The UK’s two most senior civil servants have said there is no record of any civil servant having been fired for breaching the Civil Service Code, following suggestions that recent events had called officials’ impartiality into question.
In a joint letter to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and civil service chief executive John Manzoni said civil servants “strive to work constructively and positively with ministers, to provide the best possible evidence-based advice and analysis” in line with the Civil Service Code.
The letter followed a September PACAC session at which the MPs questioned Sedwill and Manzoni over how often civil servants were dismissed for breaching the ethics code, which requires them to be politically neutral, as well as asking aboutthe controversial Get Ready for Brexit campaign, which was designed to convince people and businesses to prepare for leaving the EU with or without a deal, but which critics said strayed into pre-election campaigning territory.
In their follow-up letter to PACAC, dated 16 October but published yesterday, Sedwill and Manzoni said: “Breaching the code for any reason is considered a serious matter and whilst inadvertent breaches can be dealt with more informally via performance management and coaching, deliberate and/or repeated cases will be dealt with formally."
Penalties can include written warnings and dismissal in the most serious cases, they said. “Whilst records do not necessarily specify the exact reason for dismissal due to a breach of the Civil Service Code, we have confirmed that none of the main 18 Whitehall departments has any record or awareness of any cases involving obstruction by civil servants.”
The civil service chiefs also defended the Get Ready for Brexit campaign, saying the government had a “duty to inform people, business and other organisations about how to be ready for when the UK leaves the EU”.
“The Civil Service Code explicitly requires all civil servants to serve the government of the day with impartiality, objectivity, honest and integrity. In practice, this means that civil servants must support the service government to the best of their ability, in the delivery of their agenda. This tenet applies whatever the political persuasion of the government and irrespective of personal convictions and beliefs,” they wrote.
“There should have been a clearer delineation”
In the same letter, the two civil service bosses said they had seen “no evidence” that the police were intentionally dragged into politics when the prime minister gave a political speech in front of a group of police officers in Wakefield in September.
Johnson had been expected to use the setting to announce a police recruitment drive, but his speech also covered Brexit and the Labour Party’s opposition to a general election. The Prime Minister’s Office later said the political speech was due to take place elsewhere, but the day’s schedule had been rearranged at the last minute.
Sedwill said earlier this month that the Prime Minister’s Office was reviewing its visit planning process following the row that arose after the speech.
In last week’s letter, Sedwill and Manzoni stressed that the situation had arisen because of an error in judgement.
“There should have been a clearer delineation between the government policy aspects (concerning police recruitment) and political content. In addition, the media questions went beyond police recruitment to cover other topical issues. Due to the last minute changes, these aspects were not considered properly,” they said.
“The perception created was unintentional and we have seen no evidence that this was a deliberate attempt to involve police officers in political activity,” they said.