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Monday 02 October 2023

Conservative Party Conference 2023: FDA’s Amy Leversidge reflects on recent “extraordinary” attacks on civil service impartiality

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At the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, panellists at the first of two fringe events hosted by the FDA and the Institute for Government (IfG), looked at whether there is a Conservative case for constitutional reform. The panel discussed the role of a permanent and impartial civil service, the introduction of a fully independent complaints process in Parliament, and devolution. 

The FDA was represented by our Assistant General Secretary Amy Leversidge, and the discussion was chaired by Director of the IfG, Dr Hannah White. Leversidge appeared alongside former Minister for Constitutional Reform John Penrose MP, Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome Henry Hill, and Associate Director at the Institute for Government Jess Sargeant.

When asked by White about whether there is an appetite for reform amongst civil servants, Leversidge replied that the civil service serves the government of the day and will implement any constitutional reforms that government chooses. She argued that the last few years have been extraordinary with attacks on civil service impartiality from politicians across the political spectrum and across the UK. She argued that “it has felt at times that the FDA and the IfG have been the lone voices defending the principles and integrity of our permanent and impartial civil service”.

Leversidge went on to discuss the FDA’s role in the implementation of a fully independent complaints process in Parliament. In 2020, MPs voting for a fully independent process to deal with harassment and bullying complaints, had “helped remove politics from the complaints process”. Leversidge said this has “lifted a lid on the culture that has always existed” in parliament, as has been reflected with the number of complaints that have come out since – including a number of historic issues.

However, she pointed out that we still do not have a fully independent process in a ministerial setting, where “all roads lead back to the Prime Minister”. Leversidge argued that there is no clear process and there is a lack of trust in how complaints made by civil servants against ministers will be dealt with. It remains the case that a Prime Minister is able to put political expediency above the safety of their civil servants. 

Leversidge called for the full implementation of the recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

On the issue of devolution, Leversidge reflected on the situation in Northern Ireland, where civil servants have been placed in “an invidious situation” and are having to take decisions they should never normally have to make, against a terrible financial backdrop. Whether it is by restoring the executive or by ministerial direction, there needs to be democratic accountability. Leversidge reminded attendees that the FDA has written to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, calling for him to issue a ministerial direction and show political leadership. 

FDA General Secretary Dave Penman attended the second FDA and IfG joint event at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, alongside Shadow Leader of the House of Lords Rt Hon Baroness Smith, Leader of the Scottish Labour Party Anas Sarwar MSP, Associate Editor at the Financial Times Stephen Bush, and Associate Director at the Institute for Government Jess Sargeant. 
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