How (not) to Sack a Permanent Secretary

by ukcivilservant

This blog is a reprint of my web page which explains how and why Permanent Secretaries can be dismissed, and seeks in particular to explain the concerns arising from the loss this year of the Cabinet Secretary and five Permanent Secretaries.

I do not claim to have detailed knowledge of the individual dismissals, and so would welcome additional information and corrections, either as comments on this blog or by email.

It is a firm rule that ministers cannot dismiss civil servants that displease them or that offer unwelcome advice (but see the comment below).  If a minister cannot stand a particular official, the latter is usually moved to a different job. Much more detail is here. It follows that, if a Secretary of State falls out with their Permanent Secretary, there then needs to be a triangular discussion involving the Secretary of State, the Cabinet Secretary and the civil servant.   Where possible, this leads to two or more Permanent Secretaries swapping places.

Sometimes, though, this is impossible.  Other Secretaries of State may refuse to accept what they see as a tainted official, or there may be no available post which is senior enough within the Permanent Secretary pecking order.  But, if it is not addressed, the poor relationship at the top of a department can lead to serious damage both to the minister and the department, and hence to the wider government. The Permanent Secretary must then leave the civil service.

Such departures do not necessarily reflect badly on either the Secretary of State or the official.  Cabinet Ministers are entitled to work with someone that they find reasonably congenial.  And no-one gets to be a Permanent Secretary unless they have shown that they can work well, over a long career, with a large number and variety of Ministers of all political persuasions.   Former Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler noted (in a letter to the Times in September 2020) that “It is especially important in the case of the head of the civil service that the appointee should be endorsed as politically non-partisan. When I was head of the service, I was authorised by the prime minister of the day to confirm informally with the leader of the opposition that those chosen for important civil service appointments were acceptable also to his party.”

Indeed, Permanent Secretaries often work with several Secretaries of State before finding one that doesn’t like them.  Simon McDonald, who was eased out of the Foreign Office in 2020, noted that in his five years as Permanent Secretary he had worked for 22 junior ministers, 4 Foreign Secretaries, 3 Prime Ministers and 1 Queen.

The departure is therefore usually pretty amicable.  There can be financial compensation for the official in the form of an early retirement package (though these are modest compared with private sector equivalents).  And prestigious jobs can often be found in higher education or the charitable sector. 

It was therefore concerning that the Boris Johnson government oversaw the distinctly not amicable loss of several Permanent Secretaries in 2020.  There were several important factors in the background to this highly unusual development.

  • The senior ranks of the Civil Service were undoubtedly very concerned about the way in which Ministers were approaching the Brexit and post-Brexit negotiations following the 2016 referendum.  Their speaking truth to power will probably not have gone down at all well.
  • The Prime Minister’s principal adviser Dominic Cummings made it clear that he had no time for most senior civil servants.  He was also keen to centralise decision making in or near Number 10, which will have been unwelcome to most Permanent Secretaries on both practical and constitutional grounds.  The Times and others reported that he had told political aides that a “hard rain is coming” after detailing the shortcomings of an “incoherent” Cabinet Office.
  • The government mishandled the early (and some of the later) stages of the COVID-19 crisis, completely disregarding well established good practice in handling crises.  But it will have wanted to deflect criticism away from ministers.
  • More generally, Whitehall, as well as many public services, encountered Brexit and COVID-19 following years of staff cuts and lack of investment driven by austerity.  It had also maybe not fully recovered from the turmoil of the LibDem coalition years. (19 out of the 20 Perm Secs had either left or been moved between departments between the 2010 general election and 2013.) By 2020, therefore, the whole of the UK public sector lacked resilience and any spare capacity.  Its performance in some areas may very well have been poor, but Ministers were hardly likely to realise that they and their predecessors were to blame for this.
  • Permanent Secretaries had, since 2013, been appointed on five year fixed term contracts. By 2020, therefore, it had become much easier to ease Permanent Secretaries out of their offices, whilst simultaneously sending clear messages to the others that they had better behave – or else!

The first Permanent Secretary to go was Philip Rutnam at the Home Office who fell out so badly with Home Secretary Priti Patel that he refused compensation and instead claimed to have been unfairly and constructively dismissed because of her bullying.  He claimed that there had been a “vicious and orchestrated” campaign against him in the department.

Clare Moriarty left the civil service in March 2020 following the abolition of her department (The Department for Exiting the European Union). It is not known whether she was would have accepted another appointment if indeed one had been offered, as she was recovering from a serious illness But many wanted her to stay. Civil Service World commented as follows:

“This is sad news,” CSW columnist and former senior civil servant Andrew Greenway tweeted. “I’ve often been critical of leadership in the CS. Clare was a perm sec who espoused the best of the service’s traditional strengths while pushing it towards the internet era. Her empathy and ability will be much missed.”  As this tribute implies, Moriarty developed a leadership style that felt refreshingly open and modern in a civil service that talks the inclusivity talk, but doesn’t always walk the walk. Many wanted to see her take her this model of stewardship to the very top of the organisation. It was a surprise then when news emerged a few weeks ago that – after seven departments and 35 years – she would be leaving the civil service at the end of March.  

Richard Heaton left the Ministry of justice in the summer, at the end of his initial five year appointment period.  I understand that the Justice Secretary wanted him to stay, but the application had to be considered by the Prime Minister (or more likely Dominic Cummings) and Mr Heaton only learned of his departure as it was tagged on to the statement by No 10 announcing the departure of Mark Sedwill – see further below. This was a pretty shabby way to treat anyone, let alone such a distinguished public servant.

Simon McDonald left the Foreign Office in the late summer, having originally said that he would stay on until 2021 to oversee the merger of the FCO and DfID – see further below.  He had worked for Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and then for Dominic Raab, neither of whom were regarded as strong or effective in the role, so there may have been tensions in their relationships. .  He had then, according to the media:- been forced to make U-turn on his claim to MPs that the UK made a “political decision” not to join an EU scheme to source ventilators to treat coronavirus patients. He later declared he had been “incorrect” in his comments to the Foreign Affairs Committee, prompting speculation he had been ordered to recant by Downing Street.  He had also undoubtedly opposed the speed of the merger that autumn of the Foreign Office and Department for international Development.  This was being planned for 2021so as to allow time to tackle a number of complexities, including the need to knit together two quite different cultures, pay systems etc . 

The manner of Jonathan Slater’s dismissal caused little short of outrage amongst many observers.  He was evicted from the Education Department in August 2020 with only five days notice.  Although this followed the department’s very poor handling of the education aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, including some impressive u-turns over the grading of pupils who had been unable to sit A-level and GCSE exams, very few thought that the errors should be attributed to Mr Slater alone, if indeed at all.   It was widely assumed that the Prime Minister had required someone to fall on their sword but ordained that that someone was not to be the Cabinet Minister Gavin Williamson. – a reversal of the normal acceptance of responsibility in these circumstances.

It was noticeable that, although the Head of Ofqual (the exams regulator) also resigned, she remained a civil servant and returned to her home department, the Cabinet Office.

Last, but not least, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill left in September following acres of press reports that he was to be sacked.  The Telegraph said that Downing Street regarded Sir Mark as “too much of a Europhile and establishment figure” to be in post through planned Whitehall reforms. It is worth noting, too that Sir Mark’s previous career (mainly in defence and national security) was probably not ideal preparation for his new role, especially given the pressure of the Brexit negotiations and preparations, and the CIVID-19 pandemic. There will have been tensions, too, resulting from Dominic Cummings’ determination to centralise decision making in Number 10.  These issues are explored at greater length in a separate blog.

Comment

The departures of Richard Heaton and Jonathan Slater were so clearly ordered by the Prime Minister as to call into question my assertion, above, that ‘ministers cannot dismiss civil servants’. The sackings may have been designed to show Permanent Secretaries that they have no job security and they should watch their step, though – as in all the best authoritarian systems – watching their step may well not save them. It does not appear that Prime Minister Johnson has any interest in or loyalty towards the civil service as an institution of which he is, of course, supposed to be the custodian as Minister for the Civil Service.

It was, of course, also the case that the Cabinet Secretary was in no position to object to the two dismissals, as he was himself serving his notice period. It remains to be seen whether Simon Case (Sir Mark’s successor) will be able to withstand pressure from the Prime Minister and his aides, or whether he was chosen for his willingness to bend to Prime Ministerial will.

Let’s not forget, though, that this is not the first time that Whitehall has got excited about minister/Permanent Secretary relations. One persistent theme, as the 2010- LibDem coalition passed the mid-point of its term in office, was ministers’ dissatisfaction with Permanent Secretaries.  There were several ‘fallings-out’ and Perm Sec resignations, which at least went to show that Minsters did weald considerable power in this area if they chose to use it.  Indeed, there was by 2013 only one Perm Sec in post who had been in post in 2007, and 19 out of the 20 Perm Secs had either left or been moved between departments since the 2010 general election.  The downside, of course, was that the 19 were often inexperienced and/or working in departments whose issues, strengths, weaknesses and organisation they did not understand at all well – a fact which was all too apparent to their staff.  It was probably also a significant contributory factor in the poor performance of the coalition and subsequent governments.

Ivan Rogers resignation in 2017 was an example of a less-than-amicable but nevertheless necessary departure. His disagreement with the government’s Brexit negotiation strategy was so profound that he resigned before he was dismissed.

Martin Stanley

Editor – Understanding Government