Andrew Tyrie, chairman of parliament's powerful Liaison Committee, has joined those warning that the guidance for civil servants in the run-up to the European Union referendum is not clear enough.
Ahead of June's in-out vote on Britain's place in the the EU, eurosceptic ministers have been granted the freedom to campaign against the government’s official position of staying in. But guidance issued by Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood in February sets out some curbs on the support those ministers can expect from officials, including limits on their access to briefing or speech material and restricted access to new departmental papers relating to the referendum.
That move triggered claims from the Eurosceptic camp that the impartial civil service risked becoming politicised, and reassurance from Heywood that the restrictions are tightly limited has failed to placate the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) chair Bernard Jenkin who wants the guidance to be redrafted.
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Now Tyrie, who chairs the Liaison committee which quizzes the prime minister three times a year, has written to David Cameron to warn that the EU rules could result in the "unacceptable situation" of "unaccountable and unelected civil servants" deciding what ministers "may or may not see".
The guidance also suffers from a "lack of clarity" about how it will "work in practice", Tyrie writes, with the chair saying there is an apparent discrepancy between Heywood's claim at a committee hearing that the rules would not "deny [pro-Brexit] ministers the information they need to run their departments" and the document's specific reference to a ban on "access to official departmental papers".
Tyrie calls on Cameron to provide him with a list of all official papers which are not available to pro-Brexit ministers under the guidance, and asks the prime minister to provide a response by April 11.
Publishing his letter, Tyrie argued that the EU rules as they currently stand do "not look like a reliable or sustainable arrangement", and suggested that he too could support a redraft of the guidelines.
He added: "Secretaries of state are – and should remain – responsible for all the business of their departments, until such time as another minister is allocated the specific responsibility at issue. The cabinet secretary’s guidance does not provide this. On the contrary, it attempts to delegate this authority, without the minister’s consent, to unaccountable and unelected civil servants.
“The prime minister may need to revise the guidance. In the meantime, I have requested that he provide the Liaison Committee with more detail of its operation, including a list of the official departmental papers which will not be available to pro- Brexit ministers. 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. These arrangements will, at least, provide some transparency for the guidance.”
Heywood has so far rejected calls for the rules to be redrawn, telling Jenkin's committee in February that the rules are "extremely concise and clear" and pointing out that "nobody's having any difficulty with my guidance on the ground".
The cabinet secretary also has the support of the FDA union, which represents senior officials. General secretary Dave Penman has welcomed the "clear" rules, adding: "Civil servants are there to support the government of the day and that government's policies, which in this case is to remain part of the reformed EU."
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