Leading article: The marginalisation of trust in politicians

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Among the specific areas Sir Alistair identifies as needing attention are the code on ministerial conduct, the functioning of the Electoral Commission and the monitoring of potential conflicts of interest among members of important boards. That represents a pretty broad sweep of government activity where, it seems, the public standards watchdog sees room for improvement.

Perhaps Sir Alistair's most telling conclusions relate to the seemingly simple matter of honesty. A survey conducted last year, he said, showed that people had a clear idea of what constituted honesty. It meant: "People telling the truth, telling things as they are, admitting they have made mistakes, what the mistake is and what lessons they have learnt". Surely few would, or should, quibble with that. Sir Alistair strongly implies, however, not only that the definition of honesty in the ministerial code could do with tightening up, but that ministers have not shown a huge amount of enthusiasm for the task. "The implementation of standards" he says, "... is not as central an issue to this government as I would like to see it."

So there we have it. A government that deployed intelligence as propaganda to justify a war; a Prime Minister who successfully nominated a twice-shamed minister as an EU commissioner; a Home Secretary who resigned over the fast-tracking of a nanny's visa in which he had a personal interest and was swiftly brought back to the Cabinet; a Prime Minister's wife who supplemented her professional income with paid lectures about living in Downing Street ... All this and more, and ministers are still shying away from applying greater rigour to their own conduct. Is it any wonder that trust remains an issue?

Sir Alistair strongly hints that he hopes for better with the arrival of the new Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell. In particular, he suggests, work should recommence on a Civil Service Act to guarantee the political neutrality of civil servants and regulate the position of political advisers. That might help to promote confidence in the machinery of government. But until government and people can agree on something as fundamental as a definition of honesty, the prospects for bridging the trust gap do not seem bright.

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