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Artillery Row

Dismantle the HR state

Opaque standards committees are putting British public life in a stranglehold

For Conservative MPs today, the scariest phrase in the English language is probably “standards in public life”, followed closely by “summer General Election” and “mandatory paternity test”. 

But perhaps the Conservatives have a point here. While admirable at its face, this deceptive little idea represents a present threat to our democracy, as the language of ethics is increasingly weaponised to restrict debate and demonise political opponents. A legitimate desire to expunge the infamous “Tory sleaze” of the John Major years has transformed into a quasi-constitutional principle, complete with its own enforcing infrastructure. 

The modern British state is characterised by a laundry list of committees and commissions long enough to make a Soviet apparatchik blush

Since at least the 1990s, Parliamentarians have been busily engaged in voting away every shred of their once-sacrosanct authority. While Parliament is still theoretically sovereign, the practical exercise of power is nowadays restricted by hundreds of unaccountable regulators, quangos, and committees, each exercising power over their own little policy fiefdom. The modern British state is characterised by a laundry list of committees and commissions long enough to make a Soviet apparatchik blush. Nowhere is this more egregious than in the field of so-called “standards in public life”.

For example, take the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. The Independent Adviser is appointed to advise the Prime Minister on matters relating to the Ministerial Code, a non-binding document which serves as an unofficial “code of conduct” for ministers. In turn, the Ministerial Code is based on suggestions made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, an advisory committee based in the Cabinet Office that makes recommendations to the Prime Minister on “ethics in public life” and which is charged with promoting the “Seven Principles of Public Life” — selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.

And then there’s the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, whose work is overseen by the Commons Select Committee on Standards and who decides on cases referred to the Parliamentary Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme which relate to Members of Parliament. Of course, the Commissioner doesn’t determine the sanction — that’s the job of the Independent Expert Panel. Not all ethical misdemeanors fall under the remit of the Commons Select Committee on Standards though; in those cases, it’s the Commons Select Committee on Privileges that reviews the conduct of MPs. If your case is high-profile enough, you may end up as the subject of a non-binding but persuasive independent investigation.

Understand all of that? No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone — even the most clued-up Westminster boffins would struggle to explain what all of these positions are and what they’re empowered to do, let alone name or identify the people who hold them. Much of our “ethics” infrastructure is alarmingly opaque, and entirely unknown to the vast majority of the voting public. 

Which is why it’s particularly worrying that these institutions — and the ideas that they represent — are now playing an increasingly muscular role in public life. Last year, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was subjected to a humiliating inquiry by the Commons Privileges Committee, which seemed to revel in recommending a punitive 90 day suspension from Parliament. Is it right that a Committee of this nature can prevent democratically elected Members of Parliament from representing their constituents for a full three months, on a charge of “misleading the House of Commons”?

Do we really want to live in a country in which ministers can be removed from office for being a bit rude to civil servants?

And then there’s the case of Dominic Raab, the former Deputy Prime Minister who was subject to an independent inquiry over allegations of bullying. Charges included such heinous offences as “hurling three Pret A Manger tomatoes across the room in a fit of rage”, and “correcting civil servants on their spelling”. The inquiry found that Raab had been guilty of bullying civil servants, a fact which provoked his resignation. Do we really want to live in a country in which ministers can be removed from office for being a bit rude to civil servants? If so, we shouldn’t be surprised when once-promising ministers prove to be ineffectual, instead preferring to nod along meekly to the recommendations of their Permanent Secretaries for fear of causing offence. 

And where is the line to be drawn? In cases of criminal conduct, the calculation is fairly cut and dry — but what about improper behaviour which isn’t criminal? What about MPs who say things that aren’t true? What about MPs who say things which are contested? Broad accusations of “spreading misinformation” provide ample ammunition for bad faith actors wanting to punish their political opponents — as Health Minister Maria Caulfield discovered last week when she faced calls to refer herself to the ministerial ethics adviser over her comments about fifteen-minute cities. 

This, in turn, has worrying implications for freedom of speech. The idea that ethics committees might one day crack down on certain beliefs might seem far-fetched — but as Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy teaches us, institutions like these are ruthlessly effective at expanding their own remit. Just this month, MPs were presented with new guidance on what constitutes a conspiracy theory, a worrying step towards there being officially verboten opinions for those presuming to become elected representatives. Expect to see these hectoring scolds actively cracking down on the expression of certain political perspectives by MPs before long. 

When all is said and done, it just isn’t clear that bureaucratic committees are a better means of ensuring high standards of conduct in public life than the looming threat of the ballot box. As Neil Hamilton, the Cheshire MP implicated in the cash-for-questions scandal, discovered in 1997, the public will make itself heard when they decide that their representatives have overstepped the mark — his safe Tory seat was lost to BBC correspondent Martin Bell. Rather than presuming to protect the public interest through arcane procedure, we would be far better off allowing voters to make their frustrations heard at election time. 

If we are serious about winning, those of us on the political right must commit ourselves to dismantling the finger-wagging HR state before it’s too late. Combined with ever-more hysterical discourse about “disinformation”, these institutions represent a powerful tool for those who would seek to use bureaucracy and Parliamentary procedure to restrict the boundaries of political debate. More importantly, the rules enforced by these institutions are liable to have a chilling effect on ministers, provoking dithering and caution where instead we ought to see action and authority. 

More broadly, Conservatives in Britain must discover a passion for the mechanics of Government. Fourteen years of Conservative rule should leave us in no doubt — without comprehensive reform of our governance architecture, no Government that seeks to venture outside of the Blairite consensus will be able to succeed. Like it or not, we must learn the names of these ghastly committees, if only so that we can dismantle them. 

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