News 05th Nov 2021

A dangerous week for our democracy

For those of us who take a view that integrity and high standards are important among the people who run our country, this week has been a real roller coaster.

What started as potentially good news with the release of the ‘Standards Matter 2’ report and its roadmap to improve integrity almost ended up with just the reverse - a complete standards vacuum.

How did we get here?

Led by a former head of MI5, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) and its year-long review delivered a highly credible plan to improve integrity and standards among the office holders at the heart of government in the form of 34 detailed recommendations for reform.

In particular, the committee was concerned that oversight of ministerial behaviour lagged behind arrangements for MPs, that rules on business appointments for former ministers were weak, that public appointments needed protecting from political interference and that lobbying of government remains far too opaque. The committee took the view that, in many cases, new laws were now needed to strengthen the system.

The government responded with a now increasingly familiar form of words: the recommendations would be responded to ‘in due course’. Given the breadth of the CSPL’s charge sheet, the lack of urgency was troubling.

That was Monday. By Wednesday, the mood had transformed. MPs on the government benches were suddenly demanding an urgent ‘overhaul of standards arrangements’ after all. Yet their motivation had nothing to do with the CSPL’s concerns, rather the arrangements for overseeing MPs’ behaviour. Even more surprising, the matter was brought to the house by the government itself, on the same day that MPs were due to vote on whether to suspend former Conservative minister Owen Paterson for repeated and ‘egregious’ breaches of lobbying rules. The sanction was brought by the Standards Commissioner, a cross-party group of MPs and lay members of the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee.

MPs have long drawn the line at elected representatives advocating in return for cash. But to do so requires them to have the stomach to punish rule-breakers among their own. Instead, Wednesday saw the Prime Minister mobilise a bungled defence of an MP found guilty of egregious wrongdoing – using the cover of a suddenly urgent need to scrap and reform the process by which he was found guilty.

The sequencing and optics of all of this couldn’t have been worse: independent, evidence-based reforms to ensure ministerial behaviour is better policed get placed in the ‘in due course’ tray. Government initiated reforms to retrospectively shield a former minister from sanction are treated as ‘urgent’.

By Thursday we’d had what some commentators have described as a ‘full-fat U-turn’ in the wake of a significant backlash and the refusal of opposition parties to cooperate with the government’s process for ‘reform’.

Many have compared the events of recent days to the ‘Cash for Questions’ sleaze scandal of the 1990s. Yet there is a profoundly important difference between the 90s and today.

A quarter of a century ago, then Prime Minister John Major and his party leadership were explicit in denouncing the poor behaviour of a small number of MPs and responded by setting out to strengthen the oversight of standards. This week, the current Prime Minister did the opposite by whipping a vote to prevent an MP found to have broken the rules from being sanctioned for his conduct.

The attempt to overturn due process by a force of strength in the division lobby has set a grim new precedent. Research commissioned for the CSPL’s review had already found the public think “politicians often rely and fall back on their social standing to get themselves out of trouble in a way that ordinary members of the public cannot”. The government’s approach this week will only fuel that perception.

We end the week with our democracy not quite diminished, but certainly endangered by the gravity of these events. So where do we go from here?

The Commissioner, along with the Committee on Standards and Privileges must be allowed to continue to discharge their duties in the normal way without interference or ‘invitations’ for the Commissioner to resign. Specifically, the pipeline of investigations into alleged misconduct by other MPs must continue unabated.

We at Transparency International UK would welcome a constructive and dispassionate review of the standards regime for MPs at an appropriate time, or ‘in due course’ to borrow a phrase. Amidst the furore across the political spectrum this week, valid concerns worthy of further consideration have been raised. Yet the initiation of any such review should never lead to the immediate suspension of existing arrangements, and potentially a standards vacuum, as so nearly happened.

It is worth going back to where the week began: the Committee on Standards in Public Life calling for reform in four areas of concern for standards and integrity. The arrangements for oversight of MPs were not on that list as other areas clearly require more urgent attention.

The committee’s now aptly timed report provides a blueprint on how to nip all of this in the bud. Many of their recommendations could be implemented at speed. Ultimately, nothing short of accepting all 34 recommendations in full and immediately will help assuage the damage caused this week.