Union chief: ‘ill-informed’ criticism of civil servants hinders ability to speak truth to power

Trade union bosses warn against treating officials like “faceless bureaucrats” and fingering them with blame over Brexit talks

FDA president Gareth Hills speaking to MPs on PACAC. Photo: Parliament TV

By Tamsin Rutter

22 Nov 2017

Trade union chiefs yesterday said politicians and journalists were pointing the finger at civil servants for failings over Brexit, and warned that “ill-informed” scrutiny could create tensions around how far they feel able to speak truth to power.

During a parliamentary hearing on civil service effectiveness, FDA president Gareth Hills said civil servants were “under tremendous scrutiny from informed and ill-informed commentators and politicians”.

“I think all of that feeds into a tension around what civil servants feel they can do and how far they can go in speaking truth unto power,” he added. “But certainly, FDA members – it’s imbued within their very DNA and the core of the way they operate as civil servants.”


Hills, who is also a serving civil servant in HM Revenue and Customs, also pointed out that civil servants are not just “faceless bureaucrats” and feel “hurt” as individuals by criticism in the press.

Dave Penman, general secretary of FDA, which represents senior civil servants, added that politicians had “made a few disappointing interventions of late”. In Civil Service World earlier this year he criticised former international development secretary Priti Patel for her comments on “crazy” Whitehall salaries.

Speaking to MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) on 21 November, he said debate around Brexit had been “unedifying”, with civil servants increasingly being “singled out” in accusations from politicians and commentators. 

But Penman was also quick to defend the willingness of his members to speak up when they disagree with a decision by ministers.

“I think we have a cadre of very robust permanent secretaries and senior civil servants who speak truth unto power.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t individual challenges, either with permanent secretaries or ministers. It will not always be a happy ship – but I don’t recognise the picture of the civil service cowed into not giving some harsh truths to ministers.”

Penman also said there was sometimes a lack of understanding from ministers as to what it takes to deliver complicated programmes, and suggested that major failings are often to do with the over-ambition of politicians, rather than the “optimism bias” of civil servants – a criticism raised by the National Audit Office head in a previous PACAC hearing. 

The union chiefs, alongside those from Public and Commercial Services (PCS) and Prospect, warned of the disconnect between resources and what was expected of the civil service, excessive workloads and the impact of public sector pay restraint.

Civil servants don’t yet know what resources to ask for because of the lack of political clarity around Brexit, they said. 

Garry Graham, deputy general secretary at Prospect, which represents government scientists and specialists, described it as a “deep failing” that civil service was “precluded” by politicians from doing preparatory work on the outcome of the Scottish and EU referenda. 

“That was a political decision, I think it was wrong because I think the job of the civil service is to make contingencies for all variety of permutations in scenarios that might arise,” he said. 

Paul O’Connor, head of bargaining at Public and Commercial Services (PCS), the largest civil service union which largely represents officials at lower grades, agreed that it was clear there was no contingency planning for Brexit across the civil service ahead of the referendum.

He took the opportunity to lambast HMRC’s office closure programme, which he said would cause “thousands of job cuts” at a time when the tax agency needed thousands more staff to cope with Brexit.

He also said that civil service staff did not have the resources to meet their public service obligations, pinpointing in particular those in HMRC call centres and Department for Work and Pensions contact centres. 

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