Written evidence submitted by Professor F D Rose




There is a widespread belief that in recent decades our society has become less compassionate and less “moral”. It will be for historians to assess the extent of any decline in ethical standards, and to tease out the reasons for it.  However, there can be little doubt that this belief, in part, stems from the unethical behaviour of some of our MPs. In recent years examples include the expenses scandal of 2009, and the grossly unethical behaviour (of both sides) in the Brexit campaign of 2016. Regrettably there have been numerous instances of unethical conduct associated with our current Prime Minister. Perhaps the most noteworthy was his defence of those clauses of his Internal Market Bill (2020) which would have enshrined in UK law the Government’s “right” to break International Law. That this prompted the resignation of many senior Law Officers as well as open condemnation from all surviving former Prime Ministers underlines its seriousness. As I write, further breaches of International Law are being openly proposed by members of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. I have highlighted this particular example because I think it provides a useful marker against which to evaluate the suggestions I wish to make in this brief paper.


Despite the serious ethical lapses referred to above this paper assumes that, as a society, we still believe unethical behaviour is a threat to our Parliamentary democracy and, indeed, our society and, as such, is unacceptable.  


The question arises, therefore, are there specific actions that could seed or catalyse the sort of widespread and fundamental changes needed to move us back towards a more caring, more moral, - more ethical society?


The Role of MPs

To bring about a more ethical society it is essential for our Government to behave in a more ethical manner. This would set an important example to the electorate and enhance its credibility in appealing for a more ethical approach within society more widely.


Achieving this essential change would be greatly facilitated by MPs having their own agreed Code of Ethics.


MPs may argue that they already have ethical guidelines in the form of the Code of Conduct approved by the House of Commons and the requirement to adhere to the Nolan Principles. There is a focus on ethical principles in both of these documents, but those principles are not expanded upon in the context of the work that MPs actually do.


The value of a Code of Ethics, carefully devised for a particular professional activity, is that it is more than a set of rules. Crucially, it conveys the ethical “mindset” of that professional group and so stimulates fundamental ethical questions, the answers to which inform ethical behaviour. Such questions all start from one basic question. In these specific circumstances, “What is the right thing to do?” - “What ought I to do?” The questions are direct - blunt even – and the answers, intentionally, have an imperative tone. The questions are designed to clearly distinguish “right” from all the “easy”, “convenient”, “uncontentious” answers with which we all too often satisfy ourselves. They are designed to challenge those for whom the Code has been written. We may not always be able to do exactly the right thing but there is no ethical justification for not personally acknowledging what would be the right thing to do. Such an acknowledgement not only signals the right way to act but also affords a degree of protection against those who may seek to exert undue influence to persuade MPs towards a different course of action.


A code of ethical conduct needs to be drawn up by those for whom it is intended. However, devising a code is not complicated.  Most codes of ethics designed for everyday practical situations are based on two fundamental ethical principles, beneficence (do good) and non-maleficence (avoid doing harm). Of course, we can argue about what we mean by “good” and by “right” but fortunately, within our society, there is a high degree of consensus about how we should treat our fellow human beings. When we focus on particular sectors of our society, for example health, law, social care or education the levels of consensus are very high indeed and there is no reason to suppose this would not also be the case with MPs.

In order to help MPs to maximise the good they are able to do (and to avoid doing harm) these basic ethical principles of beneficence and non-maleficence need to be more closely defined by a series of subordinate ethical principles (and, I would suggest, associated values and standards) which are particularly relevant to their areas of work. Subordinate ethical principles frequently found in the ethical codes of other professional groups include Respect, Competence and Integrity. Associated values and standards include Empathy, Tolerance, Consideration, Evidence based decision-making, Openness and Honesty. But I list these only as illustrative examples: the choice is considerably wider.

It is also crucially important for MPs to identify their various stakeholders and to classify them as primary, secondary and tertiary in terms of the level of MPs’ responsibility to them and the extent to which they are likely to be impacted by the actions of MPs.

Of course, it is true that “you can’t please all the people all the time”. Choices often have to be made. However, to have clearly identified and considered these categories of stakeholders would make it much easier for MPs to adhere to ethical principles to the greatest possible extent and across as wide a range of stakeholder interests as possible.

Whatever Code of Ethics MPs adopt, of course, should have the credibility afforded by appropriate external advice and scrutiny and be accompanied by transparent implementation and monitoring processes.


A Wider Context for a Code of Ethics for MPs

My reason for advocating a detailed and activity based Code of Ethics for MPs is not primarily to create an additional control over the misbehaviour of some of our current MPs (although that would be a pleasing consequence).  There are far more important and fundamental reasons for suggesting a Code of Ethics which are to do with MPs readying themselves for addressing the very real and existential threats we now face.


In recent years there has been no shortage of arguments advanced for reappraising how we live and how we interact with our physical, biological and social environments. An exhaustive list is beyond the scope of this document but consider, for example: 





These three imperatives are supported by significant quantities of hard empirical evidence which has been reviewed and eloquently explained in a widely accessible form by some of the greatest intellects of our times 1. Crucially, in all instances, cogent arguments have been made that implementing the necessary changes will depend on all of us adopting a more ethical way of living.

What has been said above will come as no surprise to MPs: nor, I trust, will they find much with which to disagree.  What might give MPs pause for thought is the suggestion that they, individually and collectively, should take on the role of setting an example of more ethical behaviour to the entire electorate.


It is difficult to see how opposition to taking on this role could be justified. All the examples above relate to areas of extremely serious concern about which both the Government and Opposition parties have indicated a commitment to take rapid and effective action.  If progress, in turn, depends on the electorate adopting higher ethical standards does it not follow automatically that MPs should show leadership by themselves adopting higher standards? If not MPs, who?


Should MPs consider a Code of Ethics of the sort proposed here to be a barrier to the way their business is currently conducted perhaps it is the way that business is conducted that should be changed rather than the Code of Ethics.


My Suggestion for the MPs’ Code of Conduct

Finally, let me return to the Code of Conduct for MPs currently being reviewed.


I accept that MPs need guidance on how to conduct themselves and, indeed, rules about what is and is not acceptable.  However, I believe the central core of a Parliamentary Code of Conduct must be a detailed Code of Ethics which is tailored to the work MPs actually do and which “challenges” them to constantly ask themselves what is the ethically right way (and what would be the ethically wrong way) to respond to the issues before them.


1 For the sake of brevity full references are not included (although available if required) but the list includes recent books by Lord Nigel Crisp, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Sir David Attenborough and Professors Mike Berners-Lee, Paul Collier, Richard Wilkinson and Peter Singer.  




Emeritus Professor - University of East London             


Please note that I am not acting on behalf of my University nor any of the organisations listed below. My submission is made in a personal capacity although based on extensive experience of ethical issues within my academic career and my involvement in several charities including Place2Be, Association for the Rehabilitation of Communication and Oral Skills, British Red Cross, Universities in Support of Wounded, Injured and Sick Service Personnel (now part of the Regular Forces Employment Association) and the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust.


14 July 2021