Sue Gray: How ‘partygate’ investigator stonewalled transparency campaign
‘No confidence’ in civil servant after her involvement with Cabinet Office’s ‘Orwellian’ Clearing House, campaigner says
The top civil servant investigating alleged illegal lockdown parties at Downing Street is “not a person that believes in open and full disclosure”, according to a campaigner who has spent years fighting for information in a public inquiry.
Sue Gray, who has been appointed to oversee the party probe, is infamous in the world of information transparency. She once urged officers not to respond to a Freedom of Information request, citing the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war as an example of how to “releas[e] information in a managed way” in documents previously seen by openDemocracy.
Gray is now the second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. MPs and media have feted her as “formidable” and “the most powerful civil servant you've never heard of”.
But campaigner Jason Evans says she isn’t fit to run the investigation into Downing Street parties because of her involvement in the stonewalling of Freedom of Information requests within the Cabinet Office dating back years.
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Evans is fighting for justice over the infected blood scandal that killed his father. It saw thousands of people infected with HIV and Hepatitis B during the 1970s and 1980s because of a contaminated blood product called Factor 8.
Evans, who founded a campaign group, also called Factor 8, to expose the scandal, called Gray’s involvement in the latest probe “a massive irony”.
He said: “I think the documentary evidence that I’ve seen shows that this isn’t a person that believes in open and full disclosure. [...] Personally, I wouldn’t have confidence in that kind of person to lead an investigation or an inquiry.”
Boris Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, invited 100 people to “BYOB” drinks at Downing Street in May 2020 – a time when it was illegal to meet more than one person socially, even outdoors. Gray, who led the investigation that resulted in the sacking of Theresa May’s former deputy Damian Green, is also investigating a string of other alleged breaches.
‘An exquisite irony’
Emails obtained by Evans show how Gray tried to block the release of sensitive documents to people campaigning for justice over the infected blood scandal in 2018.
Evans sent a request to the Treasury for historic files, which was then forwarded to the controversial ‘Clearing House’ within the Cabinet Office. The Clearing House actively discouraged the Treasury from releasing information. In the emails, Sue Gray, who is the sponsor of the infected blood inquiry, wrote: “Personally I would favour the [infected blood] inquiry releasing the information in a managed way (as we tried to do with Chilcot).”
I know of half-a-dozen occasions where Gray has intervened to tell departments to fight disclosures under FOI
Gray then suggested using Section 31 of the Freedom of Information Act – an exemption based on the risk of prejudice to public authorities – to prevent the release of the documents.
“The HMT [Her Majesty’s Treasury] team will need to do a lot of consultation with former ministers who I suspect will be very sore about this,” she wrote. “Much better to do as part of a release with the Inquiry. And I would use [Section] 31 for now. Can always revisit if goes to ICO [the Information Commissioner’s Office, which regulates information transparency].”
Speaking to openDemocracy in December 2020, Conservative MP David Davis said: “It is an exquisite irony that the department that is charged with upholding Freedom of Information is actively blocking it.
“Particularly when it comes to people who have been poorly treated by the state after a major state error: the very thing that Freedom of Information is supposed to expose and deter.”
Evans referred to Gray’s controversial comments at the infected blood public inquiry in June last year, saying: “I couldn't care less about Sue Gray's view that this should be [run] like the Chilcot Inquiry and we should wait – people are going to die before this inquiry finishes, and so I think there should be full transparency with the information now.”
Gray’s approach to FOI has been criticised on other occasions. In 2015, Chris Cook, then the policy editor for BBC Newsnight, wrote: “I know of half-a-dozen occasions where Ms Gray has intervened to tell departments to fight disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act”. He also said she had advised Michael Gove in 2011 that emails sent using private accounts regarding government business were exempt from transparency laws. The advice was wrong.
Gray first joined the Cabinet Office in the late 1990s and served as the department’s director-general for propriety and ethics from 2012 to 2018. In 2021, she returned to the Cabinet Office before going to Michael Gove’s housing department later that year.
In July last year, Gove blocked Gray from giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into the Greensill lobbying scandal. openDemocracy’s FOI request for Gray and Gove’s communications around this was rejected, with the Cabinet Office concluding that the “balance of the public interest favours withholding this information”.
openDemocracy has approached both the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for comment.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
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