Whitehall `too cosy' with its masters of 15 years

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The Independent Online
From the admission in the 1987 Spycatcher case that Sir Robert Armstrong, then Cabinet Secretary, had been "economical with the truth" to the civil servants who last year drafted 80 amendments to enable backbench Tories to wreck a Labour MP's Priv ate Member's Bill on the disabled,there have been growing allegations that standards in ministerial and civil service life are in decline.

After 15 years of one-party rule, according to Elizabeth Symons, general secretary of the First Division Association, the top Whitehall union, civil servants may have become politicised. Not in the sense of supporting the Government, "but of becoming toocosy in their relationships with ministers, or trying to anticipate their policies. The worry is that they will not be as party politically neutral as they ought to be."

Examples cited to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee included Sir Duncan Nichol, the NHS chief executive, vigorously defending government policy on the NHS and attacking Labour's before the 1992 election.

During the Scott arms to Iraq inquiry, civil servants admitted drafting replies for ministers that were misleading and in parts "clearly wrong".

William Plowden, a former member of the Central Policy Review Staff, told the committee a "growing number" of ministers were reluctant "to entertain unfavourable advice". In consequence there was "a reluctance by officials to tender it". And on four occasions last year year civil servants were told offensively to "go away" because their advice was not wanted, Ms Symons told the committee.

There have been cases of junior ministers asking civil servants to draft political speeches for constituency meetings - a clear breach of the rules. At the Department of the Environment, a career civil servant produced a brief for a minister's political adviser on how MPs and party organisations could criticise Shelter's attack on the Government's homelessness policy. And Ros Hepplewhite, the former head of the Child Support Agency, declared she had always supported Government policy on the agency, a statement, critics say, just as wrong for a civil servant as saying that she opposed it.

Civil servants who believe they are being asked to act unethically can appeal to Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service. But the procedure has been used once in nine years. Sir Robin has argued that shows there is not a problem. Ms Symons told the committee civil servants were reluctant to appeal "because they think they will be singled out and pilloried by ministers".