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Up to standard?

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The Committee have commenced a review into the ethical standards of regulators. Richard Thomas is leading this piece of work on behalf of the Committee and offers some background to the review.

When Nolan's first report restated the principles to govern the expected behaviour of those serving the public, much of the ethical landscape was unexplored territory. There was no regulation of Ministerial appointments to public bodies, the Register of Interests for Members of Parliament and the investigative powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner were unheard of.

In parallel with greater emphasis on ensuring that the public sector acts ethically, so many other areas of life are now heavily regulated – energy, communications, transport, health services and medicines, social care, schools - as well as more general concerns such as the environment, advertising and data protection. The common element – across the increasingly blurred boundaries of private, public and voluntary sectors – is the existence of some form of external and independent regulatory body.

There has always been controversy about regulation. On the one hand, the public demands protection. On the other hand, the proliferation of regulators has been often criticised as adding to bureaucracy and cost. Successive governments have introduced initiatives such as the Cutting Red Tape programme and the Better Regulation Delivery Office to address regulatory issues. The way in which regulators choose carry out their role is also subject to comment – are they too heavy, too light touch or subject to capture by the industry or service that they regulate?

But – in contrast with politicians and their own officials at central and local levels - there has so far been little scrutiny or discussion about the ethical standards of regulatory bodies. Do they need to be whiter than white? As in all areas of public life, regulators face reduced expenditure, difficult choices and unprecedented scrutiny on how they operate. It is critical that regulators are seen to be robustly independent of those they regulate and demonstrate high standards with their own activities and decisions. Their mission is to act in the ‘public interest’, but does their independence create its own risks? What conflicts of interest arise from regulatory activity? Are there ‘revolving-door’ challenges when people come from the regulated sector and may return later? How do they avoid bias? In short, should the ethical conduct of regulators be taken as seriously as their effectiveness and efficiency?

The Committee’s latest piece of work, which I am leading, is therefore looking at the ethics of regulators themselves. How do these bodies – as different as they are – live up to the Nolan’s 7 principles? Here they are for those wracking their brains: Honesty, Integrity, Accountability, Openness, Selflessness, Leadership, Objectivity.

These principles have stood the test of time – the public repeatedly confirm that they represent the values they expect from those that serve them. We want to hear how regulators ensure they are meeting those expectations. For example, are appointments made openly and on merit? How do they ensure high standards of openness and transparency maintained? In practice, how does a regulatory body maintain its independence both from those it regulates and from the government?

This project won’t examine the need for regulation, how effectively regulators fulfil their functions, nor how they set and enforce the ethical standards of those they regulate – our focus is on their own internal approach to standards.

We started this work in late August with an initial survey sent to over 80 regulators of varying types. From their responses we hope to gain first hand insights into the particular ethical approaches currently adopted by regulators. The project will also include input from academics, research into good (and perhaps questionable) practice, and a series of meetings and workshops to gather evidence and understand the issues faced by regulators and those they regulate. We’ll publish a report with our findings during the course of 2016.

We’re interested in comments from a wide range of stakeholders as we progress the review. If you are interested in sharing your thoughts regarding the ethical standards of regulatory bodies you can contact the CSPL Secretariat on

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