Britain’s top civil servant has been accused of misleading officials over what he knew about Christmas parties in his own department during lockdown.
Simon Case stepped down last week as head of an investigation into claims of parties in Downing Street, after it emerged there had been a quiz – registered in work calendars as “Christmas party!” – in the Cabinet Office on 17 December last year.
He also faced allegations of an impromptu drinks for 15-20 people held in and around his office in the second week in December, after an investigation by The Independent and Politico.
Before he recused himself from the investigation, Mr Case assured colleagues that he had no knowledge of any parties or social gatherings of any kind at the Cabinet Office in the run up to Christmas 2020, The Independent understands.
The revelation comes after The Independent was initially told by a Cabinet Office spokesperson that any allegation of a party or social gathering in 70 Whitehall was “categorically untrue”. It was also suggested nothing that could possibly be considered as a party occurred or appeared in calendars, emails or other messages throughout the entire month of December.
Mr Case stepped down from the Downing Street party investigation last Friday following publication of The Independent’s report of “waiting room drinks” and the separate 17 December quiz.
This was in order to ensure the investigation retained “public confidence”, a Downing Street spokesperson said.
Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), was appointed as Mr Case’s replacement.
Sources had described an event in mid-December with prosecco and wine in the waiting room of the cabinet secretary’s office. Mr Case was seen carrying a glass as he wandered “in and out” of the event and greeted staff, they alleged.
Civil servants scrutinised these claims of social gatherings in 70 Whitehall during December in order to ensure Mr Case did not need to step away from the party investigation.
Mr Case provided officials with assurances that he had not participated in and had no knowledge of any social gatherings, The Independent understands, despite being later forced to admit that he was aware of at least one gathering.
The civil service code requires all officials to behave with integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. Mr Case’s conduct had fallen short compared to the high standards of transparency and openness required of officials by misleading fellow officials, The Independent has been told.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “Staff in the cabinet secretary’s private office took part in a virtual quiz on 17 December 2020. A small number of them, who had been working in the office throughout the pandemic and on duty that day, took part from their desks, while the rest of the team were virtual.
“The cabinet secretary played no part in the event, but walked through the team’s office on the way to his own office. No outside guests or other staff were invited or present. This lasted for an hour and drinks and snacks were bought by those attending. He also spoke briefly to staff in the office before leaving.”
Fresh questions over the cabinet secretary’s behaviour come as pressure mounts on Boris Johnson to explain his and others’ conduct at No 10 during the pandemic.
A photo published on Sunday by The Guardian, showed wine and cheese being consumed by the prime minister, his wife, Carrie, and advisers and a person identified as Matt Hancock, the former health secretary in the Downing Street Garden.
The garden gathering was held amid tight restrictions in May 2020. The photo emerged after a joint investigation by The Independent and The Guardian revealed a party on that date.
Downing Street has described the event as a work meeting though deputy prime minister Dominic Raab yesterday undermined that suggestion by saying the drinks took place after work.
The matter of gatherings whilst restrictions were in place has become especially sensitive given the government move to impose fresh “plan B” measures, and amid fears of a fresh lockdown to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.
Labour’s shadow paymaster general, Fleur Anderson, has written to her counterpart Michael Ellis MP asking him to correct the parliamentary record that said he was confident in the impartiality of the cabinet secretary when asked if he could lead the investigation into Downing Street parties with no personal interests. Ms Anderson has also asked for confirmation on when Ms Gray will share the findings of her investigation.
One Conservative backbencher – a member of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) – told The Independent that stories about alleged parties had made the public question the rules: “The photos and reports of gatherings in government make it more difficult to get compliance. They haven’t helped at all.
“The government’s authority to bring in restrictions undoubtedly been weakened. The backbenchers frustration is that No 10 is supposed to be a slick operation – but they’re coming across as incredibly amateurish. Where were the senior figures making sure everyone inside government complied with the rules?”
The Tory MP said: “It really hasn’t helped when there is some fatigue about rules out there already.”
Meanwhile, the Conservative MP for Yeovil, Marcus Fysh said the photos and reports of gatherings in government last year “have annoyed people for sure”, adding: “Everyone is annoyed – of course they’re annoyed at the thought public servants are making rules in one direction and doing something else. But I don’t think we know the full details. With most people, I don’t think it will affect their thinking too much.”
The lockdown sceptic added: “The important thing is the policy – if the government is open and realistic about the data they will still be trusted. If they’re not, I don’t think they will.”
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