The prime minister’s new ethics adviser will reveal whether Boris Johnson received any donations that were used to refurbish his Downing Street flat by the end of the month, he has said.
Lord Christopher Geidt, who was named as the PM’s independent adviser on ministerial standards earlier this month, told a committee of MPs today he is “absolutely determined” to publish the delayed list of ministers’ interests – which should reveal whether any donor money contributed to the refurbishment – within weeks.
“Of course, the publication of the list of interests will include the prime minister and of course, as part of my appointment, I’ve been asked to make inquiry of the facts and circumstances of the refurbishment of the flat at Downing Street, and to advise the prime minister on his declaration of interest,” Lord Geidt added.
He said he would publish his advice to the PM “alongside” the list. Johnson has previously said he paid for the No.11 refurb, which is reported to have cost upwards of £200,000, himself, but has since refused to rule out donations being used.
The list of interests had been due for publication last December, and ministers have blamed the independent adviser vacancy for the delay.
However, Geidt told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee it was “unfortunate” that the list had not been published. “That is why I’m driven to act with as much urgency as I can to get this next list published at the end of the month,” he said.
He said he was “in the process of receiving” the documents needed to compile the list.
“I’m determined that it should be published by the end of this month. Public confidence, I think in my judgment, demands that this list be published without further delay,” he said.
'Conversations behind closed doors'
During the hour-long evidence session, MPs quizzed Geidt on whether he believed he will have sufficient powers in his role, given he will not have the authority to trigger investigations into potential breaches of the ministerial code.
“It is to the credit of this prime minister, and it is a simple matter of fact, that the revised terms of reference that I am going to be operating under represent the first change in a decade,” he said.
The revised terms of reference now say the adviser can advise the prime minister to launch an inquiry, which they previously did not.
He said he was aware of a recommendation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommendation that the independent adviser be allowed to open investigations without the PM’s say-so – which Johnson refused to grant, saying it would invite “vexatious complaints”.
Asked what practical difference this would make to the role, Geidt said his predecessor “had no right at all, of any kind, of initiation under the terms he served by – such that he was required to sit on his hands, if you like unless and until the prime minister invited him to take a role in investigating an alleged breach".
“That is now varied to the extent that this independent adviser can bowl up to the prime minister, independently having taken a view from the public square, about allegations of a potential breach," he said.
He acknowledged that persuading the prime minister to conduct such an inquiry could remain “difficulty”, and that the adviser would only be able to have those conversations in private.
Asked if it is “suitable to have those conversations behind closed doors, particularly because the first investigation is going to be of the prime minister himself”, Geidt said he was comfortable with the arrangement.
“We don’t yet know that this will be ineffective, because my belief is... that I will not simply be taking a basketful of potentially vexatious claims from the wider world, dumping them on the prime minister’s desk and inviting him to agree with me that they require separate investigation,” he said.
“My clear intent is to take cases, if indeed there are some, to the prime minister, having undertaken my own inquiries of what might look like to be the relative merits of the case, so that the prime minister can see a well-worked case.”
And he said: “I truly believe that the present and revised terms… should be put to work before seeing if they need to be developed further.”
Geidt was also asked whether existing rules on ministerial conduct were sufficiently robust to ensure politicians behaved ethically.
He said he agreed with former civil servants – including former cab sec Sir Mark Sedwill and ex-first civil service commissioner Sir David Normington – that ministers and senior officials must set an example to others and follow not just the letter but the spirit of the relevant codes of conduct.
“Good behaviour is a very difficult thing to legislate for,” he said.