On entering Downing Street after the chaos and corruption of the Johnson and Truss years, Rishi Sunak said that he was committed to “integrity, professionalism and accountability in government”. But the government’s recent behaviour doesn’t look anything like that.
On the last day of the parliamentary session, when MPs were leaving for their constituencies and holidays, the government published 700 documents. Among them was their response to proposals for reform of the ethical rules governing the behaviour of ministers and civil servants. They offered a few welcome minor changes, but overall, it is a triumph for the status quo. Government is best left to good chaps.
The prime minister, not parliament, is in charge
Although we claim to be a ‘parliamentary democracy’, in reality parliament doesn’t control much. Once we have elected our MPs, the leader of the party with the most MPs becomes prime minister. Provided that they keep the support of most of their own MPs, they have very substantial powers, and very few checks.
Prime ministers decide when to hold a general election. They alone appoint and dismiss ministers, and regulate their conduct. Those ministers direct the work of their departments, and although they periodically have to explain what they are doing to the relevant parliamentary select committee, there is little practical constraint on what they can do. It is the government, not parliament, that decides what parliament will discuss, and for how long. The government proposes new laws and, given a working majority (which they usually have), those proposals will almost always become law.
This is an extraordinary concentration of power, with little real accountability. And the whole edifice rests on the assumption that people in power will behave fairly, and act in the public interest, at least as they see it.
The last decade has shown that these assumptions are unwise.
Vanishing public trust
Public trust is usually lower for politicians than for other groups in society, but it is now at an all-time low, and there is widespread public concern about standards in public life. Only 6% of people think that there is no need for change, and only a third of people say they trust the government or politicians generally. There is particular concern about the lack of formal rules to prevent bad or corrupt behaviour by ministers.
And the concern has spread to some surprising places. Lord Pickles, a former chair of the Conservative party, appointed to oversee the rules on business appointments for former ministers, has said that,
If [good chaps] ever existed, that time has long passed, and the contemporary world has outgrown the rules … New areas of corruption are not monitored because they were not envisaged when the Rules were drawn up and they are unworkable.
Two prime ministerial ethics advisers have resigned, protesting that the role was impossible.
Decent politicians, probably the majority in all parties, are concerned about this. So, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which includes MPs of all parties and lay experts, has reviewed the system and made recommendations.
Proposals for reform
Two years ago, that committee published its report on government ethics. It argued that the current system is incoherent and inconsistent; it is too dependent on conventions (written and unwritten); that standards regulators in government are not sufficiently independent; and that government needs to take a more formal and professional approach to its own ethics obligations. The committee made 34 specific proposals for reform. Among the most significant are these three proposals:
- The rules on ministers’ behaviour should be set by parliament in law, rather than by the prime minister.
- There should be tighter and clearer limits on the ability of ministers and civil servants to move to private sector jobs or lobbying roles in related fields.
- The processes for reporting meetings between ministers, civil servants, special advisers and lobbyists should be standardised and made more transparent.
The government response
The government dismissed the proposals for new legislation, insisting that only the prime minister can decide whether the Ministerial Code has been breached. They accepted that the rules on moving to the private sector could be formalised, but they rejected the proposal to set specific limits on how many years people would be banned from taking up such appointments. They accepted the proposals on lobbying, but with no timetable for implementation.
The Labour plan
The Labour Party has proposed a much more radical approach. In a speech to the Institute for Government, Angela Rayner announced that they would create a statutory ethics & integrity commission, operationally independent and free of government control, to coordinate all aspects of ethics in government. This would take over the functions of the independent adviser on ministerial interests, but with powers to initiate investigations and recommend sanctions to parliament, which would have greater control. They plan to consult about detailed remits and structures.
A small step forward
As is the convention, the Committee on Standards in Public Life has politely welcomed the government’s response, as a step forward, even if it has taken nearly two years to do so.
Publication during the summer recess means that the issue has had little public attention, and it is unlikely that most people will feel their concerns have been put to rest. The prime minister retains most of his power, and ministers and civil servants will continue to move relatively freely into the private sector.
The chance to reduce the opportunities for corruption has been largely missed, at least for now.