Rishi Sunak has appointed a new ethics adviser after a six-month vacancy – but the prime minister is facing criticism for maintaining the power to veto any investigation into ministers.
Mr Sunak was under pressure to fill the role after promising to bring “integrity, professionalism and accountability” to government when he entered Downing Street.
The role – officially known as the adviser on ministers’ interests – has been vacant since June, when Lord Geidt became the second person to quit the job under former PM Boris Johnson’s premiership.
On Thursday, Historic England chairman Sir Laurie Magnus was announced as Lord Geidt’s successor.
Sir Laurie will be responsible for advising Mr Sunak on whether government ministers are complying with their code of conduct.
However, the prime minister is the ultimate arbiter of the code, meaning Mr Sunak will have the final say on whether ministers have broken the rules and will decide on any subsequent punishments.
Mr Sunak has been criticised for ignoring a call from the Committee on Standards in Public Life to give the adviser the power to start their own investigation without his permission.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner has accused Mr Sunak of preserving a “rotten ethics regime” by not extending Sir Laurie’s powers.
“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,” Ms Rayner said.
“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.”
Ms Rayner said Labour will “clean up politics” through the creation of a “genuinely independent Integrity and Ethics Commission will have powers to launch investigations without ministerial approval, collect evidence and decide sanctions”.
Rose Whiffen, senior research officer at Transparency International UK, also said the adviser should have the autonomy to initiate investigations and publish their findings “to restore much-needed credibility to standards in government”.
‘Important role in government’
In a letter to Sir Laurie, Mr Sunak said that an independent adviser played a critically “important role” in government.
“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,” he said.
Responding, Sir Laurie said: “I am pleased to accept the appointment. 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.”
Mr Sunak had faced questions about the apparent delays in appointing a new ethics adviser after committing to do so in the Tory leadership contest over the summer.
Lord Geidt quit earlier this year after admitting “frustration” over the partygate scandal that saw Mr Johnson fined for breaching his own lockdown rules.
He was the second person to resign as Mr Johnson’s ethics adviser during his less than three years as prime minister.
Sir Alex Allan resigned in 2020 after being overruled by Mr Johnson on his conclusions about the conduct of Priti Patel, the former home secretary, who was accused of engaging in “bullying behaviour”.
Liz Truss, during her brief tenure in Downing Street, had not appointed an ethics adviser.
Reports suggested Mr Sunak had been struggling to find a willing candidate due to the adviser being unable to launch investigations without the PM’s consent.
The lack of an independent adviser was highlighted early in Mr Sunak’s premiership, after the PM was forced to appoint an “independent” investigator to examine the complaints made against Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, in the absence of a permanent ministerial ethics watchdog.
Sir Laurie is the current chair of Historic England, the leading heritage charity, and will take up the adviser role for a non-renewable five-year term.
With a background in financial services and various charities, he is also a former deputy chairman of the National Trust.