The Civil Service Code says that:
- fulfill your duties and obligations responsibly;
- always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom you have dealings;
- carry out your fiduciary obligations responsibly (that is make sure public money and other resources are used properly and efficiently);
- deal with the public and their affairs fairly, efficiently, promptly, effectively and sensitively, to the best of your ability;
- keep accurate official records and handle information as openly as possible within the legal framework; and
- comply with the law and uphold the administration of justice.
You must not:
- misuse your official position, for example by using information acquired in the course of your official duties to further your private interests or those of others;
- accept gifts or hospitality or receive other benefits from anyone which might reasonably be seen to compromise your personal judgement or integrity; or
- disclose official information without authority. This duty continues to apply after you leave the Civil Service.
If you need a brief definition of integrity then I like this one:
Integrity is choosing your thoughts and actions based on values rather than personal gain.
Here is some additional practical advice on conflicts of interest and personal financial interests:
Conflicts of interest
Great care needs to be taken to avoid conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived. You may be certain that you could rise above them, but others will doubt it. All potential conflicts of interest, including conflicts with the interests of your immediate family, must therefore be disclosed to managers, remembering that an innocuous friendship, investment, gift or treat can be transformed overnight into a possible conflict of interest. The following paragraphs provide guidance, but nothing in them should be taken to detract from departmental guidance, which should be consulted, and taken to prevail, in case of doubt. Indeed, certain individual departments, or parts of departments, have additional requirements above those mentioned below.
(Much administrative law (i.e. judicial review) is concerned with conflicts of interest. Further advice is here.)
Gifts, hospitality etc.
These may be divided into three categories.
First, there are gifts from a company whose services you are using or might use, or with whom you might negotiate grant or other support, or which might materially benefit from decisions with which you might be involved. There are absolutely no circumstances in which you can accept a gift of any value, or any hospitality more substantial than a working lunch, from such a source. This prohibition extends to the use of Air Miles and other benefits offered by the travel trade etc.
Second, expensive gifts (each departments defines its own limit) from other donors must also generally be refused or returned. Alternatively, it is sometimes possible to say to the donor ‘Thank you for the gift which I will use in the office rather than for my personal use’. (You can donate wine to the Christmas party.) Failing this, you can hand the gift over to the department, or pay the department to let you keep it.
Third, any gifts, hospitality etc. whose acceptance is not prohibited under the first two rules above, should also be refused unless the acceptance can clearly be justified as contributing to the achievement of your objectives. Put another way, the reason for the acceptance has to be clearly defensible, always remembering the Greek proverb that ‘gifts are poison’.
Positive reasons for accepting hospitality include the need to carry out an ambassadorial role, make contacts and gain information. It is therefore generally OK to attend celebrations of a company’s success or longevity, or an industry-wide gathering, including trade association dinners. It is also reasonable to accept inexpensive gifts such as ties and pens, so as to avoid giving offence. Conversely, it is important to avoid developing a sense of obligation to a host or donor, and to avoid criticism (from those unable to benefit) of benefiting from lavish hospitality etc. In general, therefore, you should not accept tickets for major sporting events, Glyndebourne or Covent Garden. It is seldom a good argument that you are establishing or maintaining contacts at such events, because it is seldom appropriate or possible to discuss business. It is often useful to apply the ‘wow’ test. When you receive an invitation and find yourself saying ‘wow’ then it is time to refuse.
A similar approach should be adopted when considering whether you might be accompanied by a partner to an event. Indeed, the negative factors can be more intense, given that the cost to the host will have doubled, and the opportunity to do business will have diminished. On the other hand, it can be helpful to be accompanied by a partner to an event at which one is trying to build up a relationship with the host or to an event at which one is acting as an ambassador, for instance at a company celebration or an event in aid of charity.
It is usually acceptable to accept local transport, lunch and refreshments when visiting private sector companies. But you may never let a private sector company pay your rail fare, air fare or overnight hotel bill. It is also acceptable to accept overnight accommodation in a company’s guest house provided for that purpose, but of course you must not then claim overnight subsistence. And it is permissible to accept a free flight in a company plane if there is no convenient public transport and if the plane would have been making the journey anyway. But the offer of such transport should be refused if convenient public transport is available, or if the provision of the flight would cause the company to incur significant expense.
Incidentally, the NAO published a report, in early 2016, on the acceptance of gifts etc. In general, the NAO found that the above rules were being observed, but they did criticise the acceptance of tickets to professional sports and cultural events, sometimes accompanied by a spouse and/or children; bottles of champagne; wine for a team’s Christmas lunch; and iPads. You have been warned!
We must all take particular care to avoid profiting, or enabling others to profit, (or even getting into a position where we could do these things) from information which is supplied to us in confidence. In particular, you must consult your line manager if you are asked to handle papers concerning any company (including a bank) in which you have invested, or with which you have any financial link. (However, standard bank accounts may be ignored for this purpose, unless they contain a huge amount of money.) You must also tell your manager if you hold shares in, or have any other link with, any company which is dealt with by you or your colleagues. You must do this immediately on joining the team, or immediately on acquiring the shares etc. This applies even if the shares are held via a PEP or ISA. Holdings in collective vehicles such as OEICs and unit trusts need not be reported unless you have a large holding (over £1000) and you know that your trust has invested in a company or companies with which you are dealing.
You must also tell your line manager about any other employment or self-employment. And you must disclose links to all other bodies (including charities) if it looks as though you might be asked to deal with them on behalf of the department.
There are also strict rules about business appointments after retirement. It is obviously important that there should be no cause for any suspicion of impropriety when you take up a new job after retirement. All offers of employment should therefore be reported to your department who will if necessary involve the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) which gives advice on applications at the most senior levels, and reviews a wider sample in order to ensure consistency and effectiveness. Sadly, however, ACOBA has no power other than to give advice, and there have been numerous examples of senior figures, including ex-Ministers such as George Osborne, accepting high profile appointments well in advance of seeking clearance.
Criminal corruption - such as accepting bribes or rigging contracts - is very rare in the UK civil service. This is in large part due to the all-pervasive ethical culture described above and elsewhere in this website. It also helps that civil servants' salaries are close to market rates so officials don't generally feel cheated by their employer.
I am aware of only two recent examples of corruption although a better term for each would be fraud.
- Edward Chapman in effect stole around £1 million before his mother - also a civil servant - found out about it and informed the authorities. Chapman was jailed for three years in 2016. This was hardly classic corruption as Chapman had no accomplices.
- Alan Williams defrauded his department of £1.7 million between 2017 and 2019 before a colleague became suspicious. Again, there were no accomplices - he simply set up a bogus company and contract, using his knowledge of financial controls to circumvent them. He was jailed for three and a half years.
But it is important to acknowledge that the civil servants are from time to time accused of behaving unethically and/or over-aggressively, towards immigrants, for instance - the Windrush scandal was one recent example of the latter. And the Department of Health was shown to have presided over a pretty dysfunctional local health service and regulators in the report into deaths at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital:
"Over the many years during which the families have sought answers to their legitimate questions and concerns, they have been repeatedly frustrated by senior figures. ... The obfuscation by those in authority has often made the relatives of those who died angry and disillusioned. ... The records show that the Department of Health used a number of different Freedom of Information Act exemptions to resist publication of the Baker Report until legal advice was received in July 2013 that it should be published.
There have also been accusations of cover-ups and failures to investigate serious allegations, including by claiming Crown Immunity from prosecution. And the Civil Service Reform sections of this website include plenty of evidence that the 21st Century civil service now devotes too much effort to defending (indefensible) Ministerial policies and devotes too little effort to speaking truth to power. I have heard of a comment by a Bulgarian official that "in Britain we delude ourselves that we are not corrupt. Our corruption is so sophisticated that cunning people can deny its existence" .. to which most senior officials respond that they are merely doing Ministers' bidding - and they are in turn responding to voters' concerns about immigration, for instance. It will be interesting, in years to come, to see how later generations and historians view our current struggles with these issues.
Compliance with the Law
This ethical rule became interesting in 2020 when the Boris Johnson government tabled the Internal Market Bill which - if enacted - would conflict with International Law in the form of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. The Cabinet Secretary determined (correctly in my view) that civil servants could continue to work on the Bill. It was less certain what they should do if they were in due course asked to implement the provisions of the Act and so contravene international law.