Have you met The Lord Nolan? – Nigel Thornton

Have you met The Lord Nolan?”. I remember it was the first time I’d ever been introduced to a Peer by a Knight, and the precise use of the definite article. We were standing by the pool of a South African hotel in 1995, only a few months after that country’s remarkable peaceful transfer of power.

Lord Nolan was there to meet senior leaders and officials from Commonwealth countries. They were interested in hearing about the set of principles on Standards in Public Life, just published by the committee he chaired. Those decision-makers from around the world, many from countries where political instability and corruption were endemic, wanted to learn from the UK’s experience of raising standards in government.

Nolan’s Seven Principles of Public Life had antecedents stretching back almost 150 years. The Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the mid-19th century first sought to establish standards in British government by articulating the separate roles and duties of politicians and civil servants. Over the years, the Westminster model came to be seen as a model of probity internationally – a key element in the UK’s global influence. The world watched with interest as the UK dealt with abuses such as the cash for questions scandal. My own job at the time was part of this projection of the UK’s soft power: I was funded by UK aid to work with President Mandela’s Commission on Public Administration, acting as aide to Sir Ken Stowe who had been asked to sit on Mandela’s Commission.

In that hotel in the Eastern Cape were people who, not long before, had been wiling to take up arms against each other. And then, over a couple of years, they had come together to draft a new Constitution and Bill of Rights for South Africa – a codification of the rules for governing a country that (since Magna Carta) the UK has never attempted.

Peter Hennessy notes there is both alchemy and principle in the UK’s constitutional hidden wiring. Our political settlement has relied on a complex set of rules, norms and standards, that ultimately depend on individuals applying judgement and probity. It depends on fairness, honesty and honour. For decades, those governing Britain didn’t feel the need to set out those values in black and white.

When the cash for questions scandal hit John Major’s government in the 1990s, that laissez faire attitude ended. It became clear that relying on the tacit values of those in public life was not enough. Public ethics needed to be explicit and publicly monitored. Transparency was key.

It’s been 26 years since the Nolan principles were introduced in the UK. They have been much in the news in recent weeks, mentioned by the most surprising commentariat. Standards matter. Civil servants are held to account by them. Indeed, as suppliers on the UK aid programme, we are asked to restate our commitment to them annually.

Alongside the Nolan principles, John Major also published for the first time Questions of Procedure for Ministers, which up to then had been hidden from public view. Renamed in 1997 as the Ministerial Code, this code of conduct sits alongside the Nolan principles. It sets out specific guidance for probity that the most senior elected officials in the land should follow. The foreword to the latest edition, signed by the Prime Minister, caused a stir by asserting that the purpose of Government was to implement Brexit. In contrast, the content of the Code does not focus on any particular policy objective, and remains fundamentally as it was in 1995.

Times change, and a landscape review of the Seven Principles of Public life is underway. Called Standards Matter 2, it is due to report in the autumn, and will make recommendations on whether and how the Nolan principles and the Ministerial Code should be amended or renewed. It is something to look forward to with interest.

Last week, Lord Evans, Lord Nolan’s successor as chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, pre-empted its possible recommendations when he wrote to the Prime Minister on the role of the Independent Adviser on Minister’s Interests. The process of appointing a new adviser is underway, after the previous incumbent, Sir Alex Allan resigned in November 2020.

Lord Evans’s letter recommends that new Independent Adviser should have sharper teeth. He suggests that “the Adviser should be given authority to initiate investigations where, in their judgement, this is necessary in order to establish the facts surrounding allegations that the Ministerial Code had been breached”, and that the Adviser should “publish a summary of their findings, stating whether or not the Adviser believed the Ministerial Code had been breached”.  He suggests that sanctions remain a matter for the Prime Minister.

Why would such a reform be needed? Because at the moment, as noted this week in the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the ultimate arbiter of standards in British public life is the Prime Minister.

Sign up to our bulletin

Sign up to our free weekly bulletin for the latest international development news and analysis