Ministers must be challenged on misleading statements, says former cabinet secretary

By on 17/03/2021 | Updated on 17/03/2021
Former UK government cabinet secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell
Former UK government cabinet secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell

Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell today expressed frustration with ministers who make false statements or skew statistics, a trend he says is eroding public trust in government.

Speaking at an online evidence session for the Committee for Standards in Public Life (CSPL) this afternoon, O’Donnell said there should be more emphasis on “calling out” ministers who ignore verifiable facts, and more robust requirements to set the public record straight.

The CSPL advises the UK prime minister on ethical standards across the public sector. As part of its review of the structures that support and promote high standards, CSPL committee members today quizzed a number of experts including O’Donnell and another former cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill.

Misleading the nation

O’Donnell detected a decline in ethical behaviour in government. There have been examples of ministers making misleading statements, he said, citing the example that “there was no border in the Irish Sea”.

“There are other examples of ministers going off piste and saying things that aren’t compatible with the government’s position and ministers are having to be held to account by people like Michael Howard. So there are some areas where I think the traditional standards have fallen away,” he noted. Howard, a keen Brexiteer and former Tory leader, intervened to challenge PM Boris Johnson’s threat to break international law by unilaterally amending parts of the EU exit deal.

This is having an impact on public trust, according to O’Donnell. “There is a real issue [around trust in government]  – we know that trust in government  matters a lot and if you go by opinion poll data, we’ve had a record gap between trust in ministers and trust in civil servants. That’s not good, that’s not a place we want to be, and something is going wrong. 

“It’s this point about telling the truth and people believing what ministers say is actually true. It used to be such a cardinal thing – that if you misled parliament that was the end, and that seems to have changed somewhat.”

The instances of misleading use of statistics by government, and lack of attention to a common understanding of the facts, made O’Donnell “weep”. “It’s not one party in particular but there have some been egregious incidents of using statistics to mislead, or have been misinterpreted,” he said.

Asked whether he would recommend more rule-making in this area, backed by enforcement and sanctions, he said: “Where you are dealing with factual things that can be checked and statistics, there needs to be a stronger emphasis on someone calling these things out. And then a requirement – as we have in press regulation and the paper has to print corrections – that if they do mislead they have to go back to the House and say ‘I’m really sorry, when I said x that wasn’t the case’.”  

O’Donnell also highlighted the number of “ministerial directions” given to civil servants by ministers as evidence of government’s increasing tendency not to live by established codes and conventions. “Another indicator of where things are going badly wrong is looking at the number of [ministerial] directions government is making, where the civil servant feels obliged to say, ‘I will only do this if you give you me a written direction’. That’s a nuclear thing that I never had to do. There is a place for them but they have been growing quite substantially and that makes me very nervous,” he noted.

Under the UK system, permanent secretaries – who are accountable to Parliament for all the spending of their department – can ask their secretary of state for a ministerial direction if they’re being asked to allocate resources in ways that don’t represent value for money under established metrics.

Both Sedwill and O’Donnell agreed that reduced trust and confidence in public bodies has an economic impact. High, consistent and predictable standards in public life create the conditions that allow businesses to invest in the UK and grow their operations, according to Sedwill. O’Donnell said “the economist in [him]” was concerned, partly as Covid-related public spending had tilted the economy towards the public sector.

Cycles not assaults

But Sedwill was less inclined to interpret recent events as an erosion of standards in public life. People’s tendency to forget previous controversies led them to experience each new incident as an assault on public standards when it was better characterised as a “cycle”, he argued.   

 “We should ensure our memories aren’t too short,” he said, mentioning the national and political outrage over the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands War, or the “cash for questions” scandal that rocked John Major’s government in the mid 1990s.

“I think we have to recognise that this kind of thing has always arisen in a political system. And actually one of the benefits of our system is that in the end they come out and people are held accountable.”

The ministerial code

Both O’Donnell and Sedwill agreed, however, that there had been a misconception that ministers should resign if they were found to have breached the ministerial code. This issue was raised recently when the PM’s independent adviser on the code, Sir Alex Allen, resigned after Johnson declined to act on an investigation into allegations of bullying against Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Sedwill argued that there should be greater clarity on the “separation of powers” between the investigator’s role to establish the facts and weigh them against the code, and the imposition of sanctions by the prime minister.

Ministers who breached the code, Sedwill argued, should be treated similarly to any employee who  mishandled a situation at work, triggering interventions including informal warnings and behavioural coaching without requiring resignation. 

O’Donnell said: “This is the prime minister’s code and when the findings are out there, the prime minister should decide on the sanctions, and I think those sanctions should be graduated. It’s completely wrong to think a breach should result in resigning. There are all sorts of ways in which you can breach the code, from really, really serious to relatively minor.”

Asked for views on the permanent secretary appointment procedures introduced by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which gave ministers more freedom to appoint from a pool of “appointable” candidates rather than following civil service recommendations, O’Donnell judged it had led to some “substandard” appointments. 

Sedwill regretted that he had been unable to oversee an update to the Cabinet Manual during his time in office, suggesting it should be a “single source of truth” on how government should operate.

“Although one would want the flexibility to update each of the codes, if you like as an annex to the Cabinet Manual rather than updating the whole Cabinet Manual every time somebody wanted to make a change, I think bringing that together as a central repository of rules government, is a project I wanted to make a start on. But it was crowded out.”

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