Ministers are failing to uphold good ethical standards in government and to provide leadership by calling out bad behaviour, former first civil service commissioner Sir David Normington has said.
Speaking to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Normington said the handling of the bullying investigation into home secretary Priti Patel – among other things – is a sign standards are not being upheld.
“I don’t like saying this but I’ll say it anyway: we’re in a phase where ethical standards are not being sufficiently upheld by the government, and there are too many examples of that for it to be an isolated problem,” he told the committee yesterday.
“And these things sometimes go in phases so I hope it’s not a trend. It may be a phase related to a new government which has been elected with quite a large majority and so on, so I hope it’s a settling-in phase, but I think we have to be on our guard.”
As first civil service commissioner from 2011 to 2016, Normington headed the Civil Service Commission, which ensures that senior civil service appointments are made on merit. He was also Commissioner for Public Appointments at the same time, and had previously been permanent secretary at two departments.
“We’re not seeing from the top enough leadership to call out poor behaviour,” he added, noting that leadership is one of the seven principles of public life – otherwise known as the Nolan Principles – that form the basis of the ethical standards expected of public office holders.
Normington said the prime minister’s insistence that Patel had not broken the ministerial code, despite his independent ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan finding she had bullied staff, was among those failures of leadership.
“I’ve been in public life long enough to know how difficult that is for a prime minister or a cabinet minister, but my experience of prime ministers over most of the years that I’ve been in public life is when the chips are down, they stand up for these standards. And it’s so important that prime ministers do that,” he said.
“Sometimes that entails them taking action against others that they would greatly prefer not to take. But generally they do it because it’s in the interests of ethical standards in government.”
He said that action did not need to be sacking people – “there’s far too much sacking of people in public life” – but did need to involve apologising.
He said ministers must also be willing to admit when ethical standards had not been met and to be accountable for falling below those standards.
“If people at the top in government do not set an example, it ripples through the system. Their failure to set an example has a disproportionate impact,” he added.
Updating the seven principles
Normington said he examined the seven principles of public life when the bullying allegations against Patel came to light last year and found “nothing in there which directly relates to this issue”.
He said the principles should be updated to address concerns about bullying and harassment, in light of both the Patel investigation and wider concerns about the treatment of public servants.
“There is a lot of bullying and harassment of people in public office on social media and so on,” he said.
He said the principle could be encapsulated in a word like “respect, tolerance, compassion, understanding – it’s in that nexus of issues” and needs to be “much more clearly about the behaviour of people in public office to each other and to the public”.
Frameworks "only as good as people's behaviour"
Asked how frameworks for ethical standards could be improved further, Normington stressed that frameworks are “only as good as the behaviour and restraint of those in power or in public office”.
“You can have all the frameworks you like, all the codes you like, but if people in public office are trying to get around them or ignore them or undermine them, then that will be a problem. And it’s very difficult to put that right, whatever framework you have.”
However, he said it is important to examine elements of those frameworks to determine whether they are working.
One element he said does “not appear to be working very well” is the role of the prime minister's independent adviser on ministerial standards – given that Allan’s findings in the Patel investigation were dismissed, leading him to resign.
Normington also said business appointment rules are a “mess”.
But asked whether he thought a statutory ethics regulator could help improve standards, he said he did not believe such a body would “necessarily solve any problem”.
“It sounds nice and neat to have everything in some sort of legal framework, but if we operated with transparency and accountability the present framework, I think it would be fine.”