General Secretary Dave Penman: We will always stand up for civil service impartiality - now ministers must do the same

After a series of toxic attacks on the professionalism of the civil service, the FDA General Secretary urges ministers to reflect on the vital role their staff play


We are living through a tumultuous period for the civil service, culminating this week in a series of extraordinary exchanges in parliament. Brexit has had a toxifying impact on our political discourse and, increasingly, this has resulted in attacks on the impartiality, integrity and professionalism of the civil service. We've unfortunately come to expect that politicians or other individuals will, from time to time, use the civil service to further their agenda, but increasingly these attacks have come from within government.

This has involved criticism of individuals including the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister's Europe Adviser, and suggestions that HMRC have targeted Vote Leave donors. Often these attacks involve briefings to journalists either anonymously from a "government minister" or attributed to "sources close to" a named minister. I've written previously about this approach and its impact upon the service, but this week we witnessed unprecedented attacks on the professionalism and impartiality of the service from the despatch box.

On two separate occasions, Steve Baker, a Minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), used a parliamentary session to criticise the analysis of government economists and then give credence to an unfounded accusation of bias from Treasury officials.

Our public response was swift and robust, and led coverage in the majority of major media outlets including the BBC, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Metro, Channel 4 News, The Times, The Mail, and PoliticsHome.

The most disappointing aspect of these events is that they do not represent the reality of the relationship between the vast majority of ministers and civil servants, ably articulated by a former minister for DExEU, David Jones, in his recent 'Ministers Reflect' piece for the Institute for Government.

Publicity is not an end in itself. It is a means to exert influence and so, on both occasions, it has been satisfying to see that the Minister has had to return to the House and make statements to clarify or correct his comments. All of this, of course, deflects from the enormous task the Government and civil service face in delivering the best possible outcome from exiting the European Union. My hope is that ministers reflect on this week's events and recognise the value of an impartial and professional civil service and the critical role it can play in delivering the government's agenda.

The FDA as ever will promote and defend those values, as we have for nearly a century. We can only do so because of the collective strength of our membership, so do please consider telling any colleagues who are not already a member of our union about the work we do together challenge myths about public service. They can find out more about what we do and join us here.

Dave Penman is the FDA General Secretary. He tweets as @FDAGenSec