Sue Gray should not have conducted the investigation into Partygate, a former standards advisor to the prime minister has argued.
Sir Philip Mawer, who was the independent advisor on ministerial standards from 2008-2011, said his successors should instead have the power to conduct inquiries into civil servants’ behaviour in some instances.
“There is a case for widening the scope” of the independent adviser’s role to investigating “serious complaints against the civil service”, Mawer told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, rather than just the current remit of investigating ministerial conduct.
“Having the flexibility to look at both the civil service and the ministerial impact would, I think, be helpful,” he added.
Highlighting the Partygate scandal, he said: “I think [Gray] was put in a very difficult position in being asked to investigate this matter given that the prime minister’s own conduct came under scrutiny.
“I do believe that in these sort of circumstances, the independent adviser would be the right person to conduct such an inquiry.”
Gray was appointed to investigate allegations of Covid rule-breaking parties during the pandemic on December 18, 2021 after cabinet secretary Simon Case recused himself from the inquiry due to reports he himself attended a party. The Met Police launched its own investigation on February 12, which meant Gray has only been able to publish a stripped-back report so far after she was asked to make “minimal reference” to events being investigated by the force.
Sir Alex Allen, who was standards adviser after Mawer and resigned in 2020 after Boris Johnson overruled his advice that home secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code by bullying staff, disagreed that Gray was the wrong person to conduct the inquiry.
Also answering questions at PACAC yesterday, he said the original Partygate allegations “were all about the civil service and special advisers” and the PM and chancellor Rishi Sunak’s involvement only came to light later.
However, when The Mirror's Pippa Crerar first broke the news of parties taking place at Downing Street in a report on 30 November, the PM was accused of breaking Covid rules as well as his staff.
“The prime minister gave a speech at a packed leaving do for a top aide last November when the country was in the grip of its second lockdown,” Crerar wrote, referring to an event held to mark the departure of special adviser Cleo Watson.
The report came more than two weeks before Gray was appointed to lead the inquiry. Additionally, when Case was initially in charge of the investigation, then-education secretary Gavin Williamson was already part of the inquiry.
Allen and Mawer both agreed, however, that the standards adviser, a post currently held by Lord Christopher Geidt, should have powers to launch their own investigations. Currently only the PM can do so.
Mawer said he felt “significantly constrained” in his role as independent adviser to the PM compared to his previous role as parliamentary commissioner, where he could initiate investigations and would know “it would be published for the world to see”.
“I strongly believe that the independent adviser should have independence of action,” he said.
He said there was one case during his time as standards adviser where allegations about a cabinet minister were investigated by the then-cabinet secretary.
“It arose very close to the end of my time as independent adviser but it was my view that I should have been able to investigate that. I made that clear to the then-cabinet secretary.”
Allen said giving the standards adviser the ability to initiate investigations would “add to the credibility of the process”.
“At the moment there must always be suspicions, when an investigation isn’t carried out, that the prime minister has simply decided not to pass it onto the adviser.”
Allen made a similar point last year, when he said there were questions over whether the process of instigating an investigation “is actually damaging to the perception of whether ministers do or don’t adhere to the code.
He told MPs last March there had been “incidents which prima facie appear to involve a breach of the code but which haven’t been referred to the independent adviser”.
Mawer said enhancing the powers of the standards adviser could also help restore public confidence after recent events had brought “the honourable profession of politics into disrepute”. He did not expand on which events he was referring to but, as well as the aforementioned allegations that Priti Patel had bullied staff, other scandals have included Matt Hancock’s Covid-breaching affair with a colleague, Greensill lobbying and PPE VIP lane access.
Both former advisers agreed, however, that the PM should have the final say on what action based on the findings of a standards adviser’s investigation.
Meanwhile, Allen called for a more formal appointment process for the standards adviser role.
“I think a process whereby there was advertisement of some kind, applications and sifting… the standard process for public appointments but with the final candidate being put forward to the prime minister for the final say,” he said.
He said this would add to the perception that the adviser is independent.
Mawer said he agreed there should be some formal process but he would leave it to the experts to decide what form that would take.