News 09th Dec 2022

Ensuring integrity and accountability at the highest levels of government

Daniel Bruce

Chief Executive

Daniel Bruce is Chief Executive of Transparency International UK. He leads the overall strategy of Transparency International UK across all programme and policy areas. He heads up the leadership team and serves as the organisation’s senior-most representative to governments, the private sector and in the media.

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During his first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street, Rishi Sunak pledged to lead a government with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. Key to making good on this commitment is ensuring the highest standards from those appointed to senior roles in his administration, but finding someone to take the job of overseeing ministerial conduct – a role that has been vacant for nearly six months - is reportedly proving a challenge.

We and others have long advocated for greater powers and autonomy for the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, but it now appears the post’s limitations are impacting the PM’s ability to find a qualified candidate to fill it. The problems with this role, and the absence of anyone willing to take the job, are particularly stark when you consider that, as we recently published, there have been at least 40 potential breaches of the Ministerial Code in recent years that were not investigated.

The issue here is twofold. Firstly, there are a concerning number of reports relating to potential breaches of the rules that relate directly to corruption risk or political integrity. Secondly, as far as we can see from (a very limited) public record, none of these potential breaches were even investigated. In fact, details of five of these 40 cases came to light during the period while there was no adviser in post to investigate. 

This ethics adviser post was established in 2006 to provide the Prime Minister of the day guidance on matters relating to the Ministerial Code, including investigating allegations of misconduct. The adviser is appointed by the PM and, despite the job title including the word ‘independent’, the position has little autonomy. Before starting any investigation, the adviser must first seek permission from the PM. Even if the PM does not object to them carrying out a probe, the PM can still choose to block the publication of its findings or disregard them altogether.

The role’s lack of powers and independence have been well documented, but it is only in recent years that its shortcomings have been laid bare. During Boris Johnson’s administration, two of the four advisers to have held the office resigned after their positions became untenable; Sir Alex Allen in November 2020 after the Prime Minister decided that his Home Secretary had not breached the ministerial code, despite an investigation by Sir Alex concluding that she had, and Lord Geidt in June this year after he said he “could not be party to advising on potential law breaking" relating to international trade policy.  

This brings me back to the 40 potential breaches we identified, the vast majority of which occurred during the former PM’s time in office. The full list can be downloaded here, but cases include:

  • A cabinet minister and a junior minister approving bids from each other’s constituencies for money from the £3.6bn Towns Fund, which was designed to boost economic growth and share prosperity across the country
  • Accepting £120,000 in donations from property developers while serving as Housing Secretary.
  • Approving a controversial planning application from a Conservative Party donor just a day before new rules would have increased the developer’s costs by tens of millions.
  • Holding multiple meetings with a Chinese state-owned nuclear power company with no record of what was discussed.

The extent of potential misconduct uncovered in our analysis, combined with the lack of transparency over whether these cases were investigated independently, is further evidence the conventions-based, ‘good chaps and chapesses’ system that is supposed to uphold standards in high-office is simply not fit for purpose.

We already know that public trust in politics is low, and a system where senior politicians can seemingly break the rules without consequence only fuels this distrust. Fortunately, there are a series of changes that could be made with relative cross-party consensus, and without much delay:

  1. To help restore much-needed credibility to the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and raise standards in public life, the role should be made truly independent, with the autonomy to initiate their own investigations and publish their findings without the express permission of the Prime Minister. This more independent role should be filled urgently.
  2. A new, open hiring process akin to the one used for other senior public appointments would help remove the role from the patronage of the Prime Minister and provide public confidence in the candidate’s suitability. This could be put in place for future appointments.
  3. Finally, enshrining the Ministerial Code in law would solidify and affirm the importance of standards in high office, and prevent their erosion in future. 

The above would be a very good start in delivering on Mr Sunak’s promises to the country, but there is also an elephant in the room that needs addressing to draw a line under recent events. Sanctions for breaches of the rules are still solely the PM’s prerogative, so long as the misconduct does not stray into the realms of criminality. 

Setting out what these sanctions are in more detail and when they should be used would help provide a more transparent deterrence against transgressions, but there also needs to be a backstop if, as we have seen from recent events, the PM puts political allegiance above doing the right thing. Precisely what this backstop should be is not easily defined and likely engages some tricky constitutional issues; however, failing to address it would leave a critical hole in Britain’s safeguards against abuse of high office for private gain.