The UK Government has said it will “tighten up” the way civil servants deal with devolved and reserved issues after a row over officials working on Scottish independence.

UK ministers also restated their commitment to a single Civil Service operating across the UK, with officials in Scotland ultimately answerable to the Cabinet Secretary in Whitehall.

Labour peer Lord Foulkes welcomed the statements and called on the UK Government to investigate the “rogue” SNP-Green Government for “violating” the limits on its powers.

It follows a row over Scottish Government civil servants working on a series of papers to promote independence, despite the Union being a matter reserved to Westminster.

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SNP and Green ministers have published nine Building a New Scotland papers despite there being no immediate prospect of an independence referendum.

The UK Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that Holyrood could not hold Indyref2 without Westminster consent and the Tories and Labour have both ruled it out.

Critics say the papers are political campaigning at the taxpayers’ expense.

Around 20 officials are reported to be working on them, with salary costs for the Constitutional Futures Division of around £1.4million in 2022/23.

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, the head of the UK civil service, said last July it was “unusual and worrying” for officials to be working on the break-up of the UK and promised new guidance for civil servants on the matter.

Rishi Sunak backed Mr Case’s review of the guidelines, while Humza Yousaf insisted he had a mandate from voters to pursue independence.

Civil servants working in Scotland are part of the UK-wide civil service, and must follow its rules, but also have a responsibility to deliver the Scottish Government’s policies.

The Herald:

In October, a report by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution warned this arrangement had the potential to “cause confusion, particularly when it comes to the boundary between devolved competence and reserved matters”.

It said it was “important that the principle of a single Civil Service across England, Wales and Scotland is maintained” and that if the most senior civil servants in England and Wales, the permanent secretaries, were concerned about being asked to work on tasks outside devolved competence they should raise it with the Cabinet Secretary as their line manager.

In cases of uncertainty, permanent secretaries should seek a “written direction” from the relevant devolved minister, creating a public record of the event, the Lords said.

Giving its response to the report today, the UK Government said: “The Government agrees with the Committee that the principle of a single Civil Service across England, Scotland and Wales must be maintained. 

“The Government recognises the strength of the argument that further guidance to tighten up best practice is required and is in the process of considering how such guidance would support civil servants working in the devolved administrations on areas that may relate to reserved matters, and help ensure the Civil Service Code is always maintained.”

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Lord Foulkes, a member of the Committee, welcomed the commitment to one civil service working across four nations, something he said the Scottish Government was "continuously attempting to undermine".

He said: “The SNP project has deliberately gnawed away at the boundary between devolved and reserved matters, and this report serves as a very timely reminder that utilising civil servants to support efforts to break up the UK does not fall under devolved competencies.

“However, words must now be turned into actions - one rogue administration cannot be allowed to stain the integrity of our civil service, with their petty identity politics

“I am therefore calling on the cabinet secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland to effectively enforce the boundaries around appropriate spending, and thoroughly investigate ongoing and historical violations.

“Swift action is needed to stop spending on a Minister for Independence, his support staff, pretend embassies and other reserved areas, when the money could be redirected to devolved areas which are being starved of resources."