Fears officials will be scapegoats in Downing St party probe

Civil service unions say ministers must take responsibility for any lockdown rule-breaking
Photo: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC/Crown Copyright/OGL

By Jim Dunton

09 Dec 2021

Unions representing government officials have called for ministers, not civil servants, to take responsibility for any breaches of lockdown rules identified in cabinet secretary Simon Case’s probe into Christmas parties at Downing Street last year.

The civil service’s biggest union, PCS, said ministers bore ultimate accountability for departmental operations and that their jobs should be on the line if evidence of guidance not being followed was uncovered.

Prospect, which represents professionals such as engineers and scientists in departments and agencies, echoed those sentiments and cautioned there was a danger officials would be scapegoated to save ministers’ backs.

The FDA, which represents senior leaders in the civil service and other parts of the public sector, said the investigation into the party allegations must be conducted in a way that was “free from political interference”.

Prime minister Boris Johnson yesterday asked Case to investigate reports that a Christmas party was held at No.10 – effectively under the PM’s own roof – on 18 December last year, following days of official assurances that no party had taken place and no guidance had been broken. Tier 3 restrictions introduced in London on 16 December 2020 prohibited indoor social gatherings involving people not part of the same household or support bubble.

Case’s investigation follows leaked video footage of Allegra Stratton, then the prime minister’s press secretary, answering practice media queries about the party. It shows Stratton joking: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.”

Some reports suggest up to 40 people attended the party, and that other festive gatherings were also held.

Johnson told MPs yesterday that he was “furious” about the video and seemingly acknowledged it was possible there could have been a Downing Street party after all. “It goes without saying that if those rules were broken, there will be disciplinary action for all those involved,” he said.

Stratton, who was made the government’s Cop26 spokesperson earlier this year, subsequently issued a tearful resignation statement.

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said senior politicians should not attempt to sacrifice the careers of civil servants to protect their own jobs.

“Government ministers must take responsibility for the events in Downing Street a year ago, they should not attempt to throw civil servants under the bus in an attempt to divert attention,” he said.

“The public expect real leadership to take responsibility and close this matter down. Only this will allow everyone to focus on keeping safe and limiting the spread of the virus.”

A PCS spokesperson said the reports of parties taking place in Downing Street while the public was following government advice were “a slap in the face” to thousands of families who had lost loved ones to coronavirus.

“If Downing Street broke Covid rules over Christmas last year while millions of people followed government guidance, then ministers responsible should resign,” the spokesperson said.

“It is only by everyone following safety precautions and getting the vaccine that we will be able to reduce deaths and protect the NHS.”

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said it was vital that the probe into the 2020 party allegations was wide-ranging and impartial.

“Rather than attempting to apportion blame or pass the buck, there must be a full investigation to establish the facts around the reported party at No. 10, and this must be carried out free from political interference,” he said.

“This should also be separate from the very important questions about the statements made by ministers, not least the prime minister, in recent days. It is vital for public confidence that ministers are entirely truthful at all times.”

Health secretary Sajid Javid told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he did not know Stratton’s precise reasons for resigning from her job.

“Perhaps it was because she was very embarrassed by the video and what happened and the way things looked. It may well be something like that,” he said.

Javid, who was not a member of the government in December last year, said he continued to believe official assurances that there had been no breaches of lockdown restrictions, but said he understood why the cabinet secretary had been asked to investigate.

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