Concerns over checks and balances in government have been raised after political unique consultants (spads) were implicated of “running the store” in a conference with civil servants about distributing emergency pandemic funds to charities.
MPs raised issues about the procedure run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to choose how much money from a ₤ 750m pot ought to be given to other departments to allocate to voluntary and neighborhood organisations last April.
Estimating private correspondence from DCMS in a conference of the public accounts committee on Thursday, MPs stated it seemed as if some bids had initially been “red-listed” by civil servants– suggesting they were deprioritised after “scoring very low” on internal assessments– prior to being authorized by ministers.
The Tory MP Richard Holden said the assembling of a conference known as a “star chamber” with 3 officials and 5 spads– 3 from No 10, one from the Treasury and another from DCMS– appeared “uncommon” and totaled up to a “filtering procedure” by political appointees instead of unbiased civil servants.
A previous spad himself, Holden stated: “I don’t ever remember there being any type of star chamber room where decisions were made or vetted through a group of spads … without either ministers being present or without extremely senior authorities existing. Yet in this star chamber, it appears spads were running the store.”
Sarah Healey, the irreversible secretary at DCMS, at first said: “I don’t think it’s any different from the normal procedure by which officials give recommendations to ministers that spads are able to offer views on.”
She later on added: “It took a, I admit, unusual form but not an inappropriate one.”
She said that whenever officials drew up recommendations, spads frequently contributed their views too. Provided the department had been working “at speed” to rapidly support charities individuals were relying on at the start of the pandemic, it “brought those 2 procedures together”.
Healey insisted that the final suggestions provided to ministers came from civil servants. But the chair of the committee, the Labour MP Meg Hillier, told her: “They can just handle the recommendations that they’ve been provided– and that suggestions came through an unusual route.
” You appear to be dancing on a pinhead to try to justify this … It appears like there’s a fig leaf here to cover the truth it’s a lot of senior spads in a room making really honest and detailed talk about these instructions, and those choices therefore going through to the minister as a result of that conference.
” They were very, extremely closely involved in a way that I have actually not seen … None of us could consider an example where this has actually happened prior to … This was amazing to us.”
Healey yielded it was not a “regular” procedure, however said it was simply “truncated”, which the final decision for signing off the cash for bids lay with the DCMS’s secretary, Oliver Dowden, and the chief secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay.
She added that “no choices were made” at the star chamber conference, and that a senior official, the department’s director general for offering, Scott Macpherson, existed.
Some quotes were also amalgamated, Healey added, to “meet need more appropriately and offer higher flexibility to those departments to be able to disperse funding appropriately to the organisations they understood best”.
Hillier has requested more information from Healey, with the committee anticipated to investigate whether political advisors’ intervention was responsible for any of the “red list” bids being authorized.
Requested for remark by the Guardian, the DCMS said on Thursday these bids were just authorized when combined with other “higher scoring bids under a similar theme”.
A source from the department earlier stated: “This was at the very height of the crisis, at a time when charities on the frontline of the Covid crisis such as hospices were in desperate need of financial help. We had to set things up quickly and get assistance to them fast. Letting these crucial charities fail due to the fact that we were moving gradually would have been unimaginable.”