MPs renew call for answers on Office of the Prime Minister plans

Cabinet Office perm sec is asked again for details, more than two months after original queries
Facing questions: Alex Chisholm. Screengrab: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

29 Apr 2022

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm is facing renewed calls for detail on prime minister Boris Johnson’s plans to reform the workings of No.10 in the wake of the Partygate scandal.

The PM set out plans to create an Office of the Prime Minister “department” at the end of January, days after Cabinet Office second perm sec Sue Gray criticised its “fragmented and complicated” leadership structures in her interim report on lockdown restriction-busting Whitehall parties.

Former NHS trust chief executive Samantha Jones was subsequently hired as interim No.10 perm sec, and handed a brief to overhaul and streamline structures that support the prime minister and cabinet.

Last week, reports emerged of plans to move significant numbers of staff from No.10 to the neighbouring Cabinet Office in a bid to rein in central operations at Downing Street.

But a just-published letter from the chair of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to Chisholm reveals that MPs are still waiting for detail on the nature of the new “department” more than two months after first asked for them.

Committee chair William Wragg noted that although Johnson told parliament earlier this month that “significant steps” had been taken to “change the way things work in No.10”, questions PACAC sought answers to in February remained unaddressed.

“What changes have been made since our previous correspondence on this matter and what further changes are envisaged?” Wragg asked Chisholm.

“Are you now in a position to answer those queries which you were previously unable to, or can you give us an update on when you do expect to be able to do so?”

Wragg’s letter, dated 26 April, repeated thematically similar queries to his February request for detail – asking how the relationship between the new Office of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office would change, and whether its perm sec would be accounting officer for the new department.

He also asked how the proposed changes would “affect the operation of cabinet government”.

Chisholm gave a two-page response to Wragg’s February request for more detail on the OPM proposals. But it largely reiterated information that had already been published and repeated assertions that the changes would “strengthen cabinet government” and “improve the No.10 operation”, rather than answering the questions asked.

Chisholm said the Cabinet Office would be “happy” to explain the changes to PACAC members when they had been completed.

Wragg’s latest letter seeks answers from the perm sec by 13 May.

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