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Pressure is growing on Sunak to properly reform standards

The prime minister needs to set out his plan for how he will tackle the issue that bedevilled his predecessor.

Rishi Sunak outside Number 10
Rishi Sunak outside Number 10

With yet another report calling for changes to how standards in government are upheld, the prime minister needs to set out his plan for how he will tackle the issue that bedevilled his predecessor, says Tim Durrant

The Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has become the latest organisation to call on the government to improve how it upholds and enforces standards in public life. Their report[1] looking at governance following the Greensill scandal, sets out various changes the government should make, many of which are in line with previous Institute recommendations and the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in November 2021.[2] Yet again, with unresolved allegations of misconduct against a number of ministers, all eyes are on the prime minister to see whether he will take action.  

PACAC’s recommendations would make the system stronger 

The committee’s report draws on evidence from a range of current and former standards watchdogs and sets out recommendations covering the ministerial code, regulation of post-government jobs for ministers and civil servants, and the public appointments process, among other issues. Like the CSPL, the Institute and others, PACAC argue that various ethical watchdogs should be given a proper legal basis, that greater transparency is needed around different types of public appointments, and that rules for what roles people can take on after they leave government should be properly enforceable.  

The committee also argues that the independent adviser on ministerial interests should be able to initiate their own investigations, although they believe that the terms of reference for the previous adviser, Lord Geidt, are sufficient to secure this. Conversely, the Institute would like to see any requirement for prime ministerial approval removed from those terms. But as a whole, the report makes sensible recommendations for improvements. Following the damaging revelations about poor standards in public life over recent years, the case for change is clear. PACAC’s recommendations, if implemented, would be a good start.  

The report suggests the government may be preparing to make some changes 

There are hints in the report that certain things may improve. The government is apparently “exploring contractual mechanisms to ensure that the business appointment rules are legally enforceable.” This is good news – if this happens, ministers and civil servants will still be able to take jobs outside government, but there will be clearer sanctions for those who use their knowledge of government for unfair commercial gain. Greater clarity on what those leaving government can expect will also help the civil service recruit more external candidates in the first place. 

But this tweak alone would not match the scale of reform that is needed. The fundamental question remains: is the prime minister brave enough to make the changes necessary to rebuild standards in public life? Sunak committed to leading a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability” when he entered Downing Street. Since then, however, individual ministers have faced allegations of inappropriate behaviour and Sunak has failed to confirm whether the next independent adviser will be given any more powers – including the full power to initiate investigations. It is also important that the adviser is able to conclude investigations which were left incomplete by Lord Geidt when he resigned, such as the one into comments made to Nus Ghani. Completing these investigations is important so that complainants have confidence in the system and so that any wrongdoing can be dealt with. However, reports suggest that several candidates have turned the job down because of its limited remit.[3]  

Boris Johnson’s premiership was eventually ended by his failure to tackle poor standards. While Sunak is of course a very different character, he may find his government gets mired in the same issues. It is in his own interests to ensure that the system for upholding standards helps him avoid the same issues as his predecessor. Making the changes that PACAC have called for would be one way for him to show that his statement on Downing Street was not just empty words. 

  1. PACAC, Propriety of Governance in Light of Greensill, House of Commons, 2 December 2022 
  2. CSPL, Upholding Standards in Public Life,, 1 November 2021,
  3. Elgot J, Candidates snub Sunak’s ethics adviser role left vacant for five months, The Guardian, 28 November 2022, 

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