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26 Oct 2022

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Politics and Society

Jill Rutter sets out the steps that the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could take to improve integrity in government and trust in the UK’s institutions, including appointing a new ethics advisor at the earliest opportunity.  

In his first comments outside Downing Street, new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said “This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level. Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.”

But his Cabinet appointments included people whose behaviour in office fell well short of those standards – perhaps reflecting what happens when aspiration hits Conservative party realpolitik and personal loyalty. It will be a test of Sunak’s premiership whether he can hold his colleagues to the standards he claims he wants.

Having got off to a questionable start, how might the new prime minister go about showing that he takes restoring trust in government, politics and the political system seriously?

There is no shortage of ideas around for what Sunak could do to improve ethics in government. Lord Anderson has introduced a private members’ bill in the House of Lords to take forward recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life on bolstering the status of the UK’s ethics watchdogs. Full Fact has made proposals to restore honesty to the House of Commons by making it easier for MPs to correct the record. The Institute for Government has put forward proposals for legislative, organisational and cultural change. Last year Labour’s Deputy Leader set out plans for a new independent Integrity and Ethics Commission to replace some of the individual watchdogs and oversee toughened rules.

But here are some simple steps that Sunak could take sooner rather than later to show he is serious about his intent.

First, easiest, and likely to happen quickly according to Sunak supporters, he should fill the vacancy for an ethics adviser which has existed since Boris Johnson finally pushed Lord Geidt too far. Liz Truss famously said she did not need an adviser as she was an ethical person. But it was only under Johnson that the principal role of the ethics adviser came to be investigating the PM. More normal PMs see them as a helpful adjunct in holding their colleagues to high standards. Sunak should make sure the independent adviser has the resources they need – and can initiate their own inquiries and publish the results to their own timetable.

Sunak could bolster the position by appointing an adviser with a track record of independent action and make clear to Parliament that he wants the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to give its positive assent to the appointment. That would avoid the impression that he was appointing a patsy. The bonus for Sunak is that he is likely to find it easier to recruit a good candidate than Boris Johnson might have done had he moved to replace Geidt.

Step two would be to accept the need for legislation – ideally on a cross-party basis – on ethics and transparency in politics – to strengthen the machinery in place. So Sunak could kick off a process with the promise of legislation on a new more powerful regime in the next King’s Speech. The ideas from the Committee on Standards in Public Life could form a starting point, but Sunak might want to consider whether he wants to go further, perhaps along the lines proposed by Labour.

Third, Sunak needs to restore respect for Parliament. The last two (maybe three) governments have been scrutiny phobic, incurring the wrath of the Speaker on numerous occasions. Sunak should reset this – and make clear that his ministers will make major announcements to Parliament.

But he could go further. He could make clear that he will not tolerate ministers making misleading statements in Parliament – and adopt the proposals to ensure that the record is corrected whenever misstatements are pointed out. That would instil a new discipline among ministers. A new version of the ministerial code could underline the importance of providing timely and accurate information to Parliament.

He could commit his government to rein in the proliferation of secondary legislation that ministers have increasingly resorted to in the course of legislating for Brexit and managing the Covid pandemic. But that would mean looking again at two major pieces of legislation currently before Parliament – the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill – both of which give ministers huge powers.

It is likely that these bills will be substantially amended in the Lords to give Parliament more say and control – Sunak could always accept those additional safeguards, even if he is not prepared to rethink the legislation itself.

Fourth, after a government which fell apart by dismissing some of the institutions designed to bolster UK credibility, Sunak could make clear that he understands and values the role of independent regulators, will listen to their advice, will give them a free rein, and commit to appoint credible people to run them. Sunak himself was reportedly sceptical about the need to submit his fiscal choices to the OBR for assessment, but the OBR’s sidelining by the Truss government was an early indicator of its irresponsible approach to government. If Sunak wants to make good his commitment to professional government, he needs to make clear that he is open to challenge from professional, expert institutions and understands their value – and tell his colleagues they should too.

Fifth, he needs to reset relations with the civil service. Sunak himself seemed to work well with officials when he was at the Treasury. But Liz Truss’s first act was to dismiss Sunak’s long serving permanent secretary at the Treasury,  potentially sending a chill across the whole civil service about offering ministers uncomfortable advice.

Sunak needs to give the civil service confidence again that they must give their best advice to ministers. Where necessary permanent secretaries should ask for ministerial directions – where ministers have to formally override concerns about cost or feasibility if they want to proceed He should make clear that he and the Cabinet Secretary will back civil servants who restrain ministers whose behaviour risks the government’s reputation for propriety. But equally Sunak must make clear that he does not expect civil servants to leak about their ministers’ decisions and that they must also behave professionally.

There are many other moves available to Sunak. But this list represents a start that the new Prime Minister could make if he is serious about restoring trust in government, trust in Parliament and trust in the UK’s institutions.

By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.

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