News 17th Mar 2021

It’s time for the Ministerial Code to become law

Daniel Bruce

Chief Executive

Daniel joined Transparency International UK as Chief Executive in October 2019. He is an experienced senior leader in international charities, previously serving as Chief Executive of the press freedom and media development organisation Internews.

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Public life inevitably brings with it an array of temptations, opportunities and perks that go hand in hand with high profile and influential jobs. The Seven Principles of Public life set out in 1995 by Lord Nolan recognised this and were an attempt to outline the ethical standards expected of those in positions of power. They include accountability, selflessness, and honesty.

But even those with little interest in the news will have found it hard to avoid a string of allegations that those standards have been breached by our politicians, among them abuse of office, undue influence, and cronyism (more recently dubbed ‘chumocracy’). Whilst Britain has long dined out on its reputation as a beacon of good governance, the reality is that the system of checks and balances designed to ensure honesty and integrity by those in public office is simply not working.

In 2020 alone, we at Transparency International UK counted at least 30 different potential breaches of parliamentary and ministerial rules. The Westferry debacle in August 2020 is a case in point. The Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, expedited a Conservative Party donor’s planning application for a £1billion scheme in London’s docklands which would have saved the developer around £40 million in community levies. The decision to push the application through was controversial enough, but it later emerged the pair had discussed the development at a fundraising dinner. That meeting and subsequent correspondence between the two had not been published through official disclosures because the Secretary of State considered them to be personal affairs; they were only revealed by a newspaper investigation. Mr Jenrick remains in post with the confidence of the Prime Minister, even though his decision to authorise the development was found unlawful and he had to quash his own decision.

In November, Home Secrecy Priti Patel was found to have breached the Ministerial Code by engaging in bullying and harassment. This conclusion was reached by Number 10’s own adviser on ministerial standards, who subsequently resigned when the Prime Minister, as is his gift, declared full confidence in the Home Secretary irrespective of the findings.

These are just examples from the past 12 months, but in recent years there have been a number of cases where serious allegations of misconduct by politicians were made but there were no investigations.

In 2017, David Davis, then Secretary of State for Leaving the EU, was rebuked by the Speaker for misleading MPs. He had previously told Parliament about detailed assessments on the economic impact of leaving the EU, but later told the Brexit Select Committee that he had been misunderstood and these reports did not in fact exist.

In the past, such cases would have been resignation matters, but no longer. Why? One explanation could be that society’s values have changed and some issues that may traditionally have been open-and-shut resignation matters are no longer viewed so seriously. Another explanation is that the social norms of today’s political elite means they are more likely to push boundaries of what is considered ethical. What is clear, however, is that the patchwork of tradition and convention that regulates ethical behaviour in public life is not working as it should.

For instance, the Advisory Council on Business Appointments (ACoBA) is tasked with regulating the ‘revolving door’ between public office and private employment but has no powers with which to do its job. The specialist knowledge and contact books of former ministers and senior civil servants makes them attractive hires for private companies, but safeguards must be in place to ensure privileged information is not used to benefit their new employers. Despite these risks, ACoBA can only offer suggestions on how to mitigate them, has no power to check whether its advice is being followed, and no sanction for those who choose to ignore it. Similarly, the adviser on ministerial standards reports directly to Number 10 and can only investigate allegations of misconduct with the blessing of the Prime Minister. And as we saw last year, even if a minister is deemed to have broken the rules, the Prime Minister is under no obligation to accept that conclusion. 

Consequently, it is perhaps unsurprising that 63 per cent of respondents to a recent survey thought the British system of government is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful. Though public perceptions of misconduct do not necessarily reflect reality, they are almost as important. The appalling scenes from Capitol Hill in January show what can happen when this mistrust, whipped-up into a frenzy by populists, reaches an extreme. This is precisely why we must bolster the safeguards against perceived and actual behaviours that corrode trust in our institutions and our democracy.

The first step to resolving any issue is acknowledging there is a problem. The Committee on Standards in Public Life – the body responsible for drafting the original Nolan principles – has rightly taken this step, and its ‘Standards Matter 2’ review is currently considering whether these guidelines are still relevant and working as they should.

The evidence is increasingly clear that guiding principles alone are not sufficient when it comes to guaranteeing integrity in public office. That’s why, among other measures, we are calling for the Ministerial Code to become law. If we are serious about our politicians and civil servants maintaining standards of integrity, we need oversight mechanisms with sufficient autonomy and comprehensive sanctions that act as a far more effective deterrent to misconduct in all its forms.

The British public rightly expects its elected representatives to adhere to the highest ethical standards. Only by plugging the gaps and providing a credible deterrent to breaches of standards will the public get the system it both wants and deserves.