‘Huge concerns’ in Whitehall about Government’s behaviour during Zahawi row, insiders say

The impartiality and integrity of the Civil Service is being put at risk due to the rows involving Nadhim Zahawi and Boris Johnson’s financial arrangements, insiders have told i.

[“The many lives of UK Cabinet Secretary Simon Case” (www.politico.eu),  paints a picture of a highly-politicized player working at the center of the Whitehall machine — a civil servant who operates more as ministerial courtier than the traditional, faceless mandarin. As an ex-Johnson aide put it: “This is a man who would literally sell his mother to survive.”] – Owl

Jane Merrick inews.co.uk

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and Whitehall’s propriety and ethics team have been dragged into both affairs, because civil servants offered advice on the arrangements.

Whitehall insiders said as full official advice to ministers – with qualifications – cannot be made public, disclosures about Mr Johnson and Mr Zahawi’s financial affairs being approved is undermining the integrity of the Civil Service.

Caroline Slocock, a former private secretary to Margaret Thatcher when she was PM, said the entire process of upholding standards in public life needs to be made independent to prevent civil servants from being dragged into ministerial scandals.

In the case of Tory chairman Mr Zahawi, it has been reported that the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team raised the issue of his tax affairs directly with Mr Johnson before he was appointed Chancellor.

Mr Zahawi’s allies have insisted he flagged it with the ethics unit before the appointment.

Mr Case has been dragged into the row over Mr Johnson’s £800,000 loan from a Canadian millionaire when he was prime minister because the Cabinet Secretary was introduced to the businessman, Sam Blyth, by the BBC chairman Richard Sharp.

A Whitehall insider said there were “huge concerns about the integrity and impartiality of the civil service being undermined” under the current leadership.

They added: “Under the ministerial code there is a requirement for ministers to protect the impartiality and integrity of the Civil Service and not to put the Civil Service in a position where impartiality is threatened.

“Whether it is sustainable that civil servants can continue to advise ministers and prime ministers on issues which go to the heart of integrity if the prime minister and ministers are going to break that, and civil servants cannot do anything about it other than resign, that is a valid question.”

Ms Slocock, who is director of the Civil Exchange, told i: “I think that in the light of the Johnson premiership and recent scandals, greater independence and oversight is required of the system that enforces standards in public life.

“Ultimately, civil servants work for the Government of the day and the PM sets the tone. Civil servants advise, they don’t decide.

“As the Priti Patel affair demonstrated, it is the PM not the ethics adviser who decides whether or not the Ministerial Code is broken. Press reports suggest that the propriety and ethics team did raise a red flag on the Zahawi appointment as Chancellor, which was ignored.

“The Committee on Standards on Public Life recently proposed that the Code and adviser should be more independent, and I agree with them, and there is also a case for the ethics team being placed at arm’s length from Government.”

Ms Slocock joined calls from MPs for the register of ministerial interests, which has not been published since last May, to be updated and to include offshore trusts held by the ministers themselves and family members, and a record of all gifts and loans.

She added: “I don’t really understand why Simon Case was involved in sorting out the PM’s personal finances, which is suggested by Richard Sharp’s account of events, and hope that he will be questioned about that by Parliament.”

Sir Peter Ridell, the former Commissioner for Public Appointments, said Mr Case should have told the advisory panel overseeing the BBC chairman appointment what he knew about Mr Sharp’s connection with Mr Johnson.

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Sir Peter, who was commissioner when Mr Sharp was appointed BBC chairman, told Times Radio: “That’s possibly one of the issues which will be examined, because I’m absolutely certain that his colleague who chaired the panel did not know.

“Yes, I think probably he should have made it aware to his colleague who’s chairing the panel.

“I think perception is really important. And yes, he should have said, ‘Look, I was involved at an earlier stage with an issue involving the prime minister… But I’m no longer involved’, and that would have acted as reassurance, so you’d recognise there was a potential conflict.

“Whether there was – which he denies – is a matter for the investigation to establish. But I think it would have been in everyone’s interest that there’d been much greater transparency early on.”

Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “No wonder Conservative sleaze has taken root at the heart of Government. For months, there wasn’t even an ethics adviser. Then, when Rishi Sunak finally appointed one, it turned out the adviser wasn’t even independent at all – the Prime Minister has the power to block his investigations.

“Rishi Sunak promised to govern with integrity, but so far it’s been the very opposite. If he really wanted to restore standards in public life, the least he could do is make the ethics adviser truly independent, as well as handing over the appointment process to Parliament.”