'What was the point?': Union chief and ex-senior officials baffled by Cabinet Office Gray inquiry

Former senior civil servants slam "silly" inquiry statement, as FDA boss explains why Gray why didn't participate in Cabinet Office investigation
Sue Gray. Photo: Ian Davidson/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

04 Jul 2023

Former senior officials and the leader of the FDA have raised concerns about the Cabinet Office’s inquiry into Sue Gray’s departure from the civil service, which concluded there was "prima facie" evidence she broke the Civil Service Code by holding job talks with Labour leader Keir Starmer.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said the former Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities second permanent secretary was advised not to take part in the Cabinet Office inquiry after three letters requesting "basic information" on the process went unanswered.

Meanwhile, former senior civil servants have criticised the government’s written ministerial statement on Monday, calling it “silly” and questioning the point of it.

Gray gave evidence to a separate inquiry by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments – which found no rules were broken – but chose not to participate in the Cabinet Office inquiry. FDA general secretary Dave Penman said this choice was made after he sent three letters to DLUHC perm sec Sarah Healey seeking basic details about the investigation and a fourth, in April, raising concerns about the lack of "proper procedure", to no avail.

The details he requested from Healey – who was Gray’s last manager before leaving the civil service – included information on the process used, who would make the decision, and the mechanism for any appeal, each with no success.

Penman said the inquiry had "no rules or precedent" and so he gave "strong advice" to Gray not to participate.

"If you’re asked to co-operate with an investigation, you at least expect to be told the rules," Penman said.

"A point-blank refusal to even acknowledge the repeated requests for basic information meant no union could have advised co-operation, and I certainly didn’t."

The FDA general secretary also accused ministers of extending the remit of the inquiry beyond what had been promised: to simply look into the circumstances of Gray’s exit.

Inquiry statement slammed

The statement on the inquiry from Jeremy Quin, minister for the Cabinet Office, has also been criticised.

Jonathan Jones, a former perm sec at the Government Legal Department, tweeted: “I’m not surprised officials are said to have advised against this statement. What’s the point of it if not personal animus?”

Ciaran Martin, who was the first CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre, said it was a “silly statement” from the government which proves “nothing”.

He also questioned the inquiry process, adding: “There is no publicly available account of the standing of this ‘investigation’, of what its processes were, or how the conclusions were reached (in marked contrast to ACOBA). No evidence of any kind is adduced to support its findings.”

Martin also raised concerns about the impact on the long-standing convention of not commenting on personnel matters.

“That now becomes harder to sustain in future cases thanks to this precedent,” he said.

“And for what benefit to either the government or the wider public interest?”

Former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell added: “Hard to disagree with either of these two former senior officials who know the rules and procedures well, and hard to see what the point of this process was.”

The statement was also slammed by Labour, which accused called the announcement “a political stunt”.

Asked yesterday if Rishi Sunak believes the investigation was politically motivated, the prime minister’s spokesman told reporters: “The Cabinet Office, given the public interest in this and the unprecedented nature of a serving permanent secretary being offered a role with the Opposition, the minister committed to updating the House and that’s what you’ve seen happen today.”

The Cabinet Office has been approached for comment.

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