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UPHOLDING STANDARDS IN PUBLIC LIFE
Good morning and thank you for the invitation to address this Institute for Government conference today.
My speech will concentrate on arrangements for ethical standards in government, which are the focus of our latest report, Upholding Standards in Public Life. But first I should turn to matters in the House of Commons yesterday.
My Committee has taken a longstanding interest in arrangements in the Commons. It was on our recommendation that the MPs’ Code of Conduct and the role of the Commissioner were both established.
In my view yesterday’s vote on the report of the Commons Standards Committee was a very serious and damaging moment for Parliament and for public standards in this country.
It cannot be right that MPs should reject, after one short debate, the conclusions of the independent Commissioner for Standards and the House of Commons Committee on Standards – conclusions that arose from an investigation lasting two years.
It cannot be right to propose an overhaul of the entire regulatory system in order to postpone or prevent sanctions in a very serious case of paid lobbying by an MP.
It cannot be right that this was accompanied by repeated attempts to question the integrity of the Commissioner for Standards herself, who is working within the system that the House of Commons agreed in 2010.
And it cannot be right to propose that the standards system in the House of Commons should be reviewed by a Select Committee chaired by a member of the ruling party, and with a majority of members from that same party. This extraordinary proposal is deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy. The political system in this country does not belong to one party, or even to one government. It is a common good that we have all inherited from our forebears and that we all have a responsibility to preserve and to improve.
The Seven Principles of Public Life, that all governments have espoused for over twenty five years, require that Ministers and MPs should show leadership in upholding ethical standards in public life. I find it hard to see how yesterday’s actions in any way meet that test.
There is a critical need for independence in the regulation of ethical standards in both government and Parliament. And the importance of independent regulation was a clear message in the evidence from our latest review, to which I will now turn.
My Committee’s role – first set out by Sir John Major – is to advise on the arrangements for upholding ethical standards, as what was called an “ethical workshop” for “running repairs”. There exists today a complex tapestry of commissioners and committees, rules and regulators, policies and processes, to regulate and enforce ethical standards. Our role is to assess how well these structures are working, and to make recommendations for reform when improvements are needed.
That’s the spirit in which our latest review was launched in September 2020. After the 25th anniversary of Lord Nolan’s first report, the Committee decided it wanted to look across public life at how standards regulation is working in practice, and to examine how successfully our current institutional architecture has followed Nolan’s original blueprint. We focused our attention on standards arrangements in government, as these were the areas indicated as in most urgent need of reform in our evidence-gathering process.
Very early on in our work we recognised that a number of social and political trends were contributing to an increasing pressure on ethical standards – even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
First, due to significant and positive improvements in transparency, as well as the rise of social media, standards accusations and allegations can cause political trouble before the relevant regulator can assess the issues. Timeliness is critical in effective standards regulation but no regulator today can beat the pace of the news cycle and social media. This means public debate on ethical standards can be frantic, highly charged, and often misinformed.
Second, like many of our international partners, we live in an age of increased political polarisation. Ethical standards have always been used as a party political weapon. But in times of greater consensus, political leaders may have been more willing to step above the fray and do the right thing on ethical standards, even occasionally at some political cost. Today, in a more divided world, party political gain is seen too often as a higher priority than adhering to the rules and norms that uphold ethical standards in British public life.
Third – and to the detriment of our entire political life and public life – we have seen a significant increase in intimidation and a severe coarsening of public debate. Today there is an increasing tendency to see those on the other side not as opponents but as enemies, and there has been a huge increase in abuse and intimidation directed at those in public roles, both elected and appointed.
The deterioration in the tone of our political discourse impacts ethical standards more broadly by preventing a fair and reasoned assessment of the issues at hand and by deterring many from entering the public debate.
It was in the light of these trends that the Committee assessed if the Seven Principles of Public Life remain fit for purpose. Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership – these principles articulate the public’s expectations of the values all public office holders should maintain.
It was clear in the evidence submitted to the Committee over the course of this review that there was something missing around the issue of respect. Following the uncovering of a shocking level of bullying, harassment, including sexual harassment, in Parliament, contributors felt that our set of ethical standards should include a greater focus on behaviour and the way in which public figures undertake their interpersonal relationships. We believe that respect is implicit in the idea of leadership – acting in a way that sets a positive example for others. But reflecting the evidence received, we have decided to make the reference to respect explicit, and have amended the descriptor of the leadership principle accordingly.
So do the Seven Principles actually matter today? We took evidence from senior civil servants, former officials, business leaders, standards regulators, academics, anti-corruption experts, members of the public and politicians, and we found that standards really do continue to matter – for our democracy, for our economy, and for our standing in the world.
Ethical standards are the shared values that underpin the legitimacy of democratic governance. In our political system, an electoral mandate does not confer unlimited or untrammelled power on those in office. Our system of checks and balances means power must be exercised for the public good and not for private gain. When ethical standards drop, public consent and confidence will weaken, undermining the bonds of trust that keep our politics and governance functioning.
Too often we hear that standards don’t matter as stories of sleaze produce little movement in the polls and therefore clearly the public is thought not to care. But our polling reflects a wider set of voter priorities of which ethical standards are only one part. When we polled the British public on ethical standards alone, we found large majorities believe that ethical standards are important for our democracy. To believe ethical standards are redundant is to risk a long-term decline in the very foundations of trust that sustain British democratic life.
Business leaders and former senior civil servants were clear that ethical standards are important for our economic prosperity. The predictability of political decision making, the fairness of regulatory decision-making, and low levels of corruption all make Britain a more attractive place to do business for foreign investors and our own companies.
And we were told our soft power abroad depends on our country’s reputation for integrity at home. The UK can act against corruption internationally by leading by example at home. High ethical standards support our foreign policy goals.
To realise these benefits, we must have high standards at home. Yet it remains true that public perceptions of the ethical standards of ministers and MPs remains poor. This is not a new development – the Committee’s biennial surveys from 2004 to 2012 found consistently low scores.
And of course, there has never been a ‘golden age’ of ethical standards. Debate on cronyism and sleaze dominate the media headlines from time to time and no administration has ever been seen as ‘sleaze-free’. A degree of scepticism towards the political class is probably healthy in a democracy and public perceptions are not always a fair reflection of the reality.
Perhaps a better interpretation of ethical standards in public life, as voiced to us by some contributors, is that the focus on ethical standards tends to go in cycles. A scandal erupts, public concern increases, regulatory arrangements are then reviewed and office-holders reassess their conduct. After a period of time, complacency sets in and the cycle repeats.
The events of yesterday confirm our view that we are at the point in the cycle where it is time to look again and reassess. It is time to reestablish our commitment to credible, independent regulation of the ethical standards of public office holders. My earlier comments refer.
In evidence gathering for this report, we have seen a number of issues that have prompted concern. We identified four of these as in most urgent need of reform:
First, a lack of independence in the regulation of the Ministerial Code;
Second, an inability to enforce the Business Appointment Rules and issue sanctions
Third, untoward pressure on the regulation of public appointments;
And finally insufficient transparency around lobbying.
Our diagnosis is that standards arrangements are too dependent on conventions; that our regulators lack sufficient independence; and that the government must take its own ethics obligations more professionally and more seriously.
Our prescription is for stronger rules, more independence for standards regulators, and a better compliance culture in government.
That the British constitution operates largely on the basis of conventions and norms is well-worn ground. Lord Peter Hennessy described our constitutional arrangements as a “state of mind” rather than any system of structures or rules. The functioning of that system was dependent on the so-called “good chap theory” – that we ultimately trust our political leaders to do the right thing.
Of course, in regulatory terms, conventions are by definition not binding. And so when it comes to ethical standards, what one person may call governance by convention, others might call self-regulation. And we know – in politics, business, and many other walks of life – that self-regulation no longer appears to command as much public trust as perhaps it once did.
And when governance by convention comes under stress – either through external events, or a change in social and political values – those conventions are often too easily ignored. For example, during the UK’s exit from the European Union, there were many tests and challenges to the expectations and norms that have been upheld by the British democratic process in recent years. Established practice on ethics and propriety has not been immune to these shifting attitudes.
A more resilient standards system needs less dependence on convention and stronger, clearer rules and sanctions, and this is what we are recommending:
We believe that the Ministerial Code should be rewritten solely as a code of conduct of ethical standards, with its provisions on everyday cabinet governance placed elsewhere. It should detail possible sanctions for breaches, including apologies, fines, or ultimately resignation.
We believe the Business Appointment Rules should be broadened, and that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments should be able to institute a lobbying ban of up to five years in exceptional circumstances, and that the rules are enforced through legal arrangements. Possible sanctions should include taking out an injunction against a banned business appointment, or the recouping of pensions or severance payments.
The Commissioner for Public Appointments should be given greater powers to prevent the packing of assessment panels, and there should be stronger accountability and deterrents to appointing candidates deemed unappointable by assessment panels.
Rules on transparency around lobbying need to be overhauled. The Cabinet Office should implement a more centralised and more frequent programme of publication, with broader categories of published information and stricter criteria on descriptions of meetings.
On the issue of independence, we believe too many standards regulators in government lack the necessary independence to do their work effectively. Standards regulators in government are in a unique position in the wider regulatory landscape. Unlike other regulators, they regulate the behaviour of those in power, and so have a much closer and more complex relationship with those they are regulating.
Indeed, for most standards regulators in government, the regulated appoints the regulator; issues the code the regulator upholds; can abolish or amend the powers of the regulator; can fire the regulator; and often controls the publication of the regulator’s findings and the issuing of any sanctions.
Of course, we recognise that the unique circumstances of a democratic mandate and political office mean it is not possible to afford standards regulators the same degree of independence as other regulators of the private or public sectors.
But regulators need greater independence and protection from government interference. They should be empowered to speak out when necessary. We believe there are appropriate and proportionate ways that the independence of standards regulators can be strengthened and we therefore recommend:
A basis in primary legislation for three standards regulators who currently lack such a footing: the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. A statutory basis for the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be considered as part of a broader Lords reform agenda.
Greater independence in the appointments process for standards regulators. We believe that assessment panels for such appointments should have a majority of independent members.
And we recommend that the Independent Adviser and ACOBA no longer operate on a largely advisory basis, and that they are granted independent powers within their remits. We believe the Independent Adviser should have the ability to initiate their own investigations and have the authority to declare a breach of the Ministerial Code. And we believe that ACOBA should be reconstituted as a regulator whose rulings are directly binding on applicants.
Finally, we identified a lack of professionalism in the way government manages its ethics obligations.
For example, when it comes to transparency returns, government data releases are often late, descriptions of meetings are vague and ambiguous, and data is formatted in such a way that it is extremely difficult to compare departmental releases with the Register of Consultant Lobbyists.
And when it comes to the management of the Business Appointment Rules in government departments, the quality of advice and oversight appears to very hugely, with little central coordination.
We therefore agree with the recommendation of the Boardman report that government needs a more serious and professional compliance system, in line with best practice in the private sector. Complying with its own ethics rules is not a ‘nice to have’ for government, it’s an essential obligation. The government should no longer take an advisory and light-touch approach to its own rules and codes. Government should instead implement a thorough and wide-ranging compliance system and compliance culture.
Concluding we did hear, and consider, more radical options. Some contributors from whom we took evidence called for a single ethics commission, combining the existing standards regulators into one central body. Such a commission would certainly signal a change in approach to the public. However, we also heard arguments that it would amass too much power – unelected power – over the affairs of government. We therefore believe improving education and communication on the roles and remits of existing bodies is a better solution to the issue of complexity.
In that sense, this is not a radical report. We believe our recommendations are a common-sense set of reforms, that taken together would lead to a significant improvement in the upholding of ethical standards in government. Many of our recommendations can be taken forward immediately, by government, should they wish to do so.
We should not lose sight of the long history of standards innovation in this country. We have had episodes of so-called sleaze and scandal before. What matters is that opportunity for reform should be grasped in order to maintain or rebuild public confidence in the integrity of public life. Though yesterday’s events may represent a serious blow to such confidence, we hope that the government will recognise that this is a serious moment, take our call to action seriously, and implement the recommendations of this report.
Watch the speech back here.