Lawyers in Local Government
Annual Governance Conference
27 November 2013
Good morning. I have been invited to speak as Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and am delighted to be here. My committee has a long interest in local government standards and you, as lawyers and officers working within governance of local authorities, have a key role to play in maintaining high ethical standards. I want to say a little about today about the role of my Committee, some of its recent work and its relevance to local government.
Role of the Committee
The role of my Committee is to examine concerns about the standards of conduct of public office holders and to recommend any changes that might be required to ensure the highest standards are maintained. The Committee was created in 1994 in response to a number of allegations of “sleaze” or corrupt practices. The most prominent of these cases was probably that of Neil Hamilton MP. You may remember that he was alleged to have been taking cash from interested parties for asking questions - something which was supposed to be strictly barred. Over the past 19 years we have looked into a wide range of issues including local government, the funding of political parties, MPs’ expenses and most recently, lobbying including what is sometimes referred to as the “revolving door” of public-private employment.
In its first ever report, the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended seven principles to guide the behaviour of those who serve the public in any way.
These are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
I was pleased to hear in conversations earlier that the recent development of the descriptors of these principles in Standards Matter are welcomed. The Committee has been pivotal in developing many of the ethical structures and expectations about behaviour in public life set out in the seven principles which are now widely recognised across the public sector and beyond.
Earlier this year, our terms of reference were clarified so that the definition of “holder of public office” now encompasses all those involved in the delivery of public services, not solely those appointed or elected to public office. This is increasingly relevant to our work as the move to contract or outsource public services gains pace and I will talk a bit more about that later.
A recent independent Triennial Review of the Committee found a continuing need for the Committee to exist as an independent, permanent and self-activating ethics monitor/reviewer across all aspects of public life. As we are separate from sectoral regulators and independent of government, we can focus on broad principles, systems and frameworks and are able to make uncomfortable findings and recommendations where necessary.
It is also worth explaining that we are simply an advisory committee to the Prime Minister on standards issues. We have no statutory powers to call for things like people and papers. We have no sanctions at our disposal. We have no remit to look at individual cases. Our impact – which has been quite considerable over the years - depends entirely on our recommendations being accepted and implemented by the Government of the day. So to be effective we have to be persuasive. We have to be evidence based. We also have to be practical. There is no point in being highly principled if what you are saying is not capable of being implemented in the real world.
My Committee’s belief is that standards of behaviour in many areas of public life in the UK probably have improved since 1994. Despite this, successive surveys have shown persistent downward trends in levels of public trust, with fluctuations around the trend related to particular issues like MPs expenses.
While we can never manufacture trust in our politicians or other public servants, public perceptions are nevertheless an important barometer to help us determine what standards the public expects of them when operating in the political system. The Committee published its 5th general survey of public attitudes, conducted every 2 years, in September.
The survey looks at the British public’s view of what standards are most important to uphold, how public office holders are doing at living up to those standards, and whether they are being sufficiently held to account for any transgressions against them.
This research contained very impressive figures about the level of public confidence in local front line officials with whom members of the public are more likely to have had personal contact. Asked about whether or not they felt they would be treated fairly by a range of local services, 70 to 74% thought they would be treated fairly. These levels of trust would be the envy of other professions and politicians at a national level.
There was also a clear message in the research that the public’s perceptions of standards are not static; they respond to events and developments in the public sphere - how they are handled and reported. There is no reason to believe that people who are currently sceptical of politics could not become more hopeful. But I believe this requires public office holders to be seen to live up to the seven principles. Does anyone think, for example, that the phenomena of low voter turnout and the apparent alienation of so many from the political process has absolutely no connection with voter’s perceptions of the behaviour of politicians?
Prime responsibility for high standards of behaviour must lie with individuals and organisations, not with external regulation. That is one of the reasons why this Committee welcomed some aspects of the new standards regime for local government which replaced a scheme which was widely cited as an example of ethical ‘over-engineering’. The new arrangements emphasised local responsibility for standards and reduced the opportunity for vexatious or politically motivated complaints. But we also expressed our concern that the new regime was stripped back too far.
The new role for independent persons to be consulted as to whether or not to commence an investigation, are relatively untested. There is a question as to whether this will provide adequate assurance to the public that justice is done and being seen to be done. The lack of a range of available sanctions for failures means that the success of the new regime is entirely dependent on robust local leadership and ethical championing. This is a fragile balance and we fear that those local authorities who are ‘good at this stuff’ will continue to be while others resort to the monolithic and fragmented cultures which have in the past had the most problems in dealing with issues internally.
To function effectively, local leadership and responsibility for standards requires certain conditions to be met – including strong leadership and robust, visible action against those who fall short. Failure to address standards issues in a proactive way can itself create even greater difficulties. First, because of the effects on reputation when a major scandal finally forces change - once reputation is lost it can take a long time to regain and it impacts on those who behaved impeccably but are affected by the stigma of being associated with a particular sector. Second, because measures introduced in the face of a media storm run the risk of going far beyond what is really needed. Inaction tends to be followed by slightly panicked over reaction, followed in turn a few years later when memories have faded by over correction. What has happened to the arrangements for overseeing local standards over the past 15 years, could be seen as an example of this.
A proactive approach to the identification of risks to standards is therefore essential for all public organisations, and increasingly for those in the private sector too. It is too easy for people to get habituated to poor standards and for those who ought to be taking action to stand back because it is too difficult to do anything. So organisational processes such as pay, induction, training and promotion should be designed to support the kind of behaviour you want to encourage, and not work against it. Good behaviour is rewarded and poor behaviour addressed. This requires an open culture in which challenge of poor behaviour is encouraged, whistleblowers are listened to and not cold-shouldered and mistakes are admitted and regarded as something to learn from not brushed over, explained away or blamed on individual behaviour rather than institutional failure.
Our survey of public attitudes suggested that respondents support the use of external scrutiny, audit mechanisms and a strong internal culture fostering standards and openness as a means of improving professional integrity and increasing public confidence in public institutions.
It goes without saying, or ought to, that those in leadership positions, including the Local Government Association, have a particular responsibility for ensuring an active approach to high ethical standards in local government. By this, I mean leadership which takes responsibility for standards of behaviour in their organisations, which assesses risks to those standards and does something about them. Leadership which makes sure that it has the information to judge whether the high standards to which it aspires are a being adhered to in practice. It is also important that those in leadership positions apply the same standards to themselves as they expect to apply to others, and are seen to do so.
A smattering of recent cases in the media involving local government standards issues, illustrate these arguments. My Committee is alert to the fact that they may have to look at the subject again where individual cases give rise to wider public concern.
The Committee is also monitoring the impact of new models of service delivery, including the vast range of services now procured by local government. Giving organisations from outside the public sector, like businesses and charities, a greater involvement in providing public services, by working together and contracting services out can bring many benefits and is a vital arm of local government activity, but it also brings a risk: that the ethical standards people expect from providers of public services might slip. Either the culture of the newly-involved organisations might not fit so well with the ‘public service ethos’, or because the established systems for promoting high standards in the public sector might not extend to cover those organisations effectively.
Local councillors - through their involvement in Local Commissioning Groups - control significant health and local government expenditure decisions in relation to which can have a major impact on people’s daily lives particularly when the services are tailored to individual needs who might not have a choice to go elsewhere.
Increasingly public bodies are urged to pool their resources and to undertake joint activity in order to achieve value for money for local communities. Those involved may argue that they have very little leeway in the way they handle the whole procurement process, due to its often centralised nature and having to comply with UK and EU regulations. My Committee argues strongly that Councils should apply a rigorous approach to ensuring that high ethical standards are applied at all stages of the process, including the continuing outcomes once contracts are signed, as part of ensuring transparency and the regularity and propriety of procurement.
In our latest report ‘Strengthening transparency around lobbying’ published earlier this month the Committee called for even greater openness around decision makers across the public sector. We called for more timely and detailed disclosure about all significant meetings and hospitality involving external attempts to influence a public policy decision and encouraged local government (and other public authorities not covered by the Freedom of Information Act) to live up to this new level of transparency. Local Government is responsible for decisions which can be high value and complex. Decisions relating to the commissioning and procuring of public services is one example, but decisions in respect of applications for permits, planning or licences are others – the process by which a decision is made matters.
Society can expect better outcomes when decisions are made fairly and on merit and not influenced by personal and private interests. High ethical standards need to be deeply embedded in governance and processes so that they become an integral part of “the way things are done” and so that individual or corporate behaviour which does not meet these standards is challenged.
Organisations in every sector benefit from greater legitimacy when the public has confidence in their integrity. The UK economy benefits nationally and internationally from that confidence. The current high level of public confidence in front line local officials should not be taken for granted.
Thank you for listening.