Sir Suma Chakrabarti

Exclusive: Former top Asian civil servant’s ‘worry’ at turmoil in the service

by BARNIE CHOUDHURY

HE REMAINS the only south Asian civil servant to have reached the top tier of the government in the UK.

Sir Suma Chakrabarti left the government in 2012 as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). The only other post more senior is the head of the civil service, who automatically becomes
the cabinet secretary, working alongside the prime minister.

Eastern Eye has learned that two prime ministers, as well as several former and current civil servants urged Sir Suma to apply for the top job.

“Suma was approached by the outgoing head, Sir Mark Sedwill, a number of current permanent secretaries as well as (David) Cameron, urging him to throw his hat in the ring,” said a reliable source. “If you look at his CV, he’s an obvious person to go for this job.”

The deadline to apply to run the UK’s administrative arm passed last Friday (17). Although it will be the prime minister who decides who will be appointed, the Civil Service Commission has this week been drawing up the shortlist.

When he spoke exclusively to Eastern Eye, Sir Suma would not be drawn on whether he had been approached or whether he would apply.

“I’m 61 now and having run two departments already, having run a multinational institution, the question for me is really whether my life is better now in terms of my contribution to actually not go and run another organisation,” he said. “Is it better for me to advise the civil service or advise government on civil service matters here, and in other emerging markets? Maybe that’s the best place for me to be rather than to head another organisation again.”

Sir Suma joined the Overseas Development Administration (ODA), which became the Department for International Development (DfID), in 1984 as a senior economic assistant. In 2002, at the age of 42, he became its, and the government’s, youngest permanent secretary since the Second World War.

Although his rise was meteoric, it was not universally welcomed, and Sir Suma faced subtle forms of racism.

“Throughout my career, in some other departments, I think there have been some people wondering whether I’m being promoted simply because I’m an ethnic minority,” he recalled.

“Why has this boy made such a rapid rise? Is it because the government, the top of the civil service, need to show that they’ve got one or two brown civil servants who are making it quickly? Is this really proof of any talent that he has, or is this actually tokenism?

“I think I’ve had quite a bit of that going on. People wouldn’t say directly to your face, but I know that has been discussed from time to time.”

Today’s civil service is still short of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation at the highest levels. The latest figures, published in November 2019, showed that only eight per cent at the senior civil service level – the very top grade – were non-white. Just over four per cent are Asian, and of the 40 permanent secretaries, none is BAME.

During his time at the civil service, Sir Suma mentored colleagues, including Sharon White, and he was responsible for bringing in Minouche Shafik from the World Bank. Dame Minouche took over as permanent secretary of DfID after Sir Suma, while White became the first black person to be appointed as a second permanent secretary.

“What’s worrying, I think right now, is that you can talk about me, you can talk about Minouche, you can talk about Sharon, but all three of us have left. There isn’t another permanent secretary at the moment from an ethnic minority,” said Sir Suma.

“There are more senior civil servants now in that cadre below the level of permanent secretary who are from an ethnic minority, more than when I was there, but it would be nice to see some of them coming through into the top leadership positions.”

The lack of progress does worry him, he said. “Part of being a leader is to create a structure; not a revolving door, but an assembly line of people who can come through these positions. Maybe the three of us who did that, the originals if you like, we didn’t quite succeed in making that assembly line really function well.”

Sir Suma is also concerned about the current reforms and problems in the civil service. Sir Mark is thought to have resigned after negative press briefings and falling out with Number 10, while former permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, who resigned in February, is suing the Home Office for unfair dismissal. He said he was a victim of a “vicious and orchestrated” campaign against him in the department, which home secretary Priti Patel has denied.

The permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald, leaves in September after its merger with DfID.

And Sir Richard Heaton, the permanent secretary at the MoJ, which Sir Suma once headed, will go in the summer.

“The civil service does need to continue reforming. Fundamentally, the question I’d ask is, is the civil service doing enough, being allowed to do enough, to actually reform? The second area is the division between political responsibilities and civil servant responsibilities. I’m a strong believer in the British political neutrality approach of the civil service.

“I don’t know why they’re leaving, I’m not privy to the exact reasons for each of them, but it is concerning that so many are leaving at the same time. I hope the subs bench is good, it’s not great when you lose four players in one go.”

Sir Suma would not reveal whether he had been approached to apply or would go for the top civil service post. But one source said, “The advantage is that Suma is a clean skin in so many ways. He’s also a change agent and he’s not going to watch them sort of politicise the service and not speak out. He would be perfect.”

Eastern Eye asked for comments from Blair’s and Cameron’s offices, but they did not respond.

A former cabinet secretary under Blair, and for a short time with Cameron, Lord Gus O’Donnell said, “I will not comment on any conversations I had with Suma, but it is certainly true that I hold him in the highest regard.”

As Eastern Eye went to press on Tuesday (21), the paper understands that Sir Suma has decided not to apply for the cabinet secretary’s position.