Johnson rejects calls by standards watchdog to toughen up rules on ministers’ conduct

Committee on Standards in Public Life review came after slew of ethics and sleaze scandals during pandemic

Tim Wyatt
Monday 01 November 2021 16:26
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<p>Boris Johnson ignored his previous ethics advisor’s findings that Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code</p>

Boris Johnson ignored his previous ethics advisor’s findings that Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code

Boris Johnson has rejected calls to give more powers and independence to his ethics advisor.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life published its review of ethics in politics on Monday, and its main recommendation was to strengthen the powers of the prime minister’s independent advisor on ministers’ interests.

The Covid pandemic and Brexit process had worsened the public’s view of politicians’ honesty, the review found.

A survey organised by the Committee found people were “visibly angry” when they recalled how high-profile political figures had broken lockdown rules or handed out large public contracts to friends with little repercussions.

There was a desperate need to reform and strengthen the rules which govern how politicians act, Lord Evans, the chair of the Committee and former head of MI5 wrote in the report.

The review recommended all public ethics rules be given full legal force through legislation and that the advisors who enforce the various codes of ethics be allowed to initiate their own investigations.

“From the evidence we have taken during our review it has become clear that a system of

standards regulation which relies on convention is no longer satisfactory,” Lord Evans wrote.

The previous independent advisor, Sir Alex Allan, resigned last year after Mr Johnson refused to sack the home secretary Priti Patel, despite an inquiry finding she had bullied civil servants and broken the ministerial code.

As well as the Priti Patel bullying scandal, Westminster has also been rocked by a series of sleaze incidents in recent years, including David Cameron’s secret lobbying for the failed financial firm Greensill Capital and Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown rules during his trip to Barnard Castle last year.

But Mr Johnson has already rejected the idea of giving up his powers to control ethics inquiries into his own ministers.

A Downing Street spokesperson said the prime minister’s views remained the same as when he had rejected a similar suggestion in a letter to Lord Evans earlier this year.

The letter "sets out our position clearly, that as the ultimate arbiter of the code... the Prime Minister believes it rightly remains for the Prime Minister to instruct on investigations".

Mr Johnson wrote: "I cannot and would not wish to abrogate the ultimate responsibility for deciding on an investigation into allegations concerning ministerial misconduct.”

The Public Appointments Commissioner, who guides who can be appointed to various public roles, and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which governs what lobbying ex-ministers can undertake after they leave office, should also be beefed up and given formal legal independence from government, the review said.

The punishments ministers can face for breaking the rules should also be laid out unambiguously, the Committee’s report argued. “[The code] should detail the range of sanctions that the prime minister may issue in response to a breach. We recommend that those sanctions include apologies, fines, and asking for a minister’s resignation.”

Currently, how to respond to a finding that a minister broke ethical guidelines on lobbying, procurement or standards in public life is left up to the sitting prime minister.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: "Boris Johnson and his Conservative colleagues’ actions have repeatedly undermined standards in our public life.

"The system that is supposed to uphold the Ministerial Code, lobbying rules, business appointments, public 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."

Anti-corruption charity Transparency International UK has also welcomed the report and urged it be implemented in full.

Chief executive Daniel Bruce said: "It is incumbent on the PM to enact these significant but sensible reforms without delay.

"Failing to do so would constitute a deliberate choice to leave the door wide open to abuses of public office for private gain."

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