Committee on Standards in Public Life chair Jonathan Evans has praised prime minister Rishi Sunak’s handling of recent ministerial conduct cases and said he detects a “shift” in approach since Boris Johnson was ousted as PM.
Last week Sunak decided not to seek a formal investigation into allegations that home secretary Suella Braverman asked civil servants to arrange a private speed-awareness course for her after she was caught driving too fast when she was attorney general.
However, Lord Evans said he believed that Sunak had handled the situation correctly in discussing the issue with his independent adviser on ministers’ interests before reaching his decision.
“I think that by consulting Sir Laurie Magnus, his independent adviser, he’s done the right thing,” Evans told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour programme yesterday.
“He’s taken advice. He’s looked at this dispassionately. And he’s come to a decision. And I think that’s the right way to approach it.
“One of the things we were previously concerned about was where allegations were not being followed up and were being left – really – to hang in the air. And I think that’s very bad for perceptions of standards. So the proactive approach the prime minister took, we believe, is helpful.”
Evans has previously been highly critical of No.10's approach to standards. Last year, he told members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that there was "a carelessness” in government over standards issues “and possibly more than that”.
At the weekend, he was asked whether things had changed following Boris Johnson’s departure from Downing Street – prior to which prominent scandals included financial backing for the redecoration of the prime ministerial flat; bullying by then-home secretary Priti Patel; Chris Pincher's behaviour; and lobbying by MP Owen Paterson, in addition to the Partygate affair.
“I think there has been a shift,” Evans responded.
In particular, he praised Magnus’s report on the conduct of former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, who was sacked as Conservative Party chairman in January on the basis of his findings.
“I thought the report Sir Laurie Magnus did into the actions of Mr Zahawi was exemplary,” he said.
“It also emphasised the underlying principles of public life and that there is an expectation that those people who are either representing the public or being paid from the public purse should meet those standards. So I thought it was an excellent report, and the prime minister acted very quickly on it.”
Magnus’s report found that Zahawi had committed a “serious failure” to meet the standards set out in the ministerial code by failing to tell people in government about his contact with HM Revenue and Customs when he was made education secretary in 2021 and chancellor last July.
HMRC was investigating Zahawi’s tax affairs in a probe that resulted in him paying a £5m settlement, which included a penalty.
Evans said there is a danger that the ministerial code can be “weaponised” for political purposes and said there are “occasions when you might think ‘this is an opportunist attack’”.
“There has been a tradition that people are expected to resign if they are found to have breached the ministerial code and certainly in serious cases I’m sure that’s right,” Evans said. “But some of the rules are much less significant than others.”
He pointed to the CSPL’s Upholding Standards in Public Life report from 2021, which called for “graduated sanctions” to reflect the varying severity of breaches of the code. Such a measure is important to keep a sense of proportion, he said.
“Otherwise the whole thing’s on a hair trigger, and that isn’t actually likely to make people want to take the whole business seriously,” he said.
Evans added that the government has yet to respond to the report’s recommendations in full.