Age of Austerity Must not Become an Age Without Integrity

So the News of the World gasped its last this weekend. And in pubs and parks, in living rooms and at dining tables up and down the land people mull over the significance of the latest revelations over phone-hacking and more.

So the News of the World gasped its last this weekend. And in pubs and parks, in living rooms and at dining tables up and down the land people mull over the significance of the latest revelations over phone-hacking and more.

We can picture ourselves in our minds eyes as targets too. We can imagine, if we choose to go there, how we might feel if the kinds of conversations we might have in the middle of some personal horror or tragedy were breathed in by persons unknown. We can, if we want, make links to whatever it was that we said and thought about last month's scandal over secret superinjunctions taken out by the rich and famous to protect themselves from salacious revelations - the sort of things that might have been published in the News of the World. And then we can reflect on whether we are surprised, or not, at allegations of payments made to Metropolitan police officers in the course of the News of the World's business.

Integrity is big news in the UK.

Beyond corrupt MPs fiddling their expenses, allegations of bent coppers taking cash for information, and private detectives hacking phones in search of tabloid news, there are signs that things could get much worse as cuts take effect.

Last month, anti-corruption group Transparency International UK launched the snappily titled National Integrity System Assessment: United Kingdom; one of a series of more than twenty such country reports produced by Transparency International country chapters across Europe. I was a member of a research advisory group linked to the process.

The UK assessment is a far from sensationalist report produced by Professor Michael Macaulay and Dr Gary Hickey at the University of Teesside. It's backward-looking - awarding scores across twelve pillars (governance institutions which include the media, political parties and the judiciary) based on an assessment of their performance between 2004 and 2011.

On print media for example, the report says that there are

some perennial concerns which it is important to raise as red flags. A key concern is the integrity of certain parts of the print media, their intrusion into privacy and how they are held to account in practice. The press is subject to a form of voluntary self-regulation. Although this does ensure freedom from outside interference, possible consequences are difficulties in ensuring integrity when pursuing and reporting stories; the correction of errors and redressing the damage done as a result; and in holding the press to account for their behaviour. It is possible that current financial constraints may be contributing to a lowering of standards.

The legislature and political parties fare badly in the assessment, with concerns about the ethical culture of Parliament and issues related to party funding structures.

But for me, one of the most striking features of the National Integrity Assessment is the number of areas where the researchers felt it important to raise 'red flags' about what might be about to happen and which could, if it did, have a potentially significant effect on the scores.

On the police, for example:

Budget cuts could also have a detrimental effect on law enforcement agencies; particularly the police, who will very likely have reduced capacity to tackle internal corruption as well as to investigate corruption in other sectors.

A red flag goes up, too, on the possible effect of cuts on wider public sector integrity:

The overarching public sector mantra of "do more with less" may well also create perverse incentives to manipulate figures and performance management statistics,

and again at the Coalition government's decision to wind up the Audit Commission, which audits and inspects local government and NHS spending; and again at the Coalition's proposal to repeal the current statutory code of conduct for local councillors:

The Decentralisation and Localism Bill will dismantle the entire local government integrity framework, including the statutory code of conduct, replacing it with whatever voluntary arrangements local authorities choose, or can afford.

Efforts to learn the lessons of from the scandal of the News of the World need to extend well beyond the fourth estate and the police.

We need to reflect long and hard on the conditions that breed corruption.

And we need to demand that steps are taken now to ensure that our current age of austerity does not become an age without integrity.


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