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Brexit: Civil Service Impartiality

Volume 793: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to protect the impartiality of the Civil Service following recent political criticisms of the Brexit process.

My Lords, before I answer the noble Lord’s Question on the Civil Service, noble Lords may have heard that Sir Jeremy Heywood has announced his retirement as Cabinet Secretary to concentrate on his recovery from ill health. The whole House will wish that recovery to be swift and complete and we look forward to welcoming him to your Lordships’ House, where the wisdom, patience and humour that marked his career in the Civil Service can be harnessed by this House as it scrutinises legislation and holds the Government to account.

My Lords, the Ministerial Code is clear that Ministers must uphold at all times the impartiality of the Civil Service. This impartiality is a fundamental tenet of our system of government, set out in legislation and in the Civil Service Code. As always, the Civil Service is focused on doing its duty to implement the decisions and policies of the Government, including on negotiations and preparations for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his Answer. He speaks with authority, having been a civil servant as well as a distinguished former Minister. I am sure the whole House will appreciate the tribute he has paid to Sir Jeremy Heywood. Since a politically impartial and independent Civil Service recruited on the basis of merit, in which civil servants are advised to speak fearlessly in giving advice to Ministers, has been one of the strengths of our unwritten constitution in the last 150 years, will the noble Lord condemn all those politicians—of all political persuasions and different views on Brexit—who blame the civil servants for policy decisions which are the sole responsibility of Ministers? Does he not agree that this is damaging to confidence and trust in the Civil Service?

As the noble Lord has indicated, I have an interest to declare: I was myself a civil servant in the 1960s, working for such agreeable political masters as George Brown and John Stonehouse. But on the serious issue the noble Lord raises, I agree entirely with what he has just said. I think that Oliver Robbins has the most difficult job in the Civil Service; it is quite wrong that he should be the lightning conductor for those unhappy with the negotiations. I deplore the anonymous allegation that he is following his own agenda, against the wishes of Ministers.

My Lords, this may be a sad day for the Civil Service in losing Sir Jeremy Heywood but it is a happy day for us. I am sure that even the Lord Speaker, having commended us on reducing the size of the House, will welcome this exception for our new colleague. We wish him well. The best tribute to him will be if we can continue what he says in his farewell letter: that he has tried,

“to challenge lazy thinking and … to find solutions rather than simply identifying … obstacles”.

Our tribute should be that the Civil Service can continue to do that without being attacked because, rather like saying “Fake news”, those who attack it are doing so to undermine the words that civil servants say. When the Minister reaffirms the independence of the Civil Service, as I am sure he will, will he urge those Brexiteers to play the ball and not the man?

I agree with what the noble Baroness has just said and I am grateful for her tribute to Sir Jeremy. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has best summed up the merits of our Civil Service, speaking of its,

“core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next”.

I agree with the noble Baroness’s final point that, whatever one’s politics, one should play the ball and not the man. Ministers bear responsibility for any difficulties in negotiations, not civil servants.

My Lords, as someone who strongly supports Brexit, may I say how much I support and agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Luce, has said? I deplore all the attacks made on civil servants. I particularly deplore—and have said this to several people—attacks on Sir Jeremy Heywood. He was my Private Secretary in three separate jobs and is an outstanding civil servant, devoted to giving impartial advice. I am deeply sorry to hear about his illness and wish him all the best.

I am grateful to my noble friend. Like him, I worked with Sir Jeremy. I sat round the Cabinet table for a number of years with him and worked with him when I was Chief Whip and Leader of the House. One of his successes was building on the work of his predecessors and creating a more open, diverse, plural Civil Service that was also more professional but never lost sight of the basic principles of the Civil Service: honesty, openness, impartiality and integrity.

My Lords, speaking for all his predecessors as Cabinet Secretary, I share and express our regret that Sir Jeremy Heywood has felt obliged to retire on health grounds. Sir Jeremy served many Prime Ministers and, as we have just heard, many Chancellors of the Exchequer. He served with great skill, unremitting hard work, distinction, impartiality and integrity. He has given the state some service and is well deserving of the gratitude and approval of the Government, Ministers, his colleagues in the Civil Service and both Houses of Parliament.

I agree with the noble Lord’s every word and gently suggest that there will now be so many former Cabinet Secretaries in this House that perhaps they should form their own group.