Sleaze watchdog attacks ‘bonkers’ rule that allowed Boris Johnson to escape investigation

Ministers should be subjected to ‘as much scrutiny as backbench MPs’, says Kathryn Stone

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 26 January 2022 12:27
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Boris Johnson insists 'nothing to see here' amid flat refurbishment probe

Parliament’s sleaze watchdog Kathryn Stone has attacked the “bonkers” rules which prevent her office investigating Boris Johnson and other ministers over any alleged breaches of conduct rules.

The parliamentary commissioner for standards decried the “inconsistency” of current rules which allowed her to probe alleged offences by MPs but not ministers – saying it was causing public anger.

Speaking to MPs on the standards committee, Ms Stone confirmed she had not been able to look into alleged misconduct over Mr Johnson’s £142,000 flat refurbishment because donations had been received in his ministerial capacity.

The watchdog said she agreed with Lord Evans’ assessment that the situation was “bonkers”, adding: “It seems inconsistent to us, and to the public. We need to make sure ministers are subject to as much scrutiny as backbench MPs.”

She added: “Members of public, not unreasonably, simply cannot understand why a backbench MP is subject to a greater degree of scrutiny in terms of registering things like gifts and hospitality than a minister is.”

While Ms Stone’s office investigate MPs about alleged breaches of code of conduct rules on the gifts and hospitality they receive.

But any alleged ministerial code breaches are investigated by Lord Geidt, the prime minister’s own independent adviser on ministerial interests.

Mr Johnson was forced to apologise to his ethics Lord Geidt earlier this month after he failed to provide his adviser with details of all his communications with the Tory donor over the luxury refit of his flat.

Asked by committee chair and Labour MP Chris Bryant about Lord Geidt’s powers – which he described as “nebulous” – Ms Stone acknowledged that there were not set out clearly in statue. She added: “Hopefully that will change.”

Ms Stone also said it had been a “really challenging time” for her office because of the deluge of letters from the public demanding investigations – but noted there had been supportive letters praising her office for doing the job “in the light of recent scandals”.

She told MPs: “We get an awful lot of letters from members of the public who are very, very frustrated. Members of the public are really angry. They are angry about the ways in which they see members of parliament exploiting opportunities to make additional money.”

The parliamentary commissioner added: “They are very angry about what they see as conflicts of interest, their perception of conflicts of interest. They are also concerned that members of parliament get away with things.”

Lord Geidt recently said he expects to be given “considerably greater” authority, independence and power as a result of the spat over the prime minister’s flat refurbishment.

The comments came in response to a letter from the standards committee asking him whether he felt he should be allowed to launch his own inquiries into allegations of ministerial wrongdoing – rather than wait for a request from the PM.

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