Table of contents
- 1. Parliamentary democracy in the UK skip to link
- 2. Standards in public life skip to link
- 3. Read more skip to link
On 11 January 2024 the House of Lords will debate the following motion:
Baroness Featherstone to move that this House takes note of the current standing of parliamentary democracy and standards in public life.
1. Parliamentary democracy in the UK
1.1 UK performance
Definitions of parliamentary democracy vary, but its main feature is that the executive receives its mandate from, and is responsible to, the legislature. Some key features of democracy are set out by the UN. These include:
- respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms
- freedom of association
- freedom of expression and opinion
- access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law
- the holding of periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage and by secret ballot as the expression of the will of the people
- a pluralistic system of political parties and organisations
- the separation of powers
- the independence of the judiciary
- transparency and accountability in public administration
- free, independent and pluralistic media
Considering various international indexes and measures in the UK, the UK’s democratic system ranks well for its electoral system and transfers of power, but it lags other high-performing nations on matters such as civil liberties, direct democracy, and standards in politics and government. For example, the Economist Intelligence Unit has cited disillusionment with the political process and perceptions of corruption in government as issues affecting the UK’s performance. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has also noted concerns with the voter ID rules introduced by the Elections Act 2022.
Similar findings were reported by the UCL Constitution Unit during its research project on the future of democracy. It found the public had low trust in politicians but positive support for direct democracy and the courts. It also found that the public placed high importance on integrity and trust in politics and wanted more to be done to ensure these standards were met. In addition, the British social attitudes survey noted a growing interest in moving to a system of proportional representation.
More information and analysis can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Parliamentary democracy in the UK’ (18 April 2023).
1.2 Recent public attitudes research
In November 2023, the Constitution Unit published its final report on attitudes to democracy in the UK and its future. This followed three years of research, including public surveys and a citizens’ assembly. The report covered many aspects of democracy, including attitudes towards politicians, the UK democratic system and how the public should be involved in democracy.
The Constitution Unit found “high levels of dissatisfaction” with how UK democracy was performing and that many people wanted “significant change”. According to survey results from 2022, 52% reported some level of dissatisfaction with UK democracy and 38% expressed satisfaction. In addition, 66% said that there was a lot of scope for improving how the UK is governed. When people were asked to put their feelings about the current state of UK democracy into words, the Constitution Unit reported that “negative sentiments predominated”. Prominent words included frustrated, concerned, dissatisfied, disappointed, disgusted and hopeful.
When asked to rate which aspects of democracy fared better or worse, the Constitution Unit’s results found that the public most valued the electoral process and free speech, and criticised honesty among politicians and the media and also the relative influence of being rich or poor:
The elements that respondents thought were working relatively well were the basics of any democratic system: democratic election results are accepted and determine who holds power; there is freedom of expression for people and for the media; people can take part in political parties and other political activities. By contrast, the items that scored lowest were about politicians’ honesty, the trustworthiness of information in the media, and the responsiveness of the system to people’s opinions, regardless of how rich or poor they are.
Considering the public’s views on democracy in the round, the Constitution Unit found:
The overwhelming majority of people in the UK support democracy—though for most this is contingent on democracy delivering effective government. At the time of the research, support for ‘strongman’ leadership was lower than in some other recent studies. Research participants said that democracy should be representative of the public and responsive to their wishes. They wanted honest, serious political discourse, and said that people should have the information to make their own decisions. They valued freedoms of thought and speech. There is some variation between more ‘populist’ and more ‘liberal’ conceptions of democracy, but the population as a whole is not polarised on these matters.
Turning to standards, the report stated that confidence in politicians was “especially low”. In 2022, survey results on trusting whether different individuals and organisations would act in the best interests of people in the UK indicated greater levels of trust in the courts and lower levels of trust in the prime minister, Parliament and the civil service. The following table shows these results:
Table 1. Trust in various bodies to act in the best interests of the public, 2022
|Trust or strongly trust
|Distrust or strongly distrust
The majority of people surveyed also expressed the view that politicians had lower ethical standards than ordinary citizens, with 52% holding this view. The figure was 41% for business people and 11% for judges. In terms of the characteristics the public looked for in politicians, being honest and owning up to mistakes came top, followed by being in touch with ordinary people and keeping promises. The lowest ranked characteristics were being clever, being inspiring and having a job outside politics.
Exploring perceptions of honesty a little further, the Constitution Unit found that the public also considered “spin” to be an aspect of dishonesty. For example, when asked the question:
Sometimes, politicians are accused of lying outright. At other times, they are said to ‘spin’ issues in a way that is misleading but not strictly false. Which of the following statements comes closer to your view?
The majority (68%) indicated their general viewpoint was that “there’s no real difference whether a politician lies outright or uses ‘spin’”.
However, the majority of the public did not believe all politicians were “equally dishonest”, with 64% agreeing that some were better and others were worse.
Turning to how standards should be enforced, the Constitution Unit found a complex range of viewpoints. However, it did state that there was a clear indication among participants that it should not be solely left up to the electorate:
Many people, particularly after deliberation, recognise that there are some quandaries in how to design a system of enhanced enforcement: on the one hand, they think that the role of independent regulators should be bolstered; on the other hand, they do not want to empower unelected officials at the expense of voters[…] On matters such as bullying or corruption, they think politicians should be subject to the same rules as everyone else. When it comes to poor ministerial performance, they are more inclined to think that elected politicians should decide the appropriate sanctions. But they are clear that, where the latter approach is taken, politicians do need to take their enforcement role seriously. Otherwise, as citizens’ assembly members warned, public confidence may require that more decisions be removed from politicians’ hands.
Across all of this evidence, survey respondents and citizens’ assembly members clearly rejected the view, expressed by some politicians, that, in a democracy, the ballot box should provide the sole mechanism by which the elected are held to account. Indeed, in our conversations with assembly members, some expressed rage at the idea that they should have to use their precious vote—available only once every four or five years—to deliver a verdict on a politician whose misbehaviour was evident. They wanted mechanisms to exist for such cases to be dealt with swiftly, so they could concentrate at the ballot box on the core policy choices.
The paper also included chapters on how Parliament and government operates (including the House of Lords), the legal system, involvement of the public and how much people “care” about political process. For example, on the House of Lords, the Constitution Unit found:
- A mixture of viewpoints on whether members should be elected or appointed.
- When considering how members should be appointed, the majority (58%) said that appointments should be made by an independent body. Only 6% agreed it should be the prime minster.
The majority of people (65%) thought the size of the House should be capped at no bigger than the House of Commons.
2. Standards in public life
There are seven principles of public life (also known as the Nolan principles). These were introduced by the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in 1995. The seven principles have remained the same since, although the individual descriptors for each have been updated twice, most recently in 2021. The seven principles and descriptors currently state:
- Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
- Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
- Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
- Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
- Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
- Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
- Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
These principles apply to everyone who is a public office holder, including all those who are elected or appointed to public office and all people working in the civil service, local government, police, courts, health, education, and other services. The CSPL also says that the principles should be exhibited and promoted by these public office holders.
The ministerial code and both the House of Commons and the House of Lords codes of conduct reference the need to adhere to these principles. The codes also set out other matters that must be adhered to; for example, the ministerial code sets out the following general principle:
Ministers of the crown are expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.
Ministers should be professional in all their dealings and treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect. Working relationships, including with civil servants, ministerial and parliamentary colleagues and parliamentary staff should be proper and appropriate. Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the ministerial code and will not be tolerated.
Each of these codes sets out how breaches will be enforced. In the case of the ministerial code, this is enforced by the prime minister. Breaches of the House of Commons and the House of Lords codes involve investigations and reports by parliamentary standards commissioners and committees.
There has been a downward trend in trust in politicians and the political system. For example, the British social attitudes survey in 2021 showed the proportion of people who trusted the government to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their party “just about always or most of the time” was 23% in 2020, down from 40% in 1986. Commentary also suggests that public trust in politicians is negatively impacted by media reporting of politicians’ behaviour, such as the coverage of politicians’ expenses in 2009 or the more recent reports about breaches of Covid-19 lockdown rules.
Low trust levels can negatively impact political engagement and adherence to policies. Professor John Curtice and Alex Scholes of the National Centre for Social Research noted:
If people have low levels of trust and confidence they may be less willing to participate in the political process, including not least at elections. As a result, government may prove less adept at responding to the needs and wishes of its citizens. Meanwhile, given that democracies impose limits on the exercise of the coercive powers of the state, the ability of government to implement public policy is heavily reliant on the willingness of citizens to accept and comply with the decisions that government makes. Low levels of trust and confidence are often thought to put such acceptance and compliance at risk.
More information and analysis about standards in public life can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Standards in public life and the democratic process’ (16 June 2022).
2.1 Government paper on strengthening ethics and integrity in central government
In November 2021 the CSPL published a report on the importance of high ethical standards, the continuing relevance of the seven principles of public life, and the effectiveness of the rules, regulators, policies and processes related to upholding standards. The report included 34 recommendations for reform around the following key points:
- There needs to be greater independence in the regulation of the ministerial code, which lags behind similar arrangements for MPs, peers, and civil servants.
- The scope of the business appointment rules should be expanded, and the rules should be enforced through legal arrangements.
- Reforms to the powers of the commissioner for public appointments are needed to provide a better guarantee of the independence of assessment panels.
- Transparency around lobbying is poor and requires better coordination and more frequent publication by the Cabinet Office.
The government responded to and implemented some of these recommendations in 2022. For example, it made amendments to the ministerial code and the terms of reference for the independent adviser on ministers’ interests. The independent adviser is appointed by the prime minister and provides advice on whether a minister’s conduct has met the standards set out in the ministerial code. It also advises ministers on the management of their interests. Among other things, the changes made by the government sought to reinforce the role of the adviser and set out more information on possible sanctions the prime minister may impose upon ministers. It also gave more emphasis in the ministerial code to some of the restrictions impacting ministers upon leaving office.
In July 2023, the government published a fuller response to the CSPL’s recommendations in its command paper on ‘Strengthening ethics and integrity in central government’. This paper also responded to 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.
The paper set out what the government described as “a wide-ranging programme of reform to strengthen ethics and integrity in central government”.
2.1.1 Putting ethics advisors and the ministerial code 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. 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”.
It also said it did not believe the ministerial code should be enshrined in primary legislation.
2.1.2 Business appointment rules
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.
The government said it planned 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.
2.1.3 Public appointments
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.
2.1.4 Transparency and lobbying
The government outlined plans to reform the quality and accessibility of government departments’ transparency returns, which cover meetings, gifts, hospitality and travel. The government said it would 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.
2.2 Reaction to government paper
The CSPL published a paper assessing the government’s response to each of its 34 recommendations in July 2023. It contended that:
- 14 of its recommendations had been ‘fully met’
- 10 had been ‘partially met’
- 10 had been ‘rejected’
The then chair of the CSPL, Lord Evans of Weardale (Crossbench), said the government’s plans were “steps in the right direction”. 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.
Similarly, William Wragg (Conservative MP for Hazel Grove), chair of PACAC, said the proposed changes on business appointment rules and public appointments were “positive”. 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.
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”. 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.
2.3 Recent reports and developments
2.3.1 Leading in practice report
On 24 January 2023, the CSPL published a new report, ‘Leading in practice’, which provided details on how a variety of organisations had sought to integrate ethical values into their policies and ways of working. The CSPL explained that it had spoken to organisations in the public, private and charitable sectors, with the report detailing the experiences and practical case studies that had been obtained from the discussions.
The report shared findings across six themed chapters, with these covering:
- Values and the public sector: The CSPL said it was common for organisations to co-create values with employees and noted that the “discussion generated by this process can be hugely beneficial in and of itself”. It said that these values need to be informed by an understanding of the organisation’s wider responsibilities to the public, as encapsulated by the CSPL’s seven principles, and encouraged organisations to give regular opportunities to its employees to understand these values and how they should be applied. It also commented on challenges for ethical leadership created by the leadership structure in government departments (which it said created a “complex dynamic”) and in fast-paced operational environments such as policing and healthcare.
- Communicating expected behaviours and leading by example: The CSPL stressed that “senior leaders set the tone for their organisation and have a responsibility to communicate how they expect their workforce to behave”. It categorised the insights it had received on this from leaders under three headings: clarity of values, therefore ensuring the importance of the organisation’s values is properly communicated; consistency in the application of values by leaders, even in pressured situations; and ensuring there are clear consequences for behaviour that does not fit the organisation’s values, including when demonstrated by leaders.
- Encouraging a ‘speak up’ culture: The report said that creating a ‘speak up’ culture required leaders to “listen with curiosity and appreciation, to take action where appropriate, and to provide feedback on the outcome”. It said that this required a proactive approach by leaders to create a range of formal and informal opportunities for employees to raise concerns. Failure in this area can lead to a feeling of futility or fear of speaking up.
- Training, discussion and decision‑making: The CSPL said that regular training was “integral to embedding high standards”. It highlighted the usefulness of scenario-based training, creating safe spaces to discuss ethical issues (such as ethics committees or staff forums), and decision-making frameworks.
- Governance: The CSPL said that departmental boards have an important role exerting influence on how departments are run. It called for stronger guidance on boards’ consideration of ethical issues and said that boards should also give more consideration to how departments adhere to the CSPL’s seven principles. The report also found that “identifying and bringing together data into a single report can be instructive for assessing the culture of an organisation”. It said that this could then allow action to be planned on issues such as high levels of staff sickness or unusual staff survey scores.
- Recruitment and performance management: A number of leaders informed the CSPL that assessing the values of a candidate was an important aspect of the recruitment process. The report backed this idea and said public sector organisations should also consider how applicants’ values align with the seven principles, particularly when recruiting for senior positions. It also recommended assessment of values, and how these link with the seven principles, during the performance management process.
In addition, the CSPL’s report listed questions for leaders to consider for the six headings listed above. For example, asking leaders to consider what they do to help staff understand the standards expected from them and whether there is appropriate training on ethical risks and challenges.
Reflecting on its findings, the CSPL said that an “ethical culture does not happen by accident, but requires constant attention”. It said it requires an ongoing commitment and that responses must evolve over time as new risks emerge and greater understanding of good practice develops.
2.3.2 Valedictory speech by the former chair of the CSPL, Lord Evans of Weardale
In December 2023, Doug Chalmers replaced Lords Evans of Weardale as the chair of the CSPL. This marked the end of Lord Evans’ five-year tenure as chair.
Prior to leaving his role, on 17 October 2023, Lord Evans gave a valedictory speech at an event organised by the Institute for Government reflecting on his time as chair and the current state of the standards landscape. He started the speech by emphasising the importance of public standards to democracy:
At the core of any democratic system is the principle that government operates on the basis of consent. This is demonstrated obviously through elections that decide who will govern, but it should also be demonstrated by the way in which those in office use the power they have won. That is where high public standards come in. In essence they are about ensuring that entrusted power is used for the public good, rather than for private or sectional benefit. Public standards underpin trust, which in turn bolsters public consent.
Turning to the seven principles of standards in public life, Lord Evans noted that they had not changed in 28 years and remained applicable to all involved in the delivery of public services, whether it’s individual public office holders, institutions, or private companies involved in the delivery of public services. He also stressed the importance of them being “made real” in specific organisational settings, including through the use of codes of conduct.
He then raised some of his concerns about standards in public life, outlining his view that the behaviour of some politicians was damaging public trust and that there appeared to be an increased tension in the key relationship between Parliament and government. He also dwelled on parliamentary accountability in this context:
We should be clear that for all its adversarial elements, the Westminster model relies on an underlying commitment to a system of conventions and rules of conduct that are central to preserving high standards and to maintaining public confidence and form part of the unwritten constitution. For government, accountability (one of the Nolan principles) mostly means accountability to Parliament, which represents all electors. But it seems to me that governments have been increasingly reluctant to make parliamentary accountability a reality, both in the way Parliament runs and in the way that legislation is drafted. In avoiding accountability to Parliament the government is also seeking to avoid accountability to the electorate—the public.
Looking to possible areas of improvement for the standards system, Lord Evans highlighted matters including:
- The public expect being an MP to be a full-time, principal job, and the current rules do not meet this expectation.
- He said there was a “major problem” with local government standards and hoped that reforms the CSPL proposed in 2019 would be considered again. He contended that the public have no redress when there are standards failures at local levels.
- There were significant risks in the election finance system, and he urged that the recommendations in the CSPL’s 2021 report on the matter be addressed. He said the government’s failure to close loopholes in election donation laws, not least around foreign interference in the UK’s political process, meant there were clear vulnerabilities in terms of national security.
- He said more needed to be done on lobbying transparency. This includes the need for greater clarity on the standards expected of public office holders. He said that improving lobbying transparency would reassure the public there is a fair and transparent approach being applied by those involved in making and influencing government policy.
- The government system for ensuring compliance with standards is “very weak and needs overhaul”. He said there was low priority for this across government departments and it can lead to opacity and potentially corruption. For example, he claimed lobbying transparency reports received low priority.
- He stressed the importance of ensuring there are clear consequences if standards are not adhered to.
Finally, Lord Evans highlighted the key importance of dealing with the abuse and intimidation of those in public life. He noted that some progress had been made in this area (for example, via the Online Safety Act 2023), but that it remained a big issue that was “hugely damaging to democracy and is a major factor in putting people off serving in public roles”. He concluded:
There is no room for complacency. There are still gaps in the system, and I hope the government and others will look at those and maintain a dialogue on what we can do to drive high standards.
2.4 Parliamentary developments
2.4.1 Debates and reports in the House of Commons
There have been numerous House of Commons debates and reports on standards in public life during 2023, with many of these happening in the context of the inquiry into former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s statements to the House about ‘Partygate’. In a report on this matter published on 15 June 2023, the House of Commons Privileges Committee set out the importance of accuracy and truthfulness among MPs, and particularly ministers, for the proper functioning of democracy:
This inquiry goes to the very heart of our democracy. […] Our democracy is based on people electing MPs not just to enable a government to be formed and supported but to scrutinise legislation and hold the executive to account for its actions. The House proceeds on the basis that what it is told by ministers is accurate and truthful. The House expects pro-active candour and transparency. Our democracy depends on MPs being able to trust that what ministers tell them in the House of Commons is the truth. If ministers cannot be trusted to tell the truth, the House cannot do its job and the confidence of the public in our democracy is undermined.
It also highlighted the key role of the prime minister in setting ministerial standards.
The Privileges Committee’s report on Boris Johnson was debated in the House of Commons on 19 June 2023, with the leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, stressing the importance of the Privileges Committee for defending the rights and privileges of members and ensuring they can carry out their duties. She said that all this was important because:
[T]he integrity of our institutions matter. The respect and trust afforded to them matter. This has real-world consequences for the accountability of MPs to each other and the members of the public they represent.
Similarly, the then shadow leader of the House, Thangam Debbonaire, highlighted the importance of these standards for maintaining public trust in democracy:
Standards matter. Rules matter. Parliament matters. Respect for truth, behaving honourably, abiding by our rules and respecting our processes—this all matters. Why? Because without them we are nothing. If we are nothing, we fail democracy and we fail the people we have been elected to represent. If we lose their trust, and if they stop believing in democracy, our ability to serve them is crushed and our mandate to represent them is diminished.
She also stated that ministers upholding standards of honesty and integrity was essential for Parliament to properly fulfil its roles, including scrutiny of legislation.
2.5 Updates to parliamentary codes of conduct
Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords updated their codes of conduct in 2023.
The House of Lords code of conduct was updated in September 2023, following agreement by the House to two Conduct Committee reports. Among other matters, the changes sought to clarify the rules on accepting payments for providing parliamentary advice or services.
The Commons code of conduct was updated in March 2023. It included changes to tighten lobbying rules. A parliamentary press release set out the changes as follows:
Ban on paid parliamentary advice
For the first time, the code now explicitly prohibits members providing parliamentary advice to an outside employer. This includes providing or agreeing to provide services as a parliamentary adviser, consultant or strategist.
Outside roles requiring a contract or written statement
The code now also requires members to have a written contract for any outside work, where the contract (or a formal letter) states that they cannot lobby for their employer or give paid parliamentary advice, and that their employer cannot ask them to do so. This contract should also detail a member’s particular duties required in their role.
Tightening the lobbying rules
The code also tightens the lobbying rules so that members can neither initiate nor participate in proceedings or approaches to ministers, other members or officials that seek to gain a material benefit for a client who has paid them or rewarded them in the last twelve months. This has been extended from six months. The test of whether a proceeding or approach seeks to confer a benefit has also been clarified.
Closing the “serious wrong” loophole
From now on, if a member wants to claim this exemption when approaching a minister or official, they must show that any benefit to their client is merely incidental to the resolution of the wrong or injustice. A member must now state that they are providing evidence of a serious wrong, on a single occasion—to ensure that the whistleblowing exception cannot be used as a tool to make repeated approaches.
Further background on the House of Commons changes can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing ‘Reviewing the code of conduct for MPs’ (28 February 2023).
3. Read more
- Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, ‘Trust in Britain: Speech by Penny Mordaunt’, 1 March 2023
- House of Commons Library, ‘Political disengagement in the UK: Who is disengaged?’, 21 November 2022
- National Centre for Social Research, ‘Constitutional reform: Controversy or consensus on how the UK should be governed?’, 2022
- Policy Institute at King’s College London, ‘Trust in trouble? UK and international confidence in institutions’, March 2023
- Bennett Institute for Public Policy and Institute for Government, ‘Review of the UK constitution’, September 2023
- United Nations, ‘Democracy’, accessed 18 December 2023. Return to text
- Economist Intelligence Unit, ‘Democracy index 2022’, 2023. Return to text
- International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, ‘United Kingdom’, accessed 19 December 2023. Return to text
- House of Lords Library, ‘Parliamentary democracy in the UK’, 18 April 2023. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- Constitution Unit, ‘The future of democracy in the UK: Public attitudes and policy responses’, November 2023. Return to text
- As above, p viii. Return to text
- As above, pp 4–5. Return to text
- As above, p 8. Return to text
- As above, p 14. The report explained that the ‘strongman’ concept relates to leaders who “claim direct mandate from the people and seek to slough off the constraints imposed by legislatures, courts, and other institutions”. It gave examples including Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump. Return to text
- As above, p viii. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- As above, p 9. Return to text
- As above, p 33. Return to text
- As above, p 36. Return to text
- As above, p 37. Return to text
- As above, p 41. Return to text
- As above, pp 53–4. Return to text
- Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Annual report: July 2022–June 2023’, 5 July 2023, p 1. Return to text
- Cabinet Office, ‘Ministerial code’, updated 22 December 2022. Return to text
- National Centre for Social Research, ‘British social attitudes 38: Democracy’, 2021, p 7. Return to text
- House of Lords Library, ‘Standards in public life and the democratic process’, 16 June 2022. Return to text
- National Centre for Social Research, ‘British social attitudes 38: Democracy’, 2021, p 3. Return to text
- Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Upholding standards in public life’, 1 November 2021. Return to text
- Cabinet Office, ‘Statement of government policy: Standards in public life’, 27 May 2022; and House of Commons Library, ‘The ministerial code and the independent adviser on ministers’ interests’, 30 March 2023. Return to text
- 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: Part 2—recommendations and suggestions’, 5 August 2021. Return to text
- House of Commons, ‘Written statement: Cabinet Office departmental update (HCWS992)’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
- Cabinet Office, ‘Strengthening ethics and integrity in central government’, July 2023, CP 900. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Upholding standards in public life, November 2021: Government response as set out in ‘Strengthening ethics and integrity in central government’ July 2023, CP 900’, July 2023. Return to text
- Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Reforming standards in central government: A step forward’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
- House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘Letter to Oliver Dowden MP, deputy prime minister and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, on the government’s response to the PACAC report on Greensill (and other matters)’, 21 July 2023. Return to text
- House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, ‘Lobbying and influence: Post-legislative scrutiny of the Lobbying Act 2014 and related matters’, accessed 18 December 2023. Return to text
- Rowena Mason, ‘Bring in new lobbying rules for ex-ministers by autumn, says watchdog’, Guardian, 27 July 2023. Return to text
- Kadhim Shubber and Lucy Fisher, ‘UK lobbying watchdog criticises government for rejecting reforms’, Financial Times (£), 27 July 2023. Return to text
- Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Leading in practice’, 24 January 2023, pp 2–4. Return to text
- As above, pp 5–6. Return to text
- Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Leading in practice: Report’, 24 January 2023. Return to text
- Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Upholding standards in public life: Keynote speech by Lord Evans’, 17 October 2023. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Local government ethical standards’, January 2019. Return to text
- Committee on Standards in Public Life, ‘Regulating election finance’, July 2021. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- As above. Return to text
- See for example: Institute for Government, ‘Privileges Committee investigation into Boris Johnson’, 15 June 2023. Return to text
- House of Commons Privileges Committee, ‘Matter referred on 21 April 2022 (conduct of Rt Hon Boris Johnson): Final report’, 15 June 2023, HC 564 of session 2022–23. Return to text
- HC Hansard, 19 June 2023, cols 583–664. Return to text
- HC Hansard, 19 June 2023, col 585. Return to text
- HC Hansard, 19 June 2023, col 591. Return to text
- HC Hansard, 19 June 2023, col 586. Return to text
- HL Hansard, 14 September 2023, cols 1115–6. Return to text
- This relates to an exemption in the lobbying rules allowing members to raise “serious wrongs” with ministers or officials even if they may benefit financially by doing so; see for example: BBC News, ‘What did Owen Paterson do?’, 4 November 2021. Return to text
- UK Parliament, ‘New code of conduct for MPs to launch on 1 March’, 27 February 2023. Return to text