Ethical renewal to banish that fin de siecle feeling

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 15/10/11]

The Cash for Questions scandal and the associated perception of endemic sleaze contributed to the demise of the Major government. It ushered in a period of institutional renewal. The Committee for Standards in Public Life was established under Lord Nolan in the mid-1990s to keep an eye on MPs’ conduct. Similarly, the expenses scandal contributed not only in some small way to Gordon Brown’s demise but also to a substantial minority of Parliamentarians exiting stage left. It led to the end of self-scrutiny as the processing of MPs expense claims passed to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Equally significantly, it heralded a new government promising a new cleaner, fresher approach to politics. How quickly such promises turn to dust.

These were scandals afflicting tired governments. If we think about the significance of Cash for Questions or the expenses scandal, they did not really go to the heart of the business of governing. Cash for Questions was about some relatively inconsequential backbenchers receiving inappropriate payments for asking questions in the House. With its imagery of allegedly dodgy businessmen and publicists handing over brown envelopes of used notes to elected Members it caused outrage and played well in the media. But its impact upon the course of policy or the practice of governing was arguably relatively minimal. In the light of current experiences it all looks rather tame. Similarly, the expenses scandal exposed many MPs as greedy, grasping and out of touch, but it did not speak directly to the way in which policy is made.
The situation we face now has far more serious implications for government.

It has taken only 16 months for the Coalition to become associated with a range of practices that are, at best, highly questionable. The charge sheet gets progressively longer. Liam Fox has fallen under the unbearable weight of accumulated revelations and allegations that he has breached the Ministerial Code. Unofficial advisors funded by rather shadowy private interests to follow you around the world do not reassure us that everything is entirely above board. But Dr Fox is only the most high profile case. We now have Oliver Letwin’s al fresco document disposal which is smaller in scale but, if anything, even more bizarre. It would be ever so slightly comical if it weren’t so serious. Rumbling away in the background are questions about Andrew Lansley’s association with and funding by the private health lobby. And, of course, in broader terms, there is the question of whether the Conservative party’s reliance on funding from the City impairs its ability or willingness to deliver the banking reform needed to stabilise the economic system.

But if I were a betting man then I’d say the Government minister who is next to come under intense scrutiny will be Jonathan Djanogly, the Justice Minister. He stands accused of a massive conflict of interest. He is responsible for steering through Parliament the bill seeking to reform Legal Aid, while at the same time having substantial personal and family interests in the insurance industry that stands to benefit hugely from the very reforms being proposed. In 2009 he made more money from his interests in insurance than he is currently receiving as a Ministerial salary. While he belatedly placed his interests into a blind trust, his family financial interest in the reforms remains considerable. Djanogly has been challenged that he is breaking the Ministerial Code – which states that ‘Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise’ – but he has not accepted the point.

The conflict of interest appears to goes further than simply the financial, the Guardian reports that Djanogly’s officials invited representatives of the insurance industry to input into the Government’s efforts to rebut criticisms of the reforms. This goes to the heart of democratic practice. In whose interest is policy made? The situation around Legal Aid reform is so transparently inappropriate.

Over a couple of days last week I participated in a seminar discussing the design of effective policy making processes. We covered the role of political actors, structures and processes. We discussed the role of research and evidence in influencing policy when set alongside other influences – public opinion, social values, lobbying, the media. When leaving the event I returned to the strong sense that good policy is not simply a question of institutional design. We know a lot about the components of good policy making, although we may well be able to combine them more effectively. For anyone interested, Making Policy Better published earlier this year by the Institute for Government is a good place to start.

But good policy is also a question of the spirit that animates the process. And that’s the dimension we’re missing.

After forty years of critique inspired by neoclassical economics and public choice theory, many people’s starting point for thinking about politics is self-interest, greed, and the assumption that everyone is in it for themselves. The idea of the Public Interest is derided. It is merely a disguise for sectional interest and special pleading. It would be gauche even to mention it.

And we get the politics we deserve. The new politics we are witnessing is no cleaner but just as grubby as that which went before.

Yet if this Government is not going to collapse under the weight of its own absurdity or irrevocably undermine public faith in politics then something needs to change. We need to recover a sense of public service and public duty. Government that acts in good faith for the wellbeing of the many and not the few. Government that strives to avoid situations arising that open up the possibility of other interpretations.

This is not primarily about needing something new. It is about rediscovering something we seem to have misplaced. The Committee for Standards in Public Life set out its seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. When it speaks of integrity it means that ‘holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties’.

A rigorous application of that principle – alongside the other six – would surely have prevented many of the stories currently circulating in the media from ever getting started. These principles need to be honoured not just in the word but in the deed. Perhaps then the odd high profile downfall might have been avoided.

Some will no doubt object that the current fiscal crisis means that the State no longer has the capacity to act independently. It is positively advantageous for Ministers to have experience of the sector which they now seek to regulate. It is appropriate to tap in to expertise beyond the State. Government now has to draw in, and rely on, private interests and lobbyists in order to get anything done. They are the ones with the money.

My response would be that, of course, the State needs to engage with stakeholders. But that engagement needs to be disinterested. And codes for standards of behaviour in public life need to be treated with respect rather than as advisory or aspirational. If we decode the objection as meaning we can no longer afford to expect integrity from our politicians then we really are in trouble.

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