Boris Johnson should introduce financial penalties, including cuts to pensions, for former ministers and officials who flout lobbying rules, according to a major report calling for a reform of standards in office.
The independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was set up by John Major in 1995 to advise prime ministers, argues the existing system for “transparency around lobbying is not fit for purpose”.
The report, which also calls for an overhaul of the ministerial code, comes after the Greensill lobbying scandal, when it emerged David Cameron had privately messaged senior ministers, and concerns over ministers breaching the code without facing sanctions.
In a withering verdict of the current systems, the authors warn: “It is clear to this committee that degree of independence in the regulation of the ministerial code, public appointments, business appointments and appointments to the House of Lords falls below what is necessary to ensure effective regulation and maintain public credibility.”
The committee said it recognises “widespread discontent” over the operation of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) – a system that vets jobs taken on by former ministers and ex-senior civil servants.
The report recommends extending a lobbying ban to five years in certain cases where officials were privy to privileged information, and stressed: “The lack of any meaningful sanctions for a breach of these rules is no longer sustainable.”
Chaired by the former MI5 chief, Jonathan Evans, the committee added: “The government should set out what the consequences for any breach of contract will be.
“Possible sanctions may include seeking an injunction prohibiting the uptake of a certain business appointment, or the recouping of a proportion of an office holder’s pension or severance payment.”
Lord Eric Pickles – a former Tory cabinet minister who chairs ACOBA – has previously expressed concerns about “anomalies” in the vetting system when it emerged a former official held a role at Greensill Capital while remaining as a civil servant.
On the ministerial code, the report suggests there “still needs to be greater independence in the regulation ... which lags behind similar arrangements for MPs, peers and civil servants”.
The recommendation follows last year’s controversy when Sir Alex Allan resigned as Mr Johnson’s ethics adviser after the prime minister overruled his findings that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had bullied staff – in breach of the ministerial code.
The report, published today, urges the government to enshrine the ministerial code in primary legislation and ensure it details sanctions prime ministers may issue, “apologies, fines and asking for a minister’s resignation”.
Taking power away from No 10, it also suggests the prime minister’s independent adviser should “be able to initiate investigations into breaches of the ministerial code” and have the authority to “determine breaches” of the code.
Mr Evans said there was a “particular need” for reform in central government, adding: “It has become clear that a system of standards regulation, which relies on convention, is no longer satisfactory.”
He stressed: “Whereas parliament has undergone significant reform in recent years, and local government was reviewed by this committee in 2019, many of the arrangements in central government have not changed for over a decade.”
Lord Evans added: “We concluded that the current system of standards regulation is overly dependent on convention. The ethics regulators and the codes they enforce should have a basis in primary legislation, and government requires a more thorough and rigorous compliance function.
“The arrangements to uphold ethical standards in government have come under close scrutiny and significant criticism in recent months. Maintaining high standards requires vigilance and leadership. We believe our recommendations outline a necessary programme of reform to restore public confidence in the regulation of ethical standards in government.”
Responding to the report, the deputy leader of the opposition, Angela Rayner, said the Labour Party welcomed the recommendations. She said: “Boris Johnson and his Conservative colleagues’ actions have repeatedly undermined standards in our public life.
“The system is supposed to uphold the ministerial code. Lobbying rules, business appointments and transparency is clearly unfit for purpose. Ministers have disregarded the rules and it is about time for a radical overhaul of the system.”
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