Boris Johnson flouted the wishes of the civil service ethics chief by declining to charge a free trade think tank for its launch event at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The foreign secretary told Parliament this week that launch of the Institute for Free Trade in the FCO’s map room last September had taken place at “no cost to the public purse”.
But a series of confidential emails between civil servants have revealed that the Foreign Office was told to waive its usual £6,000 fee on the grounds that the think tank supports government policy. However, the emails also disclose that after the event Sue Gray, the Cabinet Office director general of propriety and ethics, told Johnson to charge IFT retrospectively, which he refused.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union for senior civil servants, has criticised Johnson for using the civil service and its estate as a “plaything” to support his own pet project.
The documents, obtained by Greenpeace this week, make it clear that after the launch Gray and the Foreign Office permanent secretary Simon McDonald were made aware of Johnson’s decision and opposed it.
In an email sent on 29 September 2018 to Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s press secretary, and David Frost, his special adviser, a civil servant whose name has been redacted said: “Sue Gray is clear that IFT should pay the room fee, at full commercial rate. Simon agrees. Can I ask you to liaise with them so that I can confirm this is happening by cop [close of play] today?”
There was no response to this email among the documents published by Greenpeace, but the Foreign Office has confirmed that the IFT was not charged retrospectively.
The email followed another from the day before containing information that was to be passed on to Gray regarding the launch. It stated: “IFT organised and paid for the event, including issuing invitations and arranging the guest list. FCO officials provided basic logistical support. The room fee was waived as it was an event under ministerial auspices and supporting HMG objectives (which is in line with our rules on the use of FCO facilities).”
A Foreign Office official told Greenpeace that the event was handled in line with the “long-standing policy” to allow a wide range of non-government organisations, including thinktanks, to use its premises – and to waive the room hire charge in cases where events support the government’s objectives.
The department has since changed its policy but decided “it would not be appropriate” to charge for the room retrospectively.
The IFT is headed by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who is a proponent of the UK moving towards a Singapore-style economy. Labour MP Chuka Umunna wrote to civil service head Sir Jeremy Heywood last September asking him to investigate the propriety of allowing the launch to take place on government property when it was promoting an agenda “at variance with publicly stated government policy”.
The emails also revealed that Johnson had confirmed he was happy to sign off on waiving the fee. In an earlier email from June, an FCO official from the Trade Diplomacy Unit told Frost that “the FCO will have lost income on the hire of the room (about £6,000 – I will check the exact figure; small change I know in the big scheme) – is the FS aware of that and content to sign it off?”
Frost confirmed that Boris Johnson was happy to do so.
The FDA’s Penman pointed out that the revelation comes amid attacks from other politicians on civil service impartiality and integrity.
“The civil service, its values and its estate, cannot simply be the plaything of minsters to support their own pet projects," he told The Guardian. "Once again, we see politicians who cannot separate their own ideological beliefs from the responsibilities of ministerial office.”