On 23 June 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:
Lord Morse (Crossbench) to move that this House takes note of the impact on the democratic process of any reduction in the standards of behaviour and honesty in political life.
1. Background: Standards in public life
1.1 Seven principles of public life
In 1995, the newly formed independent Committee on Standards in Public Life published a report setting out seven principles of public life, also known as the Nolan Principles. The descriptors to the principles were amended by the committee in 2013 and again in 2021. The principles and descriptors in place since 2021 are:
- 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.
The committee states that these principles apply to everyone who is a public office holder. This includes all those who are elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the civil service, local government, the police, courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies and in the health, education, social and care services. The committee says that holders of public office should “exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect”. They should also “actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs”.
1.2 Codes of conduct for members of both Houses of Parliament
Members of both Houses of Parliament are expected to follow a code of conduct. Each House has its own code. These codes set out the standards of behaviour expected of members. They also include rules about the disclosure of relevant interests.
In addition to their respective codes of conduct, members of the House of Commons and House of Lords are expected to observe the principles set out in the Parliamentary Behaviour Code of respect, professionalism, understanding of others’ perspectives, courtesy and acceptance of responsibility.
House of Lords
The Code of Conduct for the House of Lords states that members must adhere to the seven principles of public life as set out by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The code also sets out general principles members must abide by. It states that members have a duty to be faithful to the Queen and her heirs and successors, and that any conflicts of interest must be resolved in favour of the public interest. In addition, members:
- must comply with the code of conduct
- should act always on their personal honour in the performance of their parliamentary duties and activities
- must never accept or agree to accept any financial inducement as an incentive or reward for exercising parliamentary influence
- must not seek to profit from membership of the House by accepting or agreeing to accept payment or other incentive or reward in return for providing parliamentary advice or services
The code of conduct also details the rules of conduct members must follow and mechanisms for addressing breaches of the code.
Members must sign an undertaking to abide by the code of conduct when they are introduced and at the start of each parliament.
House of Commons
The House of Commons Code of Conduct states that MPs are expected to observe the seven principles of public life. In addition, the code states members have a duty to:
- be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, her heirs and successors, according to law
- uphold the law, including the general law against discrimination
- act in the interests of the nation as a whole; and a special duty to their constituents
- act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in them.
The code of conduct also details the rules of conduct members must follow and mechanisms for addressing breaches of the code.
1.3 Ministerial code
Ministers in the UK government are expected to follow the ministerial code. The ministerial code is a set of rules and principles which outlines the standard of behaviour required of all ministers of central government.
As is the case for the parliamentary codes of conduct, the ministerial code states that ministers are expected to observe the seven principles of public life. In addition, the code states 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.
The code is described by the government as “the prime minister’s document”. The government says that the code “provides his [the prime minister’s] guidance to ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs in order to uphold the principles and standards of conduct which are set out in the code”.
A form of the code has existed since the second world war, although it was only made public when it was published as ‘Questions of procedure for ministers’ by the then prime minister John Major in 1992. It was renamed the ministerial code in 1997 under Tony Blair, the then prime minister.
The ministerial code states that “it is not the role of the cabinet secretary or other officials to enforce the code”.
While there is an independent adviser on ministers’ interests, it is the prime minister who enforces the ministerial code. The code says the adviser “has a role […] in advising the prime minister and ministers about adherence to the code”. However, the prime minister “is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards”.
The prime minister may refer a case to the independent adviser, or the independent adviser may initiate an investigation. Before the independent adviser initiates an investigation, there is an opportunity for the prime minister to “raise concerns about a proposed investigation such that the independent adviser does not proceed”. If this happens, the independent adviser can make the reasons for an investigation not proceeding public.
On 27 May 2022, the government announced changes to the ministerial code and updated terms of reference for the independent advisor. These changes were made in response to a November 2021 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and following an exchange of letters between the prime minister and the independent advisor.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review considered 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.
The committee summarised that its report “makes the case for high standards and calls for stronger rules, more independent regulation, and a better system of compliance in central government”. The committee stated its main conclusions as follows:
- There still 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.
Of the committee’s recommendations, those relating to the ministerial code and the independent adviser on ministers’ interest included:
- The government should pass primary legislation to place the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, the public appointments commissioner, and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments on a statutory basis.
- The ministerial code should be reconstituted solely as a code of conduct on ethical standards.
- The requirement for the prime minister to issue the ministerial code should be enshrined in primary legislation.
- The independent adviser should be consulted in any process of revision to the ministerial code.
- The ministerial code should detail a range of sanctions the prime minister may issue, including, but not limited to, apologies, fines, and asking for a minister’s resignation.
- The independent adviser should be appointed through an enhanced version of the current process for significant public appointments.
- The independent adviser should be able to initiate investigations into breaches of the ministerial code.
- The independent adviser should have the authority to determine breaches of the ministerial code.
- The independent adviser’s findings should be published no more than eight weeks after a report has been submitted to the prime minister.
On 27 May 2022, the government published a ‘Statement of government policy: standards in public life’ alongside the revised code. This set out the government’s position in response to the committee’s recommendations and in light of the independent adviser’s exchange of letters with the prime minister in December 2021. The following table sets out the government’s response to the recommendations listed above.
Table 1: The committee’s recommendations and the government’s response
|Response in statement
|The government should pass primary legislation to place the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, the public appointments commissioner, and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments on a statutory basis.
A requirement for the prime minister to issue the ministerial code should be enshrined in primary legislation.
|The government does not consider it appropriate to legislate for the code or for the office of independent adviser, as this would undermine the constitutional settlement by conflating the executive and legislature, and would provide an additional route where the judiciary may also be drawn into such (political) matters that the government considers to be non-justiciable. It would not be in the public interest to further fuel politically motivated judicial reviews.
|The ministerial code should be reconstituted solely as a code of conduct on ethical standards.
|The ministerial code is the prime minister’s document, and provides his guidance to ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs in order to uphold the principles and standards of conduct which are set out in the code. In setting out the prime minister’s expectations in this way, it allows individuals to understand what is required of them and enables Parliament and the public to measure ministerial conduct and actions against those expectations.
|The independent adviser should be consulted in any process of revision to the ministerial code.
|The independent adviser will in future be consulted about revisions to the code including how it can be made simpler and clearer.
|The ministerial code should detail a range of sanctions the prime minister may issue, including, but not limited to, apologies, fines, and asking for a minister’s resignation.
|The sanction which the prime minister may decide to issue in a given case is for the prime minister to determine, but could include requiring some form of public apology, remedial action or removal of ministerial salary for a period. The ministerial code has been updated to reflect this.
|The independent adviser should be appointed through an enhanced version of the current process for significant public appointments.
|As the prime minister’s personal adviser, the independent adviser is an officeholder of the executive and subject to terms of reference set by the prime minister. Because the role relies on a relationship of mutual trust and confidence, the appointment of the independent adviser is a direct appointment of the prime minister, subject to general legal requirements and for a non-renewable five-year term.
|The independent adviser should be able to initiate investigations into breaches of the ministerial code.
|As an adviser to the prime minister on matters relating to the ministerial code, the independent adviser is able to provide independent advice on the initiation of an investigation and the revised terms of reference set out an enhanced process to allow for the independent adviser to independently initiate an investigation, having consulted the prime minister and obtained his consent. However, reflecting the prime minister’s accountability for the conduct of the executive, it is important that a role is retained for the prime minister in decisions about investigations.
|The independent adviser should have the authority to determine breaches of the ministerial code.
|The independent adviser’s role is advisory. In the event that an allegation about a breach of the code is referred to the independent adviser, his role is to investigate and, at the conclusion of his investigation, to give his independent advice to the prime minister, in order that the prime minister can then reach a decision.
|The independent adviser’s findings should be published no more than eight weeks after a report has been submitted to the prime minister.
|The independent adviser’s terms of reference give him the power to require that his advice at the conclusion of an investigation be published in a timely manner.
In response, Lord Evans of Weardale (Crossbench), chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that the reforms did “not go far enough” and did not “implement the package of measures the committee called for”. Lord Evans said that the committee’s recommendations that the advisor be empowered to determine breaches of the code and that the range of possible sanctions be broadened were “mutually dependent”, and that it was “highly unsatisfactory” that the government had implemented the recommendation on sanctions but not that on the adviser’s power to determine breaches.
2. Perceptions of standards in public life, trust and democracy
2.1 Trust in government and politicians
British Social Attitudes survey
According to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, which has been run annually since 1983, there has been an overall long-term decline in trust in politicians and the political system. In 2020, 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 percent. This was down from 40 percent in 1986. However, the proportion of people saying that they “trust politicians to tell the truth in a tight corner” always or most of the time has remained consistently low: it was 9 percent in 1994 when the question was first asked and between 10 and 11 percent in 2020.
The BSA survey commentary highlights that high-profile events concerning politicians’ behaviour can impact the public’s trust in government and politicians. In the wake of the 2009 media coverage of politicians’ expenses, trust in government fell to its lowest point, with 40 percent of people saying they never trusted government to prioritise the country’s needs. Trust in politicians to tell the truth also fell in 2009, with 60 percent of people saying they almost never trusted politicians to tell the truth when in a tight corner that year. This was the highest proportion since the question was first asked, in 1994.
Some political events have also been correlated with a decline in positive attitudes towards the UK’s system of government, as well as politicians and the government at the time. The survey commentary notes that the proportion of people agreeing the current system works well was at a low in 1995, following allegations of “sleaze” against members of the governing Conservative Party, as well as immediately before the 2010 elections, when the expenses news had broken and the financial crisis was underway.
Carnegie UK research
In December 2021, research organisation Carnegie UK undertook a survey which included questions on the government’s values and trust in politicians and government. In the report on the survey’s results, Carnegie UK notes that the survey took place in a “particularly turbulent time” when there was “widespread media reporting of accusations that the UK government had committed breaches of Covid‑19 lockdown rules”.
When asked to what extent they trusted MPs to make decisions that would improve their life and those of people like them, 76 percent of people said not very much or not at all. When asked the same question of the UK government, 73 percent said not very much or not at all. When asked whether they believed the UK government held the value of honesty and integrity, 89 percent of people surveyed said that the government did not reflect this value at all or slightly reflected it.
2.2 Impact of decreases in trust on democracy
Some academics and political commentators have argued that for democracy to work, people must have a minimum amount of trust in the institutions and people who govern and represent them. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states that “trust is the foundation upon which the legitimacy of public institutions and a functioning democratic system rest”. Making this argument, authors of the BSA survey Professor John Curtice and Alex Scholes summarise how low levels of trust can have a negative effect on democracy:
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.
It has been suggested that a decline in trust helps explain why levels of turnout in general elections have tended to be lower during the last twenty years, though the two do not mirror each other exactly. Voter turnout at the last general election, in 2019, was lower than in 1987 and levels of trust in government, as measured by responses to the question how “much do you trust the government to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their party”, were also lower. However, voter turnout increased between 2005 and 2017 whereas trust in government declined. Trust in politicians to tell the truth when in a tight corner has decline only slightly, from 8% in 1997, when the first election year the question was asked, to 6% in 2019.
Table 2: Voter turnout, trust in government and trust in politicians
|Trust in government (always/most of the time)
|Trust in politicians (always/most of the time)
Graph 1: Voter turnout, trust in government and trust in politicians
Table 2 and graph 1 source for election turnout figures1987–2017: Roger Mortimore and Andrew Blick (eds), ‘Butler’s British Electoral Facts’, 2017; source for election turnout figure 2019: Electoral Commission, ‘Report overview: 2019 UK parliamentary general election’, accessed 14 June 2022; source for trust figures: British Social Attitudes, ‘British social attitudes 38: Democracy’, 21 October 2021, pp 7–9.
Many different factors determine whether or not people vote in general elections, including the perceived difference between parties and how closely run the race is.
A meta-analysis of international studies by Daniel Devine, politics fellow at the University of Oxford, found trust in government and politicians is correlated to a range of outcomes. The analysis found that “those who are trusting are more likely to turn out to vote, advocate for higher government spending, believe in and support policies aimed at mitigating climate change, and less likely to vote for challenger parties”. However, the results indicated that trust does not have an effect on informal political participation, such as protesting. While most of these associations were weak, they existed after controlling for other factors like education, allegiance to political parties, age, and other political attitudes.