The British government has ignored instructions to strengthen UK anti-corruption laws, Europe’s integrity watchdog has said – in a scathing report published after series of sleaze scandals rocked government.
The Council of Europe, which oversees the European Court of Human Rights and keeps tabs on corruption in states, says the UK had failed “to demonstrate an acceptable level of compliance” after being told to toughen up sleaze laws.
It said weak points left unaddressed by Boris Johnson’s government include a lack of independence for the government’s standards watchdog – who can only take action on the orders of the prime minister – and non-existent controls to stop the revolving door between the government and private sector.
In a new report, the Council’s corruption monitoring arm GRECO said just five out of 12 recommendations previously handed to the UK government in 2018 had been “dealt satisfactorily with”.
It comes after revelations about the revolving door between government and the private setor, questions about cash-for-peerages, and worries about the access and influence granted to lobbyists and Tory donors.
“Further progress is necessary to demonstrate an acceptable level of compliance with the recommendations within the next 18 months,” the report’s conclusions state, setting a new deadline of 30 September 2022 for the UK to provide evidence it has acted.
The UK is still a member of the Council of Europe, which is separate to and predates the European Union, and monitors the human rights and rule of law situation in states.
The 42 per cent compliance rate in the report represents a significant backsliding on the UK’s previous record, representing the worst rating the UK has ever achieved a GRECO’s evaluation rounds, which started in 2000. Successive British governments have previously always met between 75 per cent and 100 per cent of previous recommendations.
Aside from the weakness of the ministerial employment watchdog ACOBA and the limited autonomy of the PM’s ethics advisor, the report says the government is insufficiently transparent about meetings by senior civil servants – some of whom have been implicated in affairs such as the Greensill Scandal.
It also warns that the government’s lobbying register “gives a very partial view of the total number of lobbyists actively engaging with the government to influence decision making” because it does not require in-house lobbyists to register and does not require clients to be declared in the case of meetings with special advisors and senior civil servants.
It also criticised the limited powers of and refusal to reform ACOBA, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments meant to stop ministers from cashing in on their government contacts to do jobs in the private sector.
The Council says the system of regulating post-government employment remains “largely reliant on self-regulation” and that “repetitional damage for failure to comply with advice given by ACOBA remains the only sanction” against former ministers who choose not to follow the rules.
And it said there had been no change to a system where the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ interests “who is appointed by the PM, cannot investigate on his/her own initiative but only on the PM’s request. S/he reports to the PM and can only suggest sanctions to be enforced at the PM’s sole discretion”.
Boris Johnson has in recent months rebuffed calls to toughen up the laws after a series of scandals around the financial servies company Greensill Capital, the secret financing of his No.10 flat by a Tory donor, and questions over how he paid for a luxury Caribbean holiday with his fiancée.
George Havenhand, senior legal researcher at the NGO Spotlight On Corruption, said it was “extremely disappointing” that the government had “failed to implement measures aimed at preventing corruption and promoting integrity, including giving greater independence and powers to the standards regulators”.
“Calls for meaningful reform grow louder by the day; the government must start listening and take steps to fix the regulation of ethical standards,” he said.
Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK told The Independent: “It seems everyone apart from the UK government thinks there’s a problem with how standards are safeguarded in public life.
“The Council of Europe’s report confirms our long-held view that the UK’s protections against abuse of high office are threadbare and not fit for purpose.”
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Arguing that the government needed to act “before trust in their probity is damaged beyond repair”, he added: “Until the independent adviser can initiate its own investigations without request from the Prime Minister, with the full backing of the law and dedicated resources to conduct these inquiries, its wings will be clipped.”
A UK Government spokesperson said: “The report recognises that lobbying is well regulated in the UK with a solid legal framework for public affairs transparency.
“Since 2010, we have significantly increased the transparency of the workings of government – from extensive transparency publications on contracts, spending and meetings, to a statutory register of consultant lobbyists.
“We will also consider any relevant findings of the Boardman review, once it has concluded.”