Row deepens over Treasury civil servants’ indyref role

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By Thomas Connolly

The row over the highly-charged role of the Treasury’s specially created referendum unit – first revealed by Newsnet Scotland – has deepened following the revelation that the chairman of a House of Commons Select Committee may probe comments attributed to a leading team member.

Mario Pisani was quoted by the leading trade journal Civil Service World as welcoming his team’s involvement in a political campaign, namely the independence referendum.

Pisani "cried" at result
Pisani “cried” at result

The deputy director of the Treasury, and a former speech writer to ex-Chancellor and Better Together campaign figurehead Alistair Darling MP, Pisani made several controversial remarks at a ceremony where he and the rest of the department’s “Scotland Analysis Programme Team” received the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Award in the annual Civil Service Awards.

According to a glowing review in the magazine, Civil Service World, the senior team “was tasked with producing analysis in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum of how both, Scotland and the rest of the UK, benefit from being part of one country”.

This aspect is controversial because civil servants are supposed to retain a strictly neutral profile during political campaigns. Ironically, Mr Darling and several leading Better Together figures had accused the Scottish Government of abusing the rules in its use of civil servants during the referendum campaign – a charge that was never proven, and for which Mr Darling provided no supporting evidence.

In contrast, the role of the Treasury has been at the eye of controversy within the Civil Service itself, not least because of the publication by the UK government of “advice” offered by its Permanent Secretary Sir Nick Macpherson in support of Chancellor George Osborne’s crucial intervention on the currency question.

Better Together sources have stressed post referendum how important the currency question was in persuading people to vote No, as well as giving Darling a bat with which to beat former First Minister Alex Salmond MSP during last summer’s TV debates.

Whether Macpherson’s advice – basically that in the event of a Yes vote he would give advice that a rUK Chancellor should not agree to a common currency deal with Scotland – was actually “impartial” has been a controversial point. The move, launched in a lightning visit to Edinburgh by Osborne – who refused, famously, to be interviewed on the subject by STV’s Bernard Ponsonby – is believed to have been initated by Darling, and received public support from Labour’s Ed Balls in the belief that a joint Unionist front would beat back the SNP position.

The decision to adopt Sterling post-independence was reached at the recommendation of the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers, after months of careful study. A full explanation of the rationale for Sterling was explained by Council chair Crawford Beveridge in a Bateman Broadcasting podcast during the campaign.

The Pisani comments have re-ignited controversy this week, with The National newspaper quoting Bernard Jenkin MP, Tory chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee as saying that it would study the remarks as part of a current inquiry into Civil Service impartiality and referenda.

Pisani – a former contributor to liberal journals such as the New Statesman as well as being a leading communications’ official for the Treasury – told Civil Service World: “In the Treasury, everyone hates you. We don’t get thanks for anything. This is one occasion where we’ve worked with the rest of Whitehall.
“We all had something in common, we’re trying to save the Union here, and it came so close. We just kept it by the skin of our teeth.

“I actually cried when the result came in. After 10 years in the civil service, my proudest moment is tonight and receiving this award.”
He added: “As civil servants you don’t get involved in politics. For the first time in my life, suddenly we’re part of a political campaign. We were doing everything from the analysis, to the advertising, to the communications. I just felt a massive sense of being part of the operation.”

The comments appear to be a direct breach of impartiality, although ultimately that may be for Mr Jenkin’s committee to decide.

Mr Pisani is the Treasury’s Deputy Director for Macroeconomic Coordination & Strategy Team, Economics Group. He was Mr Darling’s speechwriter during 2008-10 and was also speechwriter to Danny Alexander MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, specifically on the Scottish constitutional battle during May to September 2014.

He was cautioned by the police for his role in a late night fracas in a London bar in November 2012 according to several news reports in the London Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail.

The revelations about the civil service team and its award have been condemned by Christina McKelvey MSP on behalf of the SNP.