Scottish independence: Civil servants 'must serve with impartiality', perm sec says

Top official Jon-Paul Marks defends officials working for new minister for independence
John-Paul Marks. Photo: Scottish Parliament/Youtube

By Kirsteen Paterson

17 May 2023

Scotland's most senior civil servant has defended the role of his colleagues in preparing the Scottish Government's case for independence.

The Scottish Government will continue to seek a Section 30 Order for the legal holding of any future indyref, John-Paul Marks told MSPs.

Speaking at Holyrood today, Marks, the permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, said the taxpayer-funded staff must serve Humza Yousaf's new administration "and their priorities".

Yousaf appointed Jamie Hepburn as minister for independence after winning the SNP leadership contest in March.

The role is the first of its kind and has drawn criticism from Westminster, with Scottish secretary Alister Jack raising concerns about the "constitutional propriety" of the role and asking UK cabinet secretary Simon Case to provide assurance that "no UK civil servant will be engaged in this new department".

Marks told MSPs: "It is for the first minister to appoint his ministerial team, given his priorities, and that ministerial team is then voted on by this parliament, and then it is for the civil service to serve that ministerial team with impartiality.

"We serve the government of the day. That includes with regards [to] constitutional reform, and it has been well understood under devolution for many years that the civil service in the Scottish Government serves the Scottish Government and their priorities and we provide policy advice, including the development of prospectus paper series for this government to set out its constitutional objectives."

The issue is "not just a theoretical debate or a strategic long-term debate, it is a here and now reality," he told the Finance and Public Administration Committee, and takes in issues including the use of Section 35 to block the gender recognition reforms, the post-Brexit UK Internal Market Act and the fiscal framework review into devolved finances.

Marks said: "From my perspective, there is very clear, proper and regular grounds for the first minister to appoint his ministerial team, it is necessary for the civil service to serve that ministerial team with impartiality and there is a clear set of constitutional priorities here and now which need advising on and tackling, because if we're going to deliver this government's programme, whether it be on ScotWind, the Deposit Return Scheme or a number of other energy reforms and equality reforms, we need to continue to influence and engage with the UK Government with regards to the devolution settlement and the constitution.

Marks went on: "It is important that I have the capability in the civil service in Scotland [that is] equipped to serve ministers in this government not only just now, but also recognising things can change in future.

"We'll continue to seek a Section 30 Order so that any referendum will always be on lawful grounds, as per the last referendum in Scotland, but also recognising the UK general election in '24-25.

"Clearly the future of the constitution of the UK could change again and we need to have the capability ready to respond."

This article was written by Kirsteen Paterson and first appeared in CSW's sister publication Holyrood


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