Ministers accused by Labour of 'cherry-picking' recommendations on ethical standards

MPs to vote on motion urging the government to implement Committee on Standards in Public Life recommendations
Photo: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy Live News

The Labour Party has accused the government of “cherry-picking” the advice of its standards advisers and urged it to implement all the recommendations of a report last year calling for greater independent oversight of the ministerial code.

MPs will vote today on a motion to implement the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s November report, Upholding Standards in Public Life, which called for the ministerial code to be put on a statutory footing and for tighter lobbying rules.

The Opposition Day motion, which endorses the report, comes after changes were made to the ministerial code last week, which stopped short of giving the authority to start investigating ministerial conduct without the prime minister’s say-so.

The changes gave the prime minister’s standards adviser Christopher Geidt the power to initiate investigations only with the PM’s approval. The PM will need strong reasons for refusal, such as national security concerns, and the adviser will be able to publish the reasons for a PM’s refusal.

Lord Geidt’s annual report – which pressed Boris Johnson into explaining why he felt his conduct over the Partygate scandal had not breached the ministerial code – said the reforms were “at a low level of ambition”.

Today’s Opposition Day motion says the “House recognises the importance of the ministerial code for maintaining high standards in public life”.

Backed by six MPs including leader of the opposition Keir Starmer and shadow Cabinet Office minister Angela Rayner, it also calls on Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay to make a statement to the House of Commons on the progress made in implementing the recommendations by 20 July – two days before the summer recess begins – and each year after that.

In a letter to CSPL chair Jonathan Evans, Rayner said Labour had put the motion forward because it shared “concerns expressed by experts across the field”, as well as by Geidt and Lord Evans himself, “that cherry-picking recommendations from your report sets a low bar ambition on strengthening standards in public life”.

“By failing to respond to your report, the government has overlooked a plethora of important recommendations required to restore trust and integrity in our democracy,” she said.

“As you rightly outlined [in your report], it is imperative that these mutually dependent recommendations are considered in detail and urgently enacted as an important first step to strengthening standards in public life.

"While we remain in a situation where the independent adviser still requires the prime minister's permission to launch an investigation, we will be unable to restore public trust in ethical standards at the heart of government. Public distrust and suspicion about the way in which the ministerial code is administered will continue to rot the heart of ethical standards in British democracy,” she said.

Responding to Rayner’s letter, Evans reiterated the committee’s findings that “the current system of ethics regulation is too dependent on conventions; that standards regulators in government are not sufficiently independent; and that government needs to take a more formal and professional approach to its own ethics obligations”.

He nodded to a letter he had sent to junior Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True, saying CSPL’s recommendations had been “designed as a package” and that the amended rules left a risk that the PM could overrule the standards adviser and “critically undermine” their credibility.

He also referenced a recent blog post in which he said the new arrangements “fail to address the risk of what Lord Geidt describes as a ‘circular process’: an adviser who believes their advice will be rejected will simply not put forward advice at all, with the precedent already established that this will lead to the adviser's resignation”.

Geidt’s predecessor, Sir Alex Allan, resigned after the prime minister rejected his finding that home secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code by bullying staff.

Opposition Day motions are not seen as binding on the government. Defeat for the government is rare and would elicit a ministerial response.

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