Reinstated home secretary admitted the use of a personal account to conduct government business – a practice that has come under regulator scrutiny in recent months
The government has been accused of using “mental gymnastics” to avoid an investigation into the conduct of Suella Braverman – who was reinstated as home secretary less than a week after resigning over her use of personal email to send official documents.
A spokesperson for the new prime minister Rishi Sunak this week committed to appointing a new ethics adviser, who will be tasked with investigating potential breaches of the ministerial code. However, the prime minister has ignored calls for an investigation into Braverman’s activities as home secretary.
The PM reappointed Braverman to the cabinet, just six days after she resigned over a security breach. In her resignation letter, she admitted using a personal email account to conduct official business.
“As soon as I realised my mistake, I rapidly reported this on official channels and informed the cabinet secretary [Simon Case],” she said. “As home secretary, I hold myself to the highest standards, and my resignation is the right thing to do,” she said. “The business of government relies on people accepting responsibility for their mistakes.”
Following her reinstatement, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has since written to Case, requesting an investigation into the incident and any other breaches Braverman may have made.
But the new minister for the Cabinet Office, Jeremy Quin, said events that took place under Liz Truss in the last administration “would not be properly part of the remit” of the new independent adviser on ministers’ interests, in an answer to an urgent question from Cooper about Braverman’s reappointment.
FDA general secretary Dave Penman told PublicTechnology sister Civil Service World: “It looks like they’re using mental gymnastics to avoid having to investigate Braverman. Are they really saying if it was financial impropriety or a serious conflict of interest there would be no investigation? It’s not even as if she has left government.”
The Institute for Government’s Tim Durrant director agreed, saying: “It doesn’t matter that the alleged breaches happened under previous PMs – it’s the same person, in the same party of government – and the last PM was last week.”
There has been no independent adviser on ministers’ interests in place since Christopher Geidt handed in his resignation to then-PM Boris Johnson in June. But Quin told the Commons it is “absolutely the prime minister’s intention to appoint an independent adviser”.
Officials in the Cabinet Office propriety and ethics team reportedly raised concerns about the appointment, but Sunak refused to comment on whether this was the case when asked by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at prime minister’s questions.
And Quin, when asked by Cooper if Simon Case specifically had warned against the reappointment, said he could not comment on the cabinet secretary’s activities.
Sunak defended Braverman at PMQs this week, saying said the home secretary “made an error of judgement but she recognised that, raised the matter and accepted her mistake.” Later in the Commons, Quin said the home secretary is “very aware” that the mistake can never be repeated.
Braverman will receive lessons from MI5 on what information she can and cannot share and how to avoid future security breaches, according to The Times.
The use of personal communications accounts – including emails and messaging services – by ministers has come under increased scrutiny in the last 18 months. In summer 2021, it was reported that, throughout the coronavirus crisis, former health secretary Matt Hancock and other ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care had often used personal email or messaging accounts to conduct official government business.
The Information Commissioner’s Office launched an investigation and, in June of this year, published a report.
In the foreword, commissioner John Edwards said the watchdog had begun the probe in the clear understanding that “it is not unlawful for ministers and officials to use private channels for conducting official business”.
“In our view, however, the deployment of these technologies [during the pandemic] failed to appreciate the risks and issues around the security of information and managing transparency obligations,” he said. “This is not solely a product of pandemic exigencies. But rather a continuation of a trend in adopting new ways of working without sufficient consideration of the risks and issues they may present for information management across government over several years preceding the pandemic.”
The regulator called for government to launch its own review of the use of private communication channels by ministers and officials.
“This should identify any systemic risks and areas for improvement, as well as whether there should be greater consistency in approach across departments,” Edwards said. “The review could also consider whether there is a case for a stronger duty on ministers, public servants and others who are responsible for maintaining the public record.”