The government has been “careless” in its upholding of the standards which govern public servants' behaviour, the chair of the Public Standards watchdog has warned.
Lord Jonathan Evans said the government needs to take the rules around behaviour and ethics “much more seriously" and provide more funding to do so.
“I don't think it's given the priority that it should have across various government departments,” Lord Evans told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this week.
“I think, if you look at, for instance, the very unsatisfactory way in which transparency reports are given in respect of lobbying, it's pretty clear that that is not a priority.
“Some parts of the business world, some of the regulated corporations, I think, are much more professional in the way that they seek to meet their compliance requirements.”
The Committee on Standards in Public Life released a report in November calling for improved procedures around public standards, a better system for ensuring the rules are complied with, and greater independence for those regulating compliance.
“At the moment, the government system is very weak in comparison to where we believe it should be,” the former MI5 chief said.
"We have seen a whole series of issues over the last few months.
“The Owen Paterson affair; the attempt to change the rules over standards investigations in the middle of the investigation into Mr Paterson's actions; the questions around the redecoration of Downing Street and particularly the very bad processes that were clearly in place for keeping Lord Geidt properly informed; the Greensill affair; and now 'partygate'.
"All of those I think have demonstrated that there is at least a carelessness amongst people in government over standards issues, and possibly more than that.
“If you look at the amount of political and official time that's being absorbed in trying to catch up with a story that's run away – I think it would have been very prudent to have proactively ensured that people were being careful about these things in advance.”
Putting rules in place and ‘giving teeth’ to those who regulate them
Evans also set out the need for a central compliance function which understands and can interpret and advise on the rules so that department chiefs understand what they need to comply with.
Ministers should be responsible for making sure procedures are in place so that departments are living up to the standards that the ministers themselves endorse, he said, but should not run the process.
But he said simply putting the procedures in place is not enough without a “proper system in place to make sure that people are complying with them”, pointing to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments’ lack of power.
“You have a system which goes some way towards at least providing some moral responsibility on those leaving government to do the right thing," he said.
“But it's not enforced, it's not very clear and the regulatory body, if you can call it that, doesn't have the teeth that it needs to make sure that its recommendations are followed through.”
Evans also highlighted the CSPL’s view that the PM’s independent advisor on ministerial standards should have the right to initiate his own investigations.
“That's very important because things hanging in the air, I think, is corrosive”, he said.
“For instance, the Robert Jenrick case a year or so ago where there were allegations that there was impropriety in regard to planning matters.
“I don't know whether that was true or not and it has never been investigated because it was announced that there wasn't anything to investigate. And I think that that leaves Jenrick and the public in a difficult position.”
The prime minister makes the final decision on whether he or his ministers have broken the ministerial code. Many commentators have raised concerns that this is a conflict of interest.
But Evans stopped short of recommending that an independent advisor or body should be appointed able to rule over ministerial conduct or the PM’s own conduct. He said the CSPL could not see a sensible way of doing this and the PM “is fundamentally accountable to parliament and ultimately to the voter”.
Getting lawyers in and banning Whatsapp messages
Asked how the government could ensure investigations are more independent, Evans said there is an argument for getting lawyers in to gather the information.
But he said this is his personal view and the CSPL has not considered this idea.
He also suggested the government should consider banning the use of Whatsapp for conducting official business if it cannot be properly regulated.
Explaining why standards in public life are so important, Evans spoke about the importance of public perception.
“This is about trust,” Evans said. “People should feel able and confident that those people who are serving them as senior officials or ministers, are doing so with the interests of the public at the front of their minds and not their own personal interests.”