Matt Western – 2022 Speech on Standards in Public Life

The speech made by Matt Western, the Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington, in the House of Commons on 7 June 2022.

I welcome the debate because it is important. Like so many of my colleagues, I want to see the full package of recommendations in the committee’s report accepted in their entirety. We must collectively restore transparency and integrity, and improve the accountability of all our institutions. That is why an incoming Labour Government would clean up politics and restore standards in public life, starting by introducing an ethics and integrity commission—a single, independent body, removed from politicians, that would roll at least three existing bodies into one.

Standards in public life should concern us all, as Members elected to public office. It is the highest honour, and the public rightly expect us to exercise the highest of public standards. When one of us breaches those standards, we all lose. One parliamentary scandal reflects poorly not just on the governing party of the time, but on our institutions, our democracy and our willingness to govern in the interests of the British people. That is why the Opposition have tabled a motion asking Members on both sides of the House to back the full package of the committee’s recommendations. We have done so because the ministerial code has been cracked by this Prime Minister and his Government. Until now, the code included the “overarching duty” of Ministers to comply with the law and to abide by the seven principles of public life: the Nolan principles, a set of ethical standards which apply to all holders of public office, with the general principle that

“Ministers of the Crown are expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.”

The ministerial code should be important in providing an essential backstop to prevent the degrading of public standards, as indeed it once did. When viewed alongside the Nolan principles—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—the code provides a key cornerstone for standards in our public life. What is most damaging is that, at a time when the Prime Minister’s lawbreaking and industrial-scale rule breaking at the heart of Government have finally been exposed, and at a time when he should have been tendering his resignation, he has instead rewritten the code. I am afraid that the Prime Minister is debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes. He is doing so through careful and calculated manipulation of the rules, bending them to suit his own interests. Now, following the publication of the Sue Gray report, in which she concluded that there were

“failures of leadership and judgement in No 10 and the Cabinet Office”,

he has concentrated even greater power in his own hands, while weakening standards in public life.

Far from “resetting the culture” of No. 10, the Prime Minister promised following the report’s publication, perhaps most self-servingly of all, to end the long-standing principle that those who breach the ministerial code should have to resign automatically. That might save not only him, but all those who would be complicit in these acts. Let us recall that, back in November 2020, the then adviser Sir Alex Allan resigned his post after the Prime Minister disagreed with the finding that the Home Secretary had broken the code. We now have an absurd situation in which the person who breached the ministerial code carries on with impunity, while those who are victims of the breaches feel that their only way out is to resign. The Prime Minister has also failed to outline the concrete sanctions for major breaches of the code. Here again we have the ridiculous situation of the more major the breach, the less clear the sanction. On this side of the House, we support graduated sanctions for minor breaches of the code, but the cherry-picking of sanctions to suit the Prime Minister is plain politicking with standards in public life.

By failing to guarantee the independence of the adviser or allow them to open investigations independently, the Prime Minister has gained a stranglehold over the whole process. He continues to retain the power to veto investigations, stripping the so-called independent adviser of any meaningful power. This is utterly wrong. In the Prime Minister’s latest diluted version, integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency and honesty have all disappeared from the face of the code. These changes, and the lack of changes, have hollowed out the ministerial code and created a centralised, authoritarian Government.

I find it telling that, in one of the letters of no confidence published yesterday, the Prime Minister was accused of importing

“elements of a presidential system of government that is entirely foreign to our constitution and law.”

One of the consequences of a centralised presidential system is seemingly the power to do away with accountability, scrutiny and criticism. It is just a shame that more MPs from the Conservative side could not see that last night. If the ministerial code now no longer has the teeth it needs to hold Ministers to account, Labour’s call for an independent integrity and ethics commission becomes all the more powerful. Labour has shown before how committed we are to improving standards in public life and we will show it again. Back in 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair widened the terms of reference of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to cover the funding of political parties, and more recently my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) agreed to do the decent thing and resign if they were found to have breached the covid rules. That is probity, decency and trustworthiness.

It is a sad day for high standards in public life when we have to resort to taking this out of politicians’ hands because the current governing party manipulates the process to suit its leader’s interests. A failure to act now will see a continuing erosion and degradation of standards in our public life. From Paterson to partygate to allegations of sexual assault, now is the time for Conservative Members to vote for this motion. They could restore public trust in our politics, which would be in all our interests and strengthen the foundations of our democratic institutions.