Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of LancasterSpeech to the Institute for Government 29 November 2021
Thank you all for being here today and a particular thanks to the Institute for Government for hosting us today. Never has your role as an independent think tank, working in the public interest, been more vital.
The IfG stands for impartiality and speaking truth to power, ideas that underpin much of what I have to say today.
Twenty four years ago a Labour opposition exposed the sleaze engulfing the Conservative Party, and Labour governments legislated to clean it up:
- The Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act.
- The Electoral Commission.
- A Ministerial Code.
- Public registers of donations to political parties.
- The Freedom of Information Act.
Transparency was the key and sunlight the best disinfectant.
The last Labour government did not hesitate to act decisively to clean up British public life. And the next Labour government will act to stamp out the corruption that Boris Johnson and his government have polluted our democracy with.
The truth is nobody could have predicted the corruption and shamelessness of Boris Johnson.
The current system only works when there is respect for the rules and there are consequences for breaking them.
Today – because of this Prime Minister – there is no respect for the rules and no consequences for breaking them. As on so many issues, his actions in office stand in stark and sad contrast to his words on taking office. In his own foreword to the Ministerial Code, the Prime Minister wrote that to win back the trust of the British people:
“We must uphold the very highest standards of propriety.”
“There must be no bullying and no harassment”.
Yet when his first independent adviser on ministerial interests found his Home Secretary broke that code by bullying officials, it was the adviser who left government. And when an independent panel found one of his own MPs guilty of harassment, that government imposed a three line whip to keep him in Parliament.
The Prime Minister promised:
“No misuse of taxpayers’ money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest”.
He went on to give us the VIP lane for PPE contracts, the Randox lobbying scandal and the £3.5bn of taxpayers’ money lining the pockets of party donors and Ministers’ mates.
The Prime Minister said that:
“The precious principles of public life… Integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honoured at all times”.
You’ll all be glad to hear I won’t list every example of his breaking those principles, or none of you would get out of her before dinner time.
The current regime is no longer working precisely because we have a Prime Minister who is shameless in breaking the rules, and won’t enforce consequences on others who break them. Corruption – that is the word – is happening in plain sight and it is rife right through this Conservative government.
That is why we must now urgently rebuild public trust in politics and government. It is why we must go further than the last Labour government and stamp out the corruption that has engulfed Boris Johnson’s government and his party thanks to his own actions and inaction:
- No more Members of Parliament paid to lobby their own government.
- No more Ministers breaking the rules and getting away with it.
- No more revolving door between ministerial office and lobbying jobs.
- No more corruption and waste of taxpayers’ money.
And that goes to the heart of why standards matter.
Because the people who are picking up the bill are the taxpayers whose money Ministers are wasting and abusing.
Families in my constituency and across the country have had £1,000 taken out of their pockets by this government. Care workers, nurses, delivery drivers, supermarket workers. The heroes who got us through the pandemic.
And what thanks do they get in return? Conservative MPs lining their pockets with £1,000 an hour and Conservative Ministers giving billions to their mates.
When there is so obviously one rule for the Prime Minister and his Ministers and another for everyone else, that corrodes trust in our democracy.
People lose faith in government as a force for good in their lives.
Because if anybody else breaks the rules at work or breaks the law then they will face the consequences.
The veteran who loses their Universal Credit because the bus was late. The sole trader who falls foul of HRMC for losing a receipt. It’s one rule for the Prime Minister and another for everyone else.
Our democracy cannot hinge on gentlemen’s agreements, it needs independent and robust protection.
So today I am setting out how a Labour government will clean up our politics and restore that trust. We will start by setting tougher rules. We will ensure tougher enforcement of those rules, independently of political control. And we will protect taxpayers’ money against the abuses we have seen from this government.
Two weeks ago we laid out our five point plan to clean up our politics and stamp our Conservative corruption. Today I will go further, setting out how our Independent Integrity and Ethics Commission will stamp out corruption in government, strengthen the rules and ensure they are enforced.
The current system is broken. The Committee on Standards in Public Life found that they are too easily ignored or disregarded and the systems that “are supposed to uphold the rules are not working well”.
That regulation of the Ministerial Code and of Ministers after they leave office “falls below what is necessary to ensure effective regulation and maintain public credibility”.
Standards are currently governed by an alphabet soup of different committees, advisers, rules and codes of conducts.
Ministers and former ministers can hide behind the loopholes, the disjointed processes and the lack of enforcement. And why is this the case? Because the rot starts at the top.
Boris Johnson has lived his entire life bending and breaking rules.
He has been investigated for breaking the rules in every office he has ever been elected to.
He broke the parliamentary rules on his outside financial interests twice… So he tried to replace the independent Commissioner for Standards.
The Electoral Commission investigated the dodgy deals that paid for his flat… So he is trying to give Ministers control of the Electoral Commission.
His Ministers, MPs and advisers know that if they break the rules they will get away with it… Because they are just following his example.
Boris Johnson has proved that rules are only as good as the mechanisms that are there to enforce them.
Under this Prime Minister rules are broken but there is no punishment or sanction, or he just changes the rules after the fact.
The Prime Minister has shown that he will only ever act in his own self-interest. Never in the public interest. He’s not just incapable but unwilling to do what is needed to tackle corruption and improve standards.
The country now faces a choice. Boris Johnson or a Labour government that will stamp out Conservative corruption and restore trust in public office.
The rules are only as robust as the processes that uphold them. We need to strengthen the rules – but we need to strengthen those processes too.
Take the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. A vital role. Tasked with upholding standards in government, enforcing the Ministerial Code and investigating cases where Ministers break the rules. But the role of the Independent Adviser is toothless if the Prime Minister won’t act. And that suits Boris Johnson. The role of Independent Adviser is not independent. They are not allowed to be independent – investigations can only happen when the Prime Minister says so.
And the Independent Advisor’s advice to Boris Johnson is not worth the paper it’s written on because he can simply ignore it, and does – as when the Home Secretary broke the Ministerial Code.
Look at the example of the Prime Minister’s flat. In no other walk of life would the person under investigation be judge, jury and in charge of the person investigating. And surprise surprise the report concluded that the Prime Minister didn’t even know that the refurbishment was happening… In his own flat.
When a Minister breaks the Ministerial Code, it is the Prime Minister who decides whether to investigate them and what sanctions they should face.
Complaints are answered with explanations that the Prime Minister decided that there shouldn’t be an investigation… Case closed.
Or that where there has been wrongdoing, no sanction is needed. Case closed again.
Labour’s independent Integrity and Ethics Commission will replace this broken system. The Independent Integrity and Ethics Commission will have the power to open investigations into Ministers’ conduct… Without the approval of the Prime Minister. The Commission will have the power to access any evidence they need, and there will be clear sanctions for breaches of the Code so the Prime Minister is no longer judge and jury over the conduct of Ministers.
And the Ministerial Code itself requires reform.
Since I became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster myself and Lord Geidt have become firm pen pals. It feels like barely a day goes by without me asking him to investigate a Minister’s misconduct. I know the Ministerial Code like the back of my hand… And I know that it needs updating and strengthening.
Take the case of the former Health Secretary. When Matt Hancock broke the Ministerial Code a new phrase of “technical breach” was created out of thin air to get him off the hook. The grey areas give Ministers leeway to break the rules and make it harder to enforce the rules.
So one of the first things the Integrity and Ethics Commission will do is consult on the changes that are required to update the Ministerial Code so it is fit for purpose.
We also need to overhaul the rules that apply to former Ministers after they leave office.
There can be no stronger evidence that the rules are broken than the case of David Cameron. If the former Prime Minister can text everyone in his phonebook to help his dodgy mate Lex Greensill get access to taxpayers’ money, try to help himself to a $200 million bonus and then rely on a defence that everything he did was within the rules…
Then it is clear that the rules themselves are broken, and so is the system that is supposed to uphold the rules.
The Committee on Business Appointments – ACOBA – was already a toothless watchdog but under this government it’s been muzzled and neutered. Forget the revolving door… We have a system where the door is held wide open for former Ministers who want to line their pockets as soon as they leave office. The system is pointless because the rules are too weak and there is no enforcement of them. The regulator says that former Ministers cannot make use of any information or contacts they made when they were in office… But what else are companies paying them for?
Let’s face it… why else is Chris Grayling worth £100,000 a year? Someone will employ Gavin Williamson next.
The Committee can’t even enforce its own rulings or take action when the rules are broken. When the Committee said that the former Chancellor Philip Hammond broke lobbying rules the Chair wrote to the Minister who is responsible for enforcing the rules. But the government ignored the Committee for 3 months, until I asked a parliamentary question… And then they finally replied – to agree that the rules were broken… but they won’t be taking any action to enforce the rules.
So Labour will ban former Ministers from lobbying for at least five years after they leave office.
No ifs, no buts. No letters after a role has already been accepted and no exceptions. A total ban. And consequences – including financial sanctions – if the rules are broken.
Whether it is Philip Hammond being paid by a banker who got a £7 million bonus in the Budget, Steve Brine working for a healthcare company that got Covid contracts or the former Attorney General providing legal advice for a tax haven in a corruption case against the government he used to be a Cabinet Minister in…
We will stop former Ministers profiting from public office, and we will close this revolving door for good. Public servants should serve the public without an eye on a cushy lobbying gig as soon as they leave.
So the Integrity and Ethics Commission will enforce the rules on Ministers after they leave office too.
Earlier this month I welcomed the latest report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I submitted my views to the Committee on behalf of the Labour Party and we welcome every recommendation. If we were in government we would implement every single one and in many cases actually go further. The Committee’s report provides a framework to improve standards in our public life.
The only problem with the Committee’s work is that the Prime Minister will ignore it… I’m still asking Ministers when they will implement recommendations from their 2018 report.
So the remit of the Committee on Standards in Public Life will be strengthened and brought into the Integrity and Ethics Commission. The Commission will be able conduct inquiries and advise the Prime Minister on standards across public life, just as the Committee does today, but with the power to ensure action is taken.
The changes that I have set out today will overhaul the broken system that has failed to stop the spread of corruption under this Prime Minister. And we will put the Independent Commission on a statutory footing enshrined in legislation.
Never again will a Prime Minister and his Ministers be able to break the rules with impunity because the rules are too weak, they aren’t enforced and it is the Prime Minister himself in charge of them.
Under a Labour government the rules will be strengthened, enforcement will be toughened up and power and control over the rules will be taken away from those the rules hold to account.
Boris Johnson’s corruption means that we must now urgently rebuild trust in our politics, in public office and in government as a force for good.
That means rebuilding the regime that is not working.
The British people deserve so much better than Boris Johnson’s corruption and failure.
It will be a Labour government that cleans up our politics.
And it will be a Labour government that makes our politics a force for good again.