Lords Diary: Lord Kerslake
3 min read
Lord Kerslake on defending civil servants, levelling up the UK, and coronavirus
Impossible to believe I’m sure you will agree, but last Friday marked my 65th birthday. Relaxing and celebrating with my family on Saturday morning, I get a call from the Matt Frei programme on LBC wanting to talk about government relations with the civil service. A puzzling topic for a weekend show, I thought, until they told me about Sir Philip Rutnam’s dramatic resignation and statement ten minutes previously.
To say that I was astonished would not do justice to my reaction. It was unprecedented for any senior civil servant to resign in this way. But I knew Sir Philip, having recommended him for promotion to his first permanent secretary role in Transport. Able, analytical and calm,
I could not think of anyone less likely to do this than him.
In these circumstances, there is always a split-second decision on whether to speak out or not. I chose to do so on this occasion for three reasons. Firstly, I realised that there would be an onslaught of negative briefing against him. We had already had a fortnight of this, and I thought he deserved defending. Secondly, because allegations of bullying and bad behaviour by ministers need to be called out and investigated. It would be a clear violation of the ministerial code. Poor relationships between ministers and their permanent secretaries are one thing. An abuse of power against those not in a position to respond is quite another. Thirdly, I have increasingly become concerned with the wider political narrative from some in the new Government about our civil service.
Of course, ministerial offices are high pressure environments and tempers are bound to fray. The home secretary has denied the allegations and we must await the Cabinet Office inquiry to establish the facts. But effective ministers know that they achieve most out their department if they provide both challenge and support. What is true for a department is equally true for the civil service as a whole. There are ways that the civil service can raise its game but you are unlikely to achieve these by going to war with them.
A big test for the civil service, and indeed the Government, is how it delivers large scale, long term and cross department priorities – the so-called ‘grand challenges’. One such challenge is levelling up. The independent UK2070 Commission, which I chaired, has just published its final report. Launched in Manchester, the report focused on the spatial inequalities of the UK. We set out a 10-point programme of action for government. Reversing the long-term trends of growing inequality will not be easy but is an essential part of raising productivity and bringing the country together. If the Government want to learn the lessons of the past and avoid another disappointment, it will need to ‘go big or go home’.
Last week was one in which the increasingly serious situation presented by the coronavirus became real in the UK. The Government has published its action plan, aiming to ‘plan for worst and work for the best’. On the Good Morning Britain programme on Monday, the presenter Susanna Reid started our discussion asking whether it was still ok to shake hands. If the debate stays at this level, we will all be very lucky. The likelihood though is that it won’t. The Government know that the stakes are high. There are big risks here in overreacting but also in acting too late. Yet another reason for avoiding unnecessary disruption in the functioning of government.
Lord Kerslake is a Crossbench peer and was head of the Home Civil Service from 2012 to 2014
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