Investigations into ministers’ conduct shouldn’t need Boris Johnson’s permission, says ethics watchdog who quit over Priti Patel bullying report

Independent adviser should have power to launch inquiry into minister’s behaviour, says Sir Alex Allen

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 10 March 2021 12:50
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Today's daily politics briefing

Boris Johnson should not have the power to block investigations into his ministers’ conduct, the ethics watchdog who dramatically quit after the prime minister overruled his finding that Priti Patel bullied staff has said.

Sir Alex Allen said that public confidence in the ministerial code of conduct had been hit by cases when allegations against ministers were dismissed by prime ministers without investigation.

Giving evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, he called for the PM’s independent adviser on standards to be given the unilateral power to launch investigations into ministerial conduct without needing an instruction from the prime minister.

But he insisted that the prime minister must retain complete power to decide whether or not a minister should resign if the adviser’s report finds he or she breached the code.

And he accepted the PM’s right to publish only a redacted summary of the adviser’s report, rather than being required to make it public in full.

Sir Alex advised Mr Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron on ministerial conduct from 2011-20 but quit last November after the long-delayed publication of his report into allegations against the home secretary.

Mr Johnson cleared Ms Patel of breaching the ministerial code over bullying allegations in November despite Sir Alex’s finding that her treatment of staff “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying” and that she had “not consistently met the high standards expected of her”.

Sir Alex said an independent power to launch investigations would help the PM by shielding him or her from criticism if allegations are dismissed. And he said it would end an “anomaly” where the PM has to decide whether an inquiry is launched into complaints about his or her own conduct.

His call was echoed by his predecessor Sir Philip Mawer, who told the committee’s inquiry into standards that he favoured a power for the adviser to decide whether to initiate an investigation.

Sir Alex told the committee: “I think there actually is a case now for giving the independent adviser the role of initiating investigations.

“The issue really now is whether the process is actually damaging to the perception of whether ministers do or don’t adhere to the code.

“There are allegations of breaches that are essentially trivial or without substance, but there have also been incidents which prima facie appear to involve a breach of the code but which haven’t been referred to the independent advisor. 

“It’s perfectly possible that an investigation would have revealed that the allegations weren’t supported by the facts. 

“But the way the allegations have been dismissed has raised questions about the operation of the system and about the confidence the public can have about the impact and effectiveness of the code. 

“So to that extent, I do see a case for introducing a greater element of independence.”

Sir Alex said that freedom for the adviser to launch inquiries would resolve the “anomoly” of the prime minister having to decide whether he should himself be subject to investigation, in a way currently happening with Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

And he added: “I think it’s fair to say it would help the prime minister because it would stand between him or her and the complainants. 

“The independent adviser would then take some of the flak in cases where he or she decided there wasn’t a case to investigate or investigated and decided no further action needed to be taken.”

While the adviser would indicate in any report whether a minister has breached the code, it must remain a prerogative of the prime minister to determine any punishment, he said.

“Whatever happens, it must be the prime minister who retains the decision on what action to take once an investigation has taken place,” said Sir Alex. 

“If there’s an argument about whether or not the minister should resign, it’s his role to decide who he wants to have in his government.”

Sir Alex did not discuss the Patel case during the hour-long hearing, but revealed that the home secretary had once questioned his ability to challenge the PM over ministerial misbehaviour.

He told the committee that at a 2012 parliamentary hearing into his appointment, Ms Patel - then a backbench MP - asked him: “Do you feel in your current role that you’re actually able to challenge those around you, including the prime minister, if you hear or see if anything untoward that needs to be drawn his attention?” 

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