UK standards watchdog slams government’s attack on parliamentary scrutiny

By on 04/11/2021 | Updated on 04/11/2021
Lord Evans said this week's vote in the House of Commons to halt an MP's suspension for paid lobbying points to a systematic failure of ethical standards

The chair of the UK’s public standards watchdog today condemned the government’s attempt to reshape the system charged with policing MPs’ behaviour, calling it “a very serious and damaging moment for parliament and for public standards”.

The government yesterday successfully whipped Tory MPs to vote for a Commons motion that would have both led to the replacement of the current system – with a cross-party group of MPs working up a successor – and paused action against Owen Paterson, a Tory MP and former minister found guilty of “egregious” rule-breaking by lobbying ministers on behalf of private businesses.

Speaking at an online Institute for Government conference, Lord Evans, a former intelligence chief now serving as chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: “People recognise this as an attack on standards. It’s not been presented in that way, but I think you’d have to be extremely naive to imagine that this was not a politically motivated set of decisions.”

“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,” he added.

Corruption warning

Evans took aim at the Conservative party’s attempts to undermine the watchdog commissioner behind the investigation into Paterson’s conduct, Kathryn Stone, along with its proposal that the committee established to design a replacement system have an in-built Tory majority. “This extraordinary proposal is deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy,” he commented.

Referring to the seven Nolan principles applied to public office holders in the UK for more than 25 years, he said ministers and MPs are expected to show leadership in upholding ethical standards in public life, adding: “I fail to see how yesterday’s actions in any way meet that test.” 

The government’s attempt to dismantle the systems overseeing MPs’ behaviour, Evans warned, risked undermining the UK’s reputation both at home and abroad. “We should not take for granted that this country has low levels of corruption. We could slip into [being] a corrupt country. People are looking at us and we can’t assume that our good name will be maintained unless we act in accordance with that,” he said. “The UK can act against corruption internationally by leading by example at home. Yet it remains true that the perceptions of the ethical standards of ministers and MPs remains poor.”

Screeching U-turn

In response to the government’s plans – which passed the Commons comfortably, despite a modest rebellion among Tory MPs – Opposition parties refused to join the committee intended to design the new system. And just hours after Evans spoke this morning, the government abruptly reversed its position – abandoning its attempt to rebuild the Commons standards system, and leaving the way open for MPs to vote on the Commons Standards Committee’s proposed sanction: that Paterson should be suspended from the Commons for 30 days. The disgraced minister promptly resigned as an MP, clearing the way for a by-election in his safe Tory seat.

The government had appeared surprised by the level of public and media hostility to its plans, which appeared set to seriously damage MPs’ reputations – apparently in defence of a single Tory backbencher. On Twitter, PM Boris Johnson’s former top adviser Dominic Cummings provided one explanation for the government’s move – suggesting that Johnson wants to kill Stone’s ongoing investigation into the funding of his Downing Street refurbishment. 

“Part of the point of yesterday is the removal of K Stone,” Cummings wrote. “Most media ignored S Walters stories re [the PM’s wife] Carrie’s wallpaper/PM’s illegal donations cos Carrie hands out so many leaks/exclusives. Yesterday was really about the PM & his own lies re illegal £ not [Owen Paterson].”

Build back better

Looking forwards, Evans emphasised the importance of creating a more independent system to police MPs’ behaviour. Currently, MPs can be investigated by Stone, who is Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the House of Commons, but any sanction subsequently recommended by the Committee on Standards must be approved by a majority of MPs.

“The key theme in my view is independence. Increasing the independence of the system seems to me to be critical both to its effective operation and also its credibility, and therefore the benefits it can bring to this country both politically and economically,” said Evans.

report published in November by Evans’ Committee on Standards in Public Life sets out 34 recommendations for reform to ethical standards within government. In it, the committee conceded that while lobbying “is an important and legitimate aspect of public life in a liberal democracy”, public trust has been eroded by a series of scandals involving lobbying by MPs and peers.

As for ministers…

Evans also called for changes to the policing of the ministerial code. Currently, the prime minister can choose to reject recommendations made by the adviser on ministerial standards – as occurred last year, when Allan quit that post after Johnson rejected his finding that home secretary Priti Patel had fallen below the standards required.

“We are not recommending that the ministerial code should be owned by parliament. We believe the policing of it should be undertaken by an independent advisor with the ability to initiate their own investigations,” said Evans. 

“At the moment, that is a political decision, which puts the prime minister in an invidious position torn between the political interest and the standards interest, and it would be better if that was turned into an independent judgement by somebody who does not have a political axe to grind.”

About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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