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EU Referendum: Civil Service Guidance

– in the House of Commons at 4:13 pm on 29th February 2016.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 4:13 pm, 29th February 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement about the instructions issued by the Cabinet Secretary to permanent secretaries in respect of EU referendum guidance for the civil service and special advisers.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

The referendum on 23 June on the European Union represents the biggest constitutional decision for the nation in a generation. The Government’s position is clear: Britain will be stronger, safer and better off remaining in a reformed European Union. Today’s Government document setting out the process of leaving underlines that case, showing that a vote to leave could lead to up to a decade or more of damaging uncertainty, with real consequences putting jobs and investment at risk. I concur with that assessment.

Because of the significance of the referendum, as the House knows the Prime Minister took the decision to allow collective responsibility to be suspended on the referendum question. This approach was discussed and agreed by the Cabinet on 20 February. The process is clear: Ministers may depart from the Government position in a personal capacity on the specific question of the referendum. On all other matters, including on other EU business, the Government will operate as normal, and in all things the civil servants support the Government position.

Guidance on how this will work in practice was set out and published by the Cabinet Secretary last week. The guidance is clear. Other than on the specific question of the referendum, all Ministers can commission and see all documents, as normal. On the question of the referendum—and on this question alone—Ministers who disagree with the Government position naturally cannot commission policy work on the in/out question or see documents setting out details of the case to remain. All Ministers can ask for factual briefing, and for facts to be checked in any matter. All Ministers can see documents on EU issues not related to the referendum question, as normal.

The guidance is clear and has been published. The process was agreed at Cabinet as the best way to manage the unusual situation of Ministers who disagree with the Government remaining in post. I hope that this clarity will allow Members on both sides of the House to focus on the main debate about whether Britain will be better served by leaving or remaining in a reformed European Union and then let the people decide.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Clarity on this issue is one thing that we do not have. Nobody objects to the Government making their case in the referendum, but most people expect the civil service to be impartial in carrying out its support for Ministers. It is established in law that Ministers are accountable for their Departments. Voters expect Government facts and figures to be impartial and accurate, whether they are used by Ministers who support remain or leave.

Why does the Cabinet Secretary’s letter go far beyond the limits that were placed on dissenting Ministers in the 1975 referendum? Sir Peter Thornton, the permanent secretary of the then Secretary of State for Trade, Peter Shore, was quoted as saying:

“It was jolly difficult putting forward anti-Common Market briefs to Mr. Shore, but I hope we did what he asked”.

What a different atmosphere from today!

Worse than that, a Q and A briefing that has been circulated following the letter states that Ministers may not see any papers that

“have a bearing on the referendum question or are intended to be used in support of their position on the referendum”.

That has been described by one Minister, the Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend Priti Patel, as “unconstitutional”. How can such a wide ban be justified?

How does my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office reconcile this with his comment on Radio 4 this morning that

“the Government is functioning on all questions, other than specifically the in/out question, in an entirely normal way”?

He also said:

“There are no rules other than those set out last Monday in the letter from Jeremy Heywood.”

What about the Q and A briefing?

Does the Minister deny that permanent secretaries have been instructed to conceal information requested by Downing Street or the Cabinet Office from a dissenting Minister? The Cabinet Secretary’s letter states that “Departments may check facts”, but civil servants have also been told that they cannot

“provide arguments or new facts”.

How is that consistent with the duty of honesty in the civil service code, which requires a civil servant to

“set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully”?

Does the Minister agree that where any guidance or instruction conflicts with the code, the code must prevail?

How does this situation best serve the democratic process if Ministers on opposing sides of the debate finish up disagreeing about information from the same Department which is meant to be impartial and accurate information provided by professional civil servants?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Let me answer those points in turn. First, the Government are functioning perfectly well—in fact, I came to this House from a meeting with the Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend Priti Patel, on child care policy, and it was carried out in an entirely normal way. On Friday I visited a prison with the Justice Secretary, and those two points demonstrate that things are functioning as normal.

The civil service code, and the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, makes it clear that it is the duty of civil servants to support the position of the Government of the day, and it is only because the Prime Minister is allowing Ministers to remain in government while disagreeing with a single policy—the in/out position—that this situation arise at all. The letter from the Cabinet Secretary makes it clear that factual briefing is allowed.

Finally, the 1975 guidance made it clear that no briefing or draft speeches contrary to Government consideration were allowed to be drafted by civil servants. In fact, it went further because it said that if someone wanted to oppose the Government position, they had to inform No. 10 of any invitations to appear on the radio or TV. We have not put that provision in place. On all these things, the clarity in the guidance from the Cabinet Secretary that was published on Monday last week shows the rules, and those rules are consistent with the civil service code and, indeed, the law.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I fear that the Minister is having a Jim Hacker moment. In 114 days, the country faces an important decision. The referendum will dictate how in future the UK handles exports and imports, the world of work, the new contours of the digital age, human rights, intelligence sharing, the fight against crime, and how we adapt to climate change, and here we are today discussing guidelines for civil servants and special advisers.

Sadly, I am not in the strongest of positions to lecture the poor Minister on handling splits in his party, but in the way that Opposition Front Benchers are almost duty bound to do, I would like to give him some advice. The Justice Secretary has a history of letting his special advisers off the leash. Does the Minister really think that a memorandum from a mandarin will change that?

When we have a Prime Minister who allows his spin doctors to brief that the Justice Secretary will be sacked after the referendum, or that his chum the Mayor of London has breached the old school code and that the Prime Minister is “hurt and upset”, I understand how the Minister would have been overcome with a wave of ennui at the prospect of answering an urgent question from the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee about the conduct of special advisers. However, answer for their conduct he must, and I wish to ask him how many special advisers have informed No. 10 of their intention to work on the no campaign. In the event of ministerial visits where a Minister and their special adviser campaign for a no vote after the event, will the cost of travel be carried by the Minister? How will that be monitored and made public? The guidelines state that special advisers are not allowed to campaign for a no vote in office hours. For the avoidance of doubt, please define “office hours”.

When the inevitable happens and special advisers to those Ministers who are defying their leader completely ignore the memorandum from the Cabinet Secretary, on a scale of one to 10 how confident is the Minister that the Prime Minister will enforce the code? Does the Minister have the confidence to admit that these attempts to dilute the freedom of rebellious Ministers will only detract from the key issues that matter to voters in the referendum? It seems that the out campaign is attacking the referee, not the captain of the opposing side, yet the Prime Minister has a simple choice: either he gives his Ministers free rein to run their Departments, or he sacks them. It cannot be fudged for the next 114 days.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Unfortunately, I have had to scrap most of my proposed reply to the hon. Gentleman, given his gracious acknowledgement that he is not best placed to throw rocks on this particular subject. I will, however, agree with him on this: questions on this matter are a distraction from the main event and the main substance, which is whether Britain is better off inside or outside a reformed European Union. I strongly believe that, thanks to the deal the Prime Minister achieved, we are better off and more secure inside a reformed European Union.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions. First, on the efficacy of the guidance, the guidance is for civil servants to follow. Civil servants do follow guidance of that sort and I have every confidence that they will do so. On what constitutes office hours, I will merely say that office hours means the normal working day. I hope that clears that one up. On the broader question of whether this is necessary, and his point that Ministers need both to run their Departments and be able to differ on this one question, this is why the guidance is very specifically and solely about the in/out question, not other EU business or other business. After all, we have Departments to run.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

My right hon. Friend is hugely able and has shown his ability today to dance on the head of a pin, but will he take it from me that this is a huge blunder? Out there, the general public will think that this decision is petty and vindictive. Moreover, they will say to our Government, and to this party to which I am so proud to belong, that if we are so much stronger in Europe, what is it that we are being so careful to hide?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I have a huge amount of respect for my hon. Friend. I will just say this: the reason this is required is the Prime Minister’s decision to allow Ministers to campaign to leave and to differ from the Government position. If that were not the case, the guidance would not be needed. As for the general public, I imagine that what most people will take away from this will be: when can we get on to the real discussion about whether we should be in or out of a reformed European Union?

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Let me see if I have got this right. The Government’s position is that we should vote to remain in the European Union because, among other reasons, it will be good for jobs and employment. The Government’s problem is that the Secretary of State and the Minister responsible for jobs and employment take a contrary view. The Government are now in a dilemma. Not only do they not want their own Ministers not to support the Government’s position, but they do not want them to actively campaign against it and use their offices to do so. In response, the Government are now putting the obligation on unelected civil servants to censor what Ministers can or cannot see within their area of expertise. This situation is farcical, but it has an undercurrent of something sinister about it too. Any self-respecting Minister should not accept these constraints. There is already a bit of tension in the Minister’s party on this question. How long does he think it will be before it breaks out into all-out civil war?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

The hon. Member makes a central error in his characterisation of the situation. No Minister is censored—far from it. Ministers are allowed to campaign against the Government position. It is for civil servants, therefore, to follow the Government position. After all, it is required by law that they follow and support the position of the Government of the day.

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset

There is a serious constitutional issue here, which goes to the heart of House of Commons accountability. We ask Ministers questions and expect answers that are fully informed. How can those who send us to the House of Commons have faith in the answers we get if those whom we question purposely have information withheld by their own civil servants?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I have a huge amount of respect for my right hon. Friend. That is why I will answer his specific point. The question is exactly the reason for prescribing this guidance only in respect of the in/out issue rather than more broadly. That is what the guidance says. This broad approach was set up by the Prime Minister in January, and then discussed and agreed in Cabinet on 20 February as the best way to take forward the position whereby Ministers could disagree with the Government position.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Speaker of the House of Commons

It is very decent of the Minister to dole out bowls full of respect, but my sense is that, on the whole, although that is enormously important to hon. and right hon. Members here assembled, they are generally more interested in his answers than in his respect.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I previously asked whether the Prime Minister was going to throw his weight behind the in campaign, and I am very pleased that he has done so, because for the sake of our peace, prosperity, opportunity and security, we need to be in. As for what we are discussing now, I would like some clarity from the Minister. Is it the case that there is a list of Ministers who are in, a list of Ministers who are out and a list of Ministers who are undecided, and what happens if a Minister switches from the in to the out campaign or the out to the in campaign?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

First of all, Mr Speaker, I have respect for the right hon. Gentleman, and I also have respect for you—but perhaps I will drop all that. When the Cabinet met after the Prime Minister agreed the deal with other members of the European Union, Ministers at that point were asked to state their position—whether they wanted to remain or leave—and I doubt whether any of those positions will change.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

The Minister calls on the law. The question of voter trust in this referendum, as I said to both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on 3 and 25 February, is paramount. For the voters who will decide this question, knowledge is, as we know, power. Does the Minister deny that under sections 6 and 7 of the later and express provisions of the European Union Referendum Act 2015, a legal duty is imposed on the Government to provide referendum information and the voter is entitled to accurate and impartial information, as the Minister for Europe agreed in reply to me when the House debated that Bill, through and from the Government and all Ministers of the Crown equally, and that this therefore being a statutory obligation overrides any prime ministerial prerogative such as the Cabinet Secretary acted upon in the guidance of 23 February? Does the Minister therefore deny that civil servants as Crown servants are legally obliged to provide such information accurately and impartially to all Ministers within their Departments so that the voters are properly informed and empowered to answer the question in the referendum?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

On the legal details, the 2015 Act also requires the Government to express their view and the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 requires civil servants to support the position of the Government of the day. On that basis, it is right to follow the procedure that was agreed by the Cabinet. The position of the Government is set out; Ministers may disagree with it, but civil servants must support the Government’s position.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Labour, Bolsover

Here we are on the day after the Oscars. The family is opposite: threat and counter-threat. It reminds me of “The Godfather”. This could be “The Godfather Part IV”: will there be a horse’s head in the bed or will it be another animal?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Well, they say that politics is show business for ugly people, so I will take that as an upgrade.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I find it hard to believe that on 20 February the Cabinet was aware of the implications of what it was doing. The central purpose of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was to achieve fairness in elections and in referendums, but now the Government have parked themselves on one side of the argument, dwarfing any influence from either of the campaign groups. Their action also goes against the strategic objective of offering the people a referendum to resolve the question of Britain’s role in the world one way or another. That question will only hold if the process is seen to be fair, but all this runs against that strategic objective.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I disagree with my hon. Friend. The Government are required, under the European Union Referendum Act 2015, to take a position. They are also required—or commitments were given during the passage of that Act—to set out certain matters, including the process of leaving the European Union under article 50, which is in a document that we published this morning. During the passage of the referendum Act, there was a debate on how this could best be done, and we are acting on the conclusions that were reached.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Is this not constitutional gibberish, and utterly unworkable? The protestations that we hear from Ministers now would be much more impressive had they joined our Select Committee in condemning the politicisation of the civil service during the Scottish referendum campaign. The difference is that, whereas all Ministers agreed in the case of the Scottish referendum, in this case we have a disagreement, and a Department in which the “inners” can see the papers and the “outers” cannot. Is it not a fact that the only way of making this workable is for Ministers to resign and leave office until after 23 June?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

It is precisely because we did not want that to happen that we proposed these arrangements. I think that the hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong, and misjudging the position, if he thinks that supporting the Government’s position is anything other than an impartial and proper course for civil servants to take. The alternative is to argue that civil servants should not support the Government’s position, and I think that that would be ridiculous.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire

On a daily basis, Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have to make difficult choices between the interpretation of European law and regulation and the delivery of decisions that would benefit United Kingdom citizens. I have dealt with a number of cases in the past which I would like to discuss with the current Minister of State. I shall be meeting him this evening. Will I be able to ask him questions about past cases, so that he can, without fear or favour, have access to a full briefing, all the opinions and all the history of what happened before and after the decision concerned, although the end result might be thoroughly disobliging to the case for remaining in the European Union?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

My right hon. Friend has made an important point. On European Union issues that do not relate to the single question of in or out, there will be full access to all papers, as normal. That is what is said in the letter from the Cabinet Secretary, and that is how the Government are operating.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

During the referendum on Scottish independence, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Paul Flynn, there was significant controversy over senior civil servants making public and clearly political, and politicised, statements. It is vital for the civil service to retain its private advisory role, and for civil servants not to make blatantly political public comments during the campaign before the EU referendum. Will the Minister confirm that that will be the case?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

That is the normal course of events. It is for Ministers to make the argument, and for civil servants to support the Government’s position.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Speaker of the House of Commons

The right hon. Gentleman is a most dextrous parliamentarian, and I am sure that he can recover very quickly. I think the accurate characterisation would be that he had been standing. He did not do so on this occasion, probably because he was chuntering from a sedentary position. He then stood again at my exhortation. He has now had plenty of time in which to formulate his question.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

It is all right, Mr Speaker. I was not sure whether it was the other David Davies whom you were calling.

We are fortunate to live in a democracy. We are not guided by Cabinet Secretary guidelines. As far as I know there is no manifesto basis for this, and as far as I know there has been no House of Commons vote for it, so what is the constitutional basis of the Prime Minister’s decision? Is it the royal prerogative?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

No, the constitutional basis is that, under the European Union Referendum Act 2015, the Government are required to take a position. The Government have taken a position, as I have set out, and it is for civil servants to support that position. It is therefore necessary to set out how civil servants should act with a Minister who does not support the Government position. The guidance is precisely limited to the in/out question, and the reason for publishing it is to ensure that everyone knows what the position is.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office)

Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the Treasury’s most senior civil servant, was quoted as saying that he believed that impartiality guidelines did not apply in “extreme” cases such as the Scottish independence referendum. Would the Minister classify the EU referendum as an extreme case, and if so, can we expect normal rules of civil service neutrality to be completely disregarded?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Civil servants support the position of the Government of the day, and this Government have a position. I do not know how many times I am going to have to repeat that. That is the case. Civil servants are impartial, but they support the Government of the day. That is the law and it is the situation in this case too.

Photo of Neil Carmichael Neil Carmichael Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education, Skills and the Economy Sub-Committee

Does the Paymaster General agree that it would be supremely ironic if this referendum had an impact on the way in which our civil service operated in the future? It is absolutely right that the civil service should support the Government, and the Government have made the decision—the right decision, in my view—that we are safer, stronger and better in the European Union.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

It is disappointing that the leave campaign seems to want to focus on process issues such as this rather than discussing whether we would be better off inside a reformed European Union, as I believe we would. My hon. Friend raises an important point. If any Members do not think that the rules should operate in the way we published last week, the only other position would be for the civil service to support a position that was not the Government’s position, which would go against everything that it was set up to do.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

Is not the Prime Minister effectively saying to his own Ministers, “You can exercise your democratic rights as long as you agree with me at the end of the day”? Is this not the latest sordid attempt—there will be more—to rig the referendum to get the result that the Prime Minister wants?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

No; on the contrary, this is a consequence of allowing Ministers to express their views freely on whether they want to remain in or to leave, as many of them are doing.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

Does the Minister agree that the misunderstanding of the Government’s position has been evidenced by the last question, which suggested that the Prime Minister required Ministers to agree with him? That is not the case. The public will surely agree that fairness is ensured by the fact that Ministers are free to speak out. That is what the Prime Minister is allowing, and that is a generous position. There is no reason why those Ministers should be supported by the civil service or the taxpayer in expressing their view, to which they are entitled in conscience. If they feel that this is unfair, they have the option of not remaining in the Government.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Lord Chancellor has an important constitutional job, but he cannot do it under these restrictions. At the weekend, we heard that the so-called British Bill of Rights was going to be postponed again, for at least six months. If the Lord Chancellor wants his lawyers or civil servants to put together well-crafted arguments on parliamentary sovereignty or the powers of the European Court of Justice, should not they be allowed to do that? Otherwise, we shall be getting second-class government, and God forbid that we should have that.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Of course the Lord Chancellor can continue to do the work that he is doing in reforming the courts system and in all sorts of areas. Indeed, I visited a prison with him on Friday, as I have mentioned. That shows that the Government are getting on with their work. On top of that, we are having a debate in the country and between Ministers on both sides on the specific question of an in/out referendum.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, Bedford

When people in Bedford and Kempston have raised the issue of the European referendum with me over the past week, they have wanted to hear the facts. They hear lots of statistics, but they fear that they are being warped by one side or the other, so they want facts. How will this restriction on access to information enable those people to get the facts?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

It will not have any implications for facts, because factual briefing and fact-checking is allowed to be done by civil servants.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention)

The civil service, the state broadcaster and the central bank were all central players in project fear 1 in Scotland. Is it therefore naive not to expect the use of the same public assets on project fear 2 and the EU referendum?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I do not understand the premise of the question, because we are putting forward the positive case for remaining in a reformed European Union.

Photo of Sarah Wollaston Sarah Wollaston Chair, Health and Social Care Committee

Will the Minister set out what the harm would be in allowing full transparency of these data? Surely there would be much greater harm if at the end of the referendum we were left with people feeling that it had been an unfair process.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

The challenge of taking a position other than the one the Government have taken is that it would require civil servants to do work that was not in support of the Government’s position. The Government have a position, and it is part of the civil service code, and it is put into law in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, that civil servants should support the position of the Government. It would put civil servants in a very difficult position if we were to do anything other than that.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

I will be campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, but I see no issue with all Ministers having access to the very strong arguments for Britain to remain in the EU—this is a matter of democracy. Is the Minister really suggesting that we could have a situation where a Secretary of State is denied access to key Government papers but his or her junior Ministers have access to that information?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

What we are saying is that the Government have a position and the civil service will advise on that position. If Ministers have taken a personal decision to campaign personally, in a personal capacity, against the position of the Government, it is inappropriate to ask civil servants to support that other position, which is not the position of the Government.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

I very much appreciate that the Minister has qualified and caveated some of the guidance that has recently been issued. Does he not agree, however, that there is a danger that without further clarification we could have the ludicrous situation where Freedom of Information Act requests, or requests made by Members of Parliament through parliamentary questions, could get information out of Ministers that those Ministers would have been denied by their own civil servants?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I do not know whether that was directed at people on the shadow Front Bench, but the situation is as I have set out. The key point is this: if we were to take any other position, we would have civil servants being asked not to support the position of the Government. We are approaching this in the way these things have been approached in referendums in the past—in 1975 and in the Scottish referendum—which seems perfectly reasonable.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Defence Committee

Because this is such a divisive issue and because so many people feel so strongly about it, it has been decided that instead of Government taking the decision, the people should take the decision. What does it do for the sense of fairness among the people if the big battalions of the civil service seem to be lined up on one side of the argument and spin doctors in Downing Street do botched letters to the press from generals who have not even signed up to them saying that one side of the argument is right and the other side of it is wrong?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

The debate over how this would operate took place during the passage of the European Union Referendum Bill, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe took through Parliament. During the passage of that Bill, there was quite a debate, for example, about how purdah should operate, and many concessions were made by the Government in order to ensure that the process is fair. The result of that was an Act that included the requirement for the Government to take a view and then to be able to set out information on various aspects of the referendum, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I think I heard the Minister say that dissenting Ministers will not be allowed to see papers making the case for Britain to remain in the EU, which suggests that the Government have very little confidence in their own arguments. May I put it to my right hon. Friend that it is a constitutional outrage to deny access to arguments that “may”—as the briefing paper says—have a bearing on the referendum to some key Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice who are intimately involved in the central issues of this referendum? The Government really need to think again about that, because otherwise the British people will think that the Government intend to rig the referendum.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I would argue to the contrary. The constitutional difficulty would arise if civil servants were being asked to support a position that was not the position of the Government. The civil service is there to support the Government. I would argue that this is precisely in order to stick to the constitution, as set out by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 but as carried out in practice for decades and decades before that. The job of the civil service is to support the Government, and that is what it should do.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

The British public could be forgiven for thinking that, if someone such as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith, is not permitted to see all the relevant documents, he may be unable to advise the Government. The Government may then come to a fixed opinion on a particular view such as benefits without having all the facts. A question and answer document from the Cabinet Office says:

“Can dissenting Ministers see Department papers on matters that aren’t directly about the Referendum, but may have a bearing.”

The answer is:

“They can see or commission any papers produced by their Departments in the normal way except those that have a bearing on the referendum question or are intended to be used in support of their position”.

It is not a simple black and white matter; it is a matter of interpretation. Special advisers are being handcuffed and told that they must keep things from the Secretary of State. That is appalling. Are the Government afraid that the facts might change the minds of the public and some Cabinet members?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend’s question was focused on what the public think. I believe they will think, “Please can we get on to debating the substance of the question rather than the process of how to make sure that Ministers are allowed, unusually, to depart from the Government position while the constitutional position of the civil service remains in place.”

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

Is it true, as reported in The Times this morning, that without the consent or knowledge of the Secretary of State, officials of the DWP carried out research on the instructions of No. 10 to help support the case for remaining in the EU? If that is the case, will the Minister please explain how the Secretary of State can be expected to be responsible for the work of his own Department?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

These guidelines are restricted to the issues of the question of in/out. It is perfectly normal —it happens all the time—for there to be communications between Departments and No. 10. That is how the Government operate.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

Perhaps the solution is for Ministers to submit freedom of information requests to their own Departments to get the answers. A key part of the Prime Minister’s reform package was very complex changes to benefits and indexing of benefits. If, at the next DWP Question Time, I ask the Secretary of State what progress he is making to determine whether those reforms are deliverable by 23 June, will he be able to give me an honest and full answer?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Yes, of course he will. On issues that are not about the in/out referendum question, Ministers will be fully informed. That is the position. As to the question of whether this will change people’s minds, the Government have made their position clear, which is that, obviously, we are in favour of remain.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Say for a moment that I am the fisheries Minister, young, ambitious, good looking and anxious to do the Prime Minister’s bidding, and the Prime Minister tells me that I have to set out my vision of what life outside the EU means for fishing—indeed that is a huge question for our fishing fleets—what do I do? The EU determines everything in my Department. I have no national policy on fishing, but I happen to be in favour of the out campaign. Do I go home for four months? Do I get no advice from Ministers? Is it not so much “Yes, Minister” as just “Go home for four months and we will see you in June”?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, which is that the rules set out last week make it clear that on all issues, including EU issues other than the in/out question, government continues as normal. I am afraid that he cannot have four months off, even in the circumstances he describes. I am sure that he would not miss the next four months for the world.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The Paymaster General is a Minister in the Cabinet Office, which is the Department responsible for the civil service, yet my right hon. Friend has form when it comes to civil service advice. In June 2015, he signed a special declaration overriding civil service advice that further money should not be given to Kids Company, which subsequently disappeared. Would it be open to Ministers of the Crown to use that same special declaration to override this present civil service edict?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Making what is called a direction, such as that which I made on Kids Company because I thought that it was worth spending the money to look after those kids—it is right that Ministers should be able democratically to override the advice of civil servants when they choose to, so long as that is published—is about the expenditure of money. The EU debate is not specifically about the expenditure of money, although there are debates about growth, jobs and the economy, and so the question would not arise.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Several of my constituents have contacted me and asked where they can get the facts to decide in their own minds how to vote. It is, after all, the people, not the Government, who will decide this matter, so is it not the duty of the civil service to provide facts to our people to enable them to decide how to vote? In these circumstances, is it not fair to ask the Cabinet Secretary, in his capacity as a neutral observer, to prepare a document for the people who will make this decision?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

It is absolutely necessary to ensure that information is available on questions about the referendum. For instance, that is why this morning we published a document on the process for leaving the European Union should that be the decision at the referendum. My hon. Friend is right that it is for the people to decide. The Cabinet Secretary is not neutral; he supports the Government position because he is a civil servant, and the whole civil service supports the Government position. If my hon. Friend is responding to his constituents and they really want information, I can always recommend a website called strongerin.co.uk, which has some great information.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

There will be a campaign to leave, as well, and I hope that this debate continues so that by 23 June everybody feels fully informed.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

Will the Minister tell the House how the guidance rules would have affected the advice given to the Prime Minister by Sir Lynton Crosby when he said that the renegotiations were not good enough, that they should be rejected at the European Council and that proper renegotiations should be carried out and the referendum delayed until 2017? Clearly, in that situation, the adviser was not supporting the Government line at all.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

Would a reasonable and fair-minded person not conclude that having been rebuffed in their attempts last September to alter on a sui generis basis the purdah rules relating to the referendum, the Government have come back and undermined the sovereignty of this House by using the civil service to achieve the very same objective?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

No, on the contrary. This guidance is a precise consequence of the Prime Minister’s decision to allow Ministers to campaign to leave. If the Prime Minister had not decided to allow Ministers to remain in the Government but to campaign to leave the European Union against the recommendation of the Government, such rules would not be necessary and we would not have had to publish them. This is a direct consequence of the Prime Minister’s decision to allow that debate to take place and to allow Ministers to take one or other side of the debate.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

Talking of guidance, my association was this morning issued with guidance from our north of England field director stating:

The Party is neutral, which means that as an organisation we are not getting involved in any way on an official basis. In practice this means that Associations must not use any resources available to them, including money, data, premises etc. to promote a particular view.”

Given that this is a Conservative Government from the Prime Minister all the way down to us lowly Back Benchers, who are all members of a party that has no official view on the matter, why should civil servants who work for Conservative Ministers take a view on it? That is leading people out there to conclude that there is stitch-up to try and keep us in the wasteful EU.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I do not think that is right. This House passed the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which required the Government to take a view and therefore the civil service follows the Government view. The Conservative party, as my hon. Friend says, is neutral on this matter, but the Government are not. That is a matter for how the party machine acts, rather than how the Government act, because as I have said many times, the civil service is duty bound by tradition and by law to follow the position of the Government of the day. That is why the guidance is constructed thus.