Boris Johnson has been urged not to scrap the role of independent adviser on ministerial standards after Christopher Geidt’s resignation this week.
Downing Street has said recruitment for a new independent adviser will not begin until the prime minister has decided whether the role needs to be changed. Johnson strengthened the independent adviser’s role only last month – although the Committee on Standards in Public Life is calling for the powers that accompany the role to be given statutory footing.
On Wednesday, Lord Geidt became the second standards adviser to quit in less than two years – following Sir Alex Allan’s 2020 decision to step down from the role after Johnson refused to accept home secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code by bullying her staff.
In his resignation letter, published yesterday, Geidt said he had been placed in an “impossible and odious position” over government plans for measures that would have involved breaching the ministerial code. He said such a move would have “made a mockery” of the code, which it was his job to police.
Geidt did not detail the precise nature of the proposals, but they are thought to involve the extension of emergency tariffs on Chinese steel. He said the latest issues were effectively the final straw after problems with Downing Street over the refurbishment of Johnson’s official flat and his Partygate fine.
CSPL chair Jonathan Evans said concerns about finding someone willing and capable to take on the independent adviser job following the departures of Geidt and Allan could be one reason Downing Street was looking to rethink the position.
But he said taking away an independent voice on standards from the heart of government “would risk further damage to public perceptions of standards”.
“Any change to the oversight of ministerial behaviour must be stronger, not weaker, than we have now,” Lord Evans said in a blog.
“And there should be an independent adviser in place while any such proposals are developed, someone with sufficient independence and integrity to provide ministers with advice on the administration of the ministerial code and on upholding the Nolan principles. Anything less would be a backward step.”
Civil servants at risk
Dave Penman, general secretary of senior civil service servants' union the FDA, said there needed to be an appropriate mechanism to regulate ministers’ behaviour at all times and protect departmental staff from mistreatment.
“The ministerial code is the only mechanism a civil servant can use to raise a complaint of misconduct, bullying or sexual harassment against a minister,” he said.
“Confidence in that process has already been severely damaged by the prime minister’s refusal to accept that the home secretary had breached the code, despite being found to have bullied staff.”
Penman added: “If the prime minister does not intend to replace Lord Geidt, then he must immediately put in place measures that ensure a civil servant can, with confidence, raise a complaint about ministerial misconduct.
“Ministers cannot be exempt from the standards that apply to civil servants – and any modern workplace – when it comes to their conduct.”
The FDA challenged Johnson’s decision to overrule Allan’s findings on Priti Patel’s conduct at the High Court, alleging it was a misdirection of law. Judges dismissed the claim, although the ruling found that ministers cannot excuse themselves from bullying accusations under the code by saying that they were unaware of the impact of their actions, or that any impact on staff had been unintentional – which Patel had claimed.
Allan resigned on the day Johnson announced his refusal to accept the finding that Patel had broken the ministerial code.
Allan was a guest on the BBC’s Newscast programme yesterday. He said he was “really upset” that Geidt had been placed in a position where he felt he had no alternative to resignation.
Allan said he had been in touch with Geidt in recent months and had this week told him he was right to stand up for his principles following his resignation.
“I think he found the actual issues this week quite stressful,” Allan said. “But he’s a man of great integrity. He would have inevitably found it very difficult to get in a position where he had no option but to resign.”
Allan agreed that the government would find it difficult to recruit a new independent standards adviser.
“It took them five months to find Lord Geidt as a successor to me,” he said. “I gather that the Cabinet Office are talking about recasting the role. Who knows exactly what they mean by that or what will emerge?”
Trade Remedies Authority speaks up
The prime minister’s response to Geidt’s resignation letter suggested the proposals that proved to be the final straw for the standards adviser concerned international trade and, in particular, the work of new watchdog the Trade Remedies Authority.
Johnson said the contentious plans were designed to protect an unspecified “crucial industry” from “material harm”. However, he acknowledged they “might be seen to conflict with our obligations” to the World Trade Organization, potentially the deliberate breach of the ministerial code Geidt referred to.
A statement from the TRA, which was set up to protect the interests of UK firms from unfair practices following Brexit, said the case the prime mister appeared to be referring to had been “called in” by ministers earlier this year, giving the government “full decision-making authority” over it.
“The TRA has carried out analysis under the government’s direction and we provided a report of findings to the secretary of state for international trade on June 1,” it said.
“The report of findings is an analytical piece of work designed to inform government decision making and does not contain recommendations from the TRA.”