by Chris Lamb
Last week it was reported that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood had introduced new guidance for civil servants to withhold official papers appertaining to the EU from government ministers supporting the campaign for the UK to exit from the European Union.
This intervention has now blown up into a full scale row with the Cabinet Secretary being accused of conspiring with Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a ‘constitutional coup’ to undermine the authority of ministers backing Brexit.
This row over civil service impartiality under Heywood’s regime lends a considerable boost to the demand that any role which Heywood played, currently obscured in secrecy, in the setting up of the Iraq Inquiry should be made transparent and opened to accountability. It strengthens the objective of my freedom of information request for the Downing Street official advice to Gordon Brown on the selection of the Chilcot panel and the setting of the Inquiry’s remit to be disclosed.
Heywood has been summoned to appear before the House of Commons Public Administration Committee to explain his actions. According to reports in the Sunday Times, the committee chairman Bernard Jenkin- who supports exiting the EU- stated that the committee
will be raising concerns about civil service impartiality and the ability of ministers to carry on the business of government and the accountability of departments to government.
He continued that ‘the rules (introduced by Heywood) have ‘left ministers blindsided by their own departments’ and that;
This cannot be right and we want an explanation. It is vital that the impartiality of the civil service is not compromised or that there is any suspicion that that the prime minister is pressurizing the civil service.
The Sunday Times reports that Heywood’s guidance to ban official papers from Brexit ministers has a wider impact than originally thought. It was supposed to apply to documents directly related to the forthcoming referendum, but civil servants are apparently also stopping ministers from seeing correspondence addressed to them if it mentions the EU at all. Officials in the departments with senior ministers supporting Brexit have been ordered to send government statistics bolstering the case for staying in the EU direct to the Cabinet Office without getting them signed off by the Secretaries of State concerned. This is potentially in breach of ministerial legal responsibility for their departments.
The six Cabinet ministers backing Brexit are, according to the Sunday Times report, set to demand from Sir Jeremy Heywood a written clarification of his guidance complaining that the ban on them seeing official papers has ‘paralyzed’ the government.
David Davis, the prominent Conservative backbench MP and government critic, has accused the government, through this guidance, of ‘trying to rig the system in its favour’ and describes the impact of the ban as ‘a constitutional offence’ and ‘abuse of power’. The Sunday Times quotes a civil servant source stating that ‘it is outrageous that Jeremy Heywood is willing to threaten the impartiality of the civil service like this’.