Ex-ministers and civil servants who break anti-corruption rules should face legal action to improve accountability and public trust in the “integrity of the system”, an influential committee of MPs has said.
Rules regulating post-government appointments should be expanded and made legally enforceable, and the body that enforces them – the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments – should be put on a statutory footing, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said.
PACAC’s latest report backs a series of recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life to strengthen anti-lobbying rules, but goes further in suggesting rule-breakers could be pursued through the courts.
“We do not think that a system based solely around voluntary compliance with general principles is sufficient to maintain public confidence in the integrity of the system regulating the ‘revolving door’,” the MPs said.
“Enforcement and the ability to sanction those that breach the rules is fundamental to ensuring a regulatory regime that commands public confidence,” the report added.
However, they said that the threat of being pursued through the courts should be a “sufficient deterrent” to mean it was rarely needed.
While the MPs recommended putting Acoba on a statutory basis as soon as possible, they stressed that doing so is “not a prerequisite for the rules to be legally enforced” and should not delay it being put into operation.
Over the course of PACAC’s inquiry, the government told the MPs it is “exploring contractual mechanisms” to ensure business appointment rules are legally enforceable. The report welcomed the development and called on the government to outline what form these mechanisms would take, which sanctions would apply, and when such a system would be introduced.
The report is the latest to be published since PACAC launched its inquiry into governance in April 2021, in light of the Greensill lobbying scandal that the committee said “called into question the effectiveness of ethics regulation in relation to ministers”.
Braverman appointment sets ‘dangerous precedent’ for ministerial code
PACAC’s report also addressed consequences for ministers who have broken the ministerial code – saying the prime minister’s decision to reinstate Suella Braverman as home secretary days after she resigned for leaking restricted material “sets a dangerous precedent”.
Referring to an update to the code this spring, they said: “The leaking of restricted material is worthy of significant sanction under the new graduated sanctions regime introduced in May, including resignation and a significant period out of office. A subsequent change in prime minister should not wipe the slate clean and allow for a rehabilitation and a return to ministerial office in a shorter timeframe.
“To allow this to take place does not inspire confidence in the integrity of government nor offer much incentive to proper conduct in future.”
They called on the government to outline the range of sanctions that could be taken, and examples of the behaviour that could lead to each one. “Without this, the suspicion is that the only determinant of the level of sanction will be political expediency,” the report said.
Independent adviser’s ‘perceived lack of authority’ a worry
The government has now said that while Rishi Sunak plans to appoint an independent adviser on ministerial interests – a role which has been vacant since Christopher Geidt resigned in July – they will not investigate Braverman’s conduct as it took place under the PM’s predecessor, Liz Truss.
These events have “demonstrated the impact of the perceived lack of independence and authority” of the ethics adviser, the MPs said.
They also sounded alarm at the suggestion that an inquiry begun by Lord Geidt into allegations of racism made by former transport minister Nusrat Ghani against a colleague may not be concluded because it happened while Boris Johnson was prime minister. “This situation is unsatisfactory,” they said.
The committee has been chasing the Cabinet Office for answers since it learned there was an outstanding “live investigation” started by the former adviser in July. Cabinet secretary Simon Case told PACAC that decisions on concluding the inquiry would be “taken in due course”.
They urged the PM not to delay the appointment of a new adviser but to make the position a statutory one “to end the uncertainty about whether future appointments will be made at all”.
They also called for a “robust and transparent appointment process that allows the candidate [for ethics adviser] to demonstrate their qualities for the role rather than their name being ‘alighted upon’”.
Pre-appointments process 'must not be a tick-box exercise"
The committee also called for an overhaul of processes at the appointment stage, to further improve transparency and accountability.
It said that the office of the commissioner for public appointments, whose responsibilities include overseeing appointments by ministers, should be put on a statutory footing along with Acoba “at the earliest opportunity”.
“The legislation should make clear that the commissioner’s role is to ensure that public appointments made by ministers are in compliance with the governance code,” the report said.
The recommendation comes after a series of examples of ministers overriding select committees by forging ahead with an appointment after MPs decided a candidate is not suitable at a pre-appointment hearing. There have also been several reports of ministers attempting to install people in public roles despite them having fared poorly at interview stage.
Endorsing an earlier recommendation by CSPL, PACAC said that any ministers who want to appoint a candidate who has been deemed unappointable for a role should be called before a select committee to justify their decision.
The MPs criticised the government for appearing to treat the pre-appointments process “as a tick-box exercise rather than an important component in the public appointments process”.
It has become “routine” for ministers to schedule pre-appointment hearings at short notice – something the committee said should only happen on occasion.
“This has given rise to the assumption that the government has intended to press on with the appointment, regardless of the view of select committees,” the report said.
In one example in 2018, PACAC questioned the Cabinet Office’s “competence in carrying out routine administrative business” after the department failed to share the name of its preferred candidate to lead CSPL a week before a pre-appointment hearing.
In today’s report, the MPs wrote: “The committee’s patience in this respect is not limitless. We are aware that this frustration is shared by other select committees.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We thank the committee for their report.
“We have been clear that this government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level and we are already taking action to improve the effectiveness of the business appointment rules.
”We will respond to the committee's recommendations in due course."