Sunak names new independent standards adviser

Historic England chair Laurie Magnus will fill role left vacant since Christopher Geidt’s resignation
Laurie Magnus Photo: Historic England

By Jim Dunton

22 Dec 2022

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has named Sir Laurie Magnus as his new independent adviser on ministers' interests – filling a role that has been vacant for the past six months, following the resignation of Christopher Geidt.

Magnus’ appointment was announced in tandem with the release of an updated version of the ministerial code. It contains a new foreword from Sunak, who became prime minister almost two months ago.

Unlike predecessor Lord Geidt, and Sir Alex Allan – who also resigned his post as ethics adviser to the prime minister under Boris Johnson – Magnus has a background in corporate finance and has not previously served as a high-ranking government official.

He has, however, been chair of government heritage adviser Historic England since 2013. Prior to that he was deputy chair of the National Trust for eight years.

According to Magnus’ Historic England biography, he is currently an adviser at investment banking group Evercore Partners and holds “a number” of listed-company non-executive directorships within the finance sector. He also has more than 40 years’ experience in the corporate finance advisory business.

Geidt was private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II between 2007 and 2017, one of the so-callled “golden triangle” jobs in government alongside cabinet secretary and principal private secretary to the prime minister.

Allan’s civil service career saw him serve in a list of high-ranking roles, including principal private secretary to the chancellor and the prime minister; permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice; and high commissioner to Australia.

No.10’s statement on Magnus’ appointment said the new independent adviser would “carry out the role in line with the established terms of reference, published in May 2022”.

Those terms of reference include investigating alleged breaches of the ministerial code, providing advice on amendments to the ministerial code to the prime minister, and providing ad hoc advice to ministers in relation to the ministerial code when asked.

“Sir Laurie will bring to the role of independent adviser over 40 years’ experience in the financial services sector, with particularly relevant professional experience of audit, compliance and corporate governance,” No.10’s statement said.

“He holds a number of advisory and non-executive roles within the finance sector, drawing on this expertise."

In the not-for-profit sector, Magnus was until recently chairman of the Windsor Leadership Trust, an independent charity providing experiential leadership programmes for senior leaders across all sectors of society, and deputy chairman of the Benefact Trust, providing charitable financial support to churches and Christian charities in the UK and Ireland.

He also served as a member of the board of the Culture Recovery Fund, established by government to provide financial support to the culture and heritage sectors during the Covid pandemic.

“Missed opportunity”

Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service leaders’ union the FDA, said Magnus’ appointment would not fix longstanding concerns about the independent adviser’s inability to launch investigations at their own behest.

He added that Sunak’s revised introduction to the updated ministerial code omitted references to bullying and harassment being unacceptable in the civil service that had been present in previous versions.

“We have a new independent adviser on ministers’ interests in Sir Laurie Magnus but the same old problems, as Rishi Sunak has ignored calls from the Committee on Standards in Public Life to allow for independent investigations,” Penman said.

“The prime minister retains a veto over investigations into his ministers’ conduct and is the sole arbiter of the ministerial code, including any sanctions. How will this give civil servants the confidence to come forward?

“The prime minister had a real opportunity to reset the relationship between ministers and civil servants and put his words into actions. Instead, Rishi Sunak is essentially continuity Boris Johnson when it comes to the ministerial code and ministerial conduct.

“The new foreword to the re-issued ministerial code now makes no mention of the fact bullying and harassment should not be tolerated. Even Boris Johnson did that.

“Since Sunak became prime minister, one minister has resigned amid allegations of bullying and another is currently subject to eight separate complaints. Yet there is not even an attempt to reform the broken system for dealing with ministerial conduct.”

Last year the FDA failed in its High Court bid to challenge then-prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision that his home secretary Priti Patel had not broken the ministerial code – even though an investigation by Allan found she had bullied her staff.

Allan resigned as independent adviser on ministers’ interests in November 2020 when Johnson refused to accept his finding.

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