Angela Rayner has acknowledged that Labour’s proposed overhaul of the standards system would still involve “a role for the prime minister” of the day but promised greater powers for an independent ethics watchdog.
The party’s deputy leader accepted that the process would not be entirely separate from politics but said improved transparency under the plans would ensure action is taken against rule-breaking.
Labour has pledged to create a new Ethics and Integrity Commission if it wins the next election, which could push for tougher sanctions – including fines – against those who breach the Ministerial Code.
It would have the power to launch investigations and determine where rules have been broken, replacing the existing Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) which is often criticised as toothless.
But, at an Institute for Government event on Thursday, Ms Rayner was pressed on whether the process would still give the prime minister the final say on whether to accept the watchdog’s recommendations on sanctions.
“Yes, there will still be a role for the prime minister, but because they won’t have a veto on starting an investigation and then the recommendations again… the prime minister at the moment appoints his adviser who does the investigations,” she said.
“It will be done through the independent Ethics and Integrity Commission and then those recommendations will come to Parliament.”
Ms Rayner said that, by thrusting the process further into the public domain, the prime minister of the day would find it “impossible” not to take the appropriate action.
The deputy leader attacked “Tory sleaze” in her speech renewing the case for a strengthened standards system, pointing to Boris Johnson as an example of a leader who put public standards “through the shredder”.
But she said the former prime minister is “not just one bad apple” and that breaches happen on both sides of Parliament.
She added: “The sense that Britain is becoming a corrupt country is deeply damaging to our international standing, the health of our democracy and the success of our economy.”
Pressed on when Labour’s new ethics watchdog would be established should the party win the next general election, Ms Rayner refused to commit to a deadline of the first 100 days in government.
“I am absolutely determined to get this one right and then implement it as quickly as possible,” she said.
The proposals for a new watchdog, which were first announced by the party in 2021, also include a ban on former ministers lobbying or carrying out paid work relating to their old roles for at least five years.
Labour would carry out a consultation, including the Committee on Standards in Public Life and existing public standards regulators, on next steps for the new watchdog’s creation, the party said.
It comes after a series of standards rows that have rocked Rishi Sunak’s Government in recent months, with ministers Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi and Dominic Raab all leaving the Cabinet over accusations that their conduct fell short.
The Prime Minister had promised to lead with “integrity, professionalism and accountability”, and, after entering office, appointed as his independent adviser Sir Laurie Magnus, who oversaw the investigation that led to Mr Zahawi’s departure.
But Ms Rayner said that advisory role would also be subsumed into the new watchdog, which would “put an end to the current situation in which the prime minister is the judge and jury on every case of ministerial misconduct”.
A Conservative Party spokesman said: “Labour want to outsource ethics to a body of unelected bureaucrats chosen by Keir Starmer, instead of trusting Parliament to hold ministers to account.
“It’s unsurprising to see that Angela Rayner doesn’t trust the leader of her own party to oversee ethics in Whitehall.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub