The sacking of top Treasury official Sir Tom Scholar will harm government effectiveness by exerting a chilling effect on civil servants’ willingness to give frank advice to ministers, a former senior mandarin has said.
Sir Leigh Lewis said the controversial dismissal resounded like a “sonic boom” around Whitehall, leading all civil servants to question whether they could any longer afford to point out the flaws in ministers’ proposals.
Scholar was ejected as permanent secretary within days of Kwasi Kwarteng’s appointment, amid speculation that he refused to endorse the new chancellor’s plans for unfunded tax cuts for the rich.
His dismissal after 30 years at the Treasury was greeted with dismay by civil service leaders, with former cabinet secretaries Lord Butler and Lord O’Donnell voicing their disapproval.
Now Sir Leigh, a former permanent secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions, has warned that ministers can no longer rely on their civil servants being ready to provide them with “frank and honest advice”.
The move reflected “a worrying and total misunderstanding” of the role of the civil service on the part of Liz Truss’s administration, he said.
Sir Leigh, who led the DWP from 2006 to 2011, told Times Radio that in future “it will be a very brave Treasury civil servant [who will] want to question anything the chancellor has said”.
“I think his sacking was highly damaging,” said Sir Leigh. “And I think it was much more significant than simply the sacking of one civil servant.
“And I think, most importantly, it truly is a worrying and total misunderstanding, actually, on the part of the new prime minister and the chancellor of the role of the civil service.”
He added: “The role of senior civil servants is to – in those famous words – give frank, fearless and honest advice to ministers and then absolutely to follow the directions and the instructions that ministers give.
“If you don’t have that dialogue going on within a government, within a department as important as the Treasury and right around Whitehall, then the very quality of government is bound to suffer.
“The sacking of Tom Scholar won’t just have inevitably sent a huge chill around the Treasury, [but] it will be a very brave Treasury civil servant who at the moment will want to question anything that the chancellor has said.
“That sacking will have gone round the whole of Whitehall like the proverbial sonic boom. And I think there will be many Whitehall civil servants, very senior civil servants, who will at the moment be wondering whether they can indeed give frank and honest advice to ministers.
“And that’s a very bad thing indeed, because we need the civil service to be able to give honest advice to ministers if we are to get better government in this country.”