Press release 01st Nov 2021

Major and urgent reform needed to uphold standards by UK politicians

Failing to increase transparency and accountability in politics would be a deliberate choice to leave the door wide open to impropriety in public office, Transparency International UK said today in response to a report by England’s standards watchdog.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life today published its full report from its Standards Matter 2 review. The inquiry into the rules and systems governing standards of conduct in public office is the biggest of its kind in years and was headed by Lord Evans, who previously served as the director of MI5.

The report warns that many of the rules designed to ensure honesty and integrity by politicians need “significant reform”. It concludes by calling on the Prime Minister to make a series of changes to both the rules and the bodies tasked with enforcing them to “restore public confidence” that politicians will act ethically and in the public interest. 

Transparency International UK has catalogued at least 30 potential breaches of parliamentary and ministerial rules in 2020 alone. Many of these were not formally investigated.  

 

Transparency International UK Chief Executive Daniel Bruce, who gave evidence to the inquiry and is quoted in today’s report, said: 

“This report lays bare the dangerously fragile state of the UK’s safeguards against impropriety in public office. It provides compelling further evidence of the need to bring lobbying out of the shadows and provide more robust oversight of ethical rules, especially within government. It is incumbent on the PM to enact these significant but sensible reforms without delay. Failing to do so would constitute a deliberate choice to leave the door wide open to abuses of public office for private gain.

“The UK has positioned itself as a leader in the fight against global corruption, yet its credibility risks being undermined without tougher action at home. Last year, the Law Commission proposed a new statutory offence of corruption in public office, which would provide a more credible deterrent against egregious misconduct than existing common law, yet these recommendations are currently gathering dust on the shelf. Bringing forward these proposals for a new corruption offence would show ‘Global Britain’ is not resting on its laurels.”

 

In June, the Committee took the unusual step of releasing its outline findings ahead of today’s full report because of “immediate issues” with the current standards regime.

The Committee’s findings cover several areas where Transparency International UK has previously called for reform, including:

 

The Ministerial Code and the Independent Adviser on Ministers' Interests

The Committee has recommended that the Independent Adviser be able to initiate investigations and determine findings of breaches of the Ministerial Code, but also suggested the Prime Minister retain power over sanctions for ministers who break the rules.

Transparency International UK has called for the independent adviser to be put on a statutory footing, empowered to both investigate and ensure compliance with the code, and have greater autonomy from the patronage of Number 10.

 

Lobbying

The Committee recognised the need to improve departmental transparency disclosures that record details of meetings between ministers and lobbyists. Many of its suggestions would vastly improve the quality of current data, such as providing more detail over the subject matter of meetings and including ‘informal lobbying’, such as text and WhatsApp messages, in the official records.

Transparency International UK collects and publishes these disclosures in its free-to-use and searchable Open Access UK database.

But even these recommendations would not resolve some inherent issues of relying on government disclosures for greater transparency in Westminster. Transparency International UK’s position paper on lobbying outlines why a more comprehensive, statutory register of lobbying - like those in the US, Canada and Ireland - would provide a better tool for providing oversight and accountability in politics.

 

Rules for ministers and civil servants taking jobs after leaving public service

The Committee identified significant deficiencies in the way in which the revolving door between the public and private sector is managed. Scandals like the Greensill affair have resulted from weak rules overseen by a body - the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments - that lacks any ability to enforce the counsel it provides to those seeking new jobs in business shortly after leaving high office.

Transparency International UK calls for this function to be overseen by a statutory body with the powers and resources to actively enforce the conditions it imposes on former ministers and senior civil servants joining the private sector. These rules should apply for at least five years after a minister or official leaves public office. 

 

 

Notes to editors:

Transparency International UK’s Chief Executive Daniel Bruce gave evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life in March.