Any suggestion our civil service is not impartial should be jumped on

Garry Graham · 8 November 2019

As the third general election in four years kicks off in earnest, guidance for civil servants on their duties during this period has been published. The guidance sets out the general principles by which the civil service should abide, and with which civil servants should comply, with an emphasis on impartiality.

For example:

· The government and ministers remain the government and remain in charge of their relevant departments. But policy or spending decisions about which an incoming government might disagree should be avoided.

· Civil servants should not to undertake any activity that could call into question their political impartiality.

· Departmental and non-departmental body activity should not be seen to compete with the election campaign for public attention.

· Ministers must not use government resources for party political purposes.

The principle of impartiality is one of the cornerstones of our democracy and one which our superb civil service executes with pride. It is however important to remember that the principle also applies outside election time, and once a government of whatever flavour is formed it is a principle that becomes a two-way street. Minsters, whoever they may be, must recognise the impartiality of their civil servants, defend it, and must not put civil servants in a situation where that impartiality is put at risk.

Politicians from all parties need to remember that civil servants are there to deliver a programme for government and not to deliver politics. This applies during the discourse of the election when in the heat of argument, as has happened all too often recently, senior politicians may be tempted to impugn the integrity or motives of the civil service or specific civil servants. This is entirely unacceptable.

This last parliament has seen unprecedented attacks on the civil service by politicians from across the spectrum. For example, there have been allegations that the civil service is institutionally biased against one party, and suggestions that it is trying to frustrate Brexit. We have seen more attacks on the civil service, and by extension on the nature of our democracy, in this parliament than I can remember in my 30 years working in the area. The civil service is an institution our politicians rely on and should respect. It is the party leaders’ responsibility to stop these unwarranted attacks on the civil service and on civil servants who have no means of recourse. If they don’t they will undermine the very foundations of our democracy and I will personally hold them to account for it.

Whoever wins on 12 December, if someone wins, will inherit a civil service that has never been so relied upon, nor so stretched, in peacetime. A civil service that is keeping the country going at the same time as preparing us for all possible manners of Brexit. All this at a time civil servants have seen private sector pay going up significantly while they are still subject to below-inflation pay restraint, and have been for a decade. Despite this our members will still deliver their programme for government, without fear or favour, because that is what the greatest civil service in the world does, and has done for more than a century. They deserve a proper pay rise and they deserve proper respect.

What’s more if, as is entirely possible, there is no clear winner it is the civil service that will keep the country running while politicians horse-trade their way into Number 10. It is civil servants who will provide guidance to all sides on the policy and practicalities of forming a coalition. All sides will receive this guidance safe in the knowledge that it is uncoloured by bias of any sort.

This is the reality of our civil service. Any suggestion that it is less than impartial should be jumped on and decried for the calumny it is. This is the responsibility of all of us, but as a civil service union Prospect will be out there loudest of all, defending our members to the full.

Garry Graham is the deputy general secretary at Prospect Union.