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.
“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.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty