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Tue 17 September 2019
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Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, on why untruthful claims by civil servants in their quest to support government policy must be called out.


“A free trade agreement between the US and the UK could increase trade between our two countries three to four times,” US Vice President Mike Pence claimed during his visit to the UK last week.

Unsurprisingly, this is complete fantasy. The UK Government’s own economists, asked to calculate the impact of an “ambitious” free trade deal with America and other countries, suggested that the boost to trade volumes might be about 10%.   Other economists agree. 

So what? Mike Pence’s grasp of medicine (“smoking doesn’t kill”) and climate science (“global warming is a myth”) is exactly what you would expect. There’s no reason he should be any better at economics. But, what took me – and many civil servants, past and present – aback was a tweet from the Permanent Secretary of the Department for International Trade, Antonia Romeo.

What on earth is a Permanent Secretary doing endorsing – and while retweets don’t always equal endorsement, the implication here is pretty clear – a claim which is not just fantastical, but which her own department’s analysis flatly contradicts?  Particularly in such a politically contentious area, such as the value of a UK-US free trade agreement?

Her defence – in response to tweets from me and others who were similarly shocked – added insult to injury. She claimed that she was simply quoting Pence. But, she could – had she chose to – have quoted some of Pence’s blander statements about the value of the UK-US relationship, to which no-one could have objected. Suggesting that there was no significance to her decision to highlight Pence’s fake numbers treats us, and the broader public, as if we are idiots. 

This incident in itself doesn’t signify much, but it does form part of a broader pattern of the undermining of one of the key underpinnings of the unwritten British constitution: the objectivity and non-politicisation of the Civil Service.

Discussion of this topic is often clouded by two opposite misconceptions. The first is that civil servants have to be neutral about policy, which is nonsense. The duty of civil servants is to help shape and implement government policy in line with the government’s objectives, political and otherwise. They can’t be neutral and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Antonia Romeo and her department from propounding the merits of a US-UK trade deal, controversial as they may be. That’s her job. 

However, an equal and opposite misconception is that civil servants’ first and only duty is to do what ministers want them to do. They are there to serve ministers, but, in line with the Civil Service Code – which also states how they should carry out their duties – civil servants can’t lie for ministers; they can’t break the law. 

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Ms Romeo’s tweet, for example, directly contradicts the Code’s strictures on honesty (“you must set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully, and correct any errors as soon as possible”) and objectivity. Repeating untrue claims about the benefits of a UK-US trade deal is absolutely not her job. 

It cannot be denied that the lines are sometimes blurred. When does a minister’s understandable desire to present their policy in the best possible light conflict with a civil servant’s duty to ensure that information given to the public is accurate and objective?  

But, that’s precisely why we should be worried. For most of its existence, the UK Civil Service has been able to walk this line, maintaining the confidence of politicians in and out of office, as well as that of the general public, because the civil servants who rose to the top were those who understood how to strike the right balance. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case any longer. 

This is not just about the last few weeks, nor is it simply the responsibility of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. Indeed, an equally egregious example was that of George Osborne’s Treasury, which displayed this banner on its website’s homepage in the run-up to the EU Referendum – hardly an “impartial” presentation of the Treasury’s economic analysis:  

Similarly, under Theresa May, the Department for Exiting the EU called on MPs and the public to “back the Brexit deal” – a clear violation of the Code’s rules on impartiality.

How much does it matter if we move towards a Civil Service where, if you want to get to the top, being a propagandist is part of the job description? 

Many would argue that in a country where the Prime Minister lies with impunity, and his Chief of Staff remains in contempt of Parliament, the purity of the Civil Service is hardly the main concern. 

But, I believe that it matters now more than ever.

Over the next few weeks, our most senior civil servants may face far more politically charged ethical dilemmas than what to tweet. On the occasions I’ve highlighted, Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, has failed so far to defend the Civil Service Code when it comes to objectivity and impartiality. What will he do if faced with the choice between supporting government policy – to take us out of the EU on 31 October 31 ‘do or die’ – and his responsibility to uphold the rule of law? 

If the current constitutional drama does indeed become a crisis, a lot may depend on the answer. 

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