Boris Johnson’s former independent adviser on ministerial standards has said his successors should be free to launch conduct probes without having to wait for approval from the prime minister or a senior civil servant.
Sir Alex Allan quit his role on the same day the prime minister announced he was standing by home secretary Priti Patel even though Allan’s investigation into her behaviour at Marsham Street found she had bullied her staff in breach of the ministerial code – a resigning or sacking issue.
Speaking to the Committee on Standards in Public Life yesterday, Allan said he believed allowing the prime minister’s independent adviser on standards to decide for themselves whether an investigation should be launched would fix flaws in the current system.
“The independent adviser can help distance really quite difficult decisions from the prime minister and the cabinet secretary because of their independence,” Allan said. “I think there actually is a case now for giving the independent adviser the role of initiating investigations.
“The issue really now is whether the process… is actually damaging to the perception of whether ministers do or don’t adhere to the code.
“There are allegations of breaches that are essentially trivial or without substance, but there have also been incidents which prima facie appear to involve a breach of the code but which haven’t been referred to the independent adviser.
“It is perfectly possible that the allegations weren’t supported by the facts. But the way the allegations have been dismissed I think has raised questions about the operation of the system and about the confidence that the public can have in the impact and effectiveness of the code.”
Allan told the evidence session he had “quite a lot of contact” to discuss conduct matters that had arisen with the propriety and ethics team in the Cabinet Office while he was the prime minister’s independent adviser, a role he took on in 2012.
“It’s not completely sitting back and waiting around,” he said of the independent adviser role. “But the position is clearly that it is the prime minister who decides whether or not there should be an investigation.”
Allan added that removing the prime minister as the sole instigator of conduct probes would remedy other shortcomings of the current system.
“It would clear up the anomaly where there were allegations against the prime minister him or herself, which is something we’ve just seen in Scotland [where there were misconduct allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond],” he said.
Despite arguing for broader powers for independent advisers to launch investigations, Allan insisted that it was still right for prime ministers to decide what course of action was taken when investigations had concluded.
"Whatever happens, it must be the prime minister who retains the decision on what action to take once an investigation has taken place," he said.
"If there is an argument about whether a minister should resign, it’s his role to decide who he wants to have in his government."
Yesterday’s session was chaired by standards commissioner Lord Jonathan Evans, who last year raised “real reasons for concern” over the delayed publication of the Patel bullying investigation and cases that had not been investigated. One example was housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s involvement with newspaper-owner-turned-property-developer Richard Desmond.
Evans referred to the cases but did not mention either secretary of state by name.
Allan did not refer to the Priti Patel investigation at yesterday’s hearing, but he did refer to an earlier encounter with the home secretary, when she was a backbench member of the Public Administration Select Committee, forerunner to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.
“I was pressed very hard on whether I could be truly independent given my background in the civil service,” Allan said of a 2012 appearance before the panel.
“One of the then-members of the committee, Priti Patel, asked me: ‘Do you feel in your current role that you’re actually able to challenge those around you – including the prime minister, if you see or hear of anything untoward that needs to be drawn to his attention?’
“And the report, at the end of the day, was very critical of my independence, or whether I could be independent.”
He added: “It’s very important both that the prime minister has confidence in his adviser but also that the public has confidence in his or her impartiality. And I think that can be done with a suitable process.”
Last week the Home Office reached a six-figure settlement with former permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam, who quit his job last year and launched a constructive dismissal case against the government. The case had been due to go before an employment tribunal later this year.
The FDA union has launched a High Court challenge to Johnson's decision not to sack Patel for the behaviour that Allan's report identified.