Covid Inquiry: Sue Gray says siloed working 'worse in Northern Ireland than Whitehall'

Former Cabinet Office second perm sec tells panel devolved governments need to work more closely with Westminster on emergency responses
Sue Gray gives evidence to the Covid Inquiry this morning Photo: Covid Inquiry/YouTube

By Jim Dunton

16 May 2024

Sue Gray has told the Covid Inquiry that she witnessed greater levels of siloed working when she was on secondment with the Northern Ireland Civil Service than she did in Whitehall.

Gray was permanent secretary of Northern Ireland's Department of Finance between April 2018 and May 2021 before she returned to Whitehall to become second perm sec at the Cabinet Office. Last year she quit the civil service to become Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer's chief of staff.

Giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry this morning as part of its examination of Northern Ireland's response to the pandemic, Gray said Stormont departments were much more insular than their UK government counterparts.

"There is definitely a culture issue about working in silos in Northern Ireland," she said. "I wouldn't say it's just for Northern Ireland. There is also an element of silo working in the UK civil service."

Asked by inquiry counsel Nick Scott whether siloed working is "more pronounced" in Northern Ireland, Gray answered: "Yeah".

Gray told the inquiry that there was a level of collaboration between departments, citing examples of support-scheme development and delivery. But she acknowledged collaboration was not ingrained and said changing "the approach and the culture" could boost inter-departmental working.

Gray said she did not believe it would have been possible to be a second perm sec with a brief spanning two departments in Northern Ireland.

"Reflecting on my own role, when I went back to Whitehall, for the first six to nine months I was in the Cabinet Office and then there was a machinery of government move so some of my responsibilities went to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and I also held second permanent secretary there," she said.

"So I was in two departments performing that role. It's quite hard to think that would be possible to do here [in Northern Ireland]. And there were tremendous benefits from being in two departments. You're able to use the weight of both departments to get things done."

Inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett asked Gray directly about the Northern Ireland Department of Health's decision not to trigger so-called NICCMA emergency arrangements at the outset of the pandemic.

Hallett said arguments she had heard suggested the department didn't have the resources to trigger the arrangements, short for NI Central Crisis Management Arrangements, fearing the move would take staff away from work they were doing.

"Because the Department of Health didn't trigger or suggest that NICCMA be triggered, nobody else did because they're all working in silos," Hallett said.

She asked Gray whether she could think of any possible solution to such a problem, apart from more staff.

Gray suggested that responsibility for triggering NICCMA could be moved to Northern Ireland's Executive Office.

"In the Westminster model, there is the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, which is hugely influential," she said.

"It sits in the Cabinet Office and reports directly to the cabinet secretary. It's got an authority. It is a hugely serious body that can be stood up immediately.

"In the Northern Ireland model... I don't think the Executive Office has a similar power, I suppose, as the Cabinet Office equivalent.

"If it's in a particular lead department, if they were thinking about the resourcing and why they wouldn't do it, there should be another way of making sure that gets triggered and I think there is a role for the Executive Office."

Elsewhere in her evidence session – which lasted less than one hour – Gray said she believed the UK's devolved governments should have more early-stage discussions on emergency planning with Westminster.

"Sometimes, unfortunately, they are not brought in at the earliest stages of development," she said. "Conversations happen a bit further down the road and I think that's difficult for devolved governments, who will not have the [same] capacity and resources as the Westminster government to be involved."

She added: "The devolved governments, if they are invited to that sort of approach, then they need to embrace it as well."

Today's session did not broach Gray's investigations into the Partygate scandal, in which rule-breaking parties and other get-togethers were hosted on government premises at the height of the Covid pandemic.

The inquiry continues.

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