In a message to staff the DWP’s top civil servant Robert Devereux described support for Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom as “legitimate and necessary”.
The memo was criticised for being “ill judged” amid concerns it could be seen as telling staff in Scotland how to vote in next month’s independence referendum.
But the DWP insisted the memo was simply intended to set out for staff the restrictions of the purdah period in the run-up to the 18 September ballot.
The memo said: “It is important that, as civil servants, we understand why the Scottish independence referendum is different from elections such as a UK general election or a European election.
“This is because the UK Government has a clear position to maintain the union and so it is legitimate and necessary for UK civil servants to support the Government in this objective.”
The wording came under fire from unions who said the issue needed to be dealt with more sensitively.
Dave Penman, general secretary of senior civil servants’ union the FDA, said the memo was “ill judged” and added: “It is factually accurate but it probably could have been written a lot more sensitively.”
The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) described the memo as “ill-judged and patronising”.
PCS Scottish Secretary Lynn Henderson said: “This is a very sensitive issue north of the border and one in which civil servants are all too aware of from both the UK and Scottish Governments respective positions on independence. They remain bound by the civil service code.
“The wording of this memo is not only clumsy but it also seeks to blame lower graded civil servants for not understanding the instruction on how to conduct themselves as civil servants rather than as voting citizens in a democracy. I suspect that the intent may have backfired somewhat.
However, a DWP spokesman said: “Of course the department has not told its staff, or anyone else, how to vote.
“It was an open letter to all DWP staff setting out Scottish referendum guidance and the role of the civil service.
“Similar advice has been issued by the Scottish Government.”