Standards in public life: are we in a post-Nolan age?

In 1995, the Nolan report established ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’. Twenty-five years later, questions have been raised about the continuing relevance of the Nolan principles. Lord (Jonathan) Evans of Weardale, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, argues here that although we are not not yet living in a ‘post-Nolan’ age, there are reasons for real concern.

In recent months we’ve heard a new phrase used by academics, commentators, and members of the public who have an interest in public standards. That phrase is a ‘post-Nolan age’. 

The sentiment is encapsulated in an email sent to my Committee’s mailbox earlier this year. A member of the public told us they ‘feel a great sadness that the moral framework which has guided British public life for the past quarter century appears to be well and truly over’.

The email referred to the growing perception that those in public life no longer feel obliged to follow the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – otherwise known as the Seven Principles of Public Life

These principles have long underpinned the spirit of public service in this country, and were first formally articulated in Lord Nolan’s seminal 1995 report – the first from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I am now Chair.

Since 1995 it has been increasingly accepted that anyone in public service should act in accordance with the Seven Principles. The Principles apply to ministers and MPs, all civil servants, local government officials, public bodies, the NHS, agencies as well as private companies and charities delivering services on behalf of the taxpayer. The Principles are not a rulebook but a guide to institutional administration and personal conduct, and are given a hard edge when they inform law, policy, procedure and codes of conduct. 

In their essence, the Seven Principles are there to govern the legitimate use of entrusted power in public life. All of us in public life, whether through democratic election or public appointment, have some degree of power afforded to us on the public’s behalf, whether it is the power to make decisions on benefits, to spend money on schools, to legislate to protect public health or to influence debate. This power is lent to us to be used for the good of the public.

To be elected or appointed and to receive a publicly funded salary may place an individual in public office. But fulfilling the requirements of that office means recognising and upholding the ethical requirements that underpin it. The Seven Principles, tested regularly through research over the last 25 years, outline this implicit contract between those that govern and the governed, setting the terms for the acceptable exercise of power. Elections and institutions give us a constitutional framework, but the Seven Principles of Public Life define the character of our political system. Lord Nolan’s Principles remain as essential to the functioning of our democracy now as they did 25 years ago. 

The Seven Principles take effect through an array of structures and institutions that constitute the British standards regime. The Guardian’s breaking of the ‘cash-for-questions’ scandal prompted then Prime Minister John Major to ask Lord Nolan to examine the arrangements that govern standards of propriety in public life. Nolan concluded that although a vast majority of those in political life and public office were of exemplary moral standing, it was not enough to rely on personal character, and that procedures for enforcing standards needed strengthening.

And so began what Professors David Hine and Gillian Peele have called the ‘long march of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’. Over the past 25 years, the following regulatory mechanisms have been established and evolved:

And a number of significant reforms have been made to address lobbying and improve standards in local government, accompanied by a necessary revolution in the transparency of party funding, ministers’ appointments on leaving office, and MPs’ expenses and second jobs. Cumulatively, there is no doubt that Hine and Peele were correct to call these changes a ‘profound transformation of the landscape of British government’ over the last 25 years.

But if this process of institutional innovation has succeeded in implementing Lord Nolan’s vision, why are there voices today who worry that we are living in a post-Nolan world?

Quite simply, the perception is taking root that too many in public life, including some in our political leadership, are choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years, and that, when contraventions of ethical standards occur, nothing happens. 

It would be remiss at this stage not to mention the commitment of the vast majority of public servants to the highest standards of conduct. Our public sector culture is a positive one. This pandemic has caused some concerns, but it has also demonstrated the overwhelming dedication of our nurses, our doctors, police, local government officials, civil servants and MPs to a public service ethos, often under intense stress and strains.

And it’s unrealistic to think there has never been a scandal-free ‘golden age’ of British politics. Winston Churchill’s financial arrangements as an MP would today raise many questions. ‘cash for questions’ and ‘sleaze’ dominated in the 1990s, party funding and expenses were the standards issues of the 2000s, and lobbying concerns in the 2010s. Governments of all stripes have faced accusations that they are bending the rules to their advantage. Research carried out by my Committee from 2002 to 2014 revealed that the British public perceived standards in public life as low and declining. But then again research in the 1940s found the same.

Nevertheless, there are reasons for real concern. And I’d like to give some examples.

There can be little doubt that the handling of Richard Desmond’s proposed scheme to redevelop the Westferry Printworks knocked public confidence in the fairness of the planning system and as far as I am aware there has been no independent investigation into conduct concerns that the Ministerial Code had been breached.  

The bullying allegations made against the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, were investigated by the Cabinet Office but the outcome of that investigation has not been published, though completed some months ago*. There may be legal complexities underlying this but those have not been made clear and this does not build confidence in the accountability of government.

In both cases, it is not necessarily the outcome of the investigation that is the problem. Rather, it is the fact that the process for dealing with allegations of ministerial impropriety are not transparent or independent, so accountability is limited. In its current state, there is little reason for the public to trust this process and its outcomes. 

And other parts of our standards regulation are under pressure too – namely our public appointments regime. Lord Nolan was clear that Ministers should retain the final say on who to appoint but that it is not ‘necessary or desirable to make affiliation a criterion for appointment’. It is not unusual or wrong for governments to want to appoint people who share their views; and political activity is not a bar but cannot be a reason for appointment. Merit must be at the heart of the system, not cronyism or patronage. 

Public expenditure is back in the spotlight. The suspension of normal procurement rules has exposed the public purse to an unprecedented level of risk. Process-free procurement creates the opportunity for cronyism and distrust. It is no surprise that allegations are rife that contracts are awarded to those with political ties to the government. These may be unfounded, but without proper process the public won’t know. 

And finally, governments past and present have been too easily tempted to disregard the norms of democratic accountability. Proper scrutiny and debate may be perceived as a hindrance but our parliamentary processes undoubtedly improve the quality of government decision-making and the laws that are passed. The principle of ministerial accountability underpins the legitimacy of office and cannot be substituted for the firing and hiring of senior civil servants. Mounting public disquiet is not without foundation.

It’s not the role of my Committee to investigate alleged breaches of the rules, and I’m not drawing conclusions in any of the cases alluded to in this list – but nor is this list exhaustive. Taken together, these issues lead some to believe there is a culture of impunity seeping into British governance. 

It’s possible for politicians to say that the judge of whether they have acted appropriately is the electorate – ‘let them judge, and if they don’t like what we’ve done, they can kick us out.’  That populist reading of the character of the constitution and its system of accountability effectively claims impunity for government actions from anything other than the ballot box. The accountability of ministers to parliament, the regulations governing the use of special advisers, the clarity about who is taking which decisions on the basis of what judgments about the evidence, adherence to the normal rules of political practice – all that can fall by the wayside in the name of electoral mandate. 

If that is the world we are in, then we really would be ‘post-Nolan’. But we should recognize how much of our public life would also have changed. This affects not only those in politics: it remodels the framework within which civil servants and a whole range of public officials operate and leaves them without grounds for questioning the basis on which decisions are made, policies developed or contracts awarded. A populist reading of government responsibility erodes the independence of the administration and the quality of public service delivery – and often does so intentionally. It makes them wholly subordinate to politics. 

So if there are genuine and valid concerns underlying the post-Nolan allegation, what is to be done? 

Maintaining standards in public life takes sustained work. I am sorry to say that there is no silver bullet. It remains the case that ethical standards are first and foremost a matter of personal responsibility. Everyone – from ministers and chief executives to junior staff and officials – must choose to uphold in their everyday work the ethical values their organisations proclaim. 

The position for the government itself is more problematic. Ministers have a responsibility to abide by the Ministerial Code. The Prime Minister specifically mentions standards in public life in the Code’s foreword. But enforcement of the Code lies ultimately with the Prime Minister. This can leave the Prime Minister in an invidious position, faced with the dilemma of how to avoid political damage on the one hand, and how to maintain standards of conduct on the other. The Prime Minister has an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests but the Adviser currently has no independent power to initiate investigations and, even when an investigation is undertaken, no ability to publish the outcome. My Committee has previously called for more independence to be afforded to the Adviser and I continue to believe that this may be a necessary step. 

There are also weaknesses and unfinished business in the standards structures which is why my Committee is keen to hear from business, the public and those who work for the public, in our current landscape review, Standards Matter 2

There are many reasons to doubt that we are truly post-Nolan.  We are not at a point where we have lost trust in nurses, teachers, council officers or benefits staff. We may be cynical about politics, but few people believe their own MP to be corrupt

This turbulent and divisive time in our national life – and overseas – will eventually have to come to an end. Politicians of all colours will need to focus on ways to bring a divided public with them. This will undeniably involve looking for the common ground and common standards. The Nolan Principles, far from being a thing of the past, provide the standards and tools we need to find a clear route through.

* This is an edited version of the Hugh Kay Lecture, delivered by Lord Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, at the Institute of Business Ethics on 11 November 2020. Since the lecture was given, a summary of the report into the allegations against Priti Patel has been published and Alex Allan, the independent adviser on ministerial standards, has resigned. For the official comment by Lord Evans on that resignation, see here.

You can submit evidence to the Committee’s ongoing landscape review of standards in public life here.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Constitution Unit we have launched a special fundraising initiative, encouraging supporters to make donations incorporating the figures 2 and 5. If you value our work, and would like to contribute to its future continuation, please consider making a one-off or regular donation. Contributions are essential to supporting our public-facing work. Find out more on our donations page

Sign up to our mailing lists for news of events and publications, or to our blog, here.

About the author

Lord Evans of Weardale is Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.