Thursday, 6 June 2013

Ethically Correct

In the wake of the latest scandal to hit the government the need for a reinvigoration of sound ethical principles could not be more pressing.

It is, in fact, extraordinary that we are once again confronted with the dismal spectacle of MPs on the make. Nearly 20 years ago The Guardian exposed Britain's then best known parliamentary lobbyist, Ian Greer of Ian Greer Associates, for paying bribes to two Conservative MPs in exchange for asking questions in the House of Commons.

Cash for questions (again)

The 'cash for questions' affair, as it became known, led to understandable public outrage and to the Nolan Committee being set up by Prime Minister John Major.  Its task was to review the issue of standards in public life; in turn, it led to the creation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Amid the collapse of high profile libel actions brought by Neil Hamilton and Ian Greer the Nolan Committee published its First Report, which articulated what it described as 'The Seven Principles of Public Life'. It is difficult to believe that each and every one of our current crop of MPs honours these principles, despite the fact that they are also enshrined in the Ministerial Code. By way of a reminder, here they are:

  • Selflessness - Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.
  • Integrity - Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.
  • Objectivity - In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.
  • Accountability - Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.
  • Openness - Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
  • Honesty - Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
  • Leadership - Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

What was in Patrick Mercer's mind when he agreed to produce a Parliamentary report for a client for £2,000 a month? Evidently not the Seven Principles. Following a sting by The Telegraph and BBC's Panorama programme the MP for Newark has now resigned from the Conservative party and stated that he will not contest the next general election. One commentator said that in resigning Mercer had "acted honourably" but it strikes me that more honourable would have been not to have been tempted by financial gain in the first place.

The need for an ethical revolution 

Also embroiled in the scandal is Lord Laird, who has confirmed that he was approached by two BBC journalists posing for a fictitious consultancy group, which was supposed to be acting for the Fijian government. His Lordship says he has referred himself to the House of Lords standards watchdogs and to Black Rod, the House's senior official, and avows that he has not broken any rules.

This may well be the case. This story has some way to go yet, with Panorama airing at 9pm tonight. Doubtless the media will follow up tomorrow; Lord Laird may yet be exonerated - or he may face serious criticism.

But even if, in Lord Laird's case, rules were not broken, it seems to me that we cannot hope to avoid another case of egregious conduct by MPs if they insist on acting solely by reference to the rulebook. What must happen is that MPs, and all of us who serve the public, absorb the Seven Principles so that they become second nature. We must strive to act ethically at all times, so that even if, according to the rulebook, a course of action may seem acceptable, we may yet decide not to take it because it doesn't seem ethically correct.

This need for an ethical revolution is as prevalent in the professions as it is in politics. We can all make mistakes - to err is, after all, human - but if we managed to act according to the Nolan Committee's recommendations we might find that our mistakes aren't so frequent - and that they're not so costly.