Whitehall wins a new code to uphold standards

Donald Macintyre
Sunday 20 September 2015 20:28

The Civil Service is to be given a code of ethics for the first time in what ministers see as the most important initiative on standards in public life since the setting up of the Nolan committee.

David Hunt, Public Services minister, will tomorrow publish a White Paper promising the code designed to protect the political independence and professional standards of Whitehall. He will also give civil servants a new right of appeal to an independent body if they are instructed by ministers to perform tasks which they believe are in conflict with the code.

Although the exact wording of the code will be a matter for consultation, the White Paper will make it clear it will be comprehensive, ranging from the need for civil servants to be politically impartial, to that of not accepting benefits from third parties which could compromise their integrity.

But the code will be especially welcome to officials because it is likely to reinforce the duty of ministers not to compromise the political neutrality of civil servants - while also insisting that officials give the best advice to ministers as well as fully carrying out the instructions of elected governments of whatever party.

The move amounts to a change of heart by the Government, which has always argued that sucn an initiative could undermine the trust between ministers and civil servants. But it will go some way to reinforcing John Major's argument that he is not opposed to constitutional changes if a case can be made for them.

In particular, the code will provide further protection for civil servants than that in the existing Civil Service Management Code, which says that "for all practical purposes" the civil servants' duties are "owed to the government of the day". That stipulation has been increasingly criticised because it could conflict with other duties - such as compliance with the law, professional codes in the case of doctors and lawyers, and of political neutrality.

The decision to drop opposition to the code follows Mr Major's series of open government initiatives, including the release of files, the details of Cabinet committee membership, and the publication of procedural advice given to ministers. But the code is the most far-reaching. It is also a vindication for the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, which in an all-party report in November unanimously endorsed the idea, and for the Association of First Division Civil Servants, which has l ong campaigned for a code.

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