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Boris Johnson Accused Of “Embarrassing Delay” In Enabling Ethics Adviser To Investigate Ministers

Boris Johnson Accused Of “Embarrassing Delay” In Enabling Ethics Adviser To Investigate Ministers

The Prime Minister's standards adviser, Lord Geidt, is yet to announce whether he has been given promised new powers of investigation (Alamy

5 min read

Boris Johnson has been accused of an "embarrassing delay” in giving promised new powers to his ethics adviser as a result of the row over who paid for his Number 10 flat renovation.

Lord Geidt, Johnson’s "independent adviser on ministerial interests”, was reported to be close to resigning last December when the Electoral Commission unearthed messages between the Prime Minister and Tory donor Lord Brownlow where they discussed the funding of the Downing Street renovations, which had not been disclosed to him during his own investigation into the so-called “Wallpapergate” fiasco.

Geidt said he felt officials had shown him “insufficient care” and that the “episode shook my confidence” in his ability to perform the role. In response Johnson offered a “humble and sincere apology”, and proposed giving Geidt more dedicated support from Cabinet Office officials, as well as looking at changes to the “wider remit of the independent adviser and to the ministerial code”.

Johnson pledged to have put proposals “in place to your satisfaction by the end of March at the latest”. Geidt then wrote to a Commons committee saying he expected by the time of his next annual report in April “to be able to describe the role of independent adviser in terms of considerably greater authority, independence and effect, consistent with the ambitions for the office that the Prime Minister has set out”.

But almost six months on, Number 10 would not confirm if Johnson did meet with Geidt as promised "early in the new year", or if proposals were submitted by the end of March deadline. As of today the adviser’s annual report has still not been published.

The Liberal Democrats called it an "embarrassing delay" while Labour said it demonstrates Johnson "was never serious about his pledge to address the sleaze engulfing his government".

The adviser’s annual report is understood to have been delayed by the Easter recess and then the local elections in May, but more than a fortnight on from the elections there is no update on when it will arrive or if a new remit and powers have been agreed to.

Currently the independent adviser can only launch an investigation into whether the ministerial code has been breached if the PM approves it, and even then their findings can be disregarded.

Geidt’s predecessor Sir Alex Allan quit the role in late 2020 when Johnson refused to sack Priti Patel despite a formal investigation finding evidence that the home secretary had bullied civil servants.Before Geidt was appointed in April last year the committee on standards in public life (CSPL) had called for the next holder of the position to be able to independently initiate investigations into potential wrongdoing, but the terms of reference for the role meant the power to do so remained in the gift of the prime minister.

The independent committee, which advises Johnson on arrangements for upholding ethical standards of conduct across public life, reiterated their call earlier this year and expressed dismay that the changes have still not been announced.

Lord Jonathan Evans, the CSPL chair, told PoliticsHome: “It is now over a year since we made our recommendations to the prime minister, to update and strengthen the standards system, including giving the Adviser on Ministerial Interests the power to initiate their own investigations and the authority to determine breaches of the Ministerial code. 

“While we know – of course – that the government has faced some major challenges, it is time to address the serious gaps in standards regulation.

“High standards in public life matter – they are important for public trust in decision making, wider business confidence and the UK’s reputation internationally."

Lib Dem chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “This embarrassing delay tells you all you need to know about the importance which Boris Johnson attaches to giving his independent adviser any meaningful powers.

"The reputation of the existing system has been trashed by the ‘Wallpapergate’ fiasco. Reforms are urgently needed, and it would be deeply concerning if the prime minister is planning on backpedalling on them."

Labour's shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, Fleur Anderson, told PoliticsHome that the delay shows Johnson's pledge to reform the role of adviser "was a hollow promise to deflect from media scrutiny".

Tim Durrant from the Institute for Government said it was “incredibly frustrating” that the changes had not yet been implemented, and that Geidt’s role needed to be put on a “more formal footing and basically make his role properly independent”.

He added: “His title is the ‘independent adviser on material interests’, but he's not really independent because he relies on the PM for approval to look into things, and until fairly recently, it relied on seconded staff working on specific investigations rather than having a proper team doing the work for him.”

Durrant said he was not surprised by the delay in announcing new powers for Geidt. “It's not their way of doing things, and obviously we just had a Queen's Speech and they had every opportunity to put something in there about a bill for enforcement of ethical standards and public life," he added.

“And they didn’t, so it's their revealed preference definitely not to do this.”

Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said: “Despite the intense scrutiny on the behaviour of those in high office, we appear no closer to the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests getting new powers to hold ministers to account for standards of conduct.

"After months of unexplained delays, we hope these changes are introduced swiftly and genuinely strengthen the powers and independence of the role, including granting the adviser the power to instigate investigations into potential breaches of the Ministerial Code without the express permission of the Prime Minister.

"With public confidence in the conduct of our politicians already low, these overdue changes must not be kicked into the long grass.”

The prime minister’s spokesperson said the matter is for Lord Geidt to update via his annual report.

“Last year that was in May so we’d expect it this month but it’s a matter for him,” they said.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office pointed to a Parliamentary Question on the matter from earlier this month, to which the minister Michael Ellis replied: "The independent adviser publishes a report annually. The previous report was published at the end of May 2021."

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