Sunday, 26 October 2008

No more "conflict of interests", please

Details continue to be revealed about Lord Mandelson's dealings with Russia's aluminium bigwig. The coverage on television, in newspapers and on the radio is littered with the expression "conflict of interests". This phrase irritates me enormously because it is fundamentally inaccurate, indeed it is so inaccurate that it serves to play down the seriousness of the situation yet those who use it think it does the opposite. Let me explain.

Assume you are Billy Biggins, the EU Trade Commissioner, and you have to give advice and take decisions about levels of EU import duty on aluminium. Your decisions should be made only after all appropriate enquiries have been conducted and you have considered all relevant submissions made to you. The requirement to approach your job in that way has nothing to do with you personally, it goes with the job. Exactly the same obligations fall on every commissioner in every field. Those obligations arise out of the fact that you are under a duty to give impartial and properly considered advice and a duty to reach decisions only after considering all relevant circumstances. That is your duty to your employers.

To put it another way, the decisions you have to take and the advice you have to give are not personal matters. You do not give them as Mr Billy Biggins but as Commissioner Billy Biggins. It is the office you hold that takes decisions and gives advice, you are just the temporary custodian of that office.

If you are foolish enough to accept personal favours from someone who has official dealings with the Trade Commissioner there is an obvious risk. The risk is that your personal interest (that is, the personal benefit you have received and/or think you might continue to receive in the future) might conflict with your duty to your employers to act impartially and objectively. In other words, what should be avoided is a conflict between your personal interests and your duty. You, Mr Billy Biggins, should not have a personal interest which might compromise the ability of Commissioner Billy Biggins to do his duty to his employers.

Describing the problem as a "conflict of interests" is to misstate the situation because it suggests that Billy Biggins's interests weigh on both sides of the scales. They do not, on the one side is his personal interests and on the other side is his duty. His duty is not a matter of his personal interests, it is all about the interests of his employers. What must be avoided, therefore, is a conflict between interest and duty.

Since its first days in power in 1997 the current government has failed to distinguish between the people holding offices of State and the offices they hold. The rot was firmly embedded at Tony Blair's first cabinet meeting at which, it is reported, he said "call me Tony". This was a fundamental misunderstanding of his role as Prime Minister and the role of the other ministers in his government. Tony Blair was not in cabinet as Tony Blair, he was in cabinet as Prime Minister. Gordon Brown was in cabinet as Chancellor of the Exchequer, not as Gordon Brown. In recent years Peter Mandelson was in office as EU Trade Commissioner, not as Peter Mandelson. If you fail to differentiate between the individual and the office he holds there is an inevitable danger of failing to differentiate between the individual and the duties he owes. In the mind of the office-holder his duties can cease to be the overriding driving force behind how he does his work. There can only be one loser in that situation - the employers to whom the duties are owed.

So let's have no more "conflict of interests" and let's hear "conflict between his personal interest and his duties as Trade Commissioner". Then we can judge his acceptance of lavish personal hospitality in their proper context.


The Great Simpleton said...

Excellent post; I shall link to it when I get chance.

I particularly like your 2nd to last paragraph about the distinction between holders of office and the office itself. One of my bugbears is those who call for judges and lawyers to lose the regalia of the courts in a process of "modernisation".

The wearing of wigs and robes may look arcane but the donning of them, like any uniform, makes the wearer conscious of their responsibilities and the heritage of the positions they hold. Furthermore, those in court are left under to no illusion that it is the State that is trying the case and not some geezer from down the road which adds to the solemnity and impersonalisation of the proceedings.

TheFatBigot said...

Thank you Mr Simpleton. I'm in two minds about the wigs and gowns. Will think about it more and maybe post something on it in due course.