News 11th May 2016

The Regulation of Standards in British Public Life: Doing the Right Thing?



The TI-UK blog features thought and opinion from guest writers as well as TI staff. Any opinions expressed by external contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International UK.

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By Gillian Peele. Gillian is a Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford and has written on integrity issues in the past as well as more general issues of US and British government.

This month research which I have been doing for a decade with David Hine finally saw the light of day with the publication of our book The Regulation of Standards in British Public Life: Doing the Right Thing?It traces how the United Kingdom shifted in a relatively short space of time from an attitude of complacency about standards of probity in its public life to intense concern about securing high ethical standards across government and state institutions. In this process one small but important body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), founded in 1994 in the wake of the Cash for Questions affair, has been instrumental in prompting reform in diverse arenas ranging from the House of Commons to public appointments, local government and party funding.

Over its short life span the Committee has inevitably acquired critics and has had to justify it continued existence to regular Cabinet Office reviews, the most recent of which was conducted by Peter Riddell between 2012 and 2013. His report has shifted the style of the CSPL’s working – cutting back on the extensive hearings and research activity prior to a report and encouraging shorter, more timely, reviews of pressing problems. Yet some would doubt whether the Committee is still needed at all, given the now extensive infrastructure of regulatory institutions which have been put in place in the last twenty years.  Such scepticism in my view is misguided on at least three grounds.

First, although the CSPL has made an enormous contribution to the clarification of the standards which should govern different areas of our public life, the machinery of ethical regulation frequently needs revisiting as new problems emerge or problems once thought resolved erupt again. Take for example the rules governing standards in the House of Commons.

The House of Commons has been frequently the subject of CSPL inquiries and the Commons’ machinery for enforcing standards of conduct has undergone massive change since 1995. This has included the radical reforms of putting lay members on its internal disciplinary committee and, in the case of MPs’ expenses, transferring responsibility from the House itself to a wholly external body, the IPSA. The rules governing MPs’ conduct are regularly reviewed and few MPs would now be unaware of their scope. Nevertheless there remains cause for concern about the effectiveness of the system. The well-publicised cases of Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind (who were cleared of any breach of the rules after a Dispatches programme showed them apparently offering to undertake lobbying activity for a fictitious Chinese company) cast doubt on whether the rules themselves were stringent enough and on whether, even with successive reforms in place, the self-regulation of MPs would continue to lack credibility.

Secondly the Committee on Standards in Public Life can look at difficult issues in context and approach them comprehensively. Take for example a continuing area of concern, the revolving door. The regulatory body which oversees private sector appointments taken up by senior civil servants and ministers announced that it would “name and shame” those who failed to gain approval for beginning such jobs.

The problem here is that this watchdog (ACOBA or the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, a name taken in 1995 when its remit changed to include not only civil servants but also ministers) is generally thought to lack sufficiently powers and resources to enforce its advice. Partly this weakness is because its work been increased incrementally without any comprehensive review of its role and purpose.

Moreover ACOBA only deals with a proportion of potentially problematic appointments –those of the most senior civils and ministers. Of course these are the ones likely to capture headlines, especially when as now the traffic from the private sector increases because of a change in government. Having a body like the CSPL in place means that a dispassionate, informed and wide-ranging analysis of the regulatory mechanisms for retired politicians and civil servants could be initiated quickly.

Thirdly the United Kingdom is generating an ever-growing, and more divergent range of probity- related issues. Some of these issues such as phone hacking and corruption in sport are not immediately within the remit of the CSPL. But some other issues, such as the integrity of our policing system and of personnel in local government, clearly are crucial to maintaining integrity in government and trust in our institutions.

The CSPL’s 15th Report Tone from the Top: Leadership, Ethics and Accountability in Policing is the first inquiry into an area of British life which has often been marred by individual malfeasance and some organized crime, and where a series of recent scandals and cover ups (for example over sex-abuse) has reignited suspicion of more widespread problems. It is a thoughtful overview of a subject which continues to damage the quality of our civic life and to undermine public confidence in the independence and integrity of the police and other institutions of law and order.

The CSPL cannot by itself solve any of these issues. What it can do is ensure that the UK’s regulatory institutions, politicians and the informed public are kept aware of where the major vulnerabilities in relation to standards are and offer a dedicated voice in addressing them.