You can (probably) have the calendar, but beware the champagne. The questions are, what is the value and what is the context – who’s giving it, how often, and for what purpose? I’m talking here about whether central government officials should be accepting gifts and hospitality. Our report this week, Investigation into the acceptance of […]
Posted on February 11, 2016 by Keith Davis
You can (probably) have the calendar, but beware the champagne. The questions are, what is the value and what is the context – who’s giving it, how often, and for what purpose? I’m talking here about whether central government officials should be accepting gifts and hospitality. Our report this week, Investigation into the acceptance of gifts and hospitality, looks at the big picture of how well the system is working. But what does this mean for the civil servants trying to work out what it’s okay to accept?
Cabinet Office has issued principles-based guidance, including Acceptance of Gifts and Hospitality. But officials are expected to apply their personal judgement and departments have their own rules and processes that fit their circumstances and particular risks. Consequently, it’s easy to become confused. A low-value gift, such as a calendar, is likely to be acceptable; but higher-value gifts such as bottles of fine wine or tickets to sporting events should generally be declined or returned.
The main reason for the strict controls is that accepting gifts or hospitality can create a perception of partiality in government decision-making, even if they have no actual bearing on judgement. This can erode public trust in government and possibly even result in legal challenges to decisions made. Our 2015 report Conflicts of interest covers the wider issue of circumstances where a secondary interest may impair or influence an individual’s actions or ability to apply judgement.
So what do you need to know to avoid any misunderstanding?
The good news is that most people are making the right judgements on whether or not to accept gifts or hospitality, as our recent report shows. Most gifts and hospitality accepted are nominal-value items, such as calendars, refreshments and sandwich lunches, and the hospitality is minor and incurred as part of the furtherance of government objectives.
We did also find a small minority of items that looked harder to justify. These included tickets to professional sports and cultural events, especially where extended to family members or friends; bottles of champagne; wine for teams’ Christmas lunch; iPads; and dinners at expensive restaurants. One example of a potential conflict of interest was the provision of dinner and drinks at an event by contractors on a project that had incurred lengthy delays and substantial cost overruns at the expense of the taxpayer.
You can see from the press quotes the sorts of cases that the media referred to in their coverage of our report.
The three principles that officials should consider before accepting gifts and hospitality, as set out in the Cabinet Office’s Civil Service guidance, are:
- Purpose – acceptance should be in the interests of departments and should further government objectives.
- Proportionality – hospitality should not be over-frequent or over-generous. Accepting hospitality frequently from the same organisation may lead to an impression that the organisation is gaining influence. Similarly, hospitality should not seem lavish or disproportionate to the nature of the relationship with the provider.
- (Avoidance of) conflict of interest – officials should consider the provider’s relationship with the department, whether it is bidding for work or grants or being investigated or criticised, and whether it is appropriate to accept an offer from a taxpayer-funded organisation.
So what should civil servants do?
- Bear in mind the principles, and any other rules or guidelines set by your employer, before accepting any gift or hospitality. This should include considering whether acceptance would stand up to public scrutiny.
- If in doubt, ask for advice or prior approval before accepting an invitation.
- Take particular care with accepting any gifts or hospitality if you are involved in procurement or a tendering exercise – and your employer may well require you to record even those invitations that you decline.
- Similarly, take particular care regarding invitations extended to partners and/or other family members.
- Record all gifts and hospitality accepted, according to your employer’s rules. This includes hospitality involving a personal friend where the purpose of the hospitality was to discuss business or was paid for by the friend’s organisation.
The acceptance of gifts and hospitality is referred to in the Civil Service Code, which sets out the values and behaviours expected of civil servants, including the core values: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. The NAO has also reported on the other issues where inappropriate behaviours could affect the reputation of the civil service, including central government travel expenditure.
I welcome your comments and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like to discuss any cross-government issue.
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