Conduct, civility and the Nolan Principles

Posted on 24/11/2020 by Ed Hammond.

Last week was officially Anti-Bullying Week. It was good to have a real-life example of the issues and dynamics involved in victimisation and harassment, in the form of the independent report into bullying alleged to have been carried out by the Home Secretary.

It makes it a good time to reflect on whether there are any effective mechanisms to enforce standards of good conduct – either at the national and local level – when our political culture means that people with the support of the powerful can, effectively, style out wrongdoing.

We feel these risks particularly in local government. Our standards regime has consistently been seen as in need of reform – lacking as it does any system of real enforcement. While I’ve no interest in relitigating the pros and cons of the Standards Board, one of the things independent enforcement of standards and conduct can do is to reach into toxic political environments and assert that behaviour means something – that there are some things that we cannot, and should not, accept as acceptable.

Making these judgements involves a complex mix of subjective judgements. This is part of the reason why, twenty-five years ago, in partial response to the string of scandals then engulfing the Government of the day, John Major established the Nolan Committee, empowering it to develop and then promote the idea that there are some basic standards for those in public life. Despite undergoing minor amendment in 2013 the “Nolan principles” have remained remarkably current in their relevance, but seen to be referred to less frequently as the foundational statement in considering how people who take public office should behave and work together.

So important are they that they sit as a part of every council’s constitution. But when was the last time that you had a proper conversation – member to member, or member to officer – about what the principles mean to you? When was the last time you considered how they should guide you, and your interactions with others?

In a world of polarisation – and because of the enormous social impact wrought by this pandemic – time spent considering these issues must be time well spent. The opportunity to do so, we’d suggest, sits with the decision to incorporate the wording of the LGA’s new “model” Code of Conduct, which is expected to be signed off very shortly.

The Code has undergone a review since it was consulted on earlier this year – when the final version is published we expect it will form an excellent jumping off point for proper local discussion about its incorporation. The worst thing would be to miss this opportunity, by wordlessly incorporating the terms of the new Code into your constitution without using it to provoke this vital – difficult, but still vital – conversation. Instead, making the time for even informal conversation about conduct and standards issues may help to tease out nascent problems which otherwise would be left to fester over time.

We have to be able to work and sit together (in a socially distanced way) if local authorities, as democratic institutions, are to operate effectively. Debate has to happen; it has to be robust, it has to be political. Conduct is about more than slippery concepts like “civility” – fundamentally it is about respect, and the respect that we each accord to the principles and institutions that protect a democratic system which, around the world, appears fragile.

The big principles we talk about – accountability, transparency, the need for involvement and plurality in how people are involved in decision making – all of these rest on personal choices and personal behaviours. And we have to work at these behaviours actively to make sure that they remain real and relevant.


About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.