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20.03.15

Downing Street defends Civil Service gag order

Downing Street has defended changes to the Civil Service Code that gags over 440,000 government employees by not letting them speak to the media without ministerial permission.

The Code has been updated with an extra line which reads: “Ensure you have Ministerial authorisation for any contact with the media.”

The Cabinet Office has said the amendment merely clarifies rules on official contact that were already in place, while both the FDA and PCS unions say it will undermine government transparency and restrict whistleblowers.

Public Sector Executive speaks frequently with civil servants, of various levels of seniority, without any such ministerial authorisation.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said: "The announcement of a blanket ban on media contact for civil servants – just 51 days before a General Election – is an unnecessary, unworkable and unjustified restriction on the work of the Civil Service.

"The public has a right to open and transparent public services, yet this change now requires ministerial authorisation before a civil servant can respond or make any contact with the media – from a prosecutor being asked for comment outside of court, to a job centre manager dealing with a local news story.

"Guidance to regulate contact between civil servants and the media is already in place and we can see no justification for this sudden, drastic change, other than intimidating civil servants into silence. Rather than being a genuine attempt to improve public services, this knee-jerk decision seems to have only been made to sate unfounded and misguided ministerial mistrust."

Yesterday the PM’s official spokesperson denied that the change would make it harder for journalists to do their job.

“Each department has a government press office, so there are plenty of people for journalists to pick up the phone to," the spokesperson said.

"There’s a pretty long-standing understanding in the civil service that there’s a reason why departments have press officers, because the job of civil service press officers is to talk to the media, to always try to field your questions helpfully and constructively. I’d just temper the slight risk of over-writing this one.”

The spokesperson added that David Cameron "doesn’t share the view that has been expressed by some trade unions" that the change would make whistleblowing by officials more difficult.

"There are very clear laws across the public sector with regard to whistleblowing and that’s why the prime minister doesn’t share the trade union view.”

The new rule has been widely ridiculed by journalists who questioned whether the laws now meant they would have to ask ministerial permission before talking to friends or partners in the Civil Service.

It means the government has effectively ordered more than 400,000 people not to talk to reporters in any circumstances without government approval at the highest level.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The new provision in the Civil Service Code clarifies an existing requirement that civil servants must clear material for publication in advance, and brings the obligations on civil servants to obtain ministerial clearance in line with the existing obligations on special advisers.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

Comments

Dee   23/03/2015 at 15:56

Good to see that Big Brother is alive and well, and that our Ministers have os much time on their hands.

John   25/03/2015 at 09:22

Any civil servants (or journalists) out there who're worries about the implications of this, please take a minute to sign the petition: https://campaign.goingtowork.org.uk/petitions/lift-restrictions-on-civil-servants-contact-with-the-media

Tim   25/03/2015 at 10:48

Done - thanks for the link John!

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