Government ministers in favour of Britain leaving the European Union will not receive full civil service support in the run-up to the referendum, Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has confirmed.
Prime minister David Cameron announced this weekend that an in-out vote on the UK's place in the EU will take place on June 23, with a number of prominent Conservative frontbenchers including justice secretary Michael Gove and work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith declaring that they will back a British exit.
The official government position is to campaign for Britain to stay in the EU under terms negotiated by Cameron, but the usual rules of collective responsibility – which mean ministers are bound to publicly back the government line – have been suspended on the EU issue. That presents a highly unusual situation for civil servants, who are bound to serve their departmental ministers – and Heywood has now written to permanent secretaries in a bid to clarify their position (full guidance below).
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Heywood says departments should "continue to provide support in the normal way to ministers operating in their ministerial capacity" – but he draws distinctions between matters relating to the vote and the rest of government business, making it clear that official resources can be used to advocate the government's position.
Civil servants are, for example, permitted to draft speeches and provide briefing on policy for ministers to use at external events, "including those organised by groups campaigning for the same outcome as the government on the EU referendum".
But Heywood says "it will not be appropriate or permissible for the civil service to support ministers who oppose the government's official position by providing briefing or speech material on this matter".
He adds: "This includes access to official departmental papers, excepting papers that ministers have previously seen on issues relating to the referendum question prior to the suspension of collective agreement. These rules will apply also to their special advisers.
"In line with usual practice, departments may check facts for such ministers on request. And civil servants should continue to support such ministers in undertaking all official government business in the usual way."
Government buildings may not be used for visits or events "organised by the designated campaign groups", Heywood adds while any visits that combine campaign and government business must see "a proportion of the actual cost" met by campaign groups.
The guidance in Heywood's letter applies until the start of the 28-day period in the run-up to the vote, which, under law, will prevent government resources from being used in support of either side. Ministers had originally wanted to suspend that 28-day period ahead of the EU referendum, but were forced to amend their plans after a fierce backlash from Conservative MPs.
Heywood says he will provide departments with further guidance on conduct during this 28-day period, sometimes referred to as "purdah", "in due course".
Jeremy Heywood to Permanent Secretaries - EU Referendum Guidance