Fury as Boris Johnson denies adviser power to launch sleaze inquiries

PM says in future ministers will not automatically lose jobs for standards breaches

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
@andywoodcock
Thursday 29 April 2021 08:05
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<p>Christopher Geidt</p>

Christopher Geidt

Boris Johnson has sparked fury by rejecting a sleaze watchdog’s call for his new independent ethics adviser to be given the power to launch investigations into ministerial wrongdoing.

And the prime minister indicated that ministers who breach their code of conduct will no longer automatically face the sack – a practice he condemned as “disproportionate”.

New terms of reference for the post of independent adviser, published as the Queen’s former private secretary Lord Geidt was appointed to the role, made clear that he will for the first time be able to bring concerns about a minister’s behaviour to the PM’s attention.

But – contrary to a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life – Mr Johnson will hold on to the power to decide whether an inquiry should be launched.

And he will remain the final judge and jury on whether a minister is guilty of wrongdoing and what punishment should be handed out.

CSPL chair Lord Evans welcomed Lord Geidt’s appointment after five months during which the post has remained unfilled.

But he made clear his displeasure in a letter to Johnson, telling the PM the committee will consider whether the new arrangements provide for the role to have the necessary independence and transparency.

Anti-corruption campaigners Transparency International said the decision represented “a major missed opportunity to strengthen the rules for holding senior politicians to account.

Chief executive Daniel Bruce said: “This risks giving the impression that senior politicians play by a different set of rules, and runs contrary to the advice of the prime minister’s own anti-corruption champion in the House of Commons just this week.

“Last year alone, Transparency International UK’s monitoring found 30 potential breaches of parliamentary and ministerial rules – a concerning number of which went uninvestigated. This all adds weight to the case to make the independent adviser fully independent – whereas the prime minister continues to argue that decisions on investigations should be ‘his and his alone’.”

Following the furious row over Priti Patel, which saw previous independent adviser Sir Alex Allan quit in November after the PM overruled his bullying finding, Mr Johnson made clear that he is ready to let ministers found guilty of wrongdoing keep their jobs.

There is no formal rule in the Ministerial Code that transgressors must be sacked, but the PM said that the loss of their job had become all but automatic.

He told Lord Evans: “Over time, an expectation has arisen that any breach should lead automatically to resignation, which I agree is disproportionate.

“I have agreed with the new independent adviser that he should have a specific role in making recommendations about the appropriate sanction in the circumstances where it is determined that a minister has failed to adhere to the standards set out in the ministerial code.”

This would mean a “range of potential outcomes” for future breaches, with the prime minister having the final say.

Justifying his decision to hold on to the sole power to authorise an investigation into his ministers’ conduct, Mr Johnson said: “That vital responsibility is quite properly mine and, as an elected politician, one for which I am ultimately accountable to the electorate.”

Mr Johnson said that an adviser with the power to launch inquiries under his own initiative could be drawn into investigating “trivial or vexatious” complaints against ministers.

Downing Street said Lord Geidt’s first priority will be to conduct a review of the funding of the controversial refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s flat at 11 Downing Street and to advise the prime minister on whether he should register any interests as a result.

The peer will also be responsible for publishing the twice-yearly register of ministers’ interests, which has been delayed four months beyond its scheduled release date in December.

Previous independent advisers have not been able to take any action – even to raise concerns about a minister’s behaviour – until invited to conduct an inquiry by the PM.

But the new terms of reference state that if the adviser believes an allegation about a breach of the Ministers’ Code of Conduct might warrant further investigation, “he will raise the issue confidentially with the prime minister”.

It does not give Lord Geidt the power to launch a probe without the PM’s blessing.

And it states: “The decision on whether a minister remains in office after an investigation sits with the prime minister, as ‘the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards’.”

The PM “may ask the independent adviser for recommendations about the appropriate sanction where the prime minister judges there to have been a breach of those standards”, the terms of reference state.

The conclusions of Lord Geidt’s investigations will be published in summary form only

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