Foulkes in demand to limit power of top civil servant

George Foulkes
George Foulkes
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Former Lothians Labour MSP George Foulkes has launched a fresh bid to clip the wings of Scotland’s top civil servant in the wake of allegations he was promoting partisan SNP policies.

The Edinburgh-based peer wants to ban the permanent secretary to the Scottish Government from getting involved in issues which fall within the UK government’s remit, such as the constitution, defence and foreign affairs.

Sir Peter Housden was accused earlier this year of “going native” and abandoning strict civil service neutrality after extracts from his weekly blog to members of staff were made public. They included comments interpreted as support for the SNP’s moves towards independence.

He was cleared of any breach of the civil service code on the grounds it is the job of civil servants to “support the elected government of the day”.

But now Lord Foulkes wants to change the rules so the Scottish Government’s most senior official, who is still part of the UK civil service, can only advise ministers on devolved matters.

He has tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill which will be debated when the UK Parliament returns from its Christmas break.

He said: “Unless we make this position clear, it effectively ends up with a UK civil servant in Scotland advising the SNP on breaking up Britain.”

All three opposition party leaders wrote to Sir Gus O’Donnell, head of the UK civil service, raising concerns over Sir Peter’s blog earlier this year. But Sir Gus cleared Sir Peter of any wrongdoing.

Lord Foulkes said Sir Gus’s ruling had convinced him action was needed.

He said: “This kind of thing may indeed be allowable under the present arrangements – that’s why I want it changed.

“Otherwise, it means the resources not just of the permanent secretary but the whole civil service are being used to break up Britain.

“And it distracts attention from the job he is supposed to be doing, advising the government on devolved areas.”

A spokesman for the First Minister said: “Lord Foulkes is wrong. It is the very essence of democracy that the civil service supports all the policies of the elected government.

“For example, in terms of reserved matters, Scottish Government civil servants worked hard to prepare the cross-party Holyrood submission to the UK Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review – making the compelling case for the retention of Scottish bases and jobs – which presumably Lord Foulkes supported.”