Tough at the top
7 May 2012
The indignation of the media at handling by the State Services Commissioner of a complaint about the chief executive of the Department of Building and Housing is outdone this weekend by the Scottish media coverage of the Head of the Scottish Civil Service. He has been accused of being a lackey of the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party.
The essence of public service professionalism is impartiality – the ability to serve the Government regardless of the party in power. The Scottish Government permanent secretary has been accused of failing to uphold this principle in what The Scotsman describes as a “… rare public criticism of a leading mandarin by all three opposition parties…”
The issue relates to the local body elections last week (incidentally, in which the SNP did less well than anticipated by many). The Civil Service Head has a role to monitor ministers’ compliance with the Ministerial code. He rejected a complaint that a Minister breached guidelines when making a Government announcement in the first week of the three week election campaign. The announcement of funding, exempting many from local authority rates rises, was seen by Opposition MPs as Government interference to benefit its adherents in local government.
There was no adverse action taken by the permanent secretary on the basis that the public interest statement was made on the first available occasion.
This is seen as a partisan rationalisation by opposition parties, disregarding the responsibility for fairness in reviewing complaints under the code. “This is yet another decision that questions his impartiality. …(he) needs to be reminded that he works for the public, not for the SNP… The checks and balances that the permanent secretary is supposed to be providing in his role are being sorely missed and (he) seems content to cheer on (the First Minister) rather than scrutinise his conduct…”
The matter will be referred to the Head of the UK Civil Service. A previous complaint about a breach of impartiality standards was rejected in 2011 by (the then) Sir Gus O’Donnell. His decision was that comments made on the Scottish independence campaign, “should not be seen as inconsistent with the civil service code”.
There is a certain simplicity in media criticism. Decisions in these circumstances by the Scottish Civil Service Head, and similarly the UK Civil Service Head and the State Services Commissioner, will not have been made without advice from the respective Solicitors General. Actions will be based on that guidance about legal duties.
( The Head of the Scottish Civil Service is an Englishman, who only moved to Scotland two years ago on being appointed to that position. He is a UK civil servant and subordinate to the Head of the UK Civil Service.)