David Cameron: curbs on civil service help for Brexit ministers not causing any problems

Row over the EU guidance for civil servants rumbles on — as prime minister prepares for select committee grilling

By Matt Foster

04 May 2016

David Cameron has denied that the rules restricting the support that civil servants can give to eurosceptic ministers are causing any confusion in departments, after criticism from campaigners pushing for Britain to leave the European Union.

Ahead of June’s referendum on whether the UK remains a part of the EU, cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood issued guidance limiting the ability of officials to support ministers who are in favour of leaving — prompting criticism from eurosceptics that the move stacked the odds against the Brexit camp.

Heywood has told MPs that the rules only prevent access to briefing and speech material relating specifically to the referendum question, on which the government has an official position of staying in the EU, and has insisted the guidance will stop Whitehall from “tying itself in knots”. His position has also received the backing of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants.

Jeremy Heywood says civil service rules on pro-Brexit ministers will stop Whitehall “tying itself up in knots” over the European Union
Civil service EU referendum rules give too much power to “unaccountable and unelected” officials, says Andrew Tyrie

But Andrew Tyrie, chair of parliament's powerful cross-party Liaison committee, wrote to Cameron last month saying he believed the rules could result in the “unacceptable situation” of “unaccountable and unelected civil servants” deciding what ministers “may or may not see” and saying Number 10 should consider redrafting the guidance. He also urged Cameron to provide a list of all the official departmental papers which will not be available to pro-Brexit ministers. 

In his response, published on Wednesday, the prime minister rejects the argument that the limits are putting either officials or ministers in a difficult situation.

“In recognition of the exceptional nature of this referendum, I have made clear that ministers are able to take a different personal position from that of the government on the issue of the EU referendum,” Cameron writes.

He adds: “As the guidance states, this arrangement applies only to the question of whether the UK should remain in a reformed EU or leave. This provision within the guidance relating to support for ministers who choose to take a different personal position to that of the government must be read with this clear statement in mind.”

"I can reassure you that we are not aware of any difficulties caused by the current guidance" - David Cameron on EU vote rules

Cameron insists that the rules are “ring-fenced and limited”, with ministerial involvement “in all other EU or EU-related business” carrying on as normal, “including access to papers and official support”. Ministers will, he adds, “have access to all information necessary in order to fulfil their official duties”.

And the prime minister rejects the central call by Tyrie for a breakdown of all restricted papers, saying he does “not think it is necessary to maintain a central list of any information not available to pro-Brexit ministers”.

“However, I can reassure you that we are not aware of any difficulties caused by the current guidance and would not expect it to interfere with any minister’s statutory or constitutional responsibilities,” Cameron adds.

A tighter set of restrictions curbing the use of government resources by either side of the referendum argument comes into force 28 days ahead of the vote. Cameron says further guidance for civil servants on their conduct during this so-called “purdah” period will be published “nearer to the start” of that timeframe.

The prime minister is likely to be quizzed on his response when he appears before the Liaison Committee on Wednesday afternoon. Ahead of that session, Tyrie (pictured) said he continued to have concerns about how the rules were playing out in practice.

“The committee appreciates the prime minister’s assurance that he would not expect the guidance to interfere with any Minister’s statutory or constitutional responsibilities,” Tyrie said. “But he cannot be confident about that in every case; this guidance applies to all 24 ministerial departments across Whitehall.” 

And the Liaison committee chair renewed his call for a “simple change”, saying both Cameron and the public “would benefit from a commitment to publish a list of the official departmental papers which will not be made available to pro-Brexit ministers”.

He added: “In the event that even the existence of certain papers needs to remain confidential, the list of such papers should be made available to me.

“Given the uncertainties about the implementation of this guidance, the cabinet secretary should publish his specific guidance for the ‘purdah’ period as soon as possible.”

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