Rishi Sunak’s failure to appoint ethics adviser means ministers are unable to comply with twice-yearly requirement
1 December 2022, 1.00am
The entire British government appears to have broken its own ministerial code by failing to declare any conflicts of interest since May.
It is now six months since the UK government last published what is supposed to be its twice-yearly List of Ministers’ Interests, detailing outside interests and dealings for each minister. But Rishi Sunak’s government has been unable even to begin this work, which takes weeks, after failing to appoint the ethics adviser whose job it is to oversee the regime.
It leaves open the possibility that there are scores of undeclared interests held by government ministers.
This is despite Rishi Sunak having promised in July that “I definitely will reappoint an independent ethics adviser and it will be one of the first things I do” on becoming prime minister. He has so far made at least 125 other appointments in government.
Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin said more than a month ago: “It is absolutely the prime minister’s intention to appoint an independent adviser,” while Sunak’s spokesperson claimed five weeks ago that it would be “done shortly”.
This sort of government-wide breach of the Ministerial Code has happened just once before – under Boris Johnson – in a situation described at the time by former parliamentary commissioner for standards Sir Alistair Graham as “all pretty scandalous” and “dreadful”.
The Ministerial Code promises that “a statement covering relevant ministers’ interests will be published twice yearly”. Under previous ethics advisers, including the most recent, this has been interpreted as meaning that they are to be released six months apart.
Much of the chaos stems from the UK government’s last two ethics advisers having both resigned under Boris Johnson.
The first, Alex Allan, quit in November 2020, after Johnson refused to uphold Allan’s advice and sack Priti Patel over bullying allegations.
Johnson eventually appointed Christopher Geidt as his new ethics adviser in April 2021 – after dragging his feet over replacing Allan.
On taking up the post, Geidt wrote: “It is my firm intention that the twice yearly publication should now be resumed and maintained, as envisaged in the code.” He then published up-to-date Lists of Ministers’ Interests in May 2021, November 2021, and May 2022.
But Geidt quit in June, after Boris Johnson “placed me in an impossible and odious position”, asking Geidt to approve the breaking of international law by advising on a plan to extend tariffs on steel imports that may have gone against World Trade Organization rules. Geidt said that Johnson was “in the business of deliberately breaching his own code”.
While all MPs and peers have to sign a Register of Members’ Interests in parliament, the reporting requirements for that are more lax than the strict standards applied to ministers in the Ministerial Code.
But the lack of an ethics adviser causes other problems. Dave Penman, secretary general of the civil service union the FDA, last month highlighted the threat it poses to public servants and whistleblowers: “If a civil servant has a complaint to make about a minister, the lack of a written process is only half the problem, as the lack of someone to even investigate it is a bigger hurdle.”
Deputy prime minister Dominic Raab is currently the subject of “multiple” complaints of bullying from civil servants, with Sunak having had to ask a lawyer to lead an investigation that would usually have been the job of the ethics adviser.
Earlier this week, it emerged that “several” candidates had reportedly all declined the ethics job, with Labour’s Angela Rayner suggesting it was “a poisoned chalice”.
At the heart of the reported reasons for the role being turned down are its limited powers – and Sunak’s refusal to change the terms of reference.
Lord Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life, has strongly criticised the way that the job – which reports directly to the prime minister – effectively gives the prime minister a veto over which ministers are investigated. Prime ministers are also free to disregard advice from the adviser, as happened in Patel’s bullying case
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The prime minister committed in the summer to [appoint an ethics adviser], as well as when he became prime minister. Recruitment is underway and we want to appoint as quickly as possible.” They added that “work is happening at pace”.