Rules for (Public) Life: The Nolan Principles in 2024

Written by Ben Yardley, Learning Coordinator at the Civil Service College

The United Kingdom, generally speaking, has a very good reputation for public service on the international stage. It consistently scores favourably when compared to other nations, especially in metrics such as public service design and corruption perception. While the appointment of a fifth Prime Minister in a decade in 2022 may have given the impression of turbulence, it is worth remembering that the UK has enjoyed a remarkable degree of political stability throughout its history.  But with this elevated reputation also comes the risk that standards will diminish, or that the public will lose trust in elected officials and public servants.

One of the main mechanisms for maintaining high standards across the public sector are the Seven Principles of Public Life, informally known as the Nolan Principles. Collectively, they form a set of values which underpin public service in the United Kingdom.

They are, as follows:

  1. Selflessness – Holders of public office always place the public interest before themselves.
  2. Integrity – Holders of public office must not take unfairly decisions that benefit themselves or people they know and should report all conflicts of interest.
  3. Objectivity – Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Honesty – Holders of public office should be truthful.
  7. Leadership – Holders of public office should act as examples to others and call out poor behaviour when they see it.  

The Principles were developed in 1995 in the wake of the “cash-for-questions” affair, a political scandal which rocked the John Major government. The revelation that sitting MP’s had failed to disclose conflicts of interest, and in some cases had even received payment from lobbyists in exchange for asking certain questions in Parliament, was hugely embarrassing to the government and provoked much soul-searching into the standard of public ethics in the UK.

In response, the Committee on Standards in Public Life was formed, headed by Lord Nolan. The Committee suggested that there was a broader systemic problem beyond the individual misconduct of the MP’s involved, warning of a lack of clarity in the standards expected in public life. This could potentially cause a further deterioration of public trust if it was not quickly addressed. The solution was the declaration of the seven Principles, which would be upheld by the Committee on a permanent basis.

The Nolan Principles are applicable to all who work in public life, whether a government minister, civil servant, police officer or local councillor. They also apply to private companies engaged in providing public services; for example, it could be argued that during the much-publicised Horizon Post Office scandal, the technology company Fujitsu fell short of the standards of openness and accountability expected when serving the public.

The Principles are not exhaustive, nor do they cover every situation. Importantly, they are not codified into law. Instead, they are a North Star for civic life, a set of clear expectations that inform the behaviour of everyone who serves the public, no matter their seniority.

The Nolan Principles were devised largely in response to MPs’ conduct, and it is politicians’ adherence to them which most often grabs the headlines. However, in recent months a spotlight has been placed onto the Civil Service. 

The Independent Review of Governance and Accountability in the Civil Service, published in November of 2023, raised several concerns including a lack of external scrutiny, an ‘avoidable level of tension’ with ministers and a threat to political impartiality. The Review suggested that there was a lack of external scrutiny applied to the Civil Service, noting that the size of the Civil Service has expanded significantly in recent years without corresponding changes to how it is overseen. While it remains the Prime Minister’s responsibility to direct the Civil Service, it remains unclear exactly how this works in practice.

Another issue flagged by the Review was a concern over the impartiality of the Civil Service. The Civil Service Code, introduced a year after the Standards in Public Life Report, draws heavily from the Nolan Principles in its expectations of civil servants. Three of the four ‘core values’ (Integrity, Honesty and Objectivity) are taken directly from the principles, with one important addition: Impartiality. While everyone in public life is expected to make decisions objectively and without bias, civil servants have an additional responsibility to remain politically impartial and to implement the decisions of the elected government even if they personally disagree. The Review warned that the lack of clear oversight over the Civil Service could potentially undermine its impartiality; this was echoed by the Committee for Standards in Public Life in December, which reported that, ‘it was suggested to us that in some instances officials have mistaken a feeling of dislike or discomfort with policy choices for ethical considerations that could be a breach of the Civil Service Code’.

Looking ahead, the Safety of Rwanda Bill in particular threatens to become a flashpoint between Ministers and the Civil Service, if passed. The Bill has been criticised as incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and for its apparent circumvention of the Supreme Court’s ruling that Rwanda was not a safe destination for asylum seekers.  Despite this, Civil Servants have been instructed by the government that they will be expected to fully implement the measures of the Bill if it becomes law.

The ongoing debate over the Rwanda Bill shows how the Nolan Principles can be hard to follow in practice and is also indicative of how much more complex the public sector has become since they were devised. Not only has the public sector expanded greatly in size since 1995, devolution and the proliferation of Arms Length Bodies (which now number over 300) have created a political landscape which is often complicated and opaque. Even after Brexit, the UK also has many international obligations, such as the Good Friday Agreement or the ECHR, which must be factored into decision-making.

With multiple competing pressures, it can be more difficult than ever for civil servants, and other public officials, to navigate which courses of action best represent integrity, objectivity or leadership. One thing, however, remains clear: as the Nolan Principles approach their 30th anniversary, they remain as important, and as relevant, as ever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *