The Conservative peer who sponsored a parliamentary pass for Matt Hancock’s aide Gina Coladangelo is facing fresh calls to stand down after he failed to turn up to answer questions in the House of Lords.
The health minister Lord Bethell was absent from the upper chamber’s dispatch box on Monday after being referred to the standards watchdog after it emerged that he sponsored Coladangelo’s security pass last year even though she reportedly never worked for him, which would be against the rules.
There have been calls for an investigation into claims that both Bethell and Hancock used personal email accounts for government business. Downing Street has disputed the claim.
Speaking in the Lords, the Labour peer George Foulkes asked the government whip, Lady Penn, why she was speaking in Bethell’s place in a contentious debate about elderly people infected with coronavirus being sent from hospitals to care homes during the pandemic.
“It does raise the question as to why the minister responsible, Lord Bethell, is in hiding. Is it because, unlike her, he is one of the guilty people responsible for the care home scandal, or maybe is it because of his links with Gina Coladangelo?” Lord Foulkes said.
Penn responded by saying Bethell would return to the dispatch box “two or three times tomorrow”.
One Conservative MP told the Guardian that the peer should stand down or be moved on by Boris Johnson. “Bethell went into government because he was Matt [Hancock]’s close friend and he wanted someone who he could trust working for him – so if the reason for him being there has gone … there’s an easy path to either move him or get rid of him.”
In a further development, the Liberal Democrats have called for the ministerial code to be made legally enforceable by stripping Downing Street of the power to override decisions about breaches and preventing Johnson from acting like an “elected dictator”.
Following the prime minister’s quashing of the finding that the home secretary, Priti Patel, breached the code by bullying staff, as well as his refusal to take action against Dominic Cummings and Hancock for breaching Covid rules, the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, said the situation was “untenable”.
He will push for a change in the law so that punishments can be handed out directly by the ministerial adviser on standards, Christopher Geidt.
Davey said Johnson should still ultimately be able to choose his ministers and special advisers, but if he decided to go against the recommendation of Lord Geidt, the individual concerned should forfeit their taxpayer-funded salary.
“If we don’t do something like this, then the ministerial code is a joke,” Davey said, accusing Johnson of having “brought the whole system into disrepute”.