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Outgoing civil service boss Mark Sedwill blasts ‘sniping’ against officials as he defends £250,000 exit payment

Sir Mark Sedwill told CSW he was ‘really proud’ of the Government’s response to Covid-19. Photo: Cabinet Office

4 min read

The outgoing head of the civil service has slammed anonymous “sniping” against officials, as he defended his own £250,000 exit payment.

Sir Mark Sedwill, who will step down as Cabinet Secretary in September, told Civil Service World that political briefings against public servants were “counterproductive”, amid a wave of attacks on top officials.

And Sir Mark said a compensation payment of £248,189 authorised by Boris Johnson for his early departure had been “standard” for someone leaving Whitehall from his position of seniority.

It was announced in June that Sir Mark, who was appointed by Theresa May following the death of Sir Jeremy Heywood, would be relinquishing his three roles as Cabinet Secretary, head of the civil service and National Security Adviser.

The move followed months of briefings in the media against Sir Mark and other senior officials.

And it came after Dominic Cummings, the PM’s most senior adviser and a longstanding critic of the way the civil service is run, promised that a "hard rain” will fall on Whitehall in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sir Mark told Civil Service World: “I think we should challenge the legitimacy of people who can't answer back being briefed against.”

And he added: “It is unreasonable that people who, by convention, don't answer back and don't respond to every criticism, are subject to this kind of – usually anonymous – attack and snipe.”

The outgoing Cabinet Secretary said he would continue to defend civil servants in his remaining weeks as their boss.

And he reminded politicians that such behaviour is “counterproductive”.

Asked whether ministers stick up for officials enough, Sir Mark said some had gone on the record and been “very supportive of the civil service”.

“The prime minister himself has paid very warm tribute to individuals, including to me... [and] he's spoken of his appreciation for the amazing job the civil and the wider public service has done on Covid, and so on.”


Sir Mark also defended his own exit payment, revealed in an exchange of letters between Boris Johnson and Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm last month.

A letter from the PM said the six-figure sum was “likely to be in the form of a pension contribution”, with the PM authorising the top-up “in consideration of his employment position” and “Sir Mark stepping down early”.

Sir Mark told CSW: “That is a calculation made by the experts for someone in my position for voluntary early retirement by agreement – that's essentially what I took. 

“And then there is a compensation payment into the pension.”

It was not, he stressed, a redundancy payment. 

“There's a distinction between the two. I know it’s a significant amount of money… But if I've been made redundant, actually it would have been more than that under the terms of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. Significantly more than that.”


The interview comes as Boris Johnson whittles down the list of candidates to succeed Sir Mark in the top job, with current Department of Health permanent secretary Sir Chris Wormald and trade department chief Antonia Romeo in the frame.

Sir Mark is likely to play a key role in any forthcoming inquiry into the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

He told the title that he believed Whitehall’s response to the virus outbreak had been “magnificent”.

He said: “I'm really proud of it. And I'm proud of it not just as the head of the service, but as a citizen.

“Just look at what we did. Not a single person in this country failed to have the medical treatment they needed. Every single person who needed a ventilator got one. That is not true in every Western country."

He cited the furlough and business support schemes set up “in absolutely record time”; a programme to send food packages to those shielding during the outbreak; and support for socially-isolated people.

Sir Mark acknowledged that at any inquiry “there will have to be questions about whether the right decisions were taken at the right time”.

“Are there things we could have done better? Could we have had more preparations in place? Are there different decisions we could have taken?

“But what I can tell you is that everyone involved, ministers and officials, was seeking to take the right decisions. 

“They took the decisions for the right reasons, and they took them on the basis of the best evidence and expert advice – scientific advice and other advice – that they had at the time.”

Read the full interview with Sir Mark Sedwill on

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