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A new era for public standards regulation?

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The question of how best to promote integrity in British public life is one which continues to challenge our democracy. How do we identify, promulgate and enforce high standards across the public sector, broadly defined? How do changes to the machinery of ethical regulation affect the behaviour of decision-makers and office-holders? Equally difficult is the question of what impact the efforts of bodies as such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) to monitor and improve standards in public life really have on public opinion?

Establishing cause and effect on movements in the public’s evaluation of political elites is far from easy, if even possible. And inevitably the fast-changing context of political life continually generates new problems or casts old problems in a new guise, so no sooner has one major issue been addressed than others spring up to take its place.

CSPL’s stimulating horizon-scanning seminar (July 2017) coincided with me beginning new writing on integrity issues. This new work follows the publication last year of my study with David Hine of standards regulation; and both prompt reflection on how the landscape of public ethics in the United Kingdom has changed even over the past year.

Four key elements seem to me to have altered the character of the standards debate, posing new dilemmas. The first is that the current areas of standards regulation are arguably some of the most intractable. Perhaps this is not surprising as the initial recommendations of the CSPL after 1994 tackled the most obvious anomalies and overhauled many of Britain’s most important institutions, including Parliament, the civil service, the public appointments process and election funding. Gaps were plugged, awareness raised and new machinery created. What was left were inevitably the thornier problems - areas such as party finance (where almost by definition political consensus is difficult to achieve) and areas such as local government standards where the original approach to improving standards was later dismantled. The themes recently tackled by the CSPL, like those which will probably engage it in the immediate future (for example the proper level of outside interests which MPs may have, the intimidation of parliamentary candidates and party funding issues), are ones where progress is likely to prove less than straightforward.

A second major change in today’s standards landscape is an increased scepticism of expertise and elites. Many scholars have detected the emergence internationally of what may be termed a “new populism”. Although I have reservations about the terminology, it captures elements of the current political mood in the United Kingdom and the United States. What is of interest for those concerned with standards issues is how far in such a climate it is possible to make statements of principle and codes of practice convincing to the general public or indeed to exercise the moral leadership which is such an important part of an integrity system.

A third change is the emergence of more cross-cutting issues that are not confined to individual institutions. The broad concern with discrete institutions has given way to concern about a range of cross-cutting issues such as transparency, accountability, public safety and privacy which are harder to understand and define.

A final area of change relates to the style of public discourse. Social media has injected a new and unpredictable ingredient into the equation. Much of what social media does is beneficial in that it makes multiple sources of information widely available. But it can encourage emotional responses and discourage in-depth analysis in a way which makes public debate more superficial. It can also have tragic consequences as has become apparent in relation to on-line bullying and intimidation. The murder of Jo Cox MP in June 2016 underlines the reality that extremism and violence now threatens British political culture in a way which is new and shocking. The last election saw an escalation of vicious on-line threats to MPs and candidates, which is both inherently distressing and risks undermining the quality of our political life. Good government is dependent on individuals being willing to stand for public office without feeling that they put their own safety and that of their families and friends in jeopardy. Not surprisingly Parliament is itself deeply concerned about the development, as evidenced in its recent debates, and the CSPL has made the topic a priority. The problem raises difficult issues both for defining the boundaries of the criminal law, and for the regulation of the social media jungle. It also indicates that the shaping of standards in public life is not simply about how those in authority behave, but about influencing the values and behaviour of the general public.

The last twenty years has seen a transformation of the way we think about standards across the whole field of British public life. But it would be misguided to think that the job of promoting integrity is complete and that the work of the CSPL is likely to diminish in importance or urgency. Indeed, if anything, the standards agenda seems likely to become more pressing, more demanding on time, resources and ingenuity, not only on the part of the CSPL itself but also of other many key actors in the standards sphere.


Professor Gillian Peele is an Emeritus Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. Professor Peele is also an independent member of the House of Lords Appointments Commission.


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