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Ethical standards in government one-day conference

A special conference exploring problems with the way standards in government are upheld and what can be done to strengthen the system.

The standards expected of those in government have made headlines in recent months – and not in a good way. The Greensill affair, confusion around the funding of the prime minister’s flat refurbishment, and the appointment of Gina Coladangelo as a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care all placed a spotlight on the rules meant to govern how ministers, civil servants and special advisers can operate.

Do these episodes point to a deeper problem with the way standards in government are upheld? Is it right that many of these rules rely on informal conventions and expectations of behaviour? What can be done to strengthen the system?

To explore these questions and more, the IfG held a special one-day conference on ethical standards in government.

Keynote speech: Lord Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

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The Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) is an independent body which advises the prime minister on arrangements for upholding ethical standards of conduct across public life. The committee’s latest review, Standards Matter 2, has been examining the institutions, processes and structures in place to support high standards of conduct.

Following the publication of the review’s final report, Upholding Standards in Public Life, on 1 November, Lord Evans, Chair of the CSPL, set out the committee’s suggestions for improving standards in government in an opening keynote.

This event was chaired by Bronwen Maddox, Director of the Institute for Government. 

Read a transcript of Lord Evans's speech.


Are the UK’s ethics watchdogs able to improve standards in government?

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Various codes of conduct and constitutional guides – including the ministerial code – set standards for those in public life. However, events throughout 2021 have raised questions about whether the rules, and the various bodies that enforce them, are robust enough to uphold expected standards of behaviour. 

So how can the various standards watchdogs hold ministers, officials and others to account for their behaviour in public life? Are current sanction sufficient? Should these bodies have greater legal powers and more independence from government?

To discuss all this and we were joined by:

  • Chris Bryant MP, Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges
  • Dame Shirley Pearce DBE, Member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life
  • Lord Pickles, Chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA)

This event was chaired by Dr Hannah White, Deputy Director at the Institute for Government.


What can the UK learn from how other governments uphold standards?

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The UK government has faced criticism over its approach to standards, but it is not the only government around the world – or even within the UK – grappling with these questions.

With other governments taking different approaches to setting and upholding rules for standards in public life, this panel discussion will explore what the UK can learn about upholding standards from governments across the world, what role parliaments play in this process and whether standards need a stronger legislative basis.

We were joined by:

  • Mario Dion, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner of the Canadian Parliament
  • Duncan Hames, Director of Policy Transparency International UK
  • Dr Melissa McCullough, Commissioner for Standards at the Northern Ireland assembly

This event was chaired by Tim Durrant, Associate Director at the Institute for Government.


Peter Riddell: how the public appointments process can be improved

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In the past year, the public appointments process has been in the public eye with allegations of politicisation. The process is much misunderstood and there is widespread uncertainty about the balance between the principles of fair and open competition and decision making by ministers. Is that balance now under threat? And what other roles should be formally regulated? What are the barriers to expanding the range of people serving on the boards of arms-length bodies?

In the closing speech of our conference, Peter Riddell, who was the Commissioner for Public Appointments until September 2021, gave his thoughts on how the appointment process can be improved.

Dr Matthew Gill, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government, responded to Peter’s speech. This event was chaired by Dr Catherine Haddon, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Government.


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