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, for it can make you seem quite unenthusiastic about your Minister's policies. It can be even harder 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.
And it can be tricky 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.
This comment by Minister Nick Harvey is sensible: 'One way that some submissions could be improved would be to ensure that those writing briefs stand back and think about putting their advice into a political context. Sometimes the advice strives so hard to be objective that it becomes unworldly. I was not looking for politically biased advice but I did want advice that was politically aware: political neutrality was fine, but political naivety was unhelpful.'
It is usual, of course, for incoming Ministers to suspect that you secretly support the Opposition. Barbara Hosking, in Exceeding My Brief, recounts a number of examples. (Barbara had been a Labour Councillor in Islington and had worked for the Labour Party in Transport House before working very closely effectively for both Labour's Harold Wilson and Conservative Ted Heath in 10 Downing Street.) She often quoted the example of an ex-Army Information Officer 'who was extremely right wing, anti-union, anti-Semitic, a horror. His Minister was [hard left] Tony Benn and he worked flat out for him.'
(The above rules do rather break down, though, under the intense pressure experienced by those working in No.10 Downing Street. Senior staff in the Prime Minister's office need to tread a fine line between serving the Prime Minister and remaining remote from the business of party leader. Private Secretaries, Press Secretaries and others inevitably have to take strong lines when communicating both inside and outside Whitehall so as to ensure that the PM's political priorities are firmly embedded in everything they say and do. This includes drafting speeches and press notices.
Robin Butler was quite candid, when briefing his biographer, about his deep involvement in writing speeches for Mrs Thatcher when he was her Principal Private Secretary. He even wrote in a personal capacity, offering her handling advice during the Westland crisis, after he had returned to the Treasury. But he didn't go so far as Charles Powell, another Private Secretary, who became far too closely associated with Mrs Thatcher and eventually could not (and did not want to) return to his civil service career.
On the other hand The Guardian once 'revealed' that Press Secretary and civil servant Bernard Ingham had advised Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that her first media priority was to "look after the Daily Mail"- despite (the Guardian said) neutrality rules that banned him from doing so. The Guardian was wrong. (Now) Sir Bernard gave perfectly sensible private advice and could have given similar advice to a Labour Minister - although possibly mentioning another paper.)
Click here for advice on how to behave in the weeks before General Elections and national referendums.
I was once asked whether there were any legal cases of other examples of civil servants' violation of political impartiality. Here is my reply:
You ask a interesting question. The short answer is that I am not aware of any post-war examples of senior UK civil servants being disciplined for undertaking political activities. The simple reason is that we are almost all concentrated in London and so any such activity would immediately be detected and stopped - so nobody does it, even if they wanted to. In addition, of course, almost all senior officials are perfectly happy being apolitical and have no wish to undertake political activities.
There have been examples of officials realising that they have developed such strong political views and/or such strong attachment to a politician boss that they cannot remain in an apolitical profession. Two that come to mind are Charles Powell who was very close to Margaret Thatcher, and Andrew Lansley who eventually became a prominent politician and Health Secretary.
And there have been quite a few fairly muted criticisms of officials who have appeared too free with their views on policy issues and/or over enthusiastic in their defence of government policies. They are listed here.
Middle-ranking and junior officials are allowed to undertake political activities, of course. It is only those who work closely with Ministers that need to appear to be apolitical.
But also see the rather special case of Paula Walters, discussed here.
And finally ...
... I quite like this Civil Service World summary of comments made in late 2019 by ex-Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell:
Using the example of rugby referee Nigel Owens, Lord O’Donnell made clear that “the job of the civil servant is to be impartial, but not neutral”, which is an important distinction. While a referee would not “take sides”, it is also “massively important that they are absolutely firm about the way the rules are conducted”. In a similar vein, while civil servants “are of course politically impartial,” they also “need to take sides on policy issues”. “Our job is to apply honesty and objectivity to come up with clear policy recommendations,” he added.
But why is this impartiality so important? According to Lord O’Donnell, there are seven key reasons:
- Impartiality allows for continuity across changes of administration.
- Impartiality is a bastion against confirmation bias.
- Impartiality builds mutual trust between civil servants and ministers, which is vital if they are to work effectively together.
- Impartiality enables the civil service to build long-terms relationships with businesses, trade unions, the monarchy, the judiciary and other institutions.
- Many civil servants operate in delivery bodies, so if their senior personnel were to change every time there's a change of administration, it would damage their effectiveness.
- Impartiality makes the civil service a much more attractive career.
- Impartiality leads to better decisions, as it ensures ministers are surrounded with people who are not necessarily yes men and women.