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Civil Service Impartiality

Volume 788: debated on Monday 5 February 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to defend civil servants from unwarranted criticism regarding their objectivity and impartiality.

My Lords, the Ministerial Code says:

“Ministers must uphold the political impartiality of the Civil Service”.

Our Civil Service is envied the world over and, as the Home Secretary said over the weekend, has the complete confidence of the Government. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 enshrines in legislation the core principles and values of the Civil Service, which include impartiality, integrity and objectivity. These values are set out in the Civil Service Code, which states that civil servants,

“must not … knowingly mislead ministers, Parliament or others”.

I do not believe that they do.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. Of course, he more than anyone has upheld the Ministerial Code during a very long and distinguished ministerial career. However, in the last few days we have had assertions made, both by Ministers and by Members of Parliament, that officials are deliberately frustrating Brexit or fiddling the figures. Those civil servants cannot defend themselves in public. Does the noble Lord agree that officials must have confidence in being able to provide robust and dispassionate advice without fear of intimidation? Given that No. 10 Downing Street and the Prime Minister have failed to slap down those Ministers and MPs in his own party who have made these disgraceful slurs, is it too much to ask of the Prime Minister that she finally show some leadership?

So far as Ministers are concerned—I answer for Ministers, not for Back-Bench Members of Parliament—the Minister concerned made a fulsome apology in another place on 2 February. He said:

“I accept that I should have corrected or dismissed the premise of my hon. Friend’s question. I have apologised to Mr Charles Grant, who is an honest and trustworthy man. As I have put on record many times, I have the highest regard for our hard-working civil servants. I am grateful for this opportunity to correct the record and I apologise to the House”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/2/18; col. 1095.]

The noble Lord generously referred to my experience as a Minister. I think I have done 20 years on and off—probably more than anyone else in this House—but with many discontinuities, and I have never had occasion to question the impartiality or objectivity of civil servants. They have spoken truth unto power. They have quite often said things that I did not want to hear, but I would never accuse them of some of the things that have recently been levied against them. I think we should be proud of our Civil Service, and I reject the smears that have been made against it.

My Lords, the Minister will recognise that this is not just a British issue. The current attack by the President and his Administration on the FBI in the United States raises rather similar issues. Can the Minister assure us publicly that, when we say that civil servants are expected to be impartial, they are not expected to be impartial between evidence and supposition, and that when Ministers prefer faith or fantasy to evidence, civil servants have the right to point out that good governance depends on paying attention to the evidence, wherever one can find it?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. I quoted a moment ago the Civil Service Code, which includes objectivity. Objectivity is defined as,

“basing your advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence”.

It is these standards for which our Civil Service is renowned.

My Lords, can I ask my noble friend’s honest opinion? He will be familiar with this document: the Treasury analysis of May 2016 forecasting a complete collapse of the British economy if we were to vote to leave. I have maintained that this document is propaganda from top to bottom, and it turns out to be utterly untrue in reality. My noble friend has praised the objectivity of those who produce government statistics. If I continue to criticise the mandarins and the Ministers who approved the statistics and this document, does that make me a snake-oil salesman or a 1930s German Nazi—or maybe a bit of both?

I think my noble friend should distinguish between criticisms of Ministers and criticisms of civil servants. The document that he has in his hand was publicly presented by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time. Any criticism should be directed at the politicians who presented it. I think it was also endorsed at the time by the noble Lord, Lord Darling. They are the ones who should be criticised, rather than the civil servants.

My Lords, the Minister says that the Minister concerned has already apologised but has faced no sanction. Does that now mean that a civil servant can break the code and not face any sanction if he apologises later?

That would be a matter for the Civil Service Code. There are penalties levied against civil servants who break the code. Depending on the severity of the offence, they can lose their job, as has happened in some cases, or they can apologise. In this case, the Minister has apologised. He has explained the circumstances. He had no reason to believe that what was being said at the time was not true. When he discovered it was not true, at the first opportunity he came to the House and apologised. I think that was the correct thing to do.

My Lords, I had the pleasure of working with the Minister in his many guises and, if ever there was a Minister who lived by the code he has just talked about, it is the noble Lord. Does he believe that those making allegations without supporting evidence against serving civil servants, who will not respond, are undertaking a form of bullying that, to be honest, actually diminishes those making the attacks but, more importantly, damages our democracy?

Well, whether the accusations made in the House of Commons last week constitute bullying, I am not quite so sure. I think they were ill-advised, given that the evidence did not stack up for the accusations that were made. But I agree with what the noble Lord said in his final remarks that the people who come out of it worse are those who make the accusations, rather than those they are levied against.

Does my noble friend believe that those MPs and Ministers who impugn the impartiality and good faith of our civil servants are behaving very much as President Trump does in the United States with regard to the FBI?

I am not sure I want to open up a fresh front from the Dispatch Box, but I hope President Trump will read what my noble friend has just said.

My Lords, is it not the case that every sane business carries out an investment appraisal before it embarks on an investment, that every sensible person will always produce a business plan before starting a business, that responsible and sensible Governments must engage in cost-benefit analyses and policy analyses and that, if we gave up those habits, it would be deeply damaging to the future of the country? That is the logic that some of these people are trying to drive us to: that we should not have any experts, we should not have any studies and we should not have any analysis at all.

I have not seen the documents that are the object of this exchange, but I understand that they were looking at a number of post-Brexit scenarios from an economic point of view. I also understand that the Prime Minister subsequently said that they were looking at off-the-shelf options, and she has made it clear that she is not looking at off-the-shelf options.

My Lords, nearly every political generation experiences a reprise of this question. In the early post-war Treasury, Hugh Dalton was given some unpalatable advice and denounced his officials as “congenital snag-hunters”, but surely that is what we pay them for. Does the Minister agree that it would be pointless to hire ciphers for the beauty of their political opinions because that would be the road to a politicised Civil Service which would be ruinous for this country?

I agree. It is the job of civil servants to bring to Ministers’ attention the consequences of their policies and to argue forcefully against them if they believe they are misguided but, once the decision has been taken, to go out and deliver them as best they can. My experience with civil servants is that that is exactly what they do, and I agree with the noble Lord.

Does my noble friend agree that disparaging remarks were made in a debate 10 days ago in this House by a Member of the Opposition Front Bench who impugned the integrity of the civil servants in our Library because she did not agree with the brief that they produced? I went straight to the Library, apologised on behalf of the House and said that no one would agree with her.

I hope my noble friend will understand if I pass on that one, not having been privy to the accusations that were made or the evidence, but I am sure my noble friend did what he felt was right in defending the Library.