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Civil Servants (Armitage Report)

Volume 19: debated on Sunday 4 April 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Budgen.]

10.37 pm

It is now over four years since the Armitage committee on the political activities of civil servants reported. It is perhaps instructive that we have had a different Armitage report since then on heavy lorries. The original Armitage report on the important, but different, subject of the freedom of Civil Servants to engage in politics and local government has been almost forgotten publicly in that time. Its recommendations have not yet been implemented.

The report was last debated in the House in an Adjournment debate raised by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) almost a year ago on 26 March 1981. The Minister of State, Civil Service Department, replied. He now appears in a slightly different guise but has the same responsibilities. He said that the Government were in favour of implementing the recommendations and that they had begun consultations. I hope that we will find out tonight where we are now, because even this Government have had a couple of years to make progress on a matter that has been waiting four years.

There is a second reason why I press the urgency of the issues. It is a case well known to the Minister, that of Councillor Trevor Brown, who was serving with permission as an elected county councillor. In the course of those duties he spoke out about an issue that affected his place of work—Aldermaston—and the people whom he represented. He did so almost exactly two years ago. The consequences that he suffered and the way in which his case was handled demonstrate the importance and urgency of implementing the Armitage recommendations.

The background to the problem lies in the traditions and practices of the Civil Service. One of those traditions is the valuable tradition of impartiality. The other is the sometimes obsessive concern for secrecy.

A valuable feature of our Civil Service is that it can serve different Governments and Ministers impartially and equally. However, it does not follow that civil servants have no political opinions. They obviously do have political opinions. Nor should it follow, from the idea of a non-partisan Civil Service, that they are individually debarred from expressing or supporting political opinions in private life and during their own free time. Nor ought it to stop the majority of civil servants from being free to serve in local political organisations or on councils in local government. After all, local government depends on employers allowing their staff to undertake the responsibilities of serving on councils.

The Government—a large employer in Britain—ought to set a reasonable example to employers in their willingness to allow staff work on local authorities. Of course, there are, of necessity, some limitations on what can be allowed; some practical limitations—as in any form of employment—on those whose work makes it practically impossible to get to council meetings. There are also limitations on civil servants working most closely with Ministers at the head of Departments. However, such limitations ought to last only as long as the civil servant is in that position. It would also clearly be difficult to have a civil servant who dealt with local authorities in the course of his work serving on a local authority. Therefore, a civil servant in a local government division of the Department of the Environment, for example, who helped to determine the grant level of a local authority, might be an unsuitable candidate to serve on such an authority.

However, our Civil Service includes a vast range of people to whom none of those limitations need apply, not only in industrial and clerical grades but in executive grades and, to people of even higher status whose work poses no such problem—for example, professional, scientific and technical officers and civil servants involved in training establishments and colleges. There is a wide variety of activity in the Civil Service which gives rise to none of the specific problems that I have mentioned.

The onus must be to demonstrate who should not be free to serve in local government or local political affairs, rather than the other way round. The Armitage report recommended a considerable widening of the categories allowed to engage in political and local government activities. It might have gone further than it did. but I should like to be told tonight whether the Government are at least ready to implement the main Armitage recommendations on the freeing of larger groups and categories of civil servants to engage in political activity and local government.

However, all those extensions of the range of people who can serve in local politics and local government will be seriously undermined if unreasonable restrictions are placed on civil servants when they are elected to local authorities. Individual Departments make the difficulties. They have the interest in limiting and controlling the freedom of their employees—civil servants—on local authorities. For that reason, an appeal body beyond individual Departments is so important. An Armitage recommendation was that there should be an appeal body wider than the Department, Civil Service-wide and with representatives of both sides of the national Whitley council on it.

Some of the other members of the Armitage committee, in minority proposals, wanted an independent hairman—perhaps a Privy Councillor. However, even the Armitage recommendation of a Civil Service-wide body would be a vast improvement on the present situation, where the only recourse is to the head of the Department concerned. There should be a proper appeal body with the power to consider both the refusal of permission to engage in political activity and restrictions placed on, or sanctions taken against, persons permitted to carry out public, local government or political activity.

That again brings me to the case of Councillor Trevor Brown. I know that the Minister who is to answer tonight is responsible for the general implementation of Annitage matters, although not for the initial handling of this case. However, this matter has implications that touch on the wider matters that I have mentioned.

Councillor Trevor Brown was an employee at the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment who had permission to become a member of a county council in 1973. He appeared on a BBC television programme two years ago and referred to aspects of radiation safety at Aldermaston which were of concern to citizens whom he represented, some of whom also worked at the establishment.

The Department tried to prevent him from appearing on the programme on the ground that it would be contempt of court for him to do so. He was naturally concerned and took advice from the county solicitor of his local authority. The county solicitor was entirely satisfied that contempt of court could not arise because no proceedings had been entered in relation to any of the matters he referred to. The argument against him appearing therefore fell.

It was only after Councillor Brown had taken part that new arguments were presented about why he should not have done so. He was given a severe reprimand for referring to official matters and for making use of experience gained while employed in the department. He appealed and his appeal was dismissed. In the meantime, his stand was vindicated by the Pochin report, which revealed that safety lapses had occurred. The work involved was stopped for a time until new buildings were available. There was clear vindication that something had been wrong and that it was right that this should be made public and pressure applied.

Councillor Brown was later offered early retirement seven years ahead of time or the alternative of a job in Scotland. I know that he feels strongly that colleagues were offered better opportunities. He feels victimised as a result.

Many wider issues and lessons arise. Councillor Brown had no right of appeal beyond his own Department, which had a vested interest in hushing up the matter and preserving secrecy. That is a fundamental flaw in the present arrangements. It will obviously be the case that departments have a vested interest in taking a narrow view when an employee who also represents the area in which the institution is involved raises matters of concern to that institution. The appeal procedures are seriously defective. That is the first important lesson to be learnt from the case. There is a need for an adequate appeal procedure beyond the department.

Secondly, Councillor Brown was free to engage in political activity. He was given that permission. The condition to which he was properly subject was that he should act with moderation and discretion in matters affecting his own Department. That clearly assumed that so long as he abided by the requirement of moderation he was able to comment on matters affecting the Department. Yet the charge against him was that he had expressed views on official matters. Those two statements conflict—the view that he must act with moderation in dealing with such matters and the implicit claim that he had no right to refer to such matters at all. Anyone who saw the programme will know full well that he spoke with considerable moderation and care in the comments that he made and that he could not be accused of launching a great public attack on the department in which he happened to work.

There is a clear conflict between the code of conduct that I have quoted and the response that the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment gave when it wrote to Mr. Brown saying that
"it is wholly inconsistent with the Code of Discretion that the Department should be expected to tolerate public criticism of its policies and practices by one of its own employees and I cannot see how the Department could ignore such action."
Is one to assume that no comment or criticism can ever be allowed? The term "official" is so wide that it might be taken to refer to other Departments as well as the one in which the civil servant concerned is employed. It seems that Councillor Brown and others in the same position are not genuinely free to engage in local political activity even when they have been given permission to do so. He was prevented, or at least the Department sought to prevent him, from representing his constituents on an issue of legitimate concern to them and took sanctions against him when he persisted and did so.

A further paradox is that civil servants who are also trade union representatives appeared on the same programme with Councillor Brown and suffered no penalty for doing so. That draws attention to a passage in the Armitage report, in paragraph 100, where the committee explained in some detail that
"the rules on political activity had tended to be applied less rigorously to staff acting in their capacity as staff association members'.

The committee added:
"It has become not uncommon for serving civil servants, even those in the politically restricted category, to make speeches at the annual conference of their association which, in any other context, might be considered public comment on matters of public controversy".

The paragraph refers to types of occasion when civil servants who are trade union representatives are allowed to comment freely and critically, even when they come from politically restrictive categories.

How can the Government defend a situation in which a civil servant who is an elected councillor has less freedom than a civil servant who is a trade union officer? Why should the same rules not apply to both categories? In so far as limitations are necessary, why should they not be the same in each category? It is an extraordinary paradox that this Government, who wish to ensure that trade unions do not enjoy unfair advantages, should do the reverse and preserve a position where civil servants who are elected representatives of the community at large should be subject to limitations to which civil servants who are trade unionists are not.

The Minister responsible for the Civil Service is not the Minister who is responsible for what happened in this case, but he does have responsibility for the good name and practice of the Civil Service and he must take action in the following ways. First, he must press ahead with Armitage, including the appeal procedure, victimisation must be open to challenge and there must be proper appeal routes to allow someone to press ahead when he thinks that he has a claim.

Secondly, the Minister must establish rules and guidance for the whole of the Civil Service which give elected councillors the same sort of freedoms as trade union representatives. He must not allow Departments which have given permission to civil servants to serve as councillors to make them into ineffective councillors to protect narrow departmental interests.

We have not heard the last of the Trevor Brown case. The National Council for Civil Liberties has said that it is to take it to the European Court of Human Rights. The British Government's recent record of success in that court is extraordinary. They have been defeated time and again on major civil liberties issues and they may be defeated on this one. Mr. Brown should be publicly exonerated and there is a strong case for re-examining the financial and pensionary penalties that he suffered by accepting early retirement, which he did very reluctantly.

Councillor Brown was victimised. That should be put right, but he would be the first to argue that of even greater importance is the need to ensure that nothing like this happens again. The Armitage report provides the Government with the opportunity to work out a better and fairer system and I should like to hear tonight that the Government intend to do so.

10.53 pm

As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, it is just under a year since we last debated the political activities of civil servants in the debate introduced by the Hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I suppose that I should congratulate the hon. Member on having as his Adjournment debate

"the Armitage Report on the political activities of civil servants"
but spending the majority of his time talking about the specific case of Mr. Trevor Brown, which has little to do with Armitage, although the hon. Gentleman sought to link the two.

Mr. Trevor Brown is a former employee of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston and the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that that is primarily the concern of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. He is also the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I understand that my hon. Friend took the matter up some time ago with the Secretary of State for Defence both by letter and in a personal interview and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has done everything that was right and proper for his constituent in this matter.

In those circumstances alone it is somewhat surprising that the hon. Member should concentrate on this case in the way that he has tonight. In addition to what my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has done, there has been a series of parliamentary questions in the House and in the other place on the matter. The latest one was from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) to the Prime Minister, who replied:
"No. Mr. Brown has exercised his right of appeal under normal departmental procedures. He has had every opportunity over a quite considerable period to submit any and all representations which he felt relevant, and he has done so. His appeal has been rejected, and the reasons have been explained to him in detail and in writing. I see no basis on which to justify reconsideration of his case."—[Official Report, 11 November 1981; Vol. 12, c. 81.]
The matter was raised by Members in all parts of the House. A number of hon. Members have been involved, as have a series of Ministers. I make no complaint about that. The House of Commons exists to allow people to raise such matters. However, it is necessary to put in perspective what was said this evening, against the background that both the present and former Secretaries of State for Defence, both the present and former Minister of State for Defence, both the former Lord President of the Council and my predecessor as Minister of State, Civil Service Department, have all been involved in correspondence and discussions on the matter. Moreover, we have had two early-day motions.

I have gone over the whole history, and I must tell the House that it is absolute nonsense, based either on misunderstanding of the situation or on misrepresentation, to talk in any way of victimisation. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should speak in such an exaggerated and unjustified fashion. Let me remind him of the facts.

Mr. Brown appeared on a BBC television programme on 11 March 1980. During the programme, he publicly expressed views on official matters and made use of official experience—there is no dispute about that—after having sought and been refused permission by his Department to do so. He sought permission, as it was right for him to seek permission, having been warned a year earlier that in commenting in such a way it was necessary to seek permission, and that permission was refused. Nevertheless, he went ahead, and did what he wanted to do. I do not question his motives. He sought permission, which he knew that he should do under the regulations, that permission was refused, and he went ahead, clearly in contravention of the Ministry of Defence's civilian staff regulation, based on the general rule governing the conduct of civil servants, which says:
"A civil servant who wishes to take part in any outside activity which involves the disclosure of official information or use of official experience must obtain prior"—
I underline the word "prior"—
"authority from his department".
In the light of the breach of those regulations, a disciplinary charge was brought against Mr. Brown. The normal disciplinary procedures used in such cases were then followed with great precision and care, and as a result Mr. Brown was found guilty of a disciplinary offence, and the penalty of a "severe reprimand" was imposed. He retired under the voluntary premature retirement scheme on 30 April 1981, at the age of 58. That was on offer to people of his grade and age in his sort of department as part of the rundown in the Ministry of Defence, and he took the conditions that were offered. It is wrong to suggest that, at a time when numbers were being reduced, he had any real expectation necessarily of going on to serve until he was 65.

Before he retired on 30 April 1981—on advice from his colleagues and superiors at Aldermaston, and as he was fully entitled to do—Mr. Brown appealed on 29 April against the decision that had been made, following the disciplinary offence. He appealed to his permanent secretary. After careful and detailed consideration, his appeal was rejected by Sir Frank Cooper on 16 October. I shall quote from the letter sent to Mr. Brown. Sir Frank Cooper is a distinguished civil servant, one who it would be monstrous to suggest would be party to victimisation of any kind. The letter said:
"I believe, after an exhaustive review of the papers, that the decision was a fair one. I am in no doubt that your action was in breach of regulations. I can find no ambiguity in the rules or other circumstance or argument that warranted this action. In view of the suggestions about unfairness or prejudice in the m ay in which the disciplinary hearing was conducted and the case subsequently considered, I have looked with particular care for any signs of this and have found none. Moreover, you have had every opportunity over a'quite considerable period to submit any and all representations which you may have felt relevant to your case. This you have done on a number of occasions and I have considered all this material.
In the light of all the circumstances I believe that the severe reprimand awarded to you was justified and should stand. I therefore reject your appeal."

Therefore, Mr. Brown's case has been considered fully and in accordance with existing and agreed procedures. Moreover, it has had a considerable airing outside the Ministry both within Parliament and in correspondence between his own and other hon. Members and with Ministers concerned. At least 12 Members and Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have been involved.

I shall consider the wider aspects of this issue in the context of the Armitage report and the proposed appeal procedure that the report has recommended. The disciplinary charge against Mr. Brown was not directly related to his political activities.

Indeed it was not. It was a disciplinary matter concerned with his conduct. He had been given permission to take part in political activities but, as with any other civil servant, such permission is subject to his continuing to abide by the existing principles of conduct. That would apply regardless of whether the Armitage committee's recommendations had been accepted and implemented.

The Armitage committee's recommendation for independent appeal machinery would not be relevant to this case, as it is proposed that the new machinery will consider appeals from civil servants who have not been given permission to take part in political activities. Mr. Brown was not denied such permission. The suggestion that his position as a local councillor was the same as that of a union spokesman is not correct.

Civil servants acting as union spokesmen are not required to obtain prior authority for public comment on official matters. This latitude is aimed at not restricting unduly their freedom of comment in an area central to their union interests. However, the exemption applies only where the matter under discussion directly affects the conditions of service of union members as employees, and where the spokesman himself is not officially concerned with the matter in question. Moreover, his public comment is still required to be consistent with the general principles applying to activities involving the use of official information or experience as set out in the Civil Service pay and conditions of service code.

A similar exemption would not be appropriate in the case of a civil servant who has been given permission to stand for election as a local councillor. In such a capacity he is acting outside the sphere of his official employment and the occasions on which there will arise any connection with official matters, leading to a need to comment in public, will be few and far between. In addition, and as noted in the Armitage report, the concept of political impartiality is not put at risk by actions taken by a civil servant in genuine pursuit of his role as a trade union representative.

In the few minutes that remain I shall take up the broad position of the Armitage report, which was the reason—at least on the Order Paper—why the hon. Gentleman initiated the debate.

No, I shall not give way. I shall deal with the main subject, which the hon. Gentleman dealt with briefly. As he knows, the Armitage committee's recommendations were that staff in the grades of executive officer, higher executive officer and senior executive officer should be free to seek official permission to take part in political activities at the national level; that there should be standard criteria, based on the nature of the work carried out, for determining whether staff may be given permission to take part in political activities; that there should be maximum block permission for staff to take part in political activities; and, as we have mentioned, that there should be an appeal body for civil servants refused permission to take part in political activities.

As I said about a year ago, the Government have decided to accept the Armitage recommendations in principle and discussions have been going on with the unions for some time with a view to agreeing revised rules on political activities which would reflect the majority Armitage recommendations. However, little progress has been made, as has been mentioned.

Let me explain what has happened. As I said when we last debated the matter, the Government's view has been conveyed to the Council of Civil Service Unions, which has been invited to consider the Government's statement in principle and to join in discussion to work out agreed changes to the code. We are still awaiting a reply from the Civil Service unions. It would appear that they do not attach the same urgency to that matter as to many other issues. One must acknowledge that they have been concerned with many important issues.

My general impression is that the existing rules continue to work reasonably well and succeed in ensuring ministerial and public confidence in the political impartiality of the Civil Service. However, since the Government are ready to allow the maximum freedom to individual civil servants compatible with this concept, and have accepted in principle the majority Armitage proposals which involve some liberalisation of the existing rules, I hope that it may be possible to make some progress on this in the coming months.

In March of last year the National Council for Civil Liberties asked whether it could submit comments on the Armitage report to the Government. I agreed that it could do so and that its comments would be considered. Its comments were in fact received a little under a month ago, at the beginning of February 1982. As one might expect, the NCCL, while giving a cautious welcome to many of the Armitage Committee's proposals, continues to support the line that it has taken over many years, that civil servants should be free to involve themselves in political activities; that there should be no real restrictions. It stands on the premise that such restrictions are both wrong in principle and undesirable in practice.

One can understand that viewpoint without sharing it. In my view, it underestimates the importance and the need for a politically impartial Civil Service. The NCCL's detailed comments are of course being looked at with care. However, I must reiterate the Government's clear view that appropriate restrictions must be continued—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.