The Committee on Standards in Public Life was established to keep our politicians and public employees honest. Its chair Lord Bew admits to Joshua Chambers that it’s losing both staff, and its remit to comment on current events
What price integrity? It’s worth whatever people will pay for it – and last year the British government decided it could no longer afford its regular order of the brand of integrity offered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), cutting its 2013-14 budget from more than half a million to £400,000.
Nonetheless, red-socked committee chair Lord Bew is looking on the bright side. This pillar of the establishment is used to adversity, having been both historical adviser to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, and a player in the Good Friday Agreement peace talks. Appointed in 2013 after the CSPL reforms were announced, he’s “not interested in crying over spilt milk”: he “knew exactly what the situation would be”. Bew’s determined his committee will do its utmost to uphold standards in public life, adapting its approach to cope with its tough new circumstances.
Indeed, he thinks the need for the committee is only growing. “These issues about standards in public life and the embedding of these proper standards have not gone away,” he warns. “They’re actually, in many ways, more intense”. From falsified crime statistics to big money in lobbying, and from police spying on the family of Steven Lawrence to MPs’ expenses fraud, there’s certainly plenty of material for the CSPL to get its teeth into.
A proud history
The CSPL was established after a series of scandals and sleaze allegations – notably the ‘cash for questions’ affair, when MPs were apparently paid to raise topics in Parliament – rocked the Conservative government of the time. Chaired by retired judge Lord Nolan, it was set up as a non-departmental public body reporting to the Cabinet Office, and charged with advising government on ethical standards across the public sector. As the Guardian put it in Nolan’s obituary, his job was “cleansing the Augean stable of corrupt politics”.
The first chair set out the seven Nolan Principles, which the committee still seeks to promote. “Our job is to defend the key principles of public life: the Nolan Principles. That’s what I’m most concerned about,” says Bew. “This is a body that is intended to fight for these values and to make sure attention is paid to them.”
Bew says these principles should be “firmly embedded in public life,” and wants to make sure attention is paid to them – but can he name them? “I should have prepared for this,” he says, naming five correctly – selflessness, honesty, openness, accountability, leadership – then getting one muddled (he lists “independence” rather than “integrity”), and forgetting objectivity altogether. “Is that seven?” Sparing the lord further blushes, we move on.
The CSPL is a monitor, rather than a regulator, of these ethical standards in the public sector. “In a regulator, there are specific capacities to intervene which we simply don’t possess,” Bew explains. Indeed, there are 11 ethical regulatory agencies in the public sector, including MPs’ expenses watchdog IPSA.
CSPL’s power, then, derives from its “moral authority,” Bew says, and “if government decides that there should be an independent body which articulates concerns in this area, then it ought to respond seriously. That’s all we can ask for.”
At the end of 2012, the government concluded its Triennial Review of the CSPL – a procedure that all non-departmental bodies must go through – and set out a series of changes. When the committee was established, it was tasked with using current examples of standards in public life to advise on improvements. But whilst the review decided not to abolish the organisation, it did cut its budget and limit its ability to examine current cases – calling on it to warn about future threats rather than commenting on what it calls contemporary “scandals and allegations”.
The review warned that the committee was too prone to simply reacting to events, and said a “fresh start is needed to make the committee more effective and to give it greater impact.” One key change was the recommendation that the CSPL be more “strategic” and “bolder” in picking topics, “looking ahead to emerging problems, rather than reacting to scandals and allegations of ethical abuses which have already emerged”. It added that members of the committee should be cautious about commenting in the media about contemporary issues. “It’s quite a sobering document,” Bew says. “There’s no question about that.”
It’s a tricky task not to react to headlines on the latest scandal, Bew notes, because “we haven’t had a shortage of such headlines in recent years. In that sense, the terrain is quite rough.” However, the CSPL is trying to anticipate and highlight emerging problems. For example, Bew says the CSPL warned the Public Administration Select Committee that police crime statistics were being falsified some weeks before PASC heard those allegations in public at a witness session.
Bew accepts that “we should be thinking about areas in public life and changes occurring in society that are creating a more problematic terrain for the Nolan Principles, and try to think ahead.” However, that leaves him with a substantial difficulty, as he points out: “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Budget and staffing
Stepping back, and not commenting on specific cases, creates a risk that CSPL is unable to provide its expertise when important ethical problems arise. When these new restraints on its work are combined with the cuts in its budget, it’s tricky to see how the committee can remain the strong voice that took on the cash for questions scandal.
“Our resources are less than they were – significantly less than they were,” Bew notes. For example, he says, “I’ve been told that Lord Nolan had 21 people working for him,” while the committee now has a secretariat of three full-time staff and one part-time press officer. The Triennial Review called on the Cabinet Office to provide a “high-quality secretariat”, but didn’t specify staff numbers, and it also cut the number of committee members from 10 to seven. Further, “particularly because of Lord Nolan, but also distinguished chairmen such as Sir Christopher Kelly, people have expectations of us which go back to the days when our resources were more extensive.”
That said, Bew adds that “I never thought for a minute that we could go back to the Cabinet Office and say… ‘Could you please write me a cheque?’.” Bew took the role after the cuts had been announced, and “if I didn’t think I could do a serious job, I wouldn’t have taken it. I knew from the moment that I came in the door that it wasn’t going to carry on as before.”
Bew does, though, deeply regret the loss of the CSPL’s annual survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life – scrapped following the Triennial Review. “When I came in, I wasn’t quite so worried. I thought: ‘Oh, I can ask these questions and we can work it out, people elsewhere can duplicate this work.’ But actually, as I sat at my desk and started to read it, I regretted more the loss,” he recalls. Bew says the survey was useful because it provided a stable assessment of public confidence in specific industries, and provoked a strong debate. “You know you’re comparing like with like, you’re not dealing with rogue figures – as you sometimes are – or tilted questions”.
The results of these polls were also a useful tool with which to twist arms, he says. It’s plainly the case that popular confidence in the ethical standards of public servants is in decline, and he believes the poll results promoted strong debates in some sectors. In particular, they were useful when working with the police – a public service dogged by allegations of wrongdoing over the past year. “It’s quite clear that the College of Policing is not in any form of denial,” he notes. “They realise that there’s a public mood change.”
Policing the police
Before, during and since the Leveson Inquiry of 2012, serious allegations of corruption, professional malfeasance, and the falsification of statistics have been levelled against the police. The CSPL has been “proactive” in looking into these problems, Bew says. But does he have the resources to investigate cover-ups at big, powerful organisations? “Let’s suppose we had a royal commission on policing: would it have more resources than we have? Of course it would, if that was to actually happen,” he says. “On the other hand, do we have the resources to make serious interventions on where the Nolan Principles should be applied in and around the area of policing? I get a reasonable response from the Police Federation, the College of Policing, and from senior police people generally. We have the resources to get their attention.”
He goes further: the CSPL gets “more than a response. [Police and ministers] come in here; we meet in this room; we talk to them about what really concerns us – which is making sure that the Nolan Principles are embedded properly in the future policing of this country.” And does the CSPL have to take what it hears on trust, or is it able to investigate? “I’m perfectly happy with the frank way that they’ve talked to us about it. In the end, we’ll see what happens,” Bew replies. It sounds like the committee has to accept what it’s told – though Bew says he does trust the police to act. “I have a sense that they think certain real problems have come to light,” he comments.
However, on party funding, the CSPL’s voice appears to have been ignored. In 2011, the committee published a document calling for an end to the “big donor culture”; as Bew says, the committee “put a lot into it.” The CSPL recommended a donor cap of £10,000 annually and the provision to parties of £23m in state funding – but no progress has been made since. “We’ve been anxious to get a response from the government,” Bew says, but he doesn’t expect one before 2015: “I think this is a practical matter of politics, stuck until after the general election.”
Is the committee strong enough to be heard when it publishes recommendations? “Obviously, we have produced that document, and I’m saying I don’t think it’s likely to be implemented in this Parliament. But can we stand our ground? Yes we can,” Bew responds. “We aren’t going to go away; but on the other hand, Parliament is Parliament and there is a certain balance of forces on this issue.” The CSPL is, in other words, outgunned.
On lobbying, meanwhile, the CSPL published recommendations opposing the government’s plans for a limted statutory register of lobbyists – but the coalition went ahead anyway. “We’re still waiting for a response; we’re still pushing; we haven’t gone away on this,” Bew says. He was pleased with the media coverage and recognition of the committee’s report, because there “were so many players on the pitch, and it was a really violent rugby match, at times. I’m happy with our intervention... We await a fuller response, which I believe we will get.”
The key thrust of the CSPL’s argument is that there should be greater transparency around public servants’ meetings with lobbyists. “Let’s be clear: lobbying is part of our democracy,” he says, but “the problem is access to big money. It is a problem, there’s no question about it.”
The onus should be on public servants to be open about all those lobbying them, Bew argues, rather than pretending that lobbying is confined to those formally employed by public affairs consultancies. But unless the government does a highly-unlikely U-turn, the responsibility for ensuring probity will rest with accounting officers rather than those being lobbied.
For example, when it emerged that Adam Werrity, the friend of former defence secretary Liam Fox, had enjoyed improper access to Ministry of Defence meetings, the subsequent report by then-cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell found that the MoD accounting officer hadn’t sufficiently monitored the relationship and flagged problems. “It all comes back, fundamentally, to the Nolan Principles,” Bew comments. “The permanent secretary classes aren’t unaware that they have a fundamental responsibility to abide by the Principles.”
The future of integrity
The committee is now considering its plans for the future; it has already decided to look at the implications of outsourcing on ethical standards, and intends to publish something by the autumn.
The committee also needs to clarify its relationship with devolved administrations. The Triennial Review challenged it to determine whether and how it works with them, and Bew says that it’ll be doing less with them in future. Scotland has a similar committee in its Parliament, he says, while “it is actually quite expensive to send the committee over to Belfast for a few days.” However, he reserves the right for the committee to consider issues that affect the devolved administrations, especially if it’s a UK-wide problem.
A further challenge is the diversity of the committee: the review said it needs to become more inclusive. “The difficulty is that it also calls for the committee to become smaller, so you realise immediately that it’s not going to be easy,” Bew comments. “All I can say is that it would be easier to do this by suddenly making a handful of appointments” – rather than cutting back.
The Triennial Review is certainly troubling the CSPL. Bew calls it a “challenge”, adding: “I do think that these questions of standards in public life are important, and I’m very anxious to contribute to the debate that we have about it in a serious way.”
Sometimes, as Bew has noted, these debates get pretty rough – like the “rugby match” over lobbying. With its dwindling role, the CSPL risks looking less like the kind of burly ref able to keep control of the rugby pitch, and more like a sports academic drafted in to consider arcane elements of the rules of the game. It may eventually be able to make a difference to how things pan out in future matches, but in the meantime a lot of people are likely to get mauled.