Did Jeremy Hunt ask civil servants to act unlawfully?


As Jeremy Hunt fights for his political career, this post looks at the role of his civil servants.

The Culture Secretary is in more than a little bit of hot water – the testimony and written evidence causing something of a storm on the day the UK officially entered double-dip recession territory.

Arguably Hunt has bought himself a little bit of time with the resignation of his special adviser Adam Smith. But that’s unlikely to be the end of it. David Leigh covered four key points in an opinion post for the Guardian which speaks for itself. This post looks at the conduct of civil servants – in particular his private office, and that of the private office of Department for Culture, Media and Sports’ special advisers.

Hunt made a statement in Parliament yesterday. Tom Watson MP asked whether this was a ‘one rogue adviser’, and a number of MPs asked the question as to who advised/suggested to the DCMS permanent secretary Jonathan Stephens that a special adviser could be the point of contact for News International rather than a civil servant. No response seems to have been forthcoming on the floor of the House, but I expect MPs will want to follow this up when the permanent secretary next appears before the Culture Committee – as he has to on a regular basis.

David Allen Green has made allegations of the Secretary of State’s conduct – and that of his private office. I won’t repeat them on this post but you can see them here and here. Given the allegations made about the conduct of Secretary of State’s private office, there are questions to be answered on what civil servants were asked to do – whether by the Secretary of State or his now ex-special adviser. I refer to 5.1 of the Ministerial Code and to paragraph 18 of the Civil Service Code, and to paragraph 17 of the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct. Ministers (and their special advisers) should not be asking their civil servants to do anything unlawful or illegal.

It’s rock and hard place stuff – in particular for junior officials. It can be a very lonely place when asked to do something that you have strong reservations about when very influential people seem to be moving full pelt. I’d like to think that someone put something on record with the email exchanges to say “I’m not comfortable with this”. This then puts the senior management – in particular the senior civil servants in the department under the spotlight. Were they aware of the activities of Mr Smith? Was anything raised? Were junior officials aware of the channels available to them to raise concerns if they had any?

What about the policy officials advising ministers on this case? Were any concerns raised about the alleged activities of the Secretary of State, his special adviser or the private offices? Were they even aware?

These are issues of propriety and public administration – not party politics. In this post I am asking questions, not making allegations. These are issues that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee may wish to follow as a line of questioning. One for Tom Watson and Louise Mensch?


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