Case: Civil service code guidance to be reviewed following Sue Gray exit-investigation

Cab sec says officials should be transparent with their line managers if they receive a job offer
Simon Case at PACAC. Photo: Parliamentlive.tv

By Tevye Markson

12 Jul 2023

Guidance on applying the civil service code will be updated following the investigation into Sue Gray’s departure to take up a role for the leader of the opposition, the cabinet secretary has said.

Speaking to MPs, Simon Case said guidance for civil servants on impartiality had not anticipated the circumstances of the Gray case – a senior civil servant joining a political party as a special adviser.

Earlier this month, Jeremy Quin, minister for the Cabinet Office, said in a ministerial statement that Gray’s failure to declare contact with Labour leader Keir Starmer whilst second permanent secretary in the levelling up department was a "prima facie" breach of the civil service code. A few days earlier, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments said it found no evidence Gray had breached impartiality rules at any point in the process which led to her becoming chief of staff for Starmer and leaving the civil service in March.

Case was asked this morning by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee if he was satisfied that the civil service code and the civil service management code provides sufficient clarity to officials considering similar offers of employment.

The cab sec said the civil service code is “clear on impartiality” as a “foundation document which sets out the four values”. But he said guidance on how to apply the code, as well as a separate management code which sets out terms and conditions for officials’ contracts, had been “predominantly written with other things in mind”.

“I don't think anybody anticipated this particular set of circumstances in the code,” Case told the committee.

“The management code, particularly around where it's talking about people going into political roles, it really anticipates people going into elected roles. It talks about how you would have to stand down before you've sought election and that sort of thing.

“It doesn't really anticipate going to work as a special adviser type role. And a lot of it is around financial conflicts of interest, but obviously it is impossible to anticipate all of the circumstances that you face."

Ministers have agreed to review all relevant guidance in light of the Gray case, the cab sec said.

Case also reiterated Acoba’s findings that there was no evidence Gray had broken impartiality rules.

“I can be clear that we found no evidence that, whilst employed as a civil servant, Sue’s advice was coloured by party political views,” he said.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson and his supporters have claimed Gray's decision to accept the job offer from Starmer put her impartiality when writing the Partygate report last year into question. The report came out several months before Gray's first contact with the Labour leader, as Case pointed out to the committee.

In the ministerial statement outlining a “prima facie breach” of the civil service code, Quin suggested Gray had failed to follow HR guidance which says officials must declare all relevant outside interests to their line manager as soon as they arise. The guidance says all remunerated outside employment, work and appointments should be declared, but does not mention the need to declare an interest when applying for a job or receiving an offer.

Asked if civil servants should declare any job offer, Case said officials should be transparent with their line managers if they receive a job offer, “particularly where you're talking about going into a field where there is a conflict of interest or at least perceived conflict of interest”.

He said officials have, in other instances, immediately declared approaches from political parties to line managers.

Caser said being transparent with your line manager means “any necessary mitigating action can be taken” whilst a civil servant considers a job offer.

“It comes back to this foundation principle of our civil service around political impartiality and the ability to serve the government of the day, no matter what its colour, and to be able to maintain the confidence of ministers,” he added.

Case also said civil servants should be able to take up political roles as long as it doesn't "undermine" the impartiality of the civil service.

Gray was given a six-month waiting period before she can start the job for Starmer, above the minimum of three months in Acoba business rules for perm secs and second perm secs leaving government. As part of the review of civil service guidance, Case said the goverment will look into whether there should be a “clear definitive air gap” imposed on senior civil servants's contracts when leaving.

The cab sec also confirmed the government will respond to recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Nigel Boardman and PACAC on ethical standards reform in government before the summer recess. The CSPL and Boardman reports date back to 2021, while PACAC's report came out in December.

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