I get the feeling that the Civil Service has chosen the wrong government to have an argument with. The lifetime career culture within that public body instills an arrogance based on the continuity role they play in advising the government of the day. I think it is fairly clear now that the Tories are going to be in power for some considerable time and with Boris and Dominic at the helm it seems they are not going to be walked over by the pen pushers. Hats off to them then for backing Priti Patel in the latest row over her treatment of civil servants. The power of the civil service has struck back and is using all the available media channels to push their interpretation of the story. I don’t know what the outcome will be but it seems to me that the reaction of the civil service is best described by Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army – they don’t like it up ‘em Sir. Nothing riles me more than some buffoon questioning my attitude by asking ‘Do you know who you are talking to?’ My response ‘no sorry, have you had Alzheimer’s long?’ I think Ms Patel’s response may have been a tad stronger.
Which leads me to my latest observation. Over the past two or three weeks the message from BEIS Civil Service has changed with regard to the Horizon Scandal. Suddenly they are incorporating a form of words that seeks to distance themselves from the responsibility of this huge mess. No better example than this that I have ‘borrowed’ from a post on Facebook. It is from a letter from BEIS to a subpostmaster:
“In response to your question about the costs and risks of the Horizon litigation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) provided oversight of POL and relied on POL management to investigate issues with the Horizon system. Government was assured by POL that the system was robust and that the issues raised by the postmasters were being handled appropriately. There have been attempts in the past to resolve these issues, including an independent investigation in 2013 and a mediation scheme in 2015. All these attempts failed to resolve the issues, leaving the court as the only means of providing the independent view that all sides needed.
In hindsight, facts have come to light through the litigation that have revealed that advice received over that period was flawed. As such, Government will be closely monitoring the progress of the Post Office in delivering on its programme of commitments following the settlement. “
The word ‘Government’ was mentioned twice in that extract, but it should be replaced by, ‘the civil service’. The ‘Government’ we are accustomed to when discussing the Horizon Scandal has always been the Minister in charge at various points and boy have we had plenty of those over the years. The Minister’s, whoever that may have been, only responsibility in the matter has been to repeat out loud the briefing paper and often the written answers, supplied to them by the civil servants involved. The civil servants have been there all the time, career public servants, but the Ministers as Sir Robin Day put it so bluntly are “here today and gone tomorrow” politicians. I see little point in pursuing these folk to perdition for the small role they may have played in all of this.
As Gil Furniss MP said yesterday in debate:
I fear that the Minister does not get it. He is still parroting exactly what has been said by previous Ministers to me. If this had happened to him, and he had lost everything and had his reputation done, he would want an independent judge-led inquiry. In this Chamber, we have all made it very clear that that must be the outcome.
I get the feeling that this Minister actually does get it but yes the BEIS civil servants that sat behind him were the ones responsible for providing him with the script to recite in parrot fashion. I actually pay tribute to him for having the sense not to recite verbatim the ‘isn’t POL doing well and how much money the government has invested in it’ spiel that so often prefixes ministerial replies to the house.
The role of the civil servants in delivering the wishes of the government to the people has been satirised often but none was more accurate in my opinion than ‘Yes Minister’ whose Nostradamus like scripts are still a source to describe the inner workings of the Civil Service. A case in point is delivered here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FRVvjGL2C0
When people start inserting unsolicited comments into what should be standard replies that have been used in similar instances in the past then one has to wonder why they have done this. The only reason I can come up with is that this is the beginning of the self protection episode of the scandal and laying the foundation for blame shifting when eventually the shit hits the fan in the inevitable public inquiry. So the timing of the introduction of this new form of words is probably not co-incidental with the Prime Minister’s stated intention of having such an inquiry. You can be certain that Sir Humphrey would not support such a move but if the PM wants to teach the Civil Service that they are not the omnipotent force they once were then I would urge him to use this inquiry as a proving ground for that premise.
There is evidence that has not yet been revealed that will implicate certain senior individuals in the civil service in this scandal. It will come out eventually but for the meantime let them hoist their own petard.