Watchdog chief says public need reassurance that standards are being maintained

Lord Evans of Weardale: the standards committee chair is a former chief of MI5.

Boris Johnson’s rewrite of the Ministerial Code is leaving the public with questions to answer about whether standards are being eroded, according to a watchdog chief.

Lord Evans of Weardale, chairman of the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, questioned Johnson’s decision to relax the rules so ministers no longer have to resign over minor breaches of the Ministerial Code, while refusing to allow investigations to happen independently.

Instead, ethics advisor Lord Geidt must still seek the prime minister’s consent before investigating – and Johnson may veto any such investigation.

Lord Evans said the change, while an improvement on the previous position, meant the adviser was still not “sufficiently independent”.

Lord Evans said:

“I think you’ve got to raise questions when you see the outcome of the police investigations and the Sue Gray report, and one or two of the other issues that have come up – I was outspoken myself in regard to the Owen Paterson business.

“So, there has been a lot of public disquiet about standards over the last six months.

“It’s one of those things that comes up from time to time and it’s really important to reassure people that we want to continue to maintain decent standards in this country.”

He continued:

“In terms of public confidence, I think independent investigation of breaches is critical.

“And that’s why we recommended both that there should be independent right to initiate investigations and also that, you know, when it’s a very minor breach, it might be more sensible to say, well, you don’t have to resign but there are other penalties.

“Our concern is that the Government chose to accept the range of penalties but did not accept fully the recommendation for independent investigation and determination of the facts.”

And he said it is up to Lord Geidt to decide his next move after Johnson insisted his police fine over a Covid rule-busting birthday bash did not constitute a breach of the ministerial code (because he had rewritten the Code to ensure that it did not).

The standards watchdog chief told the Today programme:

“He’s made his position very clear, that he felt in his report that was published this week that it was important that the Prime Minister should recognise that the partygate allegations and the outcome of that do have implications for the application of the ministerial code.

“Of course, the Prime Minister has subsequently written to him explaining why he believed that he didn’t breach the ministerial code in that regard.

“So, obviously, Lord Geidt will be giving consideration to what has been said. But obviously that’s a decision for him, to make up his mind on where he goes with this next.”

It seems Lord Evans is suggesting his fellow peer should protest the prime minister’s conduct in some way.

And why not? One does not prove oneself innocent of rule-breaking by re-writing the rules – nor does one demonstrate one’s own high ethical standards by refusing to allow independent investigation of one’s behaviour.

Source: Public need reassurance on Government standards, says ex-MI5 chief

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