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The independence of a committee that advises Boris Johnson on ethical standards in public life is now at risk after it appointed one of his Bullingdon Club associates as a member, Labour has claimed.
The party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has taken the committee’s chair Lord Jonathan Evans to task over the hiring of city solicitor Ewen Fergusson, criticising a “tainted process” of recruitment that will undermine the work of the watchdog.
The anti-sleaze Committee on Standards in Public Life was set up by John Major in 1994 and is an independent body designed to advise Prime Ministers on upholding standards and conduct across public life in England.
In a formal letter of complaint sent to Lord Evans and seen by PoliticsHome, Rayner said: “In this case, the appointment of the Prime Minister’s friend as an ‘independent’ member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life risks bringing the work of the Committee into disrepute and undermines the independence of the Committee.
“The Committee will not be able to maintain high standards in public life, and advise the Prime Minister accordingly, based on a tainted process which produces a Bullingdon Club friend of the Prime Minister and compromises any appearance of independence on the part of the Committee.”
It emerged earlier this week that 173 people applied for two places available on the committee, and Johnson selected Fergusson, who was photographed alongside him in the 1987 image of the Bullingdon Club dining society. David Cameron is in the same photograph. It has also been reported that Fergusson, 55, attended a fundraiser for Johnson when he was running to become Mayor of London.
Rayner said given the work of the committee it must avoid any “failure or any perception of a failure” to be wholly independent and Fergusson’s appointment could impact on public confidence in its impartiality.
She asked Evans, a former head of MI5, why the Prime Minister appoints members of the committee, if any government official approached Fergusson to encourage him to apply for the role and if he would publish any correspondence with the Prime Minister on how appropriate it would be to appoint his university friend. Also, how many other “appointable” applicants did Mr Johnson have to chose from.
In a written response to Rayner, Lord Evans said many of her questions over the appointment process are a matter for the Cabinet Office.
He explained appointments to the committee are made by the Prime Minister via a process run by the Cabinet Office under the Government’s Governance Code for Public Appointments, which has been in place since 2017.
He wrote: “For independent member appointments, it has been usual over the years to involve the Chair of the Committee, and I was asked to chair this panel for the appointment of two new independent members.
“Under the Governance Code, the panel is asked to assess all candidates against the published criteria, carry out interviews with shortlisted candidates after consulting the minister and produce a list of appointable candidates from which ministers make the choice.
“It is for the Minister to choose who to appoint from that list of appointable candidates.”
He said if Rayner wished, she could provide written evidence for a review the committee is running into the regulation of public appointments, called “Standards Matter 2”, which will make recommendations in the autumn.
A government spokesperson said: “Mr Fergusson applied through open and fair competition, in line with the Governance Code for Public Appointments.
“His application was carefully considered on its merits by the Advisory Assessment Panel, chaired by Lord Evans, which interviewed him and found that he was suitable for appointment.”
Fergusson was a partner at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills from 2000 to 2018.
Professor Gillian Peele, an Emeritus Associate Professor of Politics in the University of Oxford, was appointed to the committee in the same recruitment process.
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