Is Michael Gove using Osmotherly to deny truth?


A few hours ago the Independent newspaper published this piece written by Jon Stone under the headline “Michael Gove obstructs investigation into Greensill scandal by blocking witness from appearing at inquiry” which is very interesting, and also very disturbing. This piece relates to Gove’s unwillingness for one of his senior Civil Servants to take part in the inquiry, even though according to the article, Sue Gray’s Office “had accepted the committee’s investigation to be questioned” and later in the piece there is the comment

Committee chair and Conservative MP William Wragg said: “Sue Gray’s office had accepted our approach to have her appear to answer important questions surrounding Lex Greensill’s position at the heart of Government. Regrettably, the rug has been pulled from under us by the Cabinet Office.

Part of the article states

When The Independent approached the Cabinet Office about this decision, the department pointed to an answer given by Mr Gove in the Commons last week.

So it is always useful to go to the source of the information which took place on Thursday as part of the Topical Questions to the Cabinet Office. The question came from William Wragg and indeed two days earlier on a piece of new legislation Michael Gove stated

Both Front-Bench teams are committed to the legislation, and it follows on from an excellent report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, and from recommendations made by the Constitution Committee in the other place. 

So based on that alone one would assume that the agreement from Sue Gray to attend and the positive attitude that Gove claims to have to William Wragg, that he would accept the request. Sadly he didn’t and this is the question and the response

WW: In the inquiry by the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs into the collapse of Greensill Capital, many of our witnesses so far have prayed in aid the advice given to them by Sue Gray, who at the time was director general for propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office. She was invited to attend our Committee on Tuesday; her office initially accepted that invitation, but I am told that she has now declined it on the advice of those more senior at the Cabinet Office. It is vital that the Committee be able to hear from Ms Gray, given that she was mentioned so many times by others. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to ensure that she will attend on Tuesday as planned?

MG: My hon. Friend chairs the Committee brilliantly, but there are rules—the Osmotherly rules. They stress that serving civil servants act only in accordance with the wishes of Ministers and therefore it is rarely appropriate for them to appear to be questioned in the way that my hon. Friend would like. So I am ready, willing and able to appear in front of the Committee, but it is my view that it would be inappropriate for a serving civil servant to appear in the way that my hon. Friend requests.

So before we consider the Osmotherly Rules, it is worth recalling how many times in recent weeks Michael Gove has been asked a question and he chooses not to turn up and instead sends one of his junior Ministers to attend. That indicates that he is not at all accountable himself. However there is this piece in Wikipedia which covers Osmotherly Rules. The first sentence is

The Osmotherly Rules, named for their author, a civil servant in the Machinery of Government Division of the British Cabinet Office named E. B. C. Osmotherly, are a set of internal guidelines specifying how government departments should provide evidence to parliamentary select committees.

It then goes on to state

As to an overarching principle the rules state that civil servants (“officials”) are not directly accountable to Parliament; rather, Secretaries of State, Ministers of State, Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State and Parliamentary Private Secretaries (as the elected/appointed agents of the Crown) are so accountable to Parliament. Their civil servants, essentially carrying out actions under ministerial powers and authority, are merely responsible to them, and thus cannot be summoned by Select Committees, as they are protected by the same rule that prevents Members of Parliament being summoned. In general, if there is a dispute about the attendance of an official, the relevant minister should attend instead as a matter of courtesy.

It is certainly clear that Osmotherly is intended to protect Civil Servants, but there are hundreds of cases when Civil Servants have appeared in Select Committees both alongside and individually from their Ministers. It is certainly clear that this is an attempt by Parliament to identify what has happened and if Sue Gray is able to help explain that, surely we cannot justify a barrier to her appearance when she is not being challenged, but revealing what took place!

About ianchisnall

I am passionate about the need for public policies to be made accessible to everyone, especially those who want to improve the wellbeing of their communities. I am particularly interested in issues related to crime and policing as well as health services and strategic planning.
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