Rishi Sunak appoints adviser on ministerial ethics

Rishi Sunak on Thursday announced the appointment of investment banker Sir Laurie Magnus as his ethics adviser, but the prime minister was criticised for not expanding the watchdog’s powers.

Magnus will serve as Sunak’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, which involves investigating members of the government accused of breaching their code of conduct.

Sunak was criticised for refusing to beef up the role of Magnus, who will be unable to launch probes without first securing permission from the prime minister.

The two previous holders of the post quit. Lord Christopher Geidt, who served as Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser, resigned in June shortly after saying it was “reasonable” to conclude the then prime minister had breached the ministerial code over Covid-19 lockdown parties.

His predecessor, Sir Alex Allan, quit in 2020 after Johnson rejected his finding that the then home secretary Priti Patel had breached the ministerial code by bullying civil servants.

Educated at Eton and Oxford university, Magnus is an investment banker who has held several non-executive directorships in the financial services industry, including chair of Lexicon Partners. He is currently an adviser to Evercore, according to the company’s website.

Magnus was deputy chair of the National Trust from 2005 to 2013, and is currently chair of Historic England, a quango that promotes the country’s historic environment.

Number 10 declined to comment on whether Magnus still held any roles in financial services, saying only that a full declaration of outside interests would be made in due course.

In a letter confirming Magnus’ appointment, Sunak said he believed he had found a candidate with the necessary “integrity and independence, relevant expertise and experience and an ability to command the trust of ministers”.

Magnus said in his acceptance letter that he had worked with ministers and officials in his role at Historic England.

“I have seen up close the dedication and expertise required of public service, and the commitment to maintaining high standards that is an essential part of such work,” said Magnus. “I look forward to drawing and building on this experience in helping to uphold these standards within government.”

Geidt had expressed frustration that as Johnson’s ethics adviser he was unable to launch his own investigations into ministers and could only do so at the prime minister’s behest.

Sunak indicated he would not give expanded powers to Magnus. “I propose to retain the existing terms of reference, as agreed with your predecessor,” he said in his letter.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said Sunak should have given his new ethics adviser “genuine independence” but instead had created another toothless watchdog.

“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,” she added.

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA civil servants’ union, said the prime minister had had a real opportunity to “reset the relationship” between ministers and civil servants.

“Instead, Rishi Sunak is essentially continuity Boris Johnson when it comes to the ministerial code and ministerial conduct,” he added.

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