Allowing the health secretary to keep his job after committing a “minor” breach of the ministerial code could give “carte blanche” for further rule-breaking at the top of government, Labour has said.
A probe by Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial standards, found that Matt Hancock was guilty of a “technical” breach of the rules after failing to declare his sister’s company, which he holds shares in, had become an approved contractor for the NHS.
But the ministerial sleaze watchdog ruled the contravention of the code was “minor” and did not call for the cabinet minister to resign – a recommendation the prime minister agreed with.
But deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner has claimed the decision sets a “concerning precedent”.
Traditionally, a breach of the code has led to the resignation of ministers, although home secretary Priti Patel kept her job earlier this year after being found to have engaged in bullying behaviour towards staff by Lord Geidt’s predecessor, Sir Alex Allan.
Sir Alex resigned after Boris Johnson chose to back Patel following his investigation into her conduct.
Announcing she had written to Lord Geidt to query his findings, Rayner tweeted: “This sets a concerning precedent that the rules don’t apply equally, or indeed they don’t apply at all.
“I have asked Lord Geidt whether he agrees that this precedent of a cabinet minister being found by an independent investigation to have broken the ministerial code and then not resigning sends a very clear message that the rules don’t apply to cabinet ministers, with this case, therefore, damaging public trust in our politics, fundamentally weakening the ministerial code system and giving carte blanche to other ministers to break the ministerial code safe in the knowledge that they will not face sanctions.”
Hancock declared in the MPs’ register of interests in March this year that he owns 20% of shares in Topwood Limited, a firm owned by his sister and other close family members, which specialises in secure storage, shredding and scanning of documents.
The company, as first reported by the Health Service Journal (HSJ), won a place on a framework to provide services to the English NHS in 2019, as well as contracts with the NHS in Wales, after Hancock was appointed to his Cabinet brief in July 2018.
Lord Geidt, a former private secretary to the Queen who was appointed to his Downing Street role by Johnson, found in a much-delayed report on ministerial interests that Topwood’s approved contractor status could be seen to “represent a conflict of interest” that should have been declared.
In his 10-page report, he said: “I assess this earlier failure to declare the interest was as a result of his lack of knowledge and in no way deliberate, and therefore, in technical terms, a minor breach of the ministerial code.”
But senior opposition figure Rayner said it was “simply not believable or reasonable” that Hancock “didn’t know about this conflict of interest”.
In a lengthy post on the social media website, she said Lord Geidt had allowed Mr Hancock to use a “completely ridiculous excuse” to keep his position at the top of government.
“The implication of Lord Geidt’s justification, if applied to members of the public, is that people who own 20% stakes in companies don’t know what these companies actually do and people don’t know what companies owned by their sisters do or what their sisters do for a living,” she said.
“This saga has completely undermined ethics and standards in our public life.
“It has sent a clear message that the rules don’t apply, damages public trust in our politics and gives ministers licence to break the rules knowing they won’t face sanctions.”
The shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said she had asked Lord Geidt what sanction he thought appropriate to apply against Hancock and whether he had recommended any to the prime minister.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The independent, cross-party Committee on Standards in Public Life recommends that there should be a range of sanctions where the ministerial code has been breached and that the expectation that any breach of the code should lead to resignation is disproportionate.
“This is the first case considered under that approach.”