Sir Paul Stephenson, gifts and hospitality – recording it doesn’t make it right

I wrote this yesterday afternoon before Sir Paul Stephenson resigned. He obviously knew our incisive post was on its way...

I first came across the "gifts and hospitality register" when I took a job in the Civil Service in 1995. Before that, I'd worked for Mars, where life was simple; just don't accept gifts or hospitality. Then Dun & Bradstreet which at the time was - let's just say, a bit more relaxed.

But the civil service had this register, it was explained to me. I should write down all gifts and hospitality offered (whether I accepted or not) by suppliers.  Now, that didn’t seem a bad idea – for instance, recording might enable us to see if a particular supplier had a pattern of making offers.

What surprised me though, was that some people seemed to see this as an alternative to a proper policy on gifts and hospitality. So the two key points I tried to get across were these.

1. Merely writing it down does not make it right.

2. Getting approval after you’ve done something is not acceptable.

Taking the first – a bribe is still a bribe even if I write it down. Personally, I’m in favour of the “no gifts other than advertising material of no resale value” policy.  So writing down “bottle of whisky”, or indeed "envelope stuffed with fifties..." does not make it any more acceptable.

Secondly, and this applies particularly to hospitality, I believe the policy should always include getting approval from the line manager in advance.  Again, writing down “3 days in Monaco for the Grand Prix with Jim Bloggs, MD of our cleaning contractor” after you’ve returned to the office, Formula 1 merchandise in hand, does not make it right or acceptable!

The only benefit of a Register is that it does take away the additional element of secrecy which can take these issues into a whole new level of potential criminality, fraud or corruption. But in itself, the Register doesn’t make everything right.

Why did this all come to mind? Sir Paul Stephenson, Head of London’s Met Police force, and his free of charge, valued at £12,000, stay at Champneys. He got free food and accommodation while he was treated at Champneys and recuperated from health issues -  "he underwent an extensive programme of hydro and physiotherapy. This enabled him to return to work six weeks earlier than anticipated".*

Now connecting this with the Murdoch events, which some other newspapers are trying to do via a PR man, seems tenuous at most. And he apparently declared his stay in the Met gifts and hospitality register. But he seems to be saying that in itself makes it OK – which, I’m afraid, it doesn’t.

We still have the question of whether it was appropriate for him to have accepted the gift of the free food and accommodation. Now it doesn’t appear to have been from a supplier or, thank goodness, from a criminal mastermind – it was provided by a personal friend, the MD at Champneys. But there is still a question of whether someone in his position should accept a gift of that value from anyone – even a mate. (And bear in mind that Stephenson earns over £250,000 a year.)

Might he feel in any way compromised if something came up to do with Champneys? Probably not, and he may well be a man of great honour, but how would it look if the police decided not to pursue something that had even some vague connection to Champneys or his friend? It’s a tricky one, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. And procurement people in any situation where ethics are involved need to ask that question - how does it look, and feel, to others?

However, coming back to our main point here - if your ethics / gifts and hospitality policy consists of just saying, “record it in the Register”, then that just ain’t good enough.

(* There is another whole question here in terms of how the Met selected Champneys to be the provider of the medical services which Stephenson received, and for which the Met apparently paid. Indeed, if that was done competitively, might the accommodation have been better positioned as a good bit of negotiation - thrown in free given the medical costs?)

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