PM would still have final say on ministerial bullying under Labour plans for independent ethics watchdog

The opposition deputy leader offers an update on Labour's plans to reform ethics in a speech at the Institute for Government
Angela Rayner. Photo: Ian Davidson/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

13 Jul 2023

The prime minister will still have the final say on ministerial bullying and other breaches of the ministerial code under Labour’s plans to reform government ethics, Angela Rayner has said.

Expanding on plans for an independent Integrity and Ethics Commission, which the party first announced in November 2021, Labour's deputy leader said the proposals would "fix the broken standards system and clean up politics”.

Under the plans, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the independent adviser on ministers’ interests would be absorbed by the new ethics watchdog, which would be placed on statutory footing.

The new commission would have the power to investigate ministers' conduct without needing the prime minister's go-ahead, unlike the current ethics adviser. It would then determine breaches and recommend sanctions, but the PM would still have the final say.

Rayner revealed the latest update on Labour's plans to reform ethics in a speech at the Institute for Government, also answering questions from the media and a host of key figures from the ethics and standards landscape, including Committee on Standards in Public Life chair Jonathan Evans and former public appointments commissioner Peter Riddell.

The Labour politician was asked by FDA union general secretary Dave Penman if the PM would still be "ultimately the arbiter" on any sanction for a minister who is found to have broken the ministerial code.

Penman pointed out that Alex Allan, the independent ethics adviser from 2011 to 2020, had found that Priti Patel had bullied civil servants and broken the ministerial code, “but because we had a 'bad chap' making the [decision] they were prepared to ignore" the ethics adviser's conclusions.  

Allan resigned after Boris Johnson bypassed his findings and backed Patel.

“How are you going to ensure that politics doesn’t play a part in final decisions?” Penman asked.

Responding, Rayner said the new system would give “far greater protections” against a prime minister who tries to ignore recommendations.

She said it will be “virtually impossible to do that under these new processes”.

But she said politics will always play a part in decisions on ministerial conduct.

“You can't get away from that unless you get rid of all politicians,” she said.

"Ultimately we’re a democracy and we're elected to govern and that means that there is some element of that within what we do. But by putting these checks and balances in, for example like the last Labour government did on freedom of information…I do think it will take us to a better level compared to where we are now.

“Will it completely insulate us? No, because politicians will always be in the mix, but I think it's much stronger than what we have.”

Members of the commission would be appointed through a parliamentary process independent of the PM, unlike the current ethics adviser role, which is appointed by the PM.

The commission would also strengthen revolving-doors regulation, with ministers who breach lobbying rules facing sanctions that they “can feel in their pockets”, Rayner said. Under the current system, Acoba has no power to punish breaches. Ministers would also be banned from lobbying for at least five years after they leave office.

Rayner said the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the Civil Service Commission could also become part of the new ethics watchdog, but Labour would consult on this first.

She said the party is prioritising reforms of how ministerial conduct is regulated as civil servants are “not the problem”.

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