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Public Want MPs' Behaviour Monitored By Independent Regulators

The majority of people agree that politicians tend to follow lower ethical standards than ordinary citizens (Alamy)

5 min read

Exclusive: The public have a very poor impression of politicians’ behaviour and support the use of independent regulators to ensure political standards are maintained, according to a new survey.

Research by the UCL Constitution Unit, exclusively seen by PoliticsHome, has found that the public support reform of the current standards system in UK politics, following a number of controversies surrounding politicians’ behaviour over the last few years. 

The leading university surveyed 4,105 people between 26 August – 5 September 2022, closing just before Liz Truss was announced as the new Conservative Party leader.

Truss resigned after little more than a month, having caused economic chaos with unfunded tax cuts. Her successor, Rishi Sunak, has put rehabilitating standards at the forefront of his agenda as Prime Minister. 

The majority of respondents – 52 per cent – agree that in general, politicians tend to follow lower ethical standards than ordinary citizens. 

There is a gap in opinion between those voting for different political parties: 64 per cent of 2019 Labour voters agreed with the above statement, compared to only 43 per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2019. 

However, people across the political divide agreed that the system for upholding ethical standards among politicians needs to be strengthened, with 80 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters and 83 per cent of 2019 Labour voters backing reform.

This research follows a string of scandals which haunted Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street in particular, including sexual assault allegations against MPs and ministers, ‘partygate’ during the Covid-19 lockdowns, and the suspension of MP Owen Paterson after being accused of an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules. 

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Sunak promised to lead a government with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. 

However, Labour has accused Sunak of already breaking this promise, as he is yet to appoint a new ethics adviser to investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code.

A senior Conservative MP admitted “there's a bit of poison in the well” after the last ethics adviser under Johnson resigned over partygate.

UCL Constitution Unit’s results suggest the public wants to empower independent regulators, with a clear majority of respondents supporting an independent regulator having the ability to launch an investigation, irrespective of the alleged ministerial failure. 

Under the current system, investigations into breaches of the ministerial code are advisory, and are acted upon at the discretion of the prime minister. Earlier this year, Lord Geidt resigned from his post as independent adviser on ministers’ interests expressing concern that he believed Johnson had broken the ministerial code over 'partygate'. In 2020, Geidt's predecessor Alex Allen resigned after Johnson decided not to act on his conclusions that former Home Secretary Priti Patel had bullied Home Office staff. 

Fifty two per cent agreed an independent regulator should be able to launch their own investigation into a minister’s failure to run their department competently, bullying allegations, or inappropriate behaviour in a minister’s private life. 

For cases where a minister arranged a government contract to be given to one of their friends, or lied to Parliament, 57 per cent of participants agreed that an independent regulator should be able to launch an investigation. 

Professor Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, leads the research project and believes many MPs are contemplating quitting politics as they feel unable to go on when relations with the public are so poor. 

“Politicians have it in their power to start mending the bridges,” he said. 

“Empowering independent regulators whom voters could have confidence in would be a vital first step.”

The survey also asked participants to compare political issues and choose which ones were more important to them.

The findings show that the public care about the health of democracy in the UK just as much as other issues such as crime or immigration, and the importance of politician’s moral standards was ranked similarly to that of climate change.

Cost of living and the NHS topped the list of priorities.

Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit, said all their public opinion work shows “really strong demand” for higher standards of integrity in politics.

“This may not be as burning a concern as the cost of living,” she noted. “But there could be electoral rewards for politicians who respond to these strongly held public concerns.”

Professor Russell has signed an open letter to the prime minister urging him to appoint an ethics advisor with the power to initiate investigations.

The survey also asked respondents about the features of a healthy democracy, and revealed that by overwhelming margins, people wanted politicians to follow existing rules, be honest, and acknowledge mistakes.

The survey showed characteristics of moral integrity were prioritised the most, while expectations for politicians to be “inspiring” and “clever” were ranked the lowest. 

The full results of the Constitution Unit’s latest survey exploring public opinion on UK democracy will be published in the new year. 

The project carried out other surveys earlier in 2022 that showed similarly widespread support for high standards in public life.

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