Questions over checks and balances in government have been raised after political special advisers (spads) were accused of “running the shop” in a meeting with civil servants about handing out emergency pandemic funds to charities.
MPs raised concerns about the process run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to decide how much money from a £750m pot should be given to other departments to allocate to voluntary and community organisations last April.
Quoting private correspondence from DCMS in a meeting of the public accounts committee on Thursday, MPs said it seemed as if some bids had initially been “red-listed” by civil servants – meaning they were deprioritised after “scoring very low” on internal assessments – before being approved by ministers.
The Tory MP Richard Holden said the convening of a meeting known as a “star chamber” with three officials and five spads – three from No 10, one from the Treasury and another from DCMS – seemed “unusual” and amounted to a “filtering process” by political appointees instead of impartial civil servants.
A former spad himself, Holden said: “I don’t ever remember there being any form of star chamber room where decisions were made or vetted through a group of spads … without either ministers being present or without very senior officials being there. Yet in this star chamber, it appears spads were running the shop.”
Sarah Healey, the permanent secretary at DCMS, initially said: “I don’t think it’s any different from the normal process by which officials give advice to ministers that spads are able to give views on.”
She later added: “It took a, I admit, unusual form but not an inappropriate one.”
She said that whenever officials drew up advice, spads regularly contributed their views too. Given the department had been working “at pace” to quickly support charities people were relying on at the start of the pandemic, it “brought those two processes together”.
Healey insisted that the final advice offered to ministers came from civil servants. But the chair of the committee, the Labour MP Meg Hillier, told her: “They can only deal with the advice that they’ve been given – and that advice came through an unusual route.
“You seem to be dancing on a pinhead to try to justify this … It seems like there’s a fig leaf here to cover the fact it’s a lot of senior spads in a room making very candid and detailed comments on these briefings, and those decisions therefore going through to the minister as a result of that meeting.
“They were very, very closely involved in a way that I’ve not seen … None of us could think of an example where this has happened before … This was extraordinary to us.”
Healey conceded it was not a “normal” process, but said it was just “truncated”, and that the final decision for signing off the money for bids lay with the DCMS’s secretary, Oliver Dowden, and the chief secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay.
She added that “no decisions were made” at the star chamber meeting, and that a senior official, the department’s director general for volunteering, Scott Macpherson, was present.
Some bids were also amalgamated, Healey added, to “meet need more appropriately and give greater flexibility to those departments to be able to distribute funding appropriately to the organisations they knew best”.
Hillier has asked for more details from Healey, with the committee expected to investigate whether political advisers’ intervention was responsible for any of the “red list” bids being approved.
Asked for comment by the Guardian, the DCMS said on Thursday these bids were only approved when combined with other “higher scoring bids under a similar theme”.
A source from the department earlier said: “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 support to them fast. Letting these vital charities fail because we were moving slowly would have been unthinkable.”