The failure to properly investigate allegations against ministers risks damaging public confidence, Boris Johnson’s former independent adviser on the ministerial code has said.
Sir Alex Allan said there was now a case for giving his successors greater powers to initiate their own inquiries into complaints against members of the government.
His comments come after criticisms of the ministerial code system, which can only initiate an inquiry on the say-so of the prime minister.
Johnson has ignored demands for inquiries into several cabinet ministers. He refused to launch an inquiry into the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, who acted unlawfully by granting planning permission for a £1bn property scheme two weeks before the developer Richard Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservatives; the planning decision saved the developer £45m.
Allan quit the post last year after Johnson overruled his finding that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had bullied civil servants in breach of the ministerial code.
Appearing before the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Allan acknowledged that ultimately it was for a prime minister to decide who they wanted in their government. However, he said he believed there was now a case for introducing a “greater element of independence” into the investigation of complaints.
Allan – who was not asked about specific cases – said currently the adviser could only mount an inquiry if they were asked to do so by the prime minister.
“I think actually there is a case now for giving the independent adviser the role of initiating investigations,” he said. “The issue really now is whether the process is actually damaging to the perception of whether ministers do or don’t adhere to the code.
“There have been incidents which prima facie appear to involve a breach of the code but which haven’t been referred to the independent adviser. It is perfectly possible that the allegations weren’t supported by the facts. But the way the allegations have been dismissed I think has raised questions about the operation of the system and about the confidence that the public can have in the impact and effectiveness of the code.
“To that extent, I do see a case for introducing a greater element of independence. It would also clear up the anomaly where there were allegations against the prime minister, him or herself, which is something we have just seen in Scotland.”
He added: “If the prime minister feels the circumstances don’t warrant a ministerial resignation he may nonetheless feel under pressure to say what happened wasn’t a breach of the code because he doesn’t think the minister needs to resign. I think it would help if there were a clear range of actions that could be taken following a breach.”
Allan was backed by Sir Philip Mawer, his predecessor as independent adviser. “There is always a temptation for new administrations or prime ministers who are particularly strong in their position to think, ‘What I say goes,’” Mawer told the committee.
“It is a temptation in the way of all prime ministers and one that is best resisted.”