Maintaining ethical standards in public life


By Joanne Pitt, CIPFA Local Government Policy Manager

The public sector in the UK mandates high ethical standards from those who work within it, and for those who are working directly with taxpayers’ money in particular. Since 1995, the seven principles of public life, known as the Nolan principles, have underpinned decision-making and public trust. These principles, which focus on culture rather than process, enhance behaviours that lead to improved accountability and governance.

CIPFA’s guidance for public sector accountants also emphasises the need for a strong commitment to ethical values, meaning everyone from apprentices to CFOs are expected to conduct themselves with integrity. However, while standards overall remain high, research has shown evidence for concern in some areas of local government.

Back in January of 2019, a report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life identified a range of areas in which the ethical standards of local government needed to be strengthened. Several of the recommendations involved legislative change, including several amendments to the Localism Act 2011 which, disappointingly, government has yet to address. However, there is movement in other areas.

Right now, the Local Government Association is consulting on the draft model member code of conduct, which was recommended by the committee. This new standard for behaviour would enable councillors to be held to account for serious or repeated breaches and support officers to address such behaviour, including in parish councils.

Through a shared interest in good governance, CIPFA has come together with SOLACE and Lawyers in Local Government to respond jointly to this consultation, and to consider how the remaining recommendations from the committee’s 2019 report could be addressed.

During the challenging times we find ourselves in, the commitment of public sector professionals to high ethical standards is of even more importance than ever. Communities need to be confident that local officials are equipped to deal with crisis situations and make decisions in the public interest. The implementation of a refreshed member code of conduct will support this endeavour going forwards.

The LGA consultation is open until 17 August and we strongly encourage everyone with an interest in governance and ethics to let their voice be heard.

This article first appeared in Public Finance.

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