MPs launch attack on indyref civil servants

BOTH the Scottish and UK governments have been heavily criticised by a committee of MPs investigating whether civil servants remained impartial in the run-up to the independence referendum.

Referendum was exceptional argued Sir Nicholas Macpherson. Picture: Michael Gillen
Referendum was exceptional argued Sir Nicholas Macpherson. Picture: Michael Gillen

The House of Commons public administration select committee said the Scottish Government’s independence white paper had “raised questions about the use of public money for partisan purposes”, as part of the 670-page long blueprint setting out SNP pledges ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election.

The MPs also criticised the publication of advice one of the UK’s most senior civil servants gave Chancellor George Osborne that a currency union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would be “fraught with difficulty”.

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The letter from Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the permanent secretary to the Treasury, was only made public “because it suited ministers’ political objectives in respect of the Scottish referendum”, the committee said.

The MPs added that this had “compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants”.

The committee is now calling for the Civil Service Code to be “revised to specifically refer to referendums and provide civil servants across the UK with clear and definitive guidance on their role in respect of referendum campaigns”.

Chairman Bernard Jenkin MP said this must happen before any future referendums take place, such as the proposed vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU).

Mr Jenkin said: “The Scottish independence referendum created exceptional circumstances, but that does not make it acceptable for the civil service to approve the use of public funds to promote the agenda of one political party, to become personally aligned with one side or the other in the referendum debate.

“Referendums currently get no mention at all in the Civil Service Code. We suggest a limited change to the code to address referendums that will remove ambiguity. Our proposed wording reflects the advice of leading counsel. This change must be made before any future referendums, such as the possible referendum on the EU.”

In its report looking at what lessons could be learned about civil service impartiality from the referendum campaign, the committee said “particular concerns” had been raised about the Scottish Government’s flagship white paper on independence

The MPs said the Scotland’s Future document had “included a description of the SNP’s proposed programme for government that was contingent upon their winning the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections”.

They stated: “This did not uphold the factual standards expected of a UK government white paper and therefore raised questions about the use of public money for partisan 

The committee concluded that “parts of the white paper should not have been included in a government publication”.

The MPs also concluded the advice from Sir Nicholas should not have been published and called on the government to “make it clear that the publication of advice to ministers will never recur”.

The permanent secretary had written to the Chancellor on 11 February last year, just days before Mr Osborne made a speech in Edinburgh rejecting the Scottish Government’s preferred option of a currency union with the rest of the UK.

Sir Nicholas told the committee it was “highly unusual” for his advice to be made public, but said this had happened in a bid to reassure the markets.

The MPs said that while the circumstances of the referendum campaign were “exceptional”, the case in the letter “could have been presented in other ways and just as powerfully”.

They added: “The advice should not have been published. Its publication compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants.”

The committee has recommended that guidance regarding the publication of advice from civil servants “should be reiterated and if necessary revised to ensure a civil servant’s advice to a minister cannot be published in future, in order to protect the impartiality of the civil service”.

A Treasury spokesman said: “The question of whether or not the UK would agree to a currency union was an exceptional case where it was important that the arguments were exposed in full before a referendum.”

Sir Nicholas also told a lecture to the Strand Group in January that he had published the advice “because I regarded it as my duty”.

He said: “The British state’s position was being impugned. Demonstrating that the political and official state were completely aligned would further strengthen the credibility of the government’s position. And it was important that the arguments were exposed before the referendum rather than after it.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman stated that the “white paper, Scotland’s Future, met the highest professional standards, that its contents were entirely appropriate for a government publication and was a proper use of public funds”.