EU referendum row: DWP minister Priti Patel says Jeremy Heywood's guidance on pro-Brexit ministers "threatens the reputation of the civil service" – as Gus O'Donnell leaps to his defence

Eurosceptic employment minister Priti Patel escalates row over civil service impartiality in the run-up to the European Union referendum – but former cabinet secretary Lord O'Donnell says guidance issued by his successor Sir Jeremy Heywood last week is "pretty well right"

By Matt Foster

29 Feb 2016

Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has been personally criticised by government minister Priti Patel over the rules governing civil service support for ministers campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union.

The official government position ahead of June's EU referendum is in favour of Britain saying in, under a renegotiation deal secured by prime minister David 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, allowing Cabinet ministers to campaign for a vote to leave.

However, Heywood, the head of the civil service, issued guidance to officials last week, making it clear that ministers who do back an exit will not receive full civil service support.

EU referendum: Jeremy Heywood confirms curbs on civil service support for ministers backing British exit
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While the guidance says departments should "continue to provide support in the normal way to ministers operating in their ministerial capacity", it 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".

Ministers in favour of an exit are also not permitted to see official departmental papers relating to the referendum question – apart from those they have already seen – and must rely instead on their political special advisers for research support.

The guidance has been criticised by the pro-Brexit work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Commons leader Chris Grayling in recent days, with both Cabinet ministers arguing that it will undermine their day-to-day work. But, in an escalation of rhetoric from the camp backing an exit from the EU, employment minister Priti Patel on Monday issued a statement specifically criticising Heywood.

“It is important that the civil service maintains impartiality during the EU referendum," said Patel, adding: "Jeremy Heywood’s unconstitutional act threatens the reputation of the civil service. Secretaries of state are responsible for their departments. For an unelected official to prevent them being aware of the information they need for their duties is wrong.”

Patel's statement was issued through the Vote Leave campaign group, which argues that it is "unclear" how ministers can be responsible to parliament for decisions made by their officials "if civil servants within their department have been instructed to withhold material documents from a minister".

Gus: "It’s worth remembering the civil servants are there to support the democratically elected government"

The commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – chaired by prominent eurosceptic Conservative Bernard Jenkin – will on Tuesday question Heywood on the guidance. Jenkin has meanwhile been granted an Urgent Question in the Commons for 3:30pm today in order to quiz ministers on the document.

Ahead of that question, Jenkin argued that the current guidance could lead to the relationship between officials and ministers being "permanently damaged".

“I think we need to ask some perfectly legitimate questions about why certain instructions have been issued which would seem to affect the impartiality of the civil service, affect the accountability of government departments to parliament and ultimately could see ministers arguing about objective facts, which the civil service have produced, but different facts for different ministers," he told the BBC.

“That doesn’t seem to be a very good basis for a democratic debate. Unless the relationships between civil servants and ministers are to be permanently damaged, this needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.”

But Lord O'Donnell (pictured), Heywood's predecessor as cabinet secretary, leapt to his defence, saying he believed Heywood had got it "pretty well right" over the issue.

"It’s worth remembering the civil servants are there to support the democratically elected government and the government’s position is to remain in, therefore civil servants will support that," Lord O'Donnell told the BBC.

"If the government’s position were to leave, then the civil servants would be supporting that position. 

"The truth is, and ministers may be a bit sad about this, unfortunately nearly all the pieces of paper they’ll have to read they’ll still have to read. So if you’re a minister going to Europe on a European Council meeting or whatever, you will be supported by your officials, you will have all the background papers. There’s only one respect which is to do with the referendum, the arguments for and against. 

"In that respect the government and civil servants will be supporting the government in their position, which is to remain in a reformed Europe. So, those papers will be kept away from dissenting ministers.”

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock on Monday morning also defended the scope of the restrictions, which will remain in place until 28 days before the vote, when more stringent rules are expected to be put in place on both sides.

"It's very clear that we are, the government is, functioning on all questions other than specifically the 'In/Out' question, in the entirely normal way," he told the Today programme. 

"And then on the 'In/Out' question the government then has a position and ministers are then allowed to take a personal position that's different from that. There are no rules other than those set out last Monday in the letter from Jeremy Heywood."

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