Gagging civil servants and charities, suppressing inconvenient truths

By Savi Hensman
March 23, 2015

New rules aimed at preventing civil servants from speaking to the media without ministers’ approval have been strongly criticised. They follow a drive to gag charities receiving public funding.

In 2014 the government introduced a Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act. This restricted voluntary organisations and trade unions in speaking on matters of public concern, during the run-up to elections.

A Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, chaired by former Anglican Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries, found that the Act’s effect on freedom of speech was “chilling”. The latest developments further hinder the public’s (and even parliamentarians’) right to find out what is happening and make informed choices.

It was cabinet secretary Francis Maude who, in March 2015, introduced a new civil service code requiring prior permission from a minister before speaking to the media.

“The announcement of a blanket ban on media contact for civil servants – just 51 days before a General Election – is an unnecessary, unworkable and unjustified restriction on the work of the civil service”, commented Dave Penman, General Secretary of the FDA, a union for senior civil servants.

He added, "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.”

Amidst widespread criticism, Maude has agreed to amend the code to protect whistleblowers on scandals or abuses of public money. But the new code will still leave many civil servants afraid of sharing information to which the public has a right.

In late February, communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles told the House of Commons that he was urging all government departments to include an “anti-lobbying, anti-sock puppet clause” when giving money to charities and other voluntary organisations.

This would rule out using public funding for “activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.”

So if, for example, a charity aiding lung cancer patients called for tighter controls on tobacco sales, or an older people’s organisation pointed out the impact of social care cuts on its clients, it could have its funding axed.

Gagging measures aimed at civil servants and voluntary organisations seriously undermine democracy as well as free speech. To begin with, these make it harder to counter misinformation by ministers to the public and parliament.

If invented or distorted ‘facts’ are fed to the electorate and indeed key decision-makers, these will be harder to challenge. The government has frequently been criticised (by the UK Statistics Authority among others) for putting out inaccurate or misleading information. Getting reliable facts and figures will become much harder. This could well be very important in the lead-up to an election.

In addition, sharing information on the impact of policies will also become harder. If people suffer as a result of state decisions, it will be harder for the public – and even law-makers – to find out what is happening.

Some government departments seem especially hostile to independent scrutiny. The House of Commons justice committee recently expressed concern at finding out that both supposedly independent members of a panel appointing the chief inspector of prisons were active in the Conservative Party. (Even then, justice secretary Chris Grayling vetoed the panel’s choice of candidate.)

And when security firm G4S invited Frances Crook from the Howard League for Penal Reform (which has criticised prison privatisation) to see conditions for herself, she was blocked. A senior official at the National Offender Management Service wrote, “Given your comments about private prisons I do not feel your visits would be appropriate at this time and I have informed G4S that they should withdraw the invitation.”

Silencing dissent can be convenient for governments. However if attempts to suppress inconvenient truths are not challenged effectively, the impact may be hugely damaging.

* More on the issues in the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.