Told you so, says campaigner who warned about Sue Gray’s past
Jason Evans said he was ‘not surprised’ by claims information had been omitted from Gray’s partygate report
A campaigner who warned months ago that there could be “no confidence” in Sue Gray’s partygate report because of her history of protecting the government has said he is “not surprised” by fresh claims that she was leant on by ministers.
Speaking to openDemocracy this week, Jason Evans, said he had been watching the media frenzy over Gray’s report in recent weeks and thinking: “This isn't the person, in my experience, that delivers transparency.
“This isn't the person that provides disclosures of information. This is a person that does exactly the opposite.”
Earlier this year, openDemocracy reported how Gray, a senior civil servant, had stonewalled Evans’ Freedom of Information (FOI) request on the infected blood scandal that killed his father.
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At the time, Evans said: “Personally, I wouldn’t have confidence in that kind of person to lead an investigation or an inquiry.”
His warning that Gray’s report would be unable to command trust appeared to be confirmed last week when The Sunday Times alleged that a section of Gray’s report had been changed at the 11th hour after she was lobbied by three civil servants – one from Downing Street and two from the Cabinet Office.
Downing Street denied the newspapers’ claim that the prime minister’s chief of staff, Steve Barclay, had “tweaked” Gray’s report the night it was due to be published.
Barclay is said to have removed information about an Abba party, hosted by the prime minister’s wife in their Downing Street flat on 13 November 2020, one week after England went into a second national lockdown.
“I think the public perception was, oh, you know, Sue Gray, she's going to get to the bottom of this, and she's going to teach Boris [Johnson],” said Evans.
“But from my experience, Sue Gray is actually someone, herself, who has prevented the release of information.”
Evans was referring to an FOI request he sent to the Treasury for historic files in 2018. His request was forwarded to a secretive ‘Clearing House’ unit within the Cabinet Office.
The Clearing House then actively discouraged the Treasury from releasing information, with Gray herself writing: “Personally I would favour the [infected blood] inquiry releasing the information in a managed way (as we tried to do with Chilcot [Inquiry into the Iraq War]).”
‘Culture of secrecy’
SNP MP Tommy Sheppard, who is embroiled in a long battle with the Cabinet Office over the release of information, told openDemocracy he, too, was unsurprised by allegations that government staff had leaned on Gray to remove details from her report.
“This government, more than any other, is concerned about the suppression and management of information,” he said. “So it doesn't surprise me in the slightest.”
But Sheppard felt the “culture of secrecy” within the Cabinet Office was to blame, rather than Gray herself.
He said: “What I've witnessed and what I believe is the case is that there's actually an institutional problem inside the Cabinet Office.
“It's not down to any one individual, I think there's actually, there's a culture of secrecy and resistance to transparency in the Cabinet Office that almost makes it a rogue department.”
He added that he would have preferred to see “a proper, judge-led independent inquiry”.
There's a culture of secrecy and resistance to transparency in the Cabinet Office that almost makes it a rogue department
This was echoed by Labour MP Catherine West, who told openDemocracy: “I think the problem… is that Sue Gray isn’t really independent because she still works for the government and [Boris Johnson is] the head of the government.”
The Hornsey and Wood Green MP added: “It would have been much better if the government had appointed somebody who is genuinely independent, who is not a government employee.”
But she said she believed Gray was not personally to blame, describing the civil servant as “a very trusted individual” who is “very well respected across both sides of the House [of Commons]”.
Evans’s battle for transparency is not the only time Gray has been found to be involved in blocking the release of information.
In September, openDemocracy reported the Clearing House had told the government’s housing department to alter its responses to FOI requests about the Grenfell Tower fire – blocking information from being released in at least one case and “suggesting advice” about what could be made public.
Documents later uncovered by openDemocracy revealed that Gray had been consulted over the decision to refuse a journalist’s request for information about the fire, which killed 72 people in a high-rise tower in west London in June 2017.
One Cabinet Office staffer wrote to a colleague: “I’ve discussed with Sue and we’ll probably be looking to withhold these emails, but I’ll confirm on Monday.”
The journalist’s original request was eventually rejected.
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.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The report was impartially conducted and its contents represent the findings and conclusions of the investigation team alone.
“As with all such investigation reports, the process of obtaining formal representations from those perceived to be criticised prior to publication took place. This is an appropriate and usual process in such matters.”
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