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Truss Government Accused Of “Weakness" After Sacking Treasury Permanent Secretary

Sir Tom Scholar was sacked by the new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng last week (Parliamentlive.TV)

4 min read

The leader of the civil servants' union has criticised the new Liz Truss administration's decision to sack the Treasury’s longstanding Permanent Secretary Sir Tom Scholar.

Scholar, who has been in the role since 2016, was told his services were no longer required by Kwasi Kwarteng last week in one of his first acts as Chancellor.

It came after Truss had blamed "Treasury orthodoxy" for slow economic growth over recent years.

The new PM, a former Treasury minister, accused her old department of promoting an "abacus economics" during the Tory leadership campaign, saying greater focus was required on promoting economic growth.

But Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, which represents senior civil servants, said Scholar's sacking “ultimately shows a weakness in government”.

Writing for PoliticsHome's sister publication Civil Service World he said: “It is an extraordinary act – and one that has ramifications not just for the relationship with the civil service, but for the fundamental principles that underpin a permanent and impartial civil service.”

Penman said he had hoped that when Truss became Prime Minister her focus would shift “to governing rather than just winning a vote among a not very typical electorate”, and delivering on her campaign pledges.

“Instead, just two days into her premiership, the new chancellor sacked the Treasury permanent secretary with immediate effect,” he wrote.

“He has vast experience, not least in dealing with major financial crises. He had been at the Treasury in 2007 during the banking collapse, and during Covid and the – until now – unprecedented financial support delivered via the furlough scheme.

“Just, you would have thought, the sort of experience needed given the cost-of-living crisis the country now faces.”

He added: “That he has been sacked so early on in the term of this government, before a new chancellor has even had a chance to build a relationship, says something about the approach of this new Truss administration.”

Scholar would have "tested and challenged any policy direction with evidence”, Penman said. 

“Good ministers don’t fear robust advice; they welcome it," he continued. 

“Why then would a confident government and chancellor not want one of the most experienced and admired civil servants of his generation at the heart of government?”

The decision to sack Scholar was also criticised by two former cabinet secretaries, who accused Truss of treating the civil service “improperly”.

Robin Butler, who served under Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, told BBC Radio 4: “If there was ever a time we needed experience and continuity, which is what the civil service provides, it is now.

"We have a new sovereign, we have a new prime minister and we really need the cement that can hold this system together.

“I think the politicians are beginning to forget the constitution.”

He said he was concerned about the government’s politicisation of senior civil service roles. 

“I think they are behaving improperly towards the civil service," he added. 

“It will weaken them but it will also corrupt our system because one of those great advantages of having an independent, loyal civil service will be compromised.”

Lord O'Donnell, who was Cabinet Secretary to Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, told TimesRadio: "Sacking someone with no notice for no apparent reason – someone held in high regard by chancellors of all political parties – is no way to earn the respect of the Treasury and the civil service.”

Scholar’s predecessor in the Treasury, Nick Macpherson, called him “the best civil servant of his generation”.

“Sacking him makes no sense." he said.

"His experience would have been invaluable in the coming months as government policy places massive upward pressure on the cost of funding.

“As Gordon Brown used to say: ‘They’re not thinking’.”

But former Treasury minister Lord Agnew welcomed Scholar’s removal, saying it should be “a cause for celebration”.

Writing in The Times, he said: “Having worked in his department for nearly two years I saw at first hand the malign influence of the Treasury orthodoxy at play.

“Whether it was foot-dragging and passive resistance to creating a Treasury office in the north (in Darlington), which he fiercely resisted, or the botched arrangements in the construction of the bounce back loans during the pandemic, all roads led back to him.”

He added: “There are many excellent civil servants in Whitehall and I was privileged to work with dozens of them in the Department for Education, the Cabinet Office, HMRC and the Treasury.

“Tom Scholar was not one of them.”

  • You can read the full article by Dave Penman in our sister publication Civil Service World here

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