The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats has branded the country’s most senior civil servant an “SNP lacky”, reports Ed Jacobs.
Last month, Willie Rennie MSP wrote to Sir Peter Housden, Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Government, to outline his concerns that an announcement by local government minister, Derek Mackay, of a £40 million fund to exempt Scots from looming cuts to council tax benefits – announced just two weeks before local election day – breached purdah rules requiring impartiality on the part of government ministers.
Responding to Rennie’s concerns, Houdson argued it was the first available date that the announcement could be made, and in the end the buck stopped with ministers rather than him.
In the letter to the Lib Dem leader he explained:
“The government’s guidance on the local elections makes clear that the responsibility for reaching a judgment on whether to make or defer an announcement during the local election period rests with ministers in the light of political sensitivities, with each case to be considered on its merits.
“In this case, the announcement resulted from an agreement between the Scottish government and all Scottish local authorities that benefits all areas of Scotland.
“It was endorsed by the Cosla Convention on 30 March. Cosla represents all local authorities and involves representatives of all political parties. In addition, the announcement was made jointly with Cosla, and the funding to underpin the agreement is to be provided jointly.
“These are all material factors in considering the application of the guidance.
“On timing, the agreement was reached just as parliament went into recess. 19 April was thus the first available date for an announcement.”
It is not, however, the first time Houdson has been accused of breaching his responsibilities to remain political impartial.
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Just last year, the leaders of all three of Scotland’s main opposition parties, Iain Gray, Annabel Goldie and Willie Rennie, wrote to Gus O’Donnell, then head of the UK Civil Service, to demand an investigation following revelations he had praised the “vision, skill and energy” of Scottish ministers as well as their “ambitious and exciting programme”.
This came after remarks he made in May following the SNP’s re-election in which he called on officials to:
“…embark on a journey toward constitutional reform with the near-term strengthening of the Scotland Bill and a referendum in the second half of the parliament.”
It led in February to reports Housden was being frozen out of discussions with Whitehall mandarins over Scottish independence because they felt they could no longer have “free and frank discussions” on the issue in front of him.
At the time, O’Donnell cleared Housden of breaching the Civil Service code. However, following the latest revelations, Willie Rennie has made clear he intends to take the issue up with Sir Bob Kerslake, the new Head of the UK Civil Service.
Reacting to the latest developments, Rennie declared:
“Yet again Sir Peter has failed to uphold the traditions of the independent civil service. He is acting more like an SNP lackey than the head of the Civil Service in Scotland.
“The SNP clearly broke ‘purdah’ rules by making an announcement on council funding during the election period. It was an election gimmick and an abuse of Derek Mackay’s position as local government minister.
“Sir Peter has repeatedly failed to take a balanced view of complaints against the SNP government. This is yet another decision that questions his impartiality.
“I will be appealing this decision to Sir Bob Kerslake, the new head of the civil service. Sir Peter needs to be reminded that he works for the public, not for the SNP.”
Echoing the concerns, Labour’s business manager at Holyrood, Paul Martin, argued:
“Sir Peter Housden seems content to cheer Alex Salmond on rather than scrutinise his conduct.”
Whilst Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, spoke of finding it:
“…astonishing that a ministerial announcement in the middle of an election campaign does not contravene the purdah rules.”
Simon Johnson, Scottish political editor at the Daily Telegraph, has today reported Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood. and Sir Bob Kerslake are ready to take a tougher line with Scotland’s most senior official. In February, Kerslake was forced to remind the Scottish Civil Service about its duty to remain impartial.