News 20th Nov 2020

When ministers misbehave

Steve Goodrich

Head of Research and Investigations

Steve is Transparency International UK’s Head of Research and Investigations. He is responsible for managing TI-UK’s research unit and is our specialist on lobbying accountability, party funding and open governance. Before joining TI-UK in May 2015, Steve worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at the Electoral Commission. He has over five years’ experience working on political finance regulation, legislation and data.

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It is a sad fact of political life that, on occasion, ministers fall below the standards expected of those holding high office. History is strewn with examples. More often than not resignation letters swiftly follow. Yet what is unknown to many is how weak the checks and balances on ministerial misconduct are. Today’s news that, despite being found to have bullied and harassed civil servants, the Prime Minister’s continued support for the Home Secretary provides a painful case in point.

To those following this case, this may come as no surprise.

Before any independent inquiry within government began, the Prime Minister expressed his ‘full confidence’ in his minister. The PM’s unequivocal support for the Home Secretary may look like PR, but it goes to the heart of what is wrong in our current system of accountability. Short of criminal misconduct, the tenure of ministers is safe so long as they have the confidence of their boss.

In theory, all ministers must abide by a code of conduct, which includes a foreword from the PM. It lays out in clear black and white the qualities and behaviours expected of those given the privilege of serving their country, including the Seven Principles of Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It is worth quoting this introductory section at length to hear the PM’s expectations in their own words:

There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.

Save for some omitting one of the seven principles, his statement is very clear: misconduct will not be tolerated in this administration. However, in practice things are seldom so simple. Undoubtedly, he must have weighed-up the political fallout of a senior minister leaving office under a cloud during a moment of national importance. Getting COVID under control and delivering a new trade deal with the EU by the new year requires as many allies as he can muster.

In his speech to businesses last week, Lord Evans, the current chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life – the ethics watchdog who developed the principles enshrined in the ministerial code – offered this warning:  ‘the nature of partisan Parliamentary politics can mean that the issue becomes not whether someone acted correctly or not, but whether there is the political will to deal with it.’ This is obviously problematic. Were that true of conduct rules more broadly, policing and the courts would be political, not driven by the search for truth and justice.

There is a solution, but it suffers from the same paradox. For years, international institutions (see here and here) and Transparency International UK has called on the UK to empower a truly independent overseer of ministerial conduct, one free from the shackles of political interference and calculation. Yet to implement such an ask would require the consent of the PM. His words above show an earnestness that would suggest he should not be averse to such a proposition, but actions speak louder than words.


Top image credit: chrisdorney -