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For Boris Johnson, following advice on ethics is the exception not the rule

The appointment of billionaire Peter Cruddas to the House of Lords was against the advice of the watchdog that vets potential peers. It is the latest example of Boris Johnson acting against the advice of ethical regulators and, says Hannah White, underlines the need to strengthen their powers

The job of the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) is to vet prospective nominees for peerages. In December 2020 it concluded that – of a list of 16 proposed political peerages (seven Conservative, five Labour and four crossbench) – there was one it could not support. This was the enoblement of Peter Cruddas, the controversial former Conservative party co-treasurer. But Boris Johnson ignored HOLAC’S advice and went ahead with the appointment, stating that he had “considered the Commission’s advice and wider factors and concluded that, exceptionally, the nomination should proceed.” Three days after he took his seat, Cruddas donated £500,000 to the Conservative party. News of Cruddas’s latest donation has prompted suspicion that the ‘wider factors’ the prime minister considered related primarily to the finances of the Conservative party.

Cruddas’s appointment to the Lords raises the question – what is the point of having bodies to advise ministers on how best to maintain ethical standards if their advice is simply ignored? Obviously advisory bodies are just that – advisory – and it is for ministers to exercise their judgment in making decisions and to face the consequences of doing so. But the frequency with which Boris Johnson has decided to act contrary to the advice of advisory bodies strengthens the case for giving them actual enforcement powers. 

Johnson has made a habit of bending rules and ignoring advice

Sir Alex Allan resigned from his role as Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests after Boris Johnson disregarded his conclusion that the home secretary Priti Patel had breached the ministerial code by acting in a way that “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying.” It was subsequently reported that another factor in Sir Alex’s resignation was the prime minister’s decision not to request an inquiry in the controversy surrounding housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s backing for a housing development by another Conservative party donor – billionaire Richard Desmond.

When appointing Sir Alex’s replacement, Lord Geidt, in April 2021, Johnson chose to ignore the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) that the terms of reference of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests should be changed to allow the Adviser to initiate his own investigations. Lord Geidt told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that he will be able to recommend further changes to his remit – time will tell whether he will be independent-minded enough to do so. His first conclusions have not demonstrated much appetite for criticism – after looking into who had funded the refurbishment of the prime minister’s Downing Street flat he concluded that Boris Johnson had merely acted "unwisely" by not being more "rigorous" and “curious” about the source of what was a very significant personal contribution to his benefit. Lord Geidt reserved his harshest criticism, in fact, for the managerial rigour of civil servants rather than the prime minister’s judgement and oversight.

Similarly to Lord Geidt, the House of Commons Committee on Standards has criticised Johnson for failing to pay enough attention to ethical codes – rebuking him in 2019 for displaying “an over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the House” for repeatedly failing to declare his financial interests in a timely fashion. In 2018 he was censured by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) for failing to seek its approval for resuming his Telegraph column after stepping down as foreign secretary. ACOBA declined to give retrospective approval for the appointment.

More broadly, the Johnson government has been criticised for attempting to skew the rules designed to ensure openness and fairness in competitions for public appointments. The Public Appointments Commissioner – Peter Riddell – wrote to CSPL in November 2020 expressing concern about attempts by ministers to appoint individuals with clear party affiliations as ‘independent’ panel members, to pack selection panels with allies and to make unregulated appointments outwith the usual rules. Riddell’s assertion that “some at the centre of government want not only to have the final say but to tilt the competition system in their favour to appoint their allies” suggests that public appointments are a further area in which Johnson’s government is trying to circumvent ethical rules.

Ethical regulation underpins government

The purpose of ethical regulation is to ensure that decisions in government are made in a transparent and objective way for the good of the country, not the benefit of an individual or a minority. Equally important is that the public should have confidence that this is the case. By casually bending or breaking the rules and ignoring the advice of ethical regulators, the prime minister risks hollowing out the credibility of these institutions. As the Institute for Government has recently argued, the prime minister sets the tone for the whole government – he needs to demonstrate leadership through his actions, not simply talk about the importance of standards.    

By making an appointment to the House of Lords which could be perceived as a reward for financial support to his party, the prime minister joins many of his predecessors – including Tony Blair –in undermining the credibility of parliament. HOLAC has no powers to prevent such appointments. While such appointments may deliver short-term political benefits for a prime minister, and potentially bolster his party’s funds, they will also do long-term damage to the functioning of public life in the UK.

The actions of the current government, and its predecessors, have demonstrated that the UK’s advisory approach to maintaining ethical standards in public life is failing. Reliance on ‘restraint and good sense’ is not enough to ensure advice is followed. The government should give ethical regulators the powers to initiate investigations, publish their findings, enforce their judgments and sanction breaches to allow them to fulfil their mandate of maintaining the standards we expect of people in public life.     

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