Downing Street bought fridge for ‘meeting room’ with taxpayers’ money

Fridge expanded chilled drinks capacity in No 10 office using public funds

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Tuesday 08 February 2022 13:16
Comments
<p>10 Downing Street has come under scrutiny over lockdown parties</p>

10 Downing Street has come under scrutiny over lockdown parties

Downing Street bought a fridge for a meeting room with taxpayers' money around the time No 10 was hosting "wine time Fridays" and other parties, The Independent can reveal.

Boris Johnson was urged to "come clean" about how much public money had been spent on the lockdown bashes – a fact which is yet to have been established about the rule-breaking gatherings.

No 10 insisted that the publicly-funded fridge was not involved in the festivities but shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry told The Independent that the government had questions to answer about any potential "misuse of public funds".

The Daily Mirror reported last month that a wine fridge had been "smuggled" into No 10 through the backdoor to hold bottles for the regular gatherings – prompting anger at a time when indoor socialising was supposed to be banned.

The regular "wine times" sit alongside the 16 events investigated by top civil servant by Sue Gray, which all took place during May 2020 and April 2021.

The government confirmed that the taxpayer-funded fridge had been purchased at some point between April 2020 and April 2021, though did not specify on which date. The fridge apparently expanded the chilled drinks holding capacity in a meeting room in No 10.

Labour's Ms Thornberry said: "We all know that Covid rules were repeatedly broken in Downing Street during lockdown, but we don't yet know what taxpayers' money was spent in the process.

"Rather than have the answer to that question dragged out of them one pizza delivery or wine fridge at a time, I would urge Cabinet Office ministers simply to disclose any misuse of public funds they have discovered related to the Downing Street parties, and tell us what action has been taken as a result."

The government was last month asked by Ms Thornberry to disclose how much public money was spent on refrigerators for No 10 – but dragged its feet on responding.

In its eventual response, Paymaster General Michael Ellis said in a written answer that two fridges had been purchased during the period, one to replace and existing fridge and one apparently to expand the capacity to store drinks in a meeting room.

"Downing Street is a working building, including catering facilities and offices for staff; as is common in workplaces including the House of Commons, refrigerators are provided for general staff use," he said.

"One refrigerator was purchased in the financial year for a Downing Street meeting room, and one to replace an existing refrigerator that had reached the end of its working operation.

"Notwithstanding, I can confirm that no such public expenditure was accrued in relation to the matters considered in the investigations by the Second Permanent Secretary or connected with associated media reports on this matter."

Sue Gray's report found that "failures of leadership and judgement" and excessive drinking at work against the backdrop of the pandemic led to events that "should not have been allowed to take place". She said that other events "should not have been allowed to develop as they did".

The prime minister faced calls to resign following the report, including from within his own party. No 10 is now subject to an investigation by the Metropolitan Police, which could levy fines under Covid-19 regulations.

Police reportedly have a photograph of Boris Johnson holding a can of beer at one event, a lockdown birthday party allegedly instigate by his wife Carrie in June 2020. The picture is thought to be one of 300 submitted the Met by Ms Gray's inquiry – which was asked not to publish details of the events so that it did not prejudice the ongoing police investigation.

But full details of the parties may never be released because the prime minister will ultimately control whether evidence submitted by the second permanent secretary ever sees the light of day.

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