Tue 21 September 2021

David Hencke reports on accusations of ‘political bias’ on how public funds were allocated to constituencies by Conservative ministers

The Government has suppressed a key document outlining how Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, was allowed to award pre-election cash to his own Newark constituency from a massive £3.6 billion regeneration programme for small towns.

MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee today have condemned as “weak and unconvincing” arguments used by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in refusing to hand over to them a document written by Jeremy Pocklington, the ministry’s top official, justifying the decision.

Mr Jenrick and his junior minister, Jake Berry, swapped over decisions to award towns in their respective constituencies of Newark and Darwen in Berry’s Rossendale and Darwen constituency some £50m in regeneration money from the national town fund. Mr Berry approved the money for Newark and Mr Jenrick the money for Darwen.

They were among 101 towns chosen mainly by ministers out of 541 towns ranked in order of merit by officials as needing help to combat deprivation. Newark was number 270 on the list.

The MPs report also reveals that Cheadle – a town which was number 535 on the list – was awarded £25m in cash just before the election. It is a Conservative marginal seat held by Mary Robinson who saw her 4,500 majority over the Liberal Democrats almost halved in the last election.

The MPs examined the distribution of the cash following a highly critical report by the National Audit Office last July. They concluded:

“The selection process was not impartial. Ministers chose most of the towns from a large group deemed eligible, based on assumptions around broad criteria.”

Political Targeting

The Public Accounts Committee also strongly attack the ministry for refusing to release the document and also banning them from publishing even a summary of the justification by Mr Pocklington of the decision making process.

 “The Department’s lack of transparency fuelled accusations of political bias in the selection process, and potentially is also a risk to the Civil Service’s reputation for impartiality,” the Committee declared. “The Department exacerbated concerns by misrepresenting the National Audit Office’s report in statements to the press which said that the report concluded the selection process had been ‘robust’; when the report includes no such statement.”

The report also shows ministers went against official advice saying they should contact the mayors of the local towns before making a decision. They refused to do so.

 The report also contains evidence from an academic who has analysed the National Audit Office report and concluded: “no reasonable analyst of the NAO data could fail to conclude that the selection process was affected by party-political considerations.”

Chris Hanretty, professor of politics at Royal Holloway College, London University, conclude that “towns located in marginal Conservative seats (majorities of greater than five per cent but less than ten per cent) were 37 percentage points more likely to be selected than towns located in safe seats held by other parties. Towns located in ultra-marginal Conservative seats (majorities of less than five per cent) were 21 percentage points more likely to be selected than towns located in safe seats held by other parties.”

Robert Jenrick has always denied as “baseless” that he made sure his constituency got the cash. “Ministers do not get involved in their own constituencies. That decision was made by another minister in my department,” he said. 

 When asked by Andrew Marr last month who made the decision, Jenrick replied: “It was made by Jake Berry.”

MPs have given the ministry one month to produce the document they want to see.


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