A government review has found nothing improper in the award of £100,000 of public money to a cybersecurity firm run by a friend of prime minister Boris Johnson.
The Government Internal Audit Agency today published the findings of its review into the money awarded via the Cyber Skills Immediate Impact Fund (CSIIF) to Hacker House – an IT security-focused training company run by Jennifer Arcuri.
The ultimate conclusion of the review was that “the assessment of eligibility and... grant award to Hacker House Ltd was appropriate”.
But it did uncover a few processes that were not followed as planned by officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as well as some “areas where questions on the grant application form would have benefitted from being clearer”.
The review acknowledged that Hacker House’s grant application – which sought funding of £273,000 – did not meet the “gateway” requirement that money awarded should not exceed 50% of the annual income of the company in question.
But, in light of the fact that the total number of applications for the programme's second round of funding stood at a “manageable” 19, DCMS opted to put all of these forward to the full assessment stage.
In addition to Hacker House, a further five applications that would have failed to fulfil gateway requirements were progressed for review – and two of those ultimately received funding, meaning that three of the five companies awarded grants in the second round of funding would have been disqualified if requirements had been enforced as planned.
CSIIF approved Hacker House to receive a reduced amount of £100,000.
According to the review, the programme’s approvals board found that “although this initiative does not meet the ‘immediate’ aspect of CSIIF, we feel this initiative may, in the longer term, provide an effective solution that identifies, trains and places candidates into cybersecurity roles”.
Further approval for the £100,000 award was granted by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, whose officials advised that any amount less than €200,000 would be acceptable as “de minimis aid” under state aid guidelines.
One notable step that DCMS officials failed to take – for Hacker House and all other organisations awarded funding – was conducting DBS checks on senior managers at the companies in question.
In a letter to DCMS Select Committee of MPs, culture secretary Nicky Morgan acknowledged that “this was an administrative error”.
“There is no evidence to suggest that, had the check been completed, the grant award decision would have been different,” she said. “Nonetheless, it is regrettable that the department did not implement this step. I have asked my officials to ensure that processes are strengthened and that steps are taken to remedy this omission.”
Morgan, who announced this week that she will step down at the upcoming election, added: “My officials will focus on enhanced monitoring, ongoing due diligence, and tangible outcomes of all initiatives currently in receipt of grant funding through CSIIF… I have [also] asked my officials to consider whether there are improvements that can be made to the department’s approach to awarding innovative and novel grant initiatives, particularly where we are seeking to stimulate nascent markets. External advice will be sought where appropriate.”
The oversight committee of the London Assembly has also planned to undertake an inquiry examining Johnson’s conduct during his time as mayor of the capital. However, it announced during a meeting two weeks ago that it would “temporarily pause its formal activities on this matter” following a request to do so from the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
The investigation remains on hold, but the committee has said that it “would still consider using… the special powers of the assembly… following the conclusion of the IOPC’s work”.
The PM is understood to have already complied with the committee’s request for evidence – which members have agreed to keep in confidentiality.
Location, location, location
The goal of the CSIIF programme is to fund training programmes that “quickly increase the number and diversity of individuals entering into cybersecurity”.
The money awarded to Hacker House came under scrutiny after Arcuri and Johnson’s friendship – and the fact the two had been on several foreign trade missions together during his time as London mayor – became public knowledge. The Hacker House CEO has since said Johnson had never showed her any favouritism, and that all grant money awarded to the firm and any publicly funded trips she had been selected for had been earned legitimately.
In her letter to the select committee, Morgan said: “I would like to emphasise again that any notion that the prime minister or his advisers influenced – whether directly or indirectly – any aspect of the due diligence, assessment or award of any grant funding made through the CSIIF, is simply not true.”
The culture secretary also used the letter to address the issue of Hacker House’s location. Callers to the UK phone number on the company’s website have found they are put through to a receptionist in the US, while the firm’s registered office at Companies House was previously a terraced house in Macclesfield, before being updated to the address of a “virtual office” provider in central London.
The culture secretary noted that CSIIF rules stipulate that all programmes need to be “carried out in England” – but do not include any requirement that firms “maintain a corporate presence in the UK”.
She added: “Companies House records show that the address given was Hacker House Ltd’s registered address on the date of application – this was verified by DCMS as part of the application process against both the register maintained by Companies House, as well as against bank statements supplied by Hacker House Ltd. As such, while not a requirement of the grant, Hacker House was a UK-registered company.”
Of the £100,000 grant funding, Hacker House has so far been paid £47,000 for work it has already completed. The award of the remaining £53,000 was “paused” while the review took place.
Now that process has concluded, PublicTechnology understands DCMS officials will soon meet with Hacker House to discuss how to proceed, and if and when planned work will recommence.