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Boris Johnson’s new ethics adviser faces no-confidence vote over university role

Exclusive: Academics call for Lord Geidt’s ‘immediate resignation’ from King’s College London, after openDemocracy revealed his work for arms company

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Martin Williams
17 May 2021, 12.39pm
The government's new ethics adviser, Lord Geidt, was last week grilled in Parliament about his work fro BAE Systems
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Parliament TV

The government’s new ethics adviser, Lord Geidt, is facing a vote of no confidence in his role as chairman of the governing council at King’s College London.

Academics at the university have put forward a vote demanding Geidt’s “immediate resignation”, after openDemocracy revealed that he had a paid position working at the arms company BAE Systems.

The company was accused in Parliament of acting “unethically” to sell weapons to “any murderous, brutal dictatorship, and use corruption to secure those sales”.

Members of the University and Colleges Union at King’s College will vote on the motion against Geidt on Wednesday.

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In an email sent by the union, a proposed motion said: “Lord Geidt is not fit to serve as the chair of the council... due to his work for BAE and BAE’s role as an arms supplier to the Saudi autocracy, and implication in alleged war crimes and human rights abuses in Yemen.”

It added that King’s College has committed to eradicating racism, which “includes stopping all collaboration with dictatorial and oppressive regimes around the world, such as Saudi Arabia”.

Lord Geidt has been chair of the council at King's College London since 2016, which is an unpaid role. He was appointed as Boris Johnson’s new ethics adviser last month and has been tasked with clearing up the scandal surrounding the Downing Street refurb.

But he has faced fierce criticism over his work for BAE Systems, which he was grilled about by the Public Accounts Committee in parliament last week. He has now stepped down from the role, but said he is “proud” to have worked for the arms company.

Grilling by MPs

Questioning Geidt on Thursday, Labour’s former shadow chancellor John McDonnell asked: “Do you find it ironic at all that you’ve been brought in to advise on propriety and ethics in government, when you’ve held a paid post with BAE Systems?

“This is a company which has plumbed the depths of unethical behaviour. It’s been convicted of defrauding the government in the US and paid [a] $500m fine in a plea bargain. It’s been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for use of corruption to sell arms… Last year the company was accused of war crimes. It’s supplied arms used by the Saudi regime to bomb civilians – and that was schools and hospitals – tens of thousands killed.”

McDonnell added: “How can anyone have confidence in you enforcing ethical behaviour when you’ve been associated with an unethical arms dealer that’s willing to sell any murderous, brutal dictatorship and use corruption to secure those sales?”

Geidt said he is ‘proud’ to have worked for the arms company

Responding, Geidt said: “I absolutely appreciate what you’ve said, Mr McDonnell, about the record of BAE Systems. But I place my reliance, in taking on this role, on the attitude of the British government that is active in licensing the activity of BAE Systems.”

He added: “I was proud to do this work for a couple of years, because it did align with my previous experience and interests.”

MPs have also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest with BAE Systems, which is a major government contractor. The company has won billions of pounds worth of contracts since Boris Johnson became prime minister, including lucrative work on the Test and Trace scheme.

The company enjoys unparalleled access to the governments. Records compiled by Transparency International show that BAE Systems has been granted more meetings with ministers than any other company over the past ten years, with at least 209 meetings since 2012.

Geidt’s work for BAE Systems was fully declared in his register of interests for the House of Lords and King’s College, and there is no suggestion he broke any rules.

Academics at King’s College are also set to vote on whether to demand that the college “publish all its links with arms companies and draw up plans to end them promptly”.

It comes as the union petitions for a democratised management structure, which it says is “almost entirely unelected”.

Ministers’ financial interests

As the prime minister’s new ethics adviser, Lord Geidt had promised to publish the long-overdue register of ministerial interests – which could finally lift the lid on any donations that were made to Boris Johnson for his Downing Street refurb.

The Electoral Commission is currently investigating the affair, saying that there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect multiple offences may have been committed.

Boris Johnson says he has now personally covered the cost of the refurb, but questions remain about whether wealthy Tory donors had initially paid for it without the details being declared.

The register of ministerial interests – which is meant to be published twice yearly – would normally reveal such information. But it was only published once last year, in July, and has not been updated since. This means that the entire government is in breach of transparency rules.

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Lord Geidt told MPs last week: “I am absolutely determined to ensure that a full list is published as quickly as possible. I’m determined it should be published by the end of this month.”

He also promised to take the “nuclear option” of resigning if his advice is ignored, saying “the power is there as a last resort” if needed.

His predecessor, Alex Allan, did just that; quitting in November over Johnson’s refusal to take action on his inquiry into the behaviour of home secretary Priti Patel.

Allan’s inquiry had said Patel’s conduct “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying”. But Johnson refused to sack her and insisted she had not broken the ministerial code.

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