It comes as a parliamentary committee warned historic breaches of the code may never be investigated or resolved, including the conduct of the home secretary or Islamophobia claims against a former chief whip.
Rishi Sunak has launched a hunt for a new adviser on ministerial interests but the Guardian reported last week several candidates have turned down the role. Sunak is not offering candidates any enhanced powers – which means advisers would not be able to launch their own investigations.
The ethics adviser, when appointed, would probably face calls to renew or open at least two complex investigations – including concluding one into alleged Islamophobic comments made by the then-chief whip Mark Spencer to MP Nusrat Ghani.
There will also probably be pressure to open an investigation into the home secretary, Suella Braverman, who was sacked for a potential security breach by Liz Truss though reinstated by Sunak.
The pressure group Transparency International has been among those calling for the role to have significantly enhanced powers since it was vacated by Christopher Geidt five months ago under Boris Johnson.
In analysis of media reports, the group found 40 potential breaches of the ministerial code have not been investigated over the past five years. Those included:
Multiple meetings held by Anne-Marie Trevelyan with a Chinese state-owned nuclear power company with no record of what was discussed.
All the ministers have claimed donations and meetings were recorded accurately, but Transparency International said each one represents a potential breach that should be investigated where a perceived conflict of interest may arise.
The group has also called for appointments to the role to be made with a competitive process and for the position to be defined in law – rather than both being at the whim of the PM.
Daniel Bruce, the chief executive of Transparency International UK, said: “This is further evidence the conventions-based system that is supposed to uphold standards in high-office is simply not fit for purpose. The extent of potential misconduct at the heart of government may be a shock to many, but equally concerning should be the lack of transparency over why these cases were never investigated independently.”
Sir Alex Allan, a former independent adviser, resigned after Boris Johnson refused to take action after an investigation into bullying by the then-home secretary Priti Patel.
Truss, during her short tenure as prime minister, expressed no interest in appointing a successor to Geidt. No transparency data on ministers’ interests has been published since May, despite multiple changes of government including three prime ministers.
While Sunak searches for Geidt’s successor, a separate independent investigation has been launched into the conduct of the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, by the senior employment barrister Adam Tolley KC, who is examining three bullying complaints.
A government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that this government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level and have committed to appointing an independent adviser on ministerial interests. This process is ongoing.”
Rishi Sunak’s decision to reappoint Suella Braverman as UK home secretary sets a “dangerous precedent” for what should happen to ministers who are alleged to have broken the ministerial code, a Conservative-led committee of MPs has warned.
The public administration and constitutional affairs committee released its latest report into government ethics on Friday, issuing a damning judgment on the government’s recent record in office.
It took issue, in particular, with the reappointment of Braverman, who resigned in the last days of Liz Truss’s premiership after sending an official document from her personal email to another MP. However, Sunak made her home secretary again soon after taking office, despite promising to bring “integrity and accountability” back to government.
The committee, which is chaired by the Conservative MP William Wragg, said in its report: “The reappointment of the home secretary sets a dangerous precedent. The leaking of restricted material is worthy of significant sanction under the new graduated sanctions regime introduced in May, including resignation and a significant period out of office.
“A subsequent change in prime minister should not wipe the slate clean and allow for a rehabilitation and a return to ministerial office in a shorter timeframe.”
Sunak took office in October pledging a return to sombre and ethical government after the turbulence of the tenures of Truss and her predecessor, Boris Johnson.
But he immediately faced criticism for his decision to reappoint Braverman amid allegations she had broken the ministerial code. The rightwing Braverman’s decision to back him during the Tory leadership campaign was seen as pivotal in killing off Johnson’s attempt to return to office.
Sunak has also struggled to appoint an independent ethics adviser after the resignation of Christopher Geidt, who quit after months of revelations about lockdown-breaking parties in No 10.
The Guardian revealed this week that several candidates had turned down the role over the past five months owing to concerns about its remit. One source close to the process said Sunak was not planning to allow the new adviser to launch their own investigations, which would leave substantial investigative power in the hands of the prime minister.
The committee said in its report that the role should be enshrined in law, and the new adviser should be able to begin their own inquiries. The MPs said: “The statutory role should preserve the recent increase in powers for the independent adviser, notably the authority of the post holder to initiate their own investigations rather than waiting for instruction from the prime minister.”
They added that the adviser should also be allowed to conduct inquiries into historical behaviour, which would allow whoever takes the role to look into the allegations against Braverman.
Compliance failure follows university admission that there are nearly 39,000 students based at Exeter campuses in 2021-22, suggesting around three quarters of city’s private rented housing stock occupied by students.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is to investigate the University of Exeter’s refusal to disclose student accommodation numbers under freedom of information legislation.
Its investigation follows the university’s failure to comply with a deadline it was given to review its handling of an Exeter Observer information request to provide the numbers of Exeter campus-based students housed in Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) during the 2021-22 academic year.
(FTE student numbers combine full-time and part-time students into a single total used for planning educational provision, not accommodation, although the university does not explain this anywhere on its “facts and figures” page.)
The university can choose what to publish on its website, but its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 are legally binding. It is a criminal offence to alter or conceal information held by public authorities (including the university) with the intention of preventing disclosure following a request for the information under the Act.
Exeter PBSA bedspace availability and occupancy rates make it likely that fewer than 10,000 of the the university’s Exeter-based students stayed in this form of accommodation during the 2021-22 academic year, meaning around another 29,000 students would have been living in the city’s residential housing stock in one form or another.
The government does not hold precise figures for tenure distribution at local authority level and there are likely to be small PBSA occupancy rate variations. Meanwhile the city council continues to use council tax records to estimate student residential housing stock occupation despite the Office for National Statistics (ONS) concluding last year that they cannot be relied on for this purpose.
So we asked the university to provide its own figures for the distribution of Exeter campus-based students across both university- and privately-provided PBSA in 2021-22 so we could, in turn, confirm exactly how many were living in the city’s private residential housing stock.
The university’s response was to claim it does not know and cannot find out because it “does not hold structured or consistent data to answer the question without manual process to review all student records”.
It nevertheless also said: “Records are kept as standard address: house number, street name, postcode” but claimed this information could not be used to identify which of its students lived in either its own or privately-provided PBSA despite it also knowing the location and ownership of all 66 such blocks in the city, information it publishes on its website.
When we pointed out that its standardised student address format would enable it to make simple database queries to match the postcodes of each PBSA address against the postcodes of each student address record, yielding the information we had requested, it claimed that it was not obliged to provide the information as it would have to perform this cross-referencing by hand.
University regulations and policies which relate to the electronic online Student Record System that it uses to manage address information for all its Exeter students say otherwise.
Its data protection notice says that it holds and processes permanent and term-time addresses of all its students and its general regulations say all Exeter-based students are required to maintain up to date home and term-time address records via its electronic online Student Record System as a condition of enrolment, a requirement repeated on its academic study administration portal.
When we asked the university to review of its handling of our information request, as per the rights conferred by the Freedom of Information Act, it initially resisted, repeating its previous claim about manual processing.
Then, when we pointed out that its response did not address any of the issues we raised regarding its failure to comply with the provisions of the Act, and asked it to confirm that it had provided its full and final response before we complained to the ICO, it suddenly changed its tune and said it would perform a proper review.
Such reviews should normally be completed within twenty working days. After 22 working days we followed up and were told that a review was underway and would be completed in no more than 40 working days, the maximum allowed by law.
When 43 working days passed without the university completing the review (62 since we submitted the initial request) we wrote to the ICO, which gave the university a ten day response deadline.
The university remained silent, the deadline passed and the ICO has now confirmed it will launch an investigation into the university’s refusal to provide the information.
Martin Redfern is editor of Exeter Observer and a director of its publisher Exeter Observer Limited.