The mysterious case of Liz Truss and the missing standards adviser

Civil servants don’t appreciate having no-one to complain to about wayward ministers
Photo: dot lizard/Pixabay

By Dave Penman

18 Oct 2022

I write this as I travel back from Birmingham, having attended a couple of fringe meetings at the Conservative Party Conference. Lucky to get to a seat, never mind the one I booked – at least I’m on an actual train. The 07:43 from Euston to Birmingham – which was due to bring me to CPC – was apparently an elaborate joke from Avanti West Coast, and despite a host of anxious travellers holding tickets and seat reservations for it, did not even exist. Oh how we laughed.

The FDA’s joint fringe event with the Institute for Government was on the theme of rebuilding trust in government, post the Johnson era. This followed our previous partnership with the IfG last week in Liverpool at the Labour Party Conference on the similar theme of rewiring standards in public life.

In Birmingham, our esteemed panel included Dr Hannah White and Tim Durrant from the IfG, Daniel Bruce from Transparency International UK, Dr Susan Hawley from Spotlight on Corruption and Sir Jeremy Wright MP, a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. He’s the sort of politician you wish the public could see more of. Authoritative, self-deprecating, experienced and reasonable, with a bit of humour thrown in for good measure. All of which clearly makes him unfit for government. I mean, he’s not even on Twitter.

My specialist subject was rebuilding trust with the civil service. I had two main propositions.

Firstly, ministers need to stop attacking civil servants – on or off the record. Time and again it’s the main theme from our members. “I’m tired of being thanked in private then denigrated in public as my minister plays to the crowd” is a direct quote which I relayed to the standing room-only crowd (in the room, not the train). So whether it’s the lazy bleeders pretending to work from home or metropolitan, woke elite remoaners guff, ministers need to end the briefing war.

"In Whitehall it’s still smoke and mirrors. All roads lead to the prime minister to determine: whether an investigation starts; guilt or innocence; and penalty"

Secondly, there needs to be an independent and transparent process for addressing ministerial misconduct. The Scottish Government has it, parliament has it, but in Whitehall it’s still smoke and mirrors. All roads lead to the prime minister to determine: whether an investigation starts; guilt or innocence; and penalty.

There was a lot of discussion on this theme and the current lack of an independent adviser on ministers’ interests. The last two have resigned on principle, remember; never a good sign.

At the IfG event it was reassuring to hear Chris Bryant MP, chair of parliament’s Committee on Standards, unequivocally back the introduction of a statutory independent adviser on the ministerial code.

However, the new prime minister has been less clear. Liz Truss has talked about knowing what’s right and wrong and that the UK’s system of ethics regulation is too complex, with “numerous advisers, independent bodies and rules and regulations” and has failed to commit to the appointment of a new independent adviser.

There was a suggestion from the floor that Heather Wheeler, then minister at the Cabinet Office, had indicated otherwise. What she actually said in a Westminster Hall debate on 7 September was: “The prime minister said she was ‘not necessarily saying’ that she would not appoint an independent adviser, but that ‘the leadership needs to take responsibility. You cannot outsource ethics to an adviser. We need ethics running through government. The culture of organisations starts at the top and that’s what’s important to me’.” That was the day before Tom Scholar was sacked.

So all we can go on is that she hasn’t apparently decided not to appoint an independent adviser, but neither has she decided to appoint one.

Are you keeping up?

Meanwhile, if a civil servant has a complaint to make about a minister, the lack of a written process is only half the problem, as the lack of someone to even investigate it is a bigger hurdle.

Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, made clear in his evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in June that the “role of the civil service is there to support the government of the day whilst upholding the values. Its function is not to provide some sort of judicial function over ministers”. He went on, saying that while civil servants can be asked to establish the facts, “the decisions and the adjudication, and the advice about that on the ministerial code aspects, have to come through the independent adviser.”

So where does that leave us?

No independent adviser and no idea if one will even be appointed.

Apparently it was Aristotle who said “nature abhors a vacuum”.

Well I’ve got news for him, so do civil servants.

Dave Penman is the general secretary of the FDA union

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