A year of high-profile scandals about the conduct of politicians – including serving and former cabinet ministers, a former prime minister and Boris Johnson himself – has prompted widespread calls for changes to the rules and systems that oversee government transparency and ethics. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Labour Party, Nigel Boardman, the lawyer who investigated the access that Greensill Finance had in government, and the House of Commons’ Committee on Standards have all put forward specific reforms, aimed at different areas of public life.

This explainer brings together these proposals, drawing on a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), the Boardman review (published by the government in September), a keynote speech by Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner*, and the recent report of the Commons’ Committee on Standards. It examines each of their recommendations and assesses how they compare, which area of public life they address and which go furthest in their aim of addressing how standards and transparency in government should be improved.

Ministerial code and independent adviser on ministerial interests | Lobbying | Business appointments

Public appointments and direct ministerial appointments | Other recommendations

Ministerial code and independent adviser on ministerial interests

Committee on Standards in Public Life

Nigel Boardman

Labour

House of Commons’ Committee on Standards

Analysis

The ministerial code should be separated into a document focused on ethical standards, and one on processes.

The existence of the code should be given a legislative basis.

The code should make clear that breaches result in graduated sanctions, not just resignation.

The powers and remit of the independent adviser should be strengthened. The adviser should be appointed through an “enhanced version of the current process for significant public appointments”, should have the power to start their own investigations, and their finding should be published within eight weeks.

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Labour would set up an independent Integrity and Ethics Commission, which would consult on what changes are needed to the ministerial code to make it “fit for purpose”.

The commission would have the power to investigate ministers’ conduct, without the approval of the prime minister.

The commission will be able to issue clear sanctions for breaches of the code, “so the prime minister is no longer judge and jury over the conduct of ministers”.

The committee notes that ministers who are MPs are subject to both the ministerial code and the MPs’ code of conduct, and that the ministerial code lacks an independent investigator and a graduated system of sanctions, unlike the MPs’ code.

The committee also criticises the fact that ministers are subject to “fewer and less onerous standards of registration of financial interests” than MPs who are not ministers.

The committee calls for the two codes to be “as closely aligned as is practically possible”, with ministers required to register hospitality they receive as a minister with the House of Commons as well as with the government.

All those who have looked into this agree that the ministerial code needs updating and the powers of the independent adviser need strengthening, although they would go about it in different ways.

Labour’s changes would be the most ambitious, with its independent commission taking on some of the responsibilities currently held by the prime minister to ensure that ministers abide by the code.

Nigel Boardman’s investigation focused mainly on the actions of civil servants, not ministers.

 

Lobbying

Committee on Standards in Public Life

Nigel Boardman

Labour

House of Commons’ Committee on Standards

Analysis

The Cabinet Office should publish all departmental transparency releases in a searchable database, on a monthly basis.

Senior civil servants at director level and above, and all special advisers should have to publish information about their meetings with external organisations.

Informal lobbying of ministers, and lobbying via alternative forms of communication such as WhatsApp or Zoom, should be reported to officials and published.

Consultant lobbyists should have to declare the date, recipient, and subject matter of their lobbying.

The government should strengthen transparency reporting by, among other things, requiring special advisers and more senior civil servants to provide and publish information on who they meet to discuss government business.

These transparency returns should be made more frequent and the government should define more clearly what should be included.

The definition of ‘meeting’ should include other forms of non-public interactive dialogue (e.g. phone calls, messages).

Lobbyists should disclose the ultimate person paying for, or benefitting from, their lobbying.

Labour would ban former ministers from lobbying for at least five years after they leave office. And there would be consequences – including financial sanctions – if the rules are broken.

MPs who take on outside work should obtain a written contract detailing their duties, and making explicit that they cannot lobby ministers, MPs, or public officials on behalf of that employer, or provide advice about how to lobby or influence parliament.

Restrictions under the lobbying rules should apply for 12 months after the reward or consideration was received, rather than six months.

A ban should be imposed on MPs providing paid parliamentary advice, consultancy, or strategy services.

There is a general consensus that rules around lobbying need to be tightened.

The House of Commons’ Committee on Standards has focused on how to regulate MPs acting as lobbyists, and Labour on managing what ministers do after leaving office.

The CSPL and Boardman provide the most detailed recommendations on how the government should both regulate being lobbied, and provide more transparency around said lobbying.

 

Business appointments

Committee on Standards in Public Life

Nigel Boardman

Labour

House of Commons’ Committee on Standards

Analysis

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) should be given a statutory basis, with the power to enforce its rulings via contractual obligations for officials and “parallel legal agreements” for ministers (who do not have employment contracts).

The business appointment rules should be expanded to prohibit appointments where the applicant has had significant responsibility for decisions affecting the company they are seeking to join.

The rules should be updated to allow (ACOBA) and departments to issue a lobbying ban for five years, not just two.

The government should introduce pre-appointment rules which prevent for a period of time civil servants dealing with or promoting their former employer after joining the civil service.

The government should make post-employment restrictions on civil servants and ministers legally binding, with contractual arrangements for civil servants and legally enforceable deeds of undertaking for ministers.

The government should develop a memorandum of understanding with ACOBA to set out how they can work more effectively together.

Boardman does not think that extending the length of the ban on lobbying for senior ministers would solve public concerns around ministers’ lobbying.

A ban on all former ministers from lobbying “for at least five years” after they leave offices.

Sanctions would include financial penalties.

The rules would be enforced by the independent Integrity and Ethics Commission.

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Labour’s proposals are the most ambitious again, but perhaps the least developed. Boardman proposes to work within the existing structures and processes, while the CSPL envisions some strengthening of the current system and some bigger changes.

All agree, however, that restrictions on post-government jobs need to be properly, legally, enforceable, unlike now when the only sanction is a sternly worded letter and potential embarrassment.

 

Public appointments and direct ministerial appointments

Committee on Standards in Public Life

Nigel Boardman

Labour

House of Commons’ Committee on Standards

Analysis

The government should publish a list of all unregulated and regulated public appointments.

The appointments process for non-executive directors of government departments should be regulated under the Governance Code for Public Appointments.

Ministers should not appoint a candidate who is deemed unappointable by an assessment panel. And if they do so, the minister must appear in front of the relevant select committee to justify their decision.

Ministers should consult with the commissioner for public appointments on the composition of all panel members for competitions for significant appointments.

Direct ministerial appointments, whether renumerated or not, need a clearer and more transparent process.

If a direct appointee is not appointed following a competitive process, a written explanation from the minister as to why no competitive process was undertaken should be included in the department’s annual report and account.

Direct appointees must make a full disclosure of conflicts of interest.

Where ministers and civil servants disagree on whether a potential appointee is appointable but the minister wishes to proceed, the minister must give a written direction to the civil service to that effect.

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The CSPL looked at the public appointments process, while Boardman looked into direct ministerial appointments (also known as government ‘tsars’), but their proposals to strengthen the appointments processes are similar.

One difference between them is that CSPL recommends that ministers should not appoint a candidate who is deemed unappointable by an assessment panel. Boardman suggests that if a minister wants to appoint someone directly whom the civil service do not agree is appointable, the minister must give a written direction to the civil service.

 

Other recommendations

Committee on Standards in Public Life

Nigel Boardman

Labour

House of Commons’ Committee on Standards

Analysis

Government needs a stronger compliance function, to ensure that the new rules are enforced.

The committee explicitly recommended against combining the current ethics regulators into one commission.

The government should pass primary legislation to place the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, the public appointments commissioner, and ACOBA on a statutory basis.

The definition of “leadership” in the seven principles of public life should be expanded explicitly include respect for others.

Government needs a stronger compliance function, to ensure that the new rules are enforced (Boardman points particularly to parts of the private sector where compliance functions are strong).

The government should also introduce mandatory propriety and ethics training.

Labour’s independent commission would be put on a statutory footing, enshrined in legislation.

The CSPL would be strengthened and brought into the Integrity and Ethics Commission.

An additional principle of “respect” should be added to the MPs’ code of conduct.

The MPs’ code should be updated to make it a breach for any MP to attack anyone, in any medium (an attempt to deal with aggressive use of social media by MPs).

The House of Commons should provide training for all MPs on the standards expected of them.

The various reports and investigations of recent months have made several other recommendations across various different issues.

There are certain themes in what the different bodies have recommended:

  • There is a need for greater understanding of the standards expected of those in public life, and therefore for training for MPs, civil servants (and potentially minister).
  • There needs to be greater focus on compliance with the rules, not just updating the rules themselves.
  • The importance of respect for others’ needs to be fully recognised.

 

Conclusion

A year of scandals has culminated in strong calls for reform to the systems that oversee standards and transparency in government from all sides of the political spectrum. At the Institute, we have set out our own suggestions of how transparency and politicians’ conduct can be improved, including by giving the various ethics regulators a statutory base, giving the independent adviser the power to begin his own investigations and increasing transparency into whom ministers meet.

Ultimately, however, it is up to the prime minister to consider these various proposals and take the lead in improving standards in public life.

Further information 

*While the Labour Party has made various calls for change in various forums, this explainer focuses on the proposals set out by Angela Rayner in her speech at the Institute for Government on 29 November 2021. 

Update date: 
Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Original source – The Institute for Government

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