Obituary: Sir Paul Jenkins, former UK Treasury Solicitor

By on 26/02/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Sir Paul Jenkins (1954 - 2018)

On Monday morning, the UK government’s former chief legal adviser Sir Paul Jenkins passed away. Matt Ross and Kevin Sorkin pay tribute to a man who combined legal and managerial talents with a huge personal commitment to building a better world

Sir Paul Jenkins, who died this morning aged 63, was the UK government’s Treasury Solicitor from 2006 to 2014 – making him the longest-serving in nearly 50 years. After his retirement, he continued to play an active role in public life: he joined Matrix Chambers, became an adviser to governments around the world, and had just taken on the key role of Treasurer at Middle Temple – the Inn of Court where he originally trained as a barrister.

Global Government Forum does not regularly publish obituaries – but we were privileged to know Paul as a friend and colleague, and we want to add our voices to those marking his passing. So forgive our lack of objectivity; we can only pay tribute to a wonderful man and dedicated public servant who contributed a huge amount to the law, the civil service and, ultimately, the country.

A trailblazer

Paul was always a trailblazer: it was rare for state school boys to be called to the bar in 1977. He joined the Treasury Solicitor’s Department in 1979, and soon blazed another trail – ‘coming out’ in an era when the Ministry of Defence still investigated people’s sexuality and restricted the security clearance of LGBT staff. “I was in a very friendly, very liberal office, but there was a lot of what people call ‘harmless banter’ – and it sure wasn’t harmless banter if it was about you,” Paul told me in a 2011 interview for Civil Service World (CSW).

Over the following four decades, he worked to eradicate prejudice and discrimination of all kinds. Five years after his 2006 appointment as Treasury Solicitor – the government’s chief legal adviser, and head of the Government Legal Service – his department had far more women and ethnic minority senior civil servants than the civil service average: 56% women against an average of 36%, and 15% ethnic minorities against just 4.3%.

A champion of equality

Made the civil service diversity champion, Jenkins threw himself into the role. He had already shown how strong diversity policies can produce concrete business benefits – introducing flexible working systems, for example, that gave the civil service a recruitment advantage over higher-paying private practices. Now he turned to the hidden barriers that can imbalance recruitment and promotion: “Over the years, we’ve made the racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic people go underground,” he told me in 2011; but “they’re much more subtle; much more insidious. We’ve made the racists become clever.”

Over the following three years, he fought hard for the civil service to continue and develop its diversity policies. He was swimming against a powerful political tide, which made it impossible for him to publish a new Civil Service Diversity Strategy; and on his 2014 retirement, he gave me another CSW interview in which he publicly criticised the civil service’s “disgraceful” progress on bringing ethnic minorities into the senior civil service. It is a testament to his personal honesty and passion for the issue that he spoke then of his “strong sense of failure” on this point. But his leadership and vision hugely strengthened the foundations laid by former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell; and in recent years he was buoyed up by the agenda’s renewal under O’Donnell’s successor, Sir Jeremy Heywood.

A leader

Paul rose fast through the civil service ranks – via departments including the Treasury and Ministry of Justice – by combining legal expertise and judgement with a talent for leadership and management. During his tenure as Treasury Solicitor, the departments’ legal teams were merged into a single shared service – strengthening career development, efficiency and service quality.

Such organisational changes are always fraught with difficulty, and he pursued the agenda with great professionalism, vision, pragmatism, and an in-depth understanding of departments’ needs. It remains the only example in government of a shared service reform that enjoys almost universal support amongst both staff and the client departments.

An adviser

Sir Paul gave advice to several of the country’s most senior government officials

Paul’s greatest talent, though, lay in his ability to navigate the blurred boundaries of the law and politics. The heart of his job was providing legal advice and guidance to ministers – including prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, and attorneys general Lord Goldsmith, Baroness Scotland and Dominic Grieve – and the details of much of his work will remain secret for decades.

It is clear, however, that he was firmly committed both to delivering government policies and enacting ministerial decisions, and to protecting human rights and the rule of law. He was a key player in settling the civil claims of British Guantanamo detainees; he also oversaw the extradition of hate preacher Abu Hamza. He worked to ensure UK compliance with ECHR rulings on prisoners’ voting rights; he also introduced new systems to prevent prisoners from bringing fraudulent lost property claims against HM Prison Service. Tasked with complex, controversial tasks such as reforming the rules around judicial review and the use of intelligence evidence in courts, he consistently found ingenious, even-handed solutions that delivered government policies whilst protecting the innocent, the interests of justice and the rule of law.

An amazing man

Personally, he was a delight – as the huge range and volume of tributes pouring in on Twitter show. He was immensely knowledgeable, wise, and generous with his time. He was witty, wry, and incredibly good company – combining weapons-grade gossip with a complete lack of malice. He had incredible judgement. And he was a man who held fast to his principles: when he joined Twitter in 2016, he quickly attracted a huge audience with his scathing critiques of Brexit.

For Brexit represents so much that Paul spent his life opposing. The racists that he helped to face down have come back out of the woodwork. The UK’s commitment to international treaties is under attack. Above all, he saw Brexit as deeply damaging to the UK’s interests: in an interview for Global Government Forum just before the 2016 referendum, he explained to me why a win for Leave would result in David Cameron’s resignation and his successor rapidly triggering Article 50, leaving the UK at a huge disadvantage in the subsequent negotiations. As in so many things, he was spot on.

When Paul joined Twitter, he told me – with typical self-deprecating humour – that his excursion into social media “will probably lead to disaster when I have a few more followers and one too many sherries.” But he was, inevitably, a natural; the channel suited his wit and warmth, as well as his ability to cut straight to the heart of a matter. When people asked for his advice, he was generous with his time – and his answers revealed why three prime ministers found his counsel quite so valuable. Rarely have we had greater need of Paul’s wisdom; that his voice should be silenced now is a public as well as a private tragedy.

We’ll miss him. Rest in peace, Sir Paul.

A word from the publisher

Sir Paul’s passing away is a huge loss to the United Kingdom.

I first met Sir Paul when, in 2011, he was made responsible for civil service diversity and equality by then-cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell. We worked together on the civil service’s Diversity & Equality Awards, and tireless efforts attracted enormous attention to this important issue.

One of his many achievements was to centralise the Government Legal Service, now a rare example of a successful government shared services project. His success highlights his character and his talents in governance, personal interactions, and in building the trust of other senior figures across the whole of the UK civil service; I suspect that no-one else could have achieved this. But much of his work will have to remain secret; the extent to which he improved the running of this country many never be fully appreciated.

Sir Paul was a great friend, and instrumental in shaping Global Government Forum. He would always find time to support us with his extensive background knowledge and expertise, and to provide insightful interviews on aspects of government. His understanding of the complexities of Brexit was second to none.

Sir Paul attended our Global Government Summit in Singapore in 2014, where he won the hearts and minds of heads of civil services from around the world. Immediately, his knowledge was drawn on by countries from all corners of the world – from New Zealand to Canada and Estonia – and those relationships continued to thrive.

I can’t describe the loss I feel today; a very important person has gone from our lives. Our thoughts are with his partner René and his wider family. Goodbye Sir Paul, and thank you for everything.

Kevin Sorkin, Director, Global Government Forum

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public sector management, policymaking and service delivery. He was the editor of Civil Service World 2008-14, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of Regeneration & Renewal 2002-08, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with communications consultancy, marketing and journalism work for publishers, public sector unions and private sector suppliers to government.


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