Written evidence submitted by Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert


Westminster Abbey Institute






1. What values, attitudes and behaviours should the Code of Conduct for MPs seek to encourage or discourage?


Behaviour is determined by attitude which in turn flows from what one values most deeply.  These three, together with the culture in which one is operating, determine ones character and disposition.  The Code should encourage that disposition which is motivated by public service, public service which is guided by the principles already articulated in the Code.  The Code should discourage the disposition which allows the motivation of service to be displaced by the motivation of power.



2. How successful is the current Code of Conduct in achieving these aims, and in what ways does it need to be changed to do so more effectively?


The Code reads as a document which began as a response to financial misconduct and has been added to over the decades.  It is cast as a regulatory instrument, which implies it is a set of rules which can be kept or broken.  The amendments over the years demonstrate a growing awareness that behind bad behaviour sit character and disposition, and the additions of various principles address this.  The result is a mixture of rules and guidance.  Rules are easier to enforce than principles.


Could the Code recognise that its principles are inevitably aspirational rather than absolute states of being?  No one perfectly embodies the principles; that would be impossible.  But principles can provide a compass point to which a person can orient themselves.  So, for example, the integrity and selflessness of Nolan can be my intention and my strong desire, and I can check my behaviour against them.  But my efforts are never going to be completely successful.  For MPs, faced with difficult choices on a daily basis, the task is to learn how to retain their integrity and behave selflessly, even while making those choices.  They are rather like helmspeople steering their boats towards a compass point which sets a direction of travel.  They need constantly to respond and adjust to the wind and the waves which means they cannot hold the helm in a fixed position.  In the analogy, the compass point is the principle, and the helmsperson has done very well indeed if he or she keeps the boat within five degrees either side of it.


In order to become effective at this level of aspirational principles rather than quantifiable rules, the Code has to recognise the need for reflection, discussion, training, coaching or some such means to actively and regularly recalibrate MPsmoral disposition towards the compass point set by the principles.  Words in a document are not enough.  Codes have to be brought alive in people, embodied by them.  That would be true of any Code in any context, but MPs should especially be given the opportunity to make this happen.  Not because they are especially bad, but because they - human and fallible as the rest of us - are especially morally exposed by the very nature of our representative democracy.  They make themselves vulnerable on all our behalves, so they are owed especial care.  Our democracy demands that they have to actively seek power - selection, election and re-election - even though their vocation and function is public service.  Power is a constant companion to every politician, however motivated by service they might be, and power is morally corrosive.  Not only does it skew already difficult moral choices and decisions and blur the clarity of what is and what is not in the public interest (how can a politician do anything in the public interest without power?) but it also creates a kind of aura around the one with power, which affects everyone with whom they come into contact, so that relationships too are skewed by this corrosive element.  You cannot do away with the need to seek and retain power, because that is the price of democracy, so you have to guard yourself against its corrosive effect.  Self-aware MPs will take active steps to help themselves ensure their moral disposition is kept healthy.  But this level of self-awareness is rare, as we have found in our work at Westminster Abbey Institute.  And few non-MPs will feel they are in a position to tell MPs that they need help.  Nor is there a professional or procedural structure which will do so.  MPs have to recognise their need themselves.


Given the critical role played by the culture or ethos of an institution in determining normative behaviour, reflective discussion on the Codes principles should consider not just what it means for an individual MP to embody them, but also how the culture of the House of Commons might be enriched to facilitate MPsself awareness and willingness to keep learning how to better embody the principles.


Professions generally require their members to undertake regular training in the form of annual continuing professional development, in order to retain membership of the professional body.  In some cases it is left up to the member to decide what that training might be, though it has to be accredited.  Often it is not so much the content of the training as the attitude engendered by regular exposure to it that matters most: as one lawyer put it to me, at the very least he is reminded, every year, that he doesnt know everything.


Some MPs do have the self-awareness to seek help.  For example, Rt Hon Baroness Jowell, when she was an MP and even when she was a Cabinet Minister, found time to take herself away on silent retreat for one week each year, and for another week each year she found the most disadvantaged community she could and served it, including the Dharavi slum in Mumbai and the junglecamp in Calais.  These were her chosen methods to morally recalibrate.  She imposed them on herself; no one was going to tell her she should undertake them.


Westminster Abbey Institutes FellowsProgramme is another example.  Each year twenty public servants from different institutions are brought together for a programme in which they attend six seminars focused on public service values, sharing their experiences and challenges.  Most cohorts include at least one MP.  At the end of the year they become Fellows of Westminster Abbey Institute (WAIFs!).  They then remain connected to their cohort and to the Institute, regularly participating in conversations that rekindle their public service values.


Reflective discussions MPs might find valuable could include the opportunity to ponder real cases which they themselves can bring, historic ones if current ones are too sensitive to be aired in front of other MPs, which present genuine moral dilemmas.  The point of the discussions is not to give MPs something they dont have, but to rekindle what is in them - principled behaviour - so it is kept strong and supple like a moral muscle, able to withstand the daily pressures to weaken it.



3. How can the Code be made simpler, clearer, more transparent and more readily understood?


A distinction could be made more clearly between aspirational principles and specific rules.  The principles should be given priority since anyone seeking to follow them should consequently find keeping the rules easy.


The principles are given priority in the current Code, but they are not clearly expressed.  Listing them in order of appearance shows this: probity, integrity; selflessness, integrity (sic), objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership; respect, professionalism, understanding othersperspectives, courtesy, acceptance of responsibility; dignity, courtesy and respect to staff and visitors.  (Paraphrased:) Always ensure the public interest prevails.  Protect the reputation of the House and its members.  Act in accordance with the public trust placed in you. 


Each of those principles is important but the presentation is confusing and seems a bit random.  Would it make sense to concentrate on the Nolan principles, since these are adopted across public service, expanding and explaining them so they explicitly apply to the MPscontext, and ensuring that the other principles are clearly included?  Here is an attempt, in no way definitive, but to show what I mean.  Every principle is worth ever deeper exploration, not on paper but in reflective conversation and practice.


Selflessness: private interest should not intrude into your public service.  Respect the views of others and be aware you may well not understand them, so listen carefully to what others say to you.  Consciously switch from transmitto receive.

Integrity: mean what you say.  Learn how to retain your integrity even as you make difficult moral choices.

Objectivity: serve all your constituents equally, not just those who voted for you.

Accountability: answer to the public whom you represent; to your fellow MPs and the culture of the House of Commons; and to your own conscience.

Openness: behave such that scrutiny holds no fears for you.  Listen carefully to others without assuming you know what they mean.

Honesty: make telling the truth a lifelong study.  It isnt easy.

Leadership: serve.  Take responsibility for your actions.  Be trustworthy.



4. How can the requirements of the Code be communicated better to MPs and to the wider public?


Might there be an MP - the Chair of the Standards Committee, for example - who is explicitly tasked to champion the Code?  His or her responsibility would include leading fellow MPs by example, and finding ways to show a sceptical public the value and desirability of MPs who have the self-awareness and humility to recognise the need to continually recalibrate their character and disposition.



5. How far is the Code of Conduct consistent with other codes that have effect within Parliament, that is, the Parliamentary Behaviour Code and the House of Lords Code of Conduct, and are changes to the Code needed to create greater consistency with the other codes?


Ensuring consistency is part of taking the Code seriously.  And given the vital importance of procedure to the work of the House, explicit complementarity between it and the Code should help foreground the Code.  If the House is serious about its Code, its principles should clearly guide all procedural matters.



6. What should be learned from the development of the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS) and what can be done to ensure there is no confusion between the two systems operating side by side?




7. In what ways does the Ministerial Code complement or undermine the Code of Conduct?

How should the Houses commitment to tackle racism and discrimination be incorporated in the Code?


First part of the question N/A.


Second part of the question: There is something to be said for emphasising examples of failures to abide by the fundamental principles of the Code, by naming them.  But if the principles are taken seriously, racism and discrimination should be addressed.  The principles point us to recognising both human equality and that everyones perspective is unique.  It would be reflection and training that would bring the principles to life, to make us see that every one of our fellow humans is due our respect, that we dont know how another person, any other person, sees the world, and that we are therefore enjoined to to attend to what the other is saying.



8. What changes are necessary to the contents and operation of the Guide to the Rules which accompanies the Code?




9. The current Code only authorises the Commissioner to investigate breaches of the Rules of Conduct specified in Paragraphs 10 to 17 of the Code should she be empowered to investigate alleged breaches of the wider Code including the Seven Principles of Public Life?




10. Should the remit of the Commissioner as set out in the Guide to the Rules (Chapter 4, paras 21-23) be extended to include any matters currently excluded?




11. How can the Code and Guide be effectively enforced?


The Code is not external but a form of self-regulation, so enforcement has to be with consent.  However, it has been given legal force because its has been accepted by resolutions of the House.  Could reflective discussion or training on its principles be added to the Code by means of a resolution of the House?



12. How can Member, staff and public confidence in the Code and Guide and in their operation be improved?


It would be good to raise its profile not primarily as a rule book with which to rap MPsknuckles but as a wise and constructive guide to sustain their public service.



13. Would any other changes to the present Code and Guide be desirable?


              Not more than has already been proposed.



18 February 2021