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Civil Service Impartiality

Volume 732: debated on Thursday 11 May 2023

9. What steps his Department is taking to protect civil service impartiality; and if he will make a statement. (904859)

10. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the civil service code and complaints procedure are effective. (904860)

17. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure impartiality and neutrality are maintained in relevant areas of public life. (904871)

All civil servants are required to follow the civil service code, which sets out the four core values, including impartiality. All members of the senior civil service are in the “politically restricted” category, which places additional restrictions on political activity. In addition, there is a requirement that contacts between senior civil servants and leading members of Opposition parties should be cleared with Ministers. The impartiality and perceived impartiality of the civil service is constitutionally vital for the conduct of Government. I believe it is the responsibility of everyone in this House to preserve and support the impartiality of the civil service.

Impartiality must not only be done; it must also be seen to be done. What reputational damage does the Minister think has happened since Sue Gray was in negotiations with the Leader of the Opposition?

It is, I believe, wholly unprecedented. It is particularly important that permanent secretaries, of all people, should conduct themselves in a way such that the impartiality of the civil service cannot be called into question. We should all support them in doing so. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) updated the House through a written ministerial statement, and I can assure my hon. Friend that consideration of this issue continues.

The principle of civil service impartiality is important to my constituents in Carshalton and Wallington, and indeed to many other Members’ constituents. I was therefore surprised to receive a set of trolling emails from someone using their civil service email address. Could the Minister outline whether that is acceptable, and—following up on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant)—what reputational damage does he believe has been done by the actions of the Labour party?

The rules, which I have already set out, along with the fundamental principle that civil servants do not take actions that could lead to their impartiality being questioned by an incumbent Administration—or any future Administration, for that matter—are well known to current permanent secretaries, I am certain. I am sure that is also the case for ex-permanent secretaries, which of course includes the Leader of the Opposition. As I have said, in this House we all have a role in protecting the impartiality and perceived impartiality of the civil service. On my hon. Friend’s specific point, if he shares more details with me, I will happily look into it. It is very important that the impartiality of the civil service is maintained at every level.

Although, of course, impartiality and neutrality are important and conflicts of interests must be avoided from a national perspective, we do not talk enough about the situation in local government. Does the Minister agree that local government and local officers must also remain impartial and neutral, and how do we ensure that happens across the country?

I do not want to comment on the specifics raised, because I am unfamiliar with them, but I would say that, in carrying out procurements under public contract regulations, contracting authorities in both central and local government are required to take appropriate measures to effectively prevent, identify and remedy conflicts of interest arising, so as to avoid any distortion of competition and ensure equal treatment of all economic operators.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Minister feel that civil service impartiality was compromised in any way by having to deal with the fast track for covid contracts, or by the way in which the Government responded to the accusations of lockdown parties in No. 10 Downing Street?

As to the former, I do not believe so; my understanding is that all the rules were followed in that regard and it was done appropriately. In relation to the latter, that is subject to an ongoing investigation by the Privileges Committee, and therefore I would not seek to comment on it.

Mr Speaker, I’ve started, so I’ll finish.

The Secretary of State for Scotland recently wrote to the head of the civil service to say that no UK civil servant should work for the newly appointed Minister for Independence in the Scottish Parliament, even though we have a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament and up to 50% of the people now support independence. Will the Paymaster General ensure that impartiality is introduced by making sure that no civil servant is engaged in any work defending and promoting the Union in the UK Government?

I will not be doing that. I am not familiar with the letter mentioned. We have a Government of the United Kingdom who are proud of the Union we serve. The Government are convinced that we are better together as a country, and I believe that is the view of the overwhelming majority of the people of Scotland, as was the case in the referendum, which I seem to recall was a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Our civil servants are impartial, committed and hard-working professionals. They deserve our respect for keeping this country going during the pandemic. Instead, what we are getting from Ministers is unacceptable workplace behaviour and accusations of being responsible for Government failure. It is not civil servants who have put us through the Tory psychodrama and the disastrous Budget, so will the Minister take responsibility for the backlogs that constituents are facing up and down the country and stop shifting the blame on to hard-working civil servants?

The hon. Lady will not find me criticising civil servants who are hard-working, who do their job, who are committed and who continue to provide tremendous expertise to our country, but I take issue with her earlier points. We take any allegations of bullying seriously, and we need to ensure that they are all followed up. I do not know if the same can be said of the Labour party—people in glass houses should not throw stones. I think there were more allegations even today about activity inside the Labour party. There was five years of antisemitism that was not addressed, and I do think the Labour party should sort out its own issues before trying to sort out the Government’s.