UK appointments regulator condemns briefings against civil servants

By on 16/03/2021 | Updated on 16/03/2021
First civil service commissioner Ian Watmore told a parliamentary committee that the statistics do not suggest there is particularly high churn of permanent secretaries. Credit: Paul Clarke/Government Digital Service/Flickr

First civil service commissioner Ian Watmore condemned briefings against civil servants today. “I absolutely, absolutely hate it,” he told an online evidence session for the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) this morning.

He added: “I think it shouldn’t happen and the political class as a whole should agree to stop it because at the end of day the civil service cannot answer back, does not answer back. It’s there to serve the government of the day to the best of its ability and to brief against it undermines that bond of trust and the ability of people to do best job. “

But Watmore challenged the idea that Johnson’s government has been losing permanent secretaries at an unusual rate. Excluding the cabinet secretary role, there have been nine or 10 permanent secretary changes under PM Boris Johnson, Watmore said. With 40 permanent secretaries in total, the commission expects to hire around eight per year on average given each serves a five-year term, he added.

The recent appointments have “perhaps been more of the high-profile departments” and keen media interest in recent departures have made it “appear more frothy than it is on the numbers”,  he noted. But he was clear that “there is nothing statistical to suggest we have got a higher churn of permanent secretaries than normal.” He added: “It is our expectation to do [hire] eight to 10 a year and that is in line with what we are doing.”

Nothing to see here

Few permanent secretaries have left their posts early, according to Watmore, who described all the situations where permanent secretaries have changed during Johnson’s government. Even Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary of the Department for Education, was almost at the end of his tenure, he noted.

“The only ones which I think there is genuine controversy about their departures apart from the Home Office one, would be the legal one… and whether or not the education one was 4.5 years instead of five. But all the others reached their five-year terms, and some of them longer.”

Watmore’s comments come following widespread controversy over the exit of some senior leaders. Home Office perm sec Philip Rutnam resigned and, alleging bullying by home secretary Priti Patel, won a settlement at an employment tribunal. The government’s chief legal adviser, Treasury solicitor Sir Jonathan Jones, resigned in September. It was widely reported this was over Johnson’s threat to break international law during the Brexit negotiations.

While Slater, who was appointed to lead the DfE in 2016, was nearing the end of his term, the circumstances of his departure caused outrage. Slater was sacked last Autumn after the government had to abandon using an algorithm to decide pupil grades in public exams. Under the principle of individual ministerial responsibility, education minister Gavin Williamson should have taken the fall. But he kept his job while Slater – alongside Sally Collier, chief executive of exams regulator Ofqual, which had developed the algorithm – were both forced out.

In an interview with GGF published in February, Slater commented: “I chose to do the job, and you take a bit of risk… the rewards of being the permanent secretary for four and a half years were worth it.” But the former education chief also raised questions over Whitehall’s accountabilities systems, arguing that the transparency of officials’ advice in local government “improves the accountability of the person giving it” and suggesting that Ofqual’s accountabilities arrangement “doesn’t seem to be sustainable.”

Diversity and relocation

Diversity was also mentioned throughout the session, with Watmore noting that it is “important that the civil service is not seen as coming from a narrow section of society and is broadly based”.

Geography does come into this, he said, adding that he has lived in the north of England for most of his life. “There were times when I would be in meetings in London where you did think the world stopped at the M25,” he said. This wasn’t deliberate, he added, but reflected the “lived experiences” of officials who’ve spent their lives and careers in the South-East.

“I think a broader range of lived experiences is very good,” he said. “And some of that will be coming from people who live in different parts of the country…. Some of it will come from their social-economic background, some of it will come from their education background and some of it will come from their work experience.”

Watmore expressed his support for moving civil services jobs outside London. This follows a number of government announcements about relocating civil servants, including a recent leak in which Cabinet Office staff were told that at least 500 professionals would move to Scotland by 2024.

Watmore recalled a time when he had staff in Sheffield. “They were absolutely brilliant… Really passionate, knowledgeable, long-term, had a perspective coming from a northern industrial city that was a great offset to people who might be Whitehall centric…”.

The downside, he added, is that ministers have always been in London, so people based outside the capital who need contact with elected leaders spent a lot of time travelling into Whitehall. One potential benefit of COVID-19, he suggested, will be people get used to remote working and that will create “a much broader range of geographical diversity options for people”.

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected].

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