Independent adviser can't launch investigations into ministers—they should
Yesterday the Prime Minister appointed Lord Geidt as Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. While discussing the appointment this morning on the BBC’s Today programme vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi wrongly said the new adviser would be able to “proactively launch investigations”.
He was then challenged on this statement by presenter Mishal Husain who said “they can’t entirely independently begin an investigation”. Mr Zahawi agreed to this by saying “No, they can be proactive though”.
This exchange and Mr Zahawi’s description of the post’s parameters may have left readers confused about exactly what powers the new adviser on ministers’ interests actually has. Was Mr Zahawi saying Lord Geidt could launch an investigation? What does it mean that he can be proactive?
“Since 2006 there has been an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, to give confidential advice on request from Ministers and to conduct investigations at the request of the Prime Minister”, as the House of Commons Library puts it.
Before Lord Geidt’s appointment, the position had been vacant since the last adviser Sir Alex Allan resigned in November 2020 in response to the Prime Minister’s handling of his report into allegations of bullying by the Home Secretary. Sir Alex had found Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code but the Prime Minister disagreed.
Along with the announcement of Lord Geidt’s appointment, new terms of reference for the role, outlining the adviser’s powers were also published yesterday. These state that only the Prime Minister can actually decide to launch a Cabinet Office investigation after consulting the Cabinet Secretary or refer the matter to the adviser. This means the adviser cannot decide to launch one independently.
It adds that the independent adviser can also raise issues of concern confidentially with the Prime Minister if they think it requires more investigation. This latter part is something that has been recently added to the terms of reference for the role.
The exchange on the Today programme about the remit of the new adviser was confusing and what the minister initially claimed, that the adviser could proactively launch investigations, was inaccurate.
The high profile debates about lobbying and the controversy over the refurbishment of the Prime Minister's flat in recent weeks have cast a spotlight on the issue of accountability among ministers and civil servants.
Honesty and clarity in politics is crucial for a well functioning democracy and it is important that the mechanisms which exist for holding ministers to account are described accurately so that everyone understands how they function.
Full Fact believes that a truly independent adviser on ministers' interests should be able to start their own investigations and publish the findings, not have to wait for the Prime Minister to ask. We have seen too many examples of ministers failing to correct the record when they are required to by the ministerial code to believe that the existing system is adequate.
Last month Full Fact wrote to senior politicians, including the Speaker of the House of Commons, to call for improvements in the parliamentary corrections process. Voters deserve accountability, not a system that relies on self-policing and pretends errors and inaccuracies do not happen.