The decision taken by the head of the civil service to deny pro Brexit ministers access to documentation relating to the European Union has caused consternation. It is deeply worrying, and a further politicisation of the Whitehall bureaucracy.
Jeremy Heywood, with the agreement of Downing Street, has told civil servants not to provide advice to Eurosceptic ministers who desire material for speeches or briefings relating to EU issues. Secretaries of State will basically now be unaccountable for the actions taken by their departments in these areas. This severs the fundamental relationship between a minister and the civil servants who operate in their department. In contrast to this, in the 1975 referendum on continued membership of the European Economic Community, ministers were able to ask civil servants for advice.
Heywood’s directive has deeply unsettled many at Westminster. Priti Patel, the Minister of State for Employment, has described it as an ‘unconstitutional act’, and stated that ‘for an unelected official to prevent ministers bring aware of the information they need for their duties is wrong’.
These concerns are shared widely on the Eurosceptic side. Ian Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has already told civil servants in his department to ignore Heywood’s decision. He has urged other Eurosceptic ministers to take the same approach. Again, this point was made in terms of constitutionality – a source close to Smith stated that ‘he has asserted his constitutional right to see everything produced in his department – including things related to the EU’.
Although Heywood denied the accusation of committing an unconstitutional act in his appearance before the public accounts committee, the atmosphere of the EU debate has been poisoned further. In an emergency debate in the Commons, accusations of impropriety rained down on the Government benches from both Labour and Conservative members. Matthew Hancock attempted to assuage concerns from the House, though his attempts were in vain.
The Prime Minister has made a substantial error of judgement in this case. It will further divide members of the Conservative Party, instead of healing the wounds which emerge when the issue of Europe raises its ugly head. It seems like a spur of the moment decision, borne more out of fear of losing the referendum than a willingness to fully debate the crucial issues at stake.
The decision by Heywood flies in the face of the Prime Minister’s assertion that ministers would be completely free to campaign on this issue. It unfortunately, though not unsurprisingly, suggests that Downing Street is trying its hardest to prevent Eurosceptic ministers from exercising this freedom.