Broken norms, reforms and ‘doing the right thing’ – examining a scandal-hit government

After a year of almost constant scandals, the government is facing calls for resignations and reform. How could the standards system and culture of government change?
Photo: amer ghazzal/Alamy Stock Photo

By Tevye Markson

31 Jan 2022

Greensill. Bullying at the Home Office. Matt Hancock’s Covid-breaching affair with a colleague. The PPE VIP lane. Owen Paterson and the attempt to change the rules. The Downing Street flat refurb. Partygate. Breathe.

In the last few years, a litany of breaches, and alleged breaches, of ethical standards in government have led many to call for reform of standards, systems and cultures.

The last 12 months have seen so many leaks and revelations that it has become “almost a year of rolling scandal”, according to Tim Durrant, an associate director at the Institute for Government.

Each scandal has been about different groups of people (ministers, civil servants, special advisers and MPs) and different rules (lobbying, bullying, breaching Covid rules, undisclosed donations). But “the snowball effect of all of them”, Durrant says, has taken its toll.

“It’s been a very damaging 12 months for the government in terms of people’s perception about standards in government and whether or not they are stuck to,” he says. 

“And it’s never really felt like the government has been getting out in front of the problem and doing anything about it.

“It’s always been on the back foot, and it feels like where 2021 left off, 2022 carried on.”

Breaking norms and conventions

The UK, with its famously “unwritten” constitution, relies on what historian Lord Hennessey called the “good chap” theory of government. That is the assumption that people at the top of the system will both understand and choose to follow its norms and conventions. 

Professor Elizabeth David-Barrett, director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, puts the “general decline in standards” down to a willingness among those at the top to violate these norms and conventions, and a lack of pushback or consequence when they do so. 

“When you see that the prime minister is someone who doesn’t take [these conventions] seriously, then that has a corrosive effect on people who are in lower positions in the system,” David-Barrett says.

She adds that Johnson’s government has a “culture that is conducive to corruption, because it’s a culture that permits rule breaking and which seeks to be secretive”. And those are “conditions in which you might expect corruption to flourish,” she adds.

Asked when the decline started, David-Barrett said: “There have been some pretty serious and severe declines under the Johnson administration.

“There are always scandals, periodically, but I think it’s been a lot more consistent and systematic and there have also been some systematic attacks on some of the institutions that have an accountability role.” 

Responding to the concerns raised by David-Barrett, a government spokesperson said: “The government has committed to continually reinforcing high standards of conduct in public life so the public can have trust and confidence in the operation of government at all levels.”

Getting ethical standards in public life back on track - the importance of reform

Alongside norms and conventions, there are formal rules and bodies which regulate ethical standards in public life in the UK.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which advises the PM on how to best ensure those who take up public office meet such standards, released a report in November, recommending an overhaul of the current system.

The committee promotes the seven Nolan Principles – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. Its report called for improved procedures, a better system for ensuring rules are complied with and greater independence for those regulating compliance.

The review was commissioned in late 2020 as part of the committee's horizon scanning work which aims to look at gaps and concerns in standards regulation. 

The IfG’s Durrant describes its recommendations as “ a really ambitious but also deliverable set of reforms that if the government said ‘okay, we are going to do all of these things’, that would mark a real change.”

He adds, however: “Personally, I’m not optimistic that that’s what they will do. But it would be nice to see because I think that would help the government draw a line under this as well.

“It’s not helpful to them to always be being criticised for this stuff. It’s distracting and annoying and it is not doing well for the Conservatives in the polling.”

Lobbying and revolving doors

As well as these changes, CSPL chair Lord Evans has also called for reform to the body which advises former ministers, senior civil servants and other crown servants on the roles they take after leaving government.  

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is not able to sanction those who do not follow its advice, and Evans told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee earlier this month that the regulator “lacks teeth”.

David-Barrett says this question of the “revolving door” – which sees politicians and officials move readily into private sector roles – and the lobbying that results is a key challenge for standards. 

“I think that’s where there’s the most serious risk of policy being seriously distorted, because of capture by narrow interest groups,” David-Barrett says.

“Often these debates are focused on things like how much time is being spent on doing second jobs, but there’s not enough focus on how much the policy decisions are being distorted by a system in which it’s far too easy for very narrow interest groups to influence government policymaking.”

She points to the Greensill scandal, in which former PM David Cameron contacted government officials, including the chancellor, to try and secure a government-backed loan for now-defunct company Greensill Capital. MPs said he showed “a significant lack of judgement” but did not break any rules.

“For someone with huge status in the Conservative Party and among his peers in government, to use that to try to get inside access and preferential treatment for a company is quite remarkable. And I think that is quite indicative of how those norms and conventions have been avoided,” says David-Barrett.

She warns that the UK is at risk of moving in the direction of the US, where “lobbying is much more deeply entrenched in the political system and it is very easy for narrow interest groups to be extremely influential on public policy”.

David-Barrett also suggests that government needs to be more transparent about who is meeting who and must adapt to changes in technology, such as people largely communicating via WhatsApp.

The importance of Christopher Geidt’s role

Another key element of the CSPL report is giving PM’s independent ministerial adviser more power.

The prime minister’s standards adviser Lord Geidt says he expects to be given greater authority and independence within the next few months after a row over Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat refurbishment, including the ability to start his own investigations.

“That would mean that the role was independent,” Durrant says. “But we won’t find out until April. Fundamentally, on all of these things, it is the prime minister who’s in charge and has the final say, and so Lord Geidt can ask for these changes but the PM has to agree to them.”

Johnson’s previous independent adviser on ministerial standards quit after the prime minister rejected his findings that home secretary Priti Patel breached the ministerial code by bullying Home Office officials.

But David-Barrett says the PM cannot continue to ignore advice without consequence; “There is a cost every time Johnson fails to follow that advice. The more powers that we give Lord Geidt, the more difficult it is to resist that advice.”

Now that’s what I call a party

The impact of leadership is also being felt in the “Partygate” scandal. There have now been at least a dozen gatherings, either confirmed or reported, which were attended by a mix of civil servants, ministers, special advisers and the PM himself, which may have broken the lockdown rules. 

Tackling this behaviour goes further than just strengthening regulation, David-Barrett says.

“It takes not only changing the institutions, but also some real leadership from individuals in senior positions who are determined to do the right thing and willing to call out their peers and colleagues if they’re not doing the right thing,” David Barrett says.

“That people thought [holding these events] was reasonable is quite remarkable. But also, were there people who were willing to say that they don’t think it is the right thing to do?

“You can’t legislate for everything. You can’t regulate everything. So, what we really need is people who are doing the right thing because that’s what drives them.

“People often talk about the culture of civil service in Britain, and it was about doing the right thing, not being just people who are tied to trying to meet the rules or get around the rules.

“If you have too much of a rule-based system, you give a signal that it’s okay to do what you can get away with. We don’t want that.”

Ultimately, the prime minister is responsible for the culture of government and what action is taken, Durrant says: “It’s always going to be led by the prime minister. The culture of any organisation is led by the people at the top – that’s how it’s always going to be.” 

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