Standards in public life: are we in a post-Nolan age?

In 1995, the Nolan report established ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’. Twenty-five years later, questions have been raised about the continuing relevance of the Nolan principles. Lord (Jonathan) Evans of Weardale, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, argues here that although we are not not yet living in a ‘post-Nolan’ age, there are reasons for real concern.

In recent months we’ve heard a new phrase used by academics, commentators, and members of the public who have an interest in public standards. That phrase is a ‘post-Nolan age’. 

The sentiment is encapsulated in an email sent to my Committee’s mailbox earlier this year. A member of the public told us they ‘feel a great sadness that the moral framework which has guided British public life for the past quarter century appears to be well and truly over’.

The email referred to the growing perception that those in public life no longer feel obliged to follow the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – otherwise known as the Seven Principles of Public Life

These principles have long underpinned the spirit of public service in this country, and were first formally articulated in Lord Nolan’s seminal 1995 report – the first from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I am now Chair.

Since 1995 it has been increasingly accepted that anyone in public service should act in accordance with the Seven Principles. The Principles apply to ministers and MPs, all civil servants, local government officials, public bodies, the NHS, agencies as well as private companies and charities delivering services on behalf of the taxpayer. The Principles are not a rulebook but a guide to institutional administration and personal conduct, and are given a hard edge when they inform law, policy, procedure and codes of conduct. 

In their essence, the Seven Principles are there to govern the legitimate use of entrusted power in public life. All of us in public life, whether through democratic election or public appointment, have some degree of power afforded to us on the public’s behalf, whether it is the power to make decisions on benefits, to spend money on schools, to legislate to protect public health or to influence debate. This power is lent to us to be used for the good of the public.

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Light and shadows: the RHI scandal and the temptations of secrecy

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The RHI inquiry in Northern Ireland has led to concerns about a record ‘void’ that has left room for doubt and suspicion. Ben Worthy argues that the lack of a record might aid political deniability, but means that politicians also can’t be truly exonerated when accused of wrongdoing.

Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if avoidance done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then adviser Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in ‘deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons’. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a select committee in 2012 concluded that there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam McBride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns ‘the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy’. However, the FAQ goes on, ‘how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern’. You can see the background here and a timeline. Continue reading