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What’s Next for the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Written by Guest on Thursday, 10 September 2015

Guest blogger Gillian Peele discusses the Committee on Standards in Public Life along with the difficulties it may face with the new, fast-moving agenda of ethical issues facing the UK


  

Gillian Peele is a Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford and has written on integrity issues in the past as well as more general issues of US and British government.  She is currently working on a major study of the regulation of standards in public life.

 

 

Whilst proofing a recent study into British standards regulation I was prompted to reflect on the growing concern with integrity issues over the last two decades. It is now twenty years since the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) under Lord Nolan, issued its first report. This unassuming document led to significant changes in the way the House of Commons addressed the conduct of MPs as well as on many aspects of government, including the public appointments process. The Committee had been set up to deflect the colourful cash for questions scandal of the 1990s and it was probably seen as a temporary invention by many observers including many politicians who viewed it at best with scepticism.

Yet this curiously British body has survived and its work has created a new architecture of regulators and reforms in many different spheres within the public sector, including the Commons and Lords, central and local government, the civil service and appointments and party funding. It is not itself a regulator, but aims through its clarification of high level principles (especially its seven principles of public life) to raise the ethical quality of administration throughout British public life.

The Committee does this by identifying vulnerabilities and promulgating good practice in the public sector as well as reviewing the impact of reforms it has promoted.  Its concern is not with hard-edged corruption as such but with the more amorphous areas of conflicts of interest, actual and potential, and the elaboration of high standards and good practice.

This remit is often hard to define and the work of the Committee is sometimes hard to defend against attacks from ministers anxious to cull quangos (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations) and save even the small amount of resources the CSPL has at its disposal. And even some of those who think its activities serve an important purpose would like to see the Committee placed on a more secure footing, either by giving it a statutory basis or perhaps merging its work into a more centralized, full-time, better-funded ethics agency.

Of course, one of the problems with any institution dealing with standards and aiming to prevent misconduct in the public sector is that impact is so hard to measure. It is difficult to devise any objective yardstick for evaluating changes in the attitudes of officials to their role, and it is even harder to assess what might have happened if, for example, codes of practice and ethical induction arrangements were not in place. Equally – and this makes the work of a body like the CSPL sometimes unpopular with MPs and others – the extensive investigation of an issue such as party funding or the handling of parliamentary expenses may itself have a negative effect. They may heighten general awareness of an issue so that public perceptions of the integrity of British office-holders goes down not up, even if the actual level of malfeasance has diminished.

Perhaps the most important challenge to a body like the CSPL is how to keep up with the fast-moving agenda of ethical issues facing the UK. Initially the targets of CSPL were the UK’s key political institutions – Parliament, ministers, local bodies and the like as well as some perennial problems related to party finance. Now a whole host of new ethical questions rightly demand attention, including the ethics of bodies such as the media and organised sport, which are not straightforwardly in the public sector though they certainly affect national life. New financial relationships between the public and private sector inevitably throw up new problems (in schools and the corruption-resources-corruption-resources-health service for example). And some areas where impropriety and indeed real corruption has been evident in the past (police, prisons and local government) continue to generate concern.

How well a small body such as the CSPL can handle this new agenda is an open question. What is certain is that without it the prospects of even beginning to address such issues would be remote.

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Read 514 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 11:48

Guest

The TI-UK blog features thought and opinion from guest writers as well as TI staff. Any opinions expressed by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International UK.

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