UK faces enormous challenges, says top civil servant

Sir Gus O'Donnell Sir Gus was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath earlier this month

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Politicians face "enormous challenges" on the economy, the EU and the future of the UK itself, Britain's outgoing top civil servant has warned.

Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell told the Daily Telegraph "whether to keep our kingdom united" would be one of the key issues.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond welcomed the remarks and said UK parties had their heads "in the sand".

He has pledged a referendum within the SNP's four-year term in office.

In the article, Sir Gus, who steps down as cabinet secretary on 1 January, writes: "Over the next few years there will be enormous challenges, such as whether to keep our kingdom united and how to make the EU operate in the best interests of its citizens.

"But it is today's economy which poses arguably the biggest challenge."

'Buried in the sand'

Mr Salmond has said he will call a referendum on independence in the second half of the SNP's term at Holyrood but Prime Minister David Cameron has said he is committed to keeping the United Kingdom together.

BBC News Channel chief political correspondent Norman Smith said Sir Gus appeared to be signalling that the three biggest UK parties, the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour - who are all in favour of keeping the UK together, were not prepared to make the case for keeping the union.


One of the "enormous" challenges to which Sir Gus O'Donnell refers, is the Scottish National Party's plan to hold a referendum on independence.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond said the vote would be held in the second half of his five year term, which started in May 2011.

If a majority of Scots say "yes" to independence then Mr Salmond would claim a mandate to end Scotland's 300-year-old political union with England.

If a majority of Scots say "no" then the UK would presumably remain intact.

The Westminster government wants Scotland to stay in the UK and its civil servants will be pursuing this objective.

The Scottish government favours independence and has instructed its civil servants to draw up detailed plans for this.

What's interesting is that this happens within a unified UK home civil service which is currently headed by Sir Gus, who is answerable to the Prime Minister.

Not that the SNP feel this has compromised their work on independence. In fact, Mr Salmond has praised Sir Gus for being "extremely fair" in recognising the Nationalist's mandate.

Another senior figure in the SNP said it was a tribute to Britain's sense of fair play that civil servants could serve governments of very different political persuasions at the same time.

Responding to the article Mr Salmond said: "Sir Gus is right to recognise the importance of the constitutional issue, and the SNP government are up for the challenge of building and winning the case for Scottish independence - unlike the Westminster parties, who seem to have their heads buried in the sand."

Speaking later on BBC Radio 4's PM, Sir Gus said: "I think if you're thinking about the list of challenges for the future, actually the challenge I would point to as the most important is the economy.

"But there is also, I think, an interesting question about having an honest and objective debate about the pros and cons of The Union."

'Cultural inertia'

In his Telegraph article, Sir Gus also said he was proud of the "thorough, evidence-based analysis" carried out under the previous Labour government - while he was permanent secretary at the Treasury - which informed the decision not to join the euro.

And he called on the civil service - of which he is the head - "to become a central part of [the economy's] recovery and growth".

"There is, of course, some cultural inertia to overcome, but there is a voracious appetite among departments to take on this challenge... We know we need to deliver better for less," he said.

The outgoing cabinet secretary also touches on the issue of red tape and bureaucracy, and suggests MPs are too quick to create new legislation and regulations to solve problems.

Of the 1,200 regulations that have been examined so far, civil servants have recommended scrapping over half of them.

Ministers and officials should be "prepared to take more risks" and "learn from failure", he adds.

Sir Gus became cabinet secretary in 2005 and when he steps down the post will be split into three.

Number 10 permanent secretary Jeremy Heywood will succeed him as cabinet secretary.

His role as head of the civil service will go to Bob Kerslake, currently permanent secretary of the Communities and Local Government Department, while the role of permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office will go to Ian Watmore, ex-chief executive of the Football Association.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    Westminster could do with an Alex Salmond type politician. What we actually have is a bunch of career politicians who seem to have no convictions, or if they do they won't reveal or act on them. UK government is drifting along, dependent on advice from civil servants and 'experts' and trying to please everyone. Lack of vision and firm purpose is going to sink us in a turbulent world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    None of the challenges are really a problem.
    Sort out tax/benefits - flat rate tax on all earnings, flat rate benefit for all legally here, thats several hundred thousand pointless pen pushers gone.Tax all business transactions in the UK (not profit) and a lot of tax avoidance is also gone. Scrap council tax, car tax, tv licence etc etc etc and the pointless budget juggling are gone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    It clearly is a problem that needs attention due to the large proportion of tax revenue that comes from Scotland. With the dire economic situation we're in and to continue, it could prove to be a major issue.
    I would like to see other issues focussed on too though such as the West Lothian Question and the Scottish students funding situation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    If anyone should know Sir Gus should. Politicians are inclined to come into power with big ideas thinking they know-it-all acting like a bull in a china shop however, after they [Politicians] have made a mess of things they go out of power like a lamb, leaving the civil servants to greet the next lot of wannabes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    Sir Gus is correct to say that the UK faces "enormous challenges" with respect to the economy. Unfortunately senior civil servants are part of the problem, since its clear that none of them ever advises government to stop spending, reduce taxes, simplify the tax system, and finally cure the addiction of ministers (of all parties) to tax as a solution for any and every problem.


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