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Regulators can make rules and enforce them, but can they inculcate the right values?

September 24, 2012

The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) is the Commons select committee which scrutinises the Cabinet Office and the Civil Service, and looks at the work of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, the Charities Commission, the Public Appointments Commission and the UK Statistics Authority.  It also covers the ethical issues which face Government. 

The Committee recently reported on our inquiry into the Business Appointment Rules and the work of  the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACoBA) which advises departing ministers and civil servants which private sector jobs it is ethical to accept, or not.  Our inquiry exposed the conundrums of ethical regulation: both the necessity and rules and systems of adjudication and enforcement, and their inherent fallibility.  As soon as you have rules, those subject to them tend to assume that they define what is right and wrong, but if we seek to rely solely on broad principles to guide conduct, they quickly become either ineffective or paralysing depending upon how we choose to interpret them. 

Public officials and politicians (as we are all too painfully aware) have to accept working in an environment in which words or behaviour will be judged by standards which can shift dramatically and suddenly.  The politician who invited “the court of public opinion” to judge on the ethical standards in public life was obviously right to suggest that the public’s confidence in ethical standards is essential, but utterly wrong to suggest that public opinion can pretend to be an objective “court” in any particularly case at any particular time, least of all when headlines are shrieking outrage about some current issue.  It becomes easy to believe that all ethical regulation is subjective and that therefore ethics themselves are subjective.  Yet there is such a thing as truth, and values, and therefore standards of behaviour, should derive from an objective view.  Values are not something you like or dislike on the same basis as a beautiful sunset or the decoration in your neighbour’s living room. 

There are ironies in ethical regulation.  There has never been so much regulation of banking and financial services, and yet the banking and financial services sector has never failed the nation so spectacularly as in the collapse of our banks.  In politics, we have now have codes of conduct coming out of our ears: for public life, for civil servants, for Ministers and for MPs.  Over the past decade or so, we have seen the increasing regulation of political parties and party fund raising, the establishment of new and independent bodies like the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Prime Ministers’ adviser on ministerial interests, the Electoral Commission, ACoBA and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), yet polls show that public trust in politicians or civil servants has hardly improved!

The lesson must be that, however necessary rules and principles are, rules are not values, and principles expressed on worthy documents are just words.  The defence, “there is no law against it” does not put the defendant on the moral high ground.  By that same token, breach of the letter of the law might well betray casuistry or negligence, but not necessarily moral decay.  Regulation, adjudication and punishment cannot change human nature or turn bad people into saints; they are merely an attempt to deal with the consequences.   Barclays used to be the Quaker bank.  Regulation has not made it safe to allow anybody to take up a position of responsibility in a bank, regardless of their values and beliefs.  Perhaps we Barclays customers should be encouraged that Barclays has appointed its new Chief Executive from within.  Rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater, its perhaps attempting to re-establish some of the fundamentals on which the Bank was so successfully founded.

PASC is finalising a report on its inquiry into Ministerial Special Advisers (SpAds), who have been at the centre of a number of controversies in recent years.  As one senior SpAd said to me with a flash of anger, “The point is, Bernard, that anyone in public life who has to keep referring to a code of conduct or a set of rules to decide whether something is ok or not, should never be in public life at all.”  Any rules or principles should therefore be drafted and enforced with that truth firmly in mind.  Few people in public life set out to be bad.  Those who are found to have done wrong are usually mortified by their moral failing. 

We have tested one model for the past 20 years and it has not been wildly successful.  This was borne out by CSPL’s own polling assessments of public trust in MPs.  The definition of madness is to carry on doing the same thing and to expect a different outcome next time.  We need a new approach.  Should we be thinking less about negative rules and punishments and more about positive induction and support for people coming into public life so they are empowered to make ethical judgements on their own account?  Then perhaps our institutions would better embody the values to which we aspire.  I hope that the Parliamentary Banking Commission will be considering this question but perhaps CSPL should also conduct an inquiry about how public institutions and political parties should recruit and induct people into roles in public life.  We live in an age of “competency” based interviews where recruiters are discouraged from scrutinising peoples’ private opinions and beliefs.  Job specifications for public roles and training and development programmes should be heavier on values.  One of the reasons we all so admire the Armed Forces is because the inculcation of the right values is at the forefront of the recruitment and training. 

 Bernard Jenkin MP

Chairman of the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee.


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