Politics Explained

How corrupt is British politics?

In the wake of lobbying scandals and MPs’ ethics being questioned, Sean O’Grady looks at the UK political system compared to the rest of the world

Monday 01 November 2021 21:30
<p>Lord Evans wants to tighten the rules surrounding the standards in public life</p>

Lord Evans wants to tighten the rules surrounding the standards in public life

It seems entirely appropriate that a former master spy should have been placed in charge of overseeing the conduct of ministers and senior civil servants, figures who, with the best will in the world, could often be described as wily.

After a series of varied scandals and semi-scandals, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Jonathan (now Lord) Evans, has published a series of recommendations to tighten up the rules. In the light of the David Cameron/Greensill affair, where the former premier tried to use contacts gained through public service to further the financial interests of his client (though within the existing rules), Lord Evans would wish for this process to include “informal” conversations, and to be more transparent, as it has been demonstrably “poor”. Evans also wants the independent adviser on ministerial standards, who advises the prime minister on breaches to the ministerial code, to be able to initiate investigations, rather than waiting on a request from the prime minister. The present incumbent, Lord Geist has expressed sympathy with that view. His predecessor, Alex Allan, resigned after his report into the bullying allegations against the home secretary Priti Patel was essentially ignored. As a result of this gap in the procedures it is, as Evans points out, possible that potential breaches are never settled, either way, as with the questions around former housing secretary Robert Jenrick granting planning permission to a Tory donor, Richard Desmond. Writing the code into law and specifying sanctions might also deter dishonesty. It is not clear, however, how any fresh reforms would alter the way the prime minister’s own unconventional ways can be monitored.

It is a cat-and-mouse game. Ever since the first register of members’ interest was established for the Commons in 1974, after a previous wave of corruption scandals, politicians have found even more inventive ways of avoiding the rules, if not evading them. Things were tightened up again in the 1990s, in the “sleaze” era, and yet again after the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. In between those major waves of reform lesser sexual and financial scandals have forced changes in behaviour.

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