Former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill has said there has been “no dilution” of politicians’ and civil servants’ commitment to high ethical standards in recent years, despite a “polarised” political environment.
Appearing before the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Lord Sedwill said he did not agree with people who have said ethical standards in government have been eroded amid the Brexit and coronavirus crises – but admitted that there was room for scrutiny of decisions that had been taken during that time.
In the wide-ranging session, CSPL members grilled Sedwill about trust in government, and whether decisions taken during the coronavirus crisis were a cause for concern. Committee members highlighted emergency procurement measures used during the government's pandemic response, which have attracted much criticism, as one example.
"The system has to be able to respond to a crisis. The key thing is: is it responding in a transparent and accountable way? I haven’t really seen hard evidence to suggest it hasn’t,” he said, but added that watchdogs such as the National Audit Office and parliament's Public Accounts Committee may want to look further at the issue in future.
"In a crisis, you do sometimes have to cut through the normal governance procedures but we have ways of doing that that are properly transparent," Sedwill added. But he said it is possible that when subjected to further scrutiny, some of the decisions to skip normal procedures may turn out not to have been “justified”.
Committee members were also concerned about whether politicians' commitment to high ethical standards had been affected by the recent period of “acute crisis and pressure”.
But Sedwill said: “I think there’s a difference here between perception and actually some of the underlying reality. In practice, I don’t think I’ve seen any difference or indeed weakening of the commitment of public servants – whether those are political or professional, because I regard politicians as public servants too – to high ethics in government and to the standards that apply.
“Now of course we’ve been through a polarised period politically, and therefore there have been more accusations about personal conduct, the neutrality of the civil service, et cetera, which are of course important issues of principle as well, but actually I think notwithstanding that it’s held up just as I would expect.
“And I’ve seen no actual dilution of that commitment, notwithstanding the accusations that are sometimes levelled against the system as a whole, or indeed individuals within it.”
However, Sedwill did agree with the committee that ministers should be mindful that they must act as an example to other public servants when it came to bolstering public trust in government.
“It has to be [ a question of political leadership], because of course more than anyone else, political leadership sets the tone for the way the whole of government approaches these issues,” he said, indicating he meant both ministers and parliament.
“I can think of episodes during the Brexit period where on both sides of that argument, some controversial tactics – even within parliament – were being used in order to advance the particular approach that people were taking. So it has to start in a democratic system with the political class. Ministers are the most visible group, but it’s a responsibility for all of us in public service,” he said.
However, he said he did not consider that these “controversial tactics” indicate an overall reduction in standards.
He said such controversies were better understood as “cycles”, urging public service leaders to “ensure our memories aren’t too short”. He said similar concerns about erosion of ethical standards had been raised following the sinking of the General Belgrano in the Falklands War, and during the “cash for questions” scandal in the 1990s.
“Questions of this kind have always arisen in a political system,” he said.
Also appearing before the committee last week, one of Sedwill’s predecessors, Gus O’Donnell, said he did not share the most recent cab sec’s confidence that ethical standards had remained high among the political classes.
Lord O’Donnell said misleading claims made by ministers about Brexit showed there were “some areas where I think the traditional standards have fallen away”. Ministers’ claims that there was no border in the Irish sea was one example, he said.
He said these claims were a "real issue" impacting trust in government. “It’s this point about telling the truth and people believing what ministers say is actually true," he said.
"It used to be such a cardinal thing – that if you misled parliament that was the end, and that seems to have changed somewhat.”
He also said trust had been damaged by some “egregious incidents” of statistics being misinterpreted or used in a misleading way by politicians.
O’Donnell said ministers should be held to account in a more stringent way for their claims.
“Where you are dealing with factual things that can be checked and statistics, there needs to be a stronger emphasis on someone calling these things out,” he said. “And then a requirement – as we have in press regulation and the paper has to print corrections – that if they do mislead they have to go back to the House and say ‘I’m really sorry, when I said X that wasn’t the case’.”