Organisations tasked with upholding high standards of conduct in the public sphere have been put “under considerable pressure” over the past year and need reforms to aid their work, according to the chair of the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Lord Jonathan Evans, who is a former director-general of the UK Security Service, also lamented the speed and quality of the government’s responses to his committee’s recent reports – some of which have gone unanswered for more than a year.
His comments came in CSPL’s just-published annual report, and follow last month’s resignation of Lord Christopher Geidt as the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests – the second such loss of senior ethics adviser during Boris Johnson’s time at No.10.
CSPL was created in the 1990s in response to widespread allegations of sleaze among ministers and MPs when John Major was PM. Its first chair was Lord Michael Nolan, who created the “Seven Principles of Public Life”.
In previous blogs and speeches Evans has been direct in calling out well-documented cases of ministerial conduct that he deemed to be damaging to public trust.
In the foreword to CSPL’s latest annual report, Evans gave a broader-brush snapshot of the standards picture over the past 12 months, which did not mentin Partygate, the Owen Paterson affair, or the shenanigans surrounding the refurbishment of Johnson's Downing Street flat. However his analysis is stark.
“This year has undeniably seen increased concern about standards of conduct in public life, and, while there is no such thing as a ‘golden age’ of standards, it is evident that the institutions and processes that support high standards of conduct are under considerable pressure and reforms to strengthen them are required,” he said.
“The committee recognises that it has been a turbulent period for the country and that the impact of the pandemic, the intense strain on many aspects of people’s lives, and the immediacy of response has, in some instances, caused usual procedures to be put aside.
“But, if we are looking to ‘reset’, it is time to engage with some of these difficult and long-standing standards issues, to reassure the public that the Nolan Principles remain at the heart of public life in the UK.”
Despite acknowledging the pressures on government in recent months and years, Evans voiced frustration at the level of attention given to standards improvements on the part of government and the speed at which ministers have responded to input from CSPL and others.
“We await a full response to our Upholding Standards in Public Life report which we published last November,” he said.
“This report made 34 recommendations to strengthen arrangements in central government. Those recommendations were a package of measures to deliver stronger rules, greater independence for standards regulators and a stronger compliance culture in central government.”
The CSPL report acknowledged that some of the calls in relation to the remit of the prime minister’s adviser on ministers’ interests had been addressed in a policy statement from Johnson in May.
However the report said those measures “did not go far enough” and in particular did not give the independent adviser the power to launch their own investigations without the PM’s consent.
The report went on to suggest that the government appeared to be allowing the convention that it would reply to the committee’s reports and recommendations “in a timely manner” to slip.
“In recent years this has not been the case,” the report said. “Government responses have been slower, and with respect to some of the committee’s reports, the government has not responded at all.”
Evans said that in order to be effective, standards structures and processes needed “timely, ongoing and proactive” attention.
“Retrospectively correcting standards failures is complicated and time consuming, drawing resources from other important work,” he said. “That is why it is disappointing that reports from this committee and others that would have delivered demonstrable strengthening of the standards regime have been overlooked.
“Issues that remain unresolved can have serious consequences for public trust in politicians, public office holders and institutions, as well as cost to the public purse.”
Elsewhere in the report, which would have been written before Johnson’s resignation as Conservative Party leader on Thursday, CSPL urged ministers to appoint a successor for Geidt as soon as possible – despite No.10’s plans for a review of the independent adviser role.