Kwasi Kwarteng sacking Tom Scholar marks ‘shift away from impartial advice’ | Kwasi Kwarteng

Kwasi Kwarteng’s sacking of his most senior Treasury official will having a “chilling effect” on civil servants and marks a “problematic” shift towards ministers wanting advice that aligns with their own views, a former head of the civil service has warned.

Lord Kerslake, a crossbench peer and former civil service chief, said the move by the new chancellor to remove Tom Scholar as permanent secretary as his first act in office was “pretty disgraceful” and a “retrograde and worrying” step.

Speaking to the Guardian, Kerslake said the government appears to be shifting towards a “new way of behaving”, which could stop senior officials being willing to be challenging and damage people’s confidence that ministers are receiving the best advice.

He said typically new cabinet ministers would seek to work with permanent secretaries and only in rare circumstances would they decide they could not work together after a period of time.

“What seems to have happened here is that they had a view about what they perceived was his approach to the policy side of things, and they decided they didn’t want to have that sort of robust advice on the issues,” Kerslake said.

“That is precisely what senior civil servants are there for. Even more than before, senior civil servants will be nervous about this and worry that robust advice is interpreted as political differences with their policies.

Contact the team securely: create a Protonmail account and email us at [email protected]; or use Signal Messenger or WhatsApp to message +44 7824 537227.

“It marks a new level of the growing trend of blaming the civil servants and dismissing them, and essentially saying they want a senior civil servant who aligns with our personal views. I think that is really problematic, I really do … I think there will be a chilling effect and the wider world will be less confident that decisions will be made on the basis of robust advice.”

Kerslake joins a growing chorus of former permanent secretaries expressing concern about Kwarteng’s decision to remove Scholar, a highly experienced and well-regarded civil servant, after Truss hit out in her leadership campaign at “Treasury thinking”. The move was designed to send a signal that Kwarteng wants a new direction in the Treasury that focuses on promoting growth above all else.

Truss is believed to have personally ordered the sacking, but cooled on the idea of removing Simon Case as cabinet secretary. However, there is anger among sitting permanent secretaries that Case has kept his job despite overseeing the Partygate scandal and not fighting against Scholar’s dismissal.

Some within Whitehall have refer to him dismissively as a “courtier” in a reference to his background advising the royals, and a perceived unwillingness to stand up for the civil service in the face of political attacks and threatened cuts of 91,000 posts.

Simon McDonald, a former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, said on Wednesday that cabinet ministers sacking their top official on their first day in office is “unwise and unconstitutional but the government has discovered it can do what it wants with the civil service, which has no power to resist”.

“The retired complain, but so what? Parliament needs to act,” he added.

David Normington, a former permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE) and the Home Office, wrote to The Times saying that Kwarteng and Truss have “sent a clear message to the civil service that they are not interested in impartial advice and intend to surround themselves with ‘yes’ men and women”.

Lord Butler and Lord Gus O’Donnell, two former cabinet secretaries, last week voiced their disapproval of Kwarteng’s move, while Richard Wilson, a former cabinet secretary under Tony Blair, told the Independent on Wednesday: “To summarily dismiss a key top official, judged by most people to be outstanding, at this moment is destabilising. It may affect morale; there has already been a distressing loss of talent over the past decade.”

It is not known whether Scholar will receive a payout but Jonathan Slater, a former permanent secretary at the DfE, received more than £250,000 after being asked to leave his role in 2020.

No 10 is not commenting on the controversy during the period of national mourning. But the sacking of Scholar has been defended by Theodore Agnew, a former Treasury minister, who wrote in the Times that the “removal of Sir Tom Scholar as the lead permanent secretary at the Treasury should be a cause for celebration”.

“Whether it was foot-dragging and passive resistance to creating a Treasury office in the north, 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 said.

Leave a Comment