Rishi Sunak’s ethics adviser ‘would expect approval to investigate ministers’
Rishi Sunak’s ethics adviser has said would expect to be given the go-ahead to investigate a minister if he believed there had been a breach of the rules.
Sir Laurie Magnus told MPs that while he required the prime minister’s permission to mount an inquiry into alleged violations of the Ministerial Code, he believed it would only be withheld if there was a “very, very good reason”.
“Very importantly, I have the ability to recommend to the prime minister that there should be an investigation,” he said.
“One would normally expect that he would agree to that unless there was a public interest reason for not doing that.”
Sir Laurie was appointed to the post of independent adviser on ministers’ interests in December following a lengthy delay after Lord Geidt became the second adviser to quit under Boris Johnson because the then prime minister refused to accept his advice.
Since he took on the role, Sir Laurie has already carried out one inquiry which resulted in the sacking of Nadhim Zahawi after the MP failed to declare he was under investigation over his tax affairs while he was chancellor.
Giving evidence to the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Sir Laurie said “greater rigour” is needed in the way the ministers’ interests are monitored and reported.
At the same time he acknowledged the system depends on ministers being “good chaps” and being honest in their declarations.
“I think you have to rely on their honesty, their compliance with the seven principles of public life. You are relying on the ‘good chap’ approach,” he said.
Sir Laurie said Mr Sunak had asked him to open an inquiry after newspaper reporting of Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs and he had not needed to initiate an investigation himself.
“By the time I received the instruction I expected an instruction would be coming. I thought I probably wouldn’t need to ask for this,” he said.
He said that if the prime minister did not accept a recommendation that a minister should be investigated, the reasons would have to be made public.
“That is an important defence,” he said.
Sir Laurie disclosed that he had taken over an investigation started by Lord Geidt into a complaint made by Tory MP Nus Ghani of alleged Islamophobia by Mark Spencer when he was the government chief whip.
He said it would become a “very difficult area” if a case arose where he was asked to investigate a potential breach of the code by the prime minister himself.
“I think it is pretty unlikely, I would hope, that that would happen in this case. If it did I would have to react accordingly,” he said.
“It would have to be some serious allegation of breach of the code. I think it is unlikely. Obviously you can never say never.”
Press Association – Gavin Cordon