Former perm secs back plan to 'rebuild trust' in politics

Demands include independent enforcement of a revised ministerial code and better regulation of post-government jobs
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By Jim Dunton

25 Jun 2024

Nine former departmental permanent secretaries have thrown their weight behind a drive for reforms designed to improve public trust in politics by addressing major governance shortcomings exposed in recent years.

The ex-officials include Sir Philip Rutnam – who dramatically resigned from the helm of the Home Office in February 2020 – and Sir Jonathan Jones, who quit as permanent secretary of the Government Legal Department later the same year.

They are among dozens of public figures endorsing a seven-point plan for change that is being proposed by the Institute for Government, the University College London's Constitution Unit, and the UK Governance Project.

The drive calls on the next government to create a new ministerial code that would be enforced independently; establish new systems for managing conflicts of interest and lobbying; and for improved regulation of post-government jobs taken by ministers and former officials.

Other demands include measures to ensure appointments to the House of Lords are made exclusively on merit; strengthening the independence of the honours system; and bolstering the rigour and transparency with which public appointments are made.

The call was made in the form of a letter to The Times yesterday, arguing that trust in politics, and in the people and institutions of public life, is "at an all-time low".

"This is a serious problem for the health of our democracy and is indicative of the need for substantial improvement in the governance of the UK," the letter stated. "It must be urgently addressed by whichever party forms the next government."

The letter argues that legislation would not be  necessary for most of the measures proposed, but acknowledges that a short bill would create the necessary powers and "embed the independence" of the ethics and integrity system.

"This election is a rare opportunity to reverse the spiral of declining trust in government and one that would be dangerous to miss," the signatories argue. "Whoever enters No.10 on July 5 must seize it."

When he quit the Home Office in February 2020, Rutnam said he had been the victim of a "vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign" and suggested then-home secretary Priti Patel was involved.

Rutnam added that Home Office staff had made allegations that Patel had shouted and sworn at them, belittling people and making "unreasonable and repeated demands".

Patel was later found to have bullied staff in an investigation conducted by then-prime minister Boris Johnson's independent adviser on ministerial standards, which is a breach of the ministerial code. Johnson refused to accept that Patel's behaviour amounted to a breach of the ministerial code, so she was able to keep her job.

Rutnam brought a constructive dismissal case against the government. It settled ahead of an employment tribunal, paying out £370,000 plus legal fees.

Jonathan Jones resigned from his role at the helm of the GLD in September 2020 amid reports that ministers were planning to back out of elements of the Brexit deal that had been agreed at that stage – a move that would have involved breaking international law.

Other signatories to yesterday's letter include former Department for Education and Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington; former Foreign and Commonwealth Office perm secs Lord Michael Jay and Lord Simon McDonald; former Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs perm sec Dame Clare Moriarty; and former HM Treasury perm sec Lord Terry Burns.

Former Department for Exiting the European Union perm sec Philip Rycroft and ex-deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara also signed the letter, as did former public appointments commissioner Sir Peter Riddell and former first civil service commissioner Baroness Usha Kamari Prashar.

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