10 December 2012

The United Nations has designated 9 December as International Anti-Corruption Day.  

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) is the agency that each year coordinates promotions in many jurisdictions to highlight the consequences of corruption. The Governments of Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Niue were among the Pacific states that marked the day.  New Zealand didn’t.  A probable explanation is that these countries are among the 164 members of the UN Convention Against Corruption (administered by UNDOC).  New Zealand together with Germany, Japan , Czech Republic, Bhutan and Barbados (and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Myanmar) are not.

Transparency International has been active also in championing events around the world.

New Zealand had its own corruption allegation to mark the date.  The media yesterday reported how District Heath Boards and their medical staff have been receiving undisclosed benefits in cash and kind from drug companies.  

Drug companies have a symbiotic relationship with the medical profession. A suspicion is that doctors, influenced by travel perks and payments, prescribe products produced by the company involved. The United States has a federal “sunshine” law requiring the disclosure by pharmaceutical companies of payments made to doctors.

DHBs are Crown Entities. Their staff are State servants. The State Services code of conduct applies to DHBs and their staff.  The code includes a standard that “We must decline gifts or benefits that place us under any obligation or perceived influence ”.  The media report is of perceived obligation or improper influence.

The State Services Commissioner’s guidance on understanding the code explains the expectations of that standard:

“We must be very careful about accepting any form of benefit that is not provided by our organisation and be aware always of the public perception that can result from accepting favours. Using an official position for personal gain is a form of dishonesty that is likely to impact on public confidence in government and, particularly, in the State Services.

“Expectations in this area therefore are more demanding than is the case in the private sector and for the public generally. We understand that anything that is proffered to us in connection with our work can only be accepted if specifically permitted by the policies of our organisation. There will usually be perceptions of influence or personal benefit if we accept gifts, hospitality or ‘quid pro quo’ exchanges of favours. We must not seek or accept favours from anyone, or on behalf of anyone, who could benefit from influencing us or our organisation.

“Organisations’ policies on accepting gifts and hospitality vary, depending on their business.  In all cases, it is expected that gifts will only be accepted following a transparent process of declaration and registration. To avoid misperceptions, it is essential that the process is public. This requirement applies equally when gifts and opportunities are offered to organisations as a whole – for example, donations to social clubs and staff discount arrangements.…

“Offers of hospitality, as with gift offers, must always be assessed in terms of the purpose of the donor. The business reason for this type of spending on State servants will usually relate to managing the relationship with organisations by facilitating access to decision-makers, or acquiring some implied endorsement through association with organisations. Receiving hospitality is usually inappropriate if it extends beyond courtesy.…

“We must ensure that work-related purchasing decisions are kept separate from arrangements of this type, unless our organisation has published policies that specifically address any apparent personal interest that may arise.

“We must not receive personal benefits or gratuities from third parties for carrying out our organisation’s functions, participating in activities as an organisation representative or undertaking work-related speaking engagements. Any payments should either be declined or paid to our organisation…”

The media report noted that the Medical Council recognised that drug companies help doctors access useful training and development, but that “any doctor involved in these kinds of activities needs to be open and transparent in disclosing about it.” However six DHBs advised that they were not aware of benefits received by staff because they don’t keep records. The Minister of Health has said that he expects doctors and nurses to abide by the code of conduct.

The reason for disclosure is reinforced by a spokesperson from Women’s Health Action who said, “Even the perception … is really problematic… it really undermines the trust and confidence of the general public.”