My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to introduce this important debate on standards in public life. There are no saints in your Lordships’ House, nor down the Corridor. If there were they would not declare it, on the grounds that they were saints. I am no exception, so I want to make it clear that I would not be in your Lordships’ House if the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, in his capacity as the Cabinet Secretary, had not undertaken a thorough investigation into allegations against me. Therefore, procedures and processes are really critical to getting this right, and to the debate today.
On Monday evening the noble Lord, Lord True, who is winding up this debate, talked about people being careful not to throw stones when they live in glass houses—but you see we are in a glass house. We are accountable and on the public platform, whether as Peers, Members of Parliament or those in senior positions in public life outside. That is why this debate is so important for that transparency that makes it possible for people to trust those in whom they have placed trust.
Thirty years ago the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who I hope is recovering from his illness, floated the “good chap” theory. This goes back to Renaissance civic virtue, which I fear was challenged by Machiavelli; in other words, none of us is going to avoid making mistakes at some point in our lives, and therefore we need to countervail the overriding issue of power with the procedures and practices that make people trust us.
I was thinking of avoiding talking about the debates on
This afternoon’s debate is not about individual issues, although I know that noble Lords will be raising them, but about a functioning democracy and the example that we set to those dysfunctional regimes and states across the world that we often describe as “failing states”. How can you rail against corruption and the misuse of power elsewhere if you are not incredibly careful that you always demonstrate that you understand the importance of avoiding that misuse in your own country—not only politicians but all those who have a responsibility in public life, whether they are public servants, working in the Civil Service, serving as elected representatives in the devolved Administrations and in local government or who are appointed to undertake key tasks?
In the excellent publication Standards Matter 2, the Committee on Standards in Public Life rightly spells out the direction of travel, and I hope that its final report will be even more robust about the way in which appointments to a whole range of areas of our life are made.
I am very fond of quoting Antonio Gramsci, because I think hegemony is something we should be very wary of—the idea of winner takes all, which in some regimes across the world means literally that. The consequences are horrendous for the population and for the probity and morality of the functioning of those countries.
So, on appointments to whatever post, it is crucial that we are reassured, as I hope the Minister will reassure us, that this is constantly under review and that steps will be taken to avoid what appear to be—because appearance really matters—unfortunate moves towards the hegemony not just of the ruling party but of which particular line individuals took on the issue of Brexit. This issue that was raised at Questions yesterday. It cannot be right for Ministers to stand at the Dispatch Box and remind us, as the noble Lord, Lord True, did yesterday, about who voted which way in the referendum.
On the Ministerial Code and the role of the independent adviser, it is of course absolutely fundamental that there is proportionality. We need to have in place mechanisms that put things right which are not cliff-edge or immediate actions that would be disproportionate to the problem that we are addressing. On appointments outside government once people have left, it is important again that there is proportionality: people should be able to earn a living, but it should be transparent, and any suggestion that they are taking with them the power to influence decisions should be overcome.
Ironically, with the issue of Greensill Capital and the former Prime Minister, while there were many questions to be raised—including about the placement of individuals in the Westminster and Whitehall system, and the interplay between that and business—the system actually worked, because the lobbying by the former Prime Minister was not successful. However, the transparency that would have made that clear much earlier would have helped both David Cameron and those who were accused of actions around him to be able to defend themselves, and those who could not because they are no longer with us, such as the late Lord Heywood, would not then have been traduced in a way that I found very unpleasant.
Lobbying that is not successful often highlights the lobbying that is—for example, on the allocation of public contracts—and people need to be reassured. I say to the noble Lord, Lord True, that I think constant reassurance on this and a willingness to investigate, as I was investigated 16 years ago, is really important for public trust.
However, it is also crucial to ensure that we recognise that we are making progress. When there was no register of interests, either in the Commons or in the Lords, all kinds of things went on that we did not know about, including major loans to Prime Ministers to save their historic homes that were never repaid or, for that matter, the gift of a smallholding by a band leader to one of my personal Labour Party heroes. Now that we have a register, we have moved on a little. Ironically, of course, the public are even more sceptical, because they now read about the register and take to heart the idea that something new is happening that they should be wary of.
In the end, of course, every time we take a step to ensure that our procedures and processes, our openness, the register and the reassurances that I am seeking today are very clear, the more we will ensure people’s confidence in our democracy. When we stop caring, the public will stop caring, and when the public stop caring, as we saw under Donald Trump and as we are in danger of seeing here, anything goes—and once anything goes, everything has gone. So, in building trust in politics, in an independent Civil Service and in the actions and probity of those whom we appoint to a range of interests and responsibilities across the country, and in reassuring ourselves that we have the mechanisms in place to hold their feet to the fire, we are doing everyone a service.
So this afternoon I thank everyone who is preparing to take part in this debate. Above all, I appeal to the Members on the Benches opposite to persuade their Ministers that it is in everyone’s interests, including theirs, to get it right for the future.
My Lords, this is the third occasion this week on which the House has considered related aspects of the Government’s disregard for the advice of different bodies on the standards of public life. The noble Lord, Lord True, was a close adviser to John Major when the Committee on Standards in Public Life was set up and, we must assume, then agreed with his reform to strengthen propriety and ethics in government. I hope he will not now deny that there is a real problem of declining propriety in this Government. Our Prime Minister seems to think that the rules which govern our constitutional democracy do not apply to him.
The Minister and other Conservatives dismiss concerns on a number of grounds. The noble Lord, Lord True, has told us several times that the Government’s overwhelming majority in the 2019 election allows them to behave as they wish. Another argument is that only the metropolitan liberal elite worries about such fine distinctions on the rules of political behaviour and that most people accept that Governments share the spoils of office with their friends. I remind the Government Benches that their apparent majority in December 2019 rested on 43.5% of the popular vote.
I also remind them that one prudent rule for any democratic Government is that they should refrain from actions that they would strongly oppose if they were taken by a Government of a different colour. We can all imagine the raucous opposition that Conservatives and the Conservative press would create if a Labour Government or—even worse—a left-of-centre coalition dominated by metropolitan liberals bent the conventions of constitutional propriety. This Government will not be in power for ever—unless they manage to bend constitutional financial rules a lot further.
Constitutional democracy is not a contest, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, in which the winner takes all and the losers have to swallow whatever humiliation is inflicted on them. It is about limited government, checks and balances on executive power, the rule of law, transparency and respect for minorities as well as for the majority currently in power. The new book of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, Governing Britain, spells this out very well and I recommend it to all on the Conservative Benches.
The debates that surrounded the drafting of the US constitution set out these principles well. In Britain, our constitution has evolved through a series of understandings about limits on executive power. If those in government throw over those understandings, they undermine our unwritten constitution and threaten to slide from good government to corrupt and authoritarian government.
Standards matter, too, and the CSPL sets out a number of concerns about current shortcomings, such as a lack of transparency in many public appointment processes and the limited independence of the Prime Minister’s officially titled independent adviser on the Ministerial Code. I particularly noted the reference in paragraph 35 to the implications of the massive growth in government outsourcing and the opportunities for corruption that it has opened up—as we may have seen in the management of the Covid pandemic. Other CSPL reports have focused on the regulation of electoral finance and the importance of the Electoral Commission. Careful regulation of money in politics in vital to the maintenance of an open, democratic system. The weakening of limits on campaign spending in the USA has clearly damaged the quality of American democracy; we need to avoid the same happening here, and the forthcoming Elections Bill threatens to do that.
The Minister has adapted remarkably easily to the transition from John Major’s style of ethical government to the rule-bending populism of Boris Johnson. I nevertheless hope that he will reassure the House that he remains committed, personally as well as on behalf of the Government, to the seven principles of public life, to ethical standards, to transparency and public accountability in appointments, and to maintaining broad public trust in government. The Prime Minister likes to speak about the UK as a beacon of democracy for the world; it is the Minister’s responsibility to ensure that that beacon does not get dimmer.
My Lords, I compliment the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, on his choice of subject and the way he introduced it. He demonstrated that this topic is best discussed in your Lordships’ House, rather than the other place. My experience there was that the exchanges resulted in the political currency being debased, as each party tried to portray its rivals as the more corrupt and the collective reputation of politicians was further tarnished. Here, we are an offshore island to the mainland of political controversy. We benefit from Cross-Benchers, not least the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life; and the politicians taking part are, for the main, men and women whose reserves of partisan venom have been drained by the passage of time—although the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, still had a drop or two left.
Each speaker approaches this issue from their own perspective. In 1997, I thought I had the least attractive job in public life as Secretary of State for Transport, charged with privatising the railways in a Government with no majority. Then I became chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges in 2001, charged with enforcing the Code of Conduct for MPs, sitting in judgment on my colleagues and friends, and occasionally bringing their careers to an end. That was not why I became a Member of Parliament. My first point, from that experience, is to welcome the trend of removing politicians from decisions about their conduct and pay; I believe that process has further to go. There are now voting lay members on the committee I used to chair, but perhaps they could go further and have an independent chairman.
On the Ministerial Code, again, we need to go further. Gordon Brown appointed an adviser on ministerial standards in 2008, a post now held by the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, but he can suggest areas for investigation only privately to the PM. This falls short of what is required—namely, full discretion to launch inquiries, as with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, along with the ability to publish findings in full.
Related to that are decisions on pay and allowances. Again, these decisions should be distanced from beneficiaries. Here, I make a suggestion which will not be greeted with acclaim. Normally, your Lordships’ House is ahead of the other place on internal reform—televising proceedings and having iPads in the Division Lobby—but on pay and allowances I would argue that we lag behind. In 2010, the other place contracted out decisions on both to IPSA. It was a baptism of fire, as the organisation was set up at speed and made mistakes. Your Lordships decided not to join, and I understand why, but now we are the only national body that fixes its pay and allowances. IPSA has been up and running for over 10 years; it has authority, credibility and experience of fixing pay and allowances for parliamentarians. The annual controversy over MPs’ pay has been largely defused.
I happen to think that our present system of allowances is our Achilles heel, generating bad publicity and unfair on those who do not have a home in London, but we are too terrified to risk controversy and change it. We should follow the other place and contract out. To those who think that IPSA would dress us in hair-shirts, the evidence points otherwise. Since I joined this House in 2015, our allowance has gone up from £300 to £313, or by 4.3%. Over the same period, that of MPs has risen from £67,060 to £81,932, an increase of 22.2%.
I move on to what I hope is safer territory to make a final point. While there are no grounds for complacency, I believe standards in public life here are among the highest in the world. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President of France, has been sentenced to three years in jail, two of them suspended, for corruption. Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister of Italy, was convicted of tax fraud in an Italian court and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Jacob Zuma, former President of South Africa, is now in prison for contempt of court and facing trial for corruption. Ex-President Trump was impeached twice, and he and his company face a range of civil and criminal actions while, in 2018, the ex-President of Brazil, Lula da Silva, was the front-runner for the presidency, even though he was in jail serving a 12-year corruption sentence. So yes, we can do better; but we are not bottom of the class.
I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for securing this debate and for the way he introduced it. We are also indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, for providing us with the agenda for the debate in his June report, which the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, referred to. I cannot really share the sunny optimism of the previous speaker. I speak from the perspective of an ex-public servant and I fear that there is a huge amount of evidence around that standards are slipping. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Evans, cites a good deal of evidence; I will just touch on three points and then add two thoughts of my own.
First, to me it is shocking and, in the words of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, it is not “sustainable” that most public servants now have
“no confidence in the regulation of the Ministerial Code.”
That is very dangerous, and the report says it is unsustainable. The noble Lord, Lord Geidt, must be given the ability to instigate his own investigations.
Secondly, so must ACOBA, the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, which currently can only advise when advice is sought. We can see someone occupying a senior position in the Cabinet Office while being paid a salary by a financial company and joining it immediately on leaving the Cabinet Office without having any contact with ACOBA; that absolutely cannot be right. The rules need to be made enforceable in employment contracts of officials and in arrangements with Ministers.
Thirdly, another recent case reveals that special advisers can be double-hatted as non-executive directors in departments. That is absurd. The concept of the non-executive director was to help Whitehall by bringing in the expertise of senior businesspeople who knew how useful to a CEO was the challenge provided by a strong board. The position is not meant for chums; it is meant for challenging. Clearly, there is a need to bring the non-executive directors into the scope of the regulated appointments.
All these changes are clearly necessary and urgent, but will they be sufficient? Here are my own thoughts. The tone from the top seems to be the problem. It is not just about overruling the watchdog or a casual insouciance about the rules on financial disclosure; it is more fundamental. Standards in public life will continue to slip if there is a continuing failure to see that the public servant is most loyal when he has the courage to challenge what he believes would not work or would be improper. I am no fan of the French cabinet system, but at least their cabinets do not just consist just of political chums. The administrative experience is also imbedded in the cabinet. We risk getting the worse of both worlds.
Finally, what happened to personal responsibility? We have seen the issues of the building standards for Grenfell, the Post Office and Horizon, the Kabul embassy guards, and no ministerial resignations. Noble Lords will remember Peter Carrington, who was in no way responsible for the Falklands. It was not he who paid off HMS “Endurance” or refused Cabinet discussion of the Ridley plan, but Peter Carrington resigned because it happened on his watch. That is the right tone from the top and it sets the right standard in public life.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate and to follow the noble Lords who have spoken. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for his leadership and introduction. I learned a great deal from the noble Lord while Bishop of Sheffield.
I suggest that improving standards in public life is a three-cornered stool. One leg of that stool is being neglected in the public conversation. It is right that we have the highest possible principles and standards. The Nolan principles have stood the test of time and I support their application to people and their extension to areas of technology. They are the first important leg. The second leg is the way in which we hold one another to account on those principles, which is where I guess that the majority of this debate will be focused. Others are better qualified to speak on this than me. Those ways need to be thorough and consistent with the Nolan principles.
There is an important third leg to this stool, which I want to call formation and support. How do we intentionally grow a community of diverse public servants who are ethically formed and equipped, and have the inner capacity to be honest, open, objective, accountable and selfless? How do we form boards and cultures which are able to work in those ways? They do not simply happen. How do we offer ongoing support and learning to those who exercise high public office and have to cope with greater and greater complexity, pressure and temptation?
According to the great biblical tradition, there is one central insight on leadership in communities which is foundational and counter to much contemporary teaching on leadership. It is that the exercise of leadership in communities is very, very, difficult. The greater the power and authority we are given, the more our character is tested. Part of our humanity is that we are fallible; politicians fall short and so do churches and Church leaders. Being honest about our fallibility creates a much better climate for public discourse. Remember the biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah, of David, Ahab and Jezebel and of Peter. Last Friday the Church remembered Gregory the Great, a Pope in the 7th century. Gregory’s Pastoral Rule, his legacy to all the centuries, is a masterpiece on the complexity of leadership and the need to balance the inner and outer life. For centuries, translated by King Alfred, it was the foundation of good government in Europe.
So, what are the ways in which this Government and Parliament can recognise the need for this formation and support and develop it? First, is it possible to make a similar investment in training and support in the Nolan principles as the recent welcome investment in relationships and conduct in the workplace? Secondly, is it possible to ensure confidential networks of support across government departments, especially for those in senior roles, given the stresses and strains they carry? We need to nurture and look after our leaders. Thirdly, is it possible to build formation and training on ethical principles into every team and board so that, year by year, we tend to and grow this aspect of our common life?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, although in all honesty I would have preferred to have been book-ended by Conservative Peers, as it is to members of their party that most of my remarks, rather like those of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, are necessarily addressed. I find it deeply regrettable that so few Conservative voices have chosen to contribute to the subject which, as a young man, I thought was synonymous with everything the party stood for.
I hope the Minister will offer the House some form of explanation as to when the subject of standards in public life became so far removed from his Government’s concerns. I also hope he will acknowledge that his party, many of whom over the past quarter of a century I have had the opportunity to befriend, listen to and respect, have found themselves at a point where their Government gets “nil points” in all seven categories of the Nolan principles.
It was to address a self-inflicted parliamentary crisis that Sir John Major, a man for whom I have nothing but respect, helped encode what most believed to be a self-evident set of standards to be followed by those pursuing careers in political and public life. It was not a particularly complicated set of standards, and, with our traditional sense of complacency, most of us believed that, with the odd tilt of the tiller, we could retain, or gain, the sense of self-respect that we had always believed ourselves to enjoy. We were horribly wrong. How often have I heard wiser voices than mine in this House warn against the dangers of the slippery slope? Where standards in public life are concerned, the present Government have taken us careening down the Cresta Run.
Little over a year ago, I had the honour of chairing a special committee of this House, compiling a report entitled Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust. I had originally intended the title to read, “The restoration of trust”, but the evidence that our committee received was so damning that, in our judgment, nothing less than a “resurrection” of trust would be sufficient to regain broad public confidence. At several points in the report, we made particular reference to the Committee on Standards in Public Life as being the most appropriate body to support, and even help to deliver, a number of our unanimous recommendations.
So far, the pandemic has prevented the House debating that report. Of course, it is possible that differing views might surface, but our report was published six months before the horrifying Trump-inspired spectacle that occurred in Washington on
The Government’s claim, reiterated by the Minister at the conclusion of Monday evening’s debate, that the Prime Minister—particularly this Prime Minister—should have sole responsibility for setting the standards and making public appointments is rather like offering Basil Fawlty sole responsibility for developing closer relationships with our European friends and neighbours.
In conclusion, I have no idea how long I will be around, but, with all the force and energy that I can possibly muster, I beg those many decent Conservative Peers and Members of another House with a concern for the principles of parliamentary democracy to do what they know they will have to do sooner or later: muster the courage to say to the Prime Minister, “In God’s name, go. Go before you destroy the last sliver of self-respect that our party can call its own”.
My Lords, it is a huge pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. I commend his Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust report to all noble Lords who have not had the opportunity to read it. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for initiating this debate.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, I will refer to a Select Committee report, going slightly off track in terms of today’s debate: last February’s Artificial Intelligence and Public Standards report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale. This made a number of recommendations to strengthen the UK’s “ethical framework” around the deployment of AI in the public sector. Its clear message to the Government was that
“the UK’s regulatory and governance framework for AI in the public sector remains a work in progress and deficiencies are notable … on the issues of transparency and data bias in particular, there is an urgent need for … guidance and … regulation … Upholding public standards will also require action from public bodies using AI to deliver frontline services.”
It said that these were needed to
“implement clear, risk-based governance for their use of AI.”
It recommended that a mandatory public AI “impact assessment” be established
“to evaluate the potential effects of AI on public standards” right at the project-design stage.
The Government’s response, over a year later—in May this year—demonstrated some progress. They agreed that
“the number and variety of principles on AI may lead to confusion when AI solutions are implemented in the public sector”.
They said that they had published an “online resource”—the “data ethics and AI guidance landscape”—with a list of “data ethics-related resources” for use by public servants. They said that they had signed up to the OECD principles on AI and were committed to implementing these through their involvement as a
“founding member of the Global Partnership on AI”.
There is now an AI procurement guide for public bodies. The Government stated that
“the Equality and Human Rights Commission … will be developing guidance for public authorities, on how to ensure any artificial intelligence work complies with the public sector equality duty”.
In the wake of controversy over the use of algorithms in education, housing and immigration, we have now seen the publication of the Government’s new “Ethics, Transparency and Accountability Framework for Automated Decision-Making” for use in the public sector. In the meantime, Big Brother Watch’s Poverty Panopticon report has shown the widespread issues in algorithmic decision-making increasingly arising at local-government level. As decisions by, or with the aid of, algorithms become increasingly prevalent in central and local government, the issues raised by the CSPL report and the Government’s response are rapidly becoming a mainstream aspect of adherence to the Nolan principles.
Recently, the Ada Lovelace Institute, the AI Now Institute and Open Government Partnership have published their comprehensive report, Algorithmic Accountability for the Public Sector: Learning from the First Wave of Policy Implementation, which gives a yardstick by which to measure the Government’s progress. The position regarding the deployment of specific AI systems by government is still extremely unsatisfactory. The key areas where the Government are falling down are not the adoption and promulgation of principles and guidelines but the lack of risk-based impact assessment to ensure that appropriate safeguards and accountability mechanisms are designed so that the need for prohibitions and moratoria for the use of particular types of high-risk algorithmic systems can be recognised and assessed before implementation. I note the lack of compliance mechanisms, such as regular technical, regulatory audit, regulatory inspection and independent oversight mechanisms via the CDDO and/or the Cabinet Office, to ensure that the principles are adhered to. I also note the lack of transparency mechanisms, such as a public register of algorithms in operation, and the lack of systems for individual redress in the case of a biased or erroneous decision.
I recognise that the Government are on a journey here, but it is vital that the Nolan principles are upheld in the use of AI and algorithms by the public sector to make decisions. Where have the Government got to so far, and what is the current destination of their policy in this respect?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Blunkett for initiating this debate. I was a member and acting chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life about 20 years ago. We undertook the first review of the seven principles and set up a number of codes for Ministers and spads, as well as looking at the issue of lobbying, among other things. I am pleased that the current chair, the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, is present today—I can only guess at the challenges of the current role and, for what it is worth, I am confident that no one could carry it out as well as he can. This reminded me that the late Baroness Maddock was a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life at the same time as me. I want to pay tribute to her work and say how much she is missed.
On the same floor in Great Smith Street was the commissioner for Civil Service appointments—then the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar—who is present today. Also on the same floor was the Commissioner for Public Appointments, whose responsibilities had not then been filleted, or, as I would call it, “Grimstoned”, compared with the current occupant of the post. It is fair to say that the challenges were the same then and the pressures as great. I first ask the Minister: will he restore and strengthen the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments—perhaps de-Grimstone it?
Turning to the recent Committee on Standards in Public Life appointment, I want to emphasise that I am not saying that a former member of the Bullingdon Club is not fit to be a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. No doubt, he has paid his debt to society. However, I am concerned about the standard of applicants who failed if he was the best. I appreciate that, if you interview people on Zoom—other remote devices are available—you cannot spot whether they are wearing an ankle tag, but surely some diversity is called for.
The Institute for Government has said that the Ministerial Code and the role of independent adviser were no longer working, and I agree with that. However, the Institute for Government and Transparency International, of which I am a long-term admirer, have both called for the Ministerial Code to be embedded in statute. I prefer to accept the recommendation on this of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Prime Minister is responsible, and it is his or her integrity that is under the spotlight. The committee offered some sensible suggestions about sanctions and the independent adviser’s powers. Are the Government minded to accept them?
On Greensill Capital, I welcome the statement from ACOBA that lobbying the Government unfairly to benefit a new employer on leaving office is “inappropriate and unacceptable”. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, is doing the best he can with tools which have been woefully inadequate for decades.
My interest in the Greensill affair centred on what I believe to be the disgraceful treatment of Lady Heywood, the widow of Sir Jeremy, who would have brought distinction to this House had it not been for his untimely death. She sensed, quite rightly, that her husband was being lined up as a scapegoat. Lady Heywood described the Boardman inquiry as a “travesty of process”. She was repeatedly denied requests since late April for her late husband to have representation and was included only one week before publication, where Mr Boardman read out his conclusions to her. She said:
“I am horrified that I have to be here to try and defend my husband against what has been a fabricated attack on him and an absolutely horrible process.”
Let us be clear: Jeremy Heywood, Lord Heywood, was implementing government policy decided by Ministers. Lady Heywood’s name is listed under
“List of interviewees and other meetings” in the Boardman report—the Report of the Facts. It implies much more than the reality. She did not have a proper opportunity to ensure that her husband was defended. I shall not comment on the suitability of the author to conduct the inquiry, but, having looked at the 150-page report closely, I want to say that the blurred lines of accountability at the centre of government could not be clearer.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, for whom I have huge respect. I also commend, as others have done, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for calling this debate.
Standards are not a topic that those of us in public life like to discuss. If I am being charitable, I think that is because we sometimes fear being accused of throwing stones while we live in glass houses, but the cynical side of me recognises that, sometimes, the less said, the better, because we do not necessarily want people to be reminded that we are here to uphold standards and to be held to account for that.
However, we have to acknowledge that our privileges as legislators and decision-makers on matters which affect other people do not come without responsibility. Part of that is upholding standards which people have every right to expect of us. Obviously, that includes not breaking formal rules, but people’s expectations of us are sometimes hard to codify. “No rules were broken” cannot be an excuse when it is obvious that we have fallen short in our conduct. That is why, as public figures, we have to meet another test in meeting expectations and that is in how we hold one another to account on behalf of the public. That includes in a debate such as this.
Before I go on to my main point, I should say in respect of your Lordships’ House that we have done a lot in the past 10 years to improve the sanctions regime here, but, as noble Lords will know from other debates, because we are an unelected House, I believe that we still have further to go. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, is a member of the relevant committee. I hope that this is a subject it will revisit.
As my main point today, I want to make a positive case for why any of us as public servants should, just as the code requires of us under the heading of “Leadership”, uphold standards and promote them. The simple reason is that these standards help promote behaviours and social norms which bond us together as a society. Behaviour which we associate with good character is particularly important for us to see among those who obtain or are given the power to lead or to make decisions which affect everyone else—that was mentioned earlier by the right reverend Prelate. It helps stimulate the confidence necessary for us to comply with and follow what is asked or requested.
In a complex world where people are increasingly angry and distrustful, and asked to take on trust complex solutions, we look for simple motives. But we can judge people’s motives only through the actions that we see on display. Leaders need to promote the importance of common standards of behaviour and social norms for us to tackle some of our biggest and most difficult problems, because that is the only way we can bind everybody in. What we must not do if we are to be successful in meeting that challenge is weaponise or politicise the standards in public life that people have every right to expect of us. We must uphold and promote by example those standards to make sure that, together, we meet people’s expectations and serve them better.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Blunkett for instituting this debate and for the measured terms in which he introduced it. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, about the collective and individual responsibility for leadership in standards. Of course, one has to reflect that standards at Westminster can permeate the whole of public life. Therefore, we need to be very cautious about how we conduct ourselves here as well as in government as a whole.
We know that concern about public standards is not new. Lord Nolan’s committee was a response in part to the cash for questions affair, and we know that party funding and expenses were a major concern in the 2000s. However, I have to say that, since 2010, the litany of poor behaviour by Ministers and ex-Ministers seems to be have been off the scale. Rather like the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, I have deplored the near-contempt that many Ministers have shown towards their officials in failing to understand that constructive criticism is partly what they are there to do to enhance the quality of decision-making.
I pay tribute to all those members of the various regulatory bodies that have been established over the past 30 years, but I am afraid that they have proved flimsy in the face of the behaviour of some Ministers and former Ministers. My noble friend Lord Blunkett referred to the “good chap and chapess” theory. The problem is, what happens if the Prime Minister is not a good chap? How far can we have confidence in a system where the Prime Minister himself, who has overall responsibility for standards in public life, is clearly a man who over the years has had a default position of carelessness with the truth and no concern whatever about upholding standards? This is the problem we have with all the recommendations that I have seen so far for improving the situation.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and his committee and to the other committees. I think the recommendations that have been put forward should be implemented, beefing up the current system, with the independent adviser being able to initiate investigations and publish the outcome of those investigations. The Institute for Government has suggested that the Ministerial Code should set out the sanctions that might be applied for different breaches. We are going to hear from the Committee on Standards in Public Life shortly, but there are other very useful recommendations on business appointments, transparency, and lobbying and public appointments where it said that the commissioner ought to be given more powers to uphold the integrity of the process. The scandal of the Government’s determination to put one person into Ofcom to do over the BBC and completely traduce the system of appointments is one of the most disgraceful acts I have ever seen any Government do.
Next week we have another debate, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on the training of Ministers, which I think will be interesting. He wants it to be training in decision-making; I am afraid I think it has to be training in integrity, ethics and understanding what the Ministerial Code means and how they ought to behave, including their attitude towards officials. Will this do in the face of a Prime Minister who has no concern whatever about those standards? I doubt it.
I am afraid that, in the end, I reach the conclusion that, while it may be against our political tradition, if it goes on like this, it will have to be outsourced to the courts or an independent body. We cannot trust the person who is responsible for the Ministerial Code to oversee it properly and effectively, and our democratic institutions and public life generally suffer hugely because of it.
My Lords, I shall start with a surprise and say how pleased—indeed, delighted—I am that the noble Lord, Lord True, will reply to this debate. He will be relieved to hear that I am not going to have a go at him or indeed his Government. However tempted I am, I am leaving that to others—and, as we have seen, they are doing it much more eloquently and effectively than I could have done.
As my noble friend Lord Blunkett said in his brilliant introduction to this debate, the seven principles of public life apply not just to the UK Government but to local government and now, of course, to the devolved authorities, to which I am going to turn. When the Scottish Parliament was set up many said that it should not copy the outdated traditions of Westminster. That was understandable, but, sadly, on breaches of the seven principles the SNP Government have not just copied us here but seem to be after the gold medal—if there was a gold medal—for doing this.
It has not always been the case. The Labour First Minister Henry McLeish resigned over a small muddle in his office expenses, and the Tory MSP David McLetchie, who was much respected but is sadly no longer with us, resigned because he took a taxi via his office to go to the Scottish Parliament. They were honourable resignations, but we have not had any from the SNP.
Coming to the SNP, the notorious Salmond/Sturgeon duo is the prime example. It has been well chronicled, but the allegations of an organised conspiracy against Alex Salmond continue. Indeed, astonishingly, the former ambassador Craig Murray—I am not his greatest fan—was sentenced to eight months in prison not for naming the complainers, which would have been a clear contempt, but for so-called jigsaw identification from which, it was claimed, they might be identified. Nicola Sturgeon says that she told everything to the parliamentary committee of inquiry in the eight hours of evidence that she gave. But Jackie Baillie MSP, one of the most effective members, if not the most effective member, of that committee, rightly contends that the Scottish Government deliberately withheld vital information from it. There was no transparency there.
Then there is the scandal of the secret £12 billion deal with two Chinese companies which was signed by Nicola Sturgeon in March 2020 in private, withheld from Parliament and the public, and which then mysteriously fell through six months later. There was no transparency there. As Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish Secretary says, there was also a complex web of links between SNP Ministers and Sanjeev Gupta, the Scottish part of the now notorious Greensill saga. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon continues—as we saw yesterday in her statement to the Scottish Parliament—her obsession with another referendum on independence, wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned cash on improperly paying civil servants to produce a case that is clearly party-political and is, indeed, in a reserved area of the constitution. Then there is the rapidly growing scandal of the Crown Office. Having already outspent its budget by pursuing malicious prosecutions, it is now facing a further claim of £120 million on top of that as the Rangers crisis deepens.
These are just a few of many examples—I could give more if time allowed—of how the seven principles, particularly of integrity, objectivity, accountability and openness, have been breached by the SNP Government. And although the controversies of the missing £600,000 in the SNP’s finances and the McGarry embezzlement charges are party-political, they also reflect badly on the Scottish Government. The SNP has become very skilful at controlling criticism using patronage and threats. Nevertheless, some courageous people, such as Jim Sillars, have spoken out, describing the Government of the party of which he still a member as corrupt. Sadly, with honourable exceptions, some of the media and civil society are also cowed. STV is heavily dependent on Scottish Government advertising and the BBC seems to be in the thrall of the First Minister. Opposition parties—the Tories and the Lib Dems, as well as Scottish Labour—are increasingly effective at exposing the scandals of the SNP.
Now I come to the noble Lord, Lord True, again. There is one action that the UK Government could do to help. If parliamentary privilege that we have here in both Houses were extended to Holyrood, MSPs would be able to speak the truth without fear of prosecution. I hope that Ministers will give consideration to taking action on this in legislation as quickly as possible. Since I have resisted the temptation to attack the noble Lord, Lord True, I hope he will respond positively this afternoon.
My Lords, I think I should steer clear of the topics raised by the noble Lord who spoke most recently, but I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, for her kind words about my late colleague Diana Maddock. She is much missed on our side. She was a predecessor on the Committee on Standards in Public Life on which I now serve.
One of the key tasks of that committee is to monitor how the seven principles are being applied and to assess the relevance and resilience of those principles in an age when society is changing and evolving, when legislation imposes new challenges and demands on those who deliver public services, and when public expectations are a moveable feast and reshaped. There are new risks and new opportunities, so the committee has a full agenda.
The principles operate in a dynamic society. Even seemingly rock-solid principles, such as the principle of objectivity, which require office holders to act “without discrimination or bias”, change from generation to generation. I will give an example: when my mother got married, she was required to resign from her job in the Civil Service. There was not much objectivity there. In my generation, the fight for equal pay for equal work across public services finished only when it was resolved in the High Court. There was not much objectivity there. Now, my children have expectations about protection from sexual harassment and bullying in their workplace that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Noble Lords may well think it has been a change in the application of the principle of objectivity in the right direction.
However, some changes have had more mixed results. The advent of social media has indeed dramatically improved openness, but it has also—as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, pointed out—enhanced bullying and created a polarised climate in which calm and balanced decision-making may put at risk. That polarisation has made custodianship of those principles—
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I am grateful to him for referring to my contribution earlier, but I am just a little concerned: I was not suggesting anything in the way that he is interpreting—I did not refer to anything in the way that he is suggesting I meant. I would just like to correct him on that.
My Lords, I deeply apologise if I misunderstood or misinterpreted what the noble Baroness said. I certainly would not wish to sustain that. What I will say is that there has been a polarisation in political dialogue, which has led to the custodianship of those principles being an increasingly challenging task.
An example I will give is that, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton gave a hint of a tax change to a journalist a few moments before giving his 1947 Budget speech, he felt compelled to resign over his leak. Last Friday, the Prime Minister set out a new tax policy in a daily newspaper, with a three-day lapse before a Statement was made in the House. Any idea that this breach should lead to his resignation is now regarded as absurd in the popular discourse. That means that, clearly, the application of the principles of integrity and selflessness have migrated in that period. Yet the principle of leadership still requires a leader to
“be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.”
The CSPL does not deal with individual cases. It does not make findings of fact nor does it pass sentence. Where appropriate, that is the task of the various regulatory and monitoring bodies. Nevertheless, when a pattern of practice emerges in public life that, at the very least, challenges the conventionally understood meaning of the principles, the committee does report on it and makes recommendations. Those recommendations go via the Cabinet Office direct to the Prime Minister. That is of course both a great strength and a serious weakness. However, those who argue that it should report instead to Parliament, or maybe have a free-standing statutory constitutional position, are surely mistaking the presenting symptom for the underlying disease, which is that the UK has a uniquely powerful prime ministerial constitutional model.
All roads lead to the door of No. 10. Everything depends on the occupant leading from the top, whether it is on Covid, Brexit, or standards in public life. Seen that way, the more directly that the Committee on Standards in Public Life sends its good advice and strong recommendations to the top, the better. There is certainly a strong case for urgent reform of our current model of prime ministerial power, but that is a matter for a further debate.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, in this debate. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for securing this debate, which is timely and important. I declare an interest as the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
I am grateful to noble Lords for their support for the various recommendations that we have made in recent years and also for the contribution that many noble Lords have made to our consideration. The cross-party nature of our committee is a real strength and means that the recommendations that we make carry more weight that they would otherwise. We wait with optimism that the Government will respond positively to the most recent recommendations that have been discussed already this afternoon.
There has been no golden age of public standards in the United Kingdom. We have already heard about MPs’ expenses and cash for questions and, going further back, we can think about corruption in local government in the 1960s. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom has a strong reputation for the public standards that are embodied in our public life and for the lack of corruption that we enjoy. That is something that matters enormously to our national well-being.
I was struck by the compelling evidence that the committee received recently from business leaders as to the value that they put on high public standards and the fact that this makes the United Kingdom a more attractive investment area. We were also impressed when we talked to members of sixth forms the year before last and asked them what they saw as the right public standards. They gave a strong endorsement to the seven principles of public life that were first articulated by Lord Nolan. More recently, our committee has commissioned research into public attitudes towards public standards, and we were encouraged again that there was strong support for the idea that those in public life should live up to high standards. I do not believe that this is something merely of interest to the metropolitan elite; it is also of great interest to young people today, and to the people of this country.
We have a strong reputation but we need always to be looking for ways in which we can shore that up. Our system of public standards regulation in this country is complex—probably too complex—and relies on a network of bodies, some of which have statutory power, some of which do not, and some of which are dependent entirely upon convention. There are strengths to that, in that standards apply differently in different environments, but some of the institutions that we rely on need to have better statutory underpinning to ensure that they are able to undertake their roles strongly and without fear of any political interference. We need to consider whether there is more to be done by way of statutory underpinning for our standards system.
I have also noted with interest the way in which legal process is starting to encroach on this area. The Good Law Project has brought a number of cases that, ultimately, have been about public standards. We are seeing the way in which the courts are starting to make decisions or how the Government have sometimes changed their position when challenged in the courts. I do not wholly welcome that. This is something where the political leadership of this country needs to provide the strong lead; we should not have to rely on the courts. The seven principles of public life are a personal responsibility for all of us who have a public role, whether in politics, government, local government or beyond. The seven principles, which I think have stood the test of time extraordinarily well, are ones that apply institutionally, but also individually, and are a personal responsibility.
A number of noble Lords have made reference to recommendations that we made in our Standards Matter 2 report in respect of a number of the institutions that we rely on. I await with hope that we will see progress and that the Government will respond positively to those.
I also draw attention to another matter that has been referred to briefly—namely, the forthcoming Elections Bill, which contains provisions that, in my view, would significantly weaken the independence of the Electoral Commission. We should view that with great concern, not as a party-political issue, but one of good governance. There was a Written Ministerial Statement on this recently, which was encouraging, but I believe that we need to see changes to what is in the Bill if we are going to underpin the independence of the electoral system which is, in turn, a critical part of our public standards.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and indeed to take part in a debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Blunkett. He set the case before us, and it has been illustrated widely. My contribution shall be much narrower; I mean to complement what we have heard thus far.
If I may decouple the words “my noble friend”, I shall take the word “friend” out for a moment and release it from its honorific usage when we are in this House, which limits its application to those on our side of the House. Suppose, in a debate like this, we look for what the noble Lord, Lord Evans, has just suggested is the benefit of the committee system—namely, that all of us, on all Benches, have a common interest in seeing this together as a team and not in oppositional terms, although there is plenty of illustrative material that could point the finger here, there or anywhere else.
The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said that he was not a saint. From my professional background, I found saints a pain in the backside and prefer dealing with sinners any day.
The realities are all around me, as I can hear from that response.
If we consider ourselves a Committee of the whole House and if the word “nobility”, freed from the word “friend” just for a moment, can be a word that sums up all those Nolan principles—truth, integrity and all the other things—we will have a starting point.
I have to say that this House astonished me in recent times in the way it responded to the introductions to the House made by the Prime Minister that took the proportions between our respective parties into such an unhealthy place. The Labour Party, since the Burns report, has tried hard to follow the formula we all agreed as friends, and I think the Liberal Democrats have done the same. However, the expansion on the Conservative Benches is in defiance of an agreed position that all of us took in accepting the Burns report. I was astonished that there was not an uproar. My noble friend Lord Blunkett introduced Machiavelli into these discussions this afternoon. I would introduce Extinction Rebellion, because its tactics are more appropriate for this present age. If we had glued ourselves to our seats or bolted ourselves to the doors, protesting against the mistreatment of this House and of this Parliament by overruling the common, agreed statement of the House on the question of its membership, we would have shown some stamina and spunk and would have had a word we could possibly say outside this Chamber.
Public trust has been invested in every one of us. The electorate have put their trust in every Member of the other place. When the body politic has a rotten head, it will soon find itself infected similarly. I therefore believe that we must take the general points and address the philosophy and constitutional aspect of this case, but it is in the interests of all of us—and of our credibility outside this Chamber—for us to see that we simply must find a way to deal with infractions and diminished responsibility, which are a threat to the public life of this country.
I suppose that, as I sit down, that someone will say, “There we are, he has reverted to type—that was a Methodist sermon.” If it was, let the cap fit.
My Lords, in the UK, where governance relies heavily on conventions, there is always the danger that these conventions are ignored or significantly tailored to fit the current zeitgeist, in Parliament and beyond. Parliament has recognised this by creating a whole raft of behavioural standards and rules. In bringing up this topic, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, indicates that there should be better monitoring of all those involved in governance, and surely that must be right. However, there is the wider question of how to foster trust, especially if trust has been eroded. Governments must inspire trust to govern effectively and, ultimately, trust is based on the citizen’s perceptions of the Government’s competence and intent. This in turn requires overt values, transparency, data access and giving citizens a voice. Conversely, non-compliance with the rules, such as last-minute U-turns on decisions immediately following categorical statements, has confused and irritated the public, and the failure to call Dominic Cummings to account following his flouting of the Covid-19 travel restrictions meant that others felt that they too could disobey rules with impunity.
How is trust best achieved? It is by means of clear rules for legislators, uniform adherence to those rules and rapid effective sanctions for transgressions. How does the UK measure up to these criteria? Not too badly, as it happens, but many areas are in need of tightening up to prevent and sanction transgressions and, most importantly, the perception of abuses. The British Academy review on the longer-term social impacts of Covid came up with nine areas, one of which was continued
“Low and unstable levels of trust”, particularly at local or national government level. This is not a desirable culture and will likely lead to further structural inequalities—for example, them and us attitudes—and even greater tensions between safety and security and personal freedoms and privacy.
The emphasis has to be on reviewing the current rules and ensuring their implementation, the aim being to build a culture of open government. In recent years, lobbying, cronyism, the sometime arbitrary invoking of the Ministerial Code, public procurement, overreaching executive powers and misinformation, among other weaknesses, have provoked adverse press attention and much more public distrust than there would otherwise have been. In 2020 alone, some 30 alleged breaches of parliamentary and ministerial rule were reported.
If we accept that trust forms the basis for policy-making in governance, the following actions seem urgent: more detailed definition of and adherence to integrity principles; political leaders leading by example; common standards at all levels; perceptions of fairness and improvement in public services; and the sound use of public money. As ever, these principles in action come best—and must come—from the top. It is absolutely in the interests of government to do so.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble and good friend Lord Blunkett on securing this debate and introducing it with great understanding and wisdom. Standards in public life has become a common subject of anxiety for many of us who care for this country. I want to make four or five points of a systematic kind.
The first thing to bear in mind on standards in public life is that there is a danger of being rather nostalgic about them and imagining an age when things were fine. That is not so. Look at 18th-century Britain and the scandals that took place then, or at 19th-century Britain, when things were horrendous. That is not to underestimate what is happening today but simply to put it in a historical perspective. Standards in any given age always seem to fall.
The other important thing is what kinds of standards we are talking about. If you asked a medieval monk—or my good and noble friend Lord Griffiths, who gave us a Methodist sermon—they might talk about religious standards. Later on, people might have talked about moral standards of people falling. What standards are we talking about—financial standards, those involving the treatment of women, or what? The first and most important thing to bear in mind is that when we talk about standards, we should not be too nostalgic about the past and should be precise about what standards we are talking about. The Nolan principles are very relevant but, at the same time, they are also limited. They never talk about sexual harassment or the treatment of women, which has become a subject of great importance. Therefore, the first point I want to make is, as I say, on specifying the kind of standards that we have in mind.
The second important point is that when standards fall, corruption sets in, and corruption always starts at the top. The man at the bottom does not have the guts to violate standards, because he knows he will get caught. The man at the top starts the process, feeling confident that others will bail him out if he is caught. So corruption starts at the top, gradually spreads downwards and, if we are not careful or if the process is not arrested at some point, it permeates the entire society like a blanket and creates a situation where it simply cannot be dealt with. Who do you appeal to against corruption when the entire society is complicit in it?
Another important point is that corruption in any society is often sustained because people are generally too tolerant. It is a difficult point to make but, in our own country, people often talk about the Prime Minister. I do not wish to get into this, but the point is that, whatever he has done, people seems to have lapped it up. People seem to be with him. How do you accept a situation where standards are violated—I could mention half a dozen systematic violations—and people laugh it off and allow him to get on with it? It never seems to be held against him.
To me, that is the danger: standards are ultimately sustained by what? What are the sanctions behind standards? The sanctions are individual conscience, although that may or may not work, and professional ethics. For example, as a doctor or professor, I cannot do certain things; however, again, that may or may not work. What else? There is public opinion. Public opinion is the guarantor, the custodian, of standards in public life. When the public opinion is no longer interested in or is indifferent to those standards—or, indeed, delights in the playful violation of those standards—who will guarantee that they will be kept and preserved?
That is the danger, and not only in this country. I am sorry to disagree with the earlier remark that we are better off than other countries. Sadly, we are not, partly because our standards are not as vigorous as those in some other countries and partly because we have not examined them as carefully. Our standards are no better and no worse than elsewhere; we are all the same human beings. The simple point is that the same failure of public opinion is evident in every country, including the one I come from—India—where standards have been systemically falling. The question is this: when public opinion fails to perform its role, where do you go? Whom do you appeal to?
The next question, therefore, is: how can public opinion be educated? However, that sounds very patronising, as though we are in the business of educating public opinion. How can the public themselves arrive at a more sensible view? There, you need freedom of information and all kinds of machinery by which the public can be kept informed.
My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blunkett. He has done us an enormous service. I hope that enough people will follow what he said for him to have done this country an enormous service in terms of standards in our public life.
We have always said traditionally that our standards in public life are of a high order. I wonder whether that is still true today. I look at the seven principles of public life and think that they are exemplary, but they must be made to work. Before I develop that point, let me say that I listened carefully to the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Young. He said that we in this House do not inject into our debates venom of the sort that characterises some debates in the Commons. Well, I wonder—perhaps we need a bit of venom to pinpoint failings in public standards. The noble Lord was not making a bland speech but, if we become too bland about all this, we are failing.
I have thought very hard about some of the excellent speeches I have been listening to. It seems to me that there are two aspects: whether we can develop good enough systems or safeguards to protect standards in public life; and whether it is a matter of the personal integrity of the people at the top. I cannot help feeling that, if there is no personal integrity at the top, no amount of systems and safeguards will remedy this. We must demand the highest standards of personal integrity, which is where the seven principles come in.
In listening to programmes such as “Any Questions?” or “Question Time”, I always find it a matter of sadness when, if one of the contributors makes a sneering comment about MPs, an enormous cheer goes through the audience. This is sad because, if we denigrate our elected politicians, we weaken democracy. The question is whether they deserve some of that denigration; of course, some people would say that they do, up to a point, but not to the extent to which they face this abuse. I repeat: I am always saddened when people denigrate our elected politicians because our democracy suffers.
I have been thinking about previous Prime Ministers. By the way, I was told by the powers that be in this House that I am not allowed to call anybody a liar, and I do not intend to do so. I was thinking about Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Theresa May. What they shared was personal integrity and honesty. I spent most of my political life opposing what Margaret Thatcher did and opposing quite a lot of what Theresa May and John Major did, but the fact is that, for all her awful policies, Margaret Thatcher had personal integrity, believed what she said and made sure that it happened. I think that that honesty was important. I never thought that I would hear myself praise the late Lady Thatcher but, in terms of this debate, it matters.
The Ministerial Code is crucial. I want, if I may, to tell a little story about when I stopped being a junior Minister in Northern Ireland. I remember being asked whether I would host a meeting in one of the Committee Rooms about voting machines so that we could have an American system of voting. I was going to put on display a whole set of voting machines and invite Members of both Houses to have a look at them. I had a real job getting permission to do that; eventually, Lord Mayhew, who was in charge of the appropriate committee, said yes, but it took several weeks. There was not a penny coming to me for this—there was no personal benefit for me at all except for the fact that I was hosting the meeting—but it was interesting. That was a tight standard, and I think it was right. I had no relationship with electoral systems in Northern Ireland, but I think it was right that there should have been a hurdle for me to overcome.
I want to make two brief points. First, we have to look at the way in which membership of this House happens. We must look at appointments. There is a lot of scepticism about whether they are made in return for favours or whether the principles of public life apply to them. I have a lot of respect for most Members of this House, but I feel that the integrity of this House depends on our having standards that pass all the tests we are applying in this debate for appointment to it.
Secondly, on the Ministerial Code, as has been referred to before, when the independent adviser resigns, there is something amiss with the whole system.
Many years ago, in the early 2000s, I was a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life for two and a half years. I must say, it is a great enhancement to our debate today that the current distinguished chairman is able to be with us and take part in our discussion. The committee was, and is, charged with the stewardship of the Nolan principles. They remain as vital for the success and value of public life and service as they have always been. Sadly, I must observe that they are no longer held to as firmly and clearly by Ministers and Governments as they once were.
When a Minister is incontrovertibly found to have bullied the senior staff in their department and nothing happens, what is the value of the principle of leadership? When contracts are awarded to friends and acquaintances without a proper tendering and evaluation process, what is the value of the principle of accountability? When Ministers from the top down simply make up figures because they suit their argument, and fail to correct mistakes and misinformation subsequently, what is the value of the principle of honesty? When planning permission is rushed through to assist a party donor, what is the value of the principle of integrity? When a former Prime Minister lobbies aggressively by text on behalf of a private company, what is the value of the principle of openness? When the public appointments process is manipulated to secure a politically favoured candidate for a supposedly impartial role, what is the value of the principle of selflessness? I fear that these principles, on which the integrity of our entire system of governance is founded, are being regularly undermined.
No Government have ever got this completely right, but I have never seen a Government getting so much so wrong. Too many people in public life, including senior figures in government, are disregarding the ethical standards that ought to govern behaviour and action. When contraventions occur and are seen to have occurred, nothing happens.
This is serious. Two things in particular happen when public officials and representatives play fast and loose with standards. First, a Government develop an arrogance, a kind of hubris, a sense that they can get away with anything. That ultimately leads to bad decision-making. Policy gets made regardless of evidence or consequence, and disaster often follows. I could, for example, argue that hubris led to the poll tax and to the Iraq war.
Secondly, the public distrust of organisations and people in authority simply intensifies. That distrust is already there—we know that very well—but the flouting of proper standards makes the problem of public scepticism and distrust far greater. Leadership to change this downward drift has to start from the top. The Prime Minister, above anyone else, has to set, lead and enforce the standards. I doubt he will, but that does not diminish in any way the urgent necessity that he do so.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blunkett on his wonderful opening speech. I took away four issues—procedures, processes, transparency and trust—and many other noble Lords have spoken about these, as well. I will give the example of what I believe is a disgraceful standard in public life, as applied by the Government to HS2. I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Adonis is in his place, and I am not going to start criticising whether it is the right project or not; I am talking about its management and the way that Parliament has been misled. I hope we can have a few lessons learned.
I remind the House that this is the most expensive public sector project on the Infrastructure and Project Authority’s annual review of government projects, and it has the dubious record of having the longest run of amber/red designations—seven years—followed by a red one. That means
“successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”.
I believe this is a good example of a project that needs regular and detailed scrutiny, instead of what we have, which is a massive, long-lasting cover-up of costs.
This week, we received from senior managers in HS2 —I think you can call them whistleblowers—85 megabytes of files, so big documents. That is interesting because, for the first time, it says that they had produced a detailed estimate of this project from the beginning. They had always denied that to me and to many others, but they have an estimate and the problem is that it came out at £48 billion, at a time when Ministers were telling the House of Commons and your Lordships’ House that the cost was £23.5 billion. It was on the basis of that £23.5 billion that the House approved phase 1 of the HS2 Bill.
Everybody knew about this; it is clear from this documentation. I can list all the people who knew about it, and it goes back to a meeting in Oxford, at the Saïd Business School. The present Prime Minister was not there—this was in 2016—and the notes of the meeting, which we have, indicate that Ministers and officials knew that the project could not completed for the figure that they had given to Parliament. Somebody wrote an email to the current Prime Minister when he was assuming leadership of the Conservative Party, saying that the cost would be over £120 billion, when they were saying it would be £20-something billion. This is a serious misleading of Parliament and a breach of the ministerial code.
I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary on
The Cabinet Secretary passed my letter to the Department for Transport, but the Permanent Secretary there is the accounting officer. It is interesting that the Cabinet Secretary thought it the right thing for the Permanent Secretary to investigate her department’s own failings, but there we are; that is what happened. The Cabinet Secretary has now replied to me and said that the decision to investigate any matters like this rests with the Prime Minister, which goes back to what several noble Lords said, including the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Kerr.
“Like you, I think the continuing deception over the costs of HS2 is an absolute disgrace. We had come to expect this from ministers, trying to protect their own backs and trying to protect the project’s credibility against mounting evidence … But what I find utterly horrible, and in some ways even worse, is the Permanent Secretary’s complicity in this deception. Her weasel words … are utterly unacceptable from a senior civil servant, or indeed from any civil servant.”
That is a very telling comment.
The project is massively over cost, at £160 billion now. One of these whistleblowers—
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for securing this debate and providing us with the opportunity to discuss this important subject.
As we have heard, the seven Nolan principles, which have stood the test of time, are there to ensure that those in public life act in the public interest and do not abuse power. I know for a fact that the Committee on Standards in Public Life, a body that I greatly admire—I had the privilege of working closely with it when I was the First Civil Service Commissioner, on the same floor—has not always had the wholehearted support of successive Governments but continues, despite all, to do some sterling work. Its report, Standards Matter, published in June this year, illustrates that, after 25 years, the time has come to take stock and identify the reforms that are needed. The report is well judged. I agree with its findings and the areas identified as requiring significant reform, and with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Evans, the current chairman of the committee, about the need for the statutory footing of some of the regulatory bodies to be looked at. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House whether the Government will heed the committee’s advice and support the reforms that it recommended.
I should like to highlight the committee’s recommendation regarding the process by which regulators are appointed. The committee rightly argues that the appointments process for standards regulators requires a greater element of independence than is the case for other significant appointments. If those who are regulating standards are appointed through a process that is not seen to be independent, that would discredit the very bodies charged with regulating and monitoring standards. For the system to be credible, safeguards to ensure the integrity of the appointments process for regulators are crucial. But no safeguards are adequate unless the will to give effect to them is fully present. Do the Government have that will?
Codes or guidance are not likely to be effective unless they are accompanied by education, training and induction that inculcates the meaning of what they mean in practice and are ingrained into the DNA of the organisation. The seven Nolan principles provide a set of tools to negotiate the challenges that organisations face. The principles can be used in a deliberate, open and honest manner to steer the way through dilemmas and, in the process, to educate institutions and raise awareness. Similarly, leadership in the overlapping areas of business and politics involves ethical decisions. Again, this should be managed within the framework of the Nolan principles, and the committee rightly suggests that the advisory committee on public appointments should be given additional resources to promote awareness and understanding of the rules.
However, as other noble Lords have said, regardless of rules and regulations, those in public life need to take personal responsibility and act on their honour, be eternally vigilant about purpose, and respect boundaries and the checks and balances, and understand why those checks and balances exist. I know for a fact, as a former Civil Service Commissioner, that it was my job constantly to remind Ministers that the system was for their benefit.
Failure and mistrust come when we forget our ideals, values, principles and objectives. Those in public life cannot exempt themselves from ethical and exemplary behaviour, because ethics make democracy safe for debate on the substance of public policy. When ethics are in disorder, they are a digression. A reaffirmation of the Nolan principles, both in words and actions, and embracing the reforms suggested by the committee, would therefore send a strong signal that the Government care about standards and that standards matter, as does our standing in the world. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, like others, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Blunkett for introducing this debate in such a magnificent way, based on his long experience in politics. It was a great blessing for us. I am grateful, too, to the Library for the briefing note that it provided, which reminded me to spend a little time looking at the seven principles.
In that context, it is interesting that the new Lord Speaker recently sent out a little reminder to us all about how we conduct ourselves and the courtesies that we show each other when we come into the Chamber. I think that that has been quite well received. It might be worthwhile if the seven principles were circulated among all of us, particularly for newcomers, who are coming into politics perhaps for the first time.
I was particularly taken by what my noble friend Lord Blunkett said in his introduction about the responsibility that we hold, given the privileges we hold, our ability to exercise power and how we do so. I would like to focus primarily on a narrow area, one that my noble friend Lord Griffiths picked up on: the way we conduct ourselves.
If we look at the seven principles, we see that I as an individual and we as the Lords are somewhat weak when it comes to accountability. Who are we accountable to? What is our principal job? I would say that scrutinising legislation is our principal role: legislation comes to us from the Commons, or we introduce it ourselves, and because it goes through the Commons, ultimately we are accountable to it, because it decides, yea or nay, whether our amendments will be taken. But there are many areas beyond that in which, when I look for accountability, there is a great big gaping hole. I am not really sure, in the context of this debate, whether I am asking questions of the Minister or of the House on how we conduct our business, because there is a Nolan principle up there, when we come to it.
I share a room with my good friend the noble Lord, Lord Young, who raised the issue of finance. We are not accountable to the Commons on finance. I do not know who we are accountable to on that. Is it the Government directly? We seem to run our own show in what we believe is the best way possible and acceptable. But as to a clear line of accountability, there is no stream there to be identified, and that is a weakness of this House that we should address.
Linked to that of course is the growth of the House. There are now 830-odd of us—it is far too big and we do not need that. We need change, and we have endeavoured to make that change ourselves. I put it to the Minister that the Government have a responsibility to say what they will do about the ever-growing size of this House, the way in which they conduct themselves in making appointments, and how we contain it and reduce the cost. We, in turn, still have further work to do in that area; we ran away from having an age of retirement, and I can see the arguments against that. But our basic function here is to vote. If people do not come here and stay to vote, they are not fulfilling the public duty that they have been given. If they are not fulfilling the full role given to them, as for a policeman, a nurse or others, they should not be Members of this House; they should exercise the principles and voluntarily leave. We should go back to our work in looking at the House and review whether we could do more to reduce our numbers.
We then come to the issue of accountability to the public. Deep down, we do not want any real change, because it threatens our positions. Whenever this has come up, we have found ways and means, as has the Commons, of avoiding elections to this Chamber. I do not want to get involved in that today, but we still have a gaping hole in our accountability to the public. I hope that we can open up and start to have a conversation in that area. I might suggest that a start would be to do some MORI-type work among the public at large on how they perceive us in the light of where we stand in 2021, particularly after Brexit. In 2016, we were well out of touch with the mood of the public, notwithstanding all our intelligence and expertise. We have to be close to the people and we need to find ways in which we can get closer to them than we are, for the betterment of ourselves, for the betterment of the public and for the betterment of public standards.
My Lords, it is a great honour to take part in this debate, initiated by our good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett. It is also great for me, because I get lower and lower down the speaking list, to a point where I am now so low that the Chamber is beginning to fill up for the winding-up speeches, so I am actually getting a better audience than I normally do.
I will begin by saying a word in support of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. It has been very much maligned because of a decision about a Lord, but, when I was appointed to this Chamber, there was a very thorough investigation. Two of the people on the list nominated by the Prime Minister were later withdrawn—and this is by no means uncommon. I am told that if you look at the commission’s proceedings, quite a lot of names have, after investigation, been withdrawn, so I do not think that we can tie all the commission’s work around one nomination. I am also told that the nomination that was turned down from the present Prime Minister was not the only one. Indeed, in the reign of Gordon Brown there was also someone turned down who was subsequently put forward—but I am sure we can look at that.
The next thing I would like to say is that there is a general ooh-ah about corruption in this country. I was shocked last Sunday to see the headline in the Sunday Times where a gentleman, Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz, was castigated for receiving a CBE for donating a huge amount of money to Prince Charles’s charity Dumfries House. Were it not for the Prince of Wales, that house would not have been rescued. He has done an enormous job as prince and, frankly, if you have to give away the odd bauble to get some money in, I would have said that that is a matter for congratulation, not for having a go at people. We probably need to get a scale and a perspective, because if you look through any honours list you always see a number of honours “for charitable services”. That is all this particular person did, so I exonerate him.
I will make one or two points about what we could do in our House. First, I very much endorse what my noble friend Lord Young had to say. The time has come for us to look to IPSA to be our regulatory body. I do not think we would have the scandal, frankly, of Members of this House who do not live in London basically being given a different rate of allowance from those who do. IPSA is probably the place to look after our pay and rations, because it has worked down the Corridor.
I would also like to see some attention paid to the revolving door. When I was young in the Civil Service, almost 60 years ago, people wanted to bring in outsiders. At that time, the union I was associated with warned that if you brought them in, their premium would be on getting a job outside and that senior civil servants would constantly be looking to the people they were giving the contracts to and thinking, “What happens when I’m 60?” Well, the first thing to do of course is to increase the retirement age, but the second is to look at this revolving door, because it revolves a bit too smoothly in some places.
I would also like the Government to look at the situation of trade envoys. Trade envoys are not government appointments, yet my good friend Andrew Rosindell was sacked as trade envoy to Tanzania for voting against the Government. Trade envoys also come from the Labour Party. I do not know whether they have any sanction about Labour trade envoys, but I do not think it is right that a trade envoy appointed on expertise should be treated as part of the payroll vote.
My final the point is that we really have to look at the idea of non-legislative Peers. There are people in society who deserve high honours and who have contributed enormously to the country, but they are not trained legislators. There should be a way for this top honour of being called a Lord to be split into two divisions: legislative and non-legislative Peers. This would get rid of a lot of the problems of donors as well.
My Lords, it is a real privilege to participate in this debate. In fact, it has been a real privilege to sit and listen to the contributions, which have in many respects identified issues that should be of great concern to the Government but which we all feel are being somewhat derided at present. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, for emphasising the difficulties for senior civil servants in relation to Ministers under the present regime.
It seems very important that we get the key points from this debate across to government. We know that the Prime Minister himself probably pays little regard to principles, but there is a capacity for the generation of pressure in specific areas, which is what we should concentrate on, in order not just to improve the situation but to stave off what several speeches reflected, which is the growing sense of unease about critical aspects of our democracy being undermined. I remember when it was suggested during the middle months of the Trump regime that there were one or two defections from democratic participation—challenges that looked to smack of belief in other forms of running society. Then look what happened: it all exploded. Of course, we are not in that situation, but we must guard against such developments.
One of the things I miss most at present is that Covid has taken away school visits for a lot of us. I enjoy talking to young people—by “young” I mean 15 to 16 year-olds and sixth formers, who are certainly young in comparison to the vast majority of us—because two things crop up each time. The first is, “How do you become a politician?” That is interesting, because it seems to give the impression that it is a career in which you have to learn to make the progress of securing first base and then move on from there. I am afraid that I tend to destroy those illusions fairly fast. I have a good record of failure in politics, so they do believe me after a short while.
The second aspect, which is of great importance, is that they do believe that our society can be made better and that there can be improvements—and there are aspects of this debate that must be translated into those anticipations so that it is recognised that the body politic needs improving.
I look forward to the response to this debate of the noble Lord, Lord True. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blunkett not just on initiating the debate but on the brilliant speech he made. I hope that the Minister will not let the intervening three hours pass in such a way that he will fail to respond to the crucial points put to him by my noble friend. I very much look forward to that speech.
Of course, we have to appreciate the limitations of this House when it comes to action to protect crucial aspects of democracy, because we are unelected and can easily be put down in those terms—but we still need to articulate those defences. The other House needs support on this, because Members there are expressing obvious anxieties, and those anxieties are real when power begins to believe that it can be utterly untrammelled and uncontrolled because of the legitimacy of the last election. Politics in this country have always meant a good deal more than that, and I think today’s debate in this House has helped to establish how important these crucial points are for the continuation and extension of our democratic tradition.
My Lords, our thanks are certainly due to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, not just for this very timely debate but for the comprehensive way in which he looked at so many aspects of the concerns that we are all now experiencing. We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Evans, his current colleagues and his predecessors, some of them Members of your Lordships’ House, for the meticulous work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. In that connection, I express my appreciation for the kind words said about our much-missed former colleague, Diana Maddock.
I have a personal interest in the value of the committee. It was in answer to a Question from me on
The Speaker’s Committee is not only overweighted with Conservatives—and MPs who have a grudge against the commission, due to their own electoral misdeeds—but surely inappropriate. As I have already pointed out, the commission is answerable to Parliament as a whole, so it should be a joint committee so that Peers can ensure that the MPs on it are not just there to be partisan. Adding some lay members to the committee would also increase confidence in its impartiality.
The Statement by the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, which was referred to earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, was somewhat misleading in this respect. She said that
“the Government will empower the UK Parliament to hold the Electoral Commission effectively accountable”.—[
But this is a two-House Parliament. It is not just the House of Commons keeping an eye on our electoral system; this House has a responsibility, too, and some among us may feel that we are slightly more impartial. It should not be a question of MPs marking their own homework, as we might expect if it is left simply to them.
I very much endorse the points about the CSPL made by my noble friends Lord Wallace, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Stunell—himself an assiduous member of that committee, as he demonstrated in his contribution today—but in the interests of brevity I am not going to repeat their comments. However, I will pick up one comment by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham. As it happens, I have been listening to the noble Lord for over 60 years and I have experienced much wisdom from him. I felt that he too, after his long experience in government and in this House, was making an extremely strong case for strengthening adherence to standards but that there was an element of complacency in his reference to other international experience. I felt that that was not really where this House was this afternoon; I do not think there is any inclination to be complacent.
In that connection, I want to take up the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We have to see this in terms of both institutional responsibility and individual responsibility. They go together; you cannot divorce the two. A number of other contributions have made a similar point. Indeed, there have been many formidable contributions and clearly we are going to have to read Hansard with great care. I hope the Minister is going to do so as well.
Reflecting those contributions, I will take one very topical example. Naturally, much of the debate today has concentrated on the issues covered by the CSPL report Standards Matter 2. I want to refer to its even more recent report on electoral finance regulation. It was the product of careful consideration and examination, and equally thorough consultation, over some 12 months, with all the committee’s usual independence and integrity, and it resulted in 47 recommendations. All seven Nolan principles are rigorously relevant there. In particular, the committee was determined that electoral law should be approached with selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty. It obviously also hoped that the Government and Parliament would show leadership in adopting a strictly non-partisan approach.
Given that we manage to review and update electoral law only every 20 years or so, you would hope that Ministers would recognise the overwhelming case for delaying the Elections Bill until the CSPL recommendations had been fully considered, incorporated or adapted. Not a bit of it. Ignoring the unique status of the committee, Ministers have charged ahead with their partisan Bill. Indeed, when my colleague Alistair Carmichael challenged the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution on this during the Second Reading debate on Tuesday, she abysmally failed to answer the point. Not only is this a direct insult to the committee but it prevents Parliament from doing its scrutiny duty.
In these circumstances, I am sure that Members on all sides of your Lordships’ House will sympathise with the evidence given by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, on Tuesday. He noted, incidentally, that the Government did not even consult the committee on the vital financial elements of the Bill. I also thought it significant that the Conservative chair of the committee told the Commons debate that the Bill should have had pre-legislative and cross-party scrutiny before the Government finalised their proposals. This is a classic case of trying to ensure that scrutiny is cross-party, not partisan.
The vexed issue of compulsory photo ID at polling stations has attracted most attention so far, but I believe that the clauses relating to cash are even more insidious—hence the vital significance of the CSPL recommendations. “Follow the money” is the watchword of all effective investigative journalism. We should learn the lesson there. Ministers have already had to admit that policing the eligibility of foreign residents for both electoral registration and political donations could be fraught. How can the UK registration authorities check the eligibility of a resident in a far-off tax haven?
A less noticeable set of clauses tears up the 2018 Supreme Court judgment that reiterated the century-old principle that candidates and agents should be fully responsible for all expenditure seeking to secure election in a constituency. Your Lordships’ House has a number of former MPs and we know how important that is; if that is not going to be a rule in future, it goes to the very basis of the integrity of our electoral system. We should not forget that the judge in that case urged the necessity to return to a level playing field. Suspended sentences are not verdicts of innocence. Reversing that judgment could enable a very rich party, benefiting from even more foreign donations, to pour hundreds of thousands of pounds into marginal constituencies without proper recording, reporting or controls.
In short, the Elections Bill looks like a measure to help millionaires buy seats while ignoring the voting rights of millions of disenfranchised citizens. This goes to the very roots of our parliamentary system, as the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and his committee have already said. This is all about standards of propriety in public life and in our representative system.
At one point we were told that the Government intended to introduce a Bill with the title of “Electoral Integrity”. Presumably trading standards then intervened, since there is no such claim to integrity now. The CSPL naturally pays much more attention to the need for fairness at the very heart of our electoral and political system. It should be listened to by Ministers now.
My Lords, I join those who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Blunkett not just on initiating the debate but on the way in which he did so and the points he made. One of the most poignant things he said in his introduction was that the integrity and conduct of our Government is not just important for the functioning of democracy at home; it impacts on our international reputation and authority.
What I have found so encouraging about this debate is, first, that despite the comments by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, Members have been here to listen to other Members and not just make their own speeches; and, secondly, how deeply colleagues feel about the integrity of the political and parliamentary processes of public service. I draw particular attention to the comments of my noble and much valued friends Lord Davies of Oldham and Lord Dubs, with their own long public service in both Houses, and their concerns that this can be denigrated and affect our ability to be effective in what we do.
In some ways, today’s debate follows on from the debate on Monday in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, about the status of the House of Lords Appointments Commission and the Government’s approach to appointments. The issue of standards is about not just politicians and politics but the behaviour of all those in responsible positions in public life. That has to start with government and Parliament. The comments about our personal responsibility by my noble friend Lord Hunt and the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, are points extremely well made. What we do and say, and what government does and says, has an impact on the national behaviour. The comments made by my noble friends Lady Donaghy and Lord Puttnam showed just how much this House values the integrity and credibility that we bring to our work.
Let us be realistic: there has never been a golden age in which politicians have been universally loved and admired. I recall a meeting with a former Secretary of State for Health, speaking to a room full of medics. He said to them: “Between us, we have the support of 99% of the population. You’ve got 97% and I’ve got 2%.” These are not golden times, but perhaps that is a little harsh. The question today is: has there been a fundamental change in political responsibility that has had a deep impact on the respect and, more importantly, the confidence in which politicians are held?
My starting point on this is a ministerial resignation—understandably not recent, but the one referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, from 1947. As Chancellor, Hugh Dalton made his way to the Chamber—this Chamber, incidentally, because the other was damaged—to present the Budget in 1947. He was stopped by John Carvel, a reporter from the evening Star, who asked an innocuous question about what he was going to drink at the Dispatch Box. Unfortunately, like most politicians he chose to talk too much, got into a brief conversation and gave him a few bullet points from the Budget as he was going to the Chamber to present it. The Star immediately got a stop press of a few bullet points on the front of the local paper. MPs were in the Chamber—he was presenting the Budget—and very few people outside could have read it before he presented it to Parliament. An inquiry that later took place even said it had no economic impact whatever, but he took full responsibility and resigned his post. His integrity was praised.
By contrast, when the independent adviser Sir Alex Allan investigated the Home Secretary following allegations of bullying civil servants, he advised the Prime Minister that she had broken the Ministerial Code. It was not the Minister who resigned but the adviser.
“The Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands has led to strong criticism … of the Government’s policy. In my view, much of the criticism is unfounded. But I have been responsible for the conduct of that policy and I think it right that I should resign.”
Contrast that with a Foreign Secretary going on holiday and then remaining out of the country as an international crisis unfolds.
So, yes, there is clear evidence of a fundamental shift. I do not think that our expectations are lower, but we have ceased to be surprised when a Minister clings on to their job by their fingertips. In this regard, I was struck by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury, on the consequences of flouting standards of behaviour. While the individual Minister and the Prime Minister may breathe a collective sigh of relief at getting away with it, they need to recognise that this chips away at the moral integrity and authority of government, and indeed of politics as a whole. That is the danger in some of the behaviour we have seen.
We have heard a number of examples today, but I will focus on three areas in which changes could and should be made: government procurement; appointments, particularly of non-executive directors; and the Ministerial Code and the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
On procurement, it has now been exposed that companies with no relevant experience or track record were awarded contracts for PPE during the Covid crisis. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has had to admit to Parliament that there was potential litigation in respect of 40 PPE contracts to the value of £1.2 billion, involving 1.7 billion items of PPE that were not delivered or were unsafe. That is a scandal of historic proportions. The noble Lord shakes his head, but I got this from a Parliamentary Answer he gave. He said discussions are ongoing that could lead to potential “legal action”.
We need a full and independent investigation to uncover the scale of this problem, including the involvement of Ministers and their political advisers, whether the rules were adequate and whether the rules were broken. It has to investigate whether there was any impropriety in the awarding of £2 billion-worth of Covid contracts to Conservative donors or friends of Ministers, because £2 billion is a lot of taxpayers’ money. It would be helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, could report back on the legal action as soon as he is in his place; we would welcome that.
“the precarious balance between ministerial patronage and appointment by merit ‘is under threat’.”
Personally, I am not against ministerial involvement in public appointments, but it has to be absolutely clear and transparent that the appointment is on merit. I wrote to Simon Case about the appointment of the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, to try to understand whether she was a civil servant and what the rules of appointment were. The response I got back was inadequate but honest: basically, there were no regulations in place and no transparency. She did not have to abide by the Civil Service Code and could be very party political. That seems to me an unacceptable position that we are in.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, drew specific attention to the appointment of non-executive directors in government. When the Government insist on appointing friends, donors and special advisers to non-executive director roles on departmental boards, it fundamentally alters the role of those boards. They are supposed to be there to provide challenge, scrutiny and insight to government. If they fail to do that, it undermines the role of the boards and good governance.
On Monday, we discussed appointments into your Lordships’ House; it was raised today by my noble friends Lord Griffiths, Lord Dubs and Lord Brooke. The Government seem to have torn up the rulebook on this. The House agreed to the Burns report—that two Members would come out and one would go in, to reduce the size and maintain political balance. That is not the Government’s view, and it is very sad. It is interesting that it has been universally condemned across the House.
Time is not allowing me to say as much as I wanted to on the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Evans, for his very thoughtful comments today, as well as his comments on the Elections Bill, with which I concur. It is quite clear—I have mentioned this to the Minister before—that there need to be changes. The Government should take forward some of the changes recommended to preserve the integrity of the work the committees do.
Perhaps the greatest obligation on Ministers and all parliamentarians is the responsibility and obligation of honesty and openness. I have had to write to the Leader of the House more than once about the inadequacy of ministerial answers to questions from Members of your Lordships’ House. We want to see full answers for good reasons, and I hope that the Minister will be able to address that today, but it has to start at the top, with the Prime Minister.
I am sure the Prime Minister wishes that he had never been caught on camera telling manufacturers in Northern Ireland that they would not have to fill in any forms and, if they had a customs form, they could throw it in the bin or send it to him. We have a Prime Minister who will give answers to get him through the moment with a throwaway line, and that does not help to improve public perception of the honesty of your Lordships’ House.
I think things have changed from the days of Hugh Dalton and Lord Carrington. I do not share the optimism of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, but I want to remain optimistic. I still believe that politics is a force for good. I also believe that the overwhelming majority of those in political and public service behave with decency, integrity and honour—and with enthusiasm for and commitment to what they do. When others do not, that undermines us all.
My Lords, it has been an extensive debate. It is customary on these occasions to say that it has been an outstanding debate, but let me not, on this occasion, be customary. Let me say sincerely that it has been an outstanding debate. I thank all those who have taken part. The subject being discussed is of profound importance, and I know I speak for all noble Lords present, as well as those who have spoken. So many people here in this Chamber have had the honour that I have had, over quite a long life, of public service in many different walks of life. I believe that we all share a common desire and a common interest to achieve the best, to root out wrongdoing and to reflect in the best way we possibly can a sense of honour— honour on the profession of politics and honour on our place in your Lordships’ House. I have been very grateful for the opportunity to listen to the debate; I assure all noble Lords that I have listened to it very carefully; and I am grateful to all those who have taken part.
I do not wish to single out the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, or the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, but it has obviously been particularly helpful to have their contributions from the perspective of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and I thank them for the work they do. I must echo others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, for moving the Motion and, as many have said—including, I think at her conclusion, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith—for the way in which he moved it.
On these occasions, I try—although I am sometimes a little combative, I know—to avoid the yah boo thing that our dear friends in the other place sometimes get into of saying, “Well, he did that, but you did that”, et cetera. I agree with the very wise remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I do not agree with politicians criticising other politicians except where there is a very legitimate and strong case to do so. It does not help any of us. The tenor of this debate, where we have, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, come together in a common endeavour, is very important. I was not so happy about his use of the word “rotten” later in his speech, but I will forgive him for that.
I have listened with great respect. I agree with the fundamental point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, about the need for high standards. I differ with some on the idea that we have now descended into an age of rust and that standards now are uniquely poor or corrupt. I do not believe that is true and, as I said at the outset, it does a disservice to the vast bulk of those in this place and in public service.
I will try to address the main points that have been made, but before I move on, I give the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, the fundamental assurance he asked for: these matters are constantly under review. The voices that your Lordships have raised today will be part of that review and consideration, and a number have been referred to in the debate.
I agreed with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham and others, notably the right reverend Prelate, about the need for proportionality. That informed this debate: the need to admit our own fallibility. It is certainly my personal credo that one is imperfect and must seek to do better day by day. We must all strive for the highest ethical standards, and I agreed with the point made in the thoughtful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: it is about not just the processes of central or local government, but ourselves in this House. Yes, we need to examine ourselves and the way we do things and, in the old language of this House, as I said, to seek to stand on honour.
I agree, too, with what my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said: meeting the letter of the law is not enough; we need to go beyond the letter of the law. I do not wish to impugn the legal profession, but this is not a House of small print lawyers; this should be a House which aspires, as should the Government as a whole, to do more than the letter of the law to uphold standards.
This House, with its Members drawn from so many walks of life and professions and with such experience to share—that is the strength of an appointed House—has always played an important role in preserving our national reputation for good government and high standards. I know it does not always seem that way but, while I am at this Dispatch Box, I welcome the challenge that comes to the Government from this place, from parties and colleagues opposite and—yes, I use the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, I think—friends.
We should never be complacent. We should continually hold ourselves to high standards. Many noble Lords have rightly continued that tradition today in the course of their comments.
The noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Tyler, in particular, referred to the fact that it is 26 years since the Committee on Standards in Public Life completed its inaugural report. Before that, yes, indeed, I was present in No. 10—I think it was on a Monday morning—when we discussed these matters and decided to go forward with that proposal, which was a good policy and has stood the test of time, to set up the Committee on Standards in Public Life under the chairmanship of a former Member of your Lordships’ House, Lord Nolan.
He set down those principles, which have rightly been referred to by so many of your Lordships. We know what they are, but it is worth reading them into the record again, because they are fundamental: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability—yes—openness, honesty and leadership. I have heard the call for a broader tapestry to be woven on top of them, and work is done constantly by the Committee on Standards in Public Life to do so, but we must never lose sight of those fundamental principles. Lord Nolan led the committee admirably, and his legacy through the Nolan principles will be remarked on for many years to come.
The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said that those seven principles of public life are the bedrock of ethical standards in government—in this Government and in all Governments. They give all of us who work in public life a set of principles to embody and to take pride in upholding, at every level—in my case, from my first day in local government as a young councillor upwards.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, referred to devolved Administrations. I was grateful that he did not attack me today, although I always enjoy it when he does; I rarely go home from this House without a few lashes on my back. I will not go too far—as he knows, this is a delicate area—but I am aware that Article 9 of the Bill of Rights is not necessarily applicable to Members of the Scottish Parliament. However, it is a matter for the Scottish Parliament to consider, in our view, and I am sure that his powerful speech will have been heard and noted outside this House.
Following on from Lord Nolan, I pay tribute to the successive chairs of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, coming down to the present day with the noble Lord, Lord Evans. He and his committee have, a quarter of a century after the Nolan principles were first laid out, embarked on the second Standards Matter review to ensure that the highest standards are maintained. This work is in progress, but it has been a landscape review of the institutions, processes and structures in place to support high standards of conduct. Let me be absolutely clear: the Government welcome the work being undertaken by the committee, recognise the importance of such recommendations in ensuring the conservation of high standards in public life and will, of course, consider the final recommendations of the committee’s review carefully—as the committee would expect and all noble Lords would accept.
In the interim, the committee has set out its views on four main topics: the Ministerial Code and the independent adviser on ministerial interests; business appointment rules; transparency around lobbying; and the regulation of public appointments. Although we are at this interim stage and the final government responses will come later, since many of the observations made by noble Lords in the debate touched on these areas, I will venture to provide some comments on all four of those issues now.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and many other noble Lords, referred to the Ministerial Code and the role of the independent adviser on ministerial interests. The Government have discussed this frequently and believe that the Ministerial Code should remain the responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day. This reflects the Prime Minister’s constitutional position as the sovereign’s sole adviser on matters concerning the royal prerogative—in this case, on the appointment, dismissal and acceptance of resignation of other Ministers. From that position flows the accountability to this sovereign Parliament of the Prime Minister for the appointment and removal of Ministers.
In its valuable and important report—and I am not anticipating the final report or conclusions—the Committee on Standards in Public Life said in its findings that the Ministerial Code should be issued by the Prime Minister and that there should be a range of graduated sanctions for breaches of the Ministerial Code. This is being addressed. It said that the issuing of those sanctions should be a matter solely for the Prime Minister, and that rests on this constitutional doctrine, which most of us under successive Administrations have accepted.
However, the Ministerial Code does require Ministers to maintain high standards of behaviour and provides guidance on how Ministers should act and arrange their affairs in order to do so. The Prime Minister is the judge of that, ultimately, but to assist him in the responsibility a Prime Minister has an independent adviser. In May, the Prime Minister appointed a highly regarded Member of your Lordships’ House to that role, the noble Lord, Lord Geidt. Many noble Lords will remember that, as part of the process of appointment, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister agreed with the noble Lord new terms of reference for the role and set out his position on the role in a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Evans.
The letter confirms a number of important points. First, where, in the assessment of the adviser, the adviser believes an allegation about a breach of the code might warrant further investigation, he will raise the issue with the Prime Minister. Secondly, where a matter is referred to the adviser and his work is concluded, the adviser’s advice on his conclusions will be published in a timely manner. There should be a range of potential outcomes if the breach of the Ministerial Code is determined to have occurred—in fact, this has always been the case, but a more formal approach is suggested. The adviser should have a specific role in providing recommendations about the appropriate sanction in the circumstances where it is determined that a Minister has failed to adhere to the standards set out in the code. The adviser should be appointed for a non-renewable five-year term to give him or her independence. And when the adviser undertakes work, it should be supported by civil servants who act under his direction and report to him.
Many noble Lords today, including my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, have commented that the changes to the terms of reference embodied in that letter do not go far enough and that the independent adviser should have the power to initiate their own investigations. In response, I point to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, in evidence to PACAC in the other place, that he would wish to operate the new terms of reference for a period before drawing conclusions about their efficacy, but I take note of what noble Lords have said in the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and others, referred to the role of ACOBA and business appointments. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also referred to this matter, which has been a focus within the Standards Matter 2 review. The business appointment rules are an integral part of how the Government uphold integrity and retain public trust. I share the concern of noble Lords that they should be effective and consistent, and as set out in my honourable friend the Minister for Constitution and Devolution’s Written Statement on government transparency and accountability in July, the Government have been working to improve the operation and efficacy of the rules.
Again, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett asked, we do not assert that this is completed work; it is all ongoing work—ongoing consideration. The work will consider and implement improvements to the scope and clarity, the consistency and proportionality, and the enforcement of the rules. The Government are working closely with the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and departments across the Government to implement changes, and there will be an update to the rules later this year.
The Government do differ from some of your Lordships. They believe that a statutory system would be out of line with the general principle of UK law that Ministers and officials are subject to the same legal system and statutory framework as all others. The rules form part of civil servants’ and special advisers’ contracts of employment and, as such, are subject to legal processes. That is the same legal approach and potential sanctions for breach of contract as apply to all other private citizens who might have similar provisions in employment contracts with private companies.
The noble Baroness opposite asked about PPE and procurement in that respect. As the noble Baroness said, my noble friend Lord Bethell on hearing those remarks, I think, would say that is not true, and the Government would say that, in relation to whether the PPE in the cases referred to was necessarily inadequate, we are protecting the taxpayer’s interests—
I am so sorry to interrupt the Minister, but he is aware that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, shook his head at me as I made a particular point, and he has just said that would not be true. This was a Written Question that was answered on
That is a direct quote from Hansard.
My Lords, I did not deny that there were cases of litigation. I was making the point that, in those cases, it was not necessarily the case that the PPE concerned was inadequate. I do not challenge what the noble Baroness opposite said and was not seeking to do so.
The experience of Covid-19 shows that we could be better at ensuring consistency in the management of conflicts of interest. Updated commercial guidance on the management of actual and perceived conflicts of interest was published this May, to provide commercial teams across government with further information on the roles and responsibilities of those involved in decision-making and risk management and how provisions may be applied to suppliers. The future legislative scheme will continue to place a legal duty on authorities to prevent and remedy conflicts of interest, with additional policy and guidance provided by the centre where the need arises. Our broader proposals to strengthen transparency and non-discrimination measures will also complement the fight against conflicts of interest, which is an important fight.
Regarding the next theme in the committee’s Standards Matter 2 review on strengthening transparency around lobbying, I am pleased that, despite the need to reprioritise resources to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, good progress continues to be made this year by central government departments in publishing core transparency data. Yes, transparency is important.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about AI transparency and standards. We recognise the need to develop appropriate mechanisms to increase transparency and accountability in decisions made by semi-autonomous systems, and to monitor their impact. Currently, data scientists across departments use the Data Ethics Framework and other guidance, including the guide to using AI in the public sector, to support a safe and fair use of algorithms. Building on the existing work on algorithmic and data ethics, the Government are developing appropriate and effective mechanisms to deliver more transparency on the use of algorithmic-assisted decision-making within the public sector. I can assure the noble Lord that that remains under consideration.
More broadly, the Cabinet Office supports departments to publish data that is consistent, timely and helpful, including with regular communications, guidance and training, and offers of more bespoke support where required. The Government will consider the committee’s recommendations on how the Cabinet Office should work
“To improve the quality of departmental transparency releases”.
Separately, I can assure noble Lords that the Government are reviewing Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. Part 1 of the Act increased transparency around the work of consultant lobbyists by establishing a statutory register of consultant lobbyists and an independent registrar with powers to monitor and enforce compliance. We will set out the conclusions of this review work in due course and take also into account the work of the Boardman review.
I do not wish to go into the matter of the Boardman review at great length, but I heard the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, and understand her strong personal statement on that. Mr Boardman provided the Prime Minister with a report that sets out his findings of fact. It was published, as we all know, on
The final part of the review by the Committee on Standards in Public Life focused on the regulation of public appointments, on which a number of noble Lords have spoken. We also had some discussion earlier this week about the appointment of non-executives to government departments. I repeat that all non-executive appointments are subject to compliance with the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The process—
I am sorry, but I have been looking at the wrong clock.
I was about to say that a number of checks and balances are built into these matters. Fortunately, we have a Whip here who is a check and a balance. I do not wish to take any time away from the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, given his outstanding speech. I would like, in brief conclusion, to repeat my reference to the seriousness with which the Government take these issues and the points raised by your Lordships’ today on the vital importance of high ethical standards in public life. I apologise for overrunning.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the tenure of his response and hope he will be able to transmit to present ministerial colleagues—and perhaps, very shortly, future ones—the feelings of this House. In the interests of openness and honesty—two of the Nolan principles—I should say that I am indebted to my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, because it was the communication between us during the recess that led to me leading this debate. I want to put that on record for transparency purposes.
I thank everyone who has taken part this afternoon for their tremendous contributions and thoughtfulness. I know the House will forgive me for saying, as was said by the Minister, how grateful I am that the noble Lords, Lord Evans and Lord Stunell, were prepared, as members of the committee, to come and contribute. That indicates their very genuine commitment to their work, and we wish them well in the next stages. Again, I thank everyone for being here and for addressing what I consider to be the core of our constitution and democracy.