Lord Bew, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life responds to Professor Doig’s blogs about its remit and work. Lord Bew argues that as an independent advisory body in an adversarial Parliamentary democracy, it must rely on evidence and analysis to make the case and push for high standards in public life.
In his series of blogs, Professor Alan Doig has made a number of criticisms of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the UK model of promoting standards of conduct of holders of public office. He argues that it should become more strategic, that the Committee should do more, that the Committee should do less, that the Committee’s existence has failed to increase public trust, and that, with respect to local government, the Committee is no match for the dissolved Standards Board or the Audit Commission.
In the course of his four blogs, Professor Doig makes a great many assertions and passing comments, but underlying his criticisms of the Committee is the idea that an all-powerful, pervasive organisation that can address standards failures across the board should replace the Committee. Maybe. But some of the criticisms betray a misunderstanding of the UK model.
The Committee is an independent, advisory body operating within a Parliamentary democracy. The Committee is advisory and has no executive or legislative powers of its own. It has a secretariat of three and a budget of below £300k. To gain traction for its recommendations, these must be well argued, evidence-based and supported by broad political consensus. Notwithstanding its limited resources, the work of the Committee, as a body which advises on changes to promote high standards across the whole public sector, has led to the creation of a number of investigative or regulatory bodies that we now take for granted – for example, the Electoral Commission, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. There is rightly concern that some of the apparatus for standards introduced following the Committee’s recommendations, such as the Standards Board have been abolished, despite the Committee’s publicly voiced concerns at the time about the weaknesses and gaps in the localised regime. Moreover, it should be noted that the remit and capacity of the Committee was itself narrowed and curtailed following the Triennial Review of the Committee in 2013.
It is important to appreciate the realities of the political environment in which standards bodies operate. Support for Committee recommendations may sometimes be given impetus by scandal or media attention; but ‘embedding’ standards does not naturally attract the same media and public interest. Moreover, high standards are a matter of personal integrity and a feature of organisational culture; as such they cannot be ‘outsourced’ or simply imposed from some Olympian regulatory body. The real work of promoting and maintaining high standards can only take place within context, and does so often without a fanfare. For example, it is not widely known that following the 2015 General Election, there was a 93% take up of the ethical induction course by MPs.
In his first post, Professor Doig praises the Dutch National Integrity Office, which in many respects follows the pattern set by the Committee, although it has greater resources and works in a political system that has been a by-word in Europe for building consensus, as against the adversarial political culture in Britain. Such differences matter greatly.
Professor Doig may lament the passing of the Standards Board but it was an elected government that made that decision and legislated for it. The Committee may also lament the lack of nationally agreed standards for local government but it has to make the case for change and the same is true for other similarly important and contentious issues like party funding, lobbying, and its own survival. And for its recommendations to be effective it has to rely on political will, when its only real tool for generating that is its capacity to make a case (and where it is doing so in areas in which politicians often have rather little interest).
In its 2013 Annual report, for instance, the Committee points out this disparity:
“In contrast to the recent public debate on parliamentary standards calling for greater sanctions, tightening of codes of conduct, and a greater independent element, local government is now largely self regulated with no systematic approach to conduct issues and limited sanctions. There remains in our view a significant risk under these arrangements that inappropriate conduct by Local Authority members will not be dealt with effectively, eroding public confidence and trust in local government.”
The Committee shares Professor Doig’s concerns in this area but lack of political will and media interest in local government standards means the case must continue to be made. Indeed, the Committee would encourage Professor Doig to share his evidence and research in this area with us to help make that case.
The relationship between standards of conduct and public trust referred to in Professor Doig’s first blog is also not as straightforward as he suggests. Many commentators – in particular Baroness O’Neill – have noted that increased transparency and the network of bodies conducting independent scrutiny have not brought about the expected increases in public trust and confidence in those in public life, nor with participation in the electoral process. The Committee has reviewed work in this area, including material comparable to the Hertie report that Professor Doig cites, but it is a highly complex area, whose catchy headlines are often seriously misleading.
We know from comparative research we commissioned in 2014 that the perception of low and declining standards is not necessarily matched by the facts. Despite widespread belief that corruption is a problem, very few people across a range of European countries, including the UK, actually report being asked or expected to pay a bribe to a public official. In 2013, the UK recorded the lowest level of experiences of corruption across the EU at 3%. However, while the UK experience of corruption stood at 3%, the same as in the Netherlands, in the UK 69% of respondents thought that corruption in the UK was a major problem. Only 49% of those in the Netherlands thought that corruption was a problem.
In its own work, the Committee has shown that public confidence in the daily operations of many aspects of public services is high, in a way that is simply not true in some other parts of Europe, while trust in politicians tends to be low. Yet people’s personal experience of the former is considerably greater than with the latter. Which, then, should we emphasise more? Moreover, the attitudes to politicians seems often to be bound up with a mixture of ignorance, scepticism and hostility towards politics more generally, something that may be an especially acute problem in adversarial political systems. While negativity is doubtless undesirable, it is far from clear that high trust ratings in politicians necessarily make for good democracy – we have to be sure that any confidence is well-placed.
One area in which the Committee felt it important to try to make progress was in the public’s understanding of the principles of public life. The changes the Committee made, not to the principles - as Professor Doig claims in his second blog – but to the descriptors that accompany the principles, were made because the public found them unclear. The revisions were made to clarify the descriptors, so as to provide a clearer statement of the expectations members of the public have of those in public office. They were not changed to widen the brief of the Committee, as Professor Doig claims; nor do they do so. Changes in the scope of the Committee’s activities are not ‘mission creep’ as he suggests, but, as in its 2014 report on Ethical Standards for Public Service Providers, are a response to changes in its remit in 2013 to include reviewing the ‘standards of conduct of all those involved in the delivery of public services, not solely those appointed or elected to public office’.
There is a more general issue here about the media culture in Britain. It has to be accepted that increasingly scandals (in, for example, the police or Parliament), which were traditionally interpreted as a ‘few bad apples’ often take on an all-engrossing character that damage the reputation of public life. It has also to be accepted that the follies or worse of MPs have become an ingrained part of the mainstream narrative of a free press. But the public are more discriminating sometimes than the press which reports such events. Research on public reactions to the Conway scandal suggests that the rapid parliamentary action taken with respect to Conway was treated as a sign by the public that the institution could deal with such problems. Substantially more damaging, not just because of the scale of disclosure, but most probably because of the drip feeding of information to the public and the failure of Parliament to agree to move immediately to full disclosure, was the press reporting of MPs’ expenses.
The Committee is open to the argument that it has become increasingly difficult to ‘repair’ the currently negative perception of standards in public life. But this does not in any way compromise the work of the Committee: it is, in fact, all the more important to have an independent body which defends the operation of the Nolan principles in public life. The UK public may despair of MPs but they continue to have significant support for the parliamentary system with 73% agreeing it’s ‘essential to our democracy’.
One of the key recommendations of the triennial review of the Committee conducted by Peter Riddell in 2013 was that ‘The Committee should keep a watching brief on broader ethical issues and maintain oversight, bringing together regulators and interested parties. But it should not either comment on the day-to-day work of regulators or see one of its objectives as improving public confidence or trust in public bodies or holders of public office.’ This goes to the heart of Professor Doig’s misunderstanding. CSPL's primary function is to recommend institutional and legislative changes that will prevent misconduct - it does not have the resources to tackle the bigger question of trust - and it remains very unclear that there is any expertise about how that might be done. Indeed, since Professor Doig writes for a democracy website, it is pertinent to ask how far it is possible for there to be institutions for upholding standards in a democracy that are not themselves open to democratic pressures and influences?
Professor Doig recommends that we look to Dutch and French models, which certainly deserve careful examination, both in terms of their powers and resources and in terms of the institutional and cultural contexts in which they operate. He calls for a UK body that understands ‘the roles of priority, sequencing and timing in developing and embedding reform’ (where, by ‘understands’ he clearly means ‘can implement)’. But this is for Government and Parliament to decide. And there is another side to a such a body with statutory powers enforcing compliance across the piece as David Hine concluded in his evidence to the Committee’s Triennial Review: ‘it would make it [the body] hugely bigger, more bureaucratic, and potentially more politically contested. It would raise complex questions about the relationship between the existing sectoral regulators, and it would compromise the capacity for reflection and analysis, which is the committee’s greatest achievement’.