UK public standards watchdog sounds alarm over politicians’ behaviour

By on 17/11/2020
Chair of The Committee on Standards in Public Life, Jonathan Evans.

A “perception is taking root” that public leaders are “choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety” that should define their behaviour, the head of the UK’s public standards watchdog has warned. 

In an address to the Institute of Business Ethics last week, Lord Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that people “are concerned by the perception that those in public life no longer feel obliged to follow the so-called ‘Nolan principles’ of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership”. There is, he argued, “little reason for the public to trust” the existing process for examining alleged breaches of the ministerial code.

The Committee on Standards in Public life was established in 1994 by then prime minister John Major under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan, whose first report set out the seven principles the following year.  

In his speech, Evans warned that “the post-Nolan accusation is that our public culture is changing for the worse. Quite simply, the perception is taking root that too many in public life, including some in our political leadership, are choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years, and that, when contraventions of ethical standards occur, nothing happens.” 

Examples of worst practice

While he did not cast judgement, Lord Evans referred directly to the recent case involving housing secretary Robert Jenrick and developer and former newspaper owner Richard Desmond. In June, it emerged that Jenrick had gone over the local council’s head to grant planning permission for a £1bn (US$1.3bn) property scheme on the former Westferry Road printworks in east London after meeting Desmond at a dinner. Had the planning permission been granted just 24 hours later, the council would have been entitled to charge Desmond an additional £45m to fund infrastructure and affordable housing. Two weeks after receiving permission, Desmond – who claimed that the additional charge would have made the development unviable ­– donated £12,000 to the Conservative party.  

Jenrick accepted that the approval for the scheme had been unlawful and said that any “fair-minded and informed observer” could conclude there was a “real possibility of bias”, although he insisted he had not acted inappropriately. The permission was withdrawn, and Jenrick subsequently recused himself from making a decision on the project.  

“There can be little doubt that the handling of Richard Desmond’s proposed scheme to redevelop the Westferry Printworks knocked public confidence in the fairness of the planning system and as far as I am aware there has been no independent investigation into conduct concerns that the Ministerial Code had been breached,” said Lord Evans. 

Do bullies never prosper?

The peer also referred to the accusations of bullying levelled at Priti Patel. The home secretary has been investigated by the Cabinet Office after accusations were made that she had bullied civil servants; her permanent secretary, Philip Rutnam, left government and has since launched a case against the government alleging breaches of employment law. The resulting report was completed months ago but has not been published. 

Speaking before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this week, former Cabinet secretary Lord Sedwill confirmed that the report had been with prime minister Boris Johnson since before he stood down in September. “The bullying allegations made against the Home Secretary were investigated by the Cabinet Office but the outcome of that investigation has not been published, though completed some months ago,” said Lord Evans. “There may be legal complexities underlying this but those have not been made clear and this does not build confidence in the accountability of government.” 

He added: “In both cases, it is not necessarily the outcome of the investigation that is the problem. Rather, it is the fact that the process for dealing with allegations of ministerial impropriety are not transparent or independent, so accountability is limited. In its current state, there is little reason for the public to trust this process and its outcomes.” 

Rise of the chumocracy

Lord Evans also pointed to the way in which procurement rules have been suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. Campaigners argue that the government has become a “chumocracy”, with large numbers of contracts being awarded to companies with close ties to Conservative MPs.  

“Public expenditure is back in the spotlight,” he said. “The suspension of normal procurement rules has exposed the public purse to an unprecedented level of risk. Process-free procurement creates the opportunity for cronyism and distrust. It is no surprise that allegations are rife that contracts are awarded to those with political ties to the government. These may be unfounded, but without proper process the public won’t know.” 

The speech came little more than a week after Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, wrote to Lord Evans ahead of an appearance before the Committee on Standards in Public Life. In the letter, Riddell warned of the growth of “unregulated appointments” – government appointments that are scrutinised neither by the commissioner’s office or the Civil Service Commission. 

No rules to go round

“That has been highlighted by the appointment of Baroness Harding to lead NHS Test and Trace and to be interim executive chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection without any process of regulated appointment,” Riddell wrote.  

“Similarly, non-executive members of the boards of government departments are also not regulated at all and there have been growing concerns about this omission as the original idea of bringing in people with business and similar experience from outside Whitehall has been partly replaced by the appointment of political allies of ministers, in some cases without competition, and without any form of regulatory oversight.”  Riddell added: “The overall danger is of these developments is they may reduce diversity of thought and experience rather than increase it. That has been underlined by the way due diligence can be applied to search for any tweet or social media comment critical of government policies. Due diligence is a necessary and desirable part of the assessment of candidates but it is essential that it is both proportionate and relevant to the post being appointed.” 

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