The cabinet secretary should not be dragged into investigations

21 January 2013

Cabinet secretaries are much more like Mycroft than Sherlock Holmes. They advise and influence behind the scenes, but they invariably run into public controversy when they are asked to investigate. That yet again is the lesson of the row over the involvement of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, in the Andrew Mitchell affair, highlighted by yesterday’s critical report from the Public Administration Committee, sonorously entitled ‘The Role of the Cabinet Secretary and the Resignation of the Chief Whip’.

This is a murky, and still unresolved, affair in which Sir Jeremy played a peripheral role. He was asked by David Cameron to examine whether two e-mails sent by a constituent of John Randall, the Deputy Chief Whip, changed the Prime Minister’s original assessment of the Chief Whip’s conduct. Sir Jeremy concluded that the e-mails ‘did not provide conclusive or reliable’ evidence and there was therefore no reason for the PM to change his original assessment that Mr Mitchell should stay in post. So Sir Jeremy’s involvement kept Mr Mitchell in office. He resigned a month later after continuing media, political and police pressure. It later turned out that the constituent was a serving police officer and that the basis for some of the allegations was questionable.

The PASC report criticizes Sir Jeremy for not undertaking or recommending a fuller investigation and then argues that the cabinet secretary is the wrong person to perform such a role. ‘There is already intense pressure on his time and attention; and his role as impartial investigator may conflict with his primary role, which is to support the daily work of the Prime Minister and the Government as a whole’. However, Prime Ministers invariably turn to their cabinet secretaries to help them out with tricky situations. The results are usually uncomfortable as Lord Armstrong of Ilminister found over both Westland and Spycatcher, while Lord Butler of Brockwell was placed in an impossible position when Jonathan Aitken, a serving minister, misled him over the Ritz bill affair and was cleared of allegations of impropriety. Mr Aitken was then promoted to the Cabinet before later being convicted of perjury and jailed.

It is very hard for cabinet secretaries to say no and there is a fine line between advice and investigation. Moreover, as now, there is often a sub-plot as the Prime Minister’s media and political critics find a convenient scapegoat in the power behind the scenes. The usual, but now fast disappearing, anonymity of Sir Jeremy makes him an easier target.

PASC has long argued that investigations should be carried out by the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Ministers’ interests, currently Sir Alex Allan. The Ministerial Code specifically says that it is not the role of the cabinet secretary to enforce the code but that if an investigation is needed, it should be carried out by the adviser. Sir Jeremy has argued that, in this case, Sir Alex was in no better position than him to investigate.

But the Adviser’s role is ambiguous. First, he cannot initiate his own inquiries and has to be asked to do so by the Prime Minister. The practice has varied from case to case, depending on urgency. PASC has made a strong case for the Adviser being able to instigate their own investigations. Second, the Adviser is primarily concerned with potential conflict of interests, most of the time providing private advice to ministers on how to address problems, as opposed to investigating. The Mitchell affair was different, about alleged misconduct—outside what the Adviser has so far examined.

Overall, there needs to be greater clarity about who investigates ethical allegations against ministers—in the interests of all concerned. The cabinet secretary should no longer be dragged into such affairs.

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Comments (2)

  1. ian brealey on 21 January 2013 at 6:56 pm

    Good to see some intelligent comment.

  2. Richard Potter on 5 February 2013 at 12:44 pm

    In Sir Jeremy’s evidence to PASC on what he did, he used the word “we” many times. Which is a delicate way of saying that he was working for the Prime Minister. It seems to me that the problem was not obviously the quality of the investigation, but more on decisions made using that evidence.

    We don’t yet know what happened, but most people most of the time have had a working assumption of trusting a police officer. And it does seem that what might have happened would be outside the bounds of normal expectation.

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