'Quick, sensible' government standards reform can regain public trust, IfG says

Think tank suggest "quick-win" reforms as it finds two-thirds of Britons do not think the current government adheres to high ethical standards
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By Tevye Markson

26 Feb 2024

The Institute for Government has urged political parties to set out commitments to reform ethical standards for government ahead of the next general election, as polling reveals how far trust has been eroded.

A report by the think tank, published today, includes new polling which finds two-thirds of the public do not think the current government behaves to high ethical standards and 45% think standards of behaviour in government have got worse since the last general election in 2019.

The report – Rebuilding trust in public life – contains a series of recommendations for the current government or the next party in power, including refreshing the ministerial code, giving the independent adviser on ministers’ interests more powers and creating proper routes for whistleblowing inside government.

It also calls for the creation of a permanent hub for constitutional expertise in the civil service, one of several "quick-win" reforms it believes can be implemented straight away.

Highlighting the need for a standards “reset”, the report argues that the next government should “show that it has learned from the mistakes of recent administrations and, in turn, start the difficult process of showing the British public that the institutions on which we all rely can be trusted”.

Other recommendations include improving performance on standards-related data and transparency across government and putting the ministerial code, along with business appointments, conflict of interest and public appointment rules, on a “stronger footing”.

The UK fell to 20th in the world in the most recent Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, having received its lowest-ever score, with the NGO noting there had been “a string of political ‘sleaze’ and public spending scandals”.

Similarly, Ipsos's 2023 Veracity Index found that just 10% of the public trusts government ministers to tell the truth.

Election provides 'chance to reset perceptions'

Alongside a drop in confidence in the government’s ethical standards over the last five years, the polling for the report, by Ipsos, reveals the reputational damage that an era of scandal has had on the UK’s major parties. Some 65% of adults said they would not have much trust in a Conservative government after the next election (including 53% of 2019 Tory voters), with 44% saying the same for the Labour Party (including 19% of 2019 Labour voters).  

The report says the general election “offers both the main parties a chance to reset these perceptions” and argues they should “set out from now how they plan to fix the situation should they enter No.10”.

Tim Durrant, the IfG’s programme director and the author of the report, said: “The experience of the last few years has shown us that the current systems for upholding ethical standards in government are not working properly. Ahead of the election, both the main parties should commit to quick, sensible changes to improve ethics in government and wider public life.” 

What have the major parties said so far?

Upon his appointment as PM, Sunak pledged that his government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. However, the government has continued to be beset by scandals, with party chair, Nadhim Zahawi, and deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, both forced to step down in the first year of Sunak’s premiership due to tax irregularities and bullying respectively.

Last summer, Sunak committed to a series of reforms in a long-awaited response to recommendations made by standards watchdogs. These included making changes to civil service terms and conditions to toughen rules around lobbying and requiring ministers to sign a "ministerial deed" which legally commits them to adhering to the rules on accepting jobs after they leave office. The IfG report says the commitments are “sensible” and should be seen through, but adds that the government can do much more to improve standards, pointing to ministers’ rejection of many recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. 

Labour, meanwhile, has said that it will establish an Integrity and Ethics Commission to strengthen standards in government and ensure they are properly enforced. However, Rebuilding trust in public life argues there is no need to wait until the commission is established before implementing most of its suggestions.

Parties told to target 'quick wins’ 

In the same spirit, the report argues some of its recommendations are “quick wins” that can be achieved immediately after the election. This includes rewriting the ministerial code and giving the prime minister’s independent adviser full investigative powers, but also the establishment of a constitutional centre of expertise under the cabinet secretary.

The report argues responsibility for the constitution in the UK government – which is split between the Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, is “unhelpfully diffuse”. It says a central unit would bring together all the relevant advisory functions and be responsible for building institutional memory, supporting the cabinet secretary in giving constitutional advice, and providing expert guidance to ministers. The unit would not take over policy responsibility from other departments but would act as a permanent hub for constitutional expertise in the civil service.

The report says Sunak's aforementioned commitment that ministers will sign a legal deed to comply with rules on post-government jobs is another example of a reform that can be done straight away.

The report adds, however, that “while a prime minister can easily establish new structures and roles shortly after an election, the most important thing for the government is to establish a culture of integrity and adherence to expected standards of behaviour”.

A government spokesperson said: "Integrity, professionalism and accountability are the core values of this government.

"In July 2023, the government announced its response to reports from Nigel Boardman, CSPL, and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The response is a wide-ranging programme of reform to strengthen ethics and integrity in central government. 

“As part of that response and in line with its commitment to transparency, in December the Cabinet Office published online, for the first time, a substantial update to the guidance on how transparency data should be prepared and released. We have also published new guidance on using non-corporate communication channels in March 2023, and updated guidance on record keeping for ministerial and permanent secretary's offices in December 2023."

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