A briefing paper on the legal issues surrounding a Scottish independence referendum
Seven Principles of Public Life
The Seven Principles of Public Life, often known as the ‘Nolan principles’, are as follows:
- 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 organisations 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 and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
The Committee for Standards in Public Life
These principles were devised by the Committee of Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in 1995 under its original chair, Lord Nolan. The exact wording has been amended several times and the above quote shows the current wording.
CSPL was established by the then-Prime Minister John Major, with the following terms of reference:
“To examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life.”
The Nolan principles were set out in the Committee’s initial report, Standards in Public Life. The Committee’s report said that “the general principles of conduct which underpin public life need to be restated”. In stating the principles, the report said:
“These principles apply to all aspects of public life. The Committee has set them out here for the benefit of all who serve the public in any way”.
The report recommended that all public bodies should draw up Codes of Conduct incorporating these principles.
The Committee also recommended that the House of Commons should “draw up a Code of Conduct setting out the broad principles which should guide the conduct of Members; this should be restated in every new Parliament”.
Are the principles enforced?
The Nolan principles are not law and are not directly enforced, but they form part of many codes of conduct. For example, the Ministerial Code says that Ministers are expected to observe the seven principles of public life, and the House of Commons Code of Conduct says that MPs are expected to follow the principles “in carrying out their parliamentary and public duties”.
25 years on
In 2021, CSPL published a report which included a review of whether the principles contain the right ethical expectations for those in public life. Contributors to the enquiry supported the seven principles. CSPL also cited research evidence from 2002-2012 showing that the principles reflected what the public expect of office holders.
The report noted that the principles have been adopted widely:
“At the highest levels of government, the Seven Principles can be found in the Ministerial Code and in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords codes of conduct. For local government and non-departmental public bodies, the Seven Principles can be found in guidance and codes of conduct for local councils, national research bodies, regulators, NHS trusts, universities, school governors and advisory bodies.”
Recent developments: House of Commons
In November 2021 The House of Commons Committee on Standards (not to be confused with CSPL) proposed bespoke descriptors of the seven principles for MPs. These were designed to more closely reflect how the principles apply to the role of MPs. In April 2022, the Committee took evidence from the Leader of the House and the Minister for the Cabinet Office on the Nolan principles.
In the Committee’s May 2022 report summarised responses to the proposals. The Chair of the CSPL said that they “strongly support the idea that [the principles] need to be interpreted for particular institutions and organisations”, but the Government expressed concern about the proposals.
In July 2022, the Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Ellis) answered an Urgent Question from Labour on the mechanisms for upholding standards in public life.
Committee on Standards in Public Life, Commons Library Research Briefing
Upholding Standards in Public Life, Committee on Standards in Public Life report from November 2021