Much of the UK news over the last week has been dominated by the political row over an alleged (“bring your own drinks”) party in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020. That was during the first “lockdown” and was a time when Regulations imposed both restrictions on the activities of individuals and closures on many forms of business. It was also a time of tragedy for many who suffered the loss of family members due to Covid.
Irrespective of either the civil service seniority of Ms Gray or her undoubted abilities, it does not seem right that a civil servant is is appointed to investigate the actions of her political masters. The relationship between an impartial civil service and the politicians is an important one and ought not to be put at risk – see the The Civil Service code – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). [The civil service was (mostly) placed on a statutory footing by Part 1 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010].
In the House of Commons on 12 January, the Prime Minister made a short statement purporting to apologise – Engagements – Hansard – UK Parliament. He said that the No 10 garden is an “extension to the office”, he went to the garden just after 6 pm on 20 May 2020 to thank staff and said that he believed it to be a work event. He then claimed that it could be said that it was “technically within the guidance” and concluded by asking that Sue Gray be allowed to complete her investigation and, once she had done so, he would make a further statement. Interestingly, he made no reference to the e-mail which had been sent on 20 May 2020 by Martin Reynolds (Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister). The email was headed “Socially Distanced Drinks” and invited addressees to come to the garden after 6pm and added “bring your own booze.”
Johnson’s statement to Parliament has the appearance of having been prepared with some legal assistance (i.e. “lawyered” as some like to say). We do not know this as a fact but there is clearly an attempt to set up the basis of some form of defence to any possible offence under the applicable regulations. The Metropolitan Police – (which has a continuous presence at Downing Street) – has been reluctant to investigate and it is therefore unlikely that any criminal charges will be brought but, “technically”, it is a possibility – Downing Street parties: Met rejects call for No 10 party inquiry despite mea culpa | News | The Times. and ITV News 13 January 2022.
The Regulations applicable on 20 May were The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (legislation.gov.uk). Regulation 6 imposed Restrictions on Movement. During the emergency period, no person may leave or be outside of the place where they are living without a reasonable excuse. Reg 6 also contained a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses. The list included – (f) – “to … work or to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not reasonably possible for that person to work, or to provide those services, from the place where they are living;“
It is fair to say that the nature of the duties of Downing Street members of staff would have prevented them from being able to work from home. Hence, attending work, was a reasonable excuse. The important question then arises – Was attending the “bring your own booze” event in the garden actually work. The PM’s statement suggests that it could be seen as work but there must be serious doubt about that. Of course, the Prime Minister himself could claim that he was at the place where he was living.
It is worth mentioning Regulation 7. This prohibited “gatherings” of more than 2 people but, with some exceptions, the prohibition only extended to gatherings in a “PUBLIC PLACE”. The Downing Street garden is certainly NOT a public space.
Whatever the exact legal position (which would be for the courts to determine), the public perception is likely to be the far more damaging for the government. At the time of writing, the full political fallout remains to be seen but, on any view, the whole business has resulted in massive lost of respect for and trust in the government. There have been some Conservative MPs calling for Johnson to be replaced – Boris Johnson: Senior Tories urge PM to quit after party apology – BBC News. The perception of “one rule for them and another for us” is one that sometimes haunts the application of the law and it is a particularly damaging perception.
13 January 2022.
Boris Johnson’s staff accused of more rule-breaking parties inside No 10 – BBC News – The Telegraph reported the gatherings were made up of about 30 people drinking alcohol and dancing to music until the early hours of 17 April.
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