The Prime Minister’s new ethics adviser has said he thinks it is unlikely he will have to investigate Rishi Sunak, but he would “react accordingly,” if necessary.
Sir Laurie Magnus took up the role in December after the post was left unfilled following the resignation of two ethics advisers under Boris Johnson. His first major intervention came after Sunak asked him to investigate Nadhim Zahawi’s handling of a tax dispute with HMRC.
Quizzed by MPs on the Public and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) earlier today (23 February), Sir Laurie said he believed there was “a need for greater rigour” in monitoring ministers’ interests.
Sir Laurie, who had a long career in finance in the City of London, revealed that he did not apply for the role, but said he had gone through three interviews. He said that his prior experience meant he was comfortable having “difficult conversations” with people and he had in the past told people to resign. “I’m perfectly prepared to face up to that if necessary,” he said.
PACAC has previously said the role of ethics adviser to the PM should go through an open and transparent hiring process, but Sir Laurie said he believed it was important that the decision ultimately rested with the Prime Minister “because ultimately the PM has to feel confident that the independent adviser is somebody who will give totally impartial advice”.
The current ministerial code states that the Prime Minister must give consent for the adviser to initiate an investigation, including into the PM. Sir Laurie said in this situation it “becomes very difficult,” but that he felt it was “pretty unlikely” he would be required to investigate a potential breach of the code by Sunak.
“I think it is pretty unlikely I hope that it would happen in this case, in my case, with this PM,” he said, “but I think if it did I would have to react accordingly.”
Sir Laurie said he believed it was “important” that if the PM prevented him from carrying out an investigation he thought was necessary then the reasons for this would be published.
Asked what he would do in the event of a “breakdown in trust” between himself and Sunak, Sir Laurie said he would “have to manage that”.
“I am confident enough to believe that there will be a lot of conversations before I got to the stage of saying trust has broken down,” he said.
The ‘good chap’ approach
The ethics adviser told MPs that his first priority in the role is to get the register of ministers interested updated and published. This was last published in May 2022, meaning that some ministers have taken up posts and then left government without their interested being publicly scrutinised. Sir Laurie said he wanted to update the register “as quickly as I can”.
He will publish an annual report in May which will include “some reflections” on his role, and said he thought one of these would be “a need for greater rigour in monitoring ministers’ interests and in the way that they are reported”.
He also confirmed that he can only conduct investigations into incumbent ministers, not former ministers, even if the allegations relate to their behaviour while in office.
Under the current system, ministers are expected to be forthcoming about any potential or perceived conflicts of interests.
Sir Laurie told MPs: “The code is very clear… responsibility rests with ministers to identify potential areas of conflict, they will discuss that with the permanent secretary in their relevant departments. Where they want advice, I’m available to provide that… I think you have to rely on their honesty, their compliance with the seven principles of public life, and to recognise that if you have the privilege of a ministerial position you need to comply with the standards that are expected of you.
He added: “You are relying on the ‘good chap’ approach. This is where the message and the culture and the tone set from the top is so important, and in my experience in government and within the organisations I’ve been involved with, the tone from the top is really important in setting the culture of how senior members of a leadership team behave.
“You can write every rule in the book but actually it is that moral compass and the tone set from the top… I draw great comfort from the PM’s words that he wants government to be professional, accountable and with integrity at all levels. I think that’s an important reinforcement of the importance of the seven principles of public life.”
John McDonnell, a Labour MP on the committee, remarked that, “our problem is when the performance doesn’t match the words”.