A recent cross-party commission has suggested that ministers must take an oath to maintain ethical standards in their public duties, as a response to ongoing scandals and decreasing public confidence in the government.
A team consisting of Dominic Grieve, former Tory attorney general, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, and Helen MacNamara, former government ethics chief, have proposed 100 suggestions to address issues with the standards system.
One of its main suggestions would require ministers to follow a new code enforced by law, which they must vow to uphold upon assuming their positions.
The Joseph Rowntree trust-funded commission proposed that a modified ministerial code be supervised by an impartial regulatory body. This body would have the authority to launch investigations and suggest penalties for any misconduct. The final decision to implement these measures, including termination, should still be up to the prime minister.
Government officials are expected to follow the Nolan principles which include being selfless, having integrity, being objective and accountable, being open and honest, and displaying leadership qualities. They are also required to uphold the ministerial code. However, the prime minister is solely responsible for enforcing this code, with input from their adviser on ministerial interests.
Priti Patel, the former home secretary, was able to retain her position despite a report from Sir Alex Allan, Johnson’s adviser, that she had mistreated employees. This resulted in the resignation of the aide. Other government officials, such as Johnson and Rishi Sunak, have also been subject to investigations through this system in recent times.
Sue Gray, Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, previously served as the government’s ethics chief and was responsible for managing the propriety and ethics team between 2012 and 2018.
Labour will most likely closely review the report, as they have their own ideas for improving governance. This includes creating an ethics and integrity commission that will handle ethical standards and conflicts of interest for ministers. However, there are doubts among party members about whether the party will make changes to the system or implement measures to increase transparency, as they may have other priorities during their first term in office.
The Conservatives have shown less enthusiasm for changing the standards system, as Johnson has rejected suggestions to empower the independent adviser on ministerial interests to launch their own investigations into ministers.
In 2018, MacNamara oversaw the government’s standards and moral principles. After becoming deputy cabinet secretary, they stated that relying on goodwill or good intentions is inadequate. They suggested implementing more robust systems and safeguards to protect what is important.
She stated that the civil service is a remarkable institution that has effectively served the country, but it is currently facing significant challenges. She believes it is crucial to have a thorough discussion on how to ensure its success in the future.
The committee also suggested reducing the prime minister’s authority to appoint peers and grant honors without impartial approval.
Several prime ministers, such as Johnson and Liz Truss, have been given the opportunity to select multiple peers for the House of Lords, even after being ousted by their political parties.
Additional suggestions included providing training for Members of Parliament and peers on ethical standards in their official duties, and enforcing consequences for failure to attend.
The commission proposed enhancing the House of Commons’ authority to decide on its debates and schedule, including approving prorogation, to prevent incidents like Johnson’s unlawful suspension of parliament in 2019.