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Scotland: Civil Service

Volume 730: debated on Thursday 6 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what responsibility the Cabinet Secretary has for the work of the civil service in Scotland.

My Lords, the Cabinet Secretary is also the head of the UK Civil Service, including those parts supporting the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales.

I thank the noble Lord for that clarification. Is the Minister aware that the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour leaders in the Scottish Parliament have all made official protests over Sir Peter Housden, the Scottish Permanent Secretary, advising the SNP Government on tactics and policy in relation to the break-up of the United Kingdom? Surely it is the responsibility of Sir Gus O’Donnell to say to Sir Peter Housden that he should be advising the SNP Government only on devolved areas and not on matters which are reserved to this Parliament, particularly those which are politically sensitive.

My Lords, I should of course declare a family interest. A relative of mine campaigned actively for Scottish independence and was executed by the English. I do not think that it is appropriate for a Minister to comment on the behaviour of a senior civil servant. I have read the Scottish press for the past week and I am well aware that the leaders of the three opposition parties in Scotland have written to the Cabinet Secretary. I will ensure that a copy of his reply, when it is ready, is placed in the Library of the House.

My Lords, is it not one of the strengths of the United Kingdom Civil Service that it is a United Kingdom body? In the past, great advantage has arisen for both sides when Scottish civil servants have served in United Kingdom departments and vice versa. Will my noble friend ensure that he makes every possible effort to prevent any diminution of this historic trend which might undermine the union?

My Lords, there are civil servants in Scotland working for the UK Government as well as civil servants in Scotland working for the Scottish Executive. This is a single Civil Service and there is extensive interchange. Indeed, the Permanent Secretary in Scotland about whom these complaints have been made has worked for a number of other institutions within the UK. Perhaps I might read the relevant parts of the Scottish version of the Civil Service Code, which was first issued in 2006. I shall quote from the 2010 version. It states:

“As a civil servant, you are accountable to Scottish Ministers, who in turn are accountable to the Scottish Parliament”.

A footnote adds:

“Civil servants advising Ministers should be aware of the constitutional significance of the Scottish Parliament and of the conventions governing the relationship between the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive”.

Perhaps I may add that the next paragraph states that,

“‘impartiality’ is acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving equally well Governments of different political persuasions”.

To go a little further on this, generally, would it be proper for any Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Executive to give policy development advice to Scottish Ministers on constitutional matters when the constitution is clearly and explicitly a reserved matter? Secondly, is it proper for the Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Executive to make clear in public his personal views on a matter of controversial policy?

My Lords, on the second of those two questions, my understanding is that this was an internal blog. Noble Lords will have their views on the advisability of blogging. It was leaked to the Scottish edition of the Daily Telegraph. There might be a certain lack of wisdom there.

On the first question, once we have a devolved Government, although constitutional matters are reserved to the UK Government they are bound to be discussed within the Scottish Government. How far civil servants should offer advice is an important question. There is also a director-general for constitutional reform in the Cabinet Office.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, just as it is the duty of the rest of the Civil Service to support the policies of the Administration that it serves, so it is the duty of the civil servants in Scotland to advise on the policies of the Scottish Executive?

My Lords, I entirely agree with that. It is important that the Civil Service working for the Scottish Government commands the confidence of Scottish Ministers of the day, regardless of their political complexion, just as it is for civil servants in Whitehall working for the UK Government.

My Lords, I recall being given a wigging by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, when he was Cabinet Secretary and I was Secretary of State for Scotland, for issuing an official press release from the Scottish Office in which I used the term “tartan tax”. Although my Permanent Secretary approved it, the then Cabinet Secretary told me that it was inappropriate for a Scottish Office press release to contain something that might be politically contentious. I accepted that advice: he was quite right and I was in the wrong. So what on earth is going on when the Permanent Secretary for the Scottish Executive circulates what is described as an internal blog—a newsletter—to civil servants in the Scottish Office, which, among other things, advised going to see a play about an army of occupation in 11th-century Scotland which he said,

“does genuinely speak to our present condition as a nation”?

What on earth are this Government doing in standing aside? Surely it is the absolute duty of the Cabinet Secretary to maintain the impartiality of the Civil Service, which is a centrepiece of our constitution.

My Lords, the noble Lord will recall that on an earlier occasion the SNP strongly recommended that the population of Scotland go and see that dreadful film “Braveheart”, one of the most historically inaccurate films that I am aware of.

My Lords, the Minister says that he should not criticise civil servants’ actions or behaviour. Why is that the case when the Permanent Secretary crosses a line that he should not? Will the Minister ensure that the Cabinet Secretary writes a letter to him, which is then placed in the House of Commons Library so that we can ensure that the proper constitutional arrangements are maintained in this country?

My Lords, I have already said that the Cabinet Secretary will write a letter in response to the three opposition leaders in Scotland. As the noble Lord knows well from the press, the Cabinet Secretary has already visited Edinburgh and a copy of the letter to those opposition leaders will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for raising this important and controversial issue. Is the Minister aware that most people in Scotland would far rather that senior civil servants, particularly such highly paid ones, spent their time improving the education system, health service and transport networks in Scotland, than pandering to the party political objectives of our First Minister? This is a serious issue. The core issue should not be the independence of Scotland but the independence, neutrality and objectivity of our civil service. When that is struck at, as has clearly happened in this instance, it is very worrying not just for Scotland but for all parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I hesitate to get too embroiled in current political arguments in Scotland. The coalition Government do not agree with the SNP Administration on Scotland’s future but they are an elected Administration with a policy programme that their Ministers wish to pursue. In delivering that programme for Ministers, all civil servants must comply with the appropriate ministerial code.

Does the Minister accept that there is a need for a policy on the United Kingdom? Many of us in this House are concerned that no one is speaking up for the advantages of keeping the United Kingdom united. If we are not careful, the arguments for splintering, dividing and breaking away will get very strong. The Government need a policy that advances the arguments in favour of keeping the United Kingdom united. Let us put our heads above the parapet and defend it.

My Lords, I entirely agree with that. This Question, however, was about the division between what is political and what is administrative; what it is appropriate for the Civil Service to do and what it is appropriate for politicians to do. I am a strong supporter of the union myself, although I am not a unionist fundamentalist, as the Scottish newspapers are apparently alleging some are. We are finding a new balance between the devolved Administrations and the London Administration. It is very important that we all engage in the active debate on what that balance should be, but that is a political activity.

Would the Minister accept the principle that it is extremely desirable that civil servants should remain impartial, especially in the context of a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should or should not remain in existence? Is it not extremely important that individual civil servants should be like Caesar’s wife—above suspicion?

I am never sure about Caesar’s wife. One of the things I have learned in government is that special advisers—political advisers—are a very useful way of maintaining the distinction between what is political and what is impartial Civil Service advice. That is a distinction that I think everyone here—and, I hope, everyone in Edinburgh—wishes to maintain.

This is asking the wrong question. The question is not whether there should or should not be a political debate. We are all agreed on that. The problem is that of civil servants entering that political debate. That should not happen, ever. The Minister should make that absolutely clear.

I entirely agree with that. Discussions are under way to ensure that the Civil Service remains impartial.