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The Standards Commission is an independent body whose purpose is to encourage high ethical standards in public life through the promotion and enforcement of Codes of Conduct for councillors and those appointed to the boards of devolved public bodies.

Key Principles of Public Life

3rd January 2024

Both the Councillors’ Code of Conduct and the Model Code of Conduct for Members of Devolved Public Bodies are based on the nine key principles of public life in Scotland. But what are the key principles, and where did they come from?

The nine key principles of public life in Scotland are:

1.       Selflessness

2.       Integrity

3.       Objectivity

4.       Accountability & Stewardship

5.       Openness

6.       Honesty

7.       Leadership

8.       Duty

9.       Respect

The first seven key principles listed above emerged in 1995 from the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), sometimes known as the ‘Nolan Committee’ after its then Chairman, Lord Nolan. The principles themselves are also commonly referred to as the ‘Nolan Principles’.

The CSPL was set up in October 1994 by the then Prime Minister, John Major, following a series of scandals across UK politics in the early 1990s. Part of the original terms of reference of the Committee was:

to examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life

The CSPL stated that the seven principles applied to all aspects of public life, and recommended that all public bodies draw up Codes of Conduct incorporating the principles. That recommendation was enshrined in Scotland by the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 (the 2000 Act). The 2000 Act, which was one of the first pieces of legislation by the Scottish Parliament, introduced two statutory codes of conduct; one for local government councillors and one for members of devolved public bodies.

The principles of duty and respect were later introduced by the then Scottish Executive and added to the original seven Nolan Principles to create the nine key principles underpinning public life in Scotland. The Codes for councillors and members of devolved public bodies in Scotland are based on these key principles.

The key principles remain just as important today as they were when first identified by the Nolan Committee almost thirty years ago. They outline the ethical expectations for those in public life, reflect the behaviours that the public expect of office holders and form the basis of public confidence in public bodies and institutions.

But, as noted by Doug Chalmers, the new Chair of the CSPL, in December 2023:

The Nolan Principles are a well embedded cornerstone of public life in this country but they cannot be taken for granted. They take constant energy if they are to be meaningful.

This means that those in public life including councillor and board members of public bodies, should strive to not only act in accordance with the key principles, but to act with leadership and vigilance to promote and maintain the highest possible ethical standards.