Suella Braverman’s return as home secretary just six days after resigning for leaking secret documents has set a “dangerous precedent” that undermines confidence in the integrity of the government, a cross-party parliamentary report has found.
Rishi Sunak should not have been able to “wipe the slate clean” over a breach of ministerial standards that merited a “significant” period out of office, said the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).
The committee said that the new ethics adviser whom the prime minister has promised to appoint should not be blocked from investigating Ms Braverman’s actions and recommending further sanctions.
It denounced as “unsatisfactory” Mr Sunak’s position that the new adviser cannot investigate historic breaches that occurred under previous prime ministers.
The decision would undermine the adviser’s independence, throwing into question the power to initiate investigations granted to Lord Geidt as a condition of him taking the post under Boris Johnson, said the committee.
And it would mean that it would be impossible to complete the inquiry into alleged racist comments towards minister Nus Ghani, which was suspended after Lord Geidt became the second of Johnson’s ethics advisers to quit in June.
With no replacement for Geidt named almost six months after he stood down, the committee called for legislation to make it a legal duty for the PM to appoint an ethics adviser and to confirm the official’s independence to launch inquiries, including into historic allegations.
And they called for the creation of legal sanctions against ministers and senior civil servants who breach rules by exploiting the “revolving door” from Whitehall to lucrative jobs in the private sector.
The report also demanded more clarity from government on the punishments that ministers can expect for different breaches of the ministerial code of conduct, after Mr Johnson controversially ended the convention that all transgressions should result in resignation.
“If the introduction of graduated sanctions to the ministerial code is to be effective, it cannot be used as a means to avoid significant sanction for serious breaches,” said the committee.
Without a clear explanation of how severely different breaches would be punished, “the suspicion is that the only determinant of the level of sanction will be political expediency”, they said.
And they warned: “The reappointment of the home secretary sets a dangerous precedent.
“The leaking of restricted material is worthy of significant sanction under the new graduated sanctions regime introduced in May, including resignation and a significant period out of office.
“A subsequent change in prime minister should not wipe the slate clean and allow for a rehabilitation and a return to ministerial office in a shorter timeframe.
“To allow this to take place does not inspire confidence in the integrity of government nor offer much incentive to proper conduct in future.”
The report was prompted by concerns about standards in the wake of David Cameron’s involvement with the failed Greensill financial services company, Mr Johnson’s handling of Partygate and the resignation of two ethics advisers.
PACAC’s Conservative chair William Wragg said: “It is incumbent on the government to ensure a robust and effective system for upholding standards in public life is put in place, with proper sanctions for those who break the rules.
“Our inquiry has found that, although we have a sophisticated landscape of ethics watchdogs in the UK to safeguard standards in public life, they lack the power to enforce the rules.
“The prime minister is rightly the ultimate arbiter of the rules in our system. We urge him to show leadership and give legal status to all the ethics watchdogs. This will provide a better deterrent for those who may be tempted to act improperly, and further safeguard the integrity of our public life.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “The buck stops with the prime minister, but despite all the promises of integrity Rishi Sunak clearly has no plan to restore standards in public life after years of sleaze and scandal.
“Instead of appointing a genuinely independent ethics watchdog with real teeth, he’s showing every sign of seeking to preserve the rotten ethics regime of his disgraced predecessors.”