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Rule-breaking former ministers should face legal action, say MPs in new report

2 December 2022

Former ministers and civil servants who break the rules regulating the ‘revolving door’ between Government and private sector jobs should face legal action, says the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in a new report. It recommends that the Business Appointment Rules, governing what employment ministers and senior officials can take up after leaving Government, are expanded and made legally enforceable to act as a “sufficient deterrent” for improper conduct.

The recommendation is amongst a range of measures MPs urge the Government to take to toughen the system regulating standards and ethical conduct in Government, in the wake of damaging events such as Greensill, Partygate and the high-profile resignations of two independent ethics advisers to the former Prime Minister.

The Committee also says the recent reappointment of the Home Secretary Suella Braverman by the Prime Minister sets a “dangerous precedent” for how breaches of the Ministerial Code are dealt with. The leaking of restricted material would be worthy of “significant sanction” under the new rules introduced by Boris Johnson in May this year. A new Prime Minister should not be able to simply “wipe the slate clean” when it comes to appointing ministers.

The Prime Minister has said a new ethics adviser, once appointed, will not be able to look at historic accusations of breaches of the Ministerial Code, such as the Home Secretary’s case. This appears to challenge the power of the adviser to initiate their own investigations into ministers, which was added to the role’s Terms of Reference under the Johnson Government, and suggests that the inquiry into allegations of racism towards Nusrat Ghani will not be concluded, which the Committee says is “unsatisfactory”.

MPs also criticise the Government’s “tick box” approach to parliamentary scrutiny of significant public appointments. MPs call for an increased role for Select Committees, including endorsing appointments for the Chairs of ethics watchdogs and requiring a minister to provide an explanation in a public hearing if they choose to ignore the advice of a recruitment panel.

The Committee argues that all Government ethics watchdogs should be enshrined in law, to clarify and regularise their roles, and concludes that they should remain distinct, rather than being combined into a single ethics regulator.

Chair's comment

Chair of PACAC, William Wragg MP, said:

“It is incumbent on the Government to ensure a robust and effective system for upholding standards in public life is put in place, with proper sanctions for those who break the rules.

“Our inquiry has found that although we have a sophisticated landscape of ethics watchdogs in the UK to safeguard standards in public life, they lack the power to enforce the rules.

“The Prime Minister is rightly the ultimate arbiter of the rules in our system. We urge him to show leadership and give legal status to all the ethics watchdogs. This will provide a better deterrent for those who may be tempted to act improperly, and further safeguard the integrity of our public life."

Key recommendations

Rules regulating the ‘revolving door’:

  • Government must provide update on making the Business Appointment Rules legally enforceable, and the sanctions which will apply. Government could pursue breaches of the rules through the courts.
  • Place the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) on statutory footing
  • Extend business appointment rules to a two-year ban on employment in sectors where ministers, SpAds and senior officials, have had "significant and direct" responsibility for policy, regulation, or the award of contracts rather than only with firms they have had a relationship with.

Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and Ministerial Code:

  • Primary legislation should be introduced to establish the Independent Adviser as a statutory position.
  • The new Independent Adviser should retain the power to initiate investigations acquired by the previous holder, and complete any legacy inquiries they inherit.
  • More clarity on the graduated sanctions for breaches of the Ministerial Code and when they would apply.

Public Appointments:

  • The Commissioner for Public Appointments should be placed on a statutory basis in an Act of Parliament at the earliest opportunity.
  • Ministers wishing to appoint a candidate deemed unappointable for a role should have to appear before the relevant Select Committee to explain their decision before the appointment is confirmed.
  • Chairs of ethics watchdogs should require the endorsement of the relevant Select Committee to be appointed.
  • Improve transparency of direct ministerial appointments to senior Government jobs by including them in a published register.

Further information

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