UK 'could become corrupt' if departments don't take transparency seriously, watchdog warns

CSPL chair Jonathan Evans says adhering to standards for publishing reports related to lobbying is "not a priority"
Lord Evans. Photo: Committee on Standards in Public Life

By Tevye Markson

18 Oct 2023

The government system for ensuring compliance with standards is “very weak” and could open the door to corruption, outgoing ethics watchdog Jonathan Evans has warned.

Lord Evans, who will step down as chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life at the end of October, said the system needs an “overhaul” and cautioned that the UK could become “a corrupt country if we don't tend to problems as they start to emerge and take corrective action”.

Speaking at the Institute for Government, Evans said the “low” priority that departments currently give to compliance with standards “opens a door to opacity and potentially to corruption”.

The former MI5 chief picked out the publishing of transparency reports by government departments as a particular area of concern.

“If you look at, for instance, the very unsatisfactory way in which transparency reports are published in respect of lobbying, it's pretty clear that that is not a priority,” he said.

“Financial interests and conflicts of interests must be disclosed and the information must be accessible to the public.”

The government committed to several reforms to transparency in its July response to the recommendations in the CSPL's 2021 Upholding Standards in Public Life report.

These included:

  • Developing a single platform to collate and publish departments' transparency returns
  • Looking to move departments' transparency publications from a quarterly to a monthly basis once the platform is adopted
  • Publishing new transparency guidance for departments that will create stricter minimum standards for descriptions of meetings and make clear that meeting descriptions contain relevant and instructive information
  • Departments will be required to disclose diarised phone calls and virtual meetings, as well as in-person meetings.
  • Extending transparency obligations to directors general, finance and commercial directors, and senior responsible owners in the government's Major Projects Portfolio.

Evans said “there is no reason for the government not to act quickly” on these commitments. But he said the system for ensuring the release of transparency documents isn’t working, because departments do not adhere to the existing rules.

“The whole basis of our rules for lobbying, whether you think they're right or not, is consultant lobbyists who can lobby for lots of differents organisations must register and that brings them under a degree of regulation," Evans said.

"But lobbyists who are working only for a single organisation do not need to register... because their engagement with ministers and senior officials will be caught by the transparency declarations from departments. Except that quite a lot of the government departments haven’t been publishing them. So it blows a complete hole into the whole lobby rules... it isn't working," Evans said.

This is a structural problem, according to Evans: the lack of a compliance function “within government or across public service”.

“There is a kind of compliance bit, more an advisory bit, in [the] propriety and ethics [directorate] in the Cabinet Office, but their remit is very much the centre of government. But if you go beyond that, I haven’t yet found any compliance department or compliance function that actually makes sure that if somebody says ‘this is what we're going to do’, that that is actually what happens. Therefore sometimes it isn't [what happens], and that is, in my view, a big gap," he said.

The government rejected CSPL and other organisations’ calls for a compliance function in its July response, which stated: “Responsibilities for compliance with ethics and integrity policy are distributed among ministers, permanent secretaries and accounting officers, chief operating officers, HR directors and finance directors.”

Instead, the government said it would “clarify the distribution of formal accountabilities across this system, outlining the responsibilities of the relevant persons in departments”.

Evans said he does not believe the UK is currently "a deeply corrupt country" but warned that there is a need to be "permanently vigilant"

"Otherwise you can go down a path from which it can be very difficult to get back, and international perceptions of the UK do appear to have slipped," he said.

But Evans said there are also signs of "a slight recalibration" over the last 12 months following a period where "the argument put forward by some... that ministers should not be constrained; ​that ​they have a democratic mandate and that the regulatory checks and balances between elections were standing in the way of getting things done".

He picked out the first report from ethics adviser Laurie Magnus on Nadhim Zahawi's tax affairs; Sunak's commitment to "integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” in his first speech as prime minister; and the Labour Party's ethics-reforms plans as signs of a "slight" change in approach, following scandals such as Partygate and the Owen Paterson affair..

'Untold distress could have been avoided'

Evans also stressed the importance of ensuring there are mechanisms in place so that when public servants speak out, their concerns are addressed.

Officials should be made to feel "comfortable discussing the ethical dimension of their work and the standards of conduct expected in their organisation", he said.

"I’m constantly struck when a major scandal breaks, just how many of these issues were known about within the system. Take the lockdown parties, or misogyny and racism within the Met. Staff knew. And many tried to raise it.

"Untold distress could have been avoided, the many public inquiries and investigations could have been rendered unnecessary, if the culture of those organisations had been different and the internal systems had identified issues and properly addressed them along the way. "

The CSPL chair said organisations putting values values "front and centre" would also improve delivery of public services "because morale is high and people are comfortable speaking up, so risks are spotted before they escalate and people find better ways of doing things".

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