Why Rishi Sunak should take the initiative on standards reform

Rishi Sunak has appointed a new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, but there is still a need for the role to be strengthened to ensure the new Adviser has genuine independence and freedom to act. Concerns have also been raised about the standard of recent appointments to the House of Lords. Peter Riddell argues that Sunak should follow the example of John Major and take the initiative on standards reform.

Rishi Sunak has so far been stronger on aspirations to improve standards in public life than on his actions, which have largely continued the approach of his predecessors. Ministers have reaffirmed limits to the role of independent regulators and scrutiny by reasserting executive prerogatives.

On the positive side, in his first comments on entering 10 Downing Street, Sunak promised that his government would have ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level’. Trust, he said, is earned. And in his personal foreword to the Ministerial Code issued just before Christmas, he referred to upholding the Principles of Public Life (commonly known as the Nolan principles), which Boris Johnson had omitted from the May 2022 version. At the same time, Sunak appointed Laurie Magnus as the new Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, six months after the resignation of predecessor Lord (Christopher) Geidt.

The role of the Independent Adviser

The remit of the Adviser has not, however, been strengthened since the compromise changes of last May, which attracted criticism at the time. The government adopted some of the package proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in its Upholding Standards in Public Life report of November 2021, which recommended a graduated system of sanctions solely in the hands of the Prime Minister, combined with greater independence for the Adviser in launching inquiries and determining breaches of the Code. As Lord (Jonathan) Evans of Weardale, the committee’s chair, commented in June 2022, the government accepted the former but not the latter in the form proposed.

The Adviser will now be able initiate their own investigations but only after ‘having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent’. The requirement for prime ministerial consent is justified on the grounds that the Prime Minister is constitutionally responsible for appointing and dismissing ministers. As Boris Johnson said in a letter to Lord Evans in April 2021, this meant that, ‘I cannot and would not wish to abrogate the ultimate responsibility for deciding on an investigation into allegations concerning ministerial misconduct’. Moreover, the Prime Minister will also continue to have the right to decide when any report by the Adviser is published – risking lengthy delays, as has happened in the past – and on the significance of any breach of the Code, as well as on the form of any sanctions. Parliament is still left with no role in approving the Code or its implementation.

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What does the new Prime Minister mean for the constitution?

The Constitution Unit held an event in November at which three expert panellists discussed the potential constitutional impact of newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, discussing the problems posed by concerns about ministerial standards, the government’s decision to proceed with several bills that pose worrying constitutional questions, and the future of the devolution settlement. Alice Hart and Hashmath Hassan summarise the contributions.

On the day that the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish Parliament cannot legally hold another independence referendum without Westminster’s approval, the Constitution Unit held an event to discuss the potential constitutional impact of the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The event was chaired by Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, and brought together three expert panellists: Jill Rutter (a Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government); Dr Ruth Fox (Director of the Hansard Society); and Professor Colm O’Cinneide (Professor of Constitutional and Human Rights Law at University College London). The summaries below are presented in order of the speakers’ contributions. 

Jill Rutter 

Jill Rutter discussed the need to repair the damage done to the perception of standards in public life during Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister. Johnson suffered the resignation of two Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests in as many years, tolerated misbehaviour from his MPs and was ‘fast and loose with the facts’ in parliament. Sunak’s commitment to the integrity agenda is unclear, Rutter stated. He has made assurances that he will appoint an Independent Adviser (unlike his predecessor, Liz Truss, who indicated that she did not need one) and has appointed a barrister to lead an independent inquiry into bullying allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. However, questions remain about Sunak’s approach to his new Independent Adviser, such as whether he will provide the postholder with sufficient resources (as promised by Johnson to former Independent Adviser Lord (Christopher) Geidt) and whether he will make any effort to ensure their independence in terms of both the publication of reports and initiation of investigations without the approval of the Prime Minister.  

Other than these immediate actions, little is known about Sunak’s plans to restore integrity and trust in government. Clamping down on lobbying may be a good place to start, Rutter suggested: she noted that the Gordon Brown review of the constitution commissioned by the Labour Party is planning to propose limitations on MPs’ second jobs. She provided some examples of big ideas that Sunak could adopt, such as Labour’s proposal to establish an Integrity and Ethics Commission and the Australian government’s introduction of an anti-corruption commission. A key challenge for Sunak, Rutter suggested, is dealing with Johnson’s and Truss’ lists of nominations to the House of Lords – especially with regard to how they may affect trust in politics.  

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The problem(s) of House of Lords appointments

Lords appointments are back in the news, with rumours of resignation honours from Boris Johnson, and even possibly Liz Truss. The current unregulated system of prime ministerial patronage causes multiple problems, and new Constitution Unit polling shows widespread public demand for change. Meg Russell reviews the problems and possible solutions, in the context of a bill on Lords appointments due for debate tomorrow. She argues that small-scale changes are now urgently required, and urges party leaders to embrace them – whatever their longer-term aspirations for Lords reform.

Recent weeks have seen revived controversies about appointments to the House of Lords. These include concerns about Boris Johnson’s long-rumoured resignation honours list, now joined by concerns that Liz Truss may want resignation honours of her own after just 49 days as Prime Minister. While the personalities may be different, controversies over Lords appointments are nothing new. The central overarching problem is the unregulated patronage power that rests with the Prime Minister. As this post highlights, a series of other problems follow: regarding the chamber’s size, its party balance, the quality of candidates appointed, the chamber’s reputation and widespread public dissatisfaction with the system.

An end to the Prime Minister’s unfettered appointment power is long overdue. Tomorrow a bill will be debated in the Lords aiming to tackle some of the problems, but as a backbench bill it is unlikely to succeed. Its contents nonetheless provide a useful (though incomplete) guide to the kind of important small-scale changes needed. Both main party leaders now need urgently to propose short-term packages of their own.

The problem of the size of the Lords

Much attention has focused in recent years on the spiralling size of the House of Lords. The current system places no limits whatsoever on the number of members who may be appointed to the chamber by the Prime Minister. Most – though not all – prime ministers have appointed unsustainably. Particularly given that peerages are for life, over-appointment drives the size of the chamber ever upwards. This is a historic problem, visible throughout the 20th century. The Blair government’s reform of 1999 brought the size of the chamber down (from around 1200 to just over 650). But since then it has risen again. Two reports from the Constitution Unit – in 2011 and 2015 – analysed this problem, calling for urgent action. In 2016 the Lord Speaker established a cross-party Committee on the Size of the House, which made recommendations the following year. Centrally these included restraint by the Prime Minister based on a ‘two-out-one-in’ principle – so that only one new peer would be appointed for every two who left, until the chamber stabilised at 600 members. These principles were endorsed by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and respected by Theresa May. But Boris Johnson ignored them. In 2021, the Lord Speaker’s Committee lamented how he had ‘undone progress’ achieved by his predecessor.

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Can muscular unionism save the Union?

Several UK politicians have been described as embracing a ‘muscularform of unionism, which includes taking a hard line against the possibility of constituent parts of the UK leaving the Union. As Iain McLean warns, muscular unionism can look like ‘know your place unionism’ and history has shown that such a muscular approach can backfire and hasten the very secession it seeks to prevent.

The phrase ‘muscular unionism’ is new but the concept is not. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson called Scottish devolution ‘a disaster north of the border’. Liz Truss said while campaigning for the Conservative leadership that she would ‘ignore’ the ‘attention seeker’, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She was true to her word, never contacting Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, during her premiership. Lord (David) Frost, who served as a member of Johnson’s Cabinet, recently wrote:

The Scottish “government” is not the government of a state in confederation with England. It is a subordinate entity within the UK, with powers granted to it by the UK government and Parliament, and ultimately subject to the supremacy of that Parliament.

It does indeed sound muscular, but it ended in tears and self-contradiction last time, and there is no reason to expect differently this time. The UK government would be well advised to become a little weedier than PMs Johnson or Truss. Rishi Sunak contacted Sturgeon and Drakeford on his first full day in office as Prime Minister. Is this a hopeful sign?

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How Sunak can restore integrity, professionalism and accountability

Meg Russell, Alan Renwick, Sophie Andrews-McCarroll and Lisa James argue that for Rishi Sunak to keep his promise to put integrity, professionalism and accountability at the heart of his government, he must strengthen the standards system, enhance parliamentary scrutiny, defend the rule of law, abide by constitutional norms and defend checks and balances.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak promised to put integrity, professionalism and accountability in government at the heart of his premiership. This promise is to be warmly welcomed – commentators and experts have raised consistent alarms about slipping constitutional standards in recent years, and research shows that the public care deeply about honesty and integrity in their politicians.

But what might such a pledge look like in reality? Against the backdrop of Boris Johnson’s resignation this summer, precipitated by concerns about his approach to standards, integrity and accountability, an earlier post on this blog issued five questions for the then leadership candidates to address on rebuilding constitutional standards and restoring integrity. The subsequent premiership of Liz Truss aptly demonstrated these questions’ continuing relevance. This new post returns to the five core tasks, links them to Sunak’s stated goals, and suggests what his government might do to meet them. It demonstrates close agreement with proposals by respected experts from other bodies in response to Sunak’s pledge.

1. Strengthening the standards system

The system for maintaining government and parliamentary standards was placed under great stress during the Johnson premiership. Successive Independent Advisers on Ministers’ Interests resigned, ministers unwisely attempted to derail a House of Commons Committee on Standards investigation, and a Privileges Committee inquiry into whether Johnson himself misled parliament is ongoing. Truss’s subsequent claim that her personal integrity was a sufficient bulwark against standards breaches fell far short of the serious commitment to institutional arrangements needed to safeguard integrity.

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