More on: South Somerset secrets exposed

The editor of “The Leveller” has contacted Owl to point out that the story posted on EDW about Clare Pestell being dismissed from South Somerset District Council had been reported in the print edition of The Leveller on 15 January, much earlier than the sources Owl quoted.

The editor also helpfully pointed out that the best bits of the story weren’t covered but could be found on an online post of 13 December – see below the screen grab of the Leveller 15 January scoop.

South Somerset secrets exposed

Readers will recall that for a while EDDC “shared” Mark Williams as CEO with SSDC until they suddenly terminated the arrangement in July 2015. This severance cost SSDC upwards of £100,000. No reason was given at the time but SSDC decided temporarily to have a management team without an overall CEO. (We seemed to manage quite well with only Mark Williams on half time at the time) – Owl

by Andrew Lee

This Thursday,16 December, all members of South Somerset District Council (SSDC) will meet. An item of huge public importance has been scheduled but the press and public are due to be excluded. So that members of the public and rank-and-file councillors fully understand what is going on, we are publishing a special online report. There will be a much fuller story, going into much more of the hidden detail, in the 15 January Leveller®.

We understand that the confidential agenda item (22. Confidential Staffing Matter – verbal report from the Chief Executive) is about Clare Pestell, the council’s former Director, Commercial & Income Generation. She was appointed SSDC’s new interim chief executive (CEO) back in the summer, only to resign before taking up office for reasons which have never been publicly stated. SSDC has undertaken a massive cover-up to prevent the facts from getting into the public domain – until now.

The Chief Executive Who Never Was.

Ms Pestell is no longer employed by the council. However, if things had turned out differently, she would now be its interim Chief Executive, drawing a salary of £118,767.

On 5 May this year the Full Council met. On the agenda (item 10, seeing as you ask) was the appointment of an Interim Chief Executive-designate (CEO). There was only one candidate, Clare Pestell. Councillors, given no reason not to appoint her, duly ratified her appointment.

Yet, less than a month later, on 4 June, outgoing CEO Alex Parmley announced Ms Pestell would not be taking up her appointment after all. Council staff were told this was for “personal reasons.”

Cover up

The real reasons for the decision were covered up. The press and public will be excluded from any discussion about Ms Pestell on Thursday and how she nearly came to be appointed interim CEO.

We have decided to publish now because each time we have asked SSDC straight questions, it has responded with answers that we consider to be somewhere between evasive and disingenuous.

If SSDC wishes to comment on this article it is, of course, welcome to do so. We will publish any response.

What went wrong?

The timeline that led to Ms Pestell’s appointment on 5 May is crucial to the story. Please bear with us, as there will be many dates!

On 19 April, Mr Parmley announced his resignation from SSDC. He would be leaving later in the summer for a new life in New Zealand. Given the future of the council was in doubt because of the unitary debate, SSDC decided, quite reasonably, to appoint an interim CEO.

That process started, according to the minutes of the 5 May Council meeting, on 20 April.

On 22 April, Council leader Val Keitch and Mr Parmley received a letter from a whistleblower. The letter made a number of serious accusations against Ms Pestell, concerning the alleged abuse of council property and the alleged unauthorised use of council employees at her own business, a vineyard in north Dorset.

We should state clearly that Ms Pestell did refute and continues to refute all the allegations against her.

However, and quite properly, the leader and chief executive commissioned a fact-finding report by local government auditors SWAP.

The date that happened is not clear but, whether it was commissioned before or after 5 May, Ms Keitch and Mr Parmley clearly took the allegations against Pestell very seriously.

What happened next…

From 28 April to 4 May a recruitment process was undertaken in which there was only one candidate. That candidate was Ms Pestell.

She was then recommended for appointment at the full Council meeting on 5 May. Despite the fact both the leader and then-chief executive between them knew the following:

  • Serious accusations had been made against Ms Pestell. Even though a fact-finding exercise was to be commissioned, neither the leader nor the CEO seems to have decided it was necessary to wait for its results. These, bear in mind, would either confirm serious accusations against Ms Pestell or put her in the clear, allowing her appointment to be ratified.
  • Equally importantly, Mr Parmley had stated that, in his view, Ms Pestell was already struggling to balance her existing senior job at the Council with running her personal business, Melbury Vale Vineyard in Dorset. In August 2019, Mr Parmley had specifically authorised her to work four days a week for the Council, so she could balance working for the council with working on the winery and vineyard. In October 2019 he noted that, even the four-day arrangement did not seem to be working out. Yet, in May 2021 he was proposing she should lead the entire Council…..


Councillors were asked to ratify the appointment of Clare Pestell even though Mr Parmley and Ms Keitch had deliberately kept from them significant information – information which would have a direct bearing on the new chief executive’s suitability for the position.

With only one candidate and the most significant information withheld, it was hardly surprising that Councillors ratified her appointment.

Mr Parmley and Ms Keitch could – and, arguably, should – have waited. Once the fact-finding report was in their hands, they would have been in a position to make an informed decision. Mr Parmley did not leave the council until July. The report was presented on 24 June and, after reading it, the leader and CEO appointed an Investigator to further investigate Ms Pestell.

We now know that on 4 June Ms Pestell stood down from the top job without even starting it. And in November she left the council.

So, why the rush to get her appointed on 5 May?

How could the leader and CEO put a proposition to the full Council while deliberately withholding relevant – and serious – information?

Did other members of the Cabinet also know? Surely they must now account for what they did and what they knew about the matter before it went to the full Council.

They might like to reflect, as they meet on Thursday, whether this is an issue which requires resignations.

More breaking news: Sue Gray report delayed while police investigate Downing Street parties

BreakingSue Gray report to be delayed
The Cabinet Office will not publish Sue Gray’s report while the Met Police are investigating events at Downing Street and Whitehall during lockdown, the BBC has been told.
It is not clear how long this investigation will take.
The Cabinet Office put out a statement earlier to say the investigation by Gray, a senior civil servant, would be continuing while maintaining “ongoing contact” with the police.
The terms of reference of the Gray investigation say: “As with all internal investigations, if during the course of the work any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused.”



Breaking news: Met Police now investigating Downing Street parties

Scotland Yard is now investigating “a number of events” in Downing Street and Whitehall in relation to potential coronavirus regulation breaches, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said.

Neil Shaw

Metropolitan Police chief Dame Cressida Dick confirmed the force was investigating allegations of coronavirus rule breaches in Downing Street and Whitehall.

She told the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee: “We have a long-established and effective working relationship with the Cabinet Office, who have an investigative capability.

“As you well know they have been carrying out an investigation over the last few weeks.

“What I can tell you this morning is that as a result of the information provided by the Cabinet Office inquiry team and, secondly, my officers’ own assessment, I can confirm that the Met is now investigating a number of events that took place at Downing Street and Whitehall in the last two years in relation to potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations.”

Sue Gray’s investigation into gatherings held at No 10 and across Whitehall will continue after the Metropolitan Police said it will probe “a number of events”.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The investigation being carried out by Sue Gray is continuing.

“There is ongoing contact with the Metropolitan Police Service.”

It is not clear whether the publication of the senior official’s report will be delayed by the opening of the police investigation.

In the latest party revelation, No 10 has conceded staff “gathered briefly” in the Cabinet Room on the afternoon of June 19 2020 following a meeting after it was alleged 30 people attended, shared cake, and sang “happy birthday” to the PM, despite social mixing indoors being banned.

Grant Shapps said it was disputed how many people attended, and that the surprise gathering had not been organised by the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie Johnson as reported.

But he said “it clearly shouldn’t happen” and that people should have stuck by the rules.

ITV News reported the get together featured a rendition of “happy birthday” and was attended by staff, Mrs Johnson, and interior designer Lulu Lytle.

Ms Lytle, who was doing up the PM’s flat, admitted attending but insisted she was only present “briefly” while waiting to talk to Mr Johnson about the lavish refurbishments.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “A group of staff working in No 10 that day gathered briefly in the Cabinet Room after a meeting to wish the Prime Minister a happy birthday.

“He was there for less than 10 minutes.”

Mr Shapps said staff would have “thought they were being kind” by marking the PM’s birthday but he said it was “almost certainly very unwise”.

The Transport Secretary was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about a letter sent to Mr Johnson by then seven-year-old Josephine Booth in March 2020 who told the Prime Minister she had cancelled her own party due to coronavirus.

Mr Johnson tweeted at the time that she “sets a great example to us all by postponing her birthday party until we have sent coronavirus packing”.

Mr Shapps said: “I think that she did exactly the right thing.

“I think that should have been done in all cases, and I don’t seek to say otherwise.”

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “I think people should stick by… should have stuck by the rules.”

But he sought to explain the gathering by saying those present had already been working together.

“I think we can be pretty clear that the Prime Minister didn’t present the cake to himself.

“This is somebody coming in with that cake and I’ve explained to you that I’m furious with everybody who broke the rules,” he told Sky News.

But he added: “These are staff he would have been working with and was working with all day long, and will have been many a time in the same room with them working on the response to coronavirus.

“They come in, give him a cake, I understand I think it lasted for 10 minutes and that was it.”

He told Good Morning Britain: “Look, as the Prime Minister’s said, where mistakes were made, even though it wasn’t… I mean, he would have turned up and the cake would have been there.

“He didn’t know about it, and it clearly shouldn’t happen.

“But Sue Gray will get to the bottom of that; the Prime Minister’s already said there will be consequences falling out from the Sue Gray report, and my hope is we can get to see that very quickly.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was understood to have briefly attended as the gathering was breaking up as he entered the room to attend a Covid strategy meeting.

ITV reported picnic food from M&S was eaten and Martin Reynolds, Mr Johnson’s under-fire principal private secretary, was also said to have attended, as was No 10’s director of communications Jack Doyle and head of operations Shelley Williams-Walker.

Social gatherings indoors were forbidden under lockdown laws at the time, with a relaxation of the regulations permitting gatherings of up to six people to take place outside.

Senior official Sue Gray was already aware of the birthday party allegations, Mr Shapps said.

She has been investigating a series of claims of rule-breaking parties in No 10 and across Whitehall as Mr Johnson faces calls to resign as Prime Minister, including from some of his own Conservative MPs who are waiting for her report before deciding on the PM’s fate.

ITV News also reported later the same evening family friends were hosted upstairs to further celebrate the Prime Minister’s 56th birthday in his official residence.

No 10 said: “This is totally untrue.

“In line with the rules at the time the Prime Minister hosted a small number of family members outside that evening.”

The allegations capped another torrid day for Mr Johnson after Lord Agnew dramatically resigned as a minister at the despatch box over the “schoolboy” handling of fraudulent Covid business loans.

Mr Johnson was earlier forced to launch a Cabinet Office investigation into Tory MP Nusrat Ghani’s allegation that a Government whip linked her “Muslimness” to her sacking as a minister in 2020.

List of the alleged gatherings, which in several cases have been admitted to

– May 15 2020: Downing Street garden party

Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie, former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, and Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, were all pictured, in a photograph leaked to The Guardian, sitting around a table in the No 10 garden, with wine and cheese in front of them.

Some 15 other people were also in the photograph, but the Prime Minister has insisted this was a work meeting, saying: “Those were meetings of people at work, talking about work.”

– May 20 2020: BYOB garden party

The revelation came in an email, leaked to ITV, from Mr Reynolds to more than 100 Downing Street employees inviting them to “bring your own booze” for an evening gathering.

The Prime Minister admitted attending the gathering, but insisted he believed it was a work event which could “technically” have been within the rules.

– June 19 2020: Alleged birthday party for Boris Johnson

A Downing Street spokesperson admitted staff “gathered briefly” in the Cabinet Room after a meeting, following a report from ITV News which suggested up to 30 people attended.

The broadcaster suggested the Prime Minister’s wife, Carrie Johnson, had organised the surprise get-together.

The PA news agency was told Lulu Lytle, the interior designer behind lavish renovations of Mr and Mrs Johnson’s No 10 flat, briefly attended while undertaking work in Downing Street.

– November 13 2020: Leaving party for senior aide

According to reports at the time, Mr Johnson gave a leaving speech for Lee Cain, his departing director of communications and a close ally of Mr Cummings.

– November 13 2020: Johnsons’ flat party

There are allegations that the Prime Minister’s then fiancee hosted parties in their flat, with one such event said to have taken place on November 13, the night Mr Cummings departed No 10.

A spokesman for Mrs Johnson has called the claim “total nonsense”.

– November 25 2020: Treasury drinks

A Treasury spokesman told The Times that a number of staff had gone into the office to work on the Spending Review.

He said: “We have been made aware that a small number of those staff had impromptu drinks around their desks after the event.”

– November 27 2020: Second staff leaving do

The Mirror reported that the Prime Minister gave a farewell speech to an aide at the end of November while the lockdown in England was still in place.

Other reports have said the leaving do was for Cleo Watson, a senior Downing Street aide and ally of Mr Cummings.

– December 10 2020: Department for Education party

The DfE confirmed a social event had happened after The Mirror reported that former education secretary Gavin Williamson threw a party and delivered a short speech at an event organised at his department’s Whitehall headquarters.

A spokesman acknowledged that “it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time”.

– December 11 2020: Wine fridge delivered to Downing Street for staff’s ‘wine-time Fridays’

A fridge with the capacity for 34 wine bottles was delivered through the back door of No 10.

According to sources cited by The Mirror, the fridge became necessary for staff’s “wine-time Fridays” which were held throughout lockdown, with the Prime Minister allegedly encouraging the parties to help aides “let off steam”.

The regular social gatherings were reported to be particularly popular among staff between autumn 2020 and spring 2020 when staff were “fatigued” with tough Covid restrictions that banned socialising.

Mr Johnson was said to have attended a “handful” of these gatherings.

– December 14 2020: Party featuring Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey and staff

Shaun Bailey apologised “unreservedly” for attending the gathering at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) organised by staff on his campaign team.

“It was a serious error of judgment at a time when Londoners were making immense sacrifices to keep us all safe and I regret it wholeheartedly,” he tweeted.

He quit his role chairing the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee after The Mirror published a picture showing him at the gathering.

– December 15 2020: Downing Street quiz

The Prime Minister appeared on contestants’ screens at the quiz but insisted he broke no rules.

An image published by the Sunday Mirror showed Mr Johnson flanked by colleagues, one draped in tinsel and another wearing a Santa hat, in No 10.

Downing Street admitted Mr Johnson “briefly” attended the quiz after the photographic evidence emerged but insisted it was a virtual event.

– December 16 2020: Department for Transport party

The Mirror reported that senior civil servants were “boozing and dancing” at the event, allegedly planned by staff from Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ office.

A DfT spokesman said: “Fewer than a dozen staff who were working in the office had a low-key, socially distanced gathering in the large open-plan office after work on December 16, where food and drink was consumed.

“We recognise this was inappropriate and apologise for the error of judgment.”

– December 17 2020: Cabinet Office “Christmas party”

A number of outlets reported that a gathering was held in the Cabinet Office on December 17.

The Times reported that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case attended the party in room 103 of the Cabinet Office, that it had been organised by a private secretary in Mr Case’s team, and that it was included in digital calendars as “Christmas party!”.

The Cabinet Office confirmed a quiz took place, but a spokesman said: “The Cabinet Secretary played no part in the event, but walked through the team’s office on the way to his own office.”

– December 17 2020: Leaving drinks for former Covid Taskforce head

The former director-general of the Government’s Covid Taskforce said she was “truly sorry” over an evening gathering in the Cabinet Office for her leaving drinks during coronavirus restrictions days before Christmas in 2020.

Kate Josephs, who is now chief executive of Sheffield City Council, said she gathered with colleagues who were in the office that day and added that she is co-operating with the probe by senior civil servant Sue Gray.

– December 18 2020: Christmas party at Downing Street

The claim which kicked off the rule-breaking allegations is that a party was held for Downing Street staff on December 18.

Officials and advisers reportedly made speeches, enjoyed a cheese board, drank together and exchanged Secret Santa gifts, although the Prime Minister is not thought to have attended.

Mr Johnson’s spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, quit after being filmed joking about it with fellow aides at a mock press conference.

– Run up to Christmas 2020

The Daily Mirror reported that Mr Johnson attended a leaving do for defence adviser Captain Steve Higham before Christmas 2020.

The newspaper alleged the Prime Minister made a speech but No 10 did not respond to a request for comment and the Ministry of Defence declined.

– April 16 2021: Drinks and dancing the night before the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral

The Telegraph reported that advisers and civil servants gathered after work for two separate events on the Friday night.

They were to mark the departure of James Slack, Mr Johnson’s former director of communications, and one of the Prime Minister’s personal photographers.

Mr Slack, who left his No 10 role to become deputy editor-in-chief of The Sun newspaper, said he was sorry for the “anger and hurt” caused by his leaving do, while Downing Street apologised to the Queen.

The Telegraph quoted a No 10 spokesman as saying Mr Johnson was not in Downing Street that day and is said to have been at Chequers.

The newspaper reported accounts from witnesses who said alcohol was drunk and guests danced to music, adding that it had been told that around 30 people attended both events combined.

No 10 ‘held birthday party for Boris Johnson during lockdown’

Following the latest allegations, many people on Twitter shared a letter Mr Johnson wrote to a seven-year-old girl in March 2020 after she had delayed her own birthday party because of Covid rules. “Josephine sets a great example to us all,” the PM tweeted.

(See tweets below – Owl) 

Downing Street staff held a birthday party for Boris Johnson inside No 10 in June 2020 despite Covid lockdown rules banning all indoor socialising, according to fresh claims.

The prime minister’s wife Carrie Johnson led the surprise gathering on the afternoon of 19 June which featured up to 30 people, ITV News reported on Monday evening.

She is said to have led staff in a chorus of happy birthday, before well-wishers enjoyed picnic food from M&S at the event held just after 2pm.

The Independent has seen evidence which suggests that Mr Johnson had a birthday cake with candles which he blew out after attendees finished singing happy birthday.

A No 10 spokeswoman confirmed that a group of staff had “gathered briefly” in the Cabinet Room “to wish the prime minister a happy birthday”, adding: “He was there for less than ten minutes.”

Downing Street did not deny Mr Johnson had a birthday cake and blew out candles, but instead referred to their previous statement.

The Independent has separately been told by sources that a group joined Mr and Ms Johnson in their flat the same evening, as first reported by ITV – a claim denied by No 10.

“This is totally untrue. In line with the rules at the time, the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outside that evening,” a Downing Street spokeswoman added.

Interior designer Lulu Lytle – the person later caught up in the scandal over the complex funding of the PM’s flat refurbishment – also attended the afternoon birthday gathering, ITV reported.

A spokeswoman for Soane Britain, the luxury designer co-founded by Ms Lytle, said she had been in Downing Street on June 19 working on the refurbishment.

“Lulu was not invited to any birthday celebrations for the prime minister as a guest. Lulu entered the cabinet room briefly as requested, while waiting to speak with the prime minister,” said the spokeswoman.

Mr Johnson was also said to have been joined for food and cake by Martin Reynolds, his under-fire principal private secretary, as well as No 10 special advisers, operations and events staff.

Sir Keir Starmer responded to the latest claim of a rule-breaking party by saying Mr Johnson had become a “national distraction”, adding: “He’s got to go”.

The Labour leader added: “We’ve got a prime minister and a government that spends their whole time mopping up sleaze and deceit, meanwhile while millions of people are struggling to pay their bills.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said it was time for the “disgraced” prime minister to “save the country even more pain and resign”.

He added: “It is clear now the Sue Gray inquiry is not fit for purpose. The Met must investigate this to deliver justice for millions who sacrificed so much during this pandemic.”

One Tory MP – who has been considering whether to send a letter of no-confidence in Mr Johnson to the 1922 Committee of backbenchers – told The Independent the claims made the PM’s position more precarious.

“There’s a sense of shock about these allegations. A lot of us are still getting our heads around it. I think many MPs will still wait to hear what Sue Gray says. But it’s going to make it more difficult for him to survive.”

In June 2020 all social gatherings indoors were still banned under Covid laws. Mr Johnson had asked the public to “show restraint and respect the rules” during a press conference nine days before his birthday gathering.

Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said the latest claim was “completely sickening” and “though we’re not even surprised any more, it still brings fresh pain.”

She added: “Every day and every fresh scandal pours salt on the wounds of the hundreds of thousands who have lost loved ones – if he had any decency he would do what we and the country is calling for him to do and go.”

However, culture secretary Nadine Dorries, a staunch ally of Mr Johnson, appeared to question whether the birthday gathering would have broken the rules in place at the time.

“So, when people in an office buy a cake in the middle of the afternoon for someone else they are working in the office with and stop for ten minutes to sing happy birthday and then go back to their desks, this is now called a party?” she tweeted.

Following the latest allegations, many people on Twitter shared a letter Mr Johnson wrote to a seven-year-old girl in March 2020 after she had delayed her own birthday party because of Covid rules. “Josephine sets a great example to us all,” the PM tweeted.

The latest allegation came as senior civil servant Sue Gray continues to complete the inquiry into a series of claims of rule-breaking parties in No 10 and Whitehall departments.

Her report – which could prove critical for the PM’s political survival – was expected to be published this week. But it was not immediately clear whether the latest allegation will further delay its publication, or whether Ms Gray had been aware of the birthday event.

On Monday night, The Guardian reported claims that Ms Gray was expected to make deeply critical recommendations on overhauling No 10’s operation, after uncovering “appalling evidence of mismanagement” at the heart of Downing Street.

It came after Dominic Cummings claimed evidence was being kept from the investigation because staff fear it will be seen by Mr Johnson.

The former Downing Street adviser suggested on Monday that the fear of reporting to Ms Gray officially meant that further evidence – including photographs – will keep leaking after she publishes her report.

“I know others are very worried about handing things to the Cabinet Office because they know the PM will see everything SG [Sue Gray] collects,” Mr Cummings said in his latest blog post.

It follows The Independent’s exclusive report that officials at No 10 have held back information due to a “culture of fear” surrounding the probe.

Three sources said they had not divulged messages and pictures on their phones after a senior member of staff told them to remove anything which could be damaging following the first party revelations.

Minister quits in Lords over government handling of Covid loans fraud

Boris Johnson suffered another major blow to his authority on Monday after a Treasury minister staged a dramatic public resignation over the government’s decision to write off £4.3bn in fraudulent Covid loans.

Jessica Elgot 

Theodore Agnew, a Treasury and Cabinet Office minister, called the oversight of the scheme “nothing less than woeful” and accused officials of “schoolboy errors” on multiple fronts.

Speaking in the House of Lords, he accused the government of “arrogance, indolence and ignorance” in its attitude to tackling fraud estimated to cost £29bn a year.

The row over the decision will leave Johnson fighting Conservative anger on yet another front, with the prime minister facing pressure from backbenchers over Sue Gray’s inquiry into alleged lockdown-breaking parties, as well as over the rise in national insurance contributions, whips’ tactics, and accusations of Islamophobia.

In his statement, Lord Agnew said his resignation was not an attack on the prime minister but that he could not stay on in good conscience.

“Given that I am the minister for counter-fraud, it would be somewhat dishonest to stay on in that role if I am incapable of doing it properly. It is for this reason that I have sadly decided to tender my resignation as a minister across the Treasury and Cabinet Office with immediate effect.”

Agnew, a life peer since 2017, was responding to a Labour urgent question about the Treasury’s decision. He left the chamber to applause from fellow peers.

Asked by the Labour peer Denis Tunnicliffe if he could provide an accurate figure for how much had been written off, Agnew said he was speaking to defend the government, adding: “But I will only be able to do that in part.”

Oversight of Covid loans by the business department and the British Business Bank had been “nothing less than woeful”, Agnew said.

“They have been assisted by the Treasury, who appear to have no knowledge or little interest in the consequences of fraud to our economy or our society,” he said, adding that two counter-fraud staff at the business department would not “engage constructively” with his counter-fraud team in the Cabinet Office.

He said: “Schoolboy errors were made: for example, allowing over 1,000 companies to receive bounce-back loans that were not even trading when Covid struck.”

Agnew insisted that his decision had nothing to do with “far more dramatic political events being played out across Westminster” relating to Johnson and a continuing investigation into No 10 parties.

He said: “This is not an attack on the prime minister and I am sorry for the inconvenience it will cause. I hope that as a virtually unknown minister beyond this place, it might prompt others more important beyond me to get behind this and sort it out.”

Labour’s Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, said Agnew’s resignation was a “damning indictment of the chancellor and the government’s failures on fraud”.

She said: “That the government’s own anti-fraud minister feels he is unable to defend the government’s record on billions of pounds of taxpayer cash gifted to criminals tells you all you need to know about the incompetence of this government.”

Speaking after him, the Lib Dem peer Susan Kramer said: “Can I just take this opportunity to say on behalf of these benches how much we appreciate the honour and integrity that has just been displayed by the minister? I don’t think anyone could have raised questions more forcefully, more accurately or more completely than he has.”

Johnson’s spokesperson said: “We are grateful to Lord Agnew for the significant contribution he has made to government.

“On the wider issues that he’s raised, we introduced our unprecedented Covid support schemes at speed to protect jobs and livelihoods, helping millions of people across the UK, including nearly 12 million on the furlough scheme alone.

“We’ve always been clear fraud is unacceptable and are taking action against those abusing the system, with 150,000 ineligible claims blocked, £500m recovered last year, and the HMRC tax protection taskforce is expected to recover an additional £1bn of taxpayers’ money.”

HMRC believes that about £5.8bn, or 7%, of the £81.2bn paid out by the taxpayer through the various Covid-19 emergency response schemes has been stolen. So far, just £500m has been recovered, and it expects to be able to recover between another £800m and £1bn by 2023.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has singled out the government’s “inadequate” attempts to tackle fraud within the £47bn business bounce-back loan scheme (BBLS). It warned in December that loans worth £4.9bn, or 11% of the total, would be lost to fraud because anti-fraud checks had been “implemented too slowly”.

“It is clear that government needs to improve on its identification, quantification and recovery of fraudulent loans within the scheme,” Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said in his report.

HMRC said in its briefing paper on money lost to fraud through the various schemes, including furlough, the self-employment income support programme, BBLS, and “eat out to help out”, that: “From the beginning it was clear the schemes would be targets for fraud.”

A British Business Bank spokesperson said: “From the launch of the [bounce-back loan] scheme, the British Business Bank has worked with lenders and across government to prevent, detect and counter fraud and put in place as quickly as possible additional measures to further mitigate fraud risks.”

Senior council officer dismissed from South Somerset District Council

(Owl has since learned that this story, and more, had been published by “The Leveller” much earlier, see updated post here)

“She failed to declare that council staff had been used (on council time) to build glamping pods, strim grass, lay turf outside her cottage and – on one occasion in February 2020 – remove a dead pig from her land, his [independent investigator] report found.”

See also: 

Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter 

A SENIOR council officer in Somerset was dismissed following allegations that she used council staff to build glamping pods, lay turf and remove a dead pig from her Dorset vineyard.

Clare Pestell joined South Somerset District Council in 2012, eventually becoming its director of commercial and income generation and at one point was in line to become the new interim chief executive.

Following a letter from a whistleblower in April 2021, an independent investigation was conducted into numerous claims that council money and resources had been misused by Ms Pestell.

Ms Pestell, who vehemently denied the allegations, was summarily dismissed in October after the Appointments Committee of the council met to discuss the findings of independent external investigator Richard Penn.

Ms Pestell, who had already resigned and was serving out her notice, appealed the decision but the decision was upheld by the council’s appeals committee. She left the council in October.

In his confidential report that has been seen by the Somerset Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Penn ruled: “My conclusion is that, taken as a whole, the cumulative conduct of the Director amounts to gross misconduct.

“I conclude that there is evidence that CP has abused her position as a council director and has failed to ensure that the correct information was documented and declared.

“CP has also disregarded government guidance and paid council employees who were in receipt of furlough payments as part of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for work which could be seen as enabling benefit fraud and a reputational risk to the Council and the spirit of the scheme to preserve employment.

“CP has been negligent to the council in that she failed to take the appropriate steps to ensure that employees were not working for her and using council resources at the same time as being paid by the council, thereby resulting in a loss to the council.”

Although the council has not released the report, we believe there is a strong public interest in reporting the dismissal of the senior officer who was in charge of the authority’s commercial investment programme and who had been lined up as interim chief executive.

We also believe that the public has a right to know that that dismissal came after an independent investigator found she had breached the council’s code of conduct on numerous occasions and had risked bringing the authority into serious disrepute.

Who is Clare Pestell?

Ms Pestell began working for South Somerset District Council in 2012 as a development and valuation manager, before being promoted in 2017 to become its director of commercial and income generation.

This put her in charge of the council’s commercial investment programme – under which the council invested millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in commercial properties, such as offices and retail outlets, with the rental income serving as a long-term funding source for front-line services.

Under her watch, the council made a large number of commercial investments – including a battery storage facility on the outskirts of Taunton and purchasing the Wilko and Marks & Spencer outlets in Yeovil town centre.

Outside of her official duties with the council, Ms Pestell runs Melbury Vale Winery near Shaftesbury in Dorset, which she purchased with her brother Glynne in December 2003, according to its official website.

She declared this business as an interest, as well as declaring that some off-site meetings or training for the council had been held at her premises.

Ms Pestell originally worked full-time for the council, but her working week was reduced to four days a week in August 2019 on agreement with the then chief executive Alex Parmley, with the decision being shaped in part by the demands on her Dorset business.

She was the council’s original choice to succeed Mr Parmley as interim chief executive, with the council’s appointments committee confirming her appointment on May 4.

However, she dropped out in June 2021 for “personal reasons” before she had formally taken up the post – with the committee meeting in July to appoint her replacement.

She left the council on October 21, 2021.

When did the investigation start?

On April 22, 2021, Mr Parmley and leader Val Keitch received a letter from an anonymous whistleblower.

The letter – which has not been made public – alleged Ms Pestell had breached the council’s code of conduct by failing to “declare conflicts of interest between her official duties for the council and her private business, her personal relationships and other interests.”

Following an initial “fact-finding” investigation by the South West Audit Partnership (SWAP), the council commissioned Richard Penn in July to conduct a full, independent, external investigation.

Mr Penn – who spent ten years as chief executive of Bradford City Council – interviewed numerous members of staff, including Ms Pestell, and delivered his final, damning report in September.

This report was not released to the public but has been seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

What did Mr Penn’s report find?

Mr Penn has ample experience of holding public figures to account, having spent ten years as commissioner for standards for the National Assembly for Wales between 2000 and 2010.

He concluded Ms Pestell had breached the council’s code of conduct numerous times, identifying several occasions where she used council employees to carry out work on her Dorset winery, and recommended she should be subject to a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct.

She failed to declare that council staff had been used (on council time) to build glamping pods, strim grass, lay turf outside her cottage and – on one occasion in February 2020 – remove a dead pig from her land, his report found.

According to the report, she sent a message to an officer on February 24, 2020, asking them to take the pig to the Frome Vale livestock dealer near Maiden Newton.

The officer (who is not identified in the report) responded: “I can be with you no later than 10am and will bring everything we need (rope etc.). If you say where we need to get her to, then you can leave it with me.”

The glamping pods were granted planning permission by the then-North Dorset District Council in May 2018, before the current Dorset Council unitary authority was formed.

Ms Pestell also failed to declare that one of her relatives was appointed to the council’s commercial services and income generation team, having been recruited out of the council’s normal recruitment processes through an external agency – which charged the council for its services.

Mr Penn also concluded she had “risked bringing the council into serious disrepute” by paying council employees cash in hand or in kind for work done on her winery.

Some of these employees were shielding under the government’s coronavirus restrictions, and were already in receipt of furlough payments through the coronavirus job retention scheme.

Mr Penn said Ms Pestell’s actions represented a “serious misuse of council resources” – including repairs carried out to her own tractor and other vehicles at the council’s official Lufton depot on Artillery Road in Yeovil during work hours.

How did Ms Pestell respond to the investigation?

When interviewed by Mr Penn, Ms Pestell “consistently denied” all of the allegations laid before her, according to his report.

She acknowledged that the code of conduct had been breached and council resources had been misused, but “blamed other managers in her directorate for allowing this to happen” – claiming that she would have taken “corrective action” if such things had been brought to her attention, the report said.

Mr Penn said: “Clare Pestell has consistently claimed that she had no knowledge of SSDC employees carrying out work at her premises in working time, or that she knew that any of this work was carried out using council equipment, plant and fuel.

“She has not denied that this may have been the case but she has also consistently blamed others – those who organised the work and those who carried it out – for any improper use of council resources or for working at her premises in working time when they had not taken leave.

“As she said in response to my question about her responsibility as director: ‘If some staff have taken advantage of this situation and not been honest then they will need to answer for their actions’.”

Responding to the cash in hand claims, she stated during interviews: “I think that people are entitled to do what they want to do in their own time and it is above board.

“I think it would be naïve to think that these trades do not do this in their own time.

“To say that I am not aware would be wrong, but I cannot manage my own business alone and therefore use various people and trades that do work in their own time.

“To my knowledge I have declared everything I need to declare and as far as I am aware, the work had not been done in council time or using council equipment.”

Mr Penn said that there was “sufficient evidence” from both managers and employees within the commercial services arm of the council that the misuse of council resources “was known” by Ms Pestell – and that she had commissioned the work herself “in a number of instances”.

When asked what the public would think about her conduct, Ms Pestell said she “doubted the public would be interested in what council employees do in their own time as self-employed individuals” and “would be more concerned about their bins not being collected”.

She added that she had “never missed a deadline, never not responded, nor not delivered for the council in nine years”, and that her work for the local authority had generated “substantial income to cover known council revenue shortfall”, ensuring front-line services could still be delivered.

Ms Pestell was approached by the Local Democracy Reporting Service but did not respond to requests for a comment.

How has the council responded?

Following Mr Penn’s investigation, the council’s appointments committee met on October 15 to discuss its findings.

The committee ruled Ms Pestell should be dismissed, with these findings being confirmed in writing on October 21 – a decision which Ms Pestell appealed.

The council released an initial statement on December 14. Elected members were informed a few days later.

It said: “This was a complex and difficult investigation. We thank all those involved for their diligence, and also express our thanks to all colleagues who have participated in the process.

“This has been kept confidential to date to ensure that the appropriate evidence was gathered and any disciplinary proceedings resulting from the investigations were fair and legal.

“It was always the council’s intention to inform elected members, staff and the public appropriately at the right time. It would not have been appropriate to comment on this matter publicly during the investigation to respect all of those concerned.”

The council did not respond to suggestions that information surrounding Ms Pestell’s conduct had been kept from the appointments committee when it met to appoint her in early May.

The spokesman added: “We have a proud reputation for going above and beyond to support our communities, and it is vital that we follow our code of conduct in all the work we do, which sets standards of behaviour and conduct that we expect from all of its employees.

“The investigation has also highlighted a number of actions that we need to undertake to ensure lessons are learned. This will include but will not be limited to reviewing our training offering and the implementation of our financial policies, and these will be implemented as a matter of urgency.

“Please be reassured, as this has demonstrated, we take all allegations of misconduct and gross misconduct very seriously, so that we protect our residents, partners and our staff.”

Here is what I think will be in Sue Gray’s report

A cartoon in Private Eye has a man cheerily greeting a neighbour: “Nice day!” The other replies: “We should wait for Sue Gray’s report before making a judgement.” The whole country is waiting for Gray’s findings as if they will decide the prime minister’s fate and therefore the direction of the nation.

John Rentoul

But we already know what Gray, a senior civil servant with long experience in charge of ethics at the Cabinet Office, is likely to say. There may have been other parties in Downing Street, and there may be new details that have been reported to her by the people she has interviewed, but the main facts are known. If we look at the terms of reference of Gray’s inquiry, it is possible to guess what her report will be like.

The terms of reference say that “the primary purpose” of her investigations is “to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time”.

An important word there is “guidance” rather than “regulations”, which means that she will not be making any direct findings about whether there might be a case against anyone for breaking the law. She will be looking at whether ministers and officials followed the government’s own advice.

At least two parties from which Boris Johnson was absent do seem to have been in breach of the guidance. There was the Christmas party in No 10 on 18 December 2020 – about which Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s former spokesperson, was asked in a rehearsal for a news conference. The guidance at the time said: “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity.” I doubt if Gray will be persuaded that handing out prizes is enough to activate the “not primarily social” exclusion.

Then there was the party in the basement of No 10 on 16 April last year – the one which ended with Wilf’s swing in the garden being broken. Again, that would seem to be in breach of the guidelines for step two of the “road map” out of lockdown.

In both cases, some officials seem likely to be told off, although Gray’s terms of reference say that “any specific HR action against individuals will remain confidential”.

The implications for Johnson, however, are limited. Gray may have some words about how unwise it was for the prime minister to allow his staff to form the impression that he thought shipping suitcases of booze into the party house was absolutely marvellous. But he wasn’t there. Alibi in Latin means “elsewhere”.

Two other alleged gatherings may be more dangerous for Johnson. We do not know the full story, and here Gray may add to the sum of public knowledge. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, claims that Boris and Carrie held a party in the Downing Street flat to celebrate his departure on 13 November 2020 – the second national lockdown having come into effect eight days earlier. And Johnson is reported to have made a speech at a leaving party for Cleo Watson, a special adviser, two weeks later. However, I suspect nothing is going to come of either of these.

The main event, therefore, is likely to be the “bring your own booze” gathering in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020, during the first lockdown. About which we already know most of what we need to know. The government’s guidance at the time is unhelpful, because it wasn’t written to cover the unusual situation of an office with a private garden.

In law, the prime minister has an arguable case that it was “reasonably necessary for work” that staff should gather to be thanked for their efforts. That doesn’t cover the “bring your own booze” email invitation and a loud party continuing for some hours after people had been thanked, but Johnson said he didn’t see the email and was only at the “work event” for 25 minutes. He also denied that anyone had suggested to him that there was any doubt that the event was within the rules. This contradicts Cummings’s claim that he and another official warned him, but I imagine that Gray will avoid adjudicating on a “who said what” dispute with a former adviser who has made it clear that he is out to remove the prime minister from office.

In any case, simply laying out the facts will confirm everyone in the view they hold now, which in most cases is that the party in the Downing Street garden was clearly contrary to the spirit of the guidelines. Indeed, Johnson admitted it himself, saying that, “in hindsight” – and he has the gall to call Keir Starmer Captain Hindsight – he should have told everyone to go inside.

We know, therefore, that Gray will find that the gathering should not have happened, and that Johnson was responsible for it, even if Martin Reynolds, his principal private secretary, sent the email invitation and is likely to be criticised as well.

When her report is published, therefore, there is likely to be a propaganda exercise from No 10 declaring that it says nothing new, or nothing significantly new, that the prime minister has apologised to parliament and the country, and that it is time to unite and get on with delivering the people’s priorities.

But the importance of the publication of the report is that it is for Conservative MPs a moment of decision. They will have given the prime minister the benefit of due process, which will have concluded what he has already reluctantly admitted. He made an error of judgement. For a large number of voters it was a serious enough mistake to require his resignation.

But Conservative MPs are not waiting for Gray’s findings; they are waiting for the publication of her report as the moment to trigger – or to refrain from triggering – the removal of Johnson and his likely replacement by Rishi Sunak. They will make that decision not on what they think of what happened in the garden of Downing Street 20 months ago, but on who they think will best put them in an election-winning position in 20 months’ time.

Send Devon homeless to Cornwall, says councillor

Ron Dolley, vice chairman of Mid Devon District Council, has been reported as saying that homeless people in the area should be sent to Cornwall to cut the amount of money being spent on B&B accommodation.

Richard Whitehouse Local democracy reporter 

The Cornwall councillor responsible for housing has told a Devon councillor to concentrate on solving his own area’s problems after he suggested that homeless people should be sent to Cornwall.

The Independent councillor said: “We are here in Devon, but over the border in Cornwall, they’re begging for people to come down. They have lovely chalets and all the mod-cons, everything you could want.

“I’ve been around the town and spoken to a few people in doorways and asked them why they can’t get there.”

He said that the suggestion was coming from ‘left-field’ that the council could liaise with Mid Devon charity CHAT who provide services for the homeless and those at risk of losing their accommodation to ‘get something done’.

“If we could find five or ten people and send them down there on a mini-bus or other transport,” he said.

However the suggestion has been met with a frosty response from Olly Monk, Cornwall Council’s cabinet member for housing.

He said: “Councillor Dolley should concentrate on solving and addressing the issues in his own area before he advocates an exodus of people to Cornwall where we have our own issues and challenges in Cornwall.

“I can’t understand why he thinks that Cornwall is a land of milk and honey when it comes to housing. It is clear to anyone who takes an interest in south west current affairs that Cornwall faces an extremely challenging time with regards to housing.”

He added that he could assure Cllr Dolley that Cornwall definitely is not begging for people and that it was more the opposite.

Cllr Monk did offer to have a conversation with Cllr Dolley to see whether work being done in Cornwall to address the current housing crisis could be replicated and used to help in Devon.

“If councillor Dolley sees Cornwall as doing some good with temporary accommodation and our plans with housing then by all means contact us and we can have a conversation with them about how we can help Devon rather than simply telling people to come to Cornwall.”

The Conservative councillor said that Cornwall Council would be contacting Mid Devon District Council to get some clarity on Cllr Dolley’s comments and see whether the two authorities can work together.