Boris Johnson’s former anti-corruption czar, who resigned last week, has called for urgent reform of normalization rules on lobbying, as well as greater scope for the independent adviser to hold the government to account. Prime Minister.
John Penrose, Tory MP and former minister, said it was hugely important for democracy to address issues with the UK standards regime affecting ministers, MPs, advisers and civil servants.
In particular, he called for tougher anti-lobbying rules, as recommended in a report by Nigel Boardman on the Greensill scandal and the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL).
Johnson’s anti-corruption champion since 2017, Penrose stepped down from his role last Monday after taking issue with Johnson’s perceived failure to respond to the Sue Gray report’s finding that he showed a lack of party leadership. breaking the lock in No 10 and concluding that it appeared to be a violation of the code.
Johnson’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, Lord Geidt, had said he felt unable to offer his opinion on whether Johnson had breached the code, as he might have felt compelled to resign if his advice failed. had not been followed. This would have placed the code in a “ridiculous” position, he claimed.
Speaking afterwards, Penrose said he believed the government’s most recent changes to the adviser’s role, allowing him to recommend an investigation, were “much stronger than before and I think in practical, pragmatic British terms, we should give it a chance to work.” .
However, he said there were “new issues that have only come to light in the past two days” surrounding the adviser feeling unable to judge whether the prime minister broke the rules.
Penrose suggested the adviser should not have to resign if his advice was not followed, in the same way that Sir Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, should not step down if politicians adopted a point different from him.
But he said: “The adviser should be expected to advise whether or not a prime minister has breached the ministerial code, as he already does for any other government minister. At the moment the Prime Minister has an exception, and that means there is no public notice for Parliament and everyone else to see, which is not fair at all.
On wider changes to the lobbying standards regime, Penrose said ministers would have to sign legally binding declarations that they would not lobby the government for specified periods after leaving office – making advice mandatory given by the Advisory Committee on Professional Appointments (Acoba) .
“Acoba is not fully legally binding at this time, and it should be. So what Boardman suggested is that public service contracts should make Acoba decisions binding and, because ministers are not technically employees, the equivalent for them is that they sign a legal document that says: ‘I will be bound by the decisions of Acoba.’ It’s a fun and easy way to give Acoba the teeth and claws he needs,” he said.
Second, Penrose called for the publication of more detailed, transparent and easily searchable records of meetings between companies or lobbyists and members of government. He said not only ministers, but also political advisers and senior civil servants should be subject to such scrutiny.
“These are cheap and easy steps that don’t require new legislation, and it would be a huge boost to transparency and trust in our institutions,” he said.
Urging the government to respond to the Boardman report, which was released mid-last year, as well as to respond to more recommendations from the CSPL, Penrose added: “Resolving these issues is probably more important now than it was. has been for years, not just for our current government, but for our entire democracy.
“The ministers have promised to respond to these reports, so let’s go. This is an opportunity to do the right thing and “do well by doing good”, and it won’t cost the taxpayer a dime either.
Parliament has been hit by numerous lobbying scandals in recent years, including the Greensill scandal, which involved former Prime Minister David Cameron pressuring former colleagues by text message on behalf of his employer, a financial firm that has since collapsed.
The government has also been embroiled in a controversy over Owen Paterson, a former Tory minister, who was found to have lobbied government ministers on behalf of two companies. No 10 attempted to orchestrate Paterson’s suspension from the House of Commons, which backfired and led to Paterson’s resignation and the loss of his secure seat in a by-election.