UK PM’s chief adviser ‘getting in the way’ of good government, says union chief

By on 21/02/2020
The prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is driving radical changes to the UK civil service. (Image © Steve Taylor/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire).

The behaviour of UK PM Boris Johnson’s chief adviser is harming departments’ ability to deliver the government’s objectives, FDA general secretary Dave Penman has told Global Government Forum. “What’s been happening isn’t about better government or even more efficient government. This is all about control, and it’s getting in the way,” he said yesterday.

In the cabinet reshuffle earlier this month, chancellor Sajid Javid quit rather than allow his team of special advisers to be merged with Number 10’s – putting them under the effective control of Johnson’s lead adviser, Dominic Cummings. Then a controversy blew up over one of Cummings new hires, Andrew Sabisky, whose published views on issues including eugenics and race shocked many MPs; a Number 10 spokesperson repeatedly refused to condemn Sabisky’s comments, though the supposed ‘superforecaster’ quit the following day. Meanwhile, Number 10 has been determinedly separating ministers from their chosen special advisers (or ‘spads’), redeploying spads across government and requiring them to report directly to Cummings.

Penman, who heads up the union representing senior public servants, said: “If you keep taking special advisers from ministers, departments won’t run as well. It will frustrate the ability of the civil service to deliver the government’s agenda.”

Advice on advisers

The Sabisky case, the recent spate of dismissals, and reports of the poor treatment of special advisers by Number 10 are damaging morale across the civil service, said Penman, and will lead to ineffective government. Buzzfeed News has reported that many special advisers are having counselling for stress and are even considering walking out en masse.

“The prime minister is the first minister of the civil service and so what he does, or what is done in his name by people like Dominic Cummings, resonates across the entire civil service,” Penman said. “This is about leadership, how you set the tone for an organisation of 400,000 staff and how you value those staff.”

Special advisers play a critical role in how government performs, helping civil servants to understand the direction the minister wants to take and their priorities. Through providing overtly political advice to the minister that civil servants can’t, they help to protect the impartiality of the civil service, Penman said.

“Making demands to sack advisers and treating them with contempt does not make for good government,” he continued. “Not only do special advisers work for government as a whole, they’ve always had their special relationship with the minister. But what Number 10 appears to be trying to do is to say: ‘You owe your loyalty first and foremost to Cummings and the prime minister – you’re not here to support your ministers; you’re here to support us and what we’re directing ministers to do’. It’s a very different role for a special adviser being a Number 10 nark, rather than a confidant and a source of advice to a minister.”

Detrimental effect on morale

Penman said Number 10’s decision to move a number of special advisers to different departments is undermining their role in good government. “They’re trying to force special advisers on ministers”, he said. “They’re saying: ‘You’re too close to that minister so we’re going to shift you to another department,’ when the point of being a special adviser is to be close to a minister. That’s your job.

“The frustration in all of this is that the government’s got an majority of 80, it’s got the ability to do things; but you can’t run a big organisation like this with this kind of command and control from Number 10, and you can’t do it when you’re treating staff badly.”

The special adviser shake-up began in September when Sonia Khan, a special adviser to Javid, was sacked and escorted from Downing Street by armed police after a confrontation with Cummings. The FDA is taking up a case of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination on behalf of Khan, and has called on Johnson and Cummings to give evidence under oath to an employment tribunal.

Weirdos and misfits

Sabisky had apparently been hired as a contractor to work on particular projects, having responded to a January blog-cum-job-ad in which Cummings called for “weirdos and misfits” to join the civil service.

He was working at Number 10, but stood down days later after details of his views on a number of subjects – including eugenics and contraception – came to light. He’d claimed in tweets and blogs that black Americans have a lower average IQ than white people and were likely to have “intellectual disability”, and said that compulsory contraception could be used to prevent the creation of a “permanent underclass”.

Other remarks include him comparing women’s sport to the Paralympics, and promoting the use of narcolepsy drug modafinil – which cuts the need for sleep and may help brain function, but has been linked to a life-threatening skin condition. “From a societal perspective, the benefits of giving everyone modafinil once a week are probably worth a dead kid once a year,” he wrote.

Asked on what basis Sabisky was working in Number 10, Penman commented that “civil servants have to be appointed on merit and through open and fair selection – that’s the law,” while spads – though appointed by ministers with the PM’s approval – are still subject to scrutiny and have clear lines of accountability through ministers. “I suspect Cummings and Johnson brought Sabisky in as a self-employed contractor to avoid the rules in terms of what it means to be recruited as a civil servant,” he said. “Departments can apply for exemptions, but you have to explain why you couldn’t run a process to find the best person for the job. Clearly, they’ve decided not to go down that route.

“Cummings talks about cognitive diversity, but actually what he seems to be saying is: ‘If you think like me, you’re hired’. That isn’t cognitive diversity,” Penman added.

The Sabisky affair is the “perfect example” of what happens when rules are ignored and people are appointed without the necessary scrutiny or vetting, Penman argued. “You’ve got someone who’s been let into the heart of government with these abhorrent views. It raises serious concerns about how Number 10 are operating, and whether they’re proposing to try and circumnavigate the rules that are there for a reason.”

Prior to Sabisky’s appointment, Number 10 denied that hiring rules would be broken following Cummings’ job ad. The prime minister’s spokesperson told The Guardian after Cummings’ blogpost that it was aimed only at seeking “expressions of interest”, and that civil servants would still be appointed within the usual tight procedures.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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