Virus Crisis ‘has Paused Whitehall Backbiting’

Dave Penman said civil servants respected decisive ministers, even if they disagreed with them, FDA

The fight against coronavirus has halted “backbiting” and “bitching” between ministers and Whitehall staff, the leader of the union representing senior civil servants has claimed.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, said everyone was “focused” on keeping infections to a minimum.

But he questioned whether this meant ministers would appreciate staff more “over the long term”.

Downing Street declined to comment on Mr Penman’s remarks.

Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid tribute to “all of our brilliant public servants”, adding that they had “shown extraordinary courage in facing this emergency”.


Relations between ministers and senior Whitehall staff have come under increased scrutiny recently.

Last month, the top Home Office civil servant, Sir Philip Rutnam, resigned citing a “vicious and orchestrated” campaign against him.

Priti Patel
Priti Patel denies allegations of mistreating staff, Getty Images

Promising to claim for constructive dismissal, he added that Home Secretary Priti Patel’s conduct towards staff had included “swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands”. Ms Patel denies the allegations against her.

At the time of Sir Philip’s resignation, Mr Penman criticised a Whitehall culture in which ministers and their advisers could make anonymous briefings to the press about those “who are unable to publicly defend themselves”.

But he told BBC News the coronavirus pandemic had since pushed aside any differences.

Mr Penman said: “Just now everyone’s just focused on the job and there’s no bitching, there’s no backbiting – a lot of that kind of stuff which was a feature of this government, in briefing and all that kind of stuff.”

Civil servants were, he added, talking in “glowing terms” about ministers who showed “clarity” rather than attempting to “fudge accountability”.

This was the case even if they rejected officials’ advice and chose a “different path”, he said.

In the past couple of weeks, the government has introduced measures including social distancing and closures of schools, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and other public places.

Some civil servants have been classified as “key workers”, allowing them to keep sending their children to school while they do their job.

Mr Penman said they were currently working “far more” than their allotted hours, as they attempted to keep government and supply chains going.

However, he was sceptical about the suggestion that the coronavirus crisis could bring a permanent improvement in relations between ministers, civil servants and unions.

He said: “I think they recognise at times of need that we play a critical role in helping manage change and deliver big changes that have to happen. It’s just a pity that doesn’t really get valued over the longer term.”

Boris Johnson has said he will keep working, after being diagnosed with coronavirus, Getty Images

When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, “big changes” to redundancy and pension schemes meant ministers had more “meaningful” engagement with workers and unions than under the previous Labour government, he added.

“But then it flattens off and there’s a lack of engagement,” Mr Penman said. “Then, when something big happens, they’re back engaging and recognising the value that we can add in the workplace.”

As for allegations of bullying by ministers, Mr Penman called the process for dealing with them “wholly inadequate”.

He said this, like other issues, had “kind of gone to the wayside” during the coronavirus crisis, but promised that his union, which has around 18,000 members, would continue “hold ministers to account for their behaviour”.

Mr Johnson told MPs earlier this month that he was “sticking by” Ms Patel, but claims against her would “of course” be investigated.

Announcing his own diagnosis with coronavirus on Friday, the prime minister tweeted: “I’m working from home and self-isolating and that’s entirely the right thing to do.

“But, be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team to lead the national fight-back against coronavirus.”

The BBC contacted Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, both of whom declined to respond to Mr Penman’s remarks.

Author: Justin Parkinson

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