'Bad people may find ways round the rules': ex-cab secs call for standards overhaul

Five former top officials call for reform to make cheating the system harder
Lord Mark Sedwill, one of the five former cabinet secretaries who wrote to The Times. Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

All of the UK’s living former cabinet secretaries have backed a call to toughen up ethical standards for public figures, as a row over MPs' conduct rolls on.

The five peers – Robin Butler, whose decade as cab sec began in 1988, and his successors Richard Wilson, Andrew Turnbull, Gus O’Donnell and Mark Sedwill, who stepped down last year – have urged the government to adopt the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recent review “to ensure public confidence in the integrity of our public life”.

The recommendations include putting standards bodies on a statutory footing; enforcing “meaningful sanctions” for those that break lobbying rules; and introducing greater independent oversight of the ministerial code.

“We recognise that this is not straightforward as we support public-private interchange and are mindful of the legal constraints on restricting the ability to find employment, but the report suggests ways in which the rules could be usefully reinforced,” the former officials wrote in a letter to The Times.

The letter was in support of a Times editorial that said restoring trust in the integrity of Britain’s political system would require “more than words”, following the government’s botched attempt to hurriedly overhaul the standards process for MPs.

Ministers quickly U-turned on the reforms, which would have shelved the suspension of Conservative MP Owen Paterson after he broke lobbying rules, following a backlash. Since then, allegations have emerged that several MPs may have breached parliamentary rules.

The five ex-cab secs echoed CSPL’s call to enforce the ministerial code “strictly”, cautioning that “the system in place needs ways of recognising that some breaches are more important than others”.

“Rules, though, will only take us so far. Good people will behave well. Bad people may find ways round whatever rules there are, and we should aim to frame regulations to make cheating them harder,” they wrote.

“But ultimately we need all in positions of trust to set an example: as Lord Evans of Weardale said, our political system is a common good that we all have a responsibility to preserve and improve.”

Jonathan Evans, CSPL’s chair, said in a speech shortly after the botched reform attempt that the move was “deeply at odds with the best traditions of British democracy”.

“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,” he said.

'I regret if the words I used have given the impression of having fallen short'

As the ex cab secs were writing to The Times, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was writing to standards commissioner Kathryn Stone after suggesting she should consider resigning.

After MPs backed the move to overhaul the standards process at the start of this month, Kwarteng said it was “difficult to see what the future of the commissioner” – who had concluded Paterson had broken lobbying rules – would be “given the fact that we're reviewing the process, and we're overturning and trying to reform this whole process”.

He said after the vote that it was “up to the commissioner to decide her position”.

In a letter to Stone, the business secretary has now said he should have “chosen [his] words more carefully”.

"I did not mean to express doubt about your ability to discharge your role and I apologise for any upset or distress my choice of words may have caused,” the letter, published last night, read.

"I recognise that it is incumbent on ministers to adhere to the high standards of the ministerial code, including ensuring that our words are carefully chosen and that we treat others with consideration and respect,” he added.

"I therefore regret if the words I used on this occasion have given the impression of having fallen short of these high standards."

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