Thursday 20 April 2023

There are no longer any good chaps


It remains more than a little hazy, to say the least, whether the PM declared his wife’s interest in a child care company before, or only after, he was challenged over the matter in a meeting of a committee of the House of Commons. And the reason for the haziness is that making a declaration isn’t the same thing as publishing the details. For ministers, it seems that, whilst they are obliged to declare everything, the government’s ethics advisers decide which bits should appear on the public register and which bits should remain a secret between the minister and civil servants. And the implication – although the fact that no-one has actually defended Sunak by putting it in these terms suggests that it might not actually stand up to detailed examination – is that he duly told the relevant people about the interest, and was then advised that it did not need to be made public. As I understand the position in relation to MPs, there is no such filter – they are simply obliged to declare, for a public register, any interest “which someone might reasonably consider to influence their actions or words as an MP”. In short, it looks as though those scrutinising the decisions of ministers are held to a higher standard than the ministers making the decisions, and that, on becoming ministers, MPs are magically exempted from the rules applying to others.

The basis on which the ethics advisers decide which interests need to be declared and which do not is even hazier. The current adviser had this to say on the matter: “To [publicly declare all interests] would represent an excessive degree of intrusion into the private affairs of ministers that would be unreasonable, particularly in respect of their family members. The list instead documents those interests, including of close family, which are, or may be perceived to be, directly relevant to a minister’s ministerial responsibilities”. It’s not helpful and doesn’t strike me as being particularly reasonable either. Assuming for a moment that the story which Sunak wants us to believe is true (whilst accepting that that proposition is at least open to question), and that he did declare the shareholding in the child care agency but the adviser told him that it did not need to be made public, on what basis did he decide that? He could not have known in advance, of course, that Sunak would announce a policy from which that agency (and therefore its shareholders) would benefit – but, by the same token, he could not have been certain in advance that Sunak would not do so either. And to ignore the specific and concentrate on the general: the same is true for all ministers in all governments. Unless you know in advance every decision which every minister in every government is going to take, you can never be certain that any specific financial interest will not gain a benefit from those decisions. It may be an “intrusion” into the private lives of ministers, but people who have chosen to put themselves in a position of taking decisions which impact on all of us should expect proper scrutiny as to whether the decisions they take are directly benefiting themselves or those close to them. And that is impossible to do without a full and public list being available.

It ties in with another story this week, about ministers being allowed to remain directors of companies after being appointed. It has long been accepted practice that anyone appointed as a minister should resign any directorships at the time of his or her appointment, but it isn’t a rule, and has been increasingly ignored since Boris Johnson became PM. The thread which binds these stories together is the fact that there are so few hard rules around how governments should behave; the English constitution, such as it is, depends on what historian Peter Hennessey called the “good chaps principle”, the idea that people in government are essentially honourable, honest, decent, and trustworthy. There is, though, no mechanism for ensuring that only “good chaps” get into positions of influence (the ascent of Boris Johnson demonstrating the point admirably) or of controlling those who don’t fit into that category once they get into positions of power. Depending on the fundamental honesty of those who govern us opens the UK up to corruption on the grand scale (see PPE acquisition, for example) with little redress. The system is badly broken, and probably irreparable as things stand. With a proper written constitution and clearer enforceable rules, we in Wales really could do better on our own.

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