Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood has announced that top housing official Helen MacNamara is to take up the post of director general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, one of Whitehall's most important roles, after an “extensive recruitment competition”.
She will succeed the current incumbent Sue Gray – reputed to be one of the most powerful UK civil servants – in May, when Gray moves to become permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of Finance.
MacNamara, currently director general for housing at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, was approved by the prime minister to take on the job overseeing advice provided to all departments on standards and ethics.
The job also involves managing public appointments and advising on corporate governance in public bodies, and also provides advice to the prime minister on the ministerial code. The Cabinet Office said the purpose of the role was to “ensure the highest standards of propriety, integrity and governance within government”.
MacNamara has been in post at MHCLG since July 2016, responsible for £25bn of investment, Homes England and the Planning Inspectorate.
Prior to that she gained experience working with the cabinet secretary during two years in the role of director of economic and domestic secretariat at the Cabinet Office. This involved coordinating government preparations for the 2015 election, and responsibility for Cabinet sub-committee coordination.
In late 2015, MacNamara was involved in a tribunal case – which the Cabinet Office lost – where she argued that the frequency of cabinet committee meetings should not be made public, the BBC reported. In its judgment rejecting the government’s position, the Information and Rights Tribunal described MacNamara as "evasive and disingenuous” and her evidence as "fundamentally flawed and of no value whatsoever to us".
A Cambridge graduate, MacNamara spent the first years of her career working in the digital and creative industries, before joining the then Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2002. She worked as Tessa Jowell’s principal private secretary and worked on London’s bid, and then preparations for, the 2012 Olympic Games.
In 2010 she was appointed director for media policy, and was responsible for setting up the Leveson Inquiry into the practices and ethics of the British press and for the government’s response to that inquiry.
Among Gray’s recent cases as ethics chief she ran the probe that led to the resignation of Cabinet Office minister Damian Green and was consulted on the foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s decision to host a controversial think tank launch free-of-charge at the Foreign Office.
She has been variously described as “the most powerful person you've never heard of” and “the lady that runs Britain”. She also once ran a pub in Northern Ireland.
Heywood said he was delighted to announce the appointment of MacNamara. “She is a highly experienced civil servant who has worked in many senior roles across government,” he added. “Her appointment will bring a wealth of knowledge and understanding of how government works, that will assist her in this crucial role.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Sue Gray for her outstanding contribution. She has shown extraordinary commitment and integrity in this challenging role. She has earned huge respect and admiration across government for her wise counsel, strong leadership and excellent judgement. I wish her all the best in her next position.”
MacNamara said she was “delighted to be returning to the Cabinet Office to take on this important role”.
She added: “I’m looking forward to building on the excellent work of Sue Gray, and supporting the prime minister and cabinet secretary in upholding the highest standards of integrity and propriety within government.”
The Cabinet Office said the appointment had been agreed by the prime minister, and followed an extensive recruitment competition.