Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Ethics and Standards

Now that the closing date for the top job at the new National Probation Service has passed, and I wonder which of our mealy-mouthed chiefs think they're in with a chance, I find myself being encouraged to ponder the issue of ethics and standards. Rather handily the fourteenth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was published in March this year and it lists seven key principles for public life and they are as follows:-

Selflessness : Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

Integrity : Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

Objectivity : Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias. 

Accountability : Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this. 

Openness : Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

Honesty : Holders of public office should be truthful.

Leadership : Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

Now the above is all fine and dandy, a bit like motherhood and apple pie, but do these warm words actually count for diddly-squat? I can't help pondering how many of our current leadership would pass muster on all of them, especially having regard to issues of public good? And anyway, they don't hold any sway with the private sector that the government is so keen to see taking over our public service jobs. The authors are clearly concerned though:-

We explored our concerns about the potential risks in this area at a seminar with representatives of major companies, including Serco, G4S, Balfour Beatty and Network Rail. These companies are already delivering or bidding for a range of public services including prisons, policing, social housing, social care and hospitals. We were not surprised to be told by those present that they and many other private sector companies were keen to maintain high ethical standards, not least because of the possible threat to their reputation (and bottom line) of being judged inadequate in this respect. It is evident that many private sector organisations have established an infrastructure intended to support high ethical standards. As in the public sector, however, there remain questions about the extent to which they have genuinely developed the appropriate culture.

Well, given what we heard about G4S and Serco from Chris Grayling recently, the committee are clearly well founded in their concerns! But did we really need a committee to inform us of the bleeding obvious? Surely this will always be but one problem when a profit motive is introduced to the delivery of public services? And I'd like to point out to the august committee that there might be concerns about ethical standards in some public services, but not in the Probation Service.  

The committee went on to highlight another risk:-

Our second generic concern is the potential effect on efforts to promote high ethical standards of cuts in organisational budgets resulting from the current climate of austerity. The main risk is that financial constraints may reduce management support for investment in the promotion of high ethical standards or create a temptation for organisations or individuals to cut corners. While there should be a presumption that efficiency gains in standards, as elsewhere, should be secured where possible, we must take care that the infrastructure supporting standards is not fatally undermined, nor corners cut that could undo the improvements which have been made or further damage confidence and trust. A secondary risk is that budget cuts may undermine the commitment of some individuals to public service values. We intend to continue monitoring these risks.

Meanwhile the general fall-out from Chris Grayling's recent Commons announcement continues to be felt and John Tizard, quoted on the Public Finance website, also raises the question of ethics and is someone else urging the government to push the 'pause' button:- 

However, there are nonetheless some critically important general points that can be made and which need to be urgently debated. These serious allegations raise a series of questions about the fundamental ethics of some public service providers and/or their internal control systems, and corporate and personal accountabilities; about the quality and effectiveness of public sector procurement and contract management; the nature and complexity of the contractual (and in particular, the payment) arrangements; and potentially, the efficacy of outsourcing especially when there is little supply side competition.

And I suggest that it should also cause ministers to push the pause (if not possibly the stop) button on the current probation and re-offending management services procurement.
When we get involved in any discussion about ethics and standards in public life though, at some point we have to consider the appalling example set by our legislature. Leaving aside for one moment our elected representatives in the Commons, lets consider the recent NHS 'reforms' that many think will pave the way for privatisation and were voted on in the House of  Lords. 

Although it may not surprise most people to know just how many Peers have vested interests in companies providing health care, astonishingly, it didn't prevent them from voting on the issue, even though it's quite likely many will personally benefit either directly or indirectly. 

As this open democracy article written before the crucial Lords vote explains:- 

In early 2012 the Lords voted in favour of the Health and Social Care bill, the final step in turning it into an Act. As the Lords sat in the house to debate and vote on the bill, research conducted by Social Investigations revealed the Lords were riddled with private healthcare interests across all parties. Despite these recent or present financial links to private companies involved in healthcare, they were allowed to debate and vote.  
Now, for the second time of asking the Lords are about to pass or reject a key piece of legislation that will affect the NHS to such an extent its very existence is in the balance. Will they or will they not choose to vote for or against section 75 Regulations of the Health and Social Care Act. If it is the former, then if passed will sound the death knell to the NHS.
Well, as we know, their Lordships voted in favour. It is said 145 Peers have recent or present financial interests in healthcare providers. I wonder how many have interests in criminal justice contractors? I find this such a disappointment as the Upper House often delivers much more considered debate and as this quote from the New Statesman explains, things have changed since most of the hereditary peers were removed:- 

‘Since the 1999 [New Labour] reform, the balance of power in the chamber has been held by the Liberal Democrats and numerous Crossbench independents. When Blair was prime minister, he faced considerable problems with the Lords over civil liberties matters, when it blocked proposals such as restrictions on jury trial and detention of terrorist suspects without charge. More recently, the coalition has faced difficulties over its cuts programme, on matters such as welfare and legal aid. For the first time in 200 years, the government thus faces credible opposition in the Lords from the left. 

The chamber’s new assertiveness has also seen it pushing at established conventions, and there have been clashes since 2010 over the Commons’ traditional financial privilege when the Lords has tried to protect public spending. Such pressures would – ironically – be even greater if the Conservatives were governing alone, and the Lib Dems were teaming up with Labour to oppose them from the Lords.’

Lets hope the Lords does a rather better job of protecting the future of the Probation Service than it has with protecting the National Health Service.  


  1. It would appear that ethics and standards are no longer on the menu, at least not for the fat fish.
    It may not be too long before both houses sit in togas, recline in splendidly decorated baths, and are fed a constant stream of grapes. Probably by some poor unfortunate old lag thats tagged or supervised by Serco or G4S!. How good would Osbourne look in his laural leafs?
    It is a serious issue though, and its the Prince John and sheriff of nottingham thing all over again. Infact if you hold a code of ethics or adhere to a level of standards , then those at the top must look down and laugh at you.
    However I firmly believe that a strong code of ethics makes the better man. Doing something because its right to do it, or because it needs to be done is a thousand times better then doing it for money.
    Im pretty long in the tooth now but this government is the most shameful that I can remember. And what will we remember about them when they're gone? Will it be the dismantling of public services? The destruction of the NHS? Record levels of unemployment? Fiddling their expenses? The largest requirement of food banks in any 1st world country since the outbreak of world war 2? I dont know. Maybe they'll just be remembered as the government that didn"t give a toss about anything but their own personal investments and bank accounts.

    1. "Doing something because it's right to do it..." Yes that neatly sums it up for me and my probation ethos. In fact you've reminded me of a conversation I once had with an ACPO who was trying to tell me that it was much easier to accept change than resist it.

      I had to point out 'since when did we just do things because it's easier?' If the change wasn't right, resistance was in fact the only right course of action to take.

    2. Sometimes I think, hoeever misplaced their thinking may be, the clients exhibit far more moral stature then staff.

    3. Well in my experience a minority of staff, but that's too many of course.

  2. Transparency International recently showed that corruption in the UK is increasing – over the past eleven years from 1 in a 100 to 5 in a 100. The UK now stands 17th in the world. Public servants - police/prison officers - taking bribes from newspapers through to MPs expenses scandal; earlier we had cash for questions, bungs for football managers. And the biggest of recent years – the 80bn Al Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia whose investigation by the Serious Fraud Office was discontinued on the grounds of nation security. With the marketisation of the public services, there will be lots of corrupt bonanzas around.

    So we live in a country that is becoming more corrupt.

    We have to keep hammering away, wherever possible getting the crooks in the dock, as has happened in many on the examples cited above. The crooks and liars are always one step ahead, but it's always sweet to see them get their comeuppance. Because we know: “All that is required for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing”.

    1. We can all see it and are screaming 'NO' but when the corrupt are shameless, the rot continues.

    2. The rot stsrts st the top. Crooks ? They're all crooks. Othrrwise they wouldn't have forgotten about you and me would they?

    3. A very good point - thanks for mentioning the corruption report - will put that in a post asap!