Standards watchdog Lord Jonathan Evans has spoken of his “real concern” that the handling of recent high-profile allegations against senior ministers has eroded public trust in the government’s commitment to propriety.
Evans said that 25 years after Lord Michael Nolan’s Committee on Standards in Public Life published its first report, setting out the seven so-called “Nolan principles” that those working in the public sector are expected to adhere to, there was growing talk of a “post-Nolan age”.
He pointed to housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s handling of a planning application for a large-scale housing development in east London and the as-yet-unpublished findings of an investigation into allegations of bullying made against home secretary Priti Patel as specific examples.
Former MI5 director general Evans, the committee’s current chair, said the phrase “post-Nolan” had been used by academics, commentators and members of the public in recent months, suggesting a perception those in power did not believe following the principles was obligatory.
In a lecture to the Institute of Business Ethics last week, Evans spoke in defence of the reforms spearheaded by Nolan in response to widespread allegations of sleaze in Westminster, which reached a peak with the “cash for questions” scandal of 1994.
Evans said the “post-Nolan” accusation was that public culture is changing for the worse.
“Quite simply, the perception is taking root that too many in public life, including some in our political leadership, are choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years,” he said. “And that, when contraventions of ethical standards occur, nothing happens.”
Evans said the “post-Nolan” argument ignored “considerable successes” of the last 25 years – including greater transparency over MPs' expenses and the “hugely developed” public appointments regime. He also noted that the “vast majority” of public servants were committed to the highest standards of conduct.
But he flagged the Jenrick and Patel cases – without mentioning either secretary of state by name – as examples of situations in which there were “reasons for real concern”.
“There can be little doubt that the handling of Richard Desmond’s proposed scheme to redevelop the Westferry Printworks knocked public confidence in the fairness of the planning system,” Evans said.
“As far as I am aware there has been no independent investigation into conduct concerns that the Ministerial Code had been breached.”
Jenrick went against the advice of a planning inspector when he granted planning permission for former Daily Express owner Desmond’s 1,500-home scheme on the Isle of Dogs in January this year. Desmond already had consent for a 722-home version of the scheme; the updated version involved building more and taller towers.
The secretary of state’s decision on the scheme came hours before Tower Hamlets Council's scheduled introduction of new Community Infrastructure Levy charges that would have cost Desmond “£30-£50m” more than the previous regime according to the authority.
The council opposed Desmond's scheme and challenged Jenrick’s decision at the High Court, alleging the secretary of state had been “influenced by a desire” to help the project’s developer avoid a financial liability. The consent was subsequently quashed and questions were raised in parliament about Jenrick’s relationship with Desmond after it emerged that both men shared a table at a fund-raising dinner weeks before the Westferry decision was made.
Evans said that while an investigation was known to have been conducted into allegations about Priti Patel’s behaviour at the Home Office, a lack of transparency about its outcome was the cause for concern.
“The bullying allegations made against the home secretary were investigated by the Cabinet Office but the outcome of that investigation has not been published, though completed some months ago,” he said.
“There may be legal complexities underlying this but those have not been made clear and this does not build confidence in the accountability of government.”
Evans said that both the Jenrick and Patel cases had a direct impact on the public’s perception of those in positions of power.
“In both cases, it is not necessarily the outcome of the investigation that is the problem,” he said.
“Rather, it is the fact that the process for dealing with allegations of ministerial impropriety are not transparent or independent, so accountability is limited. In its current state, there is little reason for the public to trust this process and its outcomes.”
Evans concluded his lecture by acknowledging that there were “weaknesses and unfinished business” in the nation’s standards structures. He encouraged businesses, public-sector workers and members of the public to take part in the Standards Matters 2 consultation, which is part of the committee’s current landscape review and open to comments until 18 December.
“There are many reasons to doubt that we are truly post-Nolan,” he said.
“We are not at a point where we have lost trust in nurses, teachers, council officers or benefits staff. We may be cynical about politics, but few people believe their own MP to be corrupt.
“But the spate of concerns expressed about adherence to our standards framework and the Seven Principles of Public Life should not be ignored.
“The government’s ability to lead the country through the coronavirus crisis will be strengthened, rather than undermined, by an adherence to high standards. You can’t fight a pandemic if people do not trust the government.
“A clear commitment to honesty, objectivity and accountability, and leadership as outlined in the Nolan principles, would seem to me a good place to start if you want to maintain public trust.”