Letting ethical standards slip has corrosive consequences beyond No.10

FDA general secretary Dave Penman warns Rishi Sunak of the impact of letting standards in public life fall by the wayside
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By Dave Penman

22 Mar 2023

It has not, by any measure, been a good couple of years for standards in government. The Johnson administration pushed at the boundaries of accepted norms, interspersed by personal failing and scandals. 

It ultimately spelled the end for Johnson, and took its toll on those around him. You can see why the current PM tried to put clear blue water between his administration and the previous two by talking about leading a government of accountability and integrity. 

He chose those words carefully, taking them from the seven principles of public life, or the Nolan Principles as they are affectionately known (Coleen, I think).

Of course, the pop question is: what are the other five? You’ll need to close your eyes for this bit. Selflessness, objectivity, openness, honesty and leadership. If that doesn’t get you in the mood for dancing, I don’t know what will.

The political consequences of a lack of integrity have been clear to see. It may take time, but the public rightly expects their elected leaders to embody those principles, and the reality of governing is they get tested almost every day. You can only fail those tests for so long before they come back to bite you on the bahookie. 

The difficulty, in a civil service context, is that these aren’t just policy failures; they are a failure of governing, and that impacts upon the senior leadership of the civil service too.

The ministerial code is actually clear for once: “It is not the role of the cabinet secretary or other officials to enforce the code.” There is, however, not only an expectation but a defined role for the civil service in advising ministers and prime ministers not just about policy, but about how they govern. 

The civil service code deals with it under political impartiality: “Act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future government”.

When ministers act in a way that undermines ethical standards in government, there’s an expectation that the most senior civil servants have tried to put ministers on the right path. 

Those difficult conversations – about behaviour, conduct or conflicts of interest – are part of the role. No one, except those in the room, can fully understand how difficult those conversations are, and must have been over the last few years. 

All people see – and by “people”, I mean civil servants – is the outcome, and in too many cases that wasn’t pretty. So inevitably questions get raised: how hard was the push back? 

For all those quick to criticise, they are not the ones who had to deal with a government that – right up to the very “good chap” at the top – had scant regard for ethical standards. 

When the failings start with the prime minister, it’s very hard under our system to enforce standards, certainly by a civil servant. But the effect is corrosive – it undermines the civil service’s leadership and the values so vital for those who choose public service.

Back to our current prime minister. When Sunak appointed his ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, he chose to keep the same remit as Johnson. That means the PM retains a veto on whether an investigation is conducted, as well as being the arbiter on any outcome. 

Sunak didn’t have to, of course, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that he allow the independent adviser to have, well, independence when it comes to investigations. That he didn’t do so means every time there’s an ethical issue about a minister, it also becomes about the PM’s judgment.

Sunak has refused to answer a direct question on whether he knew of concerns about Dominic Raab’s conduct when he appointed him deputy prime minister, hiding behind the lack of formal complaints. 

As those formal complaints piled in, Sunak could have suspended Raab pending the investigation – that is what would have happened to you or I in similar circumstances. Instead, Raab’s doing the broadcast rounds and Sunak’s sending a signal to the complainants, whether that’s his intent or not.

Leadership is tough and if you trumpet your credentials on ethical leadership, it means taking tough decisions before you’re forced to by events. As we’ve seen with Sunak’s predecessors, failing to do so has a corrosive effect beyond No.10 and cabinet. 

Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union


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