Home Secretary questioned on civil service appointments

30 June 2020

Nick Thomas-Symonds MP asked an urgent question on the appointment of senior civil service positions and the news that David Frost is to become National Security Adviser.

Last Friday, it was announced that the UK's most senior civil servant, Sir Mark Sedwill, would step down from his positions of Cabinet Secretary and National Security Adviser (NSA) in September. The General Secretary of the senior civil servants' union, the FDA, said that he had been undermined in a "cowardly" way, as reports of tensions emerged. These claims have been dismissed by the Prime Minister.

News of Sir Mark's departure comes after the resignation of a number of top civil servants, such as Sir Philip Rutnam (who is suing the Home Office for unfair dismissal) and Simon McDonald.

David Frost, who is currently the Prime Minister's European adviser and the Government's chief negotiator in Brexit talks with the EU, has been named as the new National Security Adviser. Unlike Sir Mark, Frost is a political appointee rather than a civil servant.

Nick Thomas-Symonds asked the Home Secretary for a statement on these events.

Michael Gove: a "special envoy"

Responding on behalf of the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove told the House that the roles of National Security Adviser and Cabinet Secretary (effective head of the civil service) need to be filled by separate individuals, as they were "in previous administrations".

Mr Gove said that the Prime Minister and Sir Mark had agreed "some time ago" that the latter would stand down in September. He called him a "supremely dedicated, highly professional and hugely accomplished public servant".

The Secretary of State stated that Mr Frost is "also a distinguished public servant", detailing his background as a diplomat and principal foreign policy adviser to the Foreign Secretary. He said that it was an appointment for the Prime Minister to decide, and that the First Civil Service Commissioner had agreed the NSA role could be seen "as a political rather than necessarily civil service appointment", describing the position as akin to a "special envoy".

The Minister said:

"As NSA, David Frost will help to deliver this Government’s vision for Britain’s place in the world."

Nick Thomas-Symonds: "dangerous territory"

Responding on behalf of the Opposition, Nick Thomas-Symonds said that a National Security Adviser should give "objective, and at times challenging, advice", which is why making it a political appointment was "such dangerous territory".

Mr Thomas-Symonds asked for "one good reason" why the appointment should be political, and questioned to whom the NSA would be accountable and if he'd be subject to the code of conduct for special advisers. He asked if the Civil Service Commission was involved in the appointment and, if so, how they ruled, as well as whether intelligence agencies had been consulted and how Mr Frost would be able to carry out his duties as Brexit negotiator "at such a crucial time".

The Shadow Minister also said it was "very worrying" that a lobby briefing from the Government in February contained a "hit list of several permanent secretaries that it wanted to push out". He said the UK should be proud of their civil service and that the Prime Minister should "welcome challenge".

He concluded:

"What is the Prime Minister so afraid of, and why will he not put his duty to keep people safe first?"

    Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

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