Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and civil service chief executive John Manzoni have hit back at attacks on civil servants’ impartiality amid increasingly bitter divisions over Brexit, dismissing accusations that officials are scuppering no-deal preparations as “nonsense”.
In a letter to civil servants, seen by CSW, the two leaders said they could not ignore anonymous claims that "the performance and attitude of civil servants are actually hindering [no-deal] preparations" and that such statements were "nonsense".
“The civil service, self-evidently, is here to serve. It isn’t – and shouldn’t be – above criticism. But the recent criticism hasn’t been about how efficient and effective we are. Rather it goes right to the heart of, and calls into question, the values and integrity of the UK civil service in supporting governments of the day – the very qualities that make us practically unique,” they said.
“We want you to know that we reject this suggestion categorically and that you have our full support.”
In the letter, which was also passed to The Times, Sedwill and Manzoni praised the "perseverance, dedication and skill to implement government policy" of civil servants working on both Brexit preparations and on day-to-day government work, adding: "At no time have you fallen below the high standards that the public would expect, and that we expect of ourselves."
"Speaking on behalf of the group of senior permanent secretaries who make up the Civil Service Board, we are proud of what you do. Never more so than now, when the government’s priority of preparing for the UK’s exit from the EU presents an almost unprecedented set of challenges to civil servants. Challenges to which we see you rise every day," they said.
They added: "While we put on record our own appreciation for what you do, it’s worth mentioning that we are not alone. We have received messages of thanks and admiration from all sides of the EU Exit debate for the commitment and professionalism of civil servants."
The letter follows Sedwill's unprecedented public intervention last October, in which he wrote to The Times calling for an end to “sniping” about senior officials preparing for Brexit. At the time, he said it was “part of the role of the cabinet secretary to maintain public trust in the integrity and impartiality of the civil service”.
Since then, criticisms of how civil servants are handling Brexit preparations, particularly for a no-deal scenario, have intensified. A spate of articles by anonymous Whitehall officials in national newspapers in the last month accused the civil service of attempting to scupper Brexit.
And last week, the Labour peer Lord Adonis said he would push for permanent secretaries to be sacked for failing to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
At the same time as Sedwill's letter to his workforce came to light, a second letter from the cabinet secretary – this one to the cabinet – emerged warning that the UK could be hit by a recession, and would be “less safe” in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The 14-page document, extracts of which were leaked to the Daily Mail, said food prices would increase by 10% and some businesses that trade with the EU will collapse if the UK crashes out of the bloc without a deal, according to the newspaper.
Sedwill, who is also the government’s national security adviser, added that the UK’s national security would be “disrupted” in a no-deal scemario.
He added: “A no-deal exit would enormously increase pressure on our law and security authorities and on our judicial system. The UK would be less safe as a result of this."
Sedwill also echoed warnings by the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, that Northern Ireland would face “more severe” consequences than the rest of the UK in a no-deal scenario.
“The current powers granted to the Northern Irish secretary would not be adequate for the pace, breadth or controversy of the decisions needed to be taken through a no-deal exit. Therefore we would have to introduce direct rule," he said.