from Sunday Herald, 5 April 2015
The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has rejected a bid by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to prevent civil servants in Scotland from talking to the media without getting permission from ministers, the Sunday Herald can reveal.
But unions say that tens of thousands of people employed by UK government agencies north of the border will still be “gagged”. Pressure on Westminster to reverse its new curb on freedom of speech is now mounting.
On 16 March, the retiring Conservative Cabinet Secretary, Francis Maud, made a surprise change to the civil service code requiring nearly half a million government employees across the UK to “ensure you have ministerial authorisation for any contact with the media”.
The change was greeted with outrage by trade unions, scientists and human rights campaigners, who accused Maude of trying to intimidate civil servants into silence. According to the senior civil service union, the FDA, the move was “unnecessary, unworkable and unjustified”.
Leading scientists also wrote to Maude warning that the new requirement could prevent thousands of publicly-funded experts from talking about a huge range of vital issues, including climate pollution, fracking, GM crops, pesticides, vaccines and infectious diseases.
The Sunday Herald understands that Sturgeon was consulted by Maude on the change, and rejected it as unnecessary. But she was then told that Cameron was insisting on it going ahead anyway, though it was up to her how she wished to implement it.
“The First Minister was asked for views on the changes to the civil service code and made it known that the Scottish Government did not believe these changes were proportionate or necessary,” said a Scottish Government spokeswoman.
“Further consideration will be given to how this will be implemented for Scottish Government staff, including liaison with trade unions. Final decisions on this rest with the Scottish Government.”
Sturgeon’s opposition has been welcomed by trade unions, but they point out that it may not help the large number of Scotland’s civil servants employed by UK agencies. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) for example, has 28,000 members in Scotland, but only 7,500 of them are under the direct control of Scottish ministers.
PCS political officer in Scotland, Joy Dunn, accused Maude of having a “very narrow view” of how the civil service works. “PCS is in discussion with Scottish ministers and officials to maintain the status quo and past practice which worked properly in government,” she said.
“However, over 20,000 of our members will still be subject to this draconian gagging policy, which needs to be overturned.” They work for HM Revenue & Customs, the Ministry of Justice, the Health and Safety Executive and many other research and other bodies.
Prospect, the trade union for professionals and engineers, told Maude that the new guidance would prevent civil servants from doing their jobs. “However he went ahead with this blanket ban – presumably for other reasons,” said Prospect’s deputy general secretary, Leslie Manasseh.
“We are now facing anger and confusion from members and management alike about how to make sense of such poor ministerial decision-making.”
The Green MSP, Alison Johnstone, thought the gag was unfair. “It suggests coalition ministers are trying to suppress freedom of speech among employees,” she said.
“Clearly public sector workers have a duty to their employer but that shouldn't require the sort of micro-management this ruling imposes. What exactly are ministers afraid of?”
The change was defended, however, by Westminster. “The new provision in the civil service code clarifies an existing requirement that civil servants must clear material for publication in advance,” said a Cabinet Office spokeswoman in London. “It brings the obligations on civil servants to obtain ministerial clearance in line with the existing obligations on special advisers.”