Improving standards of conduct in public life

In November, the Constitution Unit hosted Lord (Jonathan) Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to discuss its new report, ‘Upholding Standards in Public Life’. Lisa James summarises the discussion.

In November, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published its report Upholding Standards in Public Life, the result of a year-long review of the system of standards bodies regulating the UK government. Following the report’s publication, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar with CSPL’s Chair, Lord (Jonathan) Evans, to discuss the findings. The event also followed closely behind the parliamentary standards scandal over then-MP Owen Paterson, in which the government was forced to U-turn after trying to overturn the House of Commons Standards Committee’s findings against Paterson on allegations of inappropriate lobbying.

The summary below reflects Lord Evans’ remarks and conversation with the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell. A full video of the event, including the audience Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

Lord Evans began by introducing CSPL and the reasoning behind the Standards Matter 2 inquiry. CSPL is an independent advisory body, with an independent majority and a minority of party-political members. Established by then Prime Minister John Major in the wake of the cash-for-questions scandal, it was originally conceived as an ‘ethical workshop’ for the public sector. Continuing the metaphor, Lord Evans suggested that CSPL’s recent inquiry might be seen as an ‘MOT’ of the regulatory system for government: a wide-ranging review of the whole system, in an attempt to identify problems and suggest improvements. Focusing on ethical standards, the committee did not recommend radical change, but identified a number of moderate, ‘common-sense’ reforms to strengthen the system. These fell into three broad categories: stronger rules; greater independence for regulators; and a stronger compliance culture within government.

Stronger rules

CSPL’s report calls for a number of reforms to tighten existing rules and strengthen the regulators which enforce them. These include stronger powers for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), which regulates private-sector appointments taken up by former ministers and senior civil servants. The committee felt that the rules in this area should be strengthened, and that ACOBA should have greater powers to institute lobbying bans – with Lord Evans mentioning legal injunctions and the confiscation of severance payments or pensions as two potential options for enforcement.

The rules on public appointments, too, should be strengthened, with the Commissioner for Public Appointments given more opportunity to prevent the ‘packing’ of appointment panels. Likewise, Lord Evans noted, CSPL’s report recommends that ministers should face greater accountability should they decide to appoint a candidate who has been ruled unappointable by the interview panel.

One further recommendation is, Lord Evans suggested, a clarification, rather than a reform, of the Ministerial Code. At present, the Code combines ethical principles with instructions on the day-to-day running of cabinet government. CSPL recommends that these two functions should be separated, with a revised Ministerial Code focusing solely on ethical standards, which details the sanctions available in case of breach. Asked whether the Prime Minister should remain the sole arbiter of decisions about the sanction for breaches of the Ministerial Code, Lord Evans noted the constitutional challenges inherent in transferring this power elsewhere. This topic became particularly controversial last year when the former Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, Alex Allan, resigned after his findings over bullying allegations against Cabinet minister Priti Patel were disregarded by Boris Johnson, who found that no breach of the Code had occurred. CSPL felt that the electoral mandate held by individual politicians meant that it was right that the ultimate decision over sanction should lie with the Prime Minister, rather than with an appointed official. But the committee also felt that the Independent Adviser’s powers should be strengthened, and particularly that they should be given the power to launch investigations into alleged wrongdoing on their own initiative. Lord Evans noted, for example, that allegations about then-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government Robert Jenrick’s planning decisions were simply never investigated, after Johnson declined to pursue them. CSPL’s recommendations would, Lord Evans said, allow the Independent Adviser to investigate such cases, whilst still leaving the overall decision on sanction up to the Prime Minister – thus providing much-needed transparency and clarity.

 Greater independence in the regulatory system

The standards regulators which oversee the UK government have a uniquely complex relationship with those they regulate. Unlike other regulators, they oversee people who are ultimately in power, and consequently they need a greater degree of independence from government interference, in order to guarantee their ability to speak out when necessary.

On this basis, CSPL recommends that a number of regulators – ACOBA, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, and the Commissioner for Public Appointments – should be put on a statutory footing. Lord Evans reflected that their current non-statutory status reflects the British constitution’s traditional reliance on convention and norms of behaviour. Nonetheless, the current regulatory system rests too heavily upon these norms. The regulators should now be given a basis in primary legislation so that they can speak out in the confidence that they cannot easily be abolished. Whilst CSPL’s primary concern is to ensure that the regulators’ existence is safeguarded, Lord Evans also noted that parliament may decide to include the regulators’ specific responsibilities in any legislation.

In addition, CSPL recommends that the process of appointing people to the standards regulators should aim to maximise their independence. Reforms to the public appointments system introduced under David Cameron gave ministers greater control over appointments, partly on the basis that ministers rely on the holders of public appointments to help deliver their policy programme. But Lord Evans pointed out that this rationale does not apply to the ethics regulators. Whilst the ultimate appointment decision will rest with ministers, there is not a clear-cut case for giving them significant influence in the rest of the process. CSPL therefore recommends that these appointments should be made through a strengthened appointments process, whereby the assessment panel has a majority of independent members.

A stronger compliance culture and system

The committee has also called for a stronger culture of compliance, backed up by stronger compliance systems, in government. Lord Evans noted that many of these recommendations relate to transparency around lobbying, where evidence to CSPL’s inquiry demonstrated that best practice in the private sector entails systems which are more formal and better-resourced than currently exist in government. CSPL therefore recommends that the Cabinet Office take a stronger role in managing and collating lobbying disclosures, establishing a central database and publishing transparency returns on a more frequent timetable. The criteria for disclosure should be broadened and some existing loopholes closed, and the quality of data should also be improved, with the Cabinet Office again taking the lead in setting and enforcing minimum standards for the level of information and detail provided.  

The importance of standards

Standards in public life matter for the UK’s democracy, economic prosperity, and international standing. Lord Evans said that he had personally been struck by the evidence given by business leaders to CSPL’s inquiry, arguing that the perceived fairness, predictability and low levels of corruption in the UK’s political system were a major factor in investment decisions. And the media and public response to the Owen Paterson case also proved that the public feels strongly about the importance of ethical standards – a conclusion supported by polling undertaken in the course of CSPL’s review, which found that 75% of people supported public standards and considered them important. It is important to remember, Lord Evans said, that the majority of people in public life are there to ‘do their best for the public’. Ethics regulation is not only important because of its ability to identify and sanction wrongdoing; it also allows the majority to prove that they are playing by the rules, offering a corrective to anti-political attempts to tar all public figures with the same brush.

Interest in standards has often been cyclical, peaking with successive political scandals. Lord Evans noted that such scandals occur throughout political history: there has never been a ‘golden age’ of standards in public life. Nonetheless, the UK’s strong ethical standards are an important asset, and Lord Evans said that he would now like to see the government commit to strengthening the standards system. CSPL’s proposed reforms, which have been thoroughly researched and developed with cross-party input, offer an opportunity to do just that.

A full video of the event, including the audience Q&A, is available on our YouTube page, and the audio from the event is available as a podcast.

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About the author

Lisa James is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit working on The UK In A Changing Europe-funded ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’ project.