Press release 25th May 2022

Sue Gray report: ‘Partygate’ findings highlight inadequacy of current standards rules

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Submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life Standards Matter 2 consultation

Publication

The introduction of the seven Nolan Principles was a significant moment for standards regulation in the UK. These are an integral part of building positive social norms and practices in our democratic system. However, as they are by nature very broad, on their own it is entirely possible for those in public life to interpret them very differently in practice, whilst believing in good faith that they are upholding them. This inconsistency in approach, combined with poor transparency, limited scope of regulations, a lack of independence for key regulators and weak sanctions for breaches of the rules mean that ethical standards cannot be effectively upheld.


The UK has a wide ranging and complex patchwork of codes, laws and conventions that regulate ethical behaviour in public life at a local, devolved and UK level. The fact that key areas or risk have been identified and some attempt has been made to mitigate them, is very welcome. However, as these frameworks have often been developed in response to a specific scandal or incident, they are not always comprehensive or holistic in approach. They also frequently fall below international best practice. We welcome this review and the opportunity to reflect more comprehensively on the gaps in the existing framework for ensuring ethical standards.


Transparency International UK has published several research reports that examine many different aspects of this agenda in detail. We have not sought to replicate those reports here. Rather we have looked systemically across the different ethical frameworks and identified common themes that undermine their effectiveness.

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Ministerial Code should be enshrined in law and potential breaches independently investigated

 

May 25, 2022 – The publication of the Sue Gray report into lockdown-breaking parties in and around Downing Street underscores the need for an overhaul of the rules governing behaviour by those in high office, Transparency International UK said today.

The investigation looked at 13 events in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office. The report finds that “what took place at many of these gatherings and the way in which they developed was not in line with Covid guidance at the time”.

The report concludes by saying: “Many will be dismayed that behaviour of this kind took place on this scale at the heart of Government. The public have a right to expect the very highest standards of behaviour in such places and clearly what happened fell well short of this.”

 

Daniel Bruce, Chief Executive of Transparency International UK, said:

“The ‘partygate’ saga is the latest in a series of events that show how woefully inadequate our systems for protecting integrity and standards at the heart of government are. Relying on a conventions-based approach requiring those in high office to regulate their own behaviour is clearly not fit for purpose when the conventions are no longer being followed. It is imperative that changes are made to strengthen the rules governing standards and behaviour by those in government. A good place to start would be enshrining the ministerial code in law and granting the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests the autonomy to initiate investigations into potential breaches of the rules.

“Numerous inquiries have proposed reforms to how standards are maintained in high office, but the government has been far too slow to act. Now is the time to put that right by introducing stronger rules with more independent oversight. This is essential to bolster public trust in those elected to lead our country through challenging times.”

 

To help ensure higher standards of behaviour by those in high office Transparency International UK is calling for, as a minimum:

 

The ministerial code to become law

The ministerial code only exists by convention and at the discretion of the Prime Minister of the day. Were they to find it an inconvenience they are at liberty to do away with it. There are requirements in law for the government to produce similar codes of conduct for the civil service, the diplomatic service, and ministers’ special advisors. Putting the ministerial code on a statutory footing would make it harder for Prime Ministers to erode the framework for ensuring standards in high office.

 

New powers for the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests

Investigations into potential breaches of the ministerial code can only be requested by the Prime Minister. They are then referred to the Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests, who carries out an inquiry, and then reports back to the PM. It ultimately is up to the PM if any action is taken.

The Independent Advisor's role should be put on a statutory footing, and they must be given the autonomy to instigate their own investigations into potential breaches of the code. They should also be allowed to publish their findings without the express permission of Number 10.

 

A more independent process for sanctioning ministers who fail to comply with the rules

The only person empowered to impose sanctions for breaches of the ministerial code is the Prime Minister. Convention has dictated that where a minister commits an egregious breach of the code they should resign or be removed from office by the PM. Increasingly, conventions like this are no longer observed, and short of criminal misconduct there are few other avenues to challenge wrongdoing by ministers and deter similar behaviour by their colleagues.

While the Prime Minister should retain the right to form their government, and have a wider range of sanctions available for proven breaches of the code, there should also be an alternative avenue for redress where they are not enforcing their own rules.