Prime minister accused of corruption
“Stop Sleaze” screams one headline. “PM accused of corruption” declares another. This is the day after a vote in the House of Commons that prevents further investigation of the Shropshire MP, Owen Paterson, accused of being paid by two firms to lobby. The Parliamentary Committee on Standards had recommended that this MP be suspended for 30 days, but the ruling party chose instead to support an amendment that would have let him off the hook.
Kent MPs voted in favour
Kent MPs supporting this amendment were: Natalie Elphicke, Damian Collins, Roger Gale and Damian Green with the other Kent MPs absent. In the event Owen Paterson has resigned, but this still leaves the public aghast at this government’s apparent support for “sleaze”. Some hint that pushing matters to this proposed new Committee is a dodge to avoid inquiry into Downing Street flat refurbishment, and into pandemic contracts.
This same day, Lord Jonathan Evans, gave a notable speech on ethical standards in Government, as the keynote for a conference at the Institute of Government. After a career in the security services, latterly as the Director, he was appointed Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. He also happens to have strong connections to Kent as he went to Sevenoaks School, is now the Deputy Lord Lieutenant, and also leads support for Kent Search and Rescue.
Let’s see how he suggests we should search and rescue standards in public life!
He referred several times to the Nolan principles which are required of those who hold public office:
- and leadership.
These were proposed by the commission, led by Lord Nolan, set up under John Major’s government in the 1990s after an earlier round of sleaze by politicians. Several people, including Lord Evans, have pointed out that corruption and public effort about it tend to go in cycles. Evidently we are at the low point just now, hopefully before the next serious exercise against it.
You lucky people!
Sometimes I think many British people just do not realise how lucky we are to have had generations of leaders, judges, thinkers, politicians, who have shaped our public life. They ensured that we could mostly trust our systems not to contain “bad apples”. This is very different from other countries.
In South Africa, the lights were being switched off, stopping cooking, fridges, and the internet, all because corruption over coal contracts meant that the power networks failed for months at a time. In immature democracies, many individuals seek political office primarily to get rich through procurement contracts for clients, or for their family members.
The UK, we like to think, has systems that can be trusted.
Stop sleaze: integrity attracts investment
Ironically this is even what attracts the investments from some of these same individuals who have cheated in public life in their own countries. This was revealed by Transparency International, and recent leaks about shell companies. But that is another story. What matters for now is this trusted British system is smirched by the recent vote in Parliament. Lord Evans himself pointed out that the UK has lost credibility abroad.
He criticises the “good chap” notion of government: that we can just go on trusting that all is okay without following careful rules and procedures, with independent oversight. There is a Ministerial Code of Conduct. However, it mixes a kind of handbook of procedures with a code of ethics, and these two should be separated. The Prime Minister makes the ultimate decisions under the Ministerial Code. There needs to also be oversight by a body separate from Parliament. He pointed out that the recent Parliamentary amendment is a “serious and damaging moment.”
There are still outstanding cases to answer, such as Robert Jenrick bending planning laws for a Tory donor. There was also a report on local government two years ago which has been ignored. The latest review of the workings of his Committee on Standards, of September 2020, has yet to be acted on.
Threats to public ethics and issues of concern
Evans points out that there a a number of current threats to public ethics:
- Social media can cause trouble even before the Commission gets involved
- Social media coarsens the debate with misinformation and emotional opinion, so deterring many from even engaging in the debate
- There is an increase of intimidation and bullying via social media
- Party-political gain overwhelms other ethical considerations
He notes four issues of current concern to the commission (eg by the Editor):
- The lack of an independent Ministerial commission (eg who will investigate those Downing Street refurbishment donations?)
- Lack of merit in appointing business contractors (eg the Covid contracts)
- Need to better regular public appointments (eg attempts to get Dacre into Ofsted)
- Insufficient transparency around lobbying (eg the Jenrick case)
He has a number of proposals to sharpen ethical controls:
- Rewrite the Ministerial Code as regulations with sanctions
- Give teeth to the ban on political lobbying by penalties such as recouping fines through pensions
- On public appointments, stop packing the panels with stooges
- On transparency over lobbying, overhaul how we record and share meetings with the public
- Those who oversee public ethics need to be independent and they may need protection from those in power.
A more radical option suggested is for an Ethics Commission. Evans, however thinks this would give too much power to an unelected body. The current Commission has been in operation for 11 years, and it is unwise to change a process midway. As we gardeners would put it: don’t keep digging up a good plant just to tickle its roots.
Extend citizenship curriculum to all schools
Finally, at Question Time, the Westminster Abbey Trust asked about Ethics education for MPs. Evans praised the work the Trust is already doing on this, and agreed that it could be further strengthened.
British people should no longer just rely on the “good chaps”. We first need to understand what ethical behaviour in public life entails. This should start with improved education for citizenship in schools. Many schools (independents and the academies) do not even have to do the Citizenship curriculum that was made part of the standard curriculum for State schools some decades ago. To fill this gap, excellent organisations have emerged like Shout Out UK – The home of political literacy and youth voice
Personally, when I was in school and rebelling against some rules, I used to say “just give us some good reasons for this rule.” Good ethics education should both give us the code and an understanding why the rules are necessary. And the code itself is useless without a system to enforce it.
All this is very tiresome to people who don’t like red tape and detail, people who just think things are simple, or who just shun politics altogether because “politicians can’t be trusted.” We cannot just wave a magic wand of “no sleaze” for the baddies to disappear. Virtue in public life, as in our individual lives, is built brick by brick, step by step – seriously.