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Explainer

The government’s response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life

What are the main recommendations from the CSPL, Boardman and PACAC reports – and how do they compare with the government's response?

Big Ben

On 20 July 2023 the government published its response to a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which called for substantial reforms to the way ethical standards in government are upheld. The government’s response also included its views on recommendations from Nigel Boardman, who published a review into the Greensill finance lobbying scandal, and a similar report from the House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which looked into the same issues.

This explainer sets out the main recommendations of the various reports, and compares them to the government’s response. 
 

General recommendations

Who made the recommendation? What did it say? What is the government response?
CSPL, Boardman, PACAC All three reports argued that the government needed a new approach to compliance with ethics rules, including ensuring that the various rules are enforced in a consistent way.

The government rejects the need for a new compliance function, saying that responsibilities are distributed among various senior leaders, including ministers and permanent secretaries.

The government says it will “clarify the distribution of formal accountabilities across this system”.

Ethics regulators

Who made the recommendation? What did it say? What is the government response?
CSPL, PACAC That the independent adviser for ministerial interests, the commissioner for public appointments and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments should be given a statutory basis via primary legislation. 

The government rejects this recommendation, stating that it does not believe these regulators or their codes should be established in legislation. The government argues that “the position between the executive and parliament in relation to these scrutiny bodies is carefully balanced… placing scrutiny bodies into primary legislation risks drawing the courts into political matters that are the sole purview of the government”.

CSPL, PACAC The positions above, as well as the chairs of the House of Lords Advisory Commission and the Registrar for Consultant Lobbyists, should be appointed via the "significant public appointment process". 

The government rejects this recommendation, noting that the chairs of ACOBA, HOLAC and CSPL already go through this process, and the commissioner for public appointments goes through a similar process. The government argues that the independent adviser on ministerial interests should remain a direct appointment by the prime minister. It does not express a view on the registrar for consultant lobbyists. 

PACAC Ministers’ candidates for chairs of the ethics watchdogs should be endorsed by the relevant select committee. 

The government rejects this recommendation, saying that “the government does not believe that these appointments require an extra layer of independent oversight” compared to the chairs of other high-profile regulators and bodies.

But the government does accept the need for sufficient time for pre-appointment scrutiny.

Ministerial code and independent adviser on ministerial interests

Who made the recommendation? What did it say? What is the government response?
CSPL A requirement for the prime minister to issue the ministerial code should be enshrined in primary legislation.

The government rejects this recommendation, saying it “does not believe the ministerial code should be enshrined in primary legislation”.

CSPL Ministerial code should be reconstituted as a code on ethical standards, and adviser should be consulted on any revision to it.

The government rejects the recommendation to change the structure of the ministerial code, “noting the advantages of providing a single source document for all aspects of ministerial work and conduct.” The government does note that the terms of reference for the adviser already require the prime minister to consult the adviser before making any change to the code.

CSPL, PACAC The independent adviser should be able to initiate investigations, and determine breaches of the ministerial code.

The government rejects these recommendations, noting that under the current terms of reference “the independent adviser may now initiate an investigation having consulted the prime minister.”

The government notes that the prime minister “has sole responsibility for the organisation of His Majesty’s government” and therefore is the only one who can determine whether the ministerial code has been breached.

CSPL, PACAC The ministerial code should include the range of sanctions for possible breaches.

This had already been implemented in the current ministerial code, which the government notes in the response.

CSPL Investigations by advisers should be published within eight weeks of submission to the prime minister. The government agrees with this recommendation.

The civil service

Who made the recommendation? What did it say? What is the government response?
Boardman The government should improve the management and monitoring of conflicts of interest, and strengthen whistleblowing processes, in the civil service.

The government agrees with the recommendation on conflicts of interest, noting that it published a “model policy for departments on declaration and management of outside interests” in July 2022. The government is providing training to departments on how to apply this guidance.

The government is not making any change to the whistleblowing processes in government, noting simply that “Civil Service HR undertakes continuous improvement of whistleblowing processes”.
 

Boardman The government should introduce pre-appointment rules to ensure civil servants joining from a different sector are prevented from dealing with their former employer for a period of time.

The government rejects this recommendation, arguing that the July 2022 policy on conflicts of interest deals with the concerns behind the recommendation without the need for new rules. 

Boardman The government should review the experience of external recruits into the civil service to ensure that impediments to effective recruitment and retention are eliminated.

The government rejects this recommendation, saying it sees no need for a formal review as “Civil Service HR already undertakes continuous review and assessment of hiring practices.” 

Boardman The government should regulate secondary employment for civil servants more clearly. 

The government does not commit to any change.

Post-government jobs: the business appointment rules 

Who made the recommendation? What did it say? What is the government response?
CSPL, PACAC ACOBA rules should prohibit appointments for two years where applicant had direct responsibility of policy relevant to the hiring company, and five years where applicant is lobbying government.

The government rejects these recommendations, arguing that this approach is “overly broad” and could constrain movement in and out of the public sector. It also argues that a five-year ban “would be deemed as an unreasonable restraint on trade”. 

It does say, however, that specific cases may result in similar judgements under the business rules – but that these would each be considered individually, rather than using a blanket, automatic approach. 

CSPL, PACAC, Boardman ACOBA rulings and adherence to the business appointment rules should be legally enforceable and binding.

The government agrees with these recommendations, setting out that it will strengthen the clauses in civil service contracts which require adherence to the business appointment rules. Those entering the civil service on these new contracts will “consult the rules and their contract for the resulting conditions” on what they can do on leaving the public sector. 

Ministers do not have contracts, but the government “will develop a Deed of Undertaking” which will legally commit ministers to adherence to the rules.

CSPL The lobbying ban [in the business appointment rules] should include a ban on any work for lobbying firms within the set time limit. The government rejects this recommendation, arguing that it would be “disproportionate given a role as an ‘in-house’ lobbyist is functionally the same”. However, lobbying bans will remain part of the business appointment rules system, “applied proportionally”.
CSPL ACOBA should have the power to undertake investigations into potential breaches of the business appointment rules, and be granted additional resources as necessary. The government has effectively accepted this recommendation in the time since it was made – the response argues that no change is necessary, as “ACOBA is already empowered to make inquiries” and “the government has recently provided more resources to ACOBA”.
CSPL Departments should publish anonymous data on their ACOBA rulings. The government accepts this recommendation, but notes that, given the proposed changes, “the specifics of the data to be published may need to be amended given the planned system will move from an application-based system to a contractual one”.
CSPL, Boardman ACOBA and the Cabinet Office should agree how they can work better together and promote best practice and awareness of the rules across government. 

The government accepts this recommendation, noting that “a new departmental training programme is already underway, and this will be supplemented as needed with other support.”

The government also agrees to develop a “MoU or Framework Document” to set out how it will work with ACOBA, and the timescales in which ACOBA should respond to applications. 

Public appointments and government tsars 

Who made the recommendation? What did it say? What is the government response?
CSPL, PACAC Ministers shouldn’t appoint those deemed unappointable by an assessment panel – if they do, they must appear in front of select committee to justify their decision.

The government accepts this recommendation, saying that “should such an appointment occur, ministers will be obliged to write to their select committee and appear before it if requested by the select committee chair.” The government also notes that no such appointments have been made in recent years.

CSPL Ministers must consult the commissioner for public appointments on make-up of whole panel for significant appointments. The government rejects this recommendation, arguing that the “current process for significant public appointments is properly constituted” as ministers have to consult the commissioner on their choice of the senior independent panel member. 
CSPL, PACAC Senior independent panel members for appointments should report to the commissioner on conduct of significant appointment processes. The government argues no change is necessary here, as this recommendation is already fulfilled by the model letter for senior independent panel members, which sets out their duties during an appointment process.  
CSPL Non-executive directors for government departments should be regulated in the same way as public appointments. The government accepts this recommendation, as the commissioner for public appointments William Shawcross confirmed in a letter of January 2023. 
CSPL, PACAC, Boardman The government should publish more information about direct ministerial appointments (also called government tsars), and the letters setting out their role should be shared with the relevant select committee. The government accepts this recommendation, committing to publishing an annual list of direct ministerial appointments, their terms of reference and guidance on the process for such appointments. Exemptions will be in place for sensitive roles. The commitment does not, however, extend to publishing details of all unregulated appointments, as recommended by CSPL.

Transparency

Who made the recommendation? What did it say? What is the government response?
CSPL, Boardman The government should increase the regularity of reporting on ministers’ meetings, and expand reporting requirements on meetings to special advisers and most ranks of the senior civil service.

The government accepts most of these recommendations, although it is not clear when the more regular reports will be published. The Cabinet Office is developing “a single database to collate and publish department’s transparency returns”, and once that is developed the government will “look to” move to a monthly reporting cycle.

The reporting requirement will also be extended to senior civil servants: “all directors general, finance and commercial directors, and senior responsible owners”, but not to special advisers as “they cannot authorise expenditure nor exercise any statutory powers”.

CSPL, Boardman The government should increase the quality of information provided in transparency publications and ensure that departments are fully complying with transparency requirements.

The government partially accepts these recommendations, saying it will issue “new transparency guidance for departments [which] will create stricter minimum standards for descriptions of meetings”. 

But the government argues that there is no need to change the accountability structure around reporting, as ministers and permanent secretaries are already involved in the process.
 

Lobbying

Who made the recommendation? What did it say? What is the government response?
CSPL The government should update guidance to make clear that informal lobbying, and lobbying via alternative forms of communication such as WhatsApp or Zoom, should be reported to officials.

The government argues that its recent guidance on the use of “non-corporate communication channels” already makes this requirement clear. It rejects the recommendation that letters, WhatsApps, impromptu phone calls or emails should be included in transparency declarations. 

CSPL Consultant lobbyists should also have to register on the basis of any communications with special advisers, directors general, and directors. The government accepts this recommendation “in principle”, saying that “the scope of departments’ transparency returns should be mirrored” by the lobbying register, but it does not commit to making the necessary change in legislation, saying it will assess the impact of new transparency returns on departments before doing so. 
CSPL, Boardman The government should revise lobbying rules so that informal or incidental lobbying must also be disclosed, and should broaden the amount of information that lobbyists must register, including the subject matter and recipient of their lobbying, and the ultimate person benefiting from the lobbying. 

The government accepts most of these recommendations, and commits to extending the requirements of the register to declaring the subject matter of lobbying and the ultimate beneficiary, which it “will look to implement via secondary legislation”. 

However, the government does not intend to broaden the definition of lobbying to wider groups, or require lobbyists to declare specific instances of lobbying. The government is clear it does not intend to introduce new primary legislation to amend the current lobbying legislation.
 

Boardman Registered lobbyists should have to meet a statutory code of conduct, with meaningful penalties for non-compliance. The government rejects this recommendation, arguing the industry already recognises its own codes and that existing civil penalties are sufficient. 

Other

Who made the recommendation? What did it say? What is the government response?
Boardman The government should strengthen the oversight of how departments manage the honours process.

The government rejects this recommendation, saying that the Cabinet Office “undertakes continuous review and assessment of the honours process across government.”

Boardman Boardman also made various other recommendations around the use of supply chain finance and how government contractors and tenderers  should use information about the government and ensure they avoid any unfair advantage in a procurement exercise. The government does not commit to any new actions on these topics, refereeing to guidance on Novel Financing Arrangements issued by HM Treasury to accounting officers in March 2022 and the model service contract issued in April 2022.

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