Public Affairs Board strengthens code of practice to raise ethical standards

The PRCA’s Public Affairs Board has voted unanimously to strengthen its Public Affairs Code of Practice on the employment of elected officials and the use of privileged information.

PAB co-chairs Emma Petela and George McGregor want members to observe the highest ethical standards
PAB co-chairs Emma Petela and George McGregor want members to observe the highest ethical standards

The Code previously stated that member agencies must not:

Employ any MP, MEP, Member of the House of Lords, or any member of the Scottish Parliament or Senedd Cymru or the Northern Ireland Assembly or the London Assembly to conduct public affairs in any capacity.

The new Code retains this key principle, but goes further to clarify that if agencies employ an elected official in any specialism other than public affairs, for example as an internal or charity comms specialist, they must not, “in any circumstances, make use of any Privileged Information made available or known to them, including in their dealings with the staff, associates, clients, new business prospects and/or other contacts of the Member.

The Code clarifies that privileged information is any information that an elected official has access to that they have been told is confidential or privileged, or which they “ought reasonably to know” is confidential or privileged.

However, it goes on to say that privileged information does not include information which is already in the public domain, or which then comes into the public domain through no fault of the elected official or their staff.

Additionally, the new Code states that PAB members must not:

Make any award or payment in money or in kind (including equity) to any MP, MEP, Peer, or to any member of the Scottish Parliament or Senedd Cymru or the Northern Ireland Assembly or the London Assembly, or to connected persons or persons acting on their account directly or through third parties.

PRWeek understands that the Code has been toughened up to make it more rigorous and to enforce higher ethical standards among its members.

In March, PRWeek reported that Portland hired former health minister and Conservative peer Lord James O’Shaughnessy and that he was listed in the agency’s declaration of “Practitioners (employed and sub-contracted) conducting PA activities” on the PAB register, which is updated quarterly.

Portland blamed an “administrative error” for the apparent breach of the Code. Lord O’Shaughnessy’s name was deleted from the most recent edition of the register after PRWeek approached the PAB with its findings.

The PRCA said at the time: “All members of the PRCA Public Affairs Board are bound by its Code of Conduct, which makes clear they need to submit an accurate quarterly return detailing all relevant consultants. It is clear that for consecutive quarters the entry from Portland did not meet this standard.”

Higher standards

The changes to the Code, which come into force immediately, are designed to provide “more clarity” about the employment of politicians. They were agreed following a consultation in which members were asked to comment on how the Code was functioning and whether any changes should be made.

The PRCA said that during the consultation, two-thirds of members thought the code was fit for purpose, but the remainder wanted the body to provide more clarity on the employment of elected officials.

If PAB members are found to have breached the code, following a complaint and an independent investigation, they could be subject to a variety of sanctions.

This could range from a request to retrain key personnel at an agency to ensure future compliance, through to expulsion from the PAB, depending on the severity of the breach.

Emma Petela and George McGregor, co-chairs of the PAB, said: “The PRCA Public Affairs Board regularly reviews its Code of Conduct to ensure the highest ethical standards are observed by our members.

“This update was agreed after extensive consultation with our members, the PRCA Public Affairs Board Executive Committee and the PRCA Board, and stipulates clear rules when employing parliamentarians”.

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