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Tuesday 08 October 2019

Penman in CSW: PM must not sacrifice civil service integrity

John Wellings

The recent series of momentous political events has not only rocked Parliament, but left civil servants afraid of being asked to break the law, according to FDA General Secretary Dave Penman's latest Civil Service World column.

In his op-ed, Penman admits that "you could be forgiven for thinking we’ve witnessed a decade’s worth of politics in a single month”. We have seen prorogation, the “Benn Act”, the withdrawal of the whip from 21 Tory MPs, the PM saying “we would be leaving on 31 October regardless, with the implication being that he would ignore an act of parliament”.

“Then, of course,” he continues, “came the real doozy, the one that unprecedented the unprecedentable: the Supreme Court unanimously ruled the proroguing of parliament unlawful”.

Where, he asks, does this leave the civil service? “At one end of the spectrum, the political shenanigans have no impact. The civil service is there to serve the government of the day,” he writes, yet “the political context may make many civil servants feel unsettled, particularly as no-one is able to predict where this is all going and we are very much in uncharted waters”.

Penman notes that Brexit has “toxified the political discourse in this country”, and led to fresh attacks on the civil service – and specific civil servants’ – integrity. “We have, justifiably, criticised the Prime Minister and ministers for their failure to confront these attacks,” he continues, “but events of the last few weeks have disrupted and undermined the very basis on which the current civil service operates and the principles that all civil servants consider fundamental to their role”.

“The Prime Minister’s contradictory statements on his commitment to leave the EU on 31 October and whether he will uphold the law of the land raised serious concerns among our members over a potential conflict between complying with the law and serving the government of the day,” Penman elaborates. “It led us to an unprecedented moment of our own – we wrote to the Prime Minister to seek public assurances that no civil servant would be asked to breach their obligation, under the Civil Service Code, to 'comply with the law and uphold the administration of justice'".

As of yet, the FDA has received no reply from Boris Johnson. The General Secretary warns that “the longer this speculation continues, the greater the damage done to the civil service”.

Read the full column on the Civil Service World website.

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