The failure to properly investigate allegations against ministers risks damaging public confidence, Boris Johnson’s former independent adviser on the ministerial code has warned.
Sir Alex Allan said there was now a case for giving the adviser greater powers to initiate their own inquiries into complaints against members of the government.
Sir Alex quit the post last year after Johnson overruled his finding that home secretary Priti Patel had bullied civil servants in breach of the ministerial code.
Appearing before the Committee on Standards in Public Life, he 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.
Sir Alex – who was not asked about specific cases – said that 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.
“I think 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.”
Sir Alex was backed by his predecessor as the independent adviser, Sir Philip Mawer.
“There is always a temptation for new administrations or prime ministers who are particularly strong in their position to think that ‘What I say goes’,” Sir Philip told the committee.
“It is a temptation in the way of all prime ministers and one that is best resisted.”
Sir Alex recalled how – as a backbench MP – Patel had been on a Commons committee in 2012 when she had pressed him on whether he could challenge the prime minister if he saw anything “untoward”.
He noted that the committee’s final report had been “very critical” over his ability to act independently.