News 15th Jun 2022

Public trust in politics is at record lows - overhauling the rules is the only way to turn things around

Daniel Bruce

Chief Executive

Daniel Bruce is Chief Executive of Transparency International UK. He develops and leads organisational strategy, heads up the leadership team and serves as the organisation’s senior-most representative to governments, the private sector and in the media. First appointed in 2019, Daniel is an experienced senior leader in international civil society with an earlier career as an award-winning broadcast journalist and editor. He can be found on Twitter @DanielJBruce

 

Press Office
[email protected]
+ 44 (0)20 3096 7695 
Out of hours:
Weekends; Weekdays (17.30-21.30):
+44 (0)79 6456 0340

Related Publication

Note: This blog was published shortly before Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, resigned. Our response to his departure can be found here.

 

Now the dust has settled on the latest turbulent episode in Westminster, I believe it’s important to reflect on recent events and explain why Transparency International UK continues to call for an overhaul of the rules that are supposed to ensure integrity in public life.

In recent years we’ve seen a series of political scandals that have severely dented public trust in politics. The common thread in all of them is how sorely lacking the current patchwork of rules and conventions designed to safeguard against impropriety in public office has proved to be.

The result of this steady stream of controversy is that public trust in politics has hit record lows, with polling from December 2021 revealing nearly two-thirds of voters believe politicians are ‘merely out for themselves’. A separate survey by the Hansard Society showed that 63% of respondents felt the British system of government is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful.

While these results are concerning, they are not particularly surprising. Our democracy is riven with loopholes that leave the door open to corruption and undue influence, and as recent events have shown, long-standing conventions around ethical standards in public life no longer seem to be observed.

Why does this slipping of standards by those in public office matter? The health of democracy in Britain is paramount to our security and economic wellbeing and our ability to influence effectively on the global stage. It risks holding back equitable economic development, and undermines our responses to crises here at home. Cumulatively, this can put hundreds of millions, if not billions, of taxpayers’ funds at risk, money that could otherwise help to fund the UK’s much-needed economic recovery from the pandemic.

That brings us to the events of May and early June. In her long-anticipated report into lockdown-breaking parties, senior civil servant Sue Gray concluded that behaviour in and around Downing Street during the pandemic “fell well short” of what the public expected and deserved.    

This proved to be the tipping point for a number of Conservative MPs. After returning to Westminster following the long Jubilee weekend, the number of backbenchers required to trigger a no confidence ballot was reached. Before the vote took place, Boris Johnson’s anti-corruption champion, John Penrose, resigned, stating he could not stay in the role while believing the Prime Minister had broken the Ministerial Code over Partygate. The Prime Minister ultimately survived the confidence vote, but 41% of his MPs said they had lost faith in his leadership.

Number 10 has since made clear its intention to “draw a line” under Partygate. But without major reform to the rules governing standards and integrity by those in public life, the potential for a drip feed of scandal remains meaning that moving on is not an option.  

The Government’s response to a series of inquiries and reports that have sounded the alarm over the woeful inadequacy of the rules is that it will consider making changes “in due course”. In reality, there are two simple choices. The Government can either to move ahead with significant but sensible reforms to ensure the highest standards for parliamentarians and the executive. Or it can choose to leave the door wide to impropriety in public office and further erosion of trust in our democracy.

Until now, it has chosen the latter. This is markedly different to then government responses to the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009/10 and, before that, the ‘cash for questions’ affair of the mid-90s. Both sagas eventually led to significant reforms; the latter leading to the creation of the 7 Nolan Principles of Public Life.

It’s not too late for today’s Government to act with similar resolve. 

Transparency International UK is calling for an overhaul of the rules designed to regulate standards and conduct by our elected representatives.

It’s clear that restraint and self-regulation can no longer be relied upon to reinforce or uphold ethical conduct. We need to raise and enforce Government standards by introducing measures to enforce the Ministerial Code. Making the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests role truly independent, with the ability to initiate investigations and recommend sanctions without Number 10’s permission, would improve the current system which requires ministers to regulate their own conduct. So would putting the Ministerial Code on a statutory footing to prevent it from being discarded, disregarded or watered down by the Prime Minister of the day. 

Reinforcing the Ministerial Code is only part of the solution. The Greensill and Owen Patterson lobbying scandals revealed how easily political access and potential influence can be bought, exposing our democracy to manipulation by outside interests. We need to prevent rogue conduct in Parliament by tightening the ban on paid lobbying by Parliamentarians, as per the Committee on Standards’ recommendations. The rules must be robustly enforced to avoid the perception - or reality - that those in public office are acting on behalf of private interests. We also need stricter rules on who can fund Parliamentarians’ overseas visits to prevent the perception or reality that the judgement and actions of our elected representatives are influenced by the intent of their hosts.

It is also high time to remove the corrosive influence of big money from our politics by capping spending and donations in line with recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Tightening the rules to ensure UK companies can only make donations that are from genuine operating profits would also prevent money of unknown provenance from entering our political finance system.

The only way to restore trust in those elected to serve the public is to protect the delicate balance of power and accountability underpinning our democracy. It is incumbent on the Prime Minister and Parliament to enact these significant but sensible changes without delay. Failing to do so sends a clear message that the UK Government is knowingly leaving the door wide open to abuses of public office for private gain.