The prime minister’s sleaze watchdog should be given the power to launch investigations and have the final say on whether ministers have breached their code of conduct, an independent review of government standards has recommended.
The finding by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) comes seven months after Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser resigned when his bullying verdict against Priti Patel was rejected..
But the independent committee said the PM should retain the power to decide the punishment for errant colleagues – and should have the option not to sack them.
The report also recommended a ban of up to five years on ex-ministers taking on jobs lobbying government after leaving office, in the wake of the scandal surrounding David Cameron’s persistent texts and emails to senior members of the Boris Johnson administration on behalf of collapsed finance firm Greensill.
And it said that government transparency rules should be updated to include modern forms of communication – noting that the current rules meant that Mr Cameron’s WhatsApp messages did not have to be disclosed in the regular published list of ministers’ contacts with lobbyists.
Mr Johnson’s former independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, quit in November after the PM cleared Ms Patel from his report’s finding that she bullied Home Office staff.
His replacement Christopher Geidt has been given a new power to recommend the launch of an inquiry into a minister’s behaviour, but – like his predecessors in the post – must wait for the green light from the PM to launch an investigation.
The CSPL’s new recommendations, which are not binding on Mr Johnson, would see Lord Geidt initiating investigations on his own authority and making a final decision on innocence or guilt – something which is currently in the gift of the PM alone.
The committee said the PM’s current ability to block any investigation was undermining public confidence in the system.
“The perception has taken root – fairly or not – that an allegation of a breach that may be politically damaging to the government of the day will not be investigated,” the report said.
However, the committee’s report said that the PM should be given a graduated range of sanctions for breaking the ministerial code, moving away from the current system where breaches inevitably spell dismissal or resignation. And it said the final decision on whether a minister should keep his or her job should stay with the prime minister.
The current expectation that any minister breaching the code will leave the government has “constrained” efforts to increase the independence of the adviser, as PMs insisted on holding onto their ability to decide who sits in their cabinet, said the report. Its recommendations on the range of appropriate sanctions for breaches is to be published in its formal report later this year.
Committee chair and former MI5 boss Lord Evans said government should take sleaze allegations “seriously”.
“Any government will find that they stay out of trouble if they proactively uphold standards, rather than wait for a problem to arise and then have to be investigated,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.
Allowing the PM to rule out an inquiry when allegations are raised against ministers “leaves a question mark in the air and that’s not good”, he said.
“The best thing is for the allegations to be investigated and tested independently and then appropriate action to be taken,” said Lord Evans.
“If issues aren’t addressed then it’s unresolved and I think that’s politically damaging and it undermines public trust.”
Lord Evans said he was “surprised” at the scale of lobbying of ministers and senior officials in the Greensill affair, saying: “It didn’t look to me to be appropriate that that level of intervention should be going on without it having been properly declared.”
He added: “There’s nothing wrong with lobbying in principle, but there needs to be a level playing field and it needs to be done visibly.
“We need to have detail about what was discussed. Just saying ‘a meeting to discuss Brexit’ or whatever, that doesn’t tell you anything. We need to know more about what happens… It doesn’t matter whether it’s in a formal meeting or at a dinner or it’s on WhatsApp. It’s the fact of lobbying and the pressure being brought that needs to be visible.”
The report said that business appointment rules for ministers, Whitehall mandarins and special advisers should be expanded to ban them for two years after leaving government from taking any job where they had significant and direct responsibility for policy, regulation or the awarding of contracts for the hiring company.
Government departments and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments should also be given powers to ban lobbying jobs for up to five years after leaving office.
And the committee recommended that requirements to publish details of meetings with external organisations should be extended to include special advisers and senior civil servants below head of department level.