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Boris Johnson Accused Of “Unhelpful” Application Of Gift Rules To His Advantage Over Spanish Holiday

Boris Johnson is under fire for refusing to release details of how much his holiday to Spain at Lord Goldsmith's house cost (Alamy)

4 min read

The Prime Minister has been accused of an “unhelpful” application of the rules on gifts to avoid scrutiny of his holiday to Spain and the Downing Street flat redecoration, by declaring them under a system that he is in charge of.

Downing Street suggested that because details of who helped pay for the refurbishment were placed in the register of ministerial interests, it cannot be investigated by the Commissioner on Standards Kathryn Stone, who adjudicates on MPs’ code of conduct.

But Parliamentary experts disagree, saying it is not for the government to decide what matters Stone looks into, amid criticism pressure is being placed on the independent officer.

Dr Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society, the Parliamentary research body, said she is unaware of any rule saying you “can't duplicate a registration”, suggesting ministers should not choose which register to make declarations into.

She told PoliticsHome it would be better “if the whole system was streamlined”, adding that there “may need to be more clarity about what constitutes a ministerial as opposed to a parliamentary interest going forward”.

“A system that enables a Minister, or in this case the Prime Minister, to choose which registration system to use to register their benefit, knowing that the investigation and sanctions systems operate differently, is unhelpful,” Dr Fox said.

“The minister registering the benefit shouldn't get to choose to their advantage.”

The chair of the cross-party standards committee, the Labour MP Chris Bryant, also told PoliticsHome that MPs “can declare in both registers and often do”.

Boris Johnson used the ministerial register last week to declare his recent stay in a luxury villa owned by Lord Goldsmith, which has a lower threshold of transparency than the register of members’ interests, where MPs list gifts, donations and outside work. Goldsmith was given a peerage and a ministerial role by the prime minister two years ago.

Johnson is therefore the person to judge whether any rules had been broken in this regard, as the Prime Minister is ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code of conduct.

The prime minister's spokesperson has insisted that donations of this sort “do not need to be double-declared”.

Because the ministerial register does not require a detailed financial breakdown, this means the public will not find out how much the stay in Goldsmith's Marbella home would have cost.

Downing Street argued it was not applicable for the holiday Johnson took with wife Carrie and their son last month to be placed in the MP register as there is an exemption for declarations of visits which are "wholly unconnected with membership of the House or with the member’s parliamentary or political activities”, such as family vacations.

The PM has previously been investigated by Stone over how a trip in Mustique was paid for, as well as having to apologise for the late registration of a share in a rental property in Somerset in 2019. He was also found to have failed to declare more than £52,000 from book royalties in a timely fashion the year before.

There have been suggestions Stone could begin looking into the £58,000 redecoration of the flat above Downing Street, once an existing inquiry by the Electoral Commission into the Conservative party’s role in the saga is completed.

But the Johnson's spokesperson believed there was no need for her to look into the matter as the residence is only available to him due to his ministerial position, not his role as an MP.

“The interest has been transparently declared by the prime minister following advice from Lord Geidt, the independent adviser," the spokesperson said. 

“The Commons rulebook is very clear that such ministerial code declarations do not need to be double-declared.

But Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner disagreed. “It is not for the prime minister or cabinet ministers to decide what the independent anti-corruption commissioner investigates,” she said. 

Dr Fox believed that like the holiday, the flat should also not be exempt from Stone's scrutiny of MP declarations. 

“I don't think it's a case of the government deciding whether or not she can investigate on the basis of what they decide to put in which register,” Fox continued. 

She said the whole case "reveals a gap in the system of registration where MPs are also ministers”.

Fox added: “In his case he appears to have received a benefit that is arguably relevant to both his ministerial and his parliamentary role. So where should it be registered and who should decide?

“If some MPs are subject to two different systems, with different rules on reporting, different systems of inquiry and different systems of punishment, then that's where problems may occur.”

The leading think tank the Institute for Government agrees, saying while there are some things which are only applicable to a ministerial role, there is not “hard and fast rule” on what leads to that decision.

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