The current British system of standards in public life was developed largely due to the establishment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1994*. CSPL is an independent public body coordinated by the Cabinet Office. The main objective of the Committee is to produce recommendations on the application of the established standards of conduct for the Members of Parliament and Government, public officials, councillors of local authorities, judges and employees of other entities. These recommendations are regularly published by CSPL in the form of reports. Since its establishment 25 years ago the Committee has published 23 such reports. In spite of the fact that the documents that it publishes are of a non-binding nature, the reports of the Committee made significant impact on the existing system of standards of public conduct in the UK: for instance, the CSPL proposals were taken into consideration when decisions on reforming both chambers of Parliament were made, the standards of conduct in civil service were formalized and the Electoral Commission was established.
The new report of the Committee is focused on mapping the standards regime in public sphere as of 2019 and provides the snapshot of its changing shape and form in the past quarter century. It consists of eight sections each of which covers a specific public institute, the standards of conduct for its officials/employees and the process of their evolvement as well we the system of bodies that guarantee the implementation of the standards. It should be highlighted that the documents that regulate the ethical standards of nearly all entities covered by the report are underpinned by the Seven Principles of Public Life outlined by CSPL in its first report in 1995: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
1. The House of Commons
The standards of conduct for and ethical duties of the Members of Parliament (the House of Commons is the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom) are outlined in the Code of Conduct for the Members of Parliament. It is accompanied by a Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members which describes in detail the procedures for registration of a conflict of interest and inquiries in the event of presumed violations of the Code; it also provides for the guidance on contentious issues relating to lobbying.
The primary upholders of standards in the House of Commons are the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, overseen by the Committee on Standards, and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which regulates MPs’ salaries and expenses and is overseen by the Speaker’s Committee.
2. The House of Lords
The upper house of Parliament has its Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Lords together with a Guide to it, which contains general rules of conduct and principles of interaction with lobbyists.
The primary upholders of standards in the House of Lords are the Commissioner for Standards in the House of Lords, overseen by the Conduct Committee.
3. The Government
Cabinet Ministers generally come from the pool of MPs elected to the government’s party or they can also be appointed from the House of Lords. Therefore even after their transition to the Government, Ministers remain subject to the Codes of Conduct in their respective Houses.
The ethical standards for the Cabinet Ministers are also outlined in the Ministerial Code. It is a set of general rules and principles which the Cabinet Ministers should observe. However, the Code is not binding: in the event of an assumption of the violation of the Code the inquiry in conducted exclusively at the discretion of the Prime Minister.
The control over the implementation of the standards of conduct in the Government is exercised directly by the Prime Minister, the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
4. The Civil Service
The main principles and standards for civil servants are embedded in the Civil Service Code. It is complemented by the Civil Service Management Code which sets out the terms of service of civil servants.
The primary upholders of standards for the Civil Service are the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, the Civil Service Commission, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
5. The Judiciary
The standards for judicial conduct are outlined in the Guide to Judicial Conduct. The Guide is not a code and therefore it is not prescriptive. However, the judges should take an oath of its observance upon their appointment.
The primary upholders of standards for the Judiciary are the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice, the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office, the Judicial Appointments Commission and the Judicial Appointments and Conduct Ombudsman.
6. Local Government
The Localism Act 2011 extended the power of local authorities and minimized the central government control. This regulation devolved the responsibility for the development and maintenance of the standards of conduct and the management of conflict-of-interest situations to local authorities. At present, local authorities should draft their own codes of conduct and independently ensure the compliance with the Seven Principles of Public Life. Furthermore, the Local Government Association developed the Model Code of Conduct, which local authorities may use as a basis for their own documents.
The control over the compliance of councillors with the established standards of conduct is exercised directly by local authorities and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
7. Political Parties
Although political parties are not strictly speaking public institutions, their conduct has a profound effect on public trust. For that reason CSPL did not overlook the regulation of the ethical standards for the members of political parties and produced a report on the funding of political parties in 1998. The recommendations outlined in the report led to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Act established the Electoral Commission and increased transparency around the sources of party donations and party expenditure during election campaigns, and also banned donations from certain sources.
Political parties should keep a register of donations and loans and submit this information to the Electoral Commission. They should equally disclose the information on their campaign spending. The Commission, in turn, provides guidance to political parties on the registration on their candidates, campaigns funding and reporting on campaign spending.
8. Third-Party Actors
In the recent years the UK has seen a growing need to regulate third-party actors that have become increasingly involved in the way politics is done and how political decisions are implemented. These are, in particular, lobbyists and public service providers.
The existing system of standards of conduct for lobbyists (agents involved in influencing public-sector decision makers with a view to make them take or refrain from taking a certain decision in the interests of the persons that these agents represent) is underpinned by increasing the transparency of their activities, which at the same time neither leads to the development of codes of conduct nor introduces any bans. Since 2014 those engaged in lobbying activity should join the Register of Consultant Lobbyists.
A complex system of monitoring of the activities of public service providers and control over their financial accountability was established. However, despite the CSPL recommendations, it does not include ethical obligations of their employees. The Supplier Code of Conduct lays out what is expected of the employees of such entities. At the same time the Code does not request suppliers to be mindful of the CSPL Seven Principles of Public Life.
*The Committee was set up in 1994 following a series of big corruption scandals over unlawful lobbying in British Parliament, which seriously undermined public trust in institutions. The biggest one broke when The Guardian, a British newspaper, published an investigation concerning the activities of two Tory ministers who tabled several issues in the House of Commons in the interest of a well-known businessman in exchange for money without declaring the profit on the register of members’ interests.