The role of the ethics adviser in UK Government
At the start of his premiership Rishi Sunak committed his government to having integrity, with Sunak going on to appoint an ethics adviser on ministerial interests to uphold the integrity that he spoke of in his first speech. The role of ethics adviser was created in 2006 under the Blair government however the post had remained vacant since June 2022 after the resignation of Lord Geidt, with both Johnson and Truss failing to appoint an ethics adviser following Geidt’s resignation. After Johnson and Truss’s time as, Prime Minister came to an end and Rishi Sunak was appointed as Prime Minister he has, as part of his commitment to instil integrity, gone on to appoint Sir Laurie Magnus as his independent ethics adviser.
The role of the independent ethics advisor is to advise the Prime Minister on the ministerial code and investigate any potential breaches of the ministerial code when requested to by the Prime Minister. It is for the ethics adviser to advise ministers on the management of their private interest to avoid any potential conflicts of interest . It is also the responsibility of the independent ethics adviser to investigate any potential breaches of the ministerial code when requested to by the Prime Minister or conduct their own investigations with the approval of the Prime Minister . Previous advisers have conducted investigations into breaches of the ministerial code, for example this was the case with Priti Patel over the allegations of bullying by her. It was ethics adviser Sir Alex Allen who conducted this investigation and quit in November 2020 after Boris Johnson failed to act on the report created by Sir Allen over the alleged bullying by then Home Secretary Priti Patel.
The independent ethics adviser will then create an annual report setting out the work that they have undertaken throughout the last year. When assessing a ministers conduct in relation to that of the ministerial code the general principle is that ministers are “expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety”. If the ethics adviser’s investigation finds that a minister has not up help the ministerial code, they will inform the prime minister of their findings and it will be for them to decide on how best to deal with the breach.
In recent years the importance of the ethics adviser has grown as there have been several breaches of the ministerial code with them rarely being acted upon. The likes of Sir Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel have all been accused of breaching the conduct set out in the ministerial code, with Zahawi and Williamson resigning due to these breaches. During the premiership of Boris Johnson both Williamson and Patel were accused of breaches of the ministerial code however neither would lose their jobs during Johnson’s time as the Prime Minister. Ultimately this would lead to two ethics advisers resigning during Boris Johnsons premiership due to their disagreement with Johnsons handling of breaches of the ministerial code. During Sunak’s time as Prime Minister he has had to ask his ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus to conduct two independent investigations into the conduct of his ministers in relation to the ministerial code. Dominic Raab was placed under investigation by Rishi Sunak’s ethics adviser due to accusations of bullying made against him. Raab has denied these allegations and has been allowed to remain in his post whilst the investigation by Sir Laurie Magnus is under way.
Recently Rishi Sunak has had to ask his ethics adviser Sir Laurie Magnus to launch an investigation into the suggestions that Nadhim Zahawi was forced to pay a fine and millions of pounds in unpaid taxes to HMRC. Sunak asked Sir Laurie Magnus to launch an investigation into the Conservative Party Chair Nadhim Zahawi after it came to light that he owed £3.7 million in unpaid taxes to HMRC and had been handed a 30% penalty for the failure to properly pay his taxes, which took the total amount that Zahawi owed to £4.8 million. In response to this Sunak asked his ethics adviser to conduct an investigation into the issue to determine if Zahawi was in breach of the ministerial code. The investigation ultimately ended up in Zahawi resigning from his position. The case of Zahawi is a clear example of how an ethics adviser’s investigation into a minister’s conduct can lead to them having to resign from their position and ensure that the standards expected of a minister are upheld.
The role of the ethics adviser is an important one as it is their job to uphold the ministerial code and ensure that ministers act in a manner that is expected of them. The role of the ethics adviser in Sunak’s government seems as though it will be a busy job as Sunak seeks to maintain integrity in his government.
References/ Further Reading:  Rishi Sunak commits to appointing new ethics adviser | The Independent  Independent adviser on ministerial interests | Institute for Government  Ministerial Code - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)  Rishi Sunak asks ethics adviser to look into Nadhim Zahawi tax case | Nadhim Zahawi | The Guardian