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Friday 10 May 2024

Annual Conference 2024: Penman tells the government “no more trashing the civil service brand”


Speaking at this year’s Annual Delegate Conference, FDA General Secretary Dave Penman criticised the government’s “top down, evidence-free micromanagement” of the civil service. 

Penman started his speech by addressing ministerial attacks on the civil service. He held up the front page of a recent edition of the Evening Standard with the headline “Why are civil servants so lazy?”. This headline resulted from an opinion piece offered to the paper by Minister for the Cabinet Office John Glen.

"What message does that send to civil servants working on average an extra day a week in unpaid overtime?," Penman asked delegates. 

The General Secretary called on whoever forms the next government after the General Election to “give the civil service the stability it craves. Clear objectives with the right resources and, crucially, the freedom to manage them. Fair reward to recruit, retain and motivate committed public servants. Then rightly, hold the civil service to account for the outcomes its committed to delivering – but no more micromanaging and no more trashing the brand”.

To highlight the instability of recent years he pointed out that "in under a decade we’ve had an entire football team of Ministers for the Cabinet Office who could, of course, have played the 11 secretaries of state for education from the same period".

Penman also used his speech to conference to discuss the union’s judicial review of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024, stating “we have no choice but to ask the courts for clarity”.

He told Conference that “when members in the Home Office ask us if they’re being asked to break the Civil Service Code, they deserve an answer. 

“You don’t work in the Home Office and not realise that’s the day job, regardless of the political persuasion of the government. But they rightly expect to know, without a shadow of doubt, whether they’re being asked to break the Civil Service Code. Ambiguity is not acceptable and so our action is to bring clarity for those members.”

Penman continued: “It is not, as is being painted by some ministers and the usual suspects in the press, a political act. We have pleaded with government to avoid this, but avoiding this means being honest about what they’re doing - and that apparently is a step too far.

“It is not a choice we welcome, but we will not walk away from our members.”

Later in the day an Emergency Motion in support of the judicial review was unanimously passed by delegates. On the Emergency Motion, Penman said: 

“Immensely proud that the FDA’s conference has just unanimously passed this motion on FDA’s judicial review. Civil servants should never be put in a position where there is doubt between acting on the instructions of ministers and their obligations under the Civil Service Code.”

Attendees also heard from guest speakers Chief Operating Officer and Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office Cat Little, former First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and General Secretary of NAHT (the school leaders' union) Paul Whiteman. 

Cat Little, Civil Service Chief Operating Officer

Delegates were also joined by Cat Little, who was appointed to the role of Civil Service Chief Operating Officer in February this year.

In her speech, she stressed that the civil service’s “relationship with unions matters more than ever”, telling FDA members that “we have an exciting opportunity to make bold changes”.

Little tackled the issue if pay, acknowledging that “in the very very short term it is going to be particularly challenging”, but offered some insight into what she thought the future could hold: “I think the civil service should be smaller, better paid and more skilled… There are reasons to be cheerful and optimistic. I really do believe there’s an opportunity to set out our strategy… we need to look broadly and boldly.”

The Chief Operating Officer was also “realistic” about civil servants’ morales, saying it “is very mixed” at the moment. 

“You only need to talk to civil servants who say ‘I’ve been through quite a lot but I’m still proud’,” she said. “To be proud of the civil service you’ve got to be confident in what we’re achieving. We’re quite humble and not ones to shout about our achievements. I’m encouraging, with my ministers, to say something positive about what we’ve achieved - in our weekly meetings we start with [this].”

When asked a question from the audience regarding public attacks on civil servants, she said that “it isn’t pleasant to read and when you don’t have a voice” but encouraged fellow civils servants “to focus on the truth and the facts”.

“The civil service is delivering very difficult things time and time again,” she added. “We all thrive on delivering complex things and delivering for the British people and the government. We’ve done it during some of the biggest challenges that have been faced and I’m incredibly confident that we’ll continue to do so in the future.”

Cat Little ADC 847

Mark Drakeford MS, former First Minister of Wales

Former First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford focused his speech on the importance of a “sense of public service” to motivate good government. He cited the Welsh Government putting social partnership arrangements on a statutory footing is an example of this sense of public service. These arrangements try to find common ground between government, trade unions & businesses to deliver for the public.

Drakeford also told attendees that a number of relationships, such as the UK government and civil servants and the UK government and devolved governments, had broken down. He added that he was personally optimistic the upcoming General Election will bring a “badly needed reset”.

The former First Minister said the Welsh civil service has remained a member of the UK home civil service out of “choice”, with the positives continuing to outweigh the negatives. This is despite the instability over the past 5 years, a period in government which he described as an “aberration”.  

Drakeford also highlighted the need to improve diversity in institutions like the civil service. He told Conference that the civil service sometimes “values the wrong experiences”. “Challenging hierarchies” is needed to bring a wide range of people into the workforce and that diversity is key to shaping a service fit for the future.


Paul Whiteman, NAHT General Secretary

NAHT General Secretary Paul Whiteman spoke to FDA members following the close of business at this year’s ADC.


“The NAHT and FDA have much in common. Both leadership unions, both modern, pragmatic, politically independent but fearless,” he opened.

Whiteman “wholeheartedly” commended the FDA for submitting its application for judicial review relating to the relationship of the Civil Service Code with the UK government’s Safety of Rwanda Act, telling delegates that the collective power of the union “should mean that no government will have the confidence to compel civil servants to break the Civil Service Code”.

Turning his attention to Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, he added that “no Secretary of State should ever have the confidence to suggest to an audience of public servants that they should punch another public servant if they are unhappy with them”.

This was in reference to comments made by Keegan at the ASCL conference in March this year, in which she said that she “would probably have punched” Ofsted inspectors involved in a school inspection.

“Suggestions of violence in that context, even if intended as humorous, have no place in the public discourse,” Whiteman added. “That remark demeaned the office of the Secretary of State, but more worryingly exposed an attitude towards public servants that we must not tolerate.”

Arguing for a more collaborative approach, the NAHT leader said “it is our duty to make the case that the inspection debate should not be polarised”.

“Our starting point has to be that all agree inspection is necessary, that it is carried out by hard working public servants,” he explained. “Those on the receiving end are hardworking public servants too who want to continuously improve schools. So, united around that premise, we have to agree that no public servant should be vilified for undertaking their tasks, but that no public servant should be harmed in the discharge of those duties.”

He posed two questions to FDA delegates: “How do we, the FDA and the NAHT, work together to achieve a settlement for the inspector and inspected that is worthy of our members? How do we make sure that government stands up to its duty to support inspection, so as to avoid harm and recrimination?”

Finishing on a positive vision for the future of school inspections, he encouraged the FDA to “work together to grow the number of interested members across our unions” so that, through our communities, we can “achieve an understanding of what is needed and what is possible”.

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