Boardman’s Greensill review makes a pitch for bold reform – will it shift the dial?

9 minute read

Nigel Boardman’s 19 recommendations and 5 suggestions resulting from the Greensill scandal were finally published last week, after sitting in the government’s in-tray since early August. It has been worth the wait though, with plenty of good recommendations to chew on, including a very welcome recommendation to renew the government’s Anti-Corruption Strategy in 2022 and include public integrity standards. However, Boardman’s report also raises questions about whether Ministers are outside of proper accountability frameworks and about who will provide independent oversight to ensure that his recommendations are being properly enforced.

Boardman’s report comes as the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) is putting the finishing touches to its final recommendations on how to improve the UK’s standards landscape. CSPL’s initial findings, published in July 2021, covered lots of similar ground to Boardman – including the revolving door, public appointments and lobbying. It will be complemented by a further report by Parliament’s Public Affairs and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) which will be reviewing Boardman’s recommendations and coming up with its own over the Autumn. If the government wants to improve integrity in public office and restore public trust, there is plenty for it to consider.

Indeed, the government said it will consider these reports and set out a substantive policy statement in due course. But it needs to do more than consider them – it should seize the opportunity to engage with civil society groups, in forums like the Open Government Partnership, to develop concrete commitments to take this agenda forward. 

The good bits

The weak bits

Overall, the real risk behind Boardman’s recommendations is that he lets Ministers off the hook. Boardman’s report is heavily focused on changes needed in the Civil Service. When he was conducting his investigation, concerns were raised that he would shift all the blame for the Greensill fiasco on to civil servants and in particular the late Jeremy Heywood. Those concerns may be fuelled by Boardman’s failure to address key weaknesses in the regulation of ministerial standards, the absence of reforms that would increase ministerial accountability, and his emphasis that it is “appropriate for Ministers, should they wish, to be involved in commercial activity”

Both the CSPL and Boardman recognise that ministerial accountability rests with the Prime Minister because he has sole responsibility for ministerial appointments; the issuing of the Ministerial Code is part of this constitutional role. The consequence of this approach is that accountability mechanisms are weakest for those with the most responsibility, and most power, in government. But the CSPL, unlike Boardman, identified that the Prime Minister being the ultimate judge of the Ministerial Code is a distinct issue from investigations into breaches and the range of sanctions available. Whereas Boardman sidesteps the issue of ministerial accountability, the CSPL recommended a range of sanctions for breaches of the Ministerial Code, and that the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests should be able to initiate investigations, determine findings of breaches, and that a summary of their findings should be published in a timely manner.

Other bits of Boardman’s proposals which in our view could go much further or raise new questions include: 

What are the implications and next steps?

Boardman was asked to investigate the development and use of supply chain finance in government and any related issues that he considered to be in scope. Boardman successfully diagnosed many of the problems across government which, if not fixed, will continue to throw up yet more damaging scandals. Whilst some of his recommendations fall short by focusing on improving departmental procedures and processes, without putting in place the mechanisms that would ensure any improved framework would be effectively policed, as well as sidestepping significant concerns around ministerial accountability, there is much about his analysis of the problems and recommendations that is commendable.

Recent scandals have demonstrated how the rules and bodies for holding individuals in public office to account are not fit for purpose. The government’s response will need to reflect the many failings of the current system – and advance suitably robust reforms – to stand any chance of building a culture of integrity, restoring public trust, and increasing democratic accountability. Boardman, CSPL and PACAC will give the government plenty of ideas to improve standards in public office – but whether the government’s response will reflect the gravity of the situation remains to be seen. Stepping up now and engaging with civil society groups to build a strong agenda for reform is crucial.