News 31st Oct 2023

A year on has Rishi Sunak delivered his promised government of integrity?

Daniel Bruce

Chief Executive

Daniel Bruce is Chief Executive of Transparency International UK. He leads the overall strategy of Transparency International UK across all programme and policy areas. He heads up the leadership team and serves as the organisation’s senior-most representative to governments, the private sector and in the media.

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When Rishi Sunak entered Downing Street as Prime Minister a year ago, he promised a government of ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level’

It was clear to anyone with an eye on the goings on at the top of government that such a shift was sorely needed. His commitment was made against a backdrop of voters tired of elected leaders seemingly lying with impunity and playing by a different set of rules to the rest of us.  
In December last year analysis by Transparency International UK found more than 40 suspected breaches of ministerial and parliamentary codes had been allowed to go unchallenged. Where previously such breaches would have led to ministerial resignation, a disturbing pattern of impunity was taking root. 

In January, the UK received its lowest-ever score in Transparency International’s Global Corruption Perceptions Index – ranking the UK in 18th place – a drop of ten places over the last decade. The underlying data pointing to a view among global business leaders and other experts that the UK lacked sufficient controls to prevent abuse of public office.  

Now, a year into the Sunak administration, how far has the government lived up to that pledge? The PM’s record on integrity has offered some encouragement. In January former party Chair Nadhim Zahawi was sacked by the Prime Minister after he was found to have breached the ministerial code by failing to declare an HMRC investigation into his tax affairs. 

Mr. Sunak appeared more hesitant in the case of Home Secretary Suella Braverman when she was alleged to have asked civil servants to arrange a private one-to-one speed awareness course. Days passed before he took advice from his ethics adviser despite growing calls for an investigation and notable public distraction at the time of the G7 summit. 

On the topic of professionalism, the government’s approach to lobbying transparency provides some insight. Reforms announced just before the summer recess, a long-awaited response to several reviews into transparency in government, offered some welcome but modest progress that would create a more centralised and professional approach to transparency over ministerial meetings. 

A new commitment to a central public record of such meetings (information that is currently spread across upwards of 20 different websites), to be updated monthly will make it far easier for those monitoring such interactions to see who ministers are meeting and why. Further commitments to improving descriptions of meetings and their topics and the closure of loopholes that can see phone calls or virtual meetings go undeclared are also good news for transparency campaigners. 

However, there is no implementation timeline for these reforms which, we could reasonably argue, become increasingly important as a general election looms. Critically, there has been no commitment to increase the scope of the lobbying register to include lobbyists on company payroll – at the moment it just covers consultants who make up a tiny fraction of the lobbying industry. 

When it comes to delivering ‘accountability at every level’, the Sunak administration has stopped well short of meaningful change.  An obvious improvement would have been to follow the recommendations of the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in order to overhaul the government’s approach to ethics regulation. 

Both committees have long called for the Ministerial Code to be enshrined in law, along with the role of the so-called Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests – who would be given the powers to launch their own investigations into suspected breaches of the code without needing to be instructed by the prime minister.  

Government has rejected these proposals outright. So, whilst the PM appears more willing to investigate and consider allegations of improper behaviour by ministers, this decision to retain a more informal system, where power over investigation remains at the behest of the prime minister means we are still left to rely on the ‘good chaps’ approach to upholding government standards. This leaves the door open for Prime Ministers, of any political stripe now and in the future, to simply brush allegations of misconduct under the carpet if they so wish – something recent history has shown us is all too tempting to do. 

There too has been little in the way of progress to address some of the other scandals that have rocked the public's confidence in our politics. A lack of action on the issue of MPs second jobs is disappointing and, despite the ongoing rows over his predecessors' resignation honours, Sunak has made no suggestion that ending this act of patronage and calling time on such honours form part of his plans. 

Independent research underscores voters’ strong desire for our elected leaders to be subject to stronger rules with more independent oversight.  After a year in office in it’s fair to say that the prime minister could, and should, go further to rebuild public trust in our politics and to truly deliver a government of ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level’.