The head of the civil service has said that putting officials like Sue Gray in a position of judging on the behaviour of ministers including Boris Johnson is a “challenge” and should be “avoided whenever possible”.
He said that the post of independent adviser to the prime minister – held by Christopher Geidt until his resignation this month – was created precisely to avoid the “tension” which saw the career civil servant put under intense pressure ahead of the publication of her bombshell report in May.
Mr Case told the Commons Public Administration Committee that no decision has yet been taken by Mr Johnson on whether to replace Lord Geidt with a new adviser on ministerial interests, or to create a different process for investigating alleged ethics breaches in government.
He pointed out that the original terms of reference for the Gray report said that it was for Lord Geidt to determine whether any behaviour uncovered constituted a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. Her report did not include findings on the code, and no subsequent inquiry was launched by the independent adviser.
Committee chair William Wragg said that Ms Gray had been put in an “invidious” position by being asked to investigate someone with power to decide on the future of her career, and demanded to know who had decided the job should go to her.
Mr Case – who had himself initially been given the Partygate job, only to stand down after allegations that he had hosted a lockdown-breaching gathering – responded: “In the end, these are decisions for ministers, and ultimately the prime minister, to take.”
Mr Wragg asked Mr Case how difficult it was for civil servants to conduct investigations into the conduct of the prime minister.
The cabinet secretary replied: “Very difficult and to be avoided whenever possible”.
He added: “The role of the civil service is there to support the government of the day, whilst upholding values. Its function is not to provide some sort of judicial function over ministers.
“The role of independent adviser was actually created in part to deal with that tension.”
And, in an apparent sign of discomfort at the choice of a civil servant to head the inquiry, he told MPs: “When decisions are taken we have to do our utmost to implement these decisions…
“Asking civil servants to do these investigations puts civil servants into a genuinely difficult position.”