Conflicts of interest are undermining trust in UK politics. We need better regulation

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel is again under pressure over an apparent conflict of interest. CSC Director Liz David-Barrett suggests that repeated scandals in this area are inevitable – because the UK’s system for regulating conflicts of interest in politics is weak, poorly enforced, and overly dependent on politicians ‘doing the right thing’.

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s lucrative consultancy job with Viasat has again come under scrutiny, since it emerged that the company plans to bid for a £6bn government defence contract. Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson Christine Jardine has called on Patel to recuse herself from any discussions concerning the firm, arguing that such a strategically significant procurement is likely to be discussed with ministers responsible for national security. Not to do so would mean that Patel was conflicted, able to influence government decisions that directly concern a company from which she receives a substantial income.

The concept of conflict of interest – where a person or organisation has multiple interests, financial or otherwise, which could distort the decisions they make or the way in which they carry out their role – is fundamental to integrity in public office. Some countries deal with it by prohibiting politicians from holding second jobs. But the British system generally trusts individual officeholders to identify their own conflicts and be transparent about them – e.g., by declaring them in registers and at the start of meetings.

The British approach is to set out rules on conflicts of interest in codes of conduct that are not legally binding, and let politicians decide on any sanctions. When a breach of the ministerial code is alleged, the prime minister has discretion to decide whether or not to investigate. (PM Boris Johnson has already used this power to halt an investigation into Mark Field MP’s manhandling of a Greenpeace protester).

If an investigation is launched, it is undertaken by the ‘Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests’, a role that has no statutory basis and is anything but independent, since he or she is personally appointed by the prime minister, without open competition.

Similarly, the body that is supposed to advise on the jobs that former ministers take, the Advisory Council on Business Appointments (Acoba), has no statutory basis and its advice is not binding.

In short, the system is based largely on trust. Yet there are mounting reasons to suggest that this trust is misplaced.

First, some ministers treat the rules in a rather cavalier manner, and without much consequence. Patel was previously forced to resign from the cabinet in November 2017 when, as international development secretary, she was accused of breaching the ministerial code over unauthorised meetings with Israeli politicians.

Yet the transgression did not prevent her from bouncing back into a ministerial job. Patel also treated the requirement to seek Acoba’s advice casually, only approaching the body about her Viasat appointment a month after she had started the role; by the time she received the guidance, she had already earned £10,000.

Research on systemic corruption suggests that if rules are frequently broken without observable consequences for the rule-breakers, even individuals who would normally act with integrity might start to loosen their standards. Compliance with the rules starts to be seen as a fool’s game, particularly if the ‘tone at the top’ also indicates that rule-breaking is acceptable. Indeed, Patel’s new boss Prime Minister Boris Johnson entirely failed to consult Acoba about a lucrative appointment that he accepted last year.

Second, the boundaries between the public and private sector, which are key to the concept, have been blurred by the wholesale outsourcing of public service provision. Individuals frequently move through the ‘revolving door’, shifting between government roles in which they shape policy or oversee contracting, to private-sector jobs and consultancy gigs for companies that lobby to influence policy or bid for government contracts.

This means that individuals are more likely to find themselves in situations where they need to recognise and police their own conflicts of interest. Yet research about implicit biases casts doubt on how well we can recognise our own biases. If we cannot trust ourselves not to discriminate on grounds of gender and race, can we really be sure that our decisions are not influenced by the fact that we receive an income – or hope to – from a particular company?

The British system has long relied on trusting politicians to do the right thing, rather than compelling them to do so. When such a system works, it has many advantages, not least that it allows for consideration of individual circumstances and context. However, when politicians start betraying that trust routinely, it may be time for a different approach.

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  1. […] Looking at the US makes it all the more concerning that the UK’s own national Anti-Corruption Strategy makes hardly any mention of political corruption. Perhaps what seemed less obvious when the Strategy was written a couple of years ago has now become rather more pressing. For example, a recent blog from CSC’s Director Prof Liz David-Barrett highlights the urgent need for the UK to revise its approach to conflicts of interest. […]

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