Civil Servants Speaking Out
A key feature of the UK unwritten constitution is that even the most senior officials - those working the most closely with Ministers - must not show any political allegiance. Individual civil servants may not therefore publicly defend the decisions and views of their Ministers, for that would imply they agreed with them, which could clearly cause problems if the official were subsequently asked to work for a Minister with different views. It is even more obvious, one would think, that civil servants may not criticise Ministers' policies or performance. But these rules have been breached a number of times in recent years. The rest of this note lists some examples and offers some discussion and explanations.
The following are some recent examples of (current and former) civil and other public servants commenting publicly on Ministerial decisions etc.
- A Director-General in the Lord Chancellor's Department wrote to the Financial Times in January 2003 defending the transparency of the system for making judicial appointments.
- The Chief of the Defence Staff wrote an article in The Times on 22 July 2004 expressing his personal support for the Defence Secretary's statement, the previous day, which announced big cuts in the numbers of soldiers, ships etc.
- The Chief Scientific Adviser announced, at a September 2005 meeting of climate change specialists, what he called a "reasonable" target for stabilising carbon dioxide levels, and said that it would be "politically unrealistic" to demand anything lower, and that if he recommended a lower limit he would lose credibility with the government. He went on to suggest that nuclear power was likely to be the answer to climate change. One commentator said that he feared that the government's chief scientist was mutating into its chief spin doctor!
- The Head of the Prison Service gave an interview to the Guardian on 26 October 2005 in which he said that "the fundamental problem is that we lock up too many. We have to reduce the prison population." Although these comments were made only shortly before he retired, they were clearly at odds with the policies of the then Home Secretary.
- The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, told a Commons committee, on 24 November 2005, that he had considered resigning over the government's refusal to back his call for a full ban on smoking in public places. It was interesting, however, to note that he did not repeat his call - in public at least - and the Government then implemented such a ban in 2007. Sir Liam later went on to call for a minimum price for alcohol, a policy which has yet to be adopted by Government.
- A former ambassador to the United States (Sir Christopher Meyer) published a book in November 2005 ("DC Confidential") in which he criticised Prime Minister Tony Blair for failing to use his leverage in Washington to delay the Iraq war, and said that many British Ministers who had visited the US capital were "political pygmies".
- The army's Chief of General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, told the Daily Mail, in October 2006, that British Forces' presence in Iraq exacerbated the security situation, having "effectively kicked the door in" when they invaded Iraq in 2006, and they should leave Iraq "some time soon". Although these remarks (somewhat qualified by the General over the next day or two) could be interpreted as being consistent with Government policy, they caused a stir at the time and former Home Secretary David Blunkett criticised Gen. Dannatt for "interfering" in politics, saying it was a "constitutional" issue. General Dannatt was also subsequently critical of the Government's treatment and equipment of front-line soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was therefore perhaps no great surprise when his later expected promotion to Chief of the Defence Staff did not take place, although there was greater surprise when the Conservative Opposition announced, shortly after the General's retirement in 2009, that he was likely to become a Minister in any future Conservative Government. This did appear to be final proof that General Dannatt had failed in his professional duty to avoid showing political allegiance whilst in office.
- Ex-Treasury Permanent Secretary, and ex-Head of the Civil Service, Lord (Andrew) Turnbull told the Financial Times, in March 2007, that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown operated with "stalinist ruthlessness", used denial of information as an instrument of power, held his colleagues in contempt, and had a Macavity-like ability to evade responsibility for problems that he had caused. Whatever one's view of the Chancellor's effectiveness, none of these descriptions of the Chancellor were new or surprising, and most commentators said that they thought they were essentially true. It is less clear whether Lord Turnbull meant them as criticisms, for many would argue that Gordon Brown was a successful Chancellor because of those qualities. It is also not clear whether Lord Turnbull meant his comments to be published. He was talking to a journalist he had known for 20 years and may well have forgotten the basic rule that newsworthy comments are never definitely "off the record". Lord Turnbull appears to have regretted his comments as soon as he saw them in print. Refusing an opportunity of further interviews, he told the BBC that he thought he had "done enough damage already".
- Professor Adrian Smith, Director General of Science and Research in the Department for Business, Universities and Science, hit the headlines in February 2009 when he criticised the new school diplomas - such as the new Science Diploma - as "schizophrenic", claiming they fell between the twin aims of pushing the brightest and aiding weaker students. Ministers were understood to believe the diplomas could replace GCSEs and A-levels altogether but Professor Smith said the government should first aim to get GCSEs and A-levels right and that there was a lack of joined-up thinking. His comments were immediately seized upon by Opposition MPs. The Conservative shadow science minister, said: "It is extraordinary that such a senior civil servant should launch such a blistering attack on the Government's failure on science". The Liberal Democrat schools spokesman said: "This is a damning criticism of the Government's education policy. Ministers cannot simply ignore these comments from someone working at such a senior level in their own department. ... The fact that such a senior civil servant believes that ministers are exaggerating improvements will shatter confidence in the Government's entire education strategy." Professor Smith subsequently told Ministers that he deeply regretted what he had said, and wrote personal letters of apology to two Secretaries of State.
- A somewhat different example occurred in January 2009 when, writing in an academic journal, Professor David Nutt, Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said that taking ecstasy was no worse than the risks associated with "equasy" (short for Equine Addiction Syndrome), a term he invented to describe people's addiction to horse-riding which causes 10 deaths and more than 100 road traffic accidents a year. This caused a fuss which was tolerated by Ministers. But then, in October 2009, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published a lecture by Professor Nutt accompanied by a press release which said that "Professor Nutt argues strongly in favour of an evidence-based approach to drugs classification policy and criticises the `precautionary principle', used by the former Home Secretary Jackie Smith to justify her decision to reclassify cannabis from a class C to a class B drug". The press release also quoted the Centre's Director as saying that "Professor Nutt's briefing gives us an insight into what drugs policy might look like if it was based on the research evidence, rather than political posturing and moralistic positioning". This was a step too far for the Home Secretary who promptly sacked the professor even though he was not a civil or public servant. Indeed, he was unpaid. Home Secretary Alan Johnson nevertheless took the view that Professor Nutt had gone beyond giving advice and had begun to campaign on an essentially political issue. In a letter to The Guardian he noted that "There are not many kids in my constituency in danger of falling off a horse - there are thousands at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction".
The first point to be made is that all the people mentioned above either are or were very senior public servants etc. who might be expected to have strong views which would not always be consistent with Government policy. Indeed, I am pretty certain that many of the critical views summarised above (such as on the Iraq war, education, alcohol and drugs) would be shared by many Ministers and other politicians in all the main parties. Anyone not familiar with the subtlety of the UK unwritten constitution might well regard the comments listed above as legitimate and grown-up contributions to important debates by those who might be expected to have relevant views.
The fundamental difficulty, however, is that UK Civil Servants - like doctors and lawyers - are simply not allowed to criticise or breach the confidence of their clients or patients - even years later. Sir Christopher Meyer's book and Lord Turnbull's comments are particularly noticeable and damaging breaches of this ethical rule. But even thoughtful and intelligent contributions - from the likes of General Dannatt, Professor Smith and Professor Nutt - can cause enormous political problems for Ministers, even if they secretly agree with the comments. As Sir William Harcourt said two centuries ago: "The Minister exists to tell the Civil Servant what the Public will not stand".
It is therefore no coincidence that the majority of the above people were not professional civil servants brought up, so to speak, within the main Whitehall civil service. They were all different sorts of professional experts, and presumably felt that they had a degree of independence from Ministers - a sort of licence to speak their mind. They may have felt, too, that the old rules were breaking down as Ministers gradually achieve their objective of having 30% of the senior civil service recruited 'from outside' and increasingly look to recruit those willing to take more risks than their supposedly fuddy-duddy ex-Whitehall colleagues.
Labour Ministers, too, may initially have been quite relaxed but perhaps became more concerned as the years went by. It is interesting that the first three of the above examples were of officials openly agreeing with Government policies, presumably to quiet applause from their masters. But the mood changed as the Labour Government became less popular and more sensitive to criticism. Following the Meyer book, the Government announced, in March 2006, that it would in future ask those officials working in sensitive areas, and those who have regular contact with Ministers, to sign away to the government any copyright in any future memoirs.
Scientific advisers appear to have rather more licence than their civil service colleagues. The Chief Medical Adviser ('5' above) seems to have stayed on the right side of Ministers' invisible line, as did Professor Nutt ('10' above) before eventually straying over it. The outcome of the latter controversy was nevertheless very unfortunate and damaging for both sides as the Government lost a highly respected adviser, and also lost the respect of many in the science community. But Professor Nutt does not seem to regret allowing his name to be associated with clear criticisms of senior ministers' decisions, "political posturing" and "moralistic positioning". And there has been no sign either that the Home Secretary regrets his decision to sack his adviser, nor any sign that the British public will vote for politicians who take serious steps to curb alcohol or tobacco consumption - or horse riding - nor for politicians who appear to be 'soft on drugs'. (Follow this link to access a number of web pages which discuss Science and Risk.)
(This note does not deal with the related issue of senior regulators criticising government policies. It is interesting that this seldom happens. One reason may be that regulators generally do no more than apply statute law. In other words, they work within pre-ordained high level policies. Another is that there may be a form of unwritten agreement that Ministers do not criticise regulators' decisions, and vice versa. Please click here for more information about regulation.)
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