Dark Money Investigations: News

Gove grilled about UK government secrecy on payments to ministers

His Labour shadow, Rachel Reeves, was following up on openDemocracy’s revelation of an ethics gap at the heart of government

Seth Thévoz close-up
Seth Thévoz
25 March 2021, 2.10pm
Gove, a man without a plan
House of Commons. Some rights reserved

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was grilled in Parliament today on openDemocracy’s revelations about the government’s secrecy over large payments to the prime minister and other ministers since last July.

Gove failed to say when details of the payments would be published. Anticipating this, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves had asked: “If he can't give us that date, should we conclude that the government are deliberately delaying this, to avoid much-needed scrutiny of this government?”

In response, Gove insisted: “Every minister complies with all of the expectations placed on them, not just by the Ministerial Code, but by the Nolan Principles on Standards in Public Life, and it is the case that ministers are transparent.” He did not, however, give any dates or other specifics on when the government would comply with its own code.

Reeves had already cited Transparency International’s belief that there have been numerous possible breaches of the Ministerial Code in the past year.

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The exchange in the House of Commons followed openDemocracy’s scoop over the weekend about the government’s silence on ministers’ interests. Mandatory twice-yearly disclosures have not been published for almost eight months because the government has quietly left unfilled the post of government adviser on ministerial standards, who oversees and signs off the reports.

Gove conceded that the four-month-old vacancy was “a critically important role”, but appeared to undermine that statement by failing to give any indication of a timetable for appointing a new postholder.

Tim Durrant of the Institute for Government think tank has called the failure to appoint a new ethics adviser "the longest gap between advisers" since the role was created.

Gove also seemed to misunderstand the nature of the appointment, suggesting to MPs that a factor in the delay was “to make sure… that whoever is put forward for that role can appropriately by this house be scrutinised in order to make sure that we can satisfy ourselves about their appropriateness, as I say, for that role.”

The advisor is a civil service appointment, and despite Gove’s claim, Parliament plays no role in vetting the candidate. As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office, Gove himself is responsible for overseeing the recruitment process within his department.

Earlier in the same session, Gove had told the Commons: "Transparency drives everything this government does," noticeably prompting laughter among MPs.

Even if a new adviser took over tomorrow, they would be expected to face months of work, across 137 government officeholders. openDemocracy believes that ministers’ business interests would amount to the high hundreds of millions of pounds.

Nothing to see here

Three days before openDemocracy broke the story of the missing disclosure of ministers’ interests, the government had turned down a petition calling for an independent commission to uphold the Ministerial Code. This came after a catalogue of alleged breaches over the last few months, from the prime minister's refusal to sack Priti Patel after damning inquiry findings of bullying in the Home Office – which prompted the last ethics adviser to resign – to allegations of systematic breaches around COVID contracts.

In its published response, the government claimed: "Existing measures provide appropriate independence in Ministerial Code investigations." Three days later, openDemocracy revealed just how far the government was failing to comply with that code.

What kicked off these findings was an openDemocracy investigation into a Daily Mail story alleging a £60,000 undeclared donation advanced through the Conservative Party, for the recent refurbishment of Downing Street.

Extreme makeover: the Downing Street timeline

  • Early 2020 Downing Street refurbishment begins, including £2.6 million on a press centre in Number 9, and £200,000 for Number 10.
  • June 2020 Top interior designer Lulu Lytle invoices Downing Street for a £60,000 redecoration of the apartment above Number 11 where Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds live. Civil service refuses to pay it from taxpayer funds, saying the spending breaches rules.
  • July 2020 With Johnson insisting he cannot pay the £60,000 himself, the bill is allegedly paid by the Conservative Party, treating this as an advance.
  • October 2020 Tory peer David Brownlow allegedly pays £60,000 into party funds, to offset the cost. The party does not declare the donation to the Electoral Commission.
  • Late 2020 Inquiries begin into setting up a Downing Street (non-charitable) Trust, through which the money could be refunded and then funnelled, avoiding disclosure of the original source.

What the Tories say

Statements from both the government and the Conservative Party about the refurb payment have been ambiguous at best.

On 8 March Allegra Stratton, the prime minister's press secretary, denounced the refurb allegations, saying: "Conservative Party funds are not being used to pay for any refurbishment of the Downing Street estate."

This did not address the original allegation, which was that the Conservative Party had advanced the money, but that Lord Brownlow had later reimbursed it. In using the present tense, Stratton issued a "non-denial denial".

The Conservative Party has not responded to approaches by openDemocracy for comment. However, it did tell the Daily Mail: "We have regular discussions with the Electoral Commission. We are very happy to explain to them how the rules have been correctly followed."

As for the government's ongoing breach of the Ministerial Code in not publishing ministers’ new interests, its defence is centred around "constitutional" arguments. In turning down the petition calling for an independent body to adjudicate on compliance with the Ministerial Code, it said that it is "the constitutional position that it is for the Prime Minister alone to advise the Sovereign on the appointment, dismissal and acceptance of resignation of other Ministers."

The Conservative Party and Lord Brownlow have not responded to our previous invitations to comment on this story.

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