By Tevye Markson

05 Feb 2024

After five years chairing the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Evans reflects on the challenges of fostering ethical integrity in government


When former MI5 director general Jonathan Evans was appointed chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2018, his intention was to help “continue the strong tradition of high public standards” in the UK, he tells CSW.

What he didn’t expect was to be thrust into a ringside seat at one of the most tumultuous periods for public standards in the modern era.

After the 1990s cash-for-questions affair, which triggered the creation of the standards committee, and the parliamentary expenses scandal in the late 2000s, ethical standards in public life dropped off newspaper front pages. Then, shortly after Lord Evans joined the committee, a string of crises arrived all at once: Greensill, the Owen Paterson affair and Partygate. The former spymaster’s new role evolved into something that was rather different from what he had anticipated.

“I thought it would be more like a select committee role where you are [gathering] evidence [and] issuing reports,” Evans says. “But in the period from 2020 through to this time last year, public standards became a big public media issue.”

One might think he was well prepared for the challenge. A career security service officer who worked at MI5 for more than three decades, Evans spearheaded attempts to bring transparency to the service. Leading one of Britain’s most opaque public services into an era of increased openness required careful navigation of questionable past behaviours by MI5, and brought with it increased media scrutiny – skills Evans found necessary to revisit in his committee role.

“I certainly seemed to spend a lot of time talking to media, appearing on the Today programme, the World at One and so on,” Evans says. “Public standards became a very big public story, and therefore we felt, as a committee, that we needed to make our voice heard. I don’t think I was anticipating that that would be what was involved in this role at the time.”

Evans’ five-year term ended in October. Despite the succession of scandals that marked the middle of his chairmanship, he believes a “slight recalibration” in ethical standards has taken place in the last 12 months. So, why does he think things got so choppy under Boris Johnson’s leadership?

“There’s never been a golden age of standards when everyone was completely saintly, and everyone did everything right,” he says. Long before the cash-for-questions scandal of the 1990s, there was, after all, the 1922 cash-for-honours furore involving then-prime minister David Lloyd George.

“There is always a tension between individual ambition, party and personal interests, and the public good. Sometimes, those get out of alignment,” Evans says.

Evans believes increased political polarisation and a move towards “getting stuff done” at the expense of checks and balances under the Johnson government, at times out of necessity owing to the pandemic, were responsible for the mounting examples of impropriety.

Moving quickly to deliver policies is an understandable instinct, Evans says, but in the long term it leads to poor governance.

“And then there were some very specific things, like the scandalous decisions at the beginning of the Owen Paterson affair of demolishing the machinery in the middle of a process because you don’t like the outcome,” he adds, referring to the government’s response to a committee report that recommended Paterson be suspended for breaching paid advocacy rules in November 2021. Johnson supported an amendment to disarm the motion to carry out the committee’s recommendations. “That was very bad practice. It’s against natural justice, and it’s against what public standards are about and integrity in government.” Following criticism from media and MPs in all parties, the government U-turned and announced a vote on the suspension. Paterson resigned.

Spying his next move

Evans joined MI5 in 1980, working on counter-espionage investigations and counter-terrorism. He left the service in April 2013, feeling he had “run out of room” after a 33-year stint that saw him rise to the top position. Despite the perceived glamour and derring-do of a job in the Security Service, those who worked with him have painted a picture of careful professionalism. “He’s not a risk-taker,” a senior politician told The Independent in 2009. Former home secretary David Blunkett labelled him “a quiet professional”.

Upon leaving the service in 2013, Evans felt the draw of a “portfolio with a variety of different roles”, he tells CSW. He became a non-executive director at HSBC later that year, and was appointed a crossbench peer in 2014. He also, briefly, became a non-executive director at the National Crime Agency from 2014 to 2015. In November 2018, he was appointed chair of CSPL for a five-year term.

The public service function of the role attracted Evans to the job, as did an active interest in upholding public standards which had developed at MI5 “dealing with countries [with] serious corruption issues”.

“When you look at a country where there aren’t decent standards in public life, where there is corruption, you realise how enormously damaging it is and how difficult it is to get out of that problem because all the handholds have been taken away,” he explains.

“It seemed to me to be very important that we should continue the strong tradition of high public standards that, on the whole, the UK has had.”

Mission control

Coming into the chairmanship, Evans says he didn’t have a one-track “mission to do XYZ”. Instead, he planned to consult the committee and other experts on public standards before deciding CSPL’s focus during his term.

There were pressures on public standards that he felt were necessary to explore, however. One, in particular, surprised his colleagues: the impact of artificial intelligence.

Prior to taking the role, Evans says a visit to Google to discuss the tech firm’s AI ambitions gave him further inspiration. “I thought, ‘This is very interesting because if this is the way the world’s going to go, then this could potentially have an impact on public standards issues’.”

As a result, the committee published the report Artificial Intelligence and Public Standards in 2020. It proved prescient: in October 2023, the UK government hosted the first global summit on the risks of AI technologies.

“Some members of the committee were slightly surprised at going in that direction, but it turned out to be a good report and we were welcomed in by people who were thinking about these things,” Evans says.

During a valedictory speech at the Institute for Government a few days before our interview, Evans said the report “may have been a bit ahead of time because nobody took much interest in it when we published it, but it’s having a second life”.

Analysing AI wasn’t the only idea Evans was keen to consider: the committee’s final major report under his leadership, Leading in Practice published in January 2023, bears the imprint of comments he made in his pre-appointment hearing with MPs in 2018, where he extolled the importance of leadership in driving good standards; of paying close attention to examples of best practice; and having ethics and standards form part of new employees’ induction processes.

Five years later, he still believes standards are developed, rather than being innate. Asked what one reform he would introduce if he were given the keys to No.10, he says: “It would be to ensure that public standards [and] ethics were an important part of induction and training for all people coming into public service, and that there was space created for people to talk, think and discuss around those issues at the beginning and throughout their careers.”

Evans on... values-based recruitment

“It’s worth giving serious thought to [introducing values-based recruitment] if you’re running an organisation, because you will get the best out of an organisation if you are recruiting people who feel that what they are doing aligns with their values.

“That’s not to say that everybody must think the same. You can have people with very different skills and perspectives, but whose fundamental values – what matters in terms of outcomes and behaviours – can be the same. That’s something which makes individuals thrive and [creates] organisations which are coherent, and which perform strongly.

“We expect people in public service to adhere to the seven principles of public life [selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership].

“Is that something that chimes with the people that we’re recruiting or do they throw their hands up and say, ‘I don’t know what all this nonsense is about?  I don’t want a job where I have to worry about all that’?

“If they don’t want to worry about all that, they may find it difficult to contribute to the sort of public service we want.”

Balancing act

The government took two years to respond to the committee’s 2021 Upholding Standards in Public Life report and, while it accepted some recommendations, many others were ignored. Does Evans feel government has taken the committee seriously enough?

“I said two or three years ago that the government was being rather careless about standards issues,” he says delicately. “The government has been reluctant to accept the recommendations that we have made on a number of important areas, even though our report was based on the evidence that we had gathered and which was informed by cross-party conversations. Particularly on electoral finance, to more or less say ‘No, we don’t really want to do anything’ is very regrettable.”

The government’s decision to cut the committee’s resources in 2013, which meant CSPL was no longer able carry out public trust and attitude surveys, is also on the “regrettable” pile. The cut to funding came alongside a change to the committee’s remit, limiting its ability to examine current cases in favour of focusing on future threats.

Evans says balancing the two has been one of the most challenging parts of the role.

“We’re there to advise government. We’re not there to criticise or to attack but equally, when things arise that are concerning, I don’t think we can not say anything,” he says. “So, expressing our concerns and why we have those concerns without looking as though we’re joining in some sort of political fight is a tricky line to tread. I hope we have generally managed it.”

While the government has not always paid as much attention to CSPL as he would have liked, Evans says one of his fondest memories will be the respect the committee received among his peers.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the strong network that the committee has and the support that there is for what we stand for,” he says. “The committee has influence. We don’t have any power but we do have an influential voice, and it was a nice surprise to find how people cared about public standards and cared about the work of the committee given it’s a small and relatively back room function within public service.”

This interview first appeared in the winter 2024 issue of CSW. Read the digital magazine here

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - Senior MPs urge civil service to 'break cycle of siloed, short-term thinking’

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