Open Britain – Boris must be investigated for potential breach of the Ministerial Code

Boris Johnson and Liam Fox must be investigated for a potential breach of the Ministerial Code, Chuka Umunna MP, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, and other Labour MPs say today. 

On Wednesday night, Johnson and Fox spoke at the launch of the Institute for Free Trade, a new pro-hard Brexit think tank led by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan. The launch took place in the Map Room of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

Chuka Umunna MP has written to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, calling on him to investigate whether holding this event in a Government building is in breach of the Ministerial Code. The Code clearly states that “Government property should not generally be used for constituency work or party political activities.” He has also called for Sir Jeremy to investigate whether civil servants and special advisers are involved in the event, and if so whether this would potentially breach the Civil Service Code or the Special Advisers Code.  

The letter has been signed by other Labour MPs Ben Bradshaw, Chris Bryant and Stephen Doughty.

In a letter to Boris Johnson, he sets out 8 questions that he has to answer: 

 

  • Do you accept that hosting a political event in your department goes against the Ministerial Code which states that “[Government] facilities should not generally be used for Party or constituency activities”?
  • Did you consult the Cabinet Secretary or other senior officials before agreeing to host this event, specifically on whether hosting adhered to the rules of the Ministerial Code?
  • If so, will you publish the advice you were given?
  • Was any part of the cost of this event borne by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or any other part of Government?
  • Were any of your Civil Service officials involved in any way in organising and hosting this event?
  • If so, do you accept that this would be in breach of the Civil Service Code, which states that Civil Servants must not “use official resources for party political purposes”?
  • Were your special advisers involved in any way in organising and hosting this event?
  • If so, do you accept that this could breach the Special Advisers Code of Conduct, which states that “special advisers should act in a way which upholds the political impartiality of other civil servants” and “they should not use official resources for party political activity”? 

 

In a letter to Sir Jeremy Heywood, Chuka Umunna MP writes:

“In your capacity as the watchdog of the British Constitution and the ethical conduct of ministers and officials, I understand you have a duty to investigate this matter for any breach of the Ministerial Code by the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Trade. You also would be expected to investigate whether their actions have potentially led civil servants or special advisers to breach their respective codes of conduct. I would be grateful if you could respond and outline what action you intend to take.”

In a letter to Boris Johnson, Chuka Umunna MP writes:

“I know that you have become accustomed to the freedom you have been accorded in the past as a newspaper columnist. But you are now the Foreign Secretary. You are not a polemicist free to act as you like, but a senior member of the Government. That important role brings with it certain obligations and responsibilities, such as a need to adhere strictly to the Ministerial Code and other guidance concerning the role of civil servants and special advisers in your department.

“It does not seem right that Government property (and possibly resources) should be used to promote a hard-right think tank dedicated to campaigning for a rollback of EU regulations, especially given that that is at odds with publicly stated Government policy. You give the impression of having fallen short of the high standards that are rightly expected of Cabinet ministers. It is therefore vital that you answer these questions quickly and accurately so Parliament and the public can judge your behaviour.” 

/ends

Notes to editors:

The full letter from Chuka Umunna MP to Boris Johnson is below: 

Dear Foreign Secretary,  

Last night, both you and the Secretary of State for International Trade hosted and spoke at the launch event of a new think-tank fighting for a hard Brexit – the ‘Institute for Free Trade’ (IFT). It is reported that the launch took place in the Maps Room of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Wednesday 27th September.

The IFT, according to The Times, will be “calling for Britain to abandon European product standards” and “wants to influence the final Brexit deal by approaching businesses and government ministers independently of the Department for International Trade.” It will be led by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, and will feature Jon Moynihan in a senior role. Both played a significant role in Vote Leave during the EU referendum campaign last year.

As you should be aware, this raises significant issues under the Ministerial Code. The Code is clear that “Ministers are provided with facilities at Government expense to enable them to carry out their official duties.” It is extremely hard to see how launching partisan think-tanks counts as one of your official duties. The Code goes on to state that “Government property should not generally be used for constituency work or party political activities.” Given the involvement of Mr Hannan in particular, who is a serving Conservative Party politician with no role at all in Her Majesty’s Government, it is clear that this event should count as party political activity.

Your conduct also raises serious questions regarding the roles of officials and special advisers within your department. Both the Civil Service Code and the Special Advisers Code are clear that official resources must not be used for party political purposes or activities. 

I believe this raises the following questions that you must answer:

  • Do you accept that hosting a political event in your department goes against the Ministerial Code which states that “[Government] facilities should not generally be used for Party or constituency activities”?
  • Did you consult the Cabinet Secretary or other senior officials before agreeing to host this event, specifically on whether hosting adhered to the rules of the Ministerial Code?
  • If so, will you publish the advice you were given?
  • Was any part of the cost of this event borne by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or any other part of Government?
  • Were any of your Civil Service officials involved in any way in organising and hosting this event?
  • If so, do you accept that this would be in breach of the Civil Service Code, which states that Civil Servants must not “use official resources for party political purposes”?
  • Were your special advisers involved in any way in organising and hosting this event?
  • If so, do you accept that this could breach the Special Advisers Code of Conduct, which states that “special advisers should act in a way which upholds the political impartiality of other civil servants” and “they should not use official resources for party political activity”? 

 

I know that you have become accustomed to the freedom you have been accorded in the past as a newspaper columnist. But you are now the Foreign Secretary. You are not a polemicist free to act as you like, but a senior member of the Government. That important role brings with it certain obligations and responsibilities, such as a need to adhere strictly to the Ministerial Code and other guidance concerning the role of civil servants and special advisers in your department. 

It does not seem right that Government property (and possibly resources) should be used to promote a hard-right think tank dedicated to campaigning for a rollback of EU regulations, especially given that that is at odds with publicly stated Government policy. You give the impression of having fallen short of the high standards that are rightly expected of Cabinet ministers. It is therefore vital that you answer these questions quickly and accurately so Parliament and the public can judge your behaviour.

Yours Sincerely,

Chuka Umunna MP

The full letter from Chuka Umunna MP to Sir Jeremy Heywood is below: 

Dear Sir Jeremy,

I am writing to ask that you investigate whether the Foreign Secretary and the International Trade Secretary have potentially breached the Ministerial Code.

These two ministers last night hosted and spoke at the launch event of a new think-tank fighting for a hard Brexit – the ‘Institute for Free Trade’ (IFT). The launch took place in the Maps Room of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The IFT, according to The Times, will be “calling for Britain to abandon European product standards” and “wants to influence the final Brexit deal by approaching businesses and government ministers independently of the Department for International Trade.” It will be led by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, and will feature Jon Moynihan in a senior role. Both played a significant role in Vote Leave during the EU referendum campaign last year. 

I believe this raises significant issues under the Ministerial Code. The Code is clear that “Ministers are provided with facilities at Government expense to enable them to carry out their official duties.” I believe that launching think-tanks, especially a think-tank that is at variance with publicly stated Government policy, does not count as an official duty. The Code goes on to state that “government property should not generally be used for constituency work or party political activities.” Given the involvement of Mr Hannan in particular, who is a serving Conservative Party politician with no role at all in Her Majesty’s Government, it seems that this event should count as party political activity.

The possible involvement of civil servants and special advisers in organising and hosting this event also raises significant questions, given that both the Civil Service Code and the Special Advisers Code are clear that official resources must not be used for party political purposes or activities.

In your capacity as the watchdog of the British Constitution and the ethical conduct of ministers and officials, I understand you have a duty to investigate this matter for any breach of the Ministerial Code by the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Trade. You also would be expected to investigate whether their actions have potentially led civil servants or special advisers to breach their respective codes of conduct. I would be grateful if you could respond and outline what action you intend to take.

Yours Sincerely, 

Chuka Umunna MP 

Background:

Page 13 of the Ministerial Code states: “Ministers are provided with facilities at Government expense to enable them to carry out their official duties. These facilities should not generally be used for Party or constituency activities. Government property should not generally be used for constituency work or party political activities…Official facilities and resources may not be used for the dissemination of material which is essentially party political.”

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/579752/ministerial_code_december_2016.pdf

The Civil Service code states that officials must not “use official resources for party political purposes.”

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-service-code/the-civil-service-code

The SPAD code of conduct states that “Special advisers should act in a way which upholds the political impartiality of other civil servants. They should not use official resources for party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the Prime Minister, the Government and the Minister(s) for whom they work.”

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/579768/code-of-conduct-special-advisers-dec-2016.pdf