Scholar's dismissal 'sends clear message about civil service impartiality'

Truss and Kwarteng have shown they want to be surrounded by 'yes' men and women, David Normington says
Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville/Alamy Stock Photo

The removal of Sir Tom Scholar as Treasury permanent secretary sends a “clear message” that Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are not interested in civil servants’ impartial advice, former first civil service commissioner Sir David Normington has said.

“The sad fact is that in sacking Sir Tom Scholar, one of the ablest civil servants of his generation, the prime minister and chancellor have sent a clear message to the civil service that they are not interested in impartial advice and intend to surround themselves with 'yes' men and women,” said Normington, who was a perm sec at the Department for Education and the Home Office before later becoming the appointments watchdog in 2016.

In a letter to The Times today, he wrote: “That is a sure route to bad decision-making and weak government. It is also another small step on the road to politicising the civil service."

Normington also turned his ire on cabinet secretary Simon Case, who he said had “acquiesced in the sacking and once again failed to stand up for the values of the civil service”.

Before Truss was named prime minister last week, it had been reported that she was planning to replace the cab sec. However, Truss appears to have changed her mind after reportedly being impressed with Case’s performance during talks over the energy crisis.

Normington was responding to a Times opinion piece written by Theodore Agnew, the former Treasury and Cabinet Office minister who quit the government in January over its handling of fraud in Covid support schemes.

Lord Agnew, who has been vocally critical of the Treasury and civil service, wrote on Monday that Scholar’s departure “should be a cause for celebration”.

He said – without giving evidence for the claim – that Scholar had “fiercely resisted” plans to create the Treasury’s economic campus in Darlington, and blamed him for “botched arrangements in the construction of the bounce-back loans during the pandemic”.

He added that the Treasury has “no idea how to deliver” economic growth, and slammed the “malign influence of the Treasury orthodoxy”.

Agnew, a multi-millionaire businessman, said the “cries of dismay at [Scholar's] dismissal” were unsurprising because they came from “an echo chamber of former mandarins… a metropolitan elite with their own self-reinforcing prejudices”. 

“Many would say that it is up to elected ministers to impose their will and that the upper echelons of the civil service are entirely neutral in their political views. This is nonsense. Mandarins have a very strong view of how the world should look and will use every lever available to ensure that their prejudices prevail,” he added.

In his letter to The Times today, Normington said Agnew’s attack followed “an age-old formula: if you cannot get your way in government, attack the civil service and throw in a few slurs about metropolitan elites on the way”.

His comments were echoed by former cabinet secretary Richard Wilson, who called Agnew’s attack on the Treasury “ill judged” and “self destructive”.

“It looks like an attempt to shift on to institutions the blame for the failure of ministers’ own past policies. Civil servants will implement whatever the government decides, loyally and with energy, as they always have done. This should be a moment for bonding, not attacking,” he said.

Lord Wilson, who was cabinet secretary between 1998 and 2002, said the continuity and experience of the civil service will be “crucial support” for ministers as they tackle huge challenges in the coming months.

“To summarily dismiss a key top official, judged by most people to be outstanding, at this moment is destabilising,” he said.

“It is contrary to established practice and is bound to create ripples as consequential moves take place. It may affect morale; there has already been a distressing loss of talent over the past decade.”

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