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

By on 23/10/2023 | Updated on 23/10/2023
Portrait picture of Lord Evans, outgoing chair of the UK’s Committee on Standards in Public Life
Portrait picture of Lord Evans, outgoing chair of the UK’s Committee on Standards in Public Life, reproduced under Creative Commons

A year after Lord Evans took on the job of chair of the UK’s Committee on Standards in Public Life, Boris Johnson became prime minister – making the former spy chief’s tenure a challenging one, as Evans made clear last week. Matt Ross reports

“Internationally, we are seen as having gone backwards,” said Lord Evans. “Perceptions of corruption have increased over the last few years.”

A former head of the UK’s domestic intelligence agency MI5, these days Evans is chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life: a non-departmental public body that appraises and promotes ethical behaviour among elected leaders, appointees and officials. Speaking at think tank the Institute for Government last week, Evans was giving a valedictory lecture as he neared the end of his five-year term – and made little attempt to hide his belief that ethical standards in government collapsed under former prime minister Boris Johnson.

Told by an audience member that people feel their leaders lie to them with impunity, Evans replied: “Members of the public who are concerned about truth-telling are right, aren’t they? They should be concerned about it, and I think that it is a fundamental undermining of parliamentary democracy if ministers lie to parliament.”

Referring to the House of Commons’s privileges committee, which in June found that Johnson had deliberately misled parliament over parties held in Downing Street during COVID lockdowns, Evans said: “I was pleased, therefore, to see the privileges committee take forward the work they did on the very famous case. And I think it highlighted the fact that this is something that matters.”

Read more: Integrity under threat: civil service ethics in the era of populism

Final straws

Ultimately, it was ethical issues that brought Johnson down – most notably the lockdown parties, and lying over the appointment of a whip who had a track record of sexual assaults. But these revelations were only the last in a long series of scandals, which led two independent advisors on ministerial standards and the government’s anti-corruption champion to quit in disgust – and exposed the system’s weakness in the face of an unembarrassable prime minister willing to defy convention. Told by his standards advisor that his home secretary had bullied staff, Johnson simply ignored the report; when the Commons select committee on standards recommended the suspension of Tory MP Owen Paterson for breaching lobbying rules, he set out to rewrite those rules.

The seven ‘Nolan Principles’ overseen by Evans’s committee “haven’t changed, but the polarised and unstable nature of British politics in recent years has placed them under great pressure,” said the peer. “The attempt to tear up the independent system for maintaining standards in parliament in November 2021 in the House of Commons – the Owen Paterson affair – was scandalous, and it was damaging. We’ve also seen instances of poor practice in hospitals, in the police and elsewhere, all part of a wider public landscape that undermines public confidence.”

This high-handed approach to parliament, said Evans, reaches well beyond standards issues – with recent prime ministers constantly seeking to expand executive power and diminish legislative scrutiny. “Governments have been increasingly reluctant to make parliamentary accountability a reality, both in the way parliament runs and in the way that legislation is drafted,” Evans commented. “In avoiding accountability to parliament, the government is also seeking to avoid accountability to the electorate, the public.”

This clash weakens government, he warned – undermining delivery for the public. “When the relationships between government and parliament, and with the wider administration, become hostile and conflictual, necessary repairs are delayed; public appointments are not made; recommendations are not responded to; and what might be seen as lesser matters are put off,” said Evans. “We have many signs of this in the last few years, leading to a feeling – well rehearsed in the media – that nothing works properly.”

The route to repairs

Drawing on his committee’s recent reports, Evans urged the government to act on a broad range of fronts. “There are areas where the government could make significant improvements quite quickly,” he commented.

For a start, “on MPs’ outside interests, the public is clear that being an MP should be your full-time principal job. The current rules don’t meet that expectation”. His committee wouldn’t ban second jobs altogether, Evans explained, but “we do believe that there need to be limits on the amount of time and effort that somebody is putting into a second job”. Personally, he added, he’d like to see all general election candidates making clear whether they’d be taking on additional work; then “electors can make their decision”.

“On local government standards, there is still a major problem,” Evans continued. “We were very disappointed that the government took three years to respond to our 2019 report, and then rejected our recommendations.” In an apparent message to the next government, he added that he hopes this report “can be looked at with fresh eyes”.

Party finances present a third area of concern. “There are significant risks in the government’s failure to close loopholes in election donation laws, not least around foreign interference in our political process,” said the former spy chief. “This is where public standards meet national security, and clear vulnerabilities have not been addressed.” It is, he added, “anomalous” that charities receiving donations are subject to tighter regulation than political parties: “I find it hard to understand the principle.”

Fourth, Evans criticised departments for failing in their duty to publish the details of meetings between ministers or officials and private sector lobbyists. “Financial interests and conflicts of interest must be disclosed and the information must be accessible to the public,” he said. “A lot of the government departments haven’t been publishing them, so it blows a complete hole in the lobbying rules.”

Finally, Evans warned that “the abuse and intimidation of those in public life” is a huge problem. “It’s hugely damaging to democracy, and is a major factor in putting people off serving in public roles.” When parliament’s Brexit battles were at their height, he added, “it was very clear that several MPs had changed their voting intention in divisions in parliament because of fear of what would happen if they voted the other way. So they voted against their conscience and against their judgement and because they were frightened of what might happen to them, and that is a really serious undermining of parliamentary democracy.”

Restoring the rules

During his speech, Evans highlighted many such threats to Britain’s democracy – though the direction of travel, he suggested, is once again bending towards ethical government. In response to mounting public concerns and the collapse of Johnson’s government, he said, “the political consensus has probably moved slightly back towards the checks and balances model”.

It has, however, been a bruising few years for standards in public life. “Our political institutions as well as our standards bodies and structures have felt great challenge,” said the outgoing standards chief – leaving today’s elected leaders with the difficult task of regaining the public’s trust. Boris Johnson and his outriders repeatedly gained short-term political advantage by excusing unethical behaviours, but the price was paid by the UK’s democratic institutions and the relationships between politicians and populace.

As Evans said: “The damage done to the trust and confidence that the public have in those in political and public life has been significant.”

Join Global Government Forum’s LinkedIn group to keep up to date with all the insight public and civil servants need to know.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *