The Education Secretary Michael Gove was never told about allegations of abusive behaviour by one of his senior special advisers, the head of his department admitted today.
Chris Wormald, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, said it was decided the allegation was an employment issue and - under long established practice - should be investigated by civil servants.
“The view was taken that there was no need to inform the Secretary of State,” he told members of the Commons education select committee who had recalled Mr Gove to give evidence after he had denied any knowledge of the case at an earlier hearing.
Mr Wormald acknowledged, though, that - as the allegation involved one of Mr Gove's special advisers - he could have come to a different decision but still felt his actions had been correct,
The case in question involved a long-established civil servant who claimed that she had been subjected to bullying behaviour by Dominic Cummings, the senior special adviser, and James Frayne, former head of communications at the department. A greivance procedure attached no blame to the two individuals concerned but - after she put in a complaint to an industrial tribunal - she was awarded a £25,000 pay-out on the grounds that the department could have handled changes to working practices better.
Mr Gove said the first he had heard about the case was when he was telephoned by a journalist 24 hours before it was reported in the Observer newspaper. “I was rung the day before it appeared in the Observer,” he told MPs.
“My understanding was that matters had been conclude, There had been a pretty extensive investigation into the allegations.”
Mr Gove was also asked by MPs about an article which appeared on the Spectator website from an anonymous senior civil servant at the Department for Education smearing former Children's Minister Tim Loughton as “lazy” and “narcissist”, This followed criticism of Mr Gove by Mr Loughton at an earlier select committee hearing in which he claimed the department was being run in an “Upstairs, Downstairs” fashion with no communication between ministers on the sixth floor and civil servants working below.
Mr Gove said he had asked his special advisers whether they were the source of the article. “They assured me they were not,” he said.
Labour MPs said the question had arisen because of the “close relationship” between one of his advisers and the deputy editor of The Spectator. They are married.
Mr Gove retorted: “ I have a close relationship with a columnist on the Times (his wife, Sarah Vine), but - under the by-line of their brilliant education editor - articles appear that I don't necessarily agree with.”
Labour MP Ian Mearns also argued that Mr Gove was open to “possible allegations of incuriosity” over what happened to the bullying allegations in view of the fact they involved a senior political adviser to him.
Mr Gove replied: “I understand in every government department in every year there are a number of grievance procedures that are brought.” Ministers, he argued, should not “micro manage” what were personnel issues.