Were MPs misled? Embarrassed Gove pleads innocence as he is recalled to committee over 'bullying case'

Education Secretary denied knowledge of claim that cost the DfE £25,000 in an out-of-court settlement

Political Correspondent

Michael Gove has been recalled by the Commons education committee to answer further questions over what he knew of internal allegations of bullying and harassment by his advisers against senior civil servants and claims that officials in his department briefed against a former  minister.

The summons by the select committee is deeply embarrassing for the Education Secretary. He previously told the select committee MPs that he had no knowledge of a grievance case which last month cost his department £25,000 in an out-of-court settlement with a senior civil servant.

The  case was brought by woman with 27 years experience in Whitehall. She claimed bullying and intimidation were part of the day-to-day operation of the DfE’s communications division headed by a former Gove aide, James Frayne.

Allegations of misconduct and routine use of bad language were also levelled against Dominic Cummings, Mr Gove’s long-standing special adviser.

Details of the case was published by The Independent last week.

Although an internal investigation cleared both Mr Frayne and Mr Cummings, and no disciplinary  action was taken,  a report of the case said “the department handled the situation in a regrettable way”.

In January Mr Gove was asked by MPs on the education committee if  he was aware of the allegations made against his special advisers.

Despite the lengthy grievance process, the substantial settlement, and assurances to MPs from the DfE’s permanent secretary, Chris Wormald, that he shared  responsibility for “disciplinary” issues  with Mr Gove, the education secretary denied he had any knowledge or had seen documents relating to criticism of his advisers.

Mr Wormald has also been asked to re-appear before the committee.

Ian Mearns, the Labour MP and member of the education committee, commenting on the recall of Mr Gove, said : “The Education Secretary clearly has questions to answer. He says he was unaware of serious allegations of bullying and harassment regarding his close advisers. However the ministerial code is quite clear:  “the responsibility of the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the minister who made the appointment.”

Mr Mearns said the Mr Gove “needs to account for his adherence, or lack of it, to the ministerial code.”

Officials close to Mr Gove believed there was little chance he would  face accusations that he had misled parliament.

The Education Secretary recently wrote to the chair of the committee, Tory MP Graham Stuart, confirming his earlier answer that he knew nothing and had “never been made aware” of inappropriate behaviour by his special advisers.

However at meeting of the committee in Westminster at 9.15am today,  Mr Stuart was unable to attend due to illness, and four Tory MPs arrived late.  The vote to summons Mr Gove, involving Labour MPs  and one LibDem MP on the committee, was passed unanimously.

Another MP on the committee told The Independent that  Mr Gove would be expected to answer questions “on a range of issues, that so far, have been inadequately dealt with.”

MPs wanted Mr Gove to return to the committee next week, however no firm date has yet been set.

Among the other issues Mr Gove will face questions on is the allegation made by the former Tory education minister, Tim Loughton, that  he was briefed against by Mr Cummings.

Mr Loughton believes Mr Cummings was responsible for a highly personal attack on his character, made in a briefing given to The Spectator magazine, which called him “a lazy incompetent narcissist.”

Mr Gove said he had no knowledge of who had made the criticisms of Mr Loughton.

A series of parliamentary questions has been tabled by Mr Loughton, requesting that Mr Gove reveals how many formal complaints he has received about the conduct of his special advisers, how many grievance procedures have taken place inside the DfE over the last five years, and what the scale of pay-outs have been.

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