NEW POLL: Is it time to end ‘politically restricted’ jobs?

Blogging Labour MP Tom Harris has an interesting story today, revealing that Tina Stowell, the BBC’s head of corporate affairs “is not only a wannabe Tory candidate, but still has a live website proclaiming her love of all things Cameron.” But Tom doesn’t point this out in order to fulminate or demand her resignation:

And you know something? I don’t have a problem with this. I would much prefer to know the politics of someone I’m dealing with because at least you know where they’re coming from. She wants to become an MP? Good for her! I hope she gets a nomination and then is soundly beaten by her Labour opponent.

But there will be those, understandably, with some qualms about someone in such an important and influential position in the BBC maintaining such an ostentatiously public position on politics, particularly in the run-up to the general election when the output of the BBC and other broadcasters will come under intense scrutiny by all the parties.

The wider question this poses is an interesting one: should we abolish ‘politically restricted’ posts?

‘Politically restricted’ is the term used to describe certain roles in the civil service, local government, police and other public bodies in which the post-holder cannot become involved in any active political role either in or outside the workplace. Those who are covered by the term are banned from holding political office, canvassing, or speaking or writing in public in any way which might give the impression that they support a particular political party.

Those who argue in favour of ‘politically restricted’ posts make the basic point: how can someone who is a known supporter of party X gain the trust of those who are active in party Y? For example, how would a Lib Dem leader of a council be able to work with a chief executive who was known to be a Tory supporter?

But Tom’s contrary point is clear enough: he’d rather know if an individual supports party X, rather than that they kept it secret.

What do Lib Dem Voice readers think? Here’s our poll question: Do you think we should abolish ‘politically restricted’ posts and allow public officials to become openly active in support of political parties if they want to?

The choice is simple: yes or no. The poll appears in the right-hand column of the home-page.

Discuss …

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  • I think the real problem is when you have Cllrs who can’t even go for Data Processing jobs – when I was a Cllr I was disallowed applying for such a job for the Greater Manchester Police Authority as the Borough I served in is part of Greater Manchester. What I would have found out that was a conflict of interest I don’t know. If it’s not right for me then surely it’s not right for her. I think the whole thing should be rethought.

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Feb '10 - 7:55pm

    Perhaps they should be applied to less things than currently, but I think there may be some jobs where this is important. It’s too complex for a blanket discarding of the concept.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Feb '10 - 8:57am

    The worst case I’ve heard was of someone whose employer gave permission for them to stand when asked, then when they won said that actually, their policy was that people automatically became politically restricted when they earned a certain amount

    Actually, until last month that was simply the law. Somebody in the authority concerned probably gave bad advice in the first place.

    It seems to be forgotten that the whole business of ‘politically restricted posts’ was invented only 20 years ago specifically in order to attack left-wing Councillors like Derek Hatton who were employed in what were generally considered to be well-paid sinecures by a neighbouring sympathetic Council in order to free them to pursue their political careers. It was an abuse, but the response was (unsurprisingly) excessive and partisan, and makes it impossible for people with considerable knowledge of and commitment to public services to take part in political activity, in which such knowledge and commitment might rationally be considered desirable.

  • The political restrictiions came in when badly thought through legislation was passed when disciplinary action should have been taken against individuals and we now have a law which is an a$$!

    I used to work for the BBC – no political restrictions but an ethos of impartiality which i and my colleagues kept and they still honour. There maybe institutional bias but definitely not one party politically biased. It is only bias to the ideal that there’s only two sides to any story, only two political parties, only right and wrong. Not the reality of the multifaceted and amazingly intricate nuances involved in every story, the diversity of political opinion and parties and that often as in business taking the several ideas and creating a collaboration is the best solution. (Contrast This Week with Question Time)

    I now work in a politically restricted post but as a section 9 exempted employee which means I work specifically for one political group and have to be a member of that party to hold that post. But the idiosyncracies of the law state that I am restricted from working in certains ways with that party outside of the job. But what reasonable person would ever consider or expect me to be impartial in my personal life if they know I am a member of a political party which they will do as soon as I say my job title?

    The general political restrictions (non Section 9) require people to be impartial in their working lives so their judgement can be trusted. It also requires them to be impartial in their private lives – but why?

    None of us are actually paid for 24 hours a day. I faced a similar problem with a commercial radio station which wanted me to sign a contract prohibiting any other employment etc. – as i was a company director at the time I declined.

    If you pay someone 24 hours a day you can ‘own’ me 24 hours a day, but most of us would like to think we can do what we like (within the law)in our own time.

    What is essential is i do the job i am paid for in the time i am paid to do it.

  • I disagree. I think having a permanent cadre of technicians who do not publicly espouse party political views is highly valuable to public services. I thought Richard Dannatt’s recent antics (feeding information to the opposition, and then planning to accept a peerage) were particularly damaging to the armed forces, and didn’t do him any credit either. I believe that when I advise a Minister, she should be able to rely on getting unbiased, expert advice – and the special advisors can overlay the political issues. When there is a change of Government, it can take Ministers a while to believe that their officials are not secretly still implementing the previous Government’s priorities – but I think this is nothing like as damaging as (say) the US system, where any thought of a Northcote-Trevelyan system of appointment on merit is abandoned in favour of settling political debts by giving people plum jobs in the administration.

  • Gordon – I’m not sure if it is my point you agree or disagree with but if it is you miss the point I make – I do give impartial advice already! I do that within the law and within the job. Why should I then be restricted from expressing that same political opinion in public?

    You also miss the point on the general political restrictions (non section 9) – of course the advice from the ‘neutral officer’ needs to be kept neutral. But them being allowed to express their ‘real’ opinion in public outside of their job doesn’t mean their ‘neutral’ opinion is affected. Conversely – if you do not know their ‘real’ opinion they can proffer their ‘real’ opinion as a ‘neutral’ opinion and you would be none the wiser! And they might not even know they were doing it either – no-one can escape their natural bias and preferences – life is about judgement and your ability to decide whether to take someone else’s judgement or to trust your own judegment. There are very few hard and fast facts.

    What Richard Dannart did just showed up him as an individual – you should not legislate for the majority on the actions of one or two individuals. What also happens if one person states one ‘neutral’ opinion inside their work and then another outside is that they would loose credibility and that’s what happened to Dannatt in your eyes certainly.

  • Sorry in the 1st paragraph that should be ‘partial’ not impartial of course! I am allowed by law to provide partisan advice.

  • Wildwest – sorry, I was disagreeing with the original proposition that political restriction should be abolished. I don’t have a strong view on your position – I assume you’re an assistant to a council group, or similar. In that case, I think there’s a relatively good argument for expecting political parties to provide such assistance – particularly if we moved to a system of state subsidies for political parties.

    The general assumption for politically restricted people is that you don’t comment on matters that may be party political. So, for example, you would not expect (to take a current news story) DH civil servants to get embroiled in the current row about whether a political consensus can be achieved on social care.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Feb '10 - 1:53pm

    “So, for example, you would not expect (to take a current news story) DH civil servants to get embroiled in the current row about whether a political consensus can be achieved on social care.”

    There’s sense in that, of course – but why on earth should that civil servant (and we’re not necessarily talking about Permanent Secretaries, here – it goes way down the scale) be forbidden from taking a public position on electoral reform, the war in Afghanistan, nuclear energy, etc.? It’s perfectly possible to have a specific provision – as a matter of contract rather than law, I’d suggest – forbidding a senior person from engaging in public advocacy of a position contrary to the policy of the authority they work for in the sphere of public policy that they are engaged in, without muzzling them on all issues.

  • Some jobs, such as those in a Ministerial Briefing Unit should be restricted for obvious reasons, but I think the number of restricted posts should be reduced.

    Teachers not being able to stand for council is an example of too much restriction, and councils are often large employers in a local authority area.

    I had to move from the Department of Health: though they may have let me remain – it was officially down to my HR manager, and that created a level of uncertainty which wasn’t expecially welcome.

  • Mike Falchikov 20th Feb '10 - 6:47pm

    There should still be some restrictions – Chief Execs. of councils, Permanent secretaries (and serving generals!)
    but there are still too many restrictions. Essentially, for public servants, it should be the work that they do, not the grade or salary level, that determines whether any restrictions should be placed on them. THere are still one-party fiefdoms in local government where certain practices apply i.e. if you happen to be a member of the ruling party then you get privileges as a public servant, if not, then unreasonable restrictions might be laid upon youi (all this of course, not officially recognised, but all done on a nod and wink basis).
    What is more insidious than actual restriction is the “there’s no actual bar, but we’d rather you didn’t.” THere is possibly rather less of this around now, especially since the rules on politically restricted posts are now more rerlaxed, as well as more explicit, but it’s an interesting debate, based on people’s actual experiences.

  • A shame the poll didn’t have more options. It’s not a exciting issue for many, but for say teachers – who are only really nominally employed by Councils, it’s a silly restriction. I could believe it dates back to the existance of education boards ? Politcial assistants for council groups seem to get a raw deal, especially when MPs staff for example are paid for by the taxpayer but, aren’t politically restricted.

    Richard Dannart was and is awful, but then he wants to be a Conservative Peer. It would be easy for him to be political (and perhaps more effective) if he wasn’t known to be a Conservative.

    I think the restrictions should be removed from or modified for most public sector employees.

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