Policing politics: how to restore ethical standards in government

By on 05/05/2024 | Updated on 07/05/2024

A recent Institute for Government event debated how to restore the British public’s faith in politicians – which, long tenuous, was further undermined in Boris Johnson’s chaotic stint as PM. Matt Ross reports

“Trust in the system is broken, and our aim will be to rebuild it,” said Nick Thomas-Symonds, a Labour frontbencher covering the Cabinet Office brief – including the hot topic of ethical standards in the UK government, which was the subject of a panel discussion last week at think tank the Institute for Government (IfG).

Recent years have seen a cavalcade of furores over misbehaving ministers and MPs, each new scandal taking a fresh bite out of the public’s confidence in their elected representatives. These reached a climax under Boris Johnson, whose repeated failures to uphold proper standards eventually led to his downfall. With a series of politicians falling very publicly from grace, the issue remains firmly in the public eye.

Following the mayfly-brief tenure of Johnson’s successor Liz Truss – who, as Thomas-Symonds pointed out, “said she wasn’t going to appoint an independent adviser [on ministerial interests] at all, because she always acted with integrity and it wasn’t required” – her successor Rishi Sunak came to office foregrounding his commitment to a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”.  

He has some heavy lifting to do. As IfG programme director Tim Durrant explained, polling commissioned by the think tank has found that two-thirds of UK citizens do not believe that ministers behave ethically, while only 15% believe that the picture is improving. “The last few years have really led to a sense that the systems set up to guide ethical behaviour in public life are not working,” he commented.

A failed system

It would be hard to draw any other conclusion. When in 2020 independent adviser on ministerial interests Alex Allan found that then-home secretary Priti Patel had bullied civil servants, Thomas-Symonds asked rhetorically, “who ended up walking away from their job? It wasn’t the home secretary; it was the independent adviser”. In this saga, Allan’s investigation concluded that Patel had indulged in “behaviour that can be described as bullying” – a clear breach of the Ministerial Code. Number 10’s response was to sit on his report until it leaked, at which point Johnson announced that the code had not in fact been breached. Allan promptly quit; his successor, Lord Geidt, lasted a year before himself heading for the exit.

Speaking from the floor, Dave Penman, the general secretary of civil service managers’ union the FDA, called for a system that does not “allow prime ministers to make that political decision around the choices of punishment for [breaches of] the Ministerial Code”. After all, he said, PMs often have strong incentives “to ignore all the evidence that is put in front of them”.

Tory MP Sir Jeremy Wright, a former attorney general, met Penman halfway. “It’s really quite invidious for a prime minister to try and work out whether someone’s breached the Ministerial Code,” he said; this decision should be made by an independent figure. However, he argued that the punishment should be decided by the PM – preserving their democratic mandate to select ministers.

In Wright’s view, the problem is that any breach of the code is expected to result in the minister’s resignation. This has led to the “unconscionable position of prime ministers trying to find ways of saying that what was clearly a breach of the Ministerial Code wasn’t a breach of the Ministerial Code, because they didn’t want to lose that minister”.

So let the independent adviser determine whether the code has been breached, said Wright, while the PM sets the punishment. This, he argued, would put an end to scenarios in which PMs are “tying themselves in knots to find a way of not finding a breach”. There are, he added, “lots of things ministers can do wrong that they should be accountable for and should be punished for, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to lose their job in government”.

Standards shopping list

The IfG backed Wright’s position, with Durrant pointing out that the current Ministerial Code “elides basic things about the process of government – who can attend which Cabinet committee; how ministerial cars are used – with ethics and standards”. The code should be rewritten, he argued, and only more serious breaches should require a minister’s resignation.

What’s more, said Durrant and Wright, the independent adviser should be given the power to launch their own inquiries without requiring the PM’s permission – and here, Thomas-Symonds was in full support. “That’s a really important principle,” he said. “There needs to be an independent ability to start investigations.”

Beyond these reforms, a further set of changes are required, said Durrant. These include greater transparency over ministerial meetings; “strong and independent routes for whistle-blowing, for civil servants to raise concerns”; and the extension of the lobbying register to cover in-house lobbyists as well as public affairs consultancies. The Advisory Committee On Business Appointments (ACOBA) – the “pretty toothless” body charged with policing the boundary between government and the private sector – should be strengthened, he argued, and ministers should be required “to sign a legal deed of undertaking” pledging to comply its rulings.

Thomas-Symonds – whose party is widely expected to win the forthcoming general election – responded that “there does need to be a mode of enforcement” for ACOBA rulings. As a former barrister, however, he questioned whether signing a deed of undertaking would strengthen the body’s clout.

Read more: UK has ‘gone backwards’ on standards in public life, says ethics chief

Plan is to publish a plan

Labour will need more closely defined positions on these issues by the time of the election – when, Thomas-Symonds said, the party will publish a “comprehensive” plan addressing everything from lobbying to MPs’ second jobs; from procurement to overseas party donations.

Meanwhile, it has at least identified some of the problems in the existing system. The UK’s approach to overseeing ethics in government is “complex, and it is very disjointed”, said Thomas-Symonds. “It’s difficult – whether it’s the media, ministers themselves or the public – to understand all these different bodies and their purpose. I also think it’s difficult for regulators to spot common problems in ethical standards, or indeed to identify where there is overlap.”

One commitment made by Labour is the establishment of an “ethics and integrity commission”: this won’t be a “single, big super-regulator”, Thomas-Symonds explained, but an over-arching body that monitors and manages the system’s various elements – creating a “one-stop shop for standards in government. We want to make it more transparent, more accessible, more joined-up”.

Any reforms should preserve the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty, said Wright, warning against the temptation to treat every accusation as well-founded; there are already too many reasons for talented people to avoid a life in politics. “I caution against the assumption that everything must get harsher and quicker in judging guilt or innocence,” he commented. 

Concealed consensus

That said, Wright agreed that “there are several substantive things that have to be done to improve our performance” on standards. A series of administrations have been “thrown completely off course” by controversies over ministerial ethics, he said, becoming “massively distracted by a complete standards fiasco on a particular case, which then consumes all of your political attention”. In his view, a stronger system is very much in the interests of every PM, providing a way to “deal with as many of the potential threats in advance as you possibly can”.

“There are lots of things we can do to make this system better,” Wright concluded. “And there’s a remarkable amount of consensus about how you do that; we’ve just now got to get on and make it happen.” He added that his party won’t “die in a ditch on the question of whether there should be an independent commission”, as proposed by Labour. “What matters far more is what it does and how it does it – and on that there ought to be greater consensus surfaced, because I think it is there under the surface.”

Challenged as to whether an incoming Labour government will prove willing to expend precious political capital in driving up standards, Thomas-Symonds responded by noting that last December, Labour leader Keir Starmer gave a speech that “identified standards in public life as a huge priority.” Governments do get “blown off course by events”, he added, “but politics is ultimately about choices; and that’s the point, isn’t it? Certain things are thrust upon you as a government that you have to deal with, but you can choose to make ethics and standards a priority – and that’s what Keir Starmer has done.”

Labour is making all the right noises on ethical standards, but only the publication of its plan – and its subsequent success in implementing it – will reveal whether, on this crucial topic, its bite is as powerful as its bark.

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About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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