COMMONS

Civil servants must remain impartial in future referendums

23 March 2015

In its new report the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) says that there are lessons to be learned for future referendums from the Scottish independence referendum about maintaining civil service impartiality. The roles played by civil servants in both Scotland and London were subject to criticism and controversy.

The Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future was expected to explain the facts and arguments in favour of the Scottish Government’s policy, but it also included a description of the SNP’s proposed programme for government that was contingent upon their winning the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.  The Committee concludes that the Scotland’s Future White Paper did not uphold the factual standards expected of a UK Government White Paper.  Parts of it should not have been included in a government publication and this raised questions about the use of public money for partisan purposes. Civil servants should not to carry out ministers’ wishes, if they are being asked to use public funds to promote the agenda of a political party, as was evident in this case.
 
PASC also looked at the publication of normally confidential advice to ministers by the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. Sir Nicholas justified publishing his views opposing currency union with Scotland on the grounds that he was ‘reassuring the markets’.  The Committee concludes Sir Nicolas Macpherson’s advice should not have been published. Its publication compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants. The decision to publish will have unintended consequences for advice given to ministers on future major issues - including referendums. In its response the Government to should make it clear that the publication of advice to ministers will never recur.

PASC recommends that the Civil Service Code should be revised, to include a simple new paragraph.  The provisions which apply in respect of parties in elections in the Code should also apply in respect of the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns in referendums, so future referendum will not give rise to the same uncertainty and controversy.  This revision is included in an annex to the report.

Quote from the Chair

Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Committee said:

"The Scottish independence referendum created exceptional circumstances, but that does not make it acceptable for parts of the civil service to approve the use of public funds to promote the agenda of one political party, to become personally aligned with one side or the other in the referendum debate.  Referendums currently get no mention at all in the Civil Service Code.  We suggest a limited change to the Civil Service Code to address referendums that will remove ambiguity about this.  Our proposed wording reflects the advice of Leading Counsel. This change must be made before any future referendums, such as the possible referendum on the EU."

During this inquiry, a question also arose about the impartiality of advice concerning the interpretation of the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers in respect of canvassing.  The Committee published correspondence with Government. The Committee now also publishes the Speaker’s Counsel’s advice on the matter.  The Committee sees no intrinsic objection to the notion that Special Advisers should have a "strictly limited" role in political campaigning which is "non-public, carried out very clearly in a Special Adviser’s own time, and with no use made of government resources or facilities." However, it does not accept that this is compatible with the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, or with the Model Contract of Employment, currently in force.  The Special Advisers’ Code should have been altered to reflect the wishes of Ministers and officials wishes rather than insisting on a reinterpretation that was at variance with the text.

Further information

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