EU referendum: Civil servants “face dilemma” over vote, says FDA union chief Dave Penman

FDA general secretary Dave Penman says lack of cabinet unity on EU referendum is a headache for civil servants – but insists campaigning rules don't need to stifle debate

By Jim Dunton

10 Mar 2016

The general secretary of the FDA union has said campaigning rules for the upcoming EU referendum should not stifle debate – but accepts that civil servants face a dilemma over their conflicting professional allegiances.

Dave Penman, whose union represents senior public leaders, said the fact that ministers were allowed to openly campaign against the government’s official “remain” position in the run-up to the June 23 would cause tension for departmental support staff.

But he praised cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood’s guidance on the issue.

Speaking in a debate on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight programme, Penman said there were clear cases where it was “very difficult to separate” the personal opinions of individuals from the organisations they represented.

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“For my members, civil servants, they face a dilemma where they're supporting the government of the day but have in some cases individual ministers who are able to take a personal position opposed to the government's position,” he said.

“There’re rules there that have been issued last week which provide guidance to ministers and guidance to civil servants about what they can and cannot do. It really is about the circumstances and responsibilities of the individuals and what they do rather than just saying it's a free-for-all for everyone.”

The civil service guidance states that ministers campaigning for the UK to leave the European Union can expect some curbs on the support they receive from staff, sparking fears from eurosceptics that pro-Brexit ministers were being disadvantaged.

Sir Jeremy subsequently told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that the guidance was vital to stop Whitehall "tying itself up in knots", and would only apply to briefing or speech material supporting the case against the government’s official referendum stance.

Penman said rules steering third sector participation in the EU debate also did not need to stifle their own input to the referendum debate.

“If you look at the guidance for charities, it doesn't stop them contributing,” he said. 

“What it says is as a charity you have obligations and if you're going to enter the debate it has to be to further the interests of the charity. It doesn't stop them entering the political debate, it just says there are rules around that – otherwise you would lose your charitable status.”

Penman said the controversy surrounding the resignation of British Chambers of Commerce director general John Longworth was understandable, after the lobby group chief expressed personal pro-Brexit opinions on the referendum in breach of its official neutral stance.

“The question is about individuals and their responsibilities,” he said. “The BCC had a very particular policy position of neutrality on this issue. As the director general if he expresses an individual and personal position, it's very difficult to separate that from the organisation is the key individual representing.”

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