The civil service in Scotland has not been 'captured' by the SNP, according to trade unions representing officials.

Leaders of the FDA and Prospect hit back after opposition politicians made claims of pro SNP bias against the organisation in the wake of messages between ministers and civil servants were released to the UK Covid inquiry.

Appearing before the inquiry last month, national clinical director Jason Leitch denied giving Humza Yousaf a "workaround" to Covid rules when he was health secretary by advising him to keep a drink in his hand at all times to remain "exempt" from face mask rules at a dinner.

READ MORE: SNP ministers face FoI investigation after deletion of Covid WhatsApps

Mr Leitch also said he followed Scottish Government records management policies and described a WhatsApp comment he made about deleting messages being a "pre-bed ritual" as a "flippant exaggeration".

Messages between Mr Yousaf and Mr Leitch also revealed the latter described a female Labour MSP as a "new girl" and said a Tory MSP had been "harrumphing like a child".

Separate messages showed Ken Thomson, the then director-general of strategy and external affairs for Nicola Sturgeon’s administration, had joked with his colleagues that his middle names were “plausible deniability” and warning that “seriously” that everything in their WhatsApp group was “discoverable under FOI” [freedom of information] rules. 

“Clear chat” he advised. 

READ MORE: Scotland’s civil service has been 'captured wholesale' by SNP

Last week a senior figure signed “Scott”, identified as Scott Wightman, the Scottish Government’s director of external affairs, sent a message in the summer of 2020 from the then deputy first minister John Swinney’s email account warning that travel restrictions affecting Spain might have “political” consequences because the government in Madrid “will never approve EU membership for an independent Scotland”.

The Scottish Conservatives wrote last week to Scotland’s most senior civil servant, the permanent secretary John-Paul Marks, urging him to open an investigation into the “alarming politicisation” of his staff under the SNP government.

Referring to Mr Wightman's intervention over travel restrictions to Spain, a Labour source told the Herald on Sunday: "That a civil servant would not just think this way but contribute it to a policy discussion shows the extent of how pervasive the thought process of constitutional division has become in the civil service.

READ MORE: Civil servant said Spain may block EU entry if travel not allowed

“They have been captured wholesale and the lines between political interest and public service have not just become blurred, they have disappeared."

On Thursday, Mr Thomson left his latest job as chairman of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland for “personal reasons”. 

Richard Hardy, National Secretary for Scotland and Ireland of Prospect, drew attention to the criticism of Mr Wightman and wrote on Twitter/X: "The Civil Service exists to advise on and implement Government policy, it’s not “capture” when they do this. It’s very disappointing to find politicians attacking the civil service for doing their job. We are seeing this behaviour far too often recently."

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, wrote on Twitter/X: "Politicians, whether in government or opposition, have a responsibility to protect the impartiality of the civil service. That includes not making sweeping accusations about an entire service based on an individual incident, however legitimate that concern is."

Writing in The Times, Allan Sampson, national officer for Scotland and Northern Ireland of the FDA, commented on the issues raised by the Covid inquiry about civil service impartiality.

He insisted while "mistakes were inevitable" the civil service acted with "integrity, honesty and impartiality to provide the support and challenge ministers needed".

He said: "Civil servants across Scotland made a vital contribution to protecting the lives and wellbeing of our citizens during the pandemic. 

"Quickly adapting to the new reality, the civil service effectively reorganised itself overnight to facilitate remote working and ensure the continued delivery of essential services.

"Officials, from the most senior grades to the most junior, were working 14-hour days, seven days a week, seeking to understand the mountains of data on the virus; developing strategies to keep our population safe; sourcing PPE for those in our health and care services; and trying to make sure our children could continue to receive an education and that public services remained staffed.

"In unprecedented times and under incredible pressure to make decisions and act quickly, I know our members did their best to abide by the values of the civil service, acting with integrity, honesty and impartiality to provide the support and challenge ministers needed.

"Of course, lessons must be learnt from what went right and indeed what went wrong — in such a constantly evolving situation, some mistakes were inevitable. While the consequences of these mistakes should not be diminished, what’s important is to ascertain what were genuine mistakes, made in good faith with the best information available at the time, and those that should have been avoided."

He added: "It is my sincere belief that this is what the Covid inquiry is attempting to achieve.
"However, in the broader commentary surrounding the work of the inquiry, we’re starting to see a series of attacks that paint civil servants as political operatives seeking to cover up for the government at Holyrood.

"For this to go unchallenged sets a dangerous precedent. A civil servant’s duty of impartiality means they cannot speak up to defend themselves publicly, so it is the responsibility of ministers to defend them. We’ve seen this far too often in Westminster over recent years, where politicians have been more than willing to throw their staff under a bus for political expediency.

"I speak with civil servants every day. They go into their jobs knowing they could serve governments of all colours and leave their political views at the door. Most could leave for better paid jobs in the private sector but stay because of a genuine commitment to the public."

"There are legitimate questions to answer regarding the Scottish government’s internal policies on preserving an “official record” of decision-making, and it is right that a full review of these policies takes place.

"Where things have clearly gone wrong they should be fully investigated, but to suggest that large swathes of Scottish civil servants were working in contravention of the civil service code just isn’t based in reality, and is having a corrosive effect on public trust in our institutions."