New Parliamentary Standards Commissioner sees education and outreach as key to restoring trust
Daniel Greenberg, who takes over as the new Parliamentary Standards Commissioner in January, sees education on standards and mending the narrative around MPs as key to restoring voters’ trust in politics after a string of scandals.
“It’s about helping the public to understand more about what actually goes on here and how MPs work and perhaps raising awareness about the way standards work,” Greenberg told Dods. This could include education work within Parliament, that he hopes would have a knock-on effect outside Westminster.
Politics has been characterised by scandal in recent months with the resignation of prime minister Boris Johnson over the appointment of an MP accused of harassment to the government. He had already been fined for breaking Covid lockdown regulations and criticised for defending former minister Owen Paterson who had been found to have broken lobbying rules.
“trust is based on a reputational problem, and I think the reputation is not entirely deserved.”
More recently, Labour MP Christian Matheson resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen faces a Commons suspension for breaching lobbying rules, and Home Secretary Suella Braverman quit after leaking sensitive documents, only to be reappointed by new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak a few days later.
Sunak, who was also fined for breaking lockdown rules, has pledged to restore public confidence in politics. In his first speech as Prime Minister he said his government would have “integrity, professionalism, and accountability at every level,” and acknowledged, “I have work to do to restore trust after all that has happened.”
Greenberg is due to start his five-year term as Parliamentary Standards Commissioner at the start of 2023, replacing Kathryn Stone. As Commissioner, an independent officer of the House of Commons, he will be responsible for investigating alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct for MPs and Register of Members’ financial interests. He will also oversee the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, which deals with allegations of harassment, bullying or sexual harassment.
Greenberg acknowledged the damage caused by the recent scandals but suggested not all politicians should be tarred with the same brush.
“I do think that trust is at a dangerously low level,” he said, but added, “that trust is based on a reputational problem, and I think the reputation is not entirely deserved.”
“From what I recognise in Parliament, the vast majority of MPs have a strong commitment to high standards in public life,” he said.
Greenberg brings to the role extensive experience of legislation, after being Parliamentary Counsel for 20 years, and delivers legislative related training including at Dods.
Stakeholders and MPs have warned of the damaging effects of mistrust of government, with the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank warning that it could cause disengagement from politics, populism, and political polarisation, while Carnegie UK has said it puts compliance with government measures at risk in their report titled ‘Gross Domestic Wellbeing: A spotlight on democratic wellbeing’.
In a recent note titled ‘Five steps Rishi Sunak could take to restore trust in government’, Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe group of academics and researchers, suggested a range of measures, including new legislation on ethics and transparency in politics, and appointing a new ethics advisor. Johnson’s adviser Lord Christopher Geidt quit a day after saying there was a “legitimate question” about whether Johnson broke ministerial rules over Partygate, whilst Truss failed to appoint one.
“Sunak should make sure the independent adviser has the resources they need – and can initiate their own inquiries and publish the results to their own timetable,” Rutter said in the note.
Greenberg’s appointment follows the Committee on Standards’ first full revision of the Code of Conduct for MPs since 2015. Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of the Committee, said the package of measures aimed to improve transparency, tackle conflicts of interest, and tighten the rules on improper lobbying.
The government’s response to the Committee’s proposals, published during Truss’ brief tenure, said the proposals for lobbying and ministerial interests went too far. However, some experts have said they don’t go far enough.
“The Committee utterly failed to deliver against the public expectation set by the Commons in the wake of the Owen Paterson scandal that ‘reasonable limits’ would be placed on MPs’ second jobs,” Hannah White, acting Director of The Institute for Government think tank, told Dods.
Greenberg said that it was important to recognise that the rules governing lobbying and ministerial interests are a work in progress and will continue to be reviewed.
“Given that these rules are primarily about ensuring that our public life is transparent, there is always more thought that can be given to how we could improve transparency,” he said.
Greenberg stated that one of the biggest challenges he expected to face was gaining the trust of MPs as their regulator, and he was hopeful of recovering the reputation of politics.
“I think it will be slow to rebuild trust or build trust, but I am very optimistic… because of the vast majority of MPs who want to take standards seriously, who do take standards seriously, and I’m optimistic that we can get that message out,” he said.
Melissa Dando is an Analyst for Dods Political Intelligence. To find out more about this service, please click here.