UK ‘needs independent commission against corruption’

Labour should set up a "commission against corruption and malversation" to combat sleaze if it gets into government, academic says
Corruption now manifests as “malversation” rather than is a “quid pro quo” arrangement, Dunleavy says. Image: Adobe

The Labour Party should set up an independent commission against corruption if it takes power after the general election, a prominent political scientist has said after a series of recent scandals in public service.

Patrick Dunleavy, emeritus professor of political science and public policy at LSE’s Department of Government, said an “independent commission against corruption and malversation” with the power to launch investigations and issue sanctions could incentivise ministers and officials “to behave in far more ethical ways”.

In a blog post this week, Dunleavy said dramatic intervention is needed to arrest a “spiralling decline of the core executive into sleaze in all its forms”. 

Dunleavy referenced the Covid Inquiry, the Post Office Horizon scandal and the NHS infected blood scandal as revealing major examples of corruption and scandal within government bodies that went unchecked. 

“Both the recent infected blood public inquiry and the still ongoing Covid public inquiry have demonstrated over and over again the need for a complete rethink of the rules of conduct for ministers, civil servants, regulators and agency heads,” he said.

Dunleavy said most of the corruption in UK public service derives from two "vulnerabilities":  misbehaviour in office and a lack of clear, codified public standards. 

“No decade in post-war British history has evidenced anything on the scale of this stunningly pervasive and serious collapse of ethical or public-interested central state governance,” he wrote. 

He noted that Labour – which is expected to win a majority in the upcoming general election – has committed to appointing a “Covid corruption commissioner” to investigate pandemic-related fraud including PPE waste and corruption.

But he said the next UK government should go further and consider replicating a model introduced by its Australian counterpart, which created the National Anti-Corruption Commission as an independent agency last year with “its own investigative staff and strong legal powers”. 

Dunleavy wrote: “Doing almost exactly the same thing in the UK would have a dramatic effect in strengthening the incentives for ministers, top civil servants, agency chiefs and regulators to behave in far more ethical ways.” 

Such a commission “would also create the ‘capstone’ for a new and greatly strengthened ‘integrity’ regime across UK government”, he said.

Alongside the commission, ministers should create a “statutory code of ethics for all public office holders” and a “collegium of integrity agencies bringing together all the main bodies charged with maintaining good governance”, he added. 

“Integrity agencies” that Dunleavy now describes as “failing” include the Cabinet Office, owing to controversies over the “VIP lane” for procurement of emergency PPE at the height of the pandemic; the Treasury, for the Eat Out to Help Out scheme that was found to have contributed to the spread of Covid; and parliament, because record numbers of MPs have been suspended by their parties since 2019 for reasons including undeclared jobs and sexual misconduct.

He said that corruption  no longer typically takes place as a “quid pro quo” arrangement but is now manifested as “malversation” built in “police-proofed triadic ways.” 

According to Dunleavy, this malversation falls “just short of proven corruption” and “has soared to unparalleled heights, often driven directly by Conservative ministers”. 

Looking ahead to the next administration to take power, Dunleavy wrote: “A great opportunity exists here to go back to the completed neglected but still worthwhile seven Nolan Principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership”.

But he said the principles “need to stop just being vaguely good ideas and become instead a strongly implemented, well-monitored and rigorously enforced code of ethics, applying by statute to all key public office holders”.

Rishi Sunak used his his first speech upon his appointment as prime minister in October 2022 to address concerns over the regimes of his predecessors. He said his government would have “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” and that he had “work to do to restore trust after all that has happened”.

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