Ministers have stopped cabinet secretary Simon Case and government ethics chief Darren Tierney from appearing before a committee of MPs probing the Greensill scandal, Partygate and the government’s plans to reduce the civil service headcount by 91,000.
The pair had been due to answer questions before members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee tomorrow, where they would have been grilled about the lobbying scandal, the latest incarnation of Whitehall reform and the Partygate imbroglio.
But on Friday, PACAC confirmed it was cancelling the evidence session after Case and Cabinet Office DG Tierney were “blocked” from appearing. Last year then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove used his powers to block former ethics chief Sue Gray from giving evidence to the committee as part of its Greensill investigations.
The news comes as Gray, who has been leading the government's internal probe into Covid rule-breaking gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall, is expected to publish her final findings this week.
The conclusion of the Met Police investigation into Partygate events cleared the way for Gray's report to be published, and the deadline set by Gray for officials to object to it has now passed.
It has been reported that the Case – who was leading the investigation until it emerged that he may have been present at one of the events being investigated – could be set to shoulder much of the blame for allowing a culture where drinking and gatherings were tolerated during lockdowns.
In December, it was reported that the cab sec attended a drinks gathering while London was under Tier 2 Covid restrictions. The Cabinet Office has said Case was not involved in the event in question, but walked through the office while it was happening.
PACAC said tomorrow’s session had been confirmed “several weeks ago” as part of the panel’s inquiry into governance in light of Greensill. It said the session had also been due to cover the management of conflicts of interest and unregulated appointments in the civil service.
Committee chair William Wragg said the ministerial block placed on Case and Tierney’s appearance reflected badly on the government’s commitment to openness.
“The session with the cabinet secretary was an important one considering the number of propriety and ethics issues on the agenda,” he said.
“We had also hoped to get clarity on the government’s plans for civil service reform, public scrutiny of which was much needed after they were briefed to the press last weekend.
“The intervention to pull the session at such short notice evades timely parliamentary scrutiny of these plans and puts government transparency in a poor light.”
Leaked communications concerning the proposed civil-service headcount reduction, including an email from Case to staff last week, suggest planning is very much a work in progress, while the full detail of Sue Gray’s report on Covid-restriction-breaking get-togethers in Downing Street and Whitehall is yet to emerge.
Gray is expected to publish her report this week, before the parliamentary summer recess.
The veto placed on Case and Tierney’s appearance does not entirely amount to a ban, as the session has been rescheduled for 28 June.
When Gove, now secretary of state at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was asked about his decision to block Gray’s appearance before PACAC last year, he said it would have been “inappropriate” for a serving civil servant to answer the questions proposed.
He cited 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, referring to Wragg.