Standards in public life? Sorry, we’re not familiar with that phrase

Bullying, intimidation and an untimely attempt to overhaul the standards system – with political accountability seemingly a thing of the past, it’s no wonder that the irony meter has blown its fuse
Owen Paterson, who resigned after a row over the standards process for MPs. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By Dave Penman

12 Nov 2021

“Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done” is a dictum many will be familiar with and which came to mind over the last week.

The phrase came about after an odd case nearly 100 years ago involving a crash between two motorbikes. At the criminal trial, the clerk to the judges was also a partner at a law firm involved in civil litigation against defendant Mr McCarthy, who was judged to be at fault. When the judges retired to consider their verdict, the clerk joined them. McCarthy was duly found guilty and fined £10 (equivalent to a £100,000 retainer in new money).

McCarthy appealed, given the potential conflict of interest. Despite affidavits making clear the clerk took no part in the deliberations and accepting that the clerk had not influenced the decision, Lord Hewart, the then-lord chief justice of England, quashed the conviction, saying: “It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”

Acting properly and being seen to act properly is also vital to uphold the high standards we rightly expect of our public servants, elected or appointed. Upholding Standards in Public Life was the title of a major report published at the start of the month by the Committee on Standards in Public Life as part of its 25th anniversary work.

Lord Evans, the chair, must have thought his irony meter had been turned all the way up to 11 as he prepared his speech for the Institute for Government’s one-day conference on standards in public life – held the day after those standards were trashed by the government in parliament. (Well done to IfG on winning the annual think tank bingo with that one.)

At the start of his speech, Evans referred to the events of the previous day and concluded: “The seven principles of public life, that all governments have espoused for over 25 years, require that ministers and MPs should show leadership in upholding ethical standards in public life. I find it hard to see how yesterday’s actions in any way meet that test.”

It took a series of scandals – cash for questions, MPs’ expenses and #metoo – to bring about the current regime for regulating MPs’ conduct. It is far from perfect and still requires a degree of self-regulation, though this has been almost eradicated when it comes to bullying and harassment and diluted when it comes to other matters of conduct.

A phrase that has been worn out in recent days is that MPs were attempting to “mark their own homework” when it comes to regulation. The government was attempting to set up a committee with no independent lay representatives and a government majority to look at both the regime for regulation and the Owen Paterson case itself.

Anyone in the civil service will understand why this has attractions for this government as it neatly describes how ministers are held to account for their conduct under the ministerial code. Not only is the prime minister judge and jury, but only he can decide if an investigation even commences. Nine of the CSPL report’s recommendations related to the ministerial code, but the prime minister shows little interest in ceding the power and control it gives him, even if the result is damaging public confidence in the ethical standards of his government.

Here at the FDA, our own irony meter would also be dialled up to 11 if it hadn’t already blown a fuse. Our judicial review is being heard at the High Court on the 17 and 18 of November, where we are seeking to challenge the prime minister’s decision that home secretary Priti Patel did not breach the ministerial code, despite being found to have bullied civil servants. The meter may even have reached 12, given that it is being heard in national anti-bullying week – the same week that the original decision was made last year, blowing the meter in the first place.

Also familiar to civil servants will be the sustained campaign to intimidate, undermine and get rid of Kathryn Stone, the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards. For weeks she has been trolled by Paterson and his allies, facing appalling accusations of contributing to the suicide of Paterson’s wife, questions over her capability and suggestions that she was deliberately targeting Brexiteers. Kwasi Kwarteng – a secretary of state no less – suggested she should resign, which has since prompted a complaint under the ministerial code. You’ve got to feel for that irony meter.

Dave Penman is general secretary of the FDA

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