Scotland’s top civil servant has been accused of acting like “an SNP lackey” in a fierce attack on his political impartiality. In rare public criticism of a leading mandarin by all three opposition parties, Sir Peter Housden, the Scottish Government permanent secretary, was accused of “failing to uphold” the impartiality of the civil service.
The row came after Sir Peter rejected a complaint that an SNP minister breached guidelines by making a government announcement during the local election campaign. That ruling prompted Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie to accuse the senior civil servant of “failing to take a balanced view” of complaints against the SNP government.
Mr Rennie said he would be appealing to Sir Bob Kerslake, the new head of the UK civil service. And he was joined in his criticism by both Labour and the Tories.
Questions have been raised before over the permanent secretary’s impartiality.
Sir Bob’s predecessor, Sir Gus O’Donnell, previously cleared Sir Peter of allegations of failing to be impartial over comments he made on the Scottish independence campaign, saying his views “should not be seen as inconsistent with the civil service code”.
The criticism came after Sir Peter ruled yesterday that local government minister Derek Mackay did not break any rules when he announced a £40 million deal to exempt Scots from a looming cut in council tax benefit two weeks ago.
Mr Mackay made the announcement six days into the sensitive three-week pre-election period known as “purdah”.
During this period civil servants are urged to take care over providing “official support, and the use of public resources, including publicity, for ministerial or official announcements which could have a bearing on matters relevant to the elections”.
Opposition parties complained that the SNP had enjoyed an electoral boost from the announcement.
But Sir Peter rejected the complaints saying that 19 April was “the first available date for an announcement”.
Sir Peter wrote: “The government’s guidance on the local elections makes clear that the responsibility for reaching a judgment on whether to make or defer an announcement during the local election period rests with ministers in the light of political sensitivities, with each case to be considered on its merits.
“In this case, the announcement resulted from an agreement between the Scottish Government and all Scottish local authorities that benefits all areas of Scotland.
“It was endorsed by the Cosla Convention on 30 March. Cosla represents all local authorities and involves representatives of all political parties. In addition, the announcement was made jointly with Cosla, and the funding to underpin the agreement is to be provided jointly.
“These are all material factors in considering the application of the guidance.
“On timing, the agreement was reached just as parliament went into recess. 19 April was thus the first available date for an announcement.” Mr Rennie said: “Yet again Sir Peter has failed to uphold the traditions of the independent civil service. He is acting more like an SNP lackey than the head of the Civil Service in Scotland.
“The SNP clearly broke ‘purdah’ rules by making an announcement on council funding during the election period. It was an election gimmick and an abuse of Derek Mackay’s position as local government minister.
“Sir Peter has repeatedly failed to take a balanced view of complaints against the SNP government. This is yet another decision that questions his impartiality. Sir Peter needs to be reminded that he works for the public, not for the SNP.”
Labour’s Paul Martin said it was another example of the SNP treating Holyrood and its rules with “careless abandon.”
He added: “The checks and balances that the permanent secretary is supposed to be providing in his role are being sorely missed and Sir Peter Housden seems content to cheer Alex Salmond on rather than scrutinise his conduct.”
Meanwhile Conservative leader Ruth Davidson added: “I find it astonishing that a ministerial announcement in the middle of an election campaign does not contravene the purdah rules.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Announcements during the local government election period are a matter for ministers. The announcement with Cosla resulted from an agreement between the Scottish Government and all Scottish local authorities and benefits all areas of Scotland.”