Sedwill warns civil servants over leaks that ‘besmirch’ UK’s reputation

Cab sec calls for an end to “stories of tensions within Whitehall, sparked by unattributable briefings and leaks”

Photo: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

Sir Mark Sedwill has written to civil servants warning them against leaks, which he said “besmirch this country’s hard-won reputation for good governance”.

In an internal memo to officials yesterday, the cabinet secretary warned that civil servants, special advisers and ministers must adhere to their respective codes of conduct and keep not to disclose details of confidential briefings.

“Candour, confidentiality and courtesy between ministers, special advisers and civil servants are crucial to the trust and confidence on which good governance depends,” Sedwill wrote.


In the memo, seen by CSW, Sedwill said “recent stories of tensions within Whitehall, sparked by unattributable briefings and leaks to the media”, must end.

The message came after the Sunday Telegraph reported over the weekend that the prime minister had drawn up a “hit list” of permanent secretaries he wanted to replace: Home Office perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam, Treasury chief Sir Tom Scholar and Foreign Office head Sir Simon McDonald.

An anonymous source told the paper that Scholar is viewed by No.10 as being "offside completely on Brexit" and as having contributed to the Treasury having “dug their heels in” on EU exit preparations before Johnson became prime minister.

And last week it was reported that home secretary Priti Patel had tried to have Rutnam removed over “fundamental disagreements about the rule of law” between the two. An unnamed source told The Times that Patel was a rude and “extraordinary person to work for”, adding: “No one can see how this is going to be resolved. It is going to blow up sooner or later".

When such news reports based on anonymous briefings appear in the media, Sedwill said, it "besmirches this country’s hard-won reputation for good governance and is a distraction from the vital work of the thousands of civil servants delivering the government’s agenda and the public services on which our citizens rely”.

He added: “I know that the whole civil service is committed to delivering the government's agenda and to our enduring work to protect and promote the interests of our citizens, communities and country.”

Civil servants "should at all times be confident they can give the honest, impartial and objective advice on which ministers can rely", he said.

“Both should be confident that this advice, and any debate that surrounds it, will remain private and that everyone will at all times adhere to the high standards set out in the Civil Service, Special Adviser and Ministerial Codes.”

This is not the first time Sedwill has intervened in a bid to stop leaks. Last summer he wrote to permanent secretaries to say that unauthorised briefings to the media "will not be tolerated" amid a row over claims about the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's health.

Sedwill’s warning came after the Cabinet Office has launched an investigation into whether comments by unnamed civil servants claiming Corbyn was too “frail” to be prime minister amounted to a breach of the Civil Service Code.

Last year as interim cabinet secretary, he took the unprecedented step of writing to The Times saying that “sniping” by unnamed MPs against then-chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins was “unacceptable” and must end.

Sedwill did not say in the message whether he believed civil servants were to blame for the leaks, instead stressing that all officials, advisers and politicians were bound to preserve confidentiality.

The memo came as it emerged that the Cabinet Office was looking to appoint a senior servant to oversee HR policies for spads.

The job advert – first noticed by Buzzfeed – calls for a candidate to “support the operation of the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers and related policy”

They will also be expected to “manage complex and sensitive ER [employee relations[ cases and provide advice to senior leaders, ensuring legislation/process is followed and liaising with legal advisers when needed”, the ad said.

Many of the anonymous briefings in recent weeks are believed to have come from special advisers.

The ad was posted amid a row over working conditions for special advisers, after Boris Johnson’s top political adviser Dominic Cummings told spads to “toughen up” in response to reports that some had sought counselling for stress.

The successful candidate for the up-to-£60,000n-a-year post will need to “create an inclusive working environment where all opinions and challenges are taken into account”.

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