MPs back Doug Chalmers as new Committee on Standards in Public Life chair

Army veteran keen to explore how Nolan principles can be embedded into artificial intelligence
Lt Gen Doug Chalmers appears before PACAC last week Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

05 Dec 2023

Members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee have approved the government’s selection of former British Army Lieutenant General Doug Chalmers as the next chair of ethics watchdog the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Chalmers, who is currently master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, succeeds former MI5 director general Lord Jonathan Evans – who completed his five-year term at the helm of the independent body at the end of October.

While PACAC members endorsed Chalmers’s proposed appointment following a hearing last week, they also criticised ministers for “once again” failing to appoint a candidate to an important public role before the end of their predecessor’s term.

“Public appointments are normally for fixed five-year terms, meaning the date when a new candidate will be needed is known in advance and plenty of time is available in which to ensure that the recruitment process for a successor can be completed,” they said.

“Government should make a greater effort to complete the entire appointments process within the five-year window afforded it by current fixed-term appointments.”

CSPL was created in 1994 as part of the Major government’s response to persistent sleaze allegations in Westminster, including the “cash for questions” scandal.

It conducts broad inquiries, collecting evidence to assess institutions, policies and practices and makes recommendations to the prime minister.

The committee promotes the “seven principles of public life”, developed by its founding chair Lord Michael Nolan and also known as the Nolan principles.

At last week’s pre-appointment hearing, Chalmers said he was keen to look into the extent to which the Nolan principles can be wired into machine-learning tools.

“The committee did a really good report on artificial intelligence and public standards back in 2020,” he said. “It was quite prescient, but that whole world is moving pretty fast, so at some time in my tenure, a return to it would be wise.

“There is the issue of how some of these machine learning tools are steered to learn, and the foundation models that govern them. Can they be coded in such a way that things like the Nolan principles can be put in there, so that when they bounce across, they know they have to revert back? It can be done elsewhere.”

Chalmers said the coming five years would see “more and more aspects of public life” using machine-learning tools to help with decision-making. He said a further area of interest would be the “trustworthiness” of data fed into the machines for that purpose and what AI did when there were gaps in the data.

Chalmers said the Nolan principles were needed to govern decision making, and did not see any reason why machine-learning tools should not be governed “in a similar manner”.

At the pre-appointment hearing, PACAC member John McDonnell asked Chalmers under what circumstances he would consider resigning.

Chalmers said that if CSPL’s recommendations to the prime minister were routinely ignored, that would “factor” in his mind.

He added that if the level of acceptance of the committee’s recommendations was zero, the conclusion would be that he was “probably not doing a very good job to some degree”.

Chalmers said the government had some track record of making commitments in response to CSPL reports without necessarily agreeing with their recommendations.

Chalmers said he had been conducting a personal audit of government responses to CSPL reports to get a “better understanding” of how reports and recommendations accepted a long time ago had been actioned.

He said understanding why recommendations were not accepted would be important for revisiting issues in the future.

Chalmers served in the Army from 1984 to 2021, latterly as deputy chief of defence staff, responsible for military strategy and operations.

He told the pre-appointment session that he had first encountered the Nolan principles in around 2007-2008 when he was studying for a master of philosophy degree and researching a thesis on the problems of coordinating government departments.

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