New Government rules mean civil servants need ministerial approval before speaking to media

Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude (pictured, Reuters) has been condemned over a rule change meaning civil servants need permission from a minister to speak to the media.

A change inserted into the Civil Service Management Code says: “All contacts with the media should be authorised in advance by the relevant Minister unless a specific delegation or dispensation has been agreed which may be for blocks of posts or areas of activities.

"The Civil Service Code applies to all such contacts. Civil Servants must at all times observe discretion and express comment with moderation, avoiding personal attacks.”

The change has been condemned by the FDA union for civil servants. General secretary Dave Penman said that the “blanket ban on media contact for civil servants” is “an unnecessary, unworkable and unjustified restriction on the work of the civil service”.

He said in a statement: "The public has a right to open and transparent public services, yet this change now requires Ministerial authorisation before a civil servant can respond or make any contact with the media – from a prosecutor being asked for comment outside of court, to a job centre manager dealing with a local news story.

"Guidance to regulate contact between civil servants and the media is already in place and we can see no justification for this sudden, drastic change, other than intimidating civil servants into silence. Rather than being a genuine attempt to improve public services, this knee-jerk decision seems to have only been made to sate unfounded and misguided ministerial mistrust."

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said: "This is a painfully transparent attempt to prevent public servants from telling the truth about government policy, by a minister who has already admitted he wants to do as much damage as possible before he steps down by making his reforms 'irreversible'."

In September, Press Gazette revealed that Ministry of Defence had released new official guidelines imposing strict controls on anyone from the armed forces making contact with journalists, even in a social setting.

The rules state that when a member of the armed forces has any contact with a journalist they must immediately notify press officers. This applies even if a member of armed forces staff meets a journalist socially, or through their family.

In a letter to the National Trades Union Congress, published by FDA, Maude said: "Civil servants are already under a duty to refrain from disclosing official information or drawing upon experience gained in their official capacity without the prior specific approval of their department or agency.

"The amendment in the Civil Service Code is to provide clarity on these points. Liaison with the media is of course a legitimate part of some Civil Servants’ roles, it is not something required of the vast majority.

"Given Civil Servants’ accountability to Ministers, it would not be appropriate for Civil Servants to undertake such activity without the express permission of their Ministers.

"This has been a matter of some Parliamentary and public interest and as such I believe it is important for both Ministers and Civil Servants to ensure there is absolute clarity on this point.

"The Prime Minister and I have taken into account the points you raised in your letter to me.

"The new provision will not affect trade union representation.

"The exemption in relation to publicising union views, already in place in paragraph 4.2.9 of the Civil Service Management Code, is unaffected.

"Similarly, the changes will not, of course, prevent civil servants from exercising their Convention rights or interfere with the protection afforded to them by the whistleblowing legislation."

He added: "Nevertheless, in order to ensure absolute clarity on these issues and to provide further reassurance to your members, I propose to include a footnote referencing the whistleblowing legislation within the revised Code and also issue a guidance note to staff on implementation.

"This guidance note includes a reference to the fact that existing trade union activity will be unaffected and explains the practical application of the provision.

"It will be for Ministerial Heads of Department to decide how to apply it within their Department, including the application of exemptions for blocks of posts or areas of activities.

"This should not affect the daily business of the Government Communications Network, nor necessary communication within the Civil Service itself."

A Civil Service spokesman said: “The new provision in the Civil Service Code clarifies an existing requirement that civil servants must clear material for publication in advance and brings the obligations on civil servants to obtain ministerial clearance in line with the existing obligations on special advisers.”

They added: “There is no change to the important rights of individuals under whistleblowing legislation which is protected by statute.”

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