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John McDonnell Grills PM's New Ethics Adviser Over Role With "Unethical Arms Dealer"

4 min read

Downing Street's newly appointed ethics adviser has come under fire over his previous work with a British defence company, BAE Systems.

Labour's John McDonnell questioned Lord Geidt's appointment to the role overseeing ministerial standards as he accused him of working for an "unethical arms dealer".

Lord Geidt, who has been tasked with investigating the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment, had served on the international advisory board of BAE Systems until April when he was appointed as Boris Johnson's new independent adviser on ministerial standards.

Appearing at the Commons Public Accounts Committee on Thursday, Geidt insisted he would "speak truth unto power" as he vowed to publish evidence about the flat affair and release the long awaited register of ministerial interests.

But former shadow chancellor John McDonnell questioned whether the peer found it "ironic" he had been brought in to advise on "propriety and ethics" in government given his role with the aerospace giant.

"This is a company that has plumbed the depths of unethical behaviour," McDonnell said.

"It has been convicted of defrauding the government in the US and paid a $500m fine in a plea bargain. It has been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for use of corruption to sell arms to Chile, Czech Republic, Romania, Saudia Arabia, South Africa, Tanzania and Qatar."

The Labour MP also flagged a complaint raised in the International Criminal Court by a group of human rights organisations which accused BAE Systems and other European arms manufacturers of being party to alleged war crimes in Yemen.

"Last year, the company was accused of war crimes. It supplied arms used by the Saudi regimes to bomb civilians, that was schools and hospitals, tens of thousands killed," he said.

"How can you be independent and have a relationship with the Prime Minister when it was the Prime Minister as Foreign Secretary who was signing off the export licenses for the company itself?"

He added: "How can anyone have confidence in you enforcing ethical behaviour when you have been associated with an unethical arms dealer that is willing to sell arms to any murderous and brutal dictatorship and has used corruption to secure those sales?"

Geidt said he had been "proud" of the role, given his work as a former soldier, but insisted the UK strongly regulated the arms industry.

"I absolutely appreciate what you have said about the record of BAE systems, but I placed my reliance in taking on this role on the attitude of the British government, which is active in licensing the activity of BAE systems," he said.

"I was proud to do this work for a couple of years because it did align with my previous experience and interests and I do take very seriously the importance of being able to ensure – and there have been criticisms of this in the past – that our men and women in the armed services... can call on the equipment upon which their own defence and the defence of the nation depends.

Geidt confirmed he had now "stepped down from that role" to allow himself adequate time to undertake the role of independent adviser on ministerial standards. 

He added that in "due course" he may step back from other outside roles he continues to hold "depending on the burden of this important role I have now accepted".

The new ethics adviser told MPs he agreed with their analysis that the rules around ministerial standards are "not sufficient to stimulate good behaviour".

The crossbench peer was appointed to the vacant post following the resignation of former adviser Sir Alex Allan, who announced his departure in November following a bullying inquiry into Home Secretary Priti Patel

Prime Minister Boris Johnson concluded his cabinet colleague had not breached the ministerial code, despite Sir Alex saying in his report that Patel had "not consistently met the high standards expected of her". Patel denies the allegations. 

But Geidt said while he hoped to build a "relationship of trust" with the PM, he did not rule out also resigning if his recommendations were ignored.

While he said he would not be drawn into a hypothetical discussion, he added the "power is there" and that "if it came to it, I could do the same".

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