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Tue 25 January 2022

Questions are being raised about the past record of Sue Gray – charged with investigating the parties held by members of the Government during Coronavirus lockdowns, reports Sam Bright

A law firm specialising in technology and transparency has expressed concerns about the past conduct of Sue Gray – the person tasked with investigating a series of gatherings that took place in Downing Street and other Government departments during lockdown periods in 2020.

On 9 December, the Cabinet Office published the terms of reference that would guide an investigation into the gatherings, which was then led by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. However, just a few days later, on 17 December, Case stood down from the inquiry and was replaced by Gray – after it was revealed that a Christmas party was hosted in Case’s office a year earlier.

Gray – who currently works as the Second Permanent Secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – has been nicknamed the ‘Whitehall enforcer’ following her time as the director general of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office from 2012 to 2018.

It has been suggested by journalists and officials that Gray will be unyielding in her investigation – and will certainly be less lenient than Case. She has been variously described as someone with a “reputation for impartiality”, which she will “wish to protect more than ever” during this process.

According to ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman, “the image I’ve accumulated of her, in the wake of talking to others about her, is of a woman who sees herself as a kind of modern-day Platonic Guardian”.

However, this is not the impression of all those who have studied Gray’s work.

In July 2015, BBC Newsnight’s policy editor, Chris Cook, described Gray as “the most powerful person you’ve never heard of”. In his profile, Cook said that Gray was “notorious for her determination not to leave a document trail”. And, even when she did keep records, “Gray is enthusiastic about keeping [them] a secret”, he wrote.

“We know that she advised special advisors on how to destroy email to thwart [Freedom of Information] requesters,” Cook added. “We also know, via the Freedom of Information Act, that she kept no log of why, how or when she destroys documents… I know of half-a-dozen occasions where Ms Gray has intervened to tell departments to fight disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act.”

Notably, Gray advised Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, that official emails sent using his wife’s account would not accessible under Freedom of Information legislation. This advice was wrong, Cook says, and “ended up costing tens of thousands of pounds in legal fees”.

Moreover, as reported by openDemocracy, Gray tried to block the release of sensitive documents to people campaigning for justice over the infected blood scandal in 2018.

One of the campaigners, Jason Evans, whose father died in the scandal, sent a request to the Treasury for files, which was then forwarded to the controversial ‘Clearing House’ within the Cabinet Office. The Clearing House actively discouraged the Treasury from releasing information and, in the emails, Sue Gray, wrote: “Personally I would favour the [infected blood] inquiry releasing the information in a managed way (as we tried to do with Chilcot)” – referencing the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War.

The law firm Foxglove has consequently expressed its unease with Sue Gray’s role in exposing the full details of the lockdown parties.

“From the way Sue Gray’s been talked up in the press and by government, you’d think she was a walking combination of Elliot Ness and Woodward and Bernstein,” Foxglove director Cori Crider told Byline Times. Ness was the investigator who famously led the efforts to take down Chicago mob boss Al Capone, while Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal.

Crider added: “On this evidence, Gray’s attitude towards helping important public documents into the sunlight appears to have been less ‘democracy dies in darkness’ and more: ‘reach for the Tip-X’.”

The Cabinet Office was approached for comment.

There has been growing concern about the concealment of evidence in relation to the Downing Street parties, after the Independent reported that staff were advised to “clean up” their phones by removing information pertaining to lockdown parties in Number 10.

One of the Independent’s sources said that they were “told to clean up their phone just in case” they had to hand it to the investigation. A second said: “I was being leant on [during the discussion with a senior colleague] and told to get rid of anything that could look bad.”

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Foxglove and The Citizens have filed a lawsuit against the Government to stop ministers making decisions via messaging apps – highlighting that evidence is less likely to be retained through these platforms.

Indeed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently avoided giving evidence to the independent standards advisor Lord Christopher Geidt on the basis that he had lost WhatsApp messages after changing his phone. The messages related to the financing provided by Conservative peer Lord David Brownlow for the refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street flat, which was being investigated by Geidt.

This excuse has similarly been used by Lord James Bethell, a former Health Minister, who is being investigated as part of a legal case brought by the Good Law Project about the awarding of expedited Government contracts during the Coronavirus pandemic. A witness statement provided by a Government lawyer suggested that Lord Bethell had replaced his phone in early 2021 – meaning that messages sent by the minister in relation to the contracts may not be retrievable.

In fact, it has been revealed that ministers and civil servants are required by policy to set instant messaging chats to delete automatically.

“Given that we’ve heard in the last 24 hours that Number 10 staff are being told to ‘clean up’ their phones before they can be even reach her desk, we are seriously concerned, not only at the scope of the evidence Gray will have access to, but how willing she will be to make it public, given all messages about the flat refurbishment fiasco are likely to be highly embarrassing indeed for the Government,” executive director of The Citizens, Clara Maguire, told Byline Times.

Disclaimer: Byline Times and The Citizens run a collaborative investigative project called the Byline Intelligence Team

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