Bernard Jenkin: ex-civil service chiefs should stop “rocking the boat” on Brexit
Exclusive: Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chairman says Brexiteers' calls for a clear-out of the civil service are "complete rubbish" — but attacks interventions of former permanent secretaries in wake of EU ambassador's resignation
Former permanent secretaries going public with their views on Brexit are “doing their serving colleagues a disservice”, prominent Tory Leave campaigner and select committee chairman Bernard Jenkin has told CSW, as he praised the "discipline" shown by the current crop of Whitehall chiefs.
The resignation or Sir Ivan Rogers as the UK’s ambassador to the European Union last week — with a plea to colleagues to keep challenging “muddled thinking” and “speak truth to power” — triggered a bitter war of words over the impartiality of the civil service, with key Brexit campaigners calling for a purge of officials sympathetic to the EU.
Many ex-civil service chiefs subsequently spoke out in defence of Rogers and the wider civil service, with some making clear their own doubts about the government’s Brexit plans.
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Former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson claimed the departure of Rogers was part of the government’s "wilful and total destruction of EU expertise”, while Lord Kerslake, the ex-head of the civil service, accused ministers of failing to draw up “a delivery plan, negotiating strategy or clear understanding of the resources required to achieve a successful Brexit”.
But Jenkin, who serves as chairman of parliament’s public administration and constitutional affairs committee, said the interventions of ex-officials risked playing into the hands of Whitehall’s fiercest critics, some of whom would like to see a politically-appointed civil service.
“They give the impression that they have political views about these matters" - PACAC chairman Bernard Jenkin
“At the very highest level our system has very great advantages in providing continuity of knowledge and corporate memory as policies change,” he told CSW. “But it’s clear that civil servants must avoid becoming beholden to an institutional view.
“And, to be fair, it is only retired civil servants — apart from Sir Ivan — who have been rocking the boat in public. They have been doing their serving colleagues a disservice.”
He added: “They give the impression that they have political views about these matters. And I think if there is a lesson from the whole referendum period, it’s that governments should not use their civil servants to project their political views and their political arguments, as David Cameron and George Osborne did during the referendum.”
Jenkin, who chaired the official Vote Leave campaign, said former officials appeared to have become increasingly vocal in the wake of the Brexit vote, arguing that “there was a time when even retired civil servants would regard it as their obligation to their successors and to the institution to remain discreet about their own views”.
“I have not heard, for example, [former cabinet secretary] Robin Butler or [former Bank of England governor] Mervyn King saying whether they were for or against leaving the European Union — and that’s the way it should be,” he added.
“There appears to be discipline and an understanding of the proper role of serving civil servants amongst the senior civil service" - Jenkin
Jenkin, whose recent Financial Times article has been interpreted by some as an attack on the civil service, stressed that he was not accusing “any serving permanent secretaries or officials” of seeking to undermine the government’s position.
And he reiterated his view that any moves toward a politically-appointed civil service, as some Eurospectics have called for, would be counter-productive.
“There appears to be discipline and an understanding of the proper role of serving civil servants amongst the senior civil service,” he said. “The idea that we need a clear out is complete rubbish.”
In recent days, ministers themselves have been accused of failing to defend the impartiality of the civil service, with the head of the FDA union for senior officials saying there had been a “deafening silence” from Downing Street following the eurosceptic attacks on Whitehall. Labour meanwhile accused politicians of showing “complete cowardice” by criticising officials who are contractually barred from answering back.
But Jenkin told CSW he did not believe the absence of any supportive public statements from ministers meant former civil servants needed to step up to defend their ex-colleagues.
“The silence of officials always speaks more loudly than anything they could say,” he argued.
“And actually I think the prime minister’s action, replacing Sir Ivan with another career diplomat [Sir Tim Barrow], speaks far more loudly in defence of a permanent and impartial civil service, and to the independence of both the diplomatic and the home civil service, than the pleadings of one or two former permanent secretaries.”
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