18 July 2011

The News of the World saga illustrates how any organisation can quickly lose public trust. A media spotlight on the Metropolitan Police over the next few weeks will inevitably have this effect. The resignation of the Commissioner may moderate criticism. The allegations made by the Sunday Telegraph about the Commissioner accepting gifts and hospitality related to the News of the World will challenge the commitment to the ethics policies of the Met and the adequacy of the “tone at the top”.

The resignation seems to have been precipitated by the Sunday Telegraph report that the Commissioner had a complimentary stay at a spa resort earlier this year at a time when News of the World matters were subject to investigation. The invitation was through a News of the World connection, who last week was arrested on charges relating to phone hacking.( It has also been disclosed that he was contracted as a media consultant to the Met.) According to the paper the Commissioner accepted 14 invitations from the News of the World over a three year period, declining only one offer of hospitality.

The Commissioner’s resignation statement refers to the importance he places on integrity. The perception is that he didn’t ‘do enough’. With ethical matters perception can be as important as reality. The explanation is that the Met paid medical costs associated with the resort stay and the other expenses were gifted from the resort’s director who was a friend. The gift would form part of the Commissioner’s gifts and hospitality disclosure return for April – June. ( In previous quarters, the Commissioner’s disclosures have not been posted on the Met website until 7 or 8 weeks after the reporting period.) The media will inevitably be investigating whether the director had the authority of the spa to gift hospitality to a friend.

No official in the course of their job, should accept gifts, hospitality or other benefits of any value from anyone other than their employing agency without the explicit consent of their employer. In the vast majority of circumstances, the only reason anyone would give such benefits relates to the exercise of functions by that official – either before decisions are made or following the making of decisions. It is difficult to conceive of a gifting purpose unrelated to either “oiling the wheels” or to recognise the favourable way the wheels have turned for the person making the gift.

If a gift is to be accepted, that acceptance must be transparent. This involves open disclosure to a superior officer, the granting of approval, and formally recording the benefit in a publicly accessible register.

There is a surprising reluctance by many officials to be open about gifts and benefits. The justification is that minor benefits make no difference; that the exercise of powers will not be influenced by gifts, that their integrity is not corruptible. The acceptance of a benefit is rationalised – but not in terms of reciprocity which motivated the person giving it. The argument often made is that there is no need for disclosure because the benefit is of no consequence. The irony seems to escape such officials. A reluctance to disclose suggests that the benefit is of substance, that it reflects a relationship of influence, and that being open about it will give rise to some sort of discomfort.

The State Services Commissioner’ guidance about the disclosure of expenses gifts and hospitality in Understanding the Code of Conduct is that all benefits must be declared. The New South Wales Independent Commissioner Against Corruption has issued very similar advice. The finding in an ICAC procurement survey published last week is that gifts and benefits are offered in almost half of government tender arrangements. In 36% of cases, NSW officials accept them. The frequency of disclosures in agency gift registers suggest a disconnect.