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MPs criticise Civil Service partiality in Scottish independence referendum

A committee of MPs has criticised the UK and Scottish governments for failing to ensure Civil Service impartiality during the independence referendum.

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) said advice from the permanent secretary to the Treasury on a currency union should not have been published and also questioned the use of public money for the Scottish government's independence white paper.

A normally confidential report from Sir Nicholas MacPherson was published by the chancellor, George Osborne, in February 2014. The report "strongly" advised against a currency union with an independent Scotland "as currently proposed" by the Scottish government, describing currency unions as "fraught with difficulty”.

The SNP complained about a lack of impartiality from Sir Nicholas, however he justified publishing his views opposing currency union with Scotland on the grounds that he was “reassuring the markets”.

PASC has now said that the report should have stayed confidential, and that it was only released "because it suited ministers' political objectives in respect of the Scottish referendum”.

The MPs added that this had "compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK's most senior civil servants".

The committee was also critical of the Scottish government’s independence white paper, saying it "raised questions about the use of public money for partisan purposes".

The paper included a description of the SNP’s proposed programme for government that was contingent upon their winning the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, which the PASC has determined was not appropriate.

The PASC report states: “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.”

The committee has recommended that the Civil Service code be revised, adding in a new paragraph detailing that the obligations of the code also apply to referendums.

The proposed amendment reads: “The obligations in this Code apply to your conduct towards a referendum, and towards any possible answer to a referendum question, in general, and in respect of any political party, belief or persuasion. In particular, you are to have regard to any special restrictions upon Ministers, or your organisation, which may apply during all or part of a referendum period (as defined in the Political Parties, Elections and referendums Act 2000), concerning the release of information or material, or otherwise.”

Committee chair Bernard Jenkin MP 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.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


T Wellwood   23/03/2015 at 15:03

This is a welcome report but doesn't seem to touch on the comments of Sir Peter Housden, the Scottish Executive’s permanent secretary, who in January 2012 issued a briefing to civil servants that appeared to all but dismiss the prospect of an SNP defeat. He said a White Paper on the ballot would “now move more to centre stage” in the SNP administration’s priorities and he told his civil servants to expect an SNP victory in the campaign. He also referred to a victory by the SNP has a "positive" outcome. This led to accusations that Sir Peter had "gone native" in the Independence debate but the "British" Civil Service cleared him of any wrongdoing, The rules need to be tightened a lot more because I fear that this issue hasn't gone away.

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