Unions slam Frost's 'scandalous' attack on 'net-zero fanatic' civil servants

Unions have rejected accusations that the civil service is holding back the government and needs reform
David Frost hit out at “net-zero fanatics”. Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

By Jonathan Owen

25 Sep 2023

Union leaders have hit out at a “scandalous” and “shameful” attack by David Frost on the civil service, condemning the Conservative peer and former cabinet minister’s characterisation of the civil service as harbouring extremists and obstructing government.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph last Friday, Lord Frost hit out at “net-zero fanatics” who are “well ensconced in the bureaucracy and the quango state created over the past couple of decades – as Tuesday's leaks of the prime minister's plans show.”

He added: “So to implement this week's announcement – or to do more, or indeed anything else controversial – the political government, the one elected by voters, needs to get a proper grip on the government machine.”

The former senior civil servant spent more than 25 years at the Foreign Office in a career that included a stint as ambassador to Denmark. Frost rose to become FCO director for strategy and policy making, before being seconded to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as director for Europe, Trade, and International. He left the civil service in 2013.

He said: “What we need is more politics in government.” Frost called for a “major revamp” of the current system, which was “designed for a different era” and said that “a government modernisation bill” should be “a top priority for the next term.”

The Conservative peer added: “It should put the top two or three ranks of the civil service on to fixed contracts which end when governments change and it should allow ministers to make appointments to those roles from outside and from within. That gives control over staff and jobs – the crucial incentives for civil servants.”

In addition, ministers should be able to “bring in more, and more experienced, advisers who can direct the bureaucracy.” Ministers should also have “the final say over budgetary priorities and responsibility to parliament for them.”

In his view “governments have tied their own hands by making specific policies legally binding, like net zero 2050.” He described the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Climate Change Committee as “quangos” that are “the overmighty subjects and robber barons of modern government.”

Frost claimed: “Ministers increasingly operate in the ever shrinking margin of discretion left to them by the courts and the quango state, in a "government of the gaps".

He said: “Ministers cannot change the people who deliver their policies, cannot appoint more than a tiny number of advisers (who have very little formal power), and are not ultimately responsible for their budgets (that rests with the permanent secretary responsible to parliament). No surprise it's hard to deliver results.”

Responding to Frost’s comments, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, the civil service’s biggest union, said: "This attack on hardworking PCS members is nothing short of scandalous and Frost’s words are a desperate attempt at saving a decaying and dying government.  To portray the government’s catastrophic failures on our members is shameful.“

He accused Frost of “seeking to deflect the blame” for government failures by “citing a wild conspiracy of civil servants supposedly frustrating ingenious ministers.” Serwotka added: “It is all a figment of his imagination.”

Kevin Brandstatter, GMB national officer, branded Frost’s description of the civil service as “woefully inaccurate.” He said: “The civil service is not some insurrectionary force seeking to undermine Ministers, but is a body of people desperately trying to deliver public services, despite a more than a decade  of pay freezes and below inflation increases which have seen wages fall by 30 per cent in real terms.”

Brandstatter added: “The civil service serves the government elected by the people. This prime minister was not elected by the people, nor was the one before him. Despite this, he sees fit to rip up policies needed to fix the climate crisis we face and to rewrite targets around meeting net zero."

And Amy Leversidge, assistant general secretary, FDA, the union for senior civil servants, said: “Lord Frost’s article appears to be quite confused… it is obvious that ministers are the ones making decisions, they just happen to be making some decisions that Lord Frost personally doesn’t agree with.”

She rejected his claims that the civil service and public bodies are standing in the way of the will of ministers. “This ignores the fact that the government chooses the size, shape, and remit of the civil service, as well as the structures and institutions that deliver work for government.”

Leversidge said: “Our permanent and impartial civil service serves the government of the day – Lord Frost should not blame civil servants if he thinks that government made the wrong decisions.”

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