Former cabinet secretaries tell Boris Johnson to stop blocking reforms to curb sleaze

Gus O’Donnell urges MPs to act if prime minister refuses, saying ‘This is for parliament to decide’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 16 November 2021 11:26
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Ex-cabinet secretaries tell Boris Johnson to stop blocking sleaze reforms

Every living former cabinet secretary has told Boris Johnson to stop blocking reforms to curb sleaze – one urging MPs to act if he refuses to do so.

A watchdog’s report, calling for the prime minister to lose the power to decide whether to launch investigations for alleged breaches of the ministerial code, has been gathering dust for three years.

Despite public anger over the Owen Paterson and second jobs scandals, the government is again poised to reject handing the decision to a truly independent body.

Now the former civil service heads – to prime ministers stretching from Margaret Thatcher to Mr Johnson himself – have urged him to seize the moment to stamp down on sleaze.

One, Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011, suggested parliament should seize control if the prime minister continues to drag his heels.

“When John Major was faced with all sorts of sleaze issues, he took the opportunity to set up systems that improved the integrity of public life and improved people’s trust in public life,” Lord O’Donnell said.

“What we would like the prime minister to do is to look at the committee on standards in public life report and institute their recommendations.”

The peer said the post of the prime minister’s adviser on ministerial interests – currently Christopher Geidt – must be on “a statutory basis”, able to launch probes into alleged breaches of the ministerial code.

And, speaking to BBC Radio 4, he added: “This is for parliament to decide – and I would, personally, urge parliament to say yes, he should have the right to do that.”

Pressure has grown on Mr Johnson after refusal to allow investigation of Robert Jenrick and Matt Hancock, a controversy fuelled by the botched attempt to fix anti-sleaze rules to clear Mr Paterson.

But, despite the backlash and the Tories’ slump in the polls, the party chair Oliver Dowden indicated there would be no rethink in Downing Street.

“It has been the case in the past, and will continue to be the case, that the prime minister has discussions with the independent advisor to determine whether to conduct those investigations,” Mr Dowden said.

In a letter to The Times, the five cabinet secretaries – also including Lord Butler, Lord Wilson, Lord Turnbull and Lord Sedwill – also called for the commissioner for public appointments to be truly independent.

And the much-criticised watchdog for policing ex-ministers taking up jobs with private firms – often in the area of their former departments – should be beefed up, they said.

The ministerial code “must be strictly enforced”, the letter states, “recognising that some breaches are more important than others”.

“Good people will behave well. Bad people may find ways round whatever rules there are, and we should aim to frame regulations to make cheating them harder,” the ex-cabinet secretaries said.

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