Sir Jeremy Heywood may have spent too long in the political "hothouse" to properly judge whether the civil service is being used to try and keep Britain in the European Union, former cabinet minister Lord Owen has claimed.
The government has promised an in-out vote on Britain’s EU membership by 2017, but a political row has broken out over an attempt by ministers to disapply a rule which bans departments from publishing material about the debate as polling day approaches.
Some Conservative backbenchers argue the change – which the government says is necessary to allow normal business to carry on during the campaign – will enable the use of public resources to sway the result, and would go against the spirit of wider pre-election limits on the conduct of officials known as "purdah".
Labour calls for pre-EU vote purdah period
Eurosceptics hold firm in bid to see EU vote "purdah" for officials
Row over civil service neutrality ahead of EU referendum
Owen – health secretary when Britain last held a vote on its place in Europe in 1975 – on Tuesday told MPs that he doubted whether the Cabinet secretary was the right person to protect civil service impartiality if the rule was scrapped.
“I have concerns about the Cabinet secretary,” the independent peer told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) in its first evidence session.
“Not about his integrity or his ability, which is absolutely clear-cut, he is a very able person. But I think his capacity to make a judgement between the interests of the prime minister and the wider cabinet, for example, or between the interests of ministers collectively and civil servants is open to question. Not because of any fault of his, but because the fact is his whole career has been spent in the hothouse atmosphere of politicians' private offices [serving] three successive prime ministers.”
Owen has previously criticised the Cabinet secretary over delays to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. On Tuesday, the peer again cited that hold-up, along with the handling of the so-called 'plebgate' affair, to argue that Heywood had not shown sufficient willingness to keep civil servants above the political fray.
"I don't make any secret of the fact that I'm very concerned about the whole way the Chilcot inquiry is being handled – an unbelievable situation – for which the cabinet secretary must take quite a large measure of responsibility.
"Then there was plebgate, then we had this extraordinary situation about a judgement over the home secretary's special adviser [...] I do not think he understands the rules of purdah – not the rules as may be set out in general rules for a referendum – but I don't think he seems to understand the spirit that underlies it.
"A cabinet secretary is there to maintain the overall structure of government under which we have peacefully and, broadly happily, lived for decades. I think it is under threat. "
He said MPs on the committee were therefore right to try and seek assurances about the extent to which civil service impartiality would be protected ahead of the EU vote.
“It's very important that this sort of debate takes place to tie the hands of the politicians who will try to win this referendum by hook or by crook, and to tie to the hands of the Cabinet secretary and demand from him a far greater degree of impartiality and objectivity on these matters than we have yet seen in his performance of the duties of the Cabinet secretary."
In an interview with Civil Service World – to be published in full on Friday – PACAC's chair Bernard Jenkin said he believed the proposed rule change could give the impression that ministers were "trying to create a rigged in-out referendum" on the EU.
"To get rid of the whole of section 125 [of the Political Parties and Referendum Act 2000] on the premise that you can’t carry on the normal course of government in relation to the EU... I don’t know where this advice has come from, but I think it’s completely wrong," Jenkin said.
Foreign secretary Philip Hammond has, however, defended the proposals, arguing that there are "operational and political reasons" not to apply purdah ahead of the vote.
"In the context of this referendum, that is unworkable and inappropriate," he told MPs last month.
"It’s unworkable because the restriction is so broad that preventing publication in relation to any issue raised by the referendum could prevent ministers from conducting the ordinary day-to-day business of the UK’s dealings with the European Union. And inappropriate because this referendum will take place as a result of a clear manifesto commitment and a mandate won at the UK general election.”
PACAC will hear from a second round of witnesses on Thursday.