In his contribution to the panel discussion organized by the Integrity Group Barbados (IGB) on October 25, 2017, Sir David Simmons concluded that legislation is not a panacea for controlling corruption. Specifically, with respect to integrity in public life, he contended that, “Even after legislation is enacted, it is the personal integrity of politicians, public officials and persons in the private sector that will be the determinant of success. People are either corruptible or incorruptible”. In this, Sir David echoes the sentiments of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.
While I will not dispute that corruption depends in part on the integrity of the individual, nonetheless, the ethical or moral compass of individuals cannot always be relied upon to direct them away from conflicts of interest. Indeed, integrity in the public sector cannot be achieved and maintained by laws and rules alone. Nor for that matter should it be left to the ‘internalized morals and good will’ of public servants and especially politicians.
For that reason, it is imperative that government not only establish a code of ethics to guide public officials, but such a code must be backed by effective sanctions. The problem with the absence of guidelines and laws on integrity in public life, and codes of conduct, is that it then becomes difficult, to impossible, to determine when rules have been broken. And even when there is a perception that an ethical infraction has occurred, the lack of rules and or guidelines makes it difficult to sanction those who have committed such perceived infractions.
Moreover, in the interest of transparency and accountability, it is important that parliamentarians, as well as private sector employees, account for expenses when on government or corporate business. Unfortunately too often there is a very relaxed approach to spending public and corporate funds. And some view expense allowances as just another way to supplement their income.
Are we to accept that politicians are more trustworthy than any category of persons? Why? Because they are “Honourable members of parliament”?
Among the most articulated aspects of codes of ethics are the following:
• Disclosure of assets such as ownership interest in a business, real estate interests, tax returns, sources of income, investments, offices or directorships, creditor indebtedness, leases and other contacts with public entities, compensated representation before public entities, fees and honoraria, names of immediate family members, and financial interests of spouse and children
• Disclosure of any relationship between a person in public life and a private interest. As a general rule, it is expected that a person in public life would be obligated to avoid conflict by not participating in any discussion or debate which might have an effect on that individual’s private interests. This does not always mandate that the public official refrain from participating in any government business associated with the private interest but it will provide the public/electorate with necessary information which can be used to determine whether a public official is pursuing the State interest or personal interest.
• Guidance on what constitutes a gift and other forms of hospitality as distinct to a bribe. In many countries, these range from US$200.00 to US$1000.00.
• Many are also defined by appropriate sanctions which may include expulsion, censure, reprimands, fines and so on.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life in the UK, for example, has identified seven principles of public life. These include:
• Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
• Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organizations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
• Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
• Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
• Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
• Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
• Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
These tools are designed to regulate the behaviour of legislators, to improve ethical standards and performance of officials, and to rebuild the public trust in the political system, thereby regaining the confidence of the citizenry. And, while we can agree with Sir David, such tools will however assist in establishing a standard for parliamentarians’ behaviour.
Additionally, these tools will clarify for them what forms of behaviour are acceptable and what forms are improper and create an environment that is less likely to tolerate misconduct and other forms of unethical behaviour. In so doing, they will serve to create an environment in which parliamentarians are less likely to engage in corrupt practices.
Even the most incorruptible can benefit from them.