Civil Service code aims to plug leaks

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Sunday 04 October 2015 23:59

Sir Robin Butler, head of the Civil Service, refused to say yesterday how many civil servants had been caught and sacked for leaking secret papers, as the Government published new rules for the ethical conduct of civil servants and ministers.

He said he could not deny the perception that the Civil Service was "leaky", but that this was unfair, as leaks represented only a "very, very tiny fraction of the confidential papers that are circulating in government at any one time".

He said detecting leakers was difficult and the penalty was almost always dismissal, but he would not give details of how many cases had reached this point.

Sir Robin was speaking at the publication of a code which says civil servants "should not seek to frustrate or influence the policies, decisions or actions of government" by unauthorised disclosure of information.

The code, published by the Civil Service Minister, Roger Freeman, also enacts some of the Nolan committee recommendations giving civil servants the right for the first time to appeal to an independent arbiter if faced with a "fundamental issue of confidence".

But the code asserts that, while they are servants of the Crown, in effect "civil servants owe their loyalty to the duly constituted government". This was rejected by the jury in the Clive Ponting case in 1985, which decided that Mr Ponting, a Ministry of Defence official who believed the Government was misleading Parliament about the sinking of the Belgrano, could appeal to the overriding public interest.

The new code was immediately attacked by the First Division Association of top civil servants for not going far enough, because it fails to clarify the division of responsibility between ministers and their officials, especially in executive agencies such as the Prison Service.

The FDA, which represents Derek Lewis, the sacked head of the Prison Service, wants civil servants to be able to refuse to answer questions asked by MPs, and to say "that is a matter for the minister". At present, said an FDA spokesman, "civil servants give evidence to select committees under instruction from ministers, but ministers then say their answers are nothing to do with them".

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