Partygate revelations in Sue Gray’s report were “horrifying”, Simon Case told MPs on Tuesday during an occasionally tense session in which the cabinet secretary was interrogated about a number of aspects relating to illegal gatherings at the centre of government during the pandemic.
Case finally appeared before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this week after ministers delayed the session – originally due to take place on 23 May – until Gray’s report on the Covid rule-breaking at No.10 was released.
With Case facing the committee for the first time since March 2021, there was no shortage of topics to discuss, in what has been a busy year for scandals at the heart of government.
Despite the best efforts of former Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell and committee chair William Wragg, Case would not be drawn into discussing the prime minister's reported attempts to employ his now-wife, then-girlfriend at the Foreign Office.
Rather, the cabinet secretary chose to discuss plans to strengthen appointment rules in general, progress on disciplining civil servants over Partygate, and how his own actions during the pandemic are being investigated.
Here is what we learnt.
‘Horrifying’ – Case’s view on Partygate
Simon Case had his first public opportunity to open up on Partygate, the scandal which dominated the headlines for months and led to the Met Police handing out 126 fines to 83 individuals, including ministers, civil servants and special advisers.
Asked if he felt the saga highlighted a failure of officials to meet the Nolan Principles – a set of guiding principles on how to behave in public life – Case took a full 10-second pause before responding.
“Mistakes were made,” he said.
“Boundaries weren’t observed. Some of the conduct that is described in Sue Gray’s report is horrifying in any setting. I think that people have let themselves down. People have apologised.
“I’ve worked in and around Downing Street for a good deal of the last 15 years. I have always been very proud to work in this organisation. And I still remain deeply proud.
“Some of the people who were caught up in these events are those same people who worked unbelievably hard in the national interest during the pandemic.”
Case said all leaders who were in charge at the time of the scandal must bear responsibility for the culture that allowed Partygate to happen.
“The biggest responsibility we have got is to make sure that this never happens again,” he added.
Partygate disciplinary processes are now underway
Following the completion of the Sue Gray and Met Police investigations into Partygate, Case said the civil service has now set in motion disciplinary processes which he expects to be finished in “weeks”.
“There are huge levels of uncertainty hanging over individuals who are part of this and significant public interest in us resolving these questions as fast as possible,” Case said.
Civil servants do not have to admit fines, however, which means some may be able to avoid the process.
The disciplinary process is being overseen by individual figures who “weren’t anything to do with the events”, Case said.
This means that Case will not be involved. This will represent the second time he has recused himself from processes relating to Partygate: he passed the initial investigation over to Gray after it emerged a gathering had taken place in his own office.
Case discussed whether he would leave if fined
Case’s own involvement in the scandal is being investigated by the Civil Service Commission. The cabinet secretary avoided a Partygate fine despite attending the same event which Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak were fined for. Asked if he would have stayed on as cabinet secretary if he had received a fixed penalty notice, Case said he had discussed this with senior colleagues and ex-senior civil servants.
“The majority of people thought that receiving a fixed penalty notice shouldn’t automatically mean that I had to step down but…it remains a hypothetical,” Case said.
He said “many” officials who were fined over Partygate have left, and some had resigned over it. He also said that he does not think it is likely that those who left over Partygate will want to return.
How much time Case spends on propriety and ethics
Case, who is both cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, has many responsibilities – in 2015 former cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood identified eight – but Case told the committee he spends up to 30% of his time on propriety and ethics. However, he said this is usually those areas where policy and ethics intertwine.
This percentage could increase further until a replacement for the prime minister’s former ethics adviser Christopher Geidt is appointed. Until this happens, Case and Darren Tierney – director general for propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office, who appeared alongside Case at the hearing – said they would take on any new investigations.
Finding a successor for Geidt might take a while, as there is yet another review of the ethics adviser role, which was only reformed a few weeks ago.
Case said the review would look into whether the role should change from an individual to a team, whether there is enough support for the ethics adviser and the impact of the role becoming more public.
Ministers are considering beefing up ACOBA rules
Tierney said ministers are currently considering ways to enforce the rules on appointments taken up by those who have recently left government, which are set by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
This could include using contracts and employment law, Tierney said. He said the civil service has put forward a series of recommendations but could not confirm when ministers will decide which to introduce.
Meanwhile, Case said making non-executive directors subject to Acoba rules would not be proportionate as they are more distant from decision-making.
He confirmed, however, that ministers would go forward with the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommendation that NED appointments should go through a standard regulated public appointments process.
Job cut plans were fast-forwarded
Case also revealed that the huge civil service cuts planned over the next three years were initially set to be announced at the next spending review in 2024.
The cabinet secretary said plans to return the civil service to 2016 levels were accelerated due to “changing economic circumstances”.
Explaining ministers' reasoning, he said: “Brexit now has become largely business as usual, the pandemic is over and there is obviously the external economic pressures on the government.”