The cabinet secretary has defended the prime minister’s role as the ultimate arbitrator of the ministerial code after critics argued the current system means Boris Johnson is able to “mark his own homework”.
It comes as the prime minister’s ministerial standards adviser, Lord Geidt, is in the process of undertaking an investigation into how renovations on 11 Downing Street, where Johnson lives with his fiancee Carrie Symonds, were funded.
The cost of the work was reportedly £200,000.
Opposition MPs have raised concerns that Lord Geidt, who was appointed last month to the vacant post, is not sufficiently independent because Johnson remains the “ultimate arbiter” of the ministerial code, so he would be “judge and jury” in concluding whether he had committed any wrongdoing through the financing of the upgrades.
Cabinet secretary Simon Case, who is also reviewing the Downing Street refurbishment, along with the Electoral Commission, defended the situation in front of peers.
The head of the Civil Service argued that Britain’s unwritten constitution set out that “hiring and firing” powers in Government must rest with the prime minister, even in situations where that might appear “odd”.
Case, when put to him that the current set-up allowed the Conservative Party leader to “mark his own homework”, told the Lords Constitution Committee: “The role of ministers derives from a fundamental constitutional principle which is that ministers are appointed by the sovereign on the advice of the prime minister by the use of prerogative powers.
“So while we have now the distinguished Lord Geidt in the role of independent adviser – other people can get involved in the role of adviser, as the title makes clear – but under our constitutional settlement, the decision, the hiring and firing of ministers is an act by the sovereign on the advice of the prime minister.
“That is just one of our basic constitutional principles and sometimes people find that odd but that’s just the basics of our constitutional settlement.”
The prime minister appointed Lord Geidt last month after Sir Alex Allan resigned from the advisory position in November over Johnson’s decision to stand by home secretary Priti Patel, despite an investigation finding her conduct towards staff “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying”.
Labour has called for Patel to once again be investigated for an alleged “flagrant breach” of the ministerial code by lobbying a fellow minister in an attempt to secure a healthcare firm access to a personal protective equipment (PPE) deal said to be worth £20 million.
The party has urged Case to investigate the Home Secretary over efforts to sway the award of a contract after being approached by a Tory activist.
Case has told peers that there were “sanctions” available should ministers be found to have breached the code.
“The sanctions are set out in the ministerial code or the Civil Service code,” he told the committee.
“They are set out, there are sanctions. For example, in the ministerial code, it was very clear the ultimate arbiter of behaviour under the ministerial code is the prime minister. That is how things operate.
“Of course first and foremost it is for ministers themselves to uphold and explain their behaviour under the code, but those sanctions are there.”