Butler tells MPs standards high despite scandals

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Indy Politics
SCANDALS such as those involving Matrix Churchill, the decision by Home Office officials to run a check on President Clinton, and the secret payment of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's legal fees do not indicate a lowering of standards and integrity among public servants, Sir Robin Butler, Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service, insisted yesterday.

Sir Robin was being questioned by the Commons Treasury and Civil Service Committee over standards in the civil service and what Lord Prior, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, called the 'cloistered familiarity between permanent secretaries and ministers' that had bred its own form of contempt.

Giles Radice, Labour MP for Durham North, pointed to the Matrix Churchill affair, Home Office checks on the then President- elect Bill Clinton at the request of journalists, and the use of taxpayer's money for Norman Lamont's legal fees towards the cost of evicting a tenant.

Sir Robin said that he understood why concerns came about. To some extent he shared them.

'When a single party has been in power for as long as the Conservative Party has there is scepticism about whether the civil service would be able to serve another government with equal commitment,' he said.

'I believe that it could and I think this is a matter which civil servants at all levels attach great importance to.' That was shown by discussions Sir Robin and his colleagues had had with Labour's shadow spokesmen.

But he continued: 'I have to say that in the particular cases you have mentioned I don't believe that they add up to a very conclusive body of evidence that anything is going wrong.'

Sir Robin went on to rule out the incorporation of civil service codes of behaviour into an Act of Parliament.

'It would have the disadvantage that when we did want to amend it we would then be in the position of all the time having to take amending legislation. That would be a great disadvantage . . . we would find ourselves in a very inflexible position,' he told committee members.

Sir Robin agreed with Mr Radice that the so-called Armstrong memorandum on civil service behaviour was subjective, but recourse was open to civil servants to complain to him if they were troubled over a matter of conscience or because they were asked to do something they believed was wrong.

Sir Robin also agreed with Mr Radice that he (Sir Robin) was the supreme judge of when a constitutional convention had been broken.

But he added: 'The way the world works, in practice, is that nobody is going lightly to flout something they know to be the established constitutional convention. In my view those safeguards do work.'

Sir Robin, who took up his post in 1988, said that he had had only one formal appeal on a matter of conscience from a civil servant. It concerned a supervisor's refusal to allow him to carry out scientific research.

There was no case for an outside body to whom civil servants could complain.

If it was the case that civil servants did not complain because the system was faulty, 'I honestly think that you, and I, would hear of that,' he said.