Former ethics chief apologises for attending Cabinet Office lockdown party

Helen MacNamara says sorry for her "error of judgement" in attending leaving drinks
Downing Street sign

By Tevye Markson

04 Apr 2022

The government’s former ethics chief has apologised for her “error of judgement” in attending a party during lockdown.

Helen MacNamara, who was director general for propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office at the time of the lockdown breach, was fined £50 by the Met Police and is the first person to be named as part of its investigation into Partygate.

She is one of the first group of around 20 people to receive fines over the Covid Partygate scandal.

MacNamara, who was deputy cabinet secretary until she left the civil service last year, received the fine last week after police found she broke Covid laws by attending a leaving party for the then No.10 private secretary Hannah Young on June 18, 2020.

She said she had accepted and paid the fixed penalty notice, in a statement reported widely on various news websites, adding: "I am sorry for the error of judgement.”

The karaoke party  took place in then-cabinet secretary’s Mark Sedwill's office at 70 Whitehall. At the time, indoor gatherings were banned and people were advised to not sing in public.

The Metropolitan Police is investigating 12 parties that took allegedly place when Covid restrictions were in place in 2020 and 2021.

Fines are also believed to have been issued to attendees of the event in April 2021 on the eve of Prince Phillip’s funeral.

The event attended by MacNamara on June 18 was “raucous”, according to reports, with claims the party continued until around 3am and that there was a drunken spat between two of the guests.

Former cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill and No.10 senior adviser Dominic Cummings reportedly attended the party early on in the evening, with Sedwill allegedly telling staff not to mess up his office.

MacNamara was in charge of propriety and ethics across government from May 2018 to February 2021, advising all departments on standards. She was promoted in May 2020, just a month before the party she has allegedly been fined for attending, becoming deputy cabinet secretary whilst keeping her propriety and ethics role.

The purpose of the propriety and ethics role is to ensure the highest standards of propriety, integrity and governance within government. During her time in the role, MacNamara investigated allegations of bullying by Home Office secretary Priti Patel and Boris Johnson's No.10 flat refurb row.

Having joined the civil service in 2002, MacNamara left in January 2021 to take up a job as director of policy and corporate affairs at the Premier League. She was replaced by Darren Tierney as propriety and ethics chief in March 2021.

MacNamara had taken over the role from Sue Gray – who is carrying out an investigation into Partygate and published partial findings in January about the Covid pandemic scandal.

Gray has investigated 16 parties but has so far been limited in what she can publish due to the Met Police launching its own inquiry into 12 of the events which it decided met its threshold for investigation.

A stripped-down update of Gray’s investigation looked at 16 events in Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, and other departments. Gray said there had been “failures of leadership and judgement by different parts of No.10 and the Cabinet Office at different times”.

Gray has so far been limited in what she can publish due to the Met Police launching its own inquiry into 12 of the events which it decided met its threshold for investigation.

The Met’s criminal investigation into Partygate was launched in January by then-chief constable Cressida Dick after the Cabinet Office’s internal investigation, headed by second permanent secretary Sue Gray, began to find an expanding picture of allegedly rule-breaking events. The force had repeatedly rejected calls to launch a criminal investigation in the weeks before.

Earlier this year, Johnson apologised in parliament for attending a bring-your-own-booze party in the No.10 garden in May 2020, one of the events under investigation by the Met, but went on to claim he believed the function was a “work event”.

In February, the PM’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds, chief of staff Dan Rosenfield and director of comms Jack Doyle resigned. All had been linked to different Partygate events.

The former director general of the Cabinet Office’s Covid Task Force, Kate Josephs, is among the officials who have openly acknowledged attending Partygate events – and who have apologised for doing so. One of the events under investigation by the Met was a leaving party hosted for Josephs, who left Whitehall in late 2020 to become chief executive of Sheffield City Council. She is currently on paid leave from that role.

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