Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has been accused of blocking his department’s second permanent secretary Sue Gray from giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into the Greensill scandal.
William Wragg, who is chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, said Gray had been stopped from sharing her first-hand knowledge of key events involving Lex Greensill and former Cabinet Office chief commercial officer Bill Crothers with MPs.
He said Gray – who returned to Whitehall in April after three years leading Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance – had accepted an invitation to give evidence at a session today, only for the offer to be withdrawn at Gove’s behest.
“Sue Gray’s office had accepted our approach to have her appear to answer important questions surrounding Lex Greensill’s position at the heart of government. Regrettably, the rug has been pulled from under us by the Cabinet Office,” Wragg said.
“Although the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, offered to appear in her place, the committee summoned Ms Gray precisely because she had first-hand knowledge of Greensill’s appointment and has been name-checked by several witnesses to our inquiry.
“Sue Gray’s evidence would have made an important contribution to our inquiry in a way that Mr Gove’s clearly would not.”
Before Gray moved to the Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance she was director-general for the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team, a role that included leading the 2012 reform of non-departmental public bodies and an investigation into former Cabinet Office minister Damian Green.
She was famously once described by the BBC’s Newsnight programme as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”.
The committee said Gray had overseen Lex Greensill’s hiring as a government advisor and would have been questioned on that and on the “double hatting” of Bill Crothers, who simultaneously held positions as at the Cabinet Offic and at Greensill Finance.
Gray was one of the shortlisted candidates to succeed David Sterling as head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service last year. However the recruitment exercise was halted, the role was divided following a review, and a new recruitment exercise was launched. Jayne Brady was confirmed as the new NICS head last month.
Gray said she may have been seen as “too much of a challenger, or a disrupter” for the role in a May interview.
Asked about the cancellation of Gray’s appearance at the inquiry session in parliament last week, Gove said it would have been “inappropriate” for a serving civil servant to appear before MPs in the way proposed by Wragg.
Gove referred to the Osmotherly Rules, which cover the appearance of civil servants before parliamentary inquiries.
“They stress that serving civil servants act only in accordance with the wishes of ministers and therefore it is rarely appropriate for them to appear to be questioned in the way that my honourable friend would like,” he said.