Civil service leaders have a duty to speak up in defence of the institutions they represent when civil servants are attacked by politicians and the media, former Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer has said.
Speaking on a panel discussion about integrity in public institutions, Gummer denounced the “shameful” attacks that have been levelled at civil servants in recent months.
Gummer, who was Cabinet Office minister and paymaster general for a year before losing his parliamentary seat in the 2017 general election, rebuked members of the Conservative Party who had targeted civil servants, as well as members of the judiciary, “purely for their own political reasons”.
“That is a profoundly damaging thing to do because what you're actually doing is sawing away at the legs of these important institutions which keep us free and keep us – by extension – corruption-free,” he said.
Gummer’s comments to the Oxford Blavatnik School of Government yesterday came after Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet secretary, took the unprecedented step of writing to The Times in support of civil servants last month. Sedwill called for an end to “sniping” at senior officials and said MPs who had criticised Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins anonymously should be “ashamed of themselves”.
Gummer said public trust in civil servants remained high, but was threatened by “the manner in which we continue public discourse”.
“If you change the way that people feel that they can speak and make accusations [about civil servants] and behave, then you poison the well of that commonly-held sense of public integrity of those institutions.”
Recent instances in which civil servants had been referred to as “incompetent, useless or mendacious” had damaged their morale, he added.
“If you go into public service, especially as a civil servant, where you’re not going in for a public profile, you can’t answer back, if you see the attacks that have been going on from politicians and the media... It has a very deleterious effect on your performance,” he said.
He said there was a “real duty on the leaders of the civil service and administrations who are non-political to stand up for their people”. He praised Sedwill and his predecessor Sir Jeremy Heywood for the manner in which they had defended the integrity of the civil service.
“It is incumbent on all of us and those people in positions of authority in bureaucracies to stand up for the civic virtues that keep those institutions safe,” he said.