From secretive Covid contracts to town funds fiasco, government culture is rotten

There is something rotten in the government’s culture. Less than a year after Boris Johnson led his party to an 80-seat majority, ethical standards are routinely compromised and the principle of transparency is under attack.

Richard Vize

The mishandling by the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, of the £3.6bn towns fund typifies this casual abuse of power – a shoddy piece of work that barely pays lip service to basic principles of openness and objectivity. Established in July 2019 to support the economies of struggling towns, the fund selected 101 places, 40 based on need and the other 61 chosen by ministers. Tory seats and targets were the big beneficiaries, leading to Labour concerns that the money was used to win votes.

An excoriating report by the cross-party Commons public accounts select committee accuses the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government of dishing out billions based on vague justifications, scant evidence and sweeping assumptions. One town, Cheadle in Greater Manchester (Conservative, majority 2,336), was given cash despite being ranked by officials as the 535th priority out of 541 towns.

The department refused to disclose its reasons for selecting or excluding towns, offering risible excuses that have fuelled accusations of political bias and that has, according to the report, risked the civil service’s reputation for integrity and impartiality. The MPs were riled by the refusal of the permanent secretary, Jeremy Pocklington, to publish his formal assessment that the scheme met Treasury requirements for managing public money.

To deflect criticism over the summer, the department misrepresented an investigation by the National Audit Office by falsely claiming it had shown that the selection process had been “robust”. Pocklington said he did not know about these press statements.

Jenrick has not even explained what the towns fund is expected to achieve, how it fits with other government funding programmes, when he expects to see the benefits, and how he will measure success.

This comes just six months after Jenrick was forced into conceding that he had acted unlawfully in overruling Tower Hamlets council and the Planning Inspectorate to grant approval for a housing development by Tory donor Richard Desmond.

A culture of secrecy and denial is becoming pervasive. It is now established government practice simply not to publish documents that should be exposed to public scrutiny.

The same day as the PAC report, Lord Evans of Weardale, the former head of MI5 and now chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, called for the government to publish the investigation into allegations that the home secretary, Priti Patel, bullied staff, which Johnson has been sitting on for months. As the guardian of the Nolan Principles of standards in public life, Evans warned that the failure to publish could undermine public trust.

And just the day before, the Good Law Project accused the government of breaching its legal duties by failing to publish any information about £4.6bn of Covid-related contracts to private companies, with suspicions that a number have been secured through Tory contacts.

The failure to release the Patel report, the formal assessment of the towns fund or the details of the Covid contracts leaves more than a whiff of impropriety. If the government has nothing to hide, why not publish?

All this is within months of that massive election win. Johnson’s government hasn’t even troubled itself with good intentions.

In the runup to the 2010 election David Cameron talked about sunlight being the best disinfectant, while Tony Blair set himself up for a fall by stressing the importance of being “whiter than white”. The current administration has been twisting the rules from the beginning, and has compromised the integrity of the civil service along the way. If that is how far standards of integrity can fall in a year, how much further they could go in five.

  • Richard Vize is a public policy commentator and analyst