One Civil Service code for ‘the Indians’, but another for ‘the Chiefs’?

Mark Upton, who used Twitter to ‘tease’ Conservative ministers using the nom de guerre “naked civil servant” was suspended last week after a seven-month investigation by the Department for Communities and Local Government from his job.

Mr Upton, a grade six Civil Servant has leave to make an appeal, but it would seem he has been found in breach of a unambiguous breach of the civil service code:

“Impartiality – acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving governments of different political parties equally well”.

Here’s one quote from the offending Twitter account:

‘Tory MPs want a re-think on defence cuts. What about cuts in support of the disabled or deprived areas? Where’s your heart, Tory party?’

But Mr Upton is not the first senior civil servant to be disciplined in the last year, over breaches of neutrality.

Less than a year ago Paul Priestly, a Permanent Secretary in Northern Ireland Civil Service, took the extraordinary step of drafting the text of a letter complaining about an aggressive line of questioning and giving it to a senior corporate figure in Northern Ireland in order to attack said committee.

And the upshot? Mr Priestly has been docked £15,000 off his salary and ‘busted’ to Deputy Permanent Secretary. The only problem now facing the Northern Ireland Civil Service is where to deploy an senior civil servant who has a record of such profound meddling (as opposed to making frivolous Twitter length asides) in political affairs.

The outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments in Northern Ireland was less than impressed. Ms Felicity Huston, who has been charged with oversight of local Civil Service appointments has spent the last three years trying to get a meeting with its head Bruce Robinson. She notes in particular:

“…the civil service struggles with independence… they genuinely don’t get it. So really the best of luck to whoever takes it on because the job has been drawn up without any discussion from the current job holder which is a peculiar way to get on.”

In comparison to Mr Upton’s cheap shots on the Internet, the Priestly case was a much more serious attempt to interfere with the political process, albeit in the highly limited way it operates in Northern Ireland.

So will Upton be sacked? It’s not as though it doesn’t happen, as Ms Greenwood discovered after sending a private email to the then Minister Hazel Blears two years. It may depend on whether Grade Six is considered senior enough to conform with that memorable adage from Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay’s acutely observed Yes Minister:

“We dare not allow politicians to establish the principle that senior civil servants can be removed for incompetence. We could lose dozens of our chaps. Hundreds maybe. Even thousands.”

But the way the Northern Ireland Civil Service has chosen to handle Mr Priestly’s vicarious attack on members of the local Public Account Committee may have set a dangerously complicating precedent over a more serious breach than in either the Greenwood or Upton cases.

  • Upton’s been out on the stones these last two weeks (his suspension was well publicized on 4th July).

    There’s an irony here: the real dirt-dishers in the Department have been Pickles’s picked bovver boys: Sheridan Westlake and Giles Kenningham. No: I didn’t make up those names, nor lift them from a racy bodice-ripper. What they did to Jenny Watson was beyond any “civil” service behaviour — to the extent that Pickles refused to answer FoI requests, and to the extent that Sir Gus O’Donnell (GOD himself) issued a reproof from Downing Street.

    But I’ve blogged all this elsewhere. I’m happy to say, four months on, it’s still receiving “hits”.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Ah Mick I think Mr Priestly was demoted to “Deputy Secretary, rather than “Deputy Permanent Secretary” (albeit without an actual position).

    However, I would still like to know exactly why he was writing his non-acceptable-to-PAC letter of “apology” as C/O DRD

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/110930.htm

    “Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel (i) to which company the former Permanent Secretary to the Department for Regional Development has been seconded; and (ii) whether any part of his salary or pension is being paid out of public funds.

    (AQW 1944/11-15)

    Mr Wilson: The secondment agreement between the employing department, the host organisation and the secondee makes provision for confidentiality regarding the details of the secondment, including the name of the host organisation.

    During a period of secondment a secondee continues to be a civil servant and is subject to NICS terms and conditions of service. The NICS continues to be responsible for making salary payments directly to the secondee, for arranging deductions from salary in respect of income tax, National Insurance and pension contributions and for making employers’ contributions in respect of National Insurance and pension contributions, provided that the secondee remains in the civil service superannuation scheme. *On occasions, the NICS will recoup salary costs from the host organisation.*

    He could be working down the chip shop (in the back, peeling spuds) for all we are allowed to know…
    Surely it will have gone out to tender, since effectively the company now in receipt of Mr Priestly’s labour is now being state subsidised to the tune of £95k plus….

    I’m quite tickled with the idea that he might be reidhing out byres somewhere 😀

  • Pigeon Toes @ 3:13 pm:

    Fascinating! Can you keep us/me informed of any future doings re: Priestly?

    Surely, that secondment agreement‘s provision for confidentiality looks challengeable under FoI. We know the individual. We know he’s on the State pay-roll. We know he’s off doing something.

    Meanwhile, Caroline Lucas (MP for Brighton Pavilion — Green, and definitely one to be encouraged) is having a go at UK government departments’ secondees. She’s getting the other end of the same stick. There’s a letter to her from the Treasury which sets an interesting alternative precedent:

    “… our policy is not to disclose data related to numbers of staff lower than an amount that would make identification of individuals possible”

    The magic number seems to be five, for the BoE, Deloitte Touche, Ernst and Young, the FSA, KPMG, Partnerships UK and PWC are then identified as host-firms above that number.

    So, in HM Treasury the argument, however questionable, is not to identify the individual, but recognise there’s a public interest in being transparent, to a degree, about business links. Particularly so when “Partnerships UK” is all about PFI. In NI’s DRD we mustn’t identify the firm.

    I suppose this all adds up somehow.

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/qanda/2011mandate/writtenans/2011/111007.htm

    “Former Permanent Secretary to the Department for Regional Development

    Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel, pursuant to AQW 1944/11-15, whether the Department will recoup the costs from the host organisation, and if not, to detail what the secondment is providing with regard to public interest and benefit.

    (AQW 2704/11-15)

    Mr Wilson: The host organisation is reimbursing the Northern Ireland Civil Service at 54% of the secondee’s salary.

    Secondments offer benefits for both the employer and the employee. Employees receive opportunities to develop new skills and experiences from which the employer can benefit on the individual’s return to the civil service. This particular secondment will expose the secondee to a range of different experiences and working practices in the private sector.”

  • Pigeon Toes @ 1:19 pm:

    Check if I’ve got this aright:

    Priestly was on about £98K with the NICS (before or after he was “busted”?). His “placement” is worth 54% of that — so he is doing what amounts to a middle-manager job, say around the level of a school bursar?

    It stinks.

  • Pigeon Toes

    Well if the secondee is carrying out a valuable service for this private sector , then why not pay him the full salary?

    Alternatively, in the real world the secondee is only worth £53, so one has to wonder why the civil service doesn’t just recruit staff with those skills already.

    Indeed, why are the public picking up the rest of the tab for the secondee training?

  • Pigeon Toes

    £53k

  • Pigeon Toes

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-15839832
    “A new row has erupted over senior civil servant Paul Priestly, who was disciplined for gross misconduct…..But a member of the assembly’s Public Accounts committee, John Dallat has said Mr Priestly did not meet the civil service’s criteria for secondment.

    Mr Dallat said he wants to know how a civil servant – demoted for gross misconduct after being found to interfere with the work of the committee – was able to be seconded.

    He has now written to the head of the civil service, Malcolm McKibbin, demanding an explanation.

    According to Mr Dallat the qualifying criteria for secondment includes “a satisfactory record of conduct, performance and attendance”.

    He also pointed out that the secondment must be of benefit to the civil service and meet the business needs of the department or branch.

    He alleges Mr Priestly fails to meet the criteria, adding: “In addition the head of the civil service refuses to say where Mr Priestly is working, other than to confirm he is in the private sector and that the taxpayers are bearing 46% of his salary.”…