This note gives practical advice to UK civil servants who are required to be strictly impartial in the way in which they carry out their day-to-day duties, and who must in particular remain politically impartial. Further information about the constitutional position of UK civil servants may be found in the Westminster Model area of this website.
The Civil Service Code says this on impartiality:
You must: carry out your responsibilities in a way that is fair, just and equitable and reflects the Civil Service commitment to equality and diversity.
You must not: act in a way that unjustifiably favours or discriminates against particular individuals or interests.
Here is some practical advice to supplement the above instructions.
Equality of Treatment
The public expect both Ministers and their officials to deal equally with everyone, and with every organisation, without prejudice, favour or disfavour. This simple but vital concept has a number of useful consequences.
First, it enables you to ask appropriate questions, however grand the person or organisation with which you are dealing. For instance, an enquiry into the financial standing of a multinational can often be less rigorous than a similar enquiry of a small firm. But large firms and substantial charities can go bust (remember Kids Company), so you should never take anything for granted. Ask a carefully targeted question and then decide whether further questions are necessary. Take particular care if you have heard a critical rumour or comment. There can be smoke without fire, but the two are usually closely associated.
Second, it is your defence against the senior or public figure who might otherwise expect you to give them priority, or rubber stamp some sort of application. You must never allow queue-jumping, nor must you ever refrain from asking a pertinent question, whoever you are dealing with. (It is of course perfectly reasonable to ‘fast track’ some work for a senior person who has a genuine need for it to be done quickly. But you must be sure that you would do the same for anyone else with a similar need, and that they are not jumping ahead of someone whose needs are just as great, but who is less well connected.)
Incidentally, the vast majority of senior/public figures understand perfectly well that they have to receive the same treatment as everyone else. If they get stroppy then (a) they believe that everyone should be receiving better treatment (if they are right then you should improve the service to everyone), or (b) they are trying to hide something (never allow yourself to be bullied into dropping a potentially important line of questioning), or (c) they are simply pompous (in which case don’t favour them, but don’t set out to punish them either).
Third, it is your defence against anyone, including journalists, who might ask you to give them advice and information that you have not given to others. If possible, of course, you should be free with information But there are no circumstances in which you should give information or advice to one person that you would not give to anyone else that asked a similar question.
The Civil Service Code says the following on the need for political impartiality:
- serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of this Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are;
- act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government; and
- comply with any restrictions that have been laid down on your political activities.
You must not:
- act in a way that is determined by party political considerations, or
- use official resources for party political purposes; or
- allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions.
Let me add some detail:-
The civil service is required to be politically impartial, and able loyally and with equal commitment to serve Governments of all political persuasions. This means that:
- you may not publicly defend the decisions and views of your Ministers (as distinct from explaining them), including in the social and other media, or by writing to newspapers,
- you must even avoid saying or writing anything which could be quoted as demonstrating that you personally (or your colleagues) either agree or disagree with Ministers’ decisions,
- you may not disclose the advice that you have given to Ministers,
but on the other hand:
- you must explain and implement your Minister’s policies with real commitment, whatever your personal views.
It can be very hard to follow the above advice, especially when a Minister or Special Adviser does not share your view of the borderline between ‘explaining’ a policy and ‘defending’ it. It is even more difficult if you strongly support – or strongly object to – decisions that have been made, or might be made, by Ministers. It is not always possible to hide those views from colleagues, and it is sometimes difficult to hide them from those outside the Government with whom you come into frequent contact. But it is absolutely essential that you give no sign that you oppose the principles and underlying thrust of the Government’s policies, nor must you suggest that you do not respect your Minister.
It can be even more difficult to follow the above advice where minor decisions are concerned. (‘Of course I will try to get him to open your conference. It’s an important occasion’). But you will learn from bitter experience that the advice is sensible, for it is embarrassing all round when the Minister refuses to do what you suggest. There is, I am afraid, no alternative to sounding rather pathetic and merely promising that the case will be put to the Minister, adding that you cannot predict the result. Quite simply, it should never be possible for anyone to be able to criticise Ministers for failing to take your advice. And it is even more important that incoming Ministers should be unaware of the extent or otherwise of your personal support for their predecessors’ policies.
Equally, you may not be asked to engage in activities which call into question your political impartiality, or which give rise to criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes. You may not, of course, engage in political activities. And you may not help draft ‘Dear Colleague’ letters unless they are to be sent to all MPs. You are, however, allowed to provide Ministers with facts which might be used in political speeches etc., and you are allowed to check Ministers’ political speeches for factual accuracy. You are also allowed to comment on the analysis, costings and proposals contained in documents produced by political organisations, including the Opposition, but you must not draft Ministers’ responses to such documents.
You may not brief an MP (including from the Government party) or agree that an MP may visit a Government office etc. without Ministerial approval. Ministers will usually agree to factual or uncontroversial briefings and visits, but they sometimes want to get involved themselves, in which case any meeting or visit has to be arranged at a time convenient for both the Minister and the MP.
For the avoidance of doubt, however, you are expected to take politics into account when giving private advice to Ministers, and you are expected to help Ministers defend their policies, once they have made their decisions, even if you don't agree with them.
Click here for advice on how to behave in the weeks before General Elections and national referendums.