Civil service rep defends support of BLM after Rees-Mogg blasts 'wokeness'

23 February 2022, 09:42

Jacob Rees-Mogg has said top civil servants should not put out messages of support for campaigns such as Black Lives Matter.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has said top civil servants should not put out messages of support for campaigns such as Black Lives Matter. Picture: Alamy

By Sophie Barnett

A civil service representative has defended staff expressing support for anti-racism after Jacob Rees-Mogg warned officials shouldn't endorse causes like Black Lives Matter.

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The Tory MP, who was appointed Brexit minister earlier this month, said permanent secretaries who run Whitehall departments must be "completely apolitical" in his latest Moggcast for the ConservativeHome website.

His controversial comments were made after permanent secretaries Sir Stephen Lovegrove and Jonathan Slater were criticised for putting out messages with the Black Lives Matter hashtag following the tragic death of George Floyd in 2020.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said he was "disappointed" by the remarks made by Mr Rees-Mogg.

He believes they should be able to express their support for anti-racism, which was centred around the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

Read more: Top civil servants should not publicly support Black Lives Matter, warns Jacob Rees-Mogg

"I was disappointed at what he said as I think he misses the point to be honest," he told Nick Ferrari at Breakfast.

"What happened in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd was an expression of support for anti-racism. Now that centred around groups like Black Lives Matter, but most people were actually just talking about a general principle around equality and anti-racism and they were finding a way of expressing that at a very emotional time.

"It's disappointing that he is actually criticising public sector leaders for demonstrating that and supporting that."

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Mr Slater, who was then the top former civil servant at the Department for Education, had said in a post on social media in 2020 there was much to be done in Whitehall to improve diversity and signed off with the hashtag.

Meanwhile, in 2020 Sir Stephen said in an internal message to staff discussing diversity that "systemic racial inequality is not unique to America but also has deep roots within UK society, including Defence".

Mr Rees-Mogg was asked about the comments from the former permanent secretaries at defence and education.

He said they should be "completely apolitical".

"They can remember state events, they can remember Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday and the Queen's Jubilee," the former leader of the House said.

Mr Rees-Mogg has previously been criticised for calling Black Lives Matter protesters the “woke brigade” – for removing statues of historic British figures.

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Mr Penman said the civil service delivers public services and there is a reality that for those who come from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, that access in those public services, and how those public services deal with them, is not always the same experience as those who are not.

He said we are talking about a "moment in time" - and hit back at Mr Rees-Mogg for calling out the permanent secretaries.

"Sir Stephen Lovegrove was the permanent secretary of the MoD at the time, and he is now the national security adviser, I don't think he's one of the kind of 'woke-arati' as Rees-Mogg would talk about," Mr Penman said.

He also said anti-racism starts by people "actually making a choice and a decision to try and do something", adding there's always a "reason not to do anything".

"The Prime Minister himself said those who lead and govern simply cannot ignore the depth of emotion that this has triggered," he said.

"Every event, everything that happens, organisations have to find a way of trying to understand what's happening in society.

"It's also about recognising the civil service is part of the solution and part of the problem."

Asked about Mr Rees-Mogg's comments on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she agreed the civil service "needs to remain impartial".

"I am concerned about the development of identity politics," Ms Truss told Nick.

"I laude Jacob Rees-Mogg for the job he is doing - to make sure that we don't have the development of those type of identity politics within the civil service."