Partygate and other scandals are undermining trust in politics and democracy – time for a major reset

Author: Spotlight On Corruption

Sue Gray’s long-awaited report into Partygate has identified: “failures of leadership and judgment in No 10 and the Cabinet Office”, with the report saying that “the gatherings in question represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.” 

The report adds that “the public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this,” emphasising that “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture.”

Gray’s report should be a wake up call for the government to get on with implementing major recommendations made nearly ten months ago by Sir Nigel Boardman and six months ago by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) to upgrade standards in public life. 

Recent polling suggests 65% of the public think the current government is dishonest, while almost half (49%) of all 2019 Conservative voters do not believe the Government acts with either integrity or honesty. Only a major reset of public standards in the wake of partygate can restore public confidence in the government. 

Thanks to these reviews, the government is not short of options for reform but so far it has failed to lay out any kind of timetable for their implementation. It has also failed to engage with civil society groups to implement these reforms despite committing nearly 4 months ago to do so.

Susan Hawley, executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, said:

Sue Gray’s report must serve as a real wake-up call for the government to overhaul standards regulation to prevent further erosion of public trust. It’s time the government urgently responds to the recommendations made by Sir Nigel Boardman and the CSPL nearly 10 months ago and lay out a timetable for their implementation.

What needs to be done?

First up on the government’s to-do list should be placing the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests on a statutory footing, with more independence in their appointment process, and giving them powers and resources to initiate investigations into breaches of the Ministerial Code and make recommendations for sanctions where they identify wrongdoing. 

Committing to this measure would be an immediate statement of intent on the part of the government. But instead, there is still no sign of Lord Geidt’s annual report on Ministerial interests which was first scheduled for April, but which has now been pushed back to the end of May

The PM promised Geidt that his powers would be beefed up by “the end of March at the latest” after the Independent Adviser published the findings of his second investigation into the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment – there has as yet been no sign of the additional powers. 

The Ministerial Code should also be placed in statute, reconstituted as an ethical code of conduct, and updated to include a range of graduated sanctions that result from a breach.

Other major reforms that need to be implemented include:

Also putting the Public Appointments Commissioner and Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) on a statutory footing, along with the codes and rules they oversee, with more independence in their appointment processes. This would increase the visibility, independence and powers of these standards regulators, help to restore public trust, and promote and protect standards in high public office.

Giving ACOBA sufficient powers and resources to initiate investigations into breaches of the Business Appointment Rules, impose adequate sanctions and, where necessary, allow ACOBA and government departments to impose lobbying bans of up to 5 years. Post-employment restrictions should also be legally binding on civil servants through employment contracts, with parallel arrangements for ministers.

Creating a new Code of Practice for ministerial appointments, with a more transparent process; making ministers accountable to select committees if they appoint a candidate who is not supported by an assessment panel; and regulating the appointment of non-executive directors.

Setting up a cross-government function to manage and monitor compliance with government processes – including conflicts of interests, lobbying, appointments, business appointments, whistleblowing, fraud and transparency – with investigative and enforcement powers.

Increasing transparency and closing loopholes around lobbying, to include informal lobbying and modern forms of communication, and having minimum standards for publishing information, so that the public has more information about who is influencing government decision-making; and creating a centrally managed database of ministers’ and civil servants’ meetings, to be published monthly, with accountability for departments who breach reporting obligations.