Ex-officials who break lobbying rules must face 'meaningful sanctions', watchdog says

Greater independent oversight of ministerial code is also needed, Committee on Standards in Public Life says
Photo: Daniel Huizinga/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Former civil servants who break lobbying rules should face tougher sanctions such as being forced to pay back severance pay, the government’s standards watchdog has said.

A report today by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which also called for greater consequences for politicians who break the ministerial code, has called for the business appointment rules determining which jobs ministers and officials are allowed to take on after leaving government to be beefed up.

CSPL said the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and government departments should be given the power to issue a five-year lobbying ban for top officials, and that rules should be enforced via their job contracts.

Sanctions for breaking the rules could include seeking an injunction preventing the offender from taking a particular job, or taking back some of their pension or severance payment, the report said.

“The lack of any meaningful sanctions for a breach of the rules is no longer sustainable. Transparency alone, or proposals for the integration of the rules into the process for honours or appointments to the House of Lords, fall short of introducing a formal and credible sanctions regime,” it said.

Today’s review was commissioned after the Greensill affair, which saw former prime minister David Cameron embroiled in a major lobbying scandal, came to light. Cameron has been heavily criticised for lobbying cabinet ministers and top civil servants on behalf of the supply-chain finance firm Greensill Capital, but has not been sanctioned under the existing rules. The affair was one of several recent instances in which former government figures have breached lobbying rules but do not appear to have suffered any consequences.

Elsewhere, the report concluded transparency around lobbying in government is “poor”, and called for the Cabinet Office to oversee the release of better and more comprehensive data on lobbying meetings.

At the moment, the committee said, “it is too difficult to find out who is lobbying government; information is often released too late; descriptions of the content of government meetings are ambiguous and lack necessary detail; transparency data is scattered, disparate, and not easily cross-referenced; and information in the public interest is often excluded from data releases completely”.

The review also called for greater independent oversight of the ministerial code, along with breaches to come with tougher sanctions.

The committee has called for a new obligation in primary legislation for the prime minister to publish the ministerial code, to give it a “more appropriate constitutional status”. The code should detail a range of sanctions the PM can issue if ministers break it, which should include apologies, fines, and asking for a minister’s resignation, it said.

The report also called for greater powers to be given to the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, including the authority to instigate investigations and to determine breaches of the code.

The report, which said regulation of the ministerial code “lags behind” similar arrangements for MPs, peers, and civil servants, said it had become apparent that the current system of regulating standards by relying on convention was “no longer satisfactory” and required an overhaul.

It comes almost a year after the PM’s former independent adviser, Sir Alex Allan, resigned after Boris Johnson overruled him on an investigation into the conduct of home secretary Priti Patel. Allan’s investigation found evidence Patel had bullied staff, but Johnson said she had not broken the ministerial code.

CSPL said today that the “meaningful independence” must be the benchmark for effective standards regulation, and that “arrangements for the adviser still fall below this bar”.

It said the ministerial code should be a “code of conduct of ethical standards for ministers”, based on the Seven Principles of Public Life – otherwise known as the Nolan Principles – that demand selflessness, openness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, honesty and leadership of public servants.

The report also called for greater transparency in the way public appointments are made, and a “stronger guarantee of independence in the appointments process” for standards regulators.

In a foreword to the report, committee chair Jonathan Evans said today there is a “more challenging environment for those committed to upholding ethical standards” than when the Nolan Principles were established in 1995.

“The impact of social media, the coarsening of public debate and political polarisation have all contributed to increase the risk to public standards here and abroad, even before taking into account the pressures brought by EU exit and the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

“Standards arrangements require regular review and the committee has assessed the effectiveness of our ethics regulators in these changing circumstances. We have found a particular need for reform in central government,” he said, noting that these arrangements have not changed in central government for more than a decade.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The government has committed to continually reinforcing high standards of conduct in public life so the public can have trust and confidence in the operation of government at all levels.

“We will carefully consider the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life alongside the recommendations made by Nigel Boardman and other forthcoming reports on similar themes.

“We will set out a full update to parliament in due course.”

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