BBC chief hits out at ‘personal attacks’ on bias-row civil servant

James Boyle: Has defended Peter Housden
James Boyle: Has defended Peter Housden
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A FORMER civil service commissioner and controller of BBC Radio 4 has mounted a robust defence of Scotland’s top civil servant following a series of complaints from opposition leaders that he has promoted SNP policies.

James Boyle, who sat on the commission charged with appointing Britain’s senior civil servants, said that attacks on Alex Salmond’s permanent secretary Sir Peter Housden did an “injustice” to the civil servant in the run-up to the independence referendum.

Mr Boyle, writing in The Scotsman today in a personal capacity, makes a strongly worded defence of the permanent secretary, after a series of internal memos from Sir Peter to civil servants were made public in the aftermath of the SNP’s landslide election victory last May.

Sir Peter, who earns £185,000 a year, wrote to staff claiming the constitutional question had moved on from the UK coalition’s plans to devolve more power to Holyrood, saying: “It is remarkable how the terms of this debate have changed irrevocably in just three weeks. Calman and the status quo now seem lost in the mists of time.”

Mr Boyle, who is also a former Scottish Arts Council chairman, dismisses what he claimed were “personal attacks” on Sir Peter for his use of Twitter to communicate with civil service staff, and suggests that some critics of the civil servant wanted to “force him from the job”.

He writes: “His messages were in fact notes from the leader to the troops, humanising a job often thought to be held by the unapproachable.

“He’s a modern leader using a throwaway medium to keep his staff close to him. In his memo, Sir Peter said of the drama: ‘To my mind, it does genuinely speak to our present condition as a nation.’”

Mr Boyle goes on to defend Sir Peter’s strategy of preparing government departments for independence “if the majority want that” in a referendum.

He writes: “They must prepare for both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ outcomes after the referendum on independence. Our non-partisan civil service has a duty to us, the citizens, to be ready to administer on behalf of any government – including an independent one that we choose.”

Sir Peter’s memos to staff led to official complaints being lodged with Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet secretary and head of the UK civil service, that he had broken the civil service code. The then Scottish Labour and Conservative leaders Iain Gray and Annabel Goldie lodged the complaints along with Lib Dem Willie Rennie last year, although Sir Peter was later cleared.

Brian Adam, Scotland’s minister for parliamentary business, said that Mr Boyle’s intervention showed that the attacks on Sir Peter by opposition politicians had backfired. He said: “Mr Boyle has got this spot on and it’s a much more reasoned judgment than the ludicrous attacks made by the opposition parties.”