By Gillian Peele

Emeritus Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, and a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Her contribution here is written in a personal capacity.

Recent weeks have seen a dramatic resurgence of concern about sleaze and ethical standards in the United Kingdom. The controversy surrounding Owen Paterson’s breach of parliamentary rules against paid lobbying and the government’s mishandled attempt to review the machinery for regulating the conduct of MPs, the extent to which MPs should be allowed to hold second jobs, and The Sunday Times allegations about the award of peerages to Conservative Party donors have all focussed attention on integrity issues.

Apart from occasioning intense criticism of the government, these controversies have also raised questions about the resilience of the mechanisms by which probity and integrity are promoted and protected across the political system. The realm of standards is an amorphous one, encompassing a range of principles, rules, norms, and values whose precision and applicability are often highly contested. Since 1994, however, systematic interpretation and development of the standards applicable to such diverse areas as ministerial behaviour, lobbying, party funding and appointments have been provided by a small non-departmental advisory body sponsored by the Cabinet Office — the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL).

What is the Committee on Standards in Public Life and why was it created?

The CSPL was set up in 1994 by John Major to address the sleaze allegations associated with the cash for questions scandal which broke in 1994. Establishing the CSPL offered a more flexible mechanism for keeping standards under review than other instruments (such as a Royal Commission) might have done. The CSPL is not itself a regulatory body, nor does it investigate individual cases. Although it was given no guarantee of permanence and limited resources, the CSPL has become an authoritative voice on standards issues.

Despite the formal weakness of its position, it has tackled a wide-ranging agenda of public ethics questions, clarifying the principles which should govern public life, encouraging new institutions for regulating specific areas such as parliamentary behaviour and revisiting reforms of integrity arrangements to assess their fitness for purpose. Its most recent 2021 Report assesses the whole network of standards institutions, highlighting areas of vulnerability, and making constructive recommendations for strengthening their independence and effectiveness.

One of the CSPL’s first tasks was to identify the principles which should govern the conduct of those in public life. Its elaboration of seven principles — selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership — in its first Report, published in 1995, quickly became known as “the Nolan principles”. Setting out these cardinal principles was vital because until then it was optimistically assumed that officials would know intuitively the ethical principles which should govern their behaviour.

The positive character of the Nolan principles was important. Rather than focussing on prohibiting misconduct, the CSPL was anxious to provide a more motivational template of values. These were principles, not rules, although in some sectors rules would be derived from the principles. It was hoped individuals would internalise them as a continuing guide to high standards as opposed to allowing formulaic and minimal compliance.

The CSPL recognised that in many key areas there was either little regulation or the machinery needed overhaul. In some sectors there was resistance to outside regulation. Such resistance was especially marked in relation to the House of Commons which, although it had long prohibited paid advocacy, also claimed exclusive cognisance — the right to regulate its own internal proceedings without interference from any external body. However, the CSPL’s strategy of emphasising self-regulation, together with public disapproval of the evident misconduct exhibited in the cash for questions affair, produced a series of incremental reform.

Recent reforms and concerns

A new standards regime for the House of Commons was created following the CSPL’s first report in 1995. A compulsory Register of Interests had existed since 1974 but a Code of Conduct for MPs was introduced in 1996. In 1995, a Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards was established to investigate alleged misconduct and report to a new Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges. Subsequent amendments have been introduced to deal with loopholes or meet new concerns. For example, lay members were added to the renamed Committee on Standards to provide an independent perspective; and from being at first a small minority (of three) their number was increased to seven, giving them numerical parity with MPs on the Committee; they now also have the same voting rights as the MPs on the Committee.

Concern about bullying and harassment of staff in the House of Commons led in 2018 to a major inquiry and the creation of a new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. Although the machinery has generally commanded support, there has sometimes been sniping at the Parliamentary Commissioner and some criticism that the procedures were unfair or had inadequate provision for appeal.

These criticisms together with publicity given to MPs holding second jobs and the need to update the Code of Conduct make the current review by the Standards Committee especially important. In November 2021 it issued a wide-ranging preliminary report proposing a number of possible measures to enhance the regulatory system.

The Committee suggested tightening the rules by a complete ban on MPs providing paid advice to outside interests on how to influence ministers or Parliament. On second jobs the Committee avoided major specific recommendations as to how these should be controlled. It rejected as too subjective the CSPL’s 2018 formula of requiring work for second jobs to be within “reasonable limits” and did not endorse limits based either on time or remuneration. However, it did suggest a new requirement that any job taken by an MP should have a written contract specifying the duties involved.

While generally supporting the fairness of existing disciplinary procedures, it recommended a formal inquiry into the conformity of the Common’s disciplinary procedures with principles of natural justice. Its report is now out for consultation and further action is expected in early 2022.

It remains to be seen how much change occurs as a result of consultation on these recommendations. It would be surprising if recent unfavourable publicity produced no tightening up of the rules on MPs relationships with outside interests and greater scrutiny of the impact of second jobs on their parliamentary responsibilities.