Jonathan Slater, a former top mandarin at the Department for Education (DfE), has laid the blame for the school building safety crisis fairly and squarely at the door of the Prime Minister. It is an extraordinary public intervention by a former senior civil servant in an ongoing political controversy: former mandarins of Slater’s rank are normally reluctant to speak out directly on political matters, or to openly criticise ministers they worked for.
That, at any rate, used to be the rule, but perhaps no longer. This raises huge questions about the impartiality of the civil service and the day-to-day workings of government.
Slater, the former permanent secretary to the DfE, claims that he presented the Treasury with evidence of a ‘critical risk to life’ from crumbling schools, but Sunak, who was chancellor at the time, refused to properly fund the rebuilding work. According to Slater, between 300-400 schools a year needed to be rebuilt, but the government opted for a 100 a year, which Sunak then halved to just 50.
The Prime Minister was quick to dismiss the claims as ‘completely and utterly wrong’ but the accusations have left him on the back foot. Labour was eager to capitalise on the former mandarin’s intervention, closing ranks to blame Sunak for the crisis.
Labour’s understandable opportunism highlights exactly why civil servants wading into ongoing political rows is so dangerous. Slater is now the Labour party’s new best friend because he has, whatever his actual intentions, helped do the job of His Majesty’s Opposition. After all, voters are more likely to sit up and listen when a supposedly impartial civil servant speaks up rather than some pesky opposition politician.
Is it really the duty of ex-mandarins to stick their oar into live political controversies as and when it suits them? Who is Slater to unilaterally decide when and if a topic or argument merits disclosure of information from his time in his previous day job? What other things does he know from his time in education or elsewhere in Whitehall that might benefit from a public airing, and why isn’t he sharing it? How is running a government possible if ministers feel every frank discussion or decision might be made public by their senior civil servants at some future point?
Slater will no doubt tell himself that his intervention was unavoidable on this occasion because of his detailed knowledge of the issue.