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Michael Gove told to ‘come clean’ over whether he misled Parliament

Exclusive: Months after resignation of UK's ethics adviser – responsible for publishing ministers' interests – government still hasn’t advertised vacancy

Seth Thévoz close-up profile2.jpg
Seth Thévoz Martin Williams
2 April 2021, 12.01am
More than four months into the unfilled ethics adviser vacancy, Gove vowed to identify possible candidates
David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

Michael Gove has been urged to “come clean over whether or not he misled Parliament” after he claimed the government was “seeking to find” a new ethics adviser.

openDemocracy can reveal that the role, which has been vacant for more than four months, has never actually been advertised. This has prompted opposition MPs to warn that “any indication” Gove misled the Commons should be taken “incredibly seriously”.

A report published by openDemocracy two weeks ago told how the government is in breach of the Ministerial Code after failing to release an up-to-date list of financial interests. This means that large payments to the prime minister and other senior politicians may have been kept secret for months.

Publication of the list has been delayed because the independent adviser who oversees it has not been replaced since the last officeholder, Alex Allan – who is still listed as the “current” adviser on the government’s website – resigned in November in protest over the ‘bullying’ inquiry into home secretary Priti Patel.

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Last week, Gove told Labour's Rachel Reeves that the government is "seeking to find someone who is suitably independent, experienced and authoritative for this critical role".

openDemocracy has repeatedly asked the Cabinet Office to provide any evidence that steps have been taken to fill the role – including asking to see a job description, advert, or timetable for recruitment. None has been provided.

Responding to our finding, Reeves said: "It's absolutely essential the government discloses at what stage the recruitment of the independent adviser on ministerial standards is.

“Any indication that a minister may have misled the house should be taken incredibly seriously."

Pete Wishart, the SNP's shadow leader of the house, said: “Michael Gove must come clean over whether or not he misled Parliament.”

He added: “Boris Johnson's Tories have form in dodging accountability and his government is driven by a complete lack of transparency.”

No evidence of any attempt to fill the role

It is believed that Gove’s comments in Parliament last week – which emerged only while being pressed in ‘urgent questions’ – were the government’s first public acknowledgement that candidates are still required. Four and a half months into the unfilled vacancy, Gove committed himself to “work...to ensure that the broadest possible range of candidates can be identified.”

“Whoever is put forward for that role can appropriately by this House be scrutinised in order to make sure that we can satisfy ourselves about their appropriateness for that role,” Gove said.

Gove’s comments caused bewilderment, because MPs have no role in appointing or vetting this civil service role.

"At best this is incompetence with the process not even starting since the former adviser resigned four months ago,” Reeves told openDemocracy. “At worst the Conservatives may be looking for somebody without advertising, throwing into serious question whether the person appointed will truly be independent in a role that requires the utmost integrity.”

The trickle of allegations of cronyism against this government risks becoming a flood

When asked specific questions about the timetable and process for the role, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said, "An appointment of the prime minister's independent adviser will be made in due course." This is the same comment the Cabinet Office has offered for the past month.

The Lib Dem’s Cabinet Office spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said: “The trickle of allegations of cronyism against this government risks becoming a flood and the Ministerial Code is only honoured in the breach.

“People will draw their own conclusions without much difficulty about why the Johnson government is in no rush to appoint a successor to Sir Alex Allan. Their conduct, however, simply serves to undermine the already tarnished reputation of politics as a whole.”

Prime minister implicated

Failure to publish the register of financial interests comes at a sensitive time for Boris Johnson, as there are ongoing probes into the six-figure refurbishment of Downing Street.

The work was allegedly bankrolled in part by Tory donors, with sums advanced out of party funds. Normally, this would be expected to have been included in the register – without it, funding for the refurb has remained shrouded in secrecy.

"The prime minister has very serious questions to answer,” said Pete Wishart. “Setting up a slush fund to pay for the refurbishment of Boris Johnson's Downing Street flat is not just grossly inappropriate at a time when families across the UK are facing poverty and hardship – but it reeks of cronyism.

"Until all accounts are fully published the public will rightly want to know where the money came from and whether or not donors are expecting some grubby favours in return.”

Last week it was revealed that the Electoral Commission has written to Downing Street seeking answers, and this week the Daily Mail reported on legal advice submitted to the commission, suggesting an unreported five-figure donation to the Tory Party may have breached electoral law.

Specific allegations such as this are almost impossible to prove or disprove if the government stops regular releases of once-normal disclosures.

Every major institution that could oversee ministers has a very tight remit, on the assumption that the Ministerial Code will oversee everything. This means they are now reluctant to step in.

The parliamentary commissioner for standards, for instance, has refused to look into the Downing Street refurb, while the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life recently wrote that it will not look into the independent adviser vacancy, because its remit does not allow them to look at individual cases.

The Conservative Party has not responded to openDemocracy’s past requests for comment on this, though has insisted elsewhere: “Party funds are not being used to pay for any refurbishment to the Downing Street estate.”

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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