The government’s hurried attempt to change the process for regulating MPs’ behaviour was a “very serious and damaging moment” for public standards, the head of the committee charged with advising the prime minister on ethical conduct for MPs has said.
Reforms narrowly approved by MPs on Wednesday that paved the way for the creation of a Conservative-led parliamentary committee to examine reform of the standards system were “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy”, Jonathan Evans said.
The head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was speaking shortly before ministers announced a U-turn on the plans. The plans would also have shelved the suspension from parliament of Conservative MP Owen Paterson, a measure proposed by parliament’s existing Standards Committee after he broke lobbying rules.
It is “hard to see” how ministers and the PM – who whipped Conservative MPs to vote in favour of the reforms – showed leadership in upholding ethical standards in public life, as required by the Nolan Principles, Lord Evans said in a speech at the Institute for Government.
“It cannot be right that MPs should reject, after one short debate, the conclusions of the independent commissioner for standards and the House of Commons Committee on Standards – conclusions that arose from an investigation lasting two years,” Evans, who is a crossbench peer, said.
“It cannot be right to propose an overhaul of the entire regulatory system in order to postpone or prevent sanctions in a very serious case of paid lobbying by an MP.
“It cannot be right that this was accompanied by repeated attempts to question the integrity of the commissioner for standards herself, who is working within the system that the House of Commons agreed in 2010.”
The government has been accused of undermining standards commissioner Kathryn Stone, who concluded Paterson had committed an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules by repeatedly contacting ministers and officials on behalf of Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.
After Wednesday’s vote, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said it was “difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is”, but that it was “up to the commissioner to decide her position”.
Evans also condemned the idea of commissioning a select committee chaired by the party of government, with the majority of its members comprised of Conservative MPs.
“This extraordinary proposal is deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy,” he said.
“The political system in this country does not belong to one party, or even to one government. It is a common good that we have all inherited from our forebears and that we all have a responsibility to preserve and to improve.”
‘This is a serious moment’
Evans used the speech to outline the main findings of the committee’s recent review, which said the current system of standards is too reliant on convention and called for stronger rules and oversight of their enforcement.
CSPL’s report called for stronger lobbying rules determining which jobs ex-officials can take after leaving government, including “meaningful sanctions” for those that breach the rules. It also called for more independent oversight for the ministerial code and for the Cabinet Office to coordinate more frequent and comprehensive publication of lobbying data.
“Of course, in regulatory terms, conventions are by definition not binding. And so when it comes to ethical standards, what one person may call governance by convention, others might call self-regulation,” he said.
“And we know – in politics, business, and many other walks of life – that self-regulation no longer appears to command as much public trust as perhaps it once did.”
The committee’s suggestions are not radical but represent a “common-sense set of reforms”, Evans said.
Ideas the committee considered but did not put forward include the establishment of a single ethics commission, combining the existing standards regulators into one central body.
“Such a commission would certainly signal a change in approach to the public. However, we also heard arguments that it would amass too much power – unelected power – over the affairs of government. We therefore believe improving education and communication on the roles and remits of existing bodies is a better solution to the issue of complexity,” he said.
He said many of the reforms suggested in the review are actions government could take immediately if it chooses to.
“We have had episodes of so-called sleaze and scandal before. What matters is that opportunity for reform should be grasped in order to maintain or rebuild public confidence in the integrity of public life.” he said.
“Though yesterday’s events may represent a serious blow to such confidence, we hope that the government will recognise that this is a serious moment, take our call to action seriously, and implement the recommendations of this report.”