EU referendum: Jeremy Heywood confirms curbs on civil service support for ministers backing British exit

Written by Matt Foster on 23 February 2016 in News

Cabinet secretary writes to perm secs to confirm that pro-Brexit ministers will not have access to civil service briefings on the referendum

Government ministers in favour of Britain leaving the European Union will not receive full civil service support in the run-up to the referendum, Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has confirmed.

Prime minister David Cameron announced this weekend that an in-out vote on the UK's place in the EU will take place on June 23, with a number of prominent Conservative frontbenchers including justice secretary Michael Gove and work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith declaring that they will back a British exit.

The official government position is to campaign for Britain to stay in the EU under terms negotiated by Cameron, but the usual rules of collective responsibility – which mean ministers are bound to publicly back the government line – have been suspended on the EU issue. That presents a highly unusual situation for civil servants, who are bound to serve their departmental ministers – and Heywood has now written to permanent secretaries in a bid to clarify their position (full guidance below).

David Cameron: pro-Brexit ministers will not receive civil service support
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Heywood says departments should "continue to provide support in the normal way to ministers operating in their ministerial capacity" – but he draws distinctions between matters relating to the vote and the rest of government business, making it clear that official resources can be used to advocate the government's position.

Civil servants are, for example, permitted to draft speeches and provide briefing on policy for ministers to use at external events, "including those organised by groups campaigning for the same outcome as the government on the EU referendum".

But Heywood says "it will not be appropriate or permissible for the civil service to support ministers who oppose the government's official position by providing briefing or speech material on this matter".

He adds: "This includes access to official departmental papers, excepting papers that ministers have previously seen on issues relating to the referendum question prior to the suspension of collective agreement. These rules will apply also to their special advisers.

"In line with usual practice, departments may check facts for such ministers on request. And civil servants should continue to support such ministers in undertaking all official government business in the usual way."

Government buildings may not be used for visits or events "organised by the designated campaign groups", Heywood adds while any visits that combine campaign and government business must see "a proportion of the actual cost" met by campaign groups.

The guidance in Heywood's letter applies until the start of the 28-day period in the run-up to the vote, which, under law, will prevent government resources from being used in support of either side. Ministers had originally wanted to suspend that 28-day period ahead of the EU referendum, but were forced to amend their plans after a fierce backlash from Conservative MPs.

Heywood says he will provide departments with further guidance on conduct during this 28-day period, sometimes referred to as "purdah", "in due course".

Jeremy Heywood to Permanent Secretaries - EU Referendum Guidance

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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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Janie J (not verified)

Submitted on 23 February, 2016 - 14:39
So some of the democratically elected Government is supporting Brexit, but a Civil Servant decides that despite that democratic process being followed, those MPs and Ministers will not have Civil Service support, including not seeing some documents? What is really meant here is that the Civil Service will support the Prime Minister's view, but not that of other Minister's who oppose it. Is this really how the Civil Service should be 'used'? How is this democratic?

Joseph Adam-Smith (not verified)

Submitted on 23 February, 2016 - 15:36
I am a now retired civil servant - albeit of a low grade. However, I was always taught, as were my colleagues, that we were apolitical. But, during the the Blair/Brown years, we noted how the civil service was becoming more and more a mouth-piece of the government. In my college years, back in the 70s, we were taught how the British civil service was one of the most respected in the world because of its apolitical stance. How times have changed....

Peter B (not verified)

Submitted on 23 February, 2016 - 20:35
There's a world of difference between supporting the government in developing and implimenting policy and supporting the government in what is essentially an election. It's the public that pay our wages that are the losers here and it's an abuse of power.

Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted on 24 February, 2016 - 07:24
This is yet another proof that we have no democracy in the UK. The feudal powers and big business dominate. The establishment are quick to accuse Putin and Assad of being dictators. Add Cameron to that list aided and abetted by the eminence gris. JH should resign for blatant abuse of power, shameless in silencing free speech, impeding popular paths to freedom from bureaucracy and modern serfdom.

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