Watchdog says 'no evidence' Sue Gray broke rules as ex-official given six-month wait to start Labour job

Committee rejects suggestions Labour job talks influenced Gray's Partygate report
Sue Gray. Photo: Ian Davidson/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

02 Jul 2023

Sue Gray has been cleared to work as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff but has been given a six-waiting period before she can start.

Gray, who left her role as second perm sec at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in March to join Starmer’s team, has been unable to work while the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments considered what restrictions to place on the move.

The revolving-doors watchdog said “no evidence” was provided by departments to demonstrate that Gray “made decisions or took action in office which favoured the employer” in expectation of getting a role with the Labour party , including during her role investigating Partygate.

ACOBA also revealed that Gray had applied for the position of second permanent secretary at the now-defunct Department of International Trade in November, prior to being offered the Labour role, but was unsuccessful. DIT instead appointed Transport second permanent secretary Gareth Davies, who has since become Department for Business and Trade perm sec following February’s machinery of government changes.

Gray told the committee she was called by the Labour leader in late October 2022 about the chief of staff position. She said she held several subsequent brief informal conversations with his team, but told the committee she did not believe there was a conflict with the specifics of her work.

There was no formal offer of employment until 2 March 2023, Gray told the committee. Any talks before that were high level and short and did not include discussions of terms, government policy or business, and she was not asked to indicate when she might leave the civil service, Gray added.

Gray, who joined DLUHC from the Cabinet Office in 2021, also said she had been exploring other civil service roles – such as the DIT role she unsuccessfully applied for – and other external posts during this period.

The report said: “It is quite normal for individuals to discuss the possibility of new roles before leaving office. Any potential conflict must be declared.

“The committee’s remit is concerned with whether any contact with the future employer could lead to reasonable concerns that decisions or actions taken in office may have been impacted by the expectation of a paid appointment in the future. The committee has not been provided with any evidence to demonstrate this has been the case.”

News of Gray’s resignation and plans to work for the Labour Party leader sparked accusations from some Conservative MPs that she was not impartial while carrying out her Partygate investigation. Former Cabinet Office minister and Boris Johnson loyalist Jacob Rees-Mogg said it made the probe look “like a left-wing stitch-up”, while Johnson himself said it was “surreal to discover that the [Privileges] committee proposes to rely on evidence culled and orchestrated by Sue Gray, who has just been appointed chief of staff to the leader of the Labour party”. The report was published in May 2022, five months' before Gray said she had first contact with Starmer over the chief of staff role.

The Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities both told the committee the Partygate investigation was not material to the committee’s consideration.

Imposing a six-month wait from the date Gray left the civil service the committee said there would be “limited scope” for Gray to offer unfair influence in securing access to government but “there remains a potential risk to the perceived impartiality of the civil service that would be exacerbated if Gray was to take up this role and have direct contact across government immediately on leaving office”.

Former perm secs and second perm secs must wait a minimum of three months before taking up a role outside government. The Cabinet Office and DLUHC had called for a 12-month break. They said their main concern was that the appointment "threatens to weaken public trust in the impartiality of the civil service, and in the democratic system".

The committee also said Gray should not be personally involved in lobbying the government on behalf of the opposition for two years from the date she left the civil service. Gray told ACOBA she would not lobby the government, but would expect to have some contact with the government such as on national security matters such as Ukraine, and constitutional and Royal issues, as well as preparatory contact with the cabinet secretary and his team during the pre-election period.

ACOBA also used its advice letter to express disappointment at the amount of briefing to media over this case. The report said: “Briefings of this nature, wherever they stem from, are injurious to a fair and confidential process. The committee wants to make this process faster and fairer to applicants and this can only be achieved if all parties provide timely information in confidence and keep it as such.”

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