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Top Civil Servants Made Formal Protests Over Labour Spending

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Civil servants came under increasing pressure from ministers in the dying months of the Labour government to carry out expensive orders that they disagreed with and responded by submitting an unprecedented number of formal protests in the run-up to the general election.

The five separate protests came in the form of written ministerial directions – requested by the most senior civil servant in a department when they disagree with a minister's decision so strongly that they refuse to be accountable for it.

The revelation adds weight to the coalition government's claims that ministers were profligate in the final weeks of the last government.

Such ministerial orders are rare and signify an irresolvable dispute between a minister and his most senior civil servant. Whitehall sources told the Guardian there had been five this year. Public records also show nine last year and five between 2008 and 2005.

That marks a big increase on the previous decade. A list of these ministerial directions published in the House of Commons shows that they were issued at a rate of two a year between 1990 and 2005.

The coalition government has this week condemned Labour's spending record. The chancellor, George Osborne, claimed he had found "all sorts of skeletons in various cupboards and all sorts of decisions taken at the last minute". Labour has strongly contested the allegations. The former chancellor Alistair Darling said: "Every new government tries blaming the last one."

But the existence of the letters of direction – which are not usually made public and are subject to a freedom of information request – provides independent evidence that will fuel the government's argument that the previous administration acted irresponsibly.

Evidence obtained through a parliamentary question, listing only the title of the dispute, reveals that value for money was the main cause of concern.

Five out of the nine last year involved Lord Mandelson and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. He clashed with civil servants over the car scrappage scheme and the decision to invest £10m in the Leeds Arena project.

One letter ordering a ministerial direction was leaked in February this year and involved Peter Housden, the permanent secretary and accounting officer at the Department for Communities and Local Government, disagreeing with the secretary of state, John Denham, over plans to make Exeter and Norwich unitary authorities, with responsibility for all functions of local government from schools to road building to social care. The letters showed Housden would not back the plan because he could not guarantee it offered "value for money".

A second from this year relates to Blackpool council's decision to buy three of the resort's failing but popular attractions – the tower, the Winter Gardens and the Blackpool golden mile. Rosie Winterton, then communities and business minister, announced on 30 March the £38.9m project to buy the assets and refurbish the rusting tower. It is understood that senior civil servants opposed the decision. The project was funded jointly by Blackpool council, the EU, the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the Homes and Communities Agency.

Civil servants covering there own backs or not being cynical they where trying to put the interests of the country first.

I hope to god this govt decides to set a precedent and try prosecuting the Labour ministers for treason.

It would certainly make politicians think twice before screwing the taxpayer in the future.

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I hope to god this govt decides to set a precedent and try prosecuting the Labour ministers for treason.

"endeavour to deprive or hinder any person who shall be the next in succession to the crown ... from succeeding after the decease of her Majesty (whom God long preserve) to the imperial crown of this realm and the dominions and territories thereunto belonging"

I think you'd have a job making that stick.

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  • 439 Brexit, House prices and Summer 2020

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