Speaking Truth - Ministers' & Officials' Duties

Speaking Truth to Power is a phrase that is particularly associated with the UK civil service, perhaps because even the most senior UK civil servants may not demonstrate any political allegiance; they are expected to serve all governments, of whatever party, to the best of their ability.  This is a unique constitutional structure, and may help to justify the intense stress that is placed in the Civil Service Code on the absolute need to always speak truth to Ministers.

Possibly the earliest formulation of the duty was contained in Queen Elizabeth 1st's instruction to William Cecil:

"This judgment I have of you: that you will not be corrupted with any manner of gift, and that you will be faithful to the state, and that, without respect to my private will, you will give me that council that you think best."

(Historians record, however, that - as she got older and more confident in her own opinions - she often got very angry with courtiers who argued with her. Alison Weir says that 'She did not feel bound to take her councillors' advice, and frequently shouted at them or banned them temporarily from court if they disagreed with her. Many were prepared to risk this minor punishment for the sake of putting their views across.')

Robert Harvey records a lively 1793 argument between the Master-General of the Ordnance and Prime Minister William Pitt who wanted to send an expedition to seize Dunkirk. The army was unprepared and already overstretched.:

"I stated to Mr Pitt that I thought he was going far too fast in his calculations ... that very proper [as] his schemes and ideas were they were much too vast to be executed within anything like the time he talked of ... I told him that he would find himself mistaken and he said that I should find that he was not, and so we parted in great good humour.`'

The expedition was, of course, a complete disaster, incurring 10,000 casualties.

Civil Servants

Here is the latest version of 'the rules':-

In carrying out their responsibilities, the Civil Service Act and Civil Service Code say that officials:

… must: set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully, and correct any errors as soon as possible;
… must: provide information and advice, including advice to Ministers, on the basis of the evidence, and accurately present the options and facts; take decisions on the merits of the case; and take due account of expert and professional advice.

must not: deceive or knowingly mislead Ministers, Parliament or others; and
… must not: ignore inconvenient facts or relevant considerations when providing advice or making decisions; or frustrate the implementation of policies once decisions are taken by declining to take, or abstaining from, action which flows from those decisions.

It follows from the above that Civil Servants must refuse to take part in any activity that involves telling lies to anyone, or involves misrepresentation to Parliament.  Officials may not for instance transmit to Parliament an answer to a Parliamentary Question which they know to be inaccurate or misleading. But they are not under any obligation to correct a Minister’s misrepresentation, whether deliberate or otherwise.  (There may be exceptions to these rules if national security is threatened, but these are never of concern to the vast majority of civil servants.)      

The Armstrong Memorandum is another important document. For our purposes, the most important parts read as follows (emphasis added):

Ministers’ Duties

Ministers owe these three important duties to their civil servants:

First, Ministers may not ask civil servants to do things which are illegal or improper (such as spending public money without proper approval). 

Second, they must consider officials’ advice, even if they do not take it. They cannot therefore take a policy decision without first giving officials an opportunity to advise them on the suitability of their proposed course of action. The Ministerial Code says that ‘Ministers have a duty to give fair consideration and due weight to informed and impartial advice from civil servants’.

Third, Ministers may not ask officials to hide things from interested officials and Cabinet Ministers in their own or other departments, nor may they ask them to help circumvent collective discussion, e.g. by announcing a ‘decision’ whilst a Cabinet colleague remains opposed to it.

It is of course sometimes sensible to work up a proposal before showing it to colleagues. But officials may not collude in a ‘bounce’ and if they feel that colleagues in another department would expect to be told about a proposal, then they must tell them. Civil servants may therefore not support freelancing – actions of individual Ministers or small groups that do not have the sanction of the government as a whole. But officials may support the Prime Minister if (s)he wishes to establish a small secret group to focus on a sensitive issue.

But what if Ministers do not accept your no doubt excellent advice? The answer is here.

Martin Stanley

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