Rishi Sunak appoints ethics adviser but accused of preserving ‘rotten regime’

Rishi Sunak has appointed a new “Old Etonian” ethics adviser whose long business career involved links with disgraced retail tycoon Sir Philip Green and the late Robert Maxwell. (Various additional sources)

“This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” – Rishi Sunak

Adam Forrest www.independent.co.uk 

Rishi Sunak has appointed a new ethics adviser after a six-month vacancy but has been condemned for clinging onto the personal power to veto any investigation into ministers.

Historic England chairman Sir Laurie Magnus was announced as the successor to Lord Geidt – who quit after a turbulent tenure under Boris Johnson – as the adviser on ministers’ interests.

But the prime minister ignored calls from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others to give his top adviser the power to start their own investigation without his permission.

Labour accused Mr Sunak of having chosen to “preserve the rotten ethics regime” that led to the resignations of both Lord Geidt and his predecessor Sir Alex Allan.

The Liberal Democrats said the new adviser was “toothless”, and the respected Institute for Government think tank said it was “unwise” for Sir Laurie to accept the role without a strengthened remit.

Welcoming the new role as “an honour” and a “significant responsibility”, Sir Laurie said an early priority will be scrutinising the declaration of ministers’ interests.

“I will endeavour to discharge the important responsibilities of the role with fairness and integrity, in a manner which inspires the confidence of ministers, parliament and the public,” the adviser wrote to Mr Sunak.

In a letter to Sir Laurie, Mr Sunak stressed he believes it is a “critically important role”, having faced pressure to appoint someone to a role vacant since June.

“I have sought to identify potential candidates who can demonstrate the critical qualities of integrity and independence, relevant expertise and experience, and an ability to command the trust and confidence of ministers,” the letter read.

Sir Laurie, who has a background in financial services and is a former deputy chairman of the National Trust, takes up the adviser role for a non-renewable five-year term.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “After months of dither and delay, Rishi Sunak has chosen to preserve the rotten ethics regime he inherited from his predecessors that saw the previous two ethics watchdogs walk out.

“By ignoring the Committee on Standards in Public Life and refusing to grant his ethics adviser genuine independence, this weak Prime Minister is failing to deliver the integrity he promised and instead has installed yet another toothless watchdog.”

She said Labour would install a “genuinely independent” integrity and ethics commission with powers to launch investigation without ministerial approval.

Institute for Government director Dr Hannah White said it was “disappointing” that Mr Sunak has “forgone the opportunity to strengthen the role”, and said Sir Laurie had been “unwise” to accept it without new powers.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union representing senior civil servants, argued Mr Sunak is “essentially continuity Boris Johnson when it comes to the ministerial code and ministerial conduct”.

“The prime minister retains a veto over investigations into his minister’s conduct and is the sole arbiter of the Ministerial Code, including any sanctions. How will this give civil servants the confidence to come forward?” he asked.

Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons standards committee, told the BBC the system is “bust”, with the PM “judge and jury in his own court”.

Lord Geidt resigned after an “especially busy year” during which he investigated the controversial funding of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street refurbishments and as the then-prime minister was embroiled in Partygate.

He quit in June in protest at Mr Johnson’s willingness to consider measures which would breach the ministerial code, saying he was put in an “impossible and odious” position.

His predecessor Sir Alex resigned in 2020 after Mr Johnson refused to accept his finding that then-home secretary Priti Patel had bullied civil servants.

Mr Johnson initially reviewed whether the role needed to be filled after Lord Geidt quit, and Mr Sunak has seemingly struggled to find a willing replacement since taking over in October.

The lack of an ethics chief meant that the PM had to appoint another “independent” investigator to examine the complaints made against justice secretary Dominic Raab.

Liberal Democrat Cabinet Office spokeswoman Christine Jardine said: “To leave the vital ethics adviser post vacant for weeks was bad enough. Now we discover the new incumbent has to seek the PM’s permission to launch investigations. It’s utterly toothless.”

Mr Sunak’s leadership rival Liz Truss said during the summer Tory contest that was unnecessary because she knew “the difference between right and wrong”.