The prime minister’s standards adviser is set to get an expanded team with four new members of staff after a row over Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat refurbishment.
The Cabinet Office is currently recruiting for four staff to join the current “handful” in Christopher Geidt’s team following the adviser’s calls for “considerably greater authority”, Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday.
The PM’s independent adviser on ministerial standards outlined his intentions for the role in a letter to Wragg last week, saying he expects “greater authority and independence” by April.
In a session that was overshadowed by chair William Wragg’s accusations that No.10 had sought to “blackmail and intimidate” MPs trying to topple the prime minister, Chisholm also admitted his department “might have been done better” at sharing information during Geidt’s investigation into the funding for the refurbishment.
Johnson apologised earlier this month for failing to provide Geidt with details of all his communications with David Brownlow, the Tory donor who funded the £142,000 refurbishment of his No.11 Downing Street flat.
Geidt said the Cabinet Office’s approach to his investigation into funding arrangements for the refurbishment of the flat, which overlapped with a separate statutory investigation by the Electoral Commission, “shook his confidence” in the system.
Johnson told Geidt that although Brownlow had offered to share the material he submitted to the Electoral Commission with the Cabinet Office, officials declined the offer because the department was an interested party in the statutory investigation.
The adviser then learned of the publication of the commission’s report on the day it was published, before anyone at the Cabinet Office – where his secretariat is based – had told him about it.
Asked about the Cabinet Office’s handling of the two investigations, Chisholm told PACAC: “From what I can see it looks an absolutely correct decision to have not tried to make common cause with other parties in a formal statutory investigation.
“The bit that might have been done better, with hindsight, is the fact that there was other information. When officials in Downing Street became aware of that, that could have been brought immediately to the attention of Lord Geidt.”
A small number of Downing Street officials were made aware of texts between Brownlow and Geidt from the initial notice of the Electoral Commission’s findings, Chisholm said, but received the information under “very strict confidentiality restrictions”.
“They didn't feel they could go rushing around telling people in the Cabinet Office.”
Chisholm answered questions at yesterday’s PACAC session alongside Stephen Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister.
Asked whether Cabinet Office staff would receive training about their duties to share information, Barclay said staff were now clear about their responsibilities but would be provided with further training.
The duo also answered questions on the controversial VIP lane for PPE procurement; whether Sue Gray would finally come to the committee to speak about the Greensill scandal; plans to improve diversity in the Cabinet Office; and the department’s changed role and the Freedom of Information clearing house.
Justifications for the PPE VIP lane
Earlier this month, the High Court ruled that the government's operation of a "high priority lane" to allow MPs and ministers to recommend PPE suppliers was "unlawful".
Attempting to justify the VIP lane, Chisolm said there was a “global scramble” to get hold of PPE and the government’s existing supply chains were adequate for a few million pieces of PPE, not the several billion needed.
“If we tried to rely on existing provision, we would still be waiting for that PPE now,” he said.
He said the government's “general call to arms” left departments “bombarded” with help.
Email communications, however, suggest the high-priority lane caused its own issues, leaving civil servants “drowning” in unsuitable VIP requests.
Chisholm said 430 companies were processed for the high-priority lane and just 10% were successful. However, the National Audit Office found VIP lane suppliers were 14 times more likely to be awarded a contract than others.
Greensill: Will Sue Gray finally come to PACAC?
Barclay did not give much away about whether Sue Gray, now Cabinet Office second perm sec, would finally appear before PACAC to give evidence on Greensill. Former Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove blocked her from attending the committee in July, instead speaking to the committee on her behalf.
Gray was director general for the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team when the supply-chain finance firm’s founder, Lex Greensill, was hired as a government adviser. PACAC had wanted to question her as she had overseen the recruitment process.
Barclays said it is traditional for the minister to give evidence if they feel best placed to do so, rather than a civil servant, but that he has always been happy in previous roles for officials to give evidence. He said he would give the request “careful consideration” and write to PACAC in the “coming days” with his decision.
Chisholm said the Cabinet Office has not yet appointed a chair for its review of the controversial FOI clearing house unit, which was announced by Chloe Smith, an ex-Cabinet Office minister, in August 2021.
The clearing house, which has been in operation since 2004, vets “sensitive” requests from journalists and others. Barclay told the committee he “very rarely” makes decisions on FOI requests.
Asked to explain what the Cabinet Office is doing to ensure new staff come from as diverse a pool of candidates as possible, Barclay said: “This is something that hugely matters to me.”
“I'm very keen that diversity is embraced in all its forms. By that I mean diversity of gender or race, of geography, of different educational routes into senior roles.
“I think one of the issues of diversity is where, if one looks at the diversity of chief execs, one actually needs to look at the roles beneath that to create a ladder through and so for ourselves in the civil service that starts with things like the fast stream so that we have the pipeline or the ladder through to generate diversity when it comes to more senior civil servants.”
He also outlined a commitment to “use data to drive change” in diversity.
Focusing on data, Chisholm said the Cabinet Office has made progress “on all fronts” in appointing staff from more diverse backgrounds, with the share of women appointees up from 44% to 46% in the last year, those from ethnic minority backgrounds up from 9% to 11% and the number of civil servants outside London up from 57% to 61%.