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Letter from the Cabinet Secretary

Sir Gus O'Donnell has responded to Andy Burnham's letter of 31 August 2011.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has responded to Andy Burnham’s letter of 31 August 2011. The text of the letter is below.

Dear Andy,

New Schools Network

Thank you for your letter of 31 August 2011 regarding the above subject.

You have asked a number of questions about the award of a grant by the Department for Education (DfE) to the New Schools Network (NSN) and about appointments of staff in DfE. I should start by highlighting that the spending decisions of individual departments, including those relating to the award of contracts, and decisions about recruitment, are a matter for each department’s Accounting Officer. In this case, that is Sir David Bell, the Permanent Secretary at DfE. I note that you have already written to him on this matter, and that he has provided assurances that appropriate steps were followed in the award of this grant.

The decision to sign off the grant for the NSN without holding an open competition was a matter for Sir David. In his letter to you last November, he indicated that officials had advised Ministers on the process for awarding a short-term grant to the NSN and that, as Accounting Officer, he had considered and approved this approach. Not only was it a short-term grant arrangement, but the NSN were uniquely placed to do the work and there was no legal obligation to conduct a competitive process. As you are aware, several similar grants were awarded to organisations under the previous administration, which Sir David and I remain entirely comfortable with. I believe there is nothing in the emails that you refer to as having recently come to light which calls into question the appropriateness of the grant award.

I understand that the grant is due to end on 30 September following an unfunded extension for the NSN to carry out pro bono work until then. Information outlining details of a competitive grant process for any future work was published on the DfE’s website on 5 September. It is available here:

Turning to your questions regarding the various Civil Service, Special Adviser and Ministerial Codes, I am satisfied that these were not contravened during the process of awarding a grant to the NSN.

Finally, you asked about various appointments that have been made by the Secretary of State for Education since 2010. You refer to meetings between Dominic Cummings, Ministers and officials, prior to Mr Cummings’ appointment in February 2011, and specifically to whether or not Mr Cummings was instructing Civil Servants. As I’m sure you are aware, Civil Servants in all Departments only take instructions from Ministers (via private offices) and more senior Civil Servants and of course, there was no question of Mr Cummings being able to instruct Civil Servants.

In terms of other appointments you refer to, I understand that the appointments of two speechwriters and the Head of Communications were conducted through fair and open competition, with external adverts and interviews conducted by permanent Civil Servants. In the case of the Communications Director role, which is a Senior Civil Service position, the panel was chaired by Sir David Bell, and the whole process overseen by an independent Civil Service Commissioner. I understand there are two senior policy advisers in the DfE, Sam Freedman and Janet Grauberg. They are both employed as Civil Servants and their employment was subject to the rules which govern Civil Service appointments for these particular posts.

I should stress that all Civil Servants, regardless of background (political or otherwise), are subject, once in post, to the Civil Service code of conduct. This sets out very clearly the need for all Civil Servants to adhere to the Civil Service values of honesty, integrity, objectivity and impartiality, including political impartiality.

I am copying this letter to Sir David Bell.

Yours ever,

Gus O’Donnell

DfE media enquiries

Central newsdesk - for journalists 020 7783 8300

Updates to this page

Published 23 September 2011