Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, has pushed back against suggestions that it should be easier for ministers to remove permanent secretaries they do not like, amid a row following the department of the Home Office’s top civil servant.
Sedwill gave evidence to MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee today, nine days after Home Office chief Sir Philip Rutnam resigned. Rutnam has alleged that home secretary Priti Patel had bullied staff and was involved in briefings against him to the press.
Since Rutnam’s resignation there have been reports in the press based on anonymous sources claiming to be allies of Rutnam and Patel, saying the two had fallen out, with conflicting reports about who was to blame.
Asked whether permanent secretaries should be expected to move to a different department if they do not get on with an incoming minister, Sedwill said this would “depend on the circumstances” but that it should not be necessary in most cases.
“We have moved people where it seemed appropriate to do so but our expectation is that these are professional people, as in any big organisation. The job of the civil service is to support ministers, including ministers of an incoming government, build a relationship of confidence and trust with them,” he said.
And Sedwill, who is also the head of the civil service, added that ministers also have a responsibility to foster good relationships with their perm secs. “The expectation on ministers is also to conduct themselves professionally and courteously and try and get the best out of their civil servants too, because that’s the most effective way of delivering the government’s agenda,” he said.
“But if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work and we will take whatever the appropriate action might be.”
John Stevenson, a Conservative MP and solicitor, who sits on the committee, likened the relationship between perm sec and minister to the one between a solicitor and their client.
He challenged Sedwill: “If you don’t like your solicitor, there’s a personality clash, you don’t like [the way] the advice you’re being given is being presented, it’s taking too long, you can move solicitor. But a minister has a greater difficulty that they can’t… should we get to the stage where a minister should have greater choice in who are the people advising them and who are around them?”
But Sedwill said permanent secretaries were given tenure at a department that is independent from ministerial appointments “for very good reason”.
“What we don’t want is to find that civil servants are essentially starting to behave as yes men or yes women and telling ministers what they want to hear, because that way we don’t get the advice that they need in order to make the complex decisions that they make,” he said.
Sedwill did not give details of his involvement in the Rutnam-Patel row, as the former Home Office perm sec is in the process of bringing legal action against the home secretary and the government.
“I regret Philip Rutnam’s decision to resign and hoped that it could have been avoided, and we have to allow that case and indeed the other investigation to take their course.” Sedwill is leading a Cabinet Office investigation into whether Patel has broken the ministerial code, following multiple allegations that she has bullied civil servants. Patel has denied all the allegations.
Despite the row, Sedwill said he did not believe an overhaul of the codes of conduct for officials or politicians would be needed.
“I don’t think we should necessarily be trying to write further regulations around relationships [between ministers and perm secs] that in the vast majority of cases are conducted professionally and in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of the various codes,” he told the MPs.
“In general, I think the mechanisms we have in place are adequate to the task and our expectation is that senior and experienced professional people conduct professional relationships with each other,” he added.
Sedwill said there were processes in place for officials and special advisers to raise complaints about incidents of bullying or harassment, and to deal with these complaints. He said ministers may initially be given advice or coaching if the cabinet secretary believed they needed to change their behaviour, escalating to “formal processes set out in the codes” in the most rare and serious incidents.
Asked whether he had ever advised a minister undergo coaching to amend their behaviour, Sedwill said: “I can’t recall an occasion when I’ve done”, but added that might be an appropriate response.