MPs demand answers on 'Office of the Prime Minister' plans

Alex Chisholm urged to clarify new department's "status and what its relationship with the Cabinet Office will be"
Photo: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy Live News

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm has been asked to clear up confusion over whether the new Office of the Prime Minister will be a government ministry, and how it will work.

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair William Wragg wrote to Chisholm this week with a series of in-depth questions about how the promised OPM will function – beginning with whether it will be established as a “distinct government department”.

“If this will not be constituted as a new department, I would be grateful if you could clarify its status and what its relationship with the Cabinet Office will be,” Wragg said.

Boris Johnson said he would establish the office, which he later referred to as the "prime minister’s department", in a statement responding to the initial findings of Sue Gray’s investigation of lockdown-breaking gatherings in Downing Street on 31 January.

One of the problems that came to light in the Cabinet Office second perm sec’s inquiry is that leadership structures in No.10 are “fragmented and complicated and this has sometimes led to the blurring of lines of accountability”.

Johnson said the new OPM will address these “fragmented” structures. When Samantha Jones was named as interim No.10 perm sec this week, the Cabinet Office announcement said she would spend her six-month term reviewing structures and operations in No.10.

However, no details of what the organisation will look like have been published, beyond Johnson’s initial statement.

The “Prime Minister’s Office” is already a title used interchangeably with No.10 Downing Street to refer to the PM’s official residence and office, which supports the prime minister in developing policy and communicating it to the public.

Former PM Sir John Major said yesterday that the new OPM sounded “a little like a gimmick” given a similar-sounding organisation already exists.

Seeking more answers, Wragg asked Chisholm what the functional role of the department will be; how many staff it is expected to have; and which minister will be accountable for the department.

He also asked which Cabinet Office functions will be absorbed into the new department, and what its set up and running costs will be.

The letter, sent on 8 February, asked for Chisholm to confirm whether the Office of the Prime Minister will conform to a series of technical requirements other departments are subject to – including whether it will have an accounting officer; whether it will produce accounts; and whether it will have a board chaired by a senior minister in line with Treasury Managing Public Money guidance.

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