Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Litvinenko case and the principles of public life

Nearly seven years ago, in November 2006, the former Russian KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London. His widow, Marina, has since been engaged in a protracted struggle to find the truth behind her husband's death. Regrettably for Mrs Litvinenko, it seems that what has already been a frustrating search is set only to get worse.

Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary rejected calls for a public inquiry into Litvinenko's killing. Theresa May outlined the government's reasons in a letter dated 17 July to Sir Robert Owen, the coroner who had asked that an inquiry (under the Inquiries Act 2005) be established as a matter of urgency.

Full, fair and fearless?

Sir Robert made his request on 4 June. Among the factors persuading him that a public inquiry was desirable was the government's seeming determination to keep a variety of documents secret. This, he felt, meant that it would not be possible to conduct a "full, fair and fearless" inquest. A public inquiry, which would, if necessary, enable certain evidence to be considered behind closed doors, was the only way for the truth to be established.

Theresa May did not agree, and expressly alluded to the political machinations behind her decision: "It is true that international relations have been a factor in the government's decision-making." This was taken further by Elena Tsirlina, Mrs Litvinenko's solicitor, who said the decision not to hold a public inquiry followed "months of talks between the two governments at the highest level" including discussion between the prime ministers of Russia and the UK. She added: "What deals have been made behind the scene is difficult to know."

It is easy to sympathise with Mrs Litvinenko. Here we are, seven years after her husband's murder, and no one is any the wiser as to why it happened and who perpetrated it. Rumour and counter-rumour continue to swirl, and the Russian authorities refuse to extradite two men suspected of the killing, former agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun (both of whom deny any involvement). The Litvinenko family intend to launch a judicial review on the grounds of "irrationality" into the decision not to hold a public inquiry.

The principles of public life

I empathise with the family's plight. Their plan to initiate judicial review proceedings is understandable. Along with just about everyone, I cannot pretend to know the facts, but then again, that is the point: a man has been killed in deeply suspicious circumstances, and both his family and, given his occupation, we, the public, have a right to know what happened. I also wonder if the decision not to hold an inquiry could have been more sensitively handled.

By way of a wider point, openness and transparency should be watchwords for those who govern us, as, indeed, is enshrined in The Seven Principles of Public Life, also known as the "Nolan principles" given their genesis in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

I republish the principles here. They're worth taking to heart by anyone, in whatever sphere, who serves the public.

The seven principles of public life

All candidates for public appointments are expected to demonstrate a commitment to, and an understanding of, the value and importance of the principles of public service. The seven principles of public life 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 that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands it.

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.