Devolution issues are covered in a separate briefing, ‘King’s Speech 2023: Devolved affairs’, published on 1 November 2023.

1. Strengthening ethics and integrity in central government

In July 2023, the government published a command paper on ‘Strengthening ethics and integrity in central government’. The paper set out the government’s response to a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) on ‘Upholding standards in public life’, published in November 2021, and reports by the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) and Nigel Boardman following the collapse of the financial services firm Greensill Capital and revelations about its lobbying activities.[1]

In the paper the government set out what it described as “a wide-ranging programme of reform to strengthen ethics and integrity in central government”.[2] However, it does not appear to be intending to pass primary legislation in this area in this parliament.

1.1 Putting ethics advisors on a statutory footing

The government ruled out for the time being establishing the independent advisor on ministers’ interests, the commissioner for public appointments or the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) in primary legislation.[3] The CSPL and PACAC had both recommended that the government should pass primary legislation to put them all on a statutory footing. The government argued the current constitutional position was the correct one, and “placing scrutiny bodies into primary legislation risks drawing the courts into political matters”. It said it would allow its proposed reform package to take effect “before any further consideration of statutory change, in the next parliament”.

1.2 Business appointment rules

In terms of the planned reforms set out in the command paper, first the government said it would modernise the business appointment rules that apply to former ministers and senior crown servants (civil servants, special advisors, diplomats and armed forces) taking up new appointments after they leave office. It said it would change the way the rules are applied by including more of the requirements about restrictions on future employment within civil service contracts. The system would become contractually based, rather than the present arrangements where individuals must apply to ACOBA before taking up a new outside appointment. The government believed contractual clauses would be “inherently more enforceable given the conditions will be known at the start of the contract”. It argued that making the rules more enforceable would also offer “more scope when considering sanctions” for breaches of the rules. For ministers, the government said it would develop a ‘deed of undertaking’ so the rules would be “enforceable in a way analogous to those for staff”.

The government said it hoped these changes would make breaches of the rules rarer, but it said the new framework would allow it to explore further sanctions, such as financial penalties, if needed. According to press reporting, the maximum penalty for ministers breaching the rules could be set at the level of severance pay a prime minister receives when they leave office. This is currently just under £19,000.[4]

The government plans to undertake consultation on these changes and is considering introducing them in a staged manner, starting with the most senior civil servants and ministers before rolling them out to all staff. In the shorter term, the government said it would introduce some immediate changes to the business appointment rules process to improve usability and timeliness for applicants.

Further background information is available in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Business appointment rules’ (27 July 2023).

1.3 Public appointments

Second, the government said it would implement reforms on public appointments. It plans to publish guidance on direct ministerial appointments to make clear both the process and ministers’ accountability to Parliament for the appointments they make. For appointments regulated under the Public Appointments Order in Council, if a minister decides to appoint a candidate not deemed appointable by an advisory assessment panel, they will be obliged to explain this decision to the relevant House of Commons select committee. Non-executive board members of government departments will become regulated appointments.

1.4 Transparency and lobbying

Third, the government plans to reform the quality and accessibility of government departments’ transparency returns, which cover meetings, gifts, hospitality and travel. The government plans to develop a platform to publish departmental transparency returns in a single place and intends to move to publishing them monthly (rather than quarterly as at present). It also plans to set out in guidance “stricter minimum standards” around the detail about meetings that must be included in the transparency register and ensure that “diarised phone calls and virtual meetings” must be disclosed, as well as in-person meetings. It also plans to extend the transparency obligations to additional senior civil servants whose roles are most likely to be subject to lobbying approaches, including directors general and finance and commercial directors. The government said it did not believe the transparency obligations needed to extend to special advisers, as recommended by the CSPL, as they cannot authorise public expenditure or exercise statutory powers.

The government said it accepted in principle that the scope of departments’ transparency returns should be mirrored in the requirements of the register of consultant lobbyists. Currently, the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 requires consultant lobbyists to register if they lobby ministers or permanent secretaries but does not require them to register communications with other senior civil servants. However, the government said it would assess the impact of extended transparency return requirements on government departments before introducing such a change in primary legislation. It said it would look to implement through secondary legislation recommendations from the CSPL and the Boardman review that consultant lobbyists declare the ultimate beneficiary and subject matter of their lobbying approaches.

1.5 Reaction

Some of those behind the original recommendations welcomed the government’s proposed reforms, but also expressed concerns they did not go far enough. The chair of the CSPL, Lord Evans of Weardale (Crossbench), said the government’s plans were “steps in the right direction”.[5] However, he expressed regret that the government had not accepted all of the CSPL’s recommendations, such as those on the powers of the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, the status of the ministerial code and placing ethics bodies on a statutory footing. He encouraged the government to keep the remainder of the CSPL’s recommendations under review. The CSPL has published a table tracking which of its recommendations it assesses the government has not met.[6]

Similarly, William Wragg (Conservative MP for Hazel Grove), chair of PACAC, said the proposed changes on business appointment rules and public appointments were “positive”.[7] However, he said PACAC was “disappointed to see that the government rejected proposals that would have strengthened the autonomy of ethics watchdogs” by giving them a statutory basis. He believed that if the government had accepted the recommendations, it could have had a positive impact on “public confidence in the integrity of public life [which] is not high at present”. PACAC is continuing to conduct an inquiry into lobbying and transparency, including post-legislative scrutiny of the 2014 act.[8]

Lord Pickles (Conservative), chair of ACOBA, welcomed the proposed reforms to the business appointment rules, saying he had “strong views that the whole thing cannot work unless you have financial penalties”.[9] He called for new rules for ministers to be in place before any new set of ministerial appointments is made.

Harry Rich, the registrar of consultant lobbyists, said it was “a missed opportunity” that the government had decided not to require consultant lobbyists to register on the basis of communications with special advisers.[10] The 2014 act already contains powers to extend the registration requirements to communications with special advisers, so this would not require primary legislation (unlike extending the scope of the register to cover communications with a wider range of senior civil servants).

2. Review of civil service governance and accountability

The outcome of a review into civil service governance and accountability arrangements is due to be published. Lord Maude of Horsham (Conservative) was appointed by the government in July 2022 to look at the respective roles and accountabilities of ministers, senior officials and non-executive directors in decision-making and policy delivery and the governance and accountability structures and processes in the civil service.[11] The review was originally due to be completed by the end of September 2022. In June 2023, Jeremy Quin, minister for the Cabinet Office, extended the review’s deadline to 1 July 2023.[12] Mr Quin reaffirmed that the government would publish the review’s findings.

Lord Maude argued in a newspaper article in April 2023 that with its “permanent politically impartial civil service”, the UK was an international “outlier” in terms of reaching a balance between “maintaining impartiality and continuity, and ministers’ legitimate need for key officials to be effective and responsive”.[13] He believed it was possible to strike a “better balance” between preserving impartiality and allowing ministers more say in civil service appointments. He said he would address this issue in his review, arguing that a “new settlement” and a “much more robust culture” were needed. Lord Maude has said that he is not making recommendations that would require changes to primary legislation.[14]

According to the Times, the review will recommend splitting the role of cabinet secretary in two, with a permanent secretary to advise the prime minister and a separate head of the civil service.[15] Under the plans, the head of the civil service would run a ‘budget ministry’ in charge of allocating money to government departments, while the Treasury would retain control of tax, macroeconomic policy and economic growth. The review will also reportedly recommend that ministers are given more say over appointing civil servants, in conjunction with the Civil Service Commission.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee published a report on ‘Permanent secretaries: Their appointment and removal’ on 20 October 2023. Some of its key findings were:

  • The level of formal ministerial involvement in appointments, as set out in the Civil Service Commission ‘Recruitment principles’, strikes the correct balance in ensuring ministers could be confident in the quality of those appointed while maintaining an objective merit-based approach. Any move towards greater ministerial involvement risks upsetting that balance.
  • Certain high-profile departures might have reflected a desire among ministers to personalise appointments and assert their authority. This is unhelpful, not least because it risks civil service turnover coinciding with ministerial churn, creating a perception of politicisation of appointments and damaging institutional knowledge. Political alignment should never be a factor in deciding on a permanent secretary and the cabinet secretary has a vital role to play in ensuring such changes in personnel, if necessary, are done with due process.
  • Departure processes should be formalised to guard against the improper removal of civil servants: ministers, including the prime minister, should be required to explain any decision to replace a senior civil servant to the Civil Service Commission.
  • The appointment process for the cabinet secretary/head of the civil service should be regularised, in line with that for permanent secretaries.
  • The Civil Service Commission ‘Recruitment principles’, the ‘Senior appointments protocol’ and the ‘Cabinet manual’ should be updated to reflect current practice.[16]

PACAC is currently carrying out an inquiry into the relationship between ministers and officials and “whether the government’s engine room still functions as intended”.[17]

3. Revision of the Cabinet manual

The government is working on revisions to the ‘Cabinet manual’, which has not been updated since the first edition was published in October 2011. In February 2022, the government made a commitment to publish an update before the end of this parliament.[18] In June 2023, the government said it planned to share draft material with the House of Lords Constitution Committee and PACAC in the autumn and to consult with academics.[19] The government said one of the revisions needed would be to reflect changes in the devolution settlements since the publication of the first edition. The update will also reflect the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.[20]

The House of Lords Constitution Committee recommended in July 2021 that a draft update to the manual should be produced as soon as possible, within a year at the latest.[21]

4. Report on the impact of voter ID requirements

The government is due to publish a report in November 2023 about the introduction of voter identification (ID) requirements.

The local elections in England in May 2023 were the first in Great Britain where voters were required to show photo ID to vote at a polling station. The requirement will also apply to future general elections. The voter ID requirements were introduced by the Elections Act 2022. During the passage of the bill, concerns were raised that this would create barriers preventing some people from voting.[22]

The Electoral Commission published its report on the May 2023 local elections in England in September 2023.[23] It found that “most people who wanted to vote were able to do so, but that some groups were unable to meet the voter ID requirement”. It said evidence indicated this “stems from two overlapping issues: variations in levels of ownership of accepted ID, and in awareness of the new requirement”. The Electoral Commission said that “urgent changes must be made at the earliest opportunity to improve accessibility and support people who do not have accepted ID, particularly given there are important elections that are due to be held during the next 18 months”. It recommended the government should review the current list of accepted forms of ID to identify additional documents that could be included, especially for people who are least likely to have one of the current accepted forms of ID, such as disabled and unemployed people. It also said the government should improve access to the voter authority certificate (a voting ID for people who do not already have an accepted form of ID) and provide options for people who do not have or cannot access any form of accepted ID.

The Elections Act 2022 requires the government to report on the impacts of voter ID requirements on the 2023 local elections and on the next two general elections. The government has said it intends to publish the first of these reports, on the 2023 local elections, in November 2023.[24]

The House of Lords Constitution Committee is currently carrying out an inquiry into voter ID.[25] Further background information about voter ID is available in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Voter ID’ (18 September 2023).

5. House of Lords reform

The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto contained a commitment to examine the role of the House of Lords, among other things, as part of a constitution, democracy and rights commission that would develop proposals to “restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”.[26] This commission was never set up, and the government said in 2021 that it had decided to take the work forward “via a range of workstreams” instead.[27] However, it has not announced any plans to take forward work on the role of the House of Lords.

Lord McFall of Alcluith, the Lord Speaker, had a private meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in July 2023 to discuss Lords reform.[28] Government officials told the Financial Times that Mr Sunak “had been in ‘listening mode’ but had no plans at present to press ahead with reform to the upper chamber”.

On 17 July 2023, the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House—also known as the Burns committee, after its chair, Lord Burns (Crossbench)—published its fifth report on the issue.[29] Summarising developments since its first report in 2017, the committee said that former prime minister Theresa May had “responded positively” to its recommendations. However, the committee stated that Boris Johnson “showed no interest in the issue of the size of the House”. It said that although departures from the House during Mr Johnson’s premiership had been “broadly in line” with the committee’s benchmarks, his new appointments “far exceeded” departures and “they were granted predominantly to members of his own party”.

The committee accepted that the proposals in its first report—for a “two-out, one-in” system to reduce the size of the House to 600—had been “too slow and vulnerable to political events”. The report stated there was “little point in going through a difficult period of reducing the size of the House if the progress is likely to be undone by excessive new appointments subsequently”.

The committee concluded that it would be more effective to “secure a limit on the size of the House and a fair way of allocating appointments before endeavouring to reduce the size of the House or introduce term limits for appointments”. The committee also reiterated the recommendation from its fourth report that by-elections for hereditary peers should be abolished. The committee noted that nearly all hereditary peers and all hereditary peers who are members of the House are men. It said that this “skews the gender balance” of the House and the party balance, as most hereditary peers were either Conservative or Crossbench. The committee said the imbalance was “impossible to justify in a modern legislature”.

To deliver a sustainable reduction in the size of the House, the committee recommended:

  • A cap on the size of the House. The committee said that a cap would “encourage party leaders to give more thought to their nominations”. It would also “prevent ‘leap-frogging’ when governments change”—the process whereby new governments have an incentive to appoint more members from their own party. The committee said the cap “does not necessarily have to be 600”, but the key was to “secure agreement” and ensure that it is enforceable.
  • Fixed term limits. The committee said this would allow “refreshment and rebalancing” of the House. It did not propose a specific term limit. However, it gave the example that in a House of 600 members, 15-year terms would ensure “around 40 leavers a year”, which would “provide room” for new appointments.
  • A fair allocation of new party appointments. The committee said this was necessary to prevent new governments appointing large numbers of new peers to get its legislation through the House. The committee stated that “clearly the government should have the largest share”, but it should not be “so skewed” that the “following government has to respond in kind”. It proposed that new appointments should be allocated based on an average of each party’s share of “(a) Commons seats and (b) the national vote at the most recent general election”.

In a speech in September 2023, the Lord Speaker said the House “overwhelmingly supported” the Burns committee’s proposals since 2017 to reduce the membership size with a two-out, one-in system and a 15-year term of office.[30] He argued that “incremental changes” to the remit of the House of Lords Appointments Commission “could go some way to allaying public disquiet over appointments”.

Lord True, leader of the House of Lords, said the government would “carefully note the report” from the Burns committee published in July 2023.[31] However, the government’s view was that the life peerage system “works well”. Lord True said the government had “other legislative priorities” than ending the system of hereditary by-elections.

In response to proposals to put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis and strengthen its role, the government has said it sees no case for changing the existing set-up where “the prime minister is ultimately responsible to Parliament and the people” for nominations to the House of Lords.[32] The government believes the House of Lords Appointments Commission “performs its role well, as it is currently constituted”.

PACAC is currently carrying out an inquiry into membership of the House of Lords, including the appointments process, its size, and the role and responsibilities of members.[33]

6. Read more

6.1 Recent thinktank reports on constitutional reform

6.2 Library briefings

Cover image by Cover image by Dominika Gregušová on Pexels.


  1. House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘Propriety of governance in light of Greensill’, 2 December 2022, HC 888 of session 2022–23; and Nigel Boardman, ‘Review into the development and use of supply chain finance (and associated schemes) related to Greensill Capital in government: Recommendations and suggestions’, July 2021. Return to text
  2. House of Commons, ‘Written statement: Cabinet Office departmental update (HCWS992)’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
  3. Cabinet Office, ‘Strengthening ethics and integrity in central government’, July 2023, CP 900. Return to text
  4. Edward Malnick, ‘Sunak’s cabinet face fines of up to £19,000 if they break lobbying rules after government’, Telegraph (£), 23 September 2023. Return to text
  5. Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Reforming standards in central government: A step forward’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
  6. Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Upholding standards in public life recommendation tracker’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
  7. House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘Letter to Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP, deputy prime minister and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, on the government’s response to PACAC report on Greensill (and other matters), dated 21.7.23’, 25 July 2023. Return to text
  8. House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘Lobbying and influence: Post-legislative scrutiny of the Lobbying Act 2014 and related matters’, accessed 29 September 2023. Return to text
  9. Rowena Mason, ‘Bring in new lobbying rules for ex-ministers by autumn, says watchdog’, Guardian, 27 July 2023. Return to text
  10. Kadhim Shubber and Lucy Fisher, ‘UK lobbying watchdog criticises government for rejecting reforms’, Financial Times (£), 27 July 2023. Return to text
  11. HM Government, ‘Review of governance and accountability’, 27 July 2022. Return to text
  12. House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘Letter from Rt Hon Jeremy Quin MP, minister for the Cabinet Office and paymaster general on the civil service governance and accountability review, dated 6.6.23’, 14 June 2023. Return to text
  13. Francis Maude, ‘Singapore and France can help us right balance between ministers and officials’, Observer, 22 April 2023. Return to text
  14. House of Lords Constitution Committee, ‘Corrected oral evidence: The appointment and dismissal of permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants’, 7 June 2022, Q112. Return to text
  15. Chris Smyth, ‘Abolish cabinet secretary and break up Treasury, says Maude review’, Times (£), 16 October 2023. Return to text
  16. House of Lords Constitution Committee, ‘Appointment and removal of senior civil servants must not undermine civil service impartiality’, 20 October 2023. Return to text
  17. House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘Does the civil service need reforming? MPs launch new inquiry’, 24 April 2023. Return to text
  18. House of Lords Constitution Committee, ‘Revision of the Cabinet manual—government response to the committee’s sixth report (7 February 2022)’, 8 February 2022, HL Paper 34 of 2021–22. Return to text
  19. HL Hansard, 24 July 2023, col 2. Return to text
  20. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Cabinet manual (202463)’, 19 October 2023. Return to text
  21. House of Lords Constitution Committee, ‘Revision of the Cabinet manual’, 8 July 2021, HL Paper 34 of session 2021–23. Return to text
  22. House of Lords Library, ‘Elections Bill’, 27 January 2022. Return to text
  23. Electoral Commission, ‘Report on the May 2023 local elections in England’, September 2023. Return to text
  24. HC Hansard, 14 September 2023, col 1007. Return to text
  25. House of Lords Constitution Committee, ‘Voter ID: Inquiry’, accessed 19 October 2023. Return to text
  26. Conservative Party, ‘Conservative Party manifesto 2019’, November 2019, p 48. Return to text
  27. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Constitution, democracy and rights commission (87641)’, 14 December 2021. Return to text
  28. Lucy Fisher, ‘House of Lords speaker calls for better vetting of prospective peers’, Financial Times (£), 30 July 2023. Return to text
  29. Lord Speaker, ‘Fifth report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House’, 17 July 2023. Return to text
  30. UK Parliament, ‘The Lord Speaker addresses the RSA’, 21 September 2023. Return to text
  31. HL Hansard, 19 July 2023, col 2315. Return to text
  32. HL Hansard, 18 November 2022, col 1127. Return to text
  33. House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘MPs to investigate House of Lords membership in new inquiry’, 21 June 2023. Return to text