(Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

The toothless lord

Lord Geidt has not started well as the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests

Lord Geidt served the Royal Family for many years. As a courtier, the virtues most required and prized would be discretion, loyalty and not rocking the boat. These are not necessarily the qualifications most obviously required for the role of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. Yet Lord Geidt came out top in whatever process was run for this important post. This was of course to replace Sir Alex Allan who resigned because his advice on Priti Patel was completely ignored by the rule-breaker-in-chief who lives at Number 10. Perhaps Lord Geidt was the only person considered. 

I say “whatever the process was” because a freedom of information request elicited the extraordinary reply from the Cabinet Office that the process of appointment ran from November 2020 to April 2021. There was not a single document generated in the Cabinet Office, not even any scrap paper on which some notes were written. Not a good look.

But you may say this does not matter because Lord Geidt would have demonstrated an independence from Downing Street in his first adjudications, not least to prove the sceptics (and cynics) wrong. Not quite. Even the Johnson supporting Daily Mail weighed in with a classic headline about the Prime Minister and his wallpaper; “Pasted but not Hung”. 

The Ministerial Code is clear that each Minister must “decide whether and what action is needed to avoid a conflict or perception of a conflict…” One might have thought that the Prime Minister should set an example to others in this.

One of the main problems with the Ministerial Code is that the sanctions it provides are all or nothing

As for the Prime Minister, it has been widely reported in the media that a trust was going to be established to fund rebuilding work of Number 10 and 11 until legal advice raised doubts about this. Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row who had been slated as the Chair of such a trust then very generously stepped into the breach. At paragraph 25 of his report, Lord Geidt declares that his fellow peer had according to “the record”, “pursued this task with energy and due regard for propriety throughout”. No light is let in on what is “the record” nor do we know whether his Lordship pressed Lord Brownlow on whether as a business person he might expect even tiny favours in return, so there is a hint of a conflict of interest.

But wait; there are some villains revealed in this piece. You have guessed it, they are those Cabinet Office officials who apparently did not advise the Prime Minister that if he was accepting large sums of money from private donors this might lead to perceptions of a conflict. This assumes of course that an experienced politician (some thirty years in the business) would need any such advice.

Apparently so; paragraph 28 says “the Prime Minister…confirms that he knew nothing about such payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021”. Gosh; did he not think to ask who was paying for the wallpaper going up? Yet Lord Geidt only says that the Prime Minister was “unwise”. What a let off. Lord Geidt goes only as far as saying “a Prime Minister might reasonably be expected to be curious about the arrangements…” but concludes that he was “ill served” by officials. One may ask what example this sets to those lower down the tree. And the Prime Minister has some form on this. After all he did not see any problem in accepting hospitality from some well wisher for his holiday in Mustique.

Perhaps the search for an Independent Advisor should have been more rigorous or perhaps independence was not mentioned as a criterion applied to this post if indeed there was any advertisement. The PM wanted a courtier; come to think of it, the Cabinet are also chosen for blind loyalty and are courtiers in all but name.

More fundamental reform is required. One of the main problems with the Ministerial Code is that the menu of sanctions which it provides is an all or nothing. There are “offences” under the code that should not be resignation-worthy – such as failing to inform No 10 about making a speech but there is no other obvious sanction. The sanctions should be graduated as in the normal employment sphere, ranging from informal to formal censure, then dismissal.

There should be a more independent and transparent process for determining whether the code has been broken

The code makes the Prime Minister prosecutor, judge and jury, albeit advised by the Independent Adviser, if there is one. This can be contrasted with the position in the other nations of the UK. In Scotland, an independent panel has existed to investigate breaches of the code since 2008. The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, first referred herself to an independent investigation on whether she broke the ministerial code during the Scottish government’s investigation of accusations of harassment against her predecessor Alex Salmond. In January 2021, this was widened to investigate accusations that she misled the Scottish Parliament. A Scottish QC conducted the investigation and decided that Ms Sturgeon had not broken the Code.

Under the Northern Ireland Ministerial Code, all complaints about alleged breaches are investigated by the Panel for Ministerial Standards and their findings are published. The panel however does not possess powers to reprimand or sanction ministers. The Welsh code provides that the first minister can refer alleged breaches to an independent adviser to investigate, “unless he is satisfied that the complaints can be responded to more immediately or routinely”.

The argument which is always used against an independent Panel for the UK is that this detracts from the power of the Prime Minister. It is said that generally the Prime Minister has to be the person to decide who is or is not a minister. But where there is serious evidence that the minister has committed serious misconduct, it becomes a public responsibility and there should be a more independent and transparent process for determining whether the code has been broken and a culture of following advice.

The investigation team should have the right to summon documents as would a court and the Ministerial Code should provide a menu of sanctions beyond the need to resign. He should operate more like the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner who possesses an independent power to investigate. The whole process should be placed under the general superintendence of a revamped Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The present system cries out for reform.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover