'The war against lanyards': Starmer mocks PM over 'ban' on rainbow lanyards in civil service

Sir Keir Starmer said the PM was acting like a "jumped up milk monitor". Credit: House of Commons

Sir Keir Starmer has criticised the PM for the government's announcement of a ban on "colourful lanyards" in the civil service, accusing Rishi Sunak of acting like a "jumped up milk monitor".

The Labour leader said Mr Sunak had been focusing too much on "the war against lanyards", rather than on issues like the "prison system in chaos".

Discussions around rainbow lanyards have swirled in Westminster since government minister Esther McVey announced a ban on rainbow-coloured and other "random" lanyards in the civil service, because she said they're an expression of "political views".

Some members of the civil service choose to wear rainbow lanyards, sometimes to indicate support for LGBTQ+ rights, or to show support for the NHS.

During her speech at the Centre for Policy Studies, Ms McVey who is informally known as the "common sense minister" said: "People want their public servants to be getting on with the jobs of making their lives better."

"The lanyards worn to carry security passes shouldn't be a random pick and mix, they should be a standard design reflecting that we're all members of the government delivering for the citizens of the UK," she said.

"Working for the civil service is all about leaving your political views at the building entrance, trying to introduce them by the backdoor via lanyards should not happen."

Since the comments by Ms McVey, new civil service guidance has come out which doesn't reference any ban on rainbow lanyards. Despite this, the PM and a number of cabinet ministers have defended the thinking behind Ms McVey's comments.

During Prime Minister's Questions, Sir Keir mocked the PM over the lanyard debate: "On Monday the prime minister treated us to his seventh relaunch in eighteen months, he vowed to take on the dangers that threaten the country. So it was good to see the minister for common sense immediately take up that mantle, by announcing a vital crackdown on the gravest of threats - colourful lanyards."

In response to the attack by Sir Keir, Mr Sunak doubled down the comments by his common sense minister, saying "civil service impartiality is an important principle that we're right to support. Perhaps he should ask his chief of staff about that".

The Labour leader's chief of staff Sue Gray was a senior civil servant before joining Sir Keir's team.

The Times newspaper reported on Wednesday that a Tory MP had observed "a lot more people in Parliament than usual wearing rainbow lanyards in a show of solidarity."

A refresh of the guidance provided to civil servants on their duty to remain impartial was published on Tuesday night, which said they must “always be guided by the core values of objectivity and impartiality set out in the Civil Service code when carrying out work in diversity and inclusion”, but made no direct reference to staff lanyards.

The guidance said the civil service’s diversity and inclusion strategy was aimed at ensuring such values were “mainstream”, while adding there was no requirement for “homogeneity or conformity of belief or views”.

It also said that while civil servants “must have a shared goal to tackle discrimination and prejudice, views on how to practically address issues relating to diversity and inclusion are varied”.

The guidance advised civil servants against “presenting subjective views or theories relating to diversity and inclusion as accepted fact or as the position of their organisation”.

In a written statement published at the end of the Commons sitting day on Tuesday, Ms McVey said: “The guidance makes clear that civil servants must not allow their personal political views to determine their actions or any advice they give related to diversity and inclusion in any part of their employment.”

During PMQs Sir Keir Starmer also attacked the PM over overcrowing in prisons during PMQs, after a new government scheme to release some prisoners early was extended in February.

"Are any of the prisoners he's letting out early considered to be high risk?", the Labour leader asked.

Mr Sunak responded by insisting "no-one will be put on the scheme if they're deemed a threat to the public."

Labour's Shadow Minister without Portfolio Nick Thomas-Symonds criticised the comments by Ms McVey on Wednesday morning, saying he thought it was "incredible" that lanyards are the focus of the government and "not the challenges being faced by the country."

"When we have a situation of a cost of living crisis as acute as it is, when we have public services on their knees after 14 years of Conservative government, that the colour of lanyards is the government's priority really shows how out of touch they are", he remarked.

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