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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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We need to put the ministerial code on a statutory footing to repair distrust in politics

(Alamy)

3 min read

Most MPs seek election because they want to help improve the lives of their constituents. But our job is made so much harder when a minority break or bend the rules we are meant to uphold.

From lobbying to lockdown parties and expenses to accusations of abuse, the standards of our politics have been regrettably dragged into the dirt over successive parliaments and administrations.

The impact of these abuses cannot be underestimated. Polling by Compassion in Politics shows that four in five people have no respect for politicians and 40 per cent of parents would be concerned if their child expressed a desire to become a politician.

No one should be allowed to set and mark their own homework

Just pause for a moment to consider what this tells us about the health of our democracy and the prospect of democratic engagement in Britain today and in the future.

Many members will have experienced first-hand the extreme effects of this steady disintegration in our social fabric. Too many voters have become apathetic; some actively hostile. Hate, intolerance, and violence: these are all products of the escalating distrust and increasing disdain with which the public views the political class.

If we are to repair our damaged relationship with the public and restore confidence in politics we, as elected representatives, must be seen to abide by the rules and principles set out in our own codes of conduct.

The current systems are spiders’ webs, built up over the last 400 years or so, interacting and overlapping. They need to be formally clarified and codified. 

That means, firstly, putting the ministerial code on a statutory footing with an independent commissioner on ministerial standards as a statutory office to initiate investigations into alleged breaches by ministers, but also to publish the findings from these investigations and appropriate sanctions.

This stops the Prime Minister being the judge and jury of ministerial behaviour as happens now. No one should be allowed to set and mark their own homework. It is simply unconscionable that the individual who stands to benefit most from the limited exposure of their government to censure should have ultimate authority over whether censure is required. 

But it is also a deeply problematic arrangement for the Prime Minister: exposing them as it does to accusations of favouritism, poor judgment and moral ambivalence. We have to extricate both the office of the Prime Minister and our system of standards from this intractable Gordian Knot. 

Secondly, the role of the current parliamentary standards commissioner should also be made a statutory office, but it should be extended so it can investigate potential serious or serial breaches of the Seven Principles of Public Life (which include honesty, integrity, and accountability). This for me is a sizable gap in our current regulatory system which my Bill would close.

Thirdly, we mustn’t forget about the important role our local councillors in our democracy. They must also have a national, statutory code of conduct reflecting this. As local representatives these individuals often act as the public’s first point of contact with the political system.  

Finally, my Bill will establish an Ethics Commission which will work with a Citizen’s Assembly on how our parliamentary accountability and regulatory systems will develop to reflect the modern, inclusive, empowering democracy that we want to see, now and in the future.  

The Prime Minister and others have talked about the importance of compassion in politics. I absolutely agree! But for good policies, we need good politics and that starts with the conduct of those in high office. 

 

Debbie Abrahams is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

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