Most people reading this probably care little about the names of those who head up our civil service, there to implement the political decisions of government ministers. We expect competence, the brains to challenge ministers’ dafter ideas and the nous to make government policy work in the public interest. It’s up to ministers to make the political decisions and up to them to account for those decisions to the public. So, what is going wrong when five of our very top civil servants have been sacked in quick succession?
There is no doubt that the debacle over exam results was scandalous. It seems right that the head of Ofqual, the body which oversaw the process should go along with the head of the Education Department – and they went. But the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, was there all the way through as Prime Minister Johnson’s trusted representative.
Did he ask the right questions that could have stopped this situation which would have been a farce if it had not created so much heartache for so many of our young people? Clearly not. Did he ask any questions? We’ll never know. But if the civil servants should go, why not Gavin?
In the end, the government did a U-turn which was, I’m told, the twelfth such “change of mind” since last December’s general election. I don’t know if that’s a record but what lies behind it is not incompetent civil servants but incompetent Ministers who aren’t in control and a part-time Prime Minister who’s not in charge of them.
Let’s take the example of health. The Covid-19 crisis is undoubtedly one of the most challenging things any government has had to face. But I don’t understand why the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) became a lottery that saw NHS and care staff put at risk. Do you remember government ministers, under pressure, telling us a million pieces of PPE were on their way from Turkey? They were never used but we’ve never had any proper explanation. Again, Track and Trace is fundamental to controlling Covid-19. Other countries made it work quickly. We didn’t.
Staggering incompetence, but no Minister feels so responsible as to resign. Maybe our civil service does need a shake-up but I’m certain of this, you can replace all the civil servants you like but if ministers are incompetent, nothing is going to work. That should worry the Prime Minister, that should worry us all.
This article was originally published in the Rochdale Observer on 5 September 2020.