'Corrosive': Unions hit back at accusations of politicisation among Scottish civil servants

Defence of civil service impartiality comes after claims Covid Inquiry evidence showed officials had been “captured” by the SNP
Scottish civil servants have been accused of pro-independence bias. Photo: Douglas Carr/Alamy Stock Photo

Trade unions have hit back at accusations of civil service politicisation after accusations that Scotland’s officials have been “captured” by the Scottish National Party.

An unnamed Labour source made the allegations of politicisation of Scottish Government officials after an email shared with the Covid Inquiry came to light that said holding Spain to "a much higher level of scrutiny” when judging travel exemptions could have an impact on an independent Scotland being allowed into the EU.

The letter – which also prompted a Conservative MSP to call for an investigation into alleged pro-independence bias in the civil service – was sent from Scott Wightman, director of external affairs, to first and deputy first ministers Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney the week before Scotland relaxed travel restrictions from Spain in July 2020. Five days later, the restrictions were reintroduced as the number of Covid cases rose.

"It won't matter how much ministers might justify it on health grounds. The Spanish government will conclude it is entirely political; they won't forget; there is a real possibility they will never approve EU membership for an independent Scotland as a result,” the letter read.

After the memo was published by the inquiry, a Labour source told the Herald on Sunday: "That a civil servant would not just think this way but contribute it to a policy discussion shows the extent of how pervasive the thought process of constitutional division has become in the civil service.

“They have been captured wholesale and the lines between political interest and public service have not just become blurred, they have disappeared."

They said the letter “calls into question the quality of advice ministers are receiving as well as the loss of perspective and clear analysis”.

Responding to the comments, Richard Hardy, Prospect’s national secretary for Scotland, said: “The civil service exists to advise on and implement government policy, it’s not 'capture' when they do this. It’s very disappointing to find politicians attacking the civil service for doing their job. We are seeing this behaviour far [too] often recently.”

Allan Sampson, the FDA’s national officer for Scotland, said it would set a “dangerous precedent” for the comments to go unchallenged.

“A civil servant’s duty of impartiality means they cannot speak up to defend themselves publicly, so it is the responsibility of ministers to defend them. We’ve seen this far too often in Westminster over recent years, where politicians have been more than willing to throw their staff under a bus for political expediency,” he wrote in The Times.

“There are legitimate questions to answer regarding the Scottish government’s internal policies on preserving an 'official record' of decision making, and it is right that a full review of these policies takes place,” he added.

“Where things have clearly gone wrong they should be fully investigated, but to suggest that large swathes of Scottish civil servants were working in contravention of the civil service code just isn’t based in reality, and is having a corrosive effect on public trust in our institutions.”

FDA general secretary Dave Penman added that politicians “have a responsibility to protect the impartiality of the civil service”.

“That includes not making sweeping accusations about an entire service based on an individual incident, however legitimate that concern is,” he wrote on X (formerly Twitter).

The anonymous comment came after the Scottish Conservatives’ constitution spokesperson, Donald Cameron, called for an investigation over the Wightman's email, which he said was “illustrative of a culture within the Scottish Government which is focused overwhelmingly on independence”.

In a letter to Scottish Government permanent secretary John-Paul Marks, Cameron said public confidence in the Scottish Government’s impartiality is "paramount, and risks being damaged by the remarks made in this email”.

“It is deeply troubling that a civil servant would appear concerned about what is, nakedly, a political priority of the Scottish National Party, rather than about the public health implications of exempting Spain from quarantine restrictions," he wrote.

“The civil service code (which all Scottish Government employees must abide by) is very clear: civil servants must not ‘allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions’.

“Given that applying for EU membership cannot possibly be within the remit of a Scottish Government civil servant, it seems very likely that this statement from Mr Wightman was an expression of a political view.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Throughout the pandemic the prime focus and intention of ministers, clinicians and officials across the Scottish Government was to protect the people of Scotland from the harms of Covid-19, as noted in the closing statement made to the UK Covid 19 Inquiry module 2A hearings. 

"The permanent secretary will respond to the letter received in due course.”

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