Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has come under fire from civil service trade unions over a rule change that says officials must have ministerial authorisation before speaking to the media.
According to changes to the Civil Service Code’s standards of behaviour, which were added on Monday, civil servants must now seek ministerial approval for “any contact with the media”.
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The code says: “All contacts with the media should be authorised in advance by the relevant Minister unless a specific delegation or dispensation has been agreed which may be for blocks of posts or areas of activities.
"The Civil Service Code applies to all such contacts. Civil Servants must at all times observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks.”
Both the FDA and the Public Commercial Services union (PCS) have criticised the move, saying changes to media relations will impact government transparency. But the Cabinet Office has said the amendment merely clarifies what was already in place.
In a letter sent to Geoff Lewtas in his capacity as convenor of the National Trade Union Committee – which represents the FDA, PCS, Prospect, Unite, GMB, NIPSA and the POA – on Monday, Maude said civil servants were already prohibited from disclosing official information without permission and that the changes would “provide clarity on these points.”
He told Lewtas: “Given civil servants’ accountability to ministers, it would be inappropriate for civil servants to undertake such activity without the express permission of their ministers.
“This has been a matter of some parliamentary and public interest and as such I believe it is important for both ministers and civil servants to ensure there is absolute clarity on this point.”
He added that rules around whistleblowing and publicising union views would not be affected by the change.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, attacked the decision to amend the code 51 days before the general election as an “unnecessary, unworkable and unjustified restriction on the work of the civil service”.
He said: "Guidance to regulate contact between civil servants and the media is already in place and we can see no justification for this sudden, drastic change, other than intimidating civil servants into silence.”
“Rather than being a genuine attempt to improve public services, this knee-jerk decision seems to have only been made to sate unfounded and misguided ministerial mistrust."
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka also criticised the move.
He said: "This is a painfully transparent attempt to prevent public servants from telling the truth about government policy, by a minister who has already admitted he wants to do as much damage as possible before he steps down by making his reforms 'irreversible'."