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Rishi Sunak’s ethics plan won’t silence his critics

Tim Durrant assesses the government's response to key ethics reform proposals

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak has sought to distance his administration from his predecessors'.

In last week's traditional pre-recess dump of data and publications, the government set out how it plans to strengthen ethics and integrity in public life. The long-awaited proposals were a response to various reports from different bodies, including the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the lawyer Nigel Boardman, appointed to investigate the Greensill scandal in 2021.

After more than two years of scandals in government, the publication of the government’s formal response 11 Cabinet Office, Policy Paper: Strengthening ethics and integrity in central government, 20 July 2023, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/strengthening-ethics-and-integrity-in-central-government was an opportunity for the prime minister to show that he is different from his predecessors and that he was committed to implementing the “integrity, professionalism and accountability” he promised on entering Downing Street. 12 Prime Minister’s Office, Speech: Rishi Sunak's first speech as prime minister, 25 October 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prime-minister-rishi-sunaks-statement-25-october-2022 But while Sunak’s new plans deal with some of the ethical problems of recent governments they do not address all, and fail to solve many of the biggest problems.

Proper enforcement of the rules on post-government jobs is welcome

One of the most important changes is the government’s commitment to ensure that the ‘business appointment rules’, which set out what people leaving government can do in their new roles, will be properly enforceable. New contractual clauses for civil servants, and a legal “deed of undertaking” that ministers will have to sign, should mean, as the government argues, that “breaches of the rules will become rarer”.

Better training on how the rules apply to civil servants, and greater resources for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) that advises those leaving government on how they should comply with the rules, will also help. The government has perhaps been convinced of the need to strengthen enforcement of the rules by senior civil servant Sue Gray’s departure to the Labour Party (though most recent rule-breakers have been former ministers and special advisers, rather than civil servants).

Being up front about the restrictions that civil servants and ministers will need to follow on leaving office should make public service more attractive to those with commercial, academic and other professional experience. Removing uncertainty should also make officials more honest and confident in their advice while in government, knowing that the prime minister cannot (however theoretical the power) veto their future appointments.

But the government doesn’t accept all the various recommendations around limitations on post-government jobs. It rejected CSPL’s idea of banning individuals from working on anything related to their previous policy area, 14 Committee on Standards in Public Life, Upholding Standards in Public Life: Final report of the Standards Matter 2 review, 1 November 2021, www.gov.uk/government/publications/upholding-standards-in-public-life-published-report which would probably have been a step too far, and the suggestion that nobody leaving government should be able to work for lobbying firms for a certain period, arguing that this would be disproportionate, which again seems reasonable. Overall, the government’s approach to dealing with those leaving government is a sensible, incremental set of improvements – albeit ones that should be kept under review.

There are other positive changes

The government has also committed to greater transparency on government ‘tsars, including to publish information on their appointment, number and responsibilities: all of this should be easy to produce so is an easy win for transparency. It also agreed to increase the quality, accessibility and timeliness of information on ministerial meetings, including by producing a searchable, centralised database that will replace the various departmental publications.

Lastly, it was also confirmed that investigations into breaches of the ministerial code will be published within eight weeks, and that ministers will have to explain to parliament their reasoning should they appoint someone to a public role who has been deemed “unappointable” (in practice this has not happened for years). All these changes are welcome.

But the government rejected most of the recommendations to tighten ethical standards

Overall, however, most of the government’s response is an exercise in saying no. The most ambitious calls for reform, including our own, had argued for the ministerial code and the independent adviser who oversees it to be put on a statutory basis, to enable parliament to have its say over any abolition or change of remit. The government rejected these recommendations outright, saying that there will be no new ethics legislation, whether to give certain regulatory roles a statutory basis or to shore up the rules and codes they oversee. And there will be no change to how ethics advisers are appointed – the independent adviser on ministerial interests, who investigates potential breaches of the ministerial code, will remain a direct appointment of the prime minister, with no independent panel or select committee involvement. As a result, the much-strained system of “good chaps” is here to stay.  

The government has also declined the recommendation to update the Lobbying Act 2014, despite widespread agreement (including from consultant lobbyists themselves) 16 CIPR, ‘It’s time to rebuild trust, no date, https://www.cipr.co.uk/Good-Lobbying that the current system is not working. And even those changes that the government has committed to are not as radical as they might appear. Many of the commitments, whether on increased transparency around ministerial meetings or new contractual clauses for civil servants, are to make changes in some unspecified future – there are very few specifics provided. And there are many recommendations where the government simply argues that the way things work now is good enough.

Sunak will be disappointed if he hopes that these proposals will make this issue go away

The prime minister has sought to differentiate his government from those of his two immediate predecessors, committing to investigations into allegations of poor behaviour by ministers and requiring people to step down when found to have breached expected standards. It is clear that he wants to draw a line under the scandals of the Johnson and Truss eras.

But this report, snuck out on the last day before summer recess among more than 700 other documents, falls short of making the necessary changes to properly overhaul how ethics are upheld in government. For its part, Labour is committed to a much more substantial ethics overhaul as its deputy leader Angela Rayner set out at the Institute recently.

The prime minister has made much of his commitment to following due process when ethical questions are raised. The piecemeal changes he has set out will not reassure anyone that he actually wants to strengthen the system.

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