Heywood asked to investigate claim Boris Johnson breached ministerial code over FCO think tank launch

Launch of free trade think tank in the Foreign Office showed "astonishing lack of judgement in using official government buildings", says FDA

Boris Johnson has been accused of breaching the ministerial code. Credit: BBC News

By Tamsin Rutter

29 Sep 2017

Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood is examining claims that foreign secretary Boris Johnson breached the Cabinet Office’s ministerial code when he located the launch of the Institute for Free Trade think tank within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Westminster.

Heywood  has received a letter of complaint from prominent Labour politician Chuka Umunna, asking him to investigate the decision to use government property for an event promoting an agenda he said was “at variance with publicly stated government policy”.

The think tank was launched in the FCO’s Map Room by Johnson, international trade secretary Liam Fox, and the think tank’s president Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who is a proponent of the UK moving towards a Singapore-style economy.


The ministerial code states that “ministers are provided with facilities at government expense to enable them to carry out their official duties” and that “government property should not generally be used for constituency work or party political activities”.

Umunna's letter, seen by the Independent, said he believed the launch of a think tank “does not count as an official duty”.

He added: “Given the involvement of Mr Hannan in particular, who is a serving Conservative party politician with no role at all in Her Majesty’s Government, it seems that this event should count as party political activity.

“In your capacity as the watchdog of the British constitution and the ethical conduct of ministers and officials, I understand you have a duty to investigate this matter for any breach of the ministerial code by the foreign secretary and the secretary of state for international trade.”

A government spokesperson confirmed that Heywood was examining the claims. "The cabinet secretary has received a letter of complaint and he will reply in due course,” they said.

Professor Colin Talbot, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, told Civil Service World that Johnson and Fox were in “clear breach of the ministerial guidelines”, and said the launch event on government premises was without precedent.

“It gives the appearance of it being an officially sponsored body if it’s in the FCO, and it’s promoting policies which are directly contrary to what government policy is supposed to be," he said.

“It’s clearly against… the letter and the spirit of the ministerial code – having two cabinet ministers present, launching what's clearly a political think tank that promotes a particular perspective.”

He said he agreed with Labour peer Charlie Falconer, who wrote on Twitter that the foreign secretary had breached section 7.12 of the ministerial code, which states: “Ministers should take care to ensure that they do not become associated with non-public organisations whose objectives may in any degree conflict with government policy and thus give rise to a conflict of interest.”

Falconer tweeted: “IFT want Singapore style economy. Govt say they don't. 7.12 prevents [ministers] being associated with orgs with objectives different from govt.”

Foreign Sec in breach of min code (7.12) in allowing FCO to be venue for launch of Institute of Free Trade which conflicts with govt policy.

— Charlie Falconer (@LordCFalconer) September 28, 2017

IFT want Singapore style economy. Govt say they don't. 7.12 prevents mins being associated with orgs with objectives different from govt.

— Charlie Falconer (@LordCFalconer) September 28, 2017

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, the trade union for senior civil servants, responded to claims that FCO staff were used to direct visitors to the think tank launch event.

He said: "Civil service departments are not the personal plaything for ministers of state to promote their particular political beliefs; they are there to deliver public services to taxpayers.

"Whether they have broken the ministerial code or not, the ministers involved have shown an astonishing lack of judgement in using official government buildings, departmental communication channels and civil servants time to help promote a think tank which quite clearly represents a particular political view of Brexit," he told The Guardian.

"The civil service values of integrity and impartiality are the cornerstones of our system of government. It's a pity some ministers don't seem to share the same commitment to those values as the civil servants who serve them."

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