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A watchdog chief has said people must be reassured of “decent standards” in Government, as a senior Cabinet minister told Tory MPs pushing for the Prime Minister to resign to “forget it”.
Lord Evans of Weardale, chairman of the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, said “you’ve got to raise questions” in light of recent events, including the partygate scandal, with “a lot of public disquiet about standards over the last six months”.
He also reiterated the committee’s view that it is “critical” Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser, Lord Geidt, should be free to launch his own inquiries into possible breaches of ministerial rules.
It comes as an increasing number of Tory MPs have publicly urged the Prime Minister to stand down – although not all have revealed whether they have submitted letters to the 1922 Committee calling for a confidence vote to decide his future.
Lord Evans, a former head of MI5, was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if he believes proper standards are being upheld in Government in the round.
He responded: “I think you’ve got to raise questions when you see the outcome of the police investigations and the Sue Gray report, and one or two of the other issues that have come up – I was outspoken myself in regard to the Owen Paterson business.
“So, there has been a lot of public disquiet about standards over the last six months.
“It’s one of those things that comes up from time to time and it’s really important to reassure people that we want to continue to maintain decent standards in this country.”
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister came under criticism from the standards watchdog after he refused to give his adviser on the rules for ministers the freedom to launch his own inquiries into potential breaches.
Mr Johnson had said he was putting in place an “enhanced process” for Lord Geidt to initiate his own investigations, but that he would still need the Prime Minister’s consent before proceeding.
In a letter to Cabinet Office minister Lord True, Lord Evans said the change, while an improvement on the previous position, meant the adviser was still not “sufficiently independent”.
In a statement last week, the Government said the code was being updated, making clear that ministers will not necessarily have to resign for more minor violations.
Instead the Prime Minister will have the option of imposing a lesser sanction such as “some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period”.
Speaking on Thursday, Lord Evans said: “In terms of public confidence, I think independent investigation of breaches is critical.
“And that’s why we recommended both that there should be independent right to initiate investigations and also that, you know, when it’s a very minor breach, it might be more sensible to say, well, you don’t have to resign but there are other penalties.
“Our concern is that the Government chose to accept the range of penalties but did not accept fully the recommendation for independent investigation and determination of the facts.”
Lord Evans also said it is up to Lord Geidt to decide his next move after the Prime Minister insisted his police fine over a Covid rule-busting birthday bash did not constitute a breach of the ministerial code.
The standards watchdog chief told the Today programme: “He’s made his position very clear, that he felt in his report that was published this week that it was important that the Prime Minister should recognise that the partygate allegations and the outcome of that do have implications for the application of the ministerial code.
“Of course, the Prime Minister has subsequently written to him explaining why he believed that he didn’t breach the ministerial code in that regard.
“So, obviously, Lord Geidt will be giving consideration to what has been said. But obviously that’s a decision for him, to make up his mind on where he goes with this next.”
Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel said writing letters of no confidence in Mr Johnson was a “sideshow” and the party should be focused on “real challenges that we have to find solutions to”.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, she said: “This isn’t about a parade (of leadership candidates) or a contest of letters. We need to concentrate on doing our jobs.
“Look at what is going on in the world right now, look at the challenges that we face domestically. We can’t ignore those.
“Our job is to deliver on the people’s priorities. They won’t thank the Conservative Party for talking about itself at a time when people have anxieties, concerns, apprehensions.”