How to be a Civil Servant
Media reports on 9 July 2002 suggested that certain civil servants had over-stepped the mark when drafting defensive replies to MP's questions. It was reported that civil servants had told each other that:-
The exact circumstances surrounding these comments is of course unknown, but the civil servants' approach seems, on the face of it inconsistent with their professional duties, unless there were clear Ministerial instructions to be unhelpful. The correct professional approach is described in the following extract from How to be a Civil Servant. I have highlighted in bold the key advice.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that Ministers and officials are under a duty to be both open and absolutely honest when answering questions from parliamentarians, whether at question time, in debate or in correspondence. Put simply, MPs are entitled to straight answers to straight questions.
Written Questions are those where both the question and answer are written, and they are part of the process by which MPs gather information from the Government. They tend not to be used for political point scoring because they do not usually receive much media attention. Therefore, unless the question is obviously antagonistic, Ministers will usually reject draft answers which are deliberately cagey.
In general, it is best to aim for accuracy and brevity in both the draft reply and the background note. And if the reply is likely to fill more than two columns of Hansard, you might suggest that the answer is that “I will write to the Hon. member and will place a copy of my letter in the Library”.
On the other hand, Parliament is a political arena and indeed some Parliamentary "questions" - and especially Oral Questions - in substance amount to little more than political point-scoring. Therefore, as noted above, it is perfectly proper for a civil servant to prepare a draft letter, Statement or Parliamentary Answer which praises the Government’s policies, and it is perfectly proper for our drafts to omit facts and arguments which might cast doubt on the appropriateness of those policies. But even in these circumstances, any factual element to the answer has to be accurate and the answer, when read as a whole, must not mislead the reader.
The more pedantic of my colleagues will wish me to point out that Oral Questions are actually written, in the sense that they appear on the Order Paper and are not repeated before the Minister rises to reply to them on the floor of the House. But the answers are oral, as are supplementary questions and their answers. There are therefore two stages to preparing answers to Oral Questions. First there is the easy bit, drafting a short answer to the Question as tabled. Second, and much harder, you have to anticipate what lies behind the Question by suggesting key points to make and answers to possible supplementaries.
Prime Minister’s Questions are almost always open questions about the PM’s engagements, so allowing the questioner to ask supplementaries about any issue which is causing controversy. You should therefore offer briefing (via Parliamentary Branch) if your subject has become news-worthy, providing only one or two key points to make, so that the PM can forcefully and succinctly deal with any attack. Do not provide politicised material. This will be done by your Special Adviser and staff in Number 10. And you should provide only as much defensive material as is necessary to keep the PM from making a serious mistake.
In dealing with all PQs, you should remember that the Ministerial Code makes it very clear that Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament or the public, and should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, withholding information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest, which should be decided in accordance with any relevant statute law and current Open Government law and practice. Ministers also have a duty to give Parliament and the public as full information as possible about the policies, decisions and actions of the Government. It is our responsibility to help Ministers fulfil these obligations, and information should never be omitted from a draft reply simply because its disclosure could lead to political embarrassment or administrative inconvenience. But of course potential problems should be high-lighted when the draft reply is submitted to the Minister.
It is different, of course, if the requested information is classified, or has been given in personal or business confidence. Ministers should be advised to refuse to answer any question which calls for such information, on the grounds of commercial confidentiality or whatever. An MP will sometimes, inadvertently or deliberately, show interest in an issue, the full exposure of which would be seriously damaging to the nation or to one or more individuals or businesses. In these circumstances it is sometimes possible for a Minister to meet the MP in question and explain the need for discretion - for the time being at least. If necessary, there can be consultation on "Privy Council terms" between a Cabinet Minister and a senior member of the Opposition.
It can be interesting to debate whether honesty is required in certain hypothetical situations. But these circumstances are very unlikely to apply to any of us at any time in our career. In short, therefore, Ministers must always be given answers which are neither dishonest nor misleading. It is not clever to do something else: it is unprofessional and wrong.