TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL UK has welcomed the UK Government’s commitment to update rules on the revolving door between public and private office and improve lobbying transparency, announced on 20 July, but calls for more fundamental reforms to improve ministerial accountability.
The announcement came in response to three reports on integrity in high office from the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL); its review of the Greensill scandal, by Sir Nigel Boardman; and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). All three highlighted a need for substantial improvements to the oversight of ministerial conduct, and greater transparency over those seeking to influence government policy and decisions.
The Government’s promise to develop a ‘deed of undertaking’ for Ministers, which will legally commit them to the Business Appointment Rules, will give the body responsible for policing the revolving door more teeth. Commitments to make ministerial meeting data more accurate and complete – for example by including phone calls and virtual meetings with external organisations, and more detailed descriptions of meetings – will help the public have a better idea of who is lobbying ministers. Proposals to introduce a central database of transparency data is also welcomed, but a timeline of when this will be introduced is much needed.
However, despite these proposals, the government has missed an opportunity to address the important issue of ministerial accountability.
Transparency International UK analysis has highlighted that in the past five years, there have been at least 40 potential breaches of the Ministerial Code that have not been investigated. These findings highlight significant and ongoing accountability gaps in the current system.
As is currently the case, the Prime Minister can still fetter the independence of the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, who is responsible for conducting investigations into alleged impropriety. The role also experiences a degree of precarity as the post of the Adviser is not required to exist in any legislation, so the role can be scrapped at whim. This lack of statutory footing is also the case for the Appointment Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), the body responsible for oversight of the revolving door.
If the Government had fully accepted the recommendations of the various reviews, it would have enshrined the roles of crucial watchdog bodies into law, safeguarding them from future political volatility.
Daniel Bruce, Chief Executive of Transparency International UK, said: “We welcome the government’s long-awaited response to three milestone reports, whose proposals are critical to reversing the UK’s backsliding on integrity and standards in public office. Better transparency disclosures should start bringing lobbying out of the shadows, and giving ACOBA some teeth is long overdue. With any commitment, effective implementation is key to making these aspirations work in reality.
“The Government had an opportunity today to once and for all tackle the issue of ministerial behaviour that has dogged successive Prime Ministers and detracted from the effective running of government. By introducing fully the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and other reviews it could have brought more independence to ministerial accountability. Unfortunately, it chose to continue to shirk the critical issue of ministerial reform.
“To help restore much-needed credibility to Westminster and raise standards in public life, the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests should be made truly independent with the ability to initiate their own investigations into potential misconduct. The role should also be placed on a statutory footing along with the body responsible for the revolving door, the Appointment Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA).”
* Source: Transparency International UK