The ministerial code must become law if we are serious about repairing broken trust in politics
After the cash for questions scandal in 1994, the then-prime minister John Major set up the Committee on Standards in Public Life to review issues of standards applicable to public life.
The committee recommended seven principles that people working in public life should uphold, which have become known as the Nolan Principles. The committee report also stated that there had been a fall in public confidence in the financial probity of MPs that coincided with an increase in the number of MPs holding paid consultancies which related to their parliamentary role.
As a result of the committee’s findings, it was recommended that the House appoint a parliamentary commissioner for standards, a person of independent standing who would take over responsibility for maintaining the register of Members' interests. This included advice and guidance to MPs on matters of conduct, advising on the code of conduct and investigating allegations of misconduct. Much progress has been made since then, with lay members on the Committee of Standards bringing a different perspective to in-house views but, undoubtedly, it was the expenses scandal in 2009 that paved the way for these changes.
It’s clear that alone the Nolan Principles are not sufficient enough to uphold integrity in public office
What is still extraordinary though is that less than 18 months ago, the publication of the Owen Patterson report triggered a reaction from both Houses to effectively abolish both the committee and the independent parliamentary commissioner. Thankfully the House did not follow through, but it did make me wonder if Members have learnt the lessons from the scandals we saw back in the 90s.
The Standards Committee has recently reviewed the code of conduct is now waiting acceptance from the Commons. Looking at the committee’s evidence about what concerns the public in relation to MPs conduct, it’s clear the report is not bold enough. I don’t think that is a reflection on the committee, but more likely a reflection of what the Commons will accept. I have personal experience of these battles.
Kathryn Stone, the then-parliamentary commissioner for standards, expressed frustration over the number of complaints that she receives about the conduct of ministers. Stone said this was outside of her remit, but people have nowhere else to go to make those complaints.
I understand the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report from 2021 have not yet been implemented.
It’s clear that alone the Nolan Principles are not sufficient enough to uphold integrity in public office. Rules must apply to ministers as well as to Members of Parliament.
When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, he pledged to lead a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. If he wants to do that, he should ask the Standards Committee to draw up guidelines for an inquiry into a code of conduct that includes ministers.
Sir Kevin Barron, former Labour MP for Rother Valley and former chair of the Committee of Standards and Privileges.
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