Speaking to an empty room: MPs skipped ethics class

Four years ago, shortly after the 2010 general election, parliamentary officials were sat in an empty room waiting for MPs to show up. They were putting on an induction session on ethical dilemmas. The expenses scandal was fresh in everyone's heads and, it must have been hoped, all the new starters would surely want to do everything possible to make sure they'd do the right thing.

The session was cancelled. Not enough MPs bothered to show up to make it worthwhile.

It's not clear whether there was zero attendance. But given that the other induction sessions had gone ahead with an average of just six MPs attending, there's a distinct possibility this was the case.

Officials are already planning the equivalent sessions for the new arrivals after next year's general election. But it's feared the problem experienced in 2010 won't go away unless a more decisive form of action is taken. That leaves the independent committee on standards in public life – tasked with agonising over the questions – asking itself: Why are MPs so sniffy about being trained in being good people?

Sure, starting out in parliament is a busy period for new MPs. Getting an office can take weeks. There's staff to hire. Just getting from A to B in the labyrinthine Palace of Westminster is something of an achievement. So adding to this burden the requirement to sit down and be told how to be a good person is not likely to be a welcome addition to the to-do list.

Presumably this is what the committee on standards in public life is alluding to when it insists it is "alert to the sensitivities attached to ethics in induction". Its report, out today, calls for Westminster to catch up with the rest of the known world and establish a decent process in which MPs are instructed in the art of being decent politicians. Local government already does this. So does the civil service. But the Commons thinks it is above it. "Members of the Westminster parliament, and in particular the House of Commons, appeared to be noticeably behind some other organisations in embracing either the principle or the practice of induction, let alone accepting that there was a role for ethics within it," the report states.

Look into MPs' attitudes further and that rather meek and tentative statement looks thoroughly inadequate. MPs show nothing but disdain for the idea. Overall, officials think less than one in five MPs bothered to go to even one session of their induction programme. Research suggests a misplaced link between the government and the trainers might have contributed. The code of conduct is viewed as something to be glanced at and then forgotten about. "There is, we would argue, some cause for concern," the committee says.

When it comes to ethics, MPs seem to think they know it all. Perhaps their egos are on a high after their recent victory in the polls. Maybe they are told they don't need to bother with these induction sessions because they're shown the ropes more informally (and more unreliably) by experienced party colleagues. There is definitely a belief, in the words of committee chairman Lord Bew, that "the very fact of being a politician, and in particular an elected politician… means that normal workplace solutions to standards issues – like inductions – should not, and indeed could not, apply".

The headaches of being a politician do seem to make something as rigid as a code of conduct appear unwieldy. All the internal conflicts of lobbying and being lobbied, the personal ethics clashing against the policy merits of a decision, even the adversarial nature of oppositional politics, often force MPs into moves which will not be universally popular. The voters, the local party, the whips, colleagues in Westminster – all can want something different.

Politics is a minefield of potential unpopularity. So how is any MP supposed to stick to the seven principles of public life? These 'commandments' have been around since 1995, and they're just as tricky to stick with now as they were then. 'Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest,' the notes for 'selflessness' declare. Yet sometimes the need to get re-elected can trump this. Then there's the 'objectivity' requirement, which demands those in parliament should take decisions "impartially, fairly and on merit". What about emotion?

Most fundamentally, there's the 'honesty' commandment that 'holders of public office should be truthful'. It sounds so simple and straightforward when put like that, doesn't it? Yet any politician worth their salt knows there are ways of shaping the truth – or avoiding it altogether.

These are, presumably, the problems which the officials in that deserted room in Westminster stood ready to resolve back in 2010. While it's obvious they can't teach politicians the real art of politics – how to balance these competing pressures – they can at least reinforce some of the fundamentals expected of them. This is the argument put forward by Professor Mark Philip in a paper accompanying today's report. "Ethical considerations provide a frame for the judgment and they help to clarify some components of the judgment to be taken," he argues. "For example, they may prompt reflection for decision-makers as to whether they can both make a particular decision and accept being held to account (politically) for the decision and (formally) for the way the options were evaluated and alternatives eliminated."

There is still time for parliament to unite against the cosy private inductions offered by the whips. A sub-committee of the Commons' standards and privileges committee, set up in the wake of Maria Miller's resignation, is busily at work right now figuring out how to boost public confidence in the system. It wants to "ensure that the system supports and assists members in abiding by the rules". And the induction recommendations of today's report – which comes from a committee that has nothing to do with parliament at all – might be a decent way of achieving that.

That, in turn, presents a big test to the senior MPs on the standards and privileges committee. Its sub-committee is effectively being asked to overcome new MPs' reluctance to sit down and be instructed on how to be ethical. If it agrees, it will make itself very unpopular with backbenchers. If it refuses, it will have demonstrated to the world the full extent of MPs' contempt for the rulebook.