The UK government has said it is working to accelerate the process of publishing ministers’ financial interests, as it seeks to allay criticism following a series of ethics-related rows.
Oliver Dowden, minister in charge of the Cabinet Office, announced the step on Thursday, telling MPs he wanted to align “declarations of ministerial interests . . . more closely with” those of other MPs.
The move comes amid mounting accusations of a culture of sleaze at the top of government, following a series of controversies relating to ministers’ conduct.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak — who pledged “integrity and accountability” upon entering Downing Street in October last year — last week sacked Nadhim Zahawi as chair of the Conservative party over seven breaches of the ministerial code relating to his tax affairs.
Meanwhile, one civil service union on Wednesday called for deputy prime minister Dominic Raab to be suspended until an investigation into allegations that he bullied staff at several Whitehall departments was complete.
The Cabinet Office has been at the centre of both disputes, owing to its role in co-ordinating the vetting of ministers and informing the prime minister of the day of any concerns about a potential appointee.
According to one Whitehall insider, the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics (PET) team had been aware of concerns raised about Raab and put these in “writing”, but not as formal complaints, before Sunak appointed Raab as his deputy.
Adam Tolley KC, an employment barrister, is leading an inquiry into the claims against Raab, who also serves as justice secretary and denies bullying.
Downing Street aides have insisted that PET officials never advised Sunak against appointing Raab.
The most recent register of ministers’ interests was published in May last year, when Boris Johnson was prime minister.
A register is normally published every six months, but the release of a new list has been complicated by the high turnover of ministers in recent months, following Johnson’s departure from office in July last year and Liz Truss’s short premiership.
Asked by Chris Bryant, chair of the House of Commons standards committee, why declarations from ministers were so much slower than those for other MPs, Dowden said: “We are taking steps to move to more rapid declarations of ministerial interests so that they align more closely with the declarations of members of parliament.”
Dowden added that he was “working through” the processes to speed up publication alongside Penny Mordaunt, leader of the Commons. But he gave no details of how regularly the list might be updated in future or when the change would take effect.
The register of backbench MPs’ interests is continually updated.
Regular updates of the register of ministers’ interests might have brought to light more quickly the issues around Zahawi. He paid a tax bill and penalty of about £5mn to HM Revenue & Customs last year while serving as chancellor, ultimate overseer of the agency.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner told the Commons that Sir Laurie Magnus, ethics adviser, found Zahawi updated the register only three months after becoming Tory party chair.
His failure to provide an update went undisclosed because no new register was published.
Asked by Rayner how many other ministers had yet to submit declarations of outside interests and whether he could guarantee no other conflicts of interest would emerge, Dowden insisted that the government was upholding “high standards of transparency”.