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Phil Swann: What is the right reason for public servants to resign?

Phil Swann
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The resignations of former council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown and chief executive Nicholas Holgate following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower had a depressing inevitability to them. 

In a search for a benchmark against which to assess their decisions, I went back to Crichel Down. Crichel Down, a piece of agricultural land in Dorset, was the subject of a public inquiry in 1954.

The saga concerned the Ministry of Agriculture’s handling of the land, which the government had compulsorily purchased in the 1930s for bombing practice. The government did not honour its promise to return the land to its owners after the Second World War.

The agriculture minister at the time of the inquiry, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigned. He maintained he had nothing to do with the decisions that had been called into question but told Parliament: “I, as minister, must accept full responsibility for any mistakes and inefficiency of officials in my department.”

Sir Thomas’ resignation set a precedent on ministerial responsibility. When I was a planning student in the 1970s it was held up as an honourable resignation. Even at the time, however, there was some wiggle room. Lord Carrington, Sir Thomas’ junior minister, also offered his resignation but it was not accepted.

Ironically, Lord Carrington had a second ride on the resignation carrousel following the invasion of the Falklands in 1982. This time it was accepted. He argued much of the criticism of the government was unfounded, but went on: “I have been responsible for the conduct of that policy and I think it right that I should resign.”

How do the statements issued by the leaders of Kensington & Chelsea compare?

Mr Holgate said he wanted to continue to “lead on the executive responsibilities of the council” but, he continued, “If I had stayed in my post, my presence would be a distraction”.

Cllr Paget-Brown said: “I have to accept my share of responsibility for these perceived failings.” He added it “cannot be right” that his handling of the first cabinet meeting since the fire “should have become the focus of attention when so many are dead or unaccounted for”.

These statements echo the stance taken by Stephen Byers. He resigned as transport secretary several months after the resignations of his special adviser Jo Moore and director of communications Martin Sixsmith following a row over attempts to ‘bury’ bad news on 9/11 and the day of Princess Margaret’s funeral. At the time Mr Byers said: “I have become a distraction… by remaining in government I damage the government.”

Has distraction rather than accountability become the trigger for resignations from public office?

Phil Swann, executive chair, Shared Intelligence


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