Union chief calls on Theresa May to silence civil service bashers

FDA’s Dave Penman says public trust in Whitehall is undermined when attacks go unchallenged

Olly Robbins and Theresa May in Brussels last month Credit: PA

By Jim.Dunton

09 May 2019

Relentless attacks on civil servants by Conservative MPs are a part of a “deliberate, considered and coordinated” attempt to undermine trust in the civil service that Theresa May must do more to silence, a senior union leader has warned.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the civil service could never be beyond legitimate criticism, but politicians and political commentators were increasingly moving beyond rational or evidenced-based criticism, while officials in prominent roles were being subjected to threats and intimidation.

Penman told the union’s annual conference today that he had written to all leaders of the UK’s main political parties calling on them to do more to end the “relentless attacks”.


However, his letter to the prime minister indicated a very specific concerns over her role and that of her cabinet in terms of bringing elements of the Conservative Party to heel. Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has been more vociferous in his defence of civil servants than the prime minister.

Penman told May that it was her responsibilty, and that of her cabinet to defend civil servants. “All too frequently, in the face of unprecedented attack, there has been a deafening silence,” he said.

“Left unchallenged, these attacks undermine the public’s trust in the civil service and effective government, weakening democracy and the ability of any future government to govern with the confidence of the electorate.

“There is also a dangerous potential that attacks, made more to seek headlines than further debate, are legitimised by your silence.”

He warned May the attacks on civil servants had gone beyond Brexit and were having a “toxic effect” on acceptable standards of political debate.

Penman used his speech to today’s conference to tell union members that they were witnessing “the systematic undermining” of the principles of a professional and impartial civil service.

“These are not the ill-judged remarks of a minister in the cross hairs of the media,” he said. “The attacks we are seeing now are deliberate, considered and coordinated attempts to undermine the trust in the civil service.

“It is the weapon of choice for many in the European Research Group, Leave Means Leave and assorted fellow travellers. Ideologically obsessed and willing to sacrifice public trust in government to advance their cause – to them no principle is sacrosanct, no individual civil servant is unexpendable. We have already seen individuals singled out and receive death threats.

“We even witnessed cries of 'shoot him' from the audience at the mention of the name Olly Robbins – the prime minister’s Europe adviser – during a speech by the ERG’s Mark Francois.

“Shame on Francois, shame on his enablers in the ERG and shame on all those politicians who have indulged in ‘traitor’ tropes to progress their narrow political agenda.”

Beyond the Conservatives, Penman also pointed to Labour peer Lord Andrew Adonis as having accused the civil service of “being the enablers of Brexit and establishment lackeys” who would frustrate a future Labour government.

“Left and right are coalescing around a narrative which suits their ideological objectives, but undermines the foundations of an impartial civil service,” Penman said.

“Attacking civil servants only serves to undermine democracy and trust in future governments – this is vital if we are to address the big public policy issues that face us over the next decades.”

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