Justin Madders – 2022 Speech on Standards in Public Life

The speech made by Justin Madders, the Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, in the House of Commons on 7 June 2022.

Over the last few days, I am afraid to say that I have heard far too many people seeking to excuse the inexcusable and defend the indefensible from the Prime Minister on the basis that he got the big calls right, or that he is an election winner. Well, I would certainly take issue with the former, and on the latter I simply say that past performance is no guarantee of future success. I do not want to talk about the merits or otherwise of this Government or this Prime Minister, because that misses the point of today’s debate, and misses an important part of our function here. Those factors should never be used to excuse rule-breaking anyway. We are not here just to deliver x or y policy for our constituents; we also have a wider responsibility on the way that politics is done. That is why tolerating the chipping away of our standards because the ends justify the means should never be an acceptable response from the Government. We are custodians of democracy. How we act, what we say and where we set the limits of adherence to the rules all matter. because they form the baseline for the next generation to work from. If we are not careful, bit by bit, the standards and behaviours that we take for granted will be lost.

Our liberal democracy is fragile, and it cannot be taken for granted. It has to be cherished, nurtured and supported by us as its guardians every single day. Every watering down of the rules, every reduction in transparency, every snub to accountability has to be challenged, because many Governments want to maximise control and minimise risk. Many Governments also have a respect for the rules and understand their place in history, but when we have a Government with a track record like this one, it really is up to us to push back. Be it by shutting down Parliament, green-lighting breaking the law in a specific and limited way, trying to wriggle out of treaties they have just signed, changing the way standards rules operate retrospectively or excusing breaches of the ministerial code, this Government have a wretched track record of ignoring the rules when it suits them. But rules matter, and how our politics is conducted should be bigger than any individual Government. This place should be a force for good, for change and for the benefit of all. When the rules are bent, ignored or changed to suit a short-term political agenda, we all pay a long-term price.

This is all about the tone set from the top. It is about leadership. When the Government are led, as they are, by a Prime Minister who behaves as though the rules never apply to him, and who has used every trick in the book to wriggle out of responsibility, we risk slipping into an authoritarian style of Government that we will not easily shake off. Our electoral system and unwritten constitution mean that it is quite possible to have a Government, as we do, who can push through whatever they want and a Prime Minister who believes that he can get away with whatever he wishes to.

Our parliamentary system has relied on people behaving with honour and respecting conventions. However, when people do not live up to those ideals, and are at best agnostic on, or at worst hostile to, standards, the weaknesses in our system become all too apparent. Democracy is then damaged, and it dies not with a bang, but with a whimper over a period of years, with a tweaking of the rules here and a ditching of a convention there. We have a Government who have become arrogant because of the size of their majority and contemptuous about the need for probity.

If people see continual abuse of the rules and ever-shifting sands of accountability, they end up saying that we are all as bad as one another, that no politicians can be trusted, and that evasiveness and avarice are baked into the body politic, and if they vote at all, they do so holding their nose. There is no shortage of people out there who are only too willing to believe that that is true of every one of us here. They are only too willing to call us out for being motivated solely by personal gain, and for lacking any kind of responsibility for what we do in office. We do not need to give them any fuel for the fire. We need to show them that it is possible to govern selflessly in the public interest, that standards in public life matter, and that, when it comes to protecting democracy, we can lead, not just follow.

We have heard how the new code will, in effect, make the Prime Minister judge and jury of whatever process or complaint is put before him. That really grates for a lot of my constituents, who would question whether they have ever had that degree of discretion or latitude in their dealings with Departments, and whether they have had the opportunity to appeal decisions made against on benefit overpayment, child maintenance and the loan charge. People feel that the rules have not been applied fairly to them, and they then see the Government changing the rules as they see fit.

Mike Kane (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about rules. St Thomas More—a former occupant of your Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker—said that this land is planted with rules, and that those rules, like trees, are there to protect us when the wind turns. This issue is about not just this Administration or this Parliament, but Administrations and Parliaments to come. That is why this debate is so important.

Justin Madders

I totally agree, which is why what we are arguing for today is so important. These rules will change over time, but it is up to us to ensure that the principles of democracy and accountability stand the test of time. I am afraid that they are under severe attack.

When I was a local councillor, a long time ago, we had something called the standards board, which was independent, well respected and robust. There was never any question about whether councillors could go on that and determine their fate or decide whether matters would be investigated. The system upheld the seven Nolan principles and was firm but fair. The Prime Minister does not believe that those kinds of principles can apply to how he judges complaints, but how is it possible that when I was a local councillor, we had a far more robust system? That simply does not stack up.

At the end of the day, the rules should be followed by everyone and should not be changed or watered down in the short term for political convenience. If the Government can avoid the rules whenever they have an inconvenient outcome, how can we tell the public that they have to follow the rules that the Government set? If another lockdown was needed, the incumbent of Downing Street would find it difficult to tell people authoritatively to obey the rules, given what they now know.

Standards should not be seen as something to be avoided or ignored when the going gets tough. Those values have to be central to how we conduct our business. The ministerial code should not be routinely ignored, as it is, nor should it be altered to suit the Prime Minister of the day. We have to be better than that. We have to be an exemplar—a beacon of excellence. We should remember that what we say and do here matters, not just now, but for the future, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) said, because democracy is only as strong as those who are prepared to defend it. Having seen the empty Government Benches, I do not think that there are enough Government Members who are prepared to do that.