Renewed concerns of politicisation of Scottish civil servants under SNP

New fears have been raised over the politicisation of Scotland’s civil service under the SNP after it emerged officials have not lodged formal objections to ministers’ spending decisions in 15 years.

Figures show that so-called “ministerial directions”, which are requested by senior civil servants when they have concerns over a policy but see their advice overruled by politicians, have been sought dozens of times over recent years in Whitehall. 

The most recent example was over Priti Patel’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, with the mechanism allowing civil servants, who are technically accountable for government spending, to escape blame if public money is squandered.

However, the move, which would mean opposition politicians must be informed of the behind-the-scenes disagreement, was last used by Scottish Government civil servants in August 2007, three months after the SNP came to power.

‘Reluctance to challenge ministers’

Experts said that the absence of requests for ministerial directions over the following decade-and-a-half pointed to deep cultural problems within the Scottish civil service which were potentially explained by “pro-nationalist” senior staff being too reluctant to challenge ministers.

Robert Pyper, emeritus professor of government and public policy at the University of the West of Scotland, raised fears that supposedly non-partisan officials had become too close to the SNP and said there was a litany of decisions over recent years for which a ministerial direction might have been demanded.

“The absence of these requests is seriously concerning and it’s indicative of something that’s not working,” Prof Pyper said. “They are not usually common by any means, but they are a periodic, healthy check on what’s going on and the system has been in place for decades. Their use might be irritating to ministers, but show that the civil service is doing its constitutional job.”

‘Ferries contract needed ministerial direction’

He said that policy decisions where Scottish civil servants might have requested a ministerial direction included the move in 2015 to override advice to scrap a contract to build two ferries, after the shipyard reneged on a financial guarantee that would have protected taxpayers. 

The deal has since descended into a costly fiasco with the now nationalised shipyard to deliver the ferries at least five years later at a cost to the taxpayer of well over double the original £97 million price.

The academic said other examples included how support funding was distributed to businesses during the Covid pandemic, under a process recently criticised by Audit Scotland.

There have been at least 46 ministerial directions at UK level since 2010, Institute of Government research shows. There were also four in Scotland between 1999 and 2005, under Holyrood’s previous Labour/LibDem administrations.

However, there was just one ever issued under the SNP which related to a decision to scrap a Private Finance Initiative procurement process for a new prison in August 2007.

‘Fears culture inside Scottish Government is pro-nationalist’ 

Prof Pyper said the three possible explanations for the process becoming dormant were a “limited mindset” within the Scottish civil service, a deficit of quality among senior officials, or politicisation.

“It is possibly a combination of all of those things,” he said. “In terms of politicisation, the concern is that the administrative culture inside the Scottish Government is pro-nationalist. 

“There is increasing anecdotal evidence of civil servants stepping over the line in terms of their professional position and to some extent tub-thumping for nationalist ministers.”

At UK level, there have been around 100 ministerial directions since 1990, although they have been more frequent in recent years due to Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Since devolution there have been five occasions where Accountable Officers for parts of the Scottish Administration have sought written authority, including in 2007. This information is in the public domain.”

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