The mandarin speaks ...

June 08, 2009 6:55 PM

It's rare to hear anything at all about Britain's Departmental Permanent Secretaries. Even scandal doesn't usually push their names into the headlines.

So Sir David Normington's decision to speak to the BBC - for a programme about Sir Ian Blair's departure from the Met last year - is something of a break with convention. As the top civil servant at the Home Office Sir David was at the centre of the power play that led to Sir Ian's ignoble departure, and in his interview he makes little effort to hide his displeasure at the way London's mayor - Boris Johnson - behaved:

"The appointment of the Commissioner and the resignation
of the Commissioner is ultimately a matter for the Home Secretary in law and
therefore she felt that she should have been consulted about it.


"I would hope that we wouldn't get into that position again and I would
hope that there can always be close co-operation with the police authority
and the Home Office, the Home Secretary and Mayor on the performance of the
Commissioner. I hope they can work together."

Although Sir David, as the Home Office's Chief Executive, has effectively run the department since 2006, maybe the past few months of political turmoil have encouraged him to stray out of the shadows. Not that the anonymity of the senior civil service is good thing. Like much else in our political system, it should be swept away, for as Sir David's comments make quite clear, top civil servants aren't a-political, impartial automatons.

In theory Sir David should be staying firmly out of this matter concerning Sir Ian Blair. If there is an issue, it is for the Mayor and the Home Secretary to argue out, and even then the Home Secretary would probably be on the wrong side of it. The Mayor's office have already published a predictably frosty response to Sir David's comments.

And in many way's their right. If the Mayor feels his police chief isn't doing well, then it is his duty to tell that police chief. While the Home Office may not like this invasion into their turf - policing, after all, has been their exclusive fiefdom for decades - Boris was completely within his rights. He was elected on a crime platform after all, and the Mayor should have the right to appoint the police chief for London. There are complications in this with the terrorism responsibilities currently held by the Met, but the Home Office's anger at Boris was probably much more to do with the fact that Sir Ian was anointed by 'their' man.

Sir David is widely perceived to be a very capable civil servant, and in truth his opinion matters a great deal. He does run one of the most departments of Government.  But instead of simply emerging from the shadows to criticise the actions of Boris Johnson, permanent secretaries need to be dragged into the light. While there is a momentum for reform, real steps need to be taken towards making top officials like Sir David not only more visible, but more accountable. Then we can all give up the pretence that the civil service is somehow disengaged from 'politics', and Sir David Normington - whose opinion certainly matters - can speak his mind. 

It's rare to hear anything at all about Britain's Departmental Permanent Secretaries. Even scandal doesn't usually push their names into the headlines.

So Sir David Normington's decision to speak to the BBC - for a programme about Sir Ian Blair's departure from the Met last year - is something of a break with convention. As the top civil servant at the Home Office Sir David was at the centre of the power play that led to Sir Ian's ignoble departure, and in his interview he makes little effort to hide his displeasure at the way London's mayor - Boris Johnson - behaved:

"The appointment of the Commissioner and the resignation
of the Commissioner is ultimately a matter for the Home Secretary in law and
therefore she felt that she should have been consulted about it.


"I would hope that we wouldn't get into that position again and I would
hope that there can always be close co-operation with the police authority
and the Home Office, the Home Secretary and Mayor on the performance of the
Commissioner. I hope they can work together."

Although Sir David, as the Home Office's Chief Executive, has effectively run the department since 2006, maybe the past few months of political turmoil have encouraged him to stray out of the shadows. Not that the anonymity of the senior civil service is good thing. Like much else in our political system, it should be swept away, for as Sir David's comments make quite clear, top civil servants aren't a-political, impartial automatons.

In theory Sir David should be staying firmly out of this matter concerning Sir Ian Blair. If there is an issue, it is for the Mayor and the Home Secretary to argue out, and even then the Home Secretary would probably be on the wrong side of it. The Mayor's office have already published a predictably frosty response to Sir David's comments.

And in many way's their right. If the Mayor feels his police chief isn't doing well, then it is his duty to tell that police chief. While the Home Office may not like this invasion into their turf - policing, after all, has been their exclusive fiefdom for decades - Boris was completely within his rights. He was elected on a crime platform after all, and the Mayor should have the right to appoint the police chief for London. There are complications in this with the terrorism responsibilities currently held by the Met, but the Home Office's anger at Boris was probably much more to do with the fact that Sir Ian was anointed by 'their' man.

Sir David is widely perceived to be a very capable civil servant, and in truth his opinion matters a great deal. He does run one of the most departments of Government.  But instead of simply emerging from the shadows to criticise the actions of Boris Johnson, permanent secretaries need to be dragged into the light. While there is a momentum for reform, real steps need to be taken towards making top officials like Sir David not only more visible, but more accountable. Then we can all give up the pretence that the civil service is somehow disengaged from 'politics', and Sir David Normington - whose opinion certainly matters - can speak his mind. 

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