Today
Sun 20 September 2020
Subscribe

Insiders reveal a clash between Civil Service impartiality and Cabinet Office concentration of power, reports Sam Bright

Bureaucracy: an idea loathed by Brexiters. The red tape supposedly created by Brussels bureaucrats was one of the central tenets of their campaign to leave the European Union.

Yet, since they came to power, these same opponents of managerial Government haven’t exactly lived up to this ideal.

Indeed the centralisation of power in Boris Johnson’s Britain has been in full view this week. On Tuesday, Johnson’s top advisors boxed up their flip flops and transferred from Downing Street to 70 Whitehall. Now housed with Cabinet Office staff, this new space is being labelled the “mission control” of Government.

Of course, no bureaucracy would be worth its title without egocentric power structures and creepy tech. And so, true to form, reports suggest the office is arranged around Downing Street chief aide Dominic Cummings – with proximity to the Vote Leave boss seen as a sign of political status and job security. While pondering their future job prospects, advisors will be stared down upon by giant screens, beaming statistics on Government initiatives – using data reportedly supplied by private tech companies.

This has come at some cost to the taxpayer. Cabinet Office procurement records show that Michael Gove’s department spent £16,000 on stationery in the month of July alone, up from £6,800 the month before.


Data Control

While a concentration of people has occurred in 70 Whitehall this week, a concentration of data in the hands of Cabinet Office officials has been transpiring for months.

An August Cabinet Office press release, largely disregarded by the media, suggested the department is trying to codify the sharing of data across Government. Currently, departments have little access to each other’s data, though that seems set to change.

“Data standards create a consistent way to record and share data within government. These standards will improve services for citizens by allowing departments access to high quality data quickly,” the press release claims.

The greater accessibility of data might be designed to improve Government services, but some worry it will be used for nefarious ends. Discussing the development of this system, a source with inside knowledge of the Cummings operation told Byline Times: “I still believe the civil servants I worked with were altruistic but also naïve to the potential abuse.”

Cummings hasn’t helped this perception through his recent hiring policies. After appealing for ‘misfits and weirdos’ to join his Downing Street team – part of his effort to reform the Government ‘blob’ – two of these hires have subsequently left Dom’s charge. First, ‘superforecaster’ Andrew Sabisky over claims he sympathises with eugenics, and then data specialist Will O’Shea, who suggested the Metropolitan police should use live rounds against Black Lives Matter protestors.

A single Government database is something that has recently been implemented in the United States by Palantir – a CIA-backed company that also holds contracts with the UK Government. The firm has been employed to link disparate federal department data in an effort to assist immigration deportations by the Trump administration.

This is seemingly a system admired by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is seeking a commercial partner to help draw up a digital immigration status system which will be shared by all other Government departments, employers, financial service providers, landlords and the UK Border Agency.


Swamping the Drain

However, as David Hencke has been cataloguing for Byline Times, the Cabinet Office is the Government department with the most far-reaching data ambitions.

Over the space of a few months, Gove’s department has gained access to all trade data held by the Treasury, created a new database of disabled, black and ethnic minority people at the ministry, taken control of the 200,000-strong list of people security vetted every year, and claimed Whitehall data sharing powers from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Despite this, the department’s recently released Report and Account admits there is “an ongoing risk of cyber security incidents within Cabinet Office due to the vulnerability of legacy IT systems.”

This admittance came on the same day as the release of the Parliamentary report into Russian interference in UK politics, which concluded that Putin’s regime – bolstered by by the support of “organised crime groups” – has attempted to hack and leak the official documents of foreign powers.

The radical centralisation of Government comes at a time when Johnson’s administration is seeking to retain the support of constituencies that have for decades felt marginalised by the Westminster machine. And though Downing Street has been threatening to move elements of Parliament to the North of England, these promises seem little more than spurious clickbait.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that, although Johnson’s Government has been lodging a concerted campaign to get Britain back to the office as soon as possible, the Cabinet Office spent £11,000 on Zoom subscriptions in July alone.

When Byline Times asked officials whether this signalled the department expects a sizeable proportion of its workforce to remain out of the office for the foreseeable future, they declined to comment.


Become a Patron of Byline TV

More stories filed under Fact