Referendum Probe Slams Governments

23 March 2015, 08:06 | Updated: 23 March 2015, 08:08

Both the Scottish and UK governments have been criticised by MPs probing whether civil servants remained impartial in the run-up to the independence referendum.

The 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 set 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 independent Scotland and the rest of the UK would be "fraught with difficulty''.

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''.

Chair Bernard Jenkin MP said this must occur 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 parts of 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 Civil Service Code to address referendums that will remove ambiguity about this.

"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 purposes.''

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

The report said that civil servants "should always advise against the appearance of partisan bias in Government documents'' and added they should "not be required to carry out ministers' wishes, if they are being asked to use public funds to promote the agenda of a political party, as was evident in this case''.

The MPs also concluded that the advice from Sir Nicholas should not have been published and called on the Government to "make it clear in its response to this report that the publication of advice to ministers will never recur''.

The Permanent Secretary had written to the Chancellor on February 11 2014, 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, which would have allowed an independent Scotland to continue using the pound.

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.

In their report, the MPs said that while the circumstances of the referendum campaign were ``exceptional'', the case presented in the letter ``could have been presented in other ways and just as powerfully''.

They added: "The only purpose was to use the impartial status of a Permanent Secretary to give authority to the advocacy of a political argument.

"There were other ways of 'reassuring the markets'. In any case, we do not accept that this was the primary reason for publishing this advice, because entering a currency union with an independent Scotland is a decision for government, not the civil service.

"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 now recommended that guidance regarding the publication of advice from civil servants "should be reiterated and if necessary revised to ensure that a civil servant's advice to a minister cannot be published in future, in order to protect the impartiality of the civil service''.

A spokesman for HM Treasury said: "As we have made clear before, 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 rather than after it.''

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''.

She added: "The Scottish and UK governments have frequently set out policy intentions whose implementation depends on the outcome of future elections.

"Two examples of this are the UK Government's White Paper on the Calman Report and its Command Paper setting out how it plans to implement the Smith Commission proposals.

"Indeed, just last week, the UK Government budget set out a range of policies of the governing parties where implementation will fall beyond the general election.

"It is the role of the civil service to work with the elected government of the day to implement its policies.

"It is not in any dispute that the Scottish Government elected in 2011 stood on a platform of supporting independence and of holding a referendum.

"There was broad agreement that the Scottish Government should set out its proposition for independence to inform voters ahead of the referendum.

"Scotland's Future reflects not only the powers that would come to Scotland under independence, but how they could be used in a real and practical way. The document makes clear the distinction between these two types of proposal.''

A Scottish Labour spokesman said: "The White Paper was a taxpayer funded manifesto for the SNP, not a constitutional blueprint.

"It was wrong of the SNP government to put impartial civil servants in this position.

"Scotland's civil service has a proud tradition of objectivity and impartiality. Any attempt to politicise the civil service in Scotland goes to the very heart of our democracy.

"The SNP government must reassure the people of Scotland that they will take heed of this report and stop interfering with the civil service.''