Proposed changes to “purdah” rules ahead of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union will not affect civil service impartiality, Sir Jeremy Heywood has said.
The government has promised an in-out vote on EU membership by 2017. But some backbench MPs have raised concerns over an attempt by ministers to disapply a rule which bans departments from publishing material about the debate as polling day approaches, arguing that it could allow the civil service to be used to campaign for Britain to remain in Europe.
Appearing before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) on Monday, the cabinet secretary said the changes to Section 125 of the Political Parties and Referendum Act 2000 would not affect impartiality, and said that the existing law was to limit "what ministers do as ministers".
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"It wouldn’t affect the civil service code, or the civil service management," he said. "So there will still be an obligation on all civil servants to personally adhere to the civil service code, but also to avoid taking part in any national political activity."
Heywood told the committee that without a change to Section 125, the existing rules could “hobble” ministers seeking to represent Britain in EU discussions ahead of the vote.
"The main concern the civil service would have is in relation to the normal activity in Brussels. Maybe not all aspects of that normal activity, but in a typical month you have 10 or 11 ministerial councils in Brussels,” he said.
"Some of those will be informal and private, others will be formal ministerial councils in which legislation is negotiated. “In the last 28 days of the referendum campaign, let’s assume there are 10, 11, 12 of those councils. We need to make sure, in the normal course of business, that our ministers use whichever are the most potent arguments they can use to win points for Britain in those negotiations, in those minute statements and so on."
The Cabinet secretary said the situation ahead of the EU vote differed from that leading up to the Scottish independence referendum - in which Section 125 was applied - because the government was more able to predict domestic policy problems.
"In a normal referendum, in a non-EU referendum, if I can call them that, the government has some control over the agenda. Not much will happen during the 28-day period, we can make sure there are no policy initiatives that bear on the referendum itself, we can make sure the issue doesn’t arise. But on European business, the Europeans control the agenda so those meetings will happen, despite the fact we have got our referendum going on, [and] we will have to have representation there."
Heywood also used his appearance in front of MPs to defend himself after former health secretary Lord Owen last week questioned the cabinet secretary’s ability to safeguard civil service impartiality.
Lord Owen told the committee that he did not believe Heywood had the “capacity” to make a judgement “between the interests of ministers collectively and civil servants” because he had spent too long in the political “hothouse” of private office.
But Heywood said today: “I’ve served different governments of different political complexions. I’ve had no complaints … He [Owen] has no idea what I do day-to-day.”