Given Number 10 Downing Street is in the midst of a criminal investigation for alleged COVID-19 breaches, and the Prime Minister is being accused of lying to Parliament, it may not come as a surprise that the British Government may soon be kicked out of an international anti-corruption partnership it helped set up, as it watered down a number of open government commitments in its latest national action plan, at the 11th hour.
Over a decade ago the UK co-founded the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which now has 78 international members, to help promote transparent, participatory, inclusive and accountable governance. One of the key objectives is to give the public access to open datasets that allow for greater scrutiny of government activity.
However, the OPG has this week said that the UK could be designated an ‘inactive' member of the partnership - and potentially kicked out - given that it is ‘backsliding' on a number of commitments.
For example, despite a promise by the Prime Minister himself to ‘bring more openness to the purchase of properties in the UK by overseas entities', the government's commitment to create a register of overseas entities owning property in the UK has been removed.
This will be particularly concerning given the current tensions at the Ukraine border and concerns raised by the US that the UK has been a hotspot for Russian entities to launder money.
Other commitments stripped from the plan altogether include: public standards and freedom of information, official development assistance transparency, diversity and inclusion, misinformation, democracy and climate change.
The OPG states that its "discontent is not directed at civil servants in the Open Government team…it is directed at government, which must urgently prioritize this important work".
Less transparency means less accountability
The OPG's strong reaction follows the recent resignation of the Minister with the responsibility for Open Government, Lord Agnew, who cited the government's ‘lamentable' record on COVID-19 fraud and ‘ongoing scandals relating to public standards'.
The commitments the government did include in the National Action Plan released this week are: open contracting, open justice, algorithmic transparency and accountability, health, anti-corruption and illicit international finance, and local transparency.
However, the OPG adds that some of these had limited civil society engagement, despite it meant to be a joint plan, and others were "watered down unilaterally by the government just days before submission".
Kevin Keith, Chair of the UK Open Government Network, who coordinate civil society's input into the plan, said:
Ineffective lobbying laws, unlawful procurement practices, and investigations into breaches of the ministerial code, have eroded trust when lives have depended on it.
This plan could have demonstrated the government is serious about rebuilding that trust. Yet repeated requests to the government for a commitment on public standards were ignored, many commitments have been watered down including on corruption, and some have been taken out completely. It's contemptuous."
The UK government now runs the risk of being designated ‘inactive' by an international anti-corruption partnership it helped set up. It must urgently work with civil society to improve this plan in the months ahead.
The OPG is also particularly concerned about the government's failure to engage on commitments relating to Public Standards and Freedom of Information. This is despite an initial agreement with the then relevant Minister, Julia Lopez MP, and a follow up letter, which received no response.
Dr. Susan Hawley, Executive Director of Spotlight on Corruption and Co-Chair of the UK Anti Corruption Coalition, said:
The UK desperately needs a significant upgrade to its framework for regulating standards in public office and how ministers behave. The government has yet to publish any response to its own review on this matter, the Boardman review, or to the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommendations.
No timetable has been produced by the government to do so. It beggars belief that the government could be facing its worst integrity crisis in decades but is refusing to engage with civil society about how to implement basic reforms recommended by expert, independent bodies.
The government has said that in order to meet the criteria to stay engaged in the OPG process it would "amend and develop the initial commitments" over the course of 2022. It blamed the pandemic on not being able to engage effectively during the development process of the latest National Action Plan, which is counter to the OPG's view of events.
This is not a good look for a government that is currently in the throes of an integrity crisis. But it's also unsurprising. As has been the modus operandi of this government, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson's leadership, the general approach has been deny, deny, deny…until you get found out. And then apologise. Anyone for some cheese and wine?