW that "no one should face this kind of abuse for simply doing their job".
He added: "Unfortunately, this is the inevitable result of constant attempts to undermine civil service impartiality from politicians and certain sections of the media.
“In the face of these unpresented attacks, civil servants have continued to serve the government with integrity and professionalism, but Jon Thompson’s revelation that he has received death threats represents an escalation that cannot be tolerated. It’s time for the government and, in particular, the prime minister to finally stand up to defend civil servants against this kind of toxic abuse.”