Can the UK tackle its political integrity crisis?

8 May, 2024 | 11 minute read

Trust in UK politics, politicians and government is at record lows. Concerns that the UK is becoming more corrupt and its politicians lack integrity are a crucial part of this picture. So where has the UK got to on long-promised reforms to how ethics in public life will be regulated and what does a new government need to do to earn and maintain the public’s trust that it will act with integrity? 

Official statistics from the Office of National Statistics show a 20% rise over the past two years in the number of people thinking a politician would grant a favour to someone in exchange for the offer of a well-paid job – from an already high 62% in 2021 to an alarming 82% in 2023. 

That means that while the number of political integrity scandals hitting the daily headlines may have subsided over the past year or so, the cynicism and distrust the public feel towards those who lead our country and are responsible for its laws has actually worsened. 

Why does this matter? Trust is absolutely critical for ensuring that governments can deliver their programmes of work with legitimacy and for protecting democracy. Cynicism and disengagement resulting from distrust of politicians and a sense that they play by a different set of rules is a recipe for increased populism and support for authoritarianism or extremist politics. There is a very real risk that this could come the UK’s way unless ambitious and meaningful action is taken to tackle the UK’s political integrity crisis. 

Where the UK has got to on political integrity reform

In November 2021, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) – an independent and cross-party public body advising the Prime Minister on ethical standards in public life for the past 30 years – made a series of recommendations to upgrade the framework for regulating public standards. CSPL concluded, following wide consultation with experts and stakeholders, that the current framework “is not functioning as well as it should.

After taking over 18 months to respond, in July 2023 the government cherry-picked certain recommendations, only committing (by the Committee’s own analysis) to full implementation of 14 of its 34 recommendations. The most ambitious of these were a “fundamental reform” to the business appointment or revolving door rules, and an upgrade in how the government publishes information about who has been lobbying its ministers and senior civil servants.  

Ten months on it is not clear where even those reforms have got to. Lord Pickles, who chairs the Committee responsible for overseeing the UK’s revolving door rules (the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments or ACOBA), said recently: “I’ve had promise upon promise upon promise and I’ve given them time, and now I think they’re running out of time … Credibility is running out of time, and they need to take action.

Meanwhile, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) report on lobbying released last week notes that the government had not committed to a timeline on delivering on its promise of a central database for transparency on lobbying data (beyond expressing a hope that it would be ready by October 2024). Currently, each government department publishes (or in some instances fails to publish) their own records of external meetings meaning “that no single, overall picture of government interaction with third parties is available.”

PACAC also noted that there were numerous gaps in the lobbying transparency commitments made by the government, including the exclusion of special advisors and instant messaging service communications like WhatsApp, which need to be addressed for lobbying transparency reform to have credibility. These are gaps that have been consistently highlighted by the lobbying regulator himself, lobbying industry trade groups and civil society. 

Overall, it now looks almost certain that no serious ethics reform will take place this side of an election. 

What about the next government?

In a major speech in January, the leader of the official opposition, Sir Keir Starmer promised “to clean up politics. No more VIP fast lanes. No more kickbacks for colleagues. No more revolving doors between Government and the companies they regulate. I will restore standards in public life with a total crackdown on cronyism.”

However, speeches and words will not be enough if the Labour party, as polls predict, gets into power. Having taken every opportunity to criticise the incumbent party for ethical misdemeanours, opposition parties will be looking to do the same if Labour gets into power. The current political donations scandal around new Welsh First Minister, Vaughan Gething, is a case in point. 

Charges of hypocrisy are an easy narrative to land with a public who think all politicians are as bad as each other. And they are even easier to land where politicians have set a high bar for how they will be different. 

Labour will need an ambitious plan with real credibility and it will need to act fast to deliver if it gets into power. 

So what has it committed to so far and is it enough?

Labour’s current commitments on ethics reform

Since 2021, the Labour Party’s official position is that it will establish an independent Integrity and Ethics Commission – a commitment made in two major speeches by the party’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner in 2021 and 2023, and reiterated in the party’s National Policy Forum final document that feeds into its manifesto. 

In 2023, Rayner laid out that the Commission would be genuinely independent with statutory footing and Parliamentary oversight. It would replace failing aspects of the current systems, including ACOBA and the Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests, while Labour said it was considering whether to include the Public Appointments Commissioner and the Civil Service Commission as well. 

The Commission – which Rayner said Labour would carry out a consultation on – would also coordinate and work alongside those standards regulators that are working, including the CSPL, which would remain at the centre of the standards landscape.

Since Rayner moved to a new post in September 2023 it has been less clear what Labour’s plans for a new Commission are and what kind of consultation it is carrying out. 

In February 2024, The Times reported that Starmer’s Chief of Staff, Sue Gray, was drawing up plans for an independent ethics commission “to bring together Whitehall’s patchwork system for standards bodies including those that oversee public appointments and the award of peerages and enforce a beefed-up version of the ministerial code.” ​ 

In April 2024, Nick Thomas-Symonds, a Shadow Minister in the Cabinet Office, promised that Labour will come forward at the election with a comprehensive “cleaning up politics plan to include everything from lobbying to MPs’ second jobs to procurement to foreign donations. However, he also appeared to take a slightly different tack from previous statements on what the Ethics Commission would look like, emphasising that it was not going to be “single, big super regulator” but would rather bring all the existing standards regulators “under one roof and create, if you like, a one-stop-shop for standards in government.”  

In addition, the shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves announced that Labour would create a “Covid Corruption Commissioner” to recover public money lost to fraud and corruption during the Covid pandemic. 

What does the next government need to do to restore trust?

Whoever wins power – and it looks increasingly likely that it will be Labour – will be inheriting a house in which as John Bowers KC recently put it, “the ethical timbers have rotted.”  

Given the depths to which public trust in politicians has plummeted, a new government needs a robust plan for rebuilding the house. 

Two things are clear. Firstly, warm words about how things will be done differently and with integrity are not enough to restore public trust without any concrete action – after all Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability’ when he came to power but the polls show declining public trust and even higher percentages thinking Britain is corrupt. 

Secondly, the refrain from politicians that ‘no rules were broken’ no longer washes with a public who widely believe that the rules by which politicians live are different from those they must live by. Indeed, it only serves to embed the belief that the rules are not fit for purpose.

Coming up with a credible plan for action requires four things:

1. A commitment to act with speed and to lay out concrete timelines. 

There is widespread consensus among ethics and standards experts and campaigners that immediate changes and announcements on ethics reform in the first 100 days of a new government are both possible and essential to signal to the public that a new government will govern in a different way right from the beginning. Speed is essential for setting the tone, and establishing that ethics reform is a high priority for the new government.

There is no shortage of recommendations now on the table for how to do this, from reports by the Institute for Government (IfG), the Constitution Unit, the UK Governance Project, the Commission on Political Power, the Commission on the UK’s Future and our own briefing with colleagues at Transparency International UK. 

Many of these recommendations ultimately build on the sensible and realistic recommendations made by CSPL. So while there are a plethora of recommendations, there is in fact wide and deep consensus about the broad shape of what needs to be done. This includes: major lobbying transparency reform, setting out a new (statutory) ministerial code based on ethical conduct, proper independence for standards regulators from day one, and immediate action to strengthen the revolving door rules. 

2. Any reform should be part of a wider sweeping agenda on political integrity.

Labour is right to promise a comprehensive plan that covers the whole gamut of issues that lie at the root of the UK’s political integrity crisis. 

Most of the reports by ethics and standards experts recognise this broader agenda, and that it will need to include: reform to political donations, the appointment process for peerages, whistleblower protections for civil servants, the public appointments process, and the Freedom of Information Regime, as well as greater involvement and access by ordinary citizens to decision-making, and stronger domestic laws for criminalising corruption and the abuse of power. 

This is a real opportunity to lay down new rules for how the UK is governed that prevent those with deep pockets and easy access from distorting politics in their favour, and those without an ethical compass abusing public office and riding roughshod over its norms. 

3. A commitment to be bold

Labour’s Ethics Commission is a bold idea which matches the mood for change. Public surveys show an ambitious appetite for strong independent regulation of politicians and widespread feeling that politicians should not get to police themselves. 76% of those polled by Spotlight in 2022 supported an independent ethics commission. 

Various standards experts have come up with different ways in which Labour could deliver an Ethics Commission – from making CSPL the core of the Commission, and assigning it a convening role, to adding new Commissioners to add to the landscape, such as a Code Commissioner to replace the Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests (the UK Governance Project), or an Independent Anti-Corruption Commissioner (Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex).

However Labour decides to navigate the options for a new Commission, there are some important principles against which ambition can be judged. These include:

  • The need for genuinely independent regulation, with standards regulators able to open investigations and propose sanctions, even if it is for politicians to implement them 
  • Statutory protection for regulators, to ensure that they can get on with their job without risk of being disbanded or undermined
  • Greater transparency and accountability of standards regulators to Parliament rather than the Executive and
  • Meaningful sanctions for breaches of the rules. 

4. A more realistic budget to show that the UK is serious about standards regulation

UK ethics regulation is being done on the cheap. A total of £1.3 million is spent on six standards regulators, including CSPL, the Lobbying Regulator, ACOBA, the House of Lords Appointment Committee (HOLAC), the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests, who collectively have just 17.5 members of staff. They work alongside the Civil Service Commission with a budget of £2.4 million and 23 members of staff, and the Parliamentary Commission on Standards with a budget of £1 million a year. 

By comparison the Canadian Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner – which enforces revolving door and conflict of interest rules for ministers, ministerial staff, parliamentary secretaries and heads of government bodies, and conflict of interest rules for MPs – spends the equivalent of £4.8 million a year and has 50 staff. 

Meanwhile France’s High Authority on Transparency in Public Life established in 2014, which enforces revolving door and conflict of interest rules and oversees lobbying transparency, has a budget of £7.9 million and 67 staff. 

While neither one of these bodies are directly comparable to the UK or even each other, with each overseeing a slightly different set of public office holders and areas, the comparison serves to illustrate that other countries are putting far more money where their mouth is when it comes to regulating ethics in public office. If the UK is serious about standards regulation it will need to look properly at whether it is prepared to do so too.


The current government’s failure to deliver on ethics reform is contributing to ever lower levels of trust in politics and government.

That means the next government will be starting from a very low bar. It has a major opportunity to reframe the rules for decades to come for how politicians behave and how those rules are enforced. 

Labour has so far made the right noises about what it would do in government, but if it fails to come up with a credible plan for tackling the UK’s political integrity crisis at the election, or fails to see it through quickly, it will poison the well of public trust further. The public expects real change, and if a new government fails to deliver, it will certainly find ways to punish them.

Clouds gather over Parliament at dusk representing gloomy prospects for improvements in political integrity.
The public’s view of UK political integrity has become increasingly gloomy in recent years. Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

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