The government has confirmed it will not respond to either of two big reports on ethical standards and transparency in 2021. A written ministerial statement today says that responses to both Nigel Boardman’s review of the Greensill lobbying episode and the independent report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life will be issued in the New Year.
This, coupled with the fact that Simon Case’s investigation into the Downing Street parties is now not expected to report until next week, after parliament has risen for Christmas, leaves the government’s response to problems in its handling of standards unclear going into the new year. The government’s unhurried approach suggests that even after the major scandals that have rocked it in recent weeks, ministers still do not recognise the urgency of acting to improve standards. There are many questions that need answering.
The ministerial code has been in the news repeatedly throughout 2021, with Labour frequently calling for investigations into whether ministers have breached its provisions. The only minister found to have broken the code this year was Matt Hancock, who actually resigned from the government for a quite different reason. The status of the code was weakened last year when the prime minister overrode the finding of his then independent adviser, that home secretary Priti Patel had bullied civil servants.
Johnson’s new adviser, Lord Geidt, has also seen his independence and ability to conduct effective investigations called into question. Geidt’s judgement that the prime minister had not breached any aspect of the ministerial code over the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat was challenged when the Electoral Commission found that the prime minister had discussed the refurbishment with the primary donor in November 2020, in exchanges of which Johnson had not made Geidt aware. His report said that Johnson had been unaware of the funding arrangements until February 2021.
When he appointed Lord Geidt in April, the prime minister said he would update the ministerial code “in due course”. That update is now even more overdue – and the damage done to the credibility of the ministerial code and the role of Lord Geidt in recent months mean that a proper refresh is needed. The priority must be strengthening Lord Geidt’s independence, so he can begin his investigations and publish the findings without needing the prime minister’s permission. Will the prime minister give the code, and the person responsible for helping him uphold it, the necessary independence and status to work properly and command public confidence?
In November the government whipped its MPs to reject the suspension of then-MP Owen Paterson from the House of Commons in favour of a government-initiated review of the House’s standards procedures. After much criticism and rejection of the review by all other parties in the Commons, the government backed down and Paterson resigned (leading to the North Shropshire by-election). The Commons Standards Committee, which originally recommended his suspension, then published a report consulting on how the standards regime in the Commons should be improved. Their recommendations include a ban on MPs “providing paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy services” , a requirement for MPs to get a written contract for any outside job they take on, and more timely transparency around ministerial declarations of interests, to bring them into line with backbench MPs.
The government has not yet signalled its views on these recommendations. Normally, the government would not whip its MPs when the Commons is deciding how to run its own affairs – which is partly why the government’s approach to the Paterson case was so controversial. Will the government allow Conservative MPs to make up their own minds on the Committee’s recommendations? How will the government ensure that the decision of the House of Commons in November, that “reasonable limits” should be placed on MPs’ outside interests, is given effect? And where the Committee’s recommendations are for the government to implement – particularly around bringing ministers’ declarations on hospitality into line with those of MPs – will the government act?
In November the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life published a landmark report looking at standards across government. Their ambitious recommendations would see greater transparency and higher standards for ministers, special advisers, officials, board members of public bodies and more. However, it is up to the government to put these changes into practice. The government took over three years to respond to a CSPL report from 2018 looking at MPs’ outside interests (it was only prompted to do by the Paterson episode); it needs to respond to this year’s report much more promptly.
And the government needs to take the issues raised in the report seriously. The fact that David Cameron’s lobbying for Greensill did not break any of the rules about what ministers can do after they leave government was seen by the public as proof that those rules were insufficient. The government needs to set out what it will do to strengthen these rules and ensure they are properly enforced, to avoid another similar criticism in the future.
2021 was a year of scandals over ministerial behaviour. From Greensill to Hancock to the Downing Street flat and Christmas parties, these episodes revealed a system that is not just creaking at the edges but failing. The behaviour of ministers and their teams has too often failed to meet the rightly high standards that the public expects of them. This has already had a substantial impact on the Conservative Party’s standing in opinion polls. If the prime minister does not deliver satisfactory answers to outstanding questions about ethical standards, he risks 2022 bringing more of the same, which ultimately will continue to undermine trust in the political system.