Whitehall revolt over union laws

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THE CABINET Secretary is warning ministers that they must not use civil servants for party political purposes - just as officials are embroiled in a row with the Tories over new anti-union measures.

Sir Robin Butler, the country's most senior civil servant, has issued a draft of his pre-election advice to ministers stressing that "civil servants should not be asked to engage in activity likely to call into question their political impartiality".

His warning shot coincides with a civil servants' revolt dispute at the Department of Trade and Industry, where officials challenged instructions to work on the Tories' latest ideas for controlling unions.

Officials were suspicious that the work related to announcements at the Conservative Party conference or in the Tory election manifesto, rather than possible legislation. One request came from Greg Clark, political adviser to Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade. Political advisers act as conduits to the party machinery. Civil servants have resumed work after a ruling by the Permanent Secretary, the department's top official.

Concern on this issue is not new. Last July there were heated exchanges in the Commons after a survey by the First Division Association, the union for top civil servants, found that 20 civil servantscomplained of party political work. They had been told to prepare material for election manifestos, alter official reports, and supply information for party political broadcasts.

Sir Robin's draft memo warns the Government not to undertake new policy work which an incoming Labour administration would want to unpick. It also suggests a freeze on appointments to quangos, and careful consideration of international negotiations, including those on European directives. The document, dated 5 September, is a draft of guidelines issued before each election, but updated to take account of changing circumstances. Sir Robin invites comments on the document which will be sent out when an election is formally called.

His draft argues: "It is customary for ministers to observe discretion when initiating any new action of a continuing and long-term character. For example, decisions on matters of policy on which a new government might be expected to want you to take a different view from the present government should be postponed until after the election." Sir Robin also warns against any action which will give rise to the criticism that "public funds are being used for party political purposes".

However he gives ministers a get-out, arguing that exceptions might be made if the national interest is jeopardised or if delays would waste public money. He also argues that: "By convention the government of the day is expected to vindicate its policy and to ensure that statements made on its part are factually accurate and consistent with government policies."

The draft memo will concentrate minds on political proprieties in the feverish pre-election atmosphere. Because of the prolonged run-up to the election, which John Major said will not be held until next year, some politicians see the need to scrutinise tasks officials are asked to undertake.

Yesterday Derek Foster, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said the document illustrated that policy changes in the pipeline "ought to be dealt with from the point of view of a wide consensus".

He added: "I think there is a strong argument that the Government has been irresponsible with the civil service, imposing upon them changes, a result of which is demoralisation among civil servants."

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office refused to comment on the contents of the leaked document, or how it differs from previous versions. She said: "Formal guidance goes out when the election is called. Because we know there will be an election next year, work is going on revising the 1992 guidance."