Partygate fines could trigger review of security clearance for government officials

Officials would normally be required to disclose a criminal offence in order to maintain their ‘vetted’ security status

Anna Isaac,Lizzie Dearden
Tuesday 29 March 2022 15:21 BST
Simon Case, the head of the British civil service has been asked to complete a police questionnaire about lockdown-busting parties in Whitehall and Downing Street.
Simon Case, the head of the British civil service has been asked to complete a police questionnaire about lockdown-busting parties in Whitehall and Downing Street. (Downing Street)

The government has refused to say whether officials fined over the Partygate scandal will face changes to their security clearance after being found to have committed a criminal offence.

The Metropolitan Police announced 20 fines for breaches of Covid laws on Tuesday but did not give details of those involved, or which of the 12 events under investigation they relate to. Officials are required to disclose such fines to security vetting teams as they amount to a criminal offence, The Independent understands.

Broader questions over whether these Partygate fines undermine officials’ honesty and professional integrity will have to be weighed by cabinet secretary Simon Case, the UK’s top civil servant and himself part of the police’s investigation into the scandal.

All officials who have vetted status and receive a fixed penalty notice are likely to need to report this as a change of circumstances. Other personal situations such as getting divorced or a significant change in a person’s financial situation must also be disclosed.

The possible penalties issued by the Met will range between £100 and £10,000, depending on the date of the party, the number of people attending and the person’s role.

However, a fixed penalty notice in this instance is likely to require staff to complete a “Change of Personal Circumstances Questionnaire” which covers “Criminal Conviction/Arrest/Caution”.

The form is required where any official or individual who holds vetted status is “convicted of an offence (other than minor road traffic offences)” or is otherwise arrested.

Guidance circulated to civil servants said that all such updates will be treated on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, this might require referrals to senior officials in order to confirm it does not require them to change individuals’ access to sensitive materials.

Mr Case holds a high level of security clearance, known as enhanced developed vetting. If he were to receive a fixed penalty notice this could require a formal review of his status, according to two sources familiar with this process.

An individual is not always informed if their security status is reviewed and there is no requirement to explain why security clearance at any level might be withdrawn.

The highest security status is granted to individuals who are required to access secret or top secret material and who are at a significant threat of being targeted for espionage.

This risk is particularly sensitive given Mr Case’s role. It is one of the most high-powered and sensitive in all of government and requires direct liaison with MI6 and MI5, often termed “other government departments” by Whitehall officials.

Mr Case was accused of misleading officials over his knowledge and activities related to parties in Whitehall during COVID-19 restrictions in December last year.

The revelation of partying in the Cabinet Office itself, first reported by The Independent in partnership with Politico, led to Mr Case stepping down from head of the Whitehall probe into lockdown-busting parties.

Keeping the list of those who have been issued with fines secret, also leaves fined individuals at risk of blackmail, a key consideration of the security clearance process, one of the officials familiar with high-level vetting processes told The Independent.

The Cabinet Office has not matched Number 10’s public commitment to announce if Mr Case is given a fixed penalty notice.

Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister at Doughty Street chambers, and an expert on Covid-19 related legislation, said on Twitter: “Any senior public servant or member of parliament who has in the view of the Metropolitan Police broken the Covid laws should reveal this publicly.”

He added that there “is s a huge public interest” in making such information public, especially if the people in question remain in post.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “It would not be appropriate to comment while the Met Police’s investigation is ongoing.

“As set out previously by the PM, Sue Gray’s findings will be published when the Met Police’s investigation has concluded.”

They added: “We’re not going to comment on individual HR matters. As the Terms of Reference sets out, following the long-standing practice of successive administrations, any specific HR action against individuals will remain confidential.”

The legal position of those given a penalty in relation to COVID-19 restrictions is complex and has been criticised by lawyers and lawmakers.

One of their concerns is that it might be best for someone to pay the fine, rather than challenge it and risk a criminal record.

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said in a recent report: “Under the current system, there is no adequate administrative method for challenging an FPN [Fixed Penalty Notice], but individuals can avoid a criminal record by simply paying an FPN. This strains compliance with ECHR rights, because, the threat of a criminal prosecution creates a strong incentive to not contest an FPN, even if an individual believes it was wrongly issued”.

It added that “most people, even if they have been wrongly issued an FPN, will pay the fine rather than risk being prosecuted and then getting a criminal record and conviction, and those without any money are in an impossible situation.”

More fines could be issued for breaches of Covid laws as Scotland Yard’s investigation continues. Police have sent out over 100 questionnaires over the alleged parties and said that a “significant amount” of evidence was still being assessed.

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