Wednesday 19 January 2022
“Dysfunctional” culture in No. 10 risks “damaging” civil service
Ilyas Tayfun Salci / Shutterstock.com
FDA General Secretary Dave Penman has warned that the
“dysfunctional culture” in Number 10 “when it comes to COVID rules and breaking”
risks starting “to look like a broader culture across the civil service”.
His comments come after reports of numerous social
gatherings and parties in No. 10 Downing Street that broke COVID restrictions,
which are currently being investigated by Sue Gray, Second Permanent Secretary
at the Cabinet Office.
Appearing live on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Penman told
Nick Robinson that “part of the defence around the Prime Minister has been to
suggest that’s a wider culture in the civil service and I’ve said many times,
that’s not a culture I recognise”. He said that “while it may suit some around
the Prime Minister” to suggest this is a broader issue across the civil
service, “it’s very damaging and it’s not true”.
Some of the allegations aimed at Prime Minister Boris
Johnson have come from Dominic Cummings, his former adviser, and Penman
suggested this briefing war between the two “feels like a bitter divorce and
the government and the civil service are the kids caught in the crossfire”.
Responding to questions from Robinson over who bears
responsibility for the culture in No. 10, Penman added: “Leadership comes from
the top in any organisation, so I don’t think anyone can avoid that
responsibility. I think what officials will want and expect is that, if there
is blame coming out of this, that that’s proportionate to those in leadership
positions. If the Prime Minister thinks that he can get out of it by avoiding
scrutiny under the Ministerial Code… but others are then facing discipline or
sack, that won’t feel like it’s a fair outcome or proportionate to where blame
lies across the whole of No. 10 for what appears to have happened.”
His comments followed an appearance on Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday in which he defended the civil service’s position to lead
impartial investigations and report uncomfortable truths to ministers and the
“Sue Gray is a formidable character,” he said. “She has been
used to dealing with the most sensitive political issues; she was head of the propriety
and ethics team at the Cabinet Officer, she’s investigated ministers before and
given Prime Ministers very difficult messages about those investigations. So,
there isn’t really anyone in Whitehall better to do it than Sue Gray herself… the
public needs to understand that this is what the civil service does. It’s not
independent but it’s permanent and it’s impartial and it has demonstrated time
and time again that it can present a Prime Minister reluctant to receive those
facts with the unvarnished truth.”
However, Penman cautioned that there were limitations to Sue
Gray’s investigation, as the current system means Johnson “essentially has a
veto of whether he’s investigated” under the Ministerial Code.
“Ultimately this is an internal investigation and the Prime
Minister will have choices around what he does with that report,” he explained.
“The degree to which he publishes it, what information he puts in the public
domain, the decision that will be taken for civil servants, because civil
servant may face disciplinary action around this. We then find ourselves in
this kind of perverse position where if [there is] a question of whether not
the Prime Minister breached the Ministerial Code, only the Prime Minister
himself can refer himself for an investigation. So, it’s not going to deliver
what some people are putting on it but what it should do is deliver the facts.”
Penman also dealt with these issues in his latest column forCivil Service World, in which he writes that while “no-one can escape their
personal accountability for following the letter and spirit of the law” the “culture
and tone in organisations are invariably set by those at the top”.
“Demonstrating the best of behaviours and challenging the
worst comes with the burden of leadership. If you’re not prepared or not able
to do that, don’t go looking for a leadership position because you can’t hide
from the accountability that follows,” he added.
You can read the full column here.