No complete right to privacy for public servants — Stone
STONE... being a public servant means you put the public's interest ahead of your own

An officer of the British Parliament has pointed out that politicians and public servants must put the public's interest before their own, and argues that officials forfeit their right to complete privacy once they decide to take up office.

"Everyone, including politicians, parliamentarians, public officials has the right to privacy. No one would argue with that basic need, but if you choose to take a role in public service, be that in an elected office, or as a publicly appointed official, then the clarity begins to fade. The minute you turn to public service you forfeit some of your right to a completely private life, Dr Kathryn Stone, the Independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards of the British House of Commons, argued during Monday's virtual international conference hosted by the Office of the Political Ombudsman.

"Of course, you still have a right to privacy, but the line shifts and sways. The difficulty, of course, is where that line is drawn and how it's policed. Being a public servant means you put the public's interest ahead of your own," Dr Stone added.

She pointed out that some private matters may become of public interest, a troubling concept for some public servants, and even some people who are not public officials.

"It is right that powers should be used for public good, and not for private gain, so if I profit privately from my public position, that profit should not be permitted to remain private," she said.

Dr Stone said even leisurely activities engaged in outside of public life could reasonably be made a matter of public interest, including the use of recreational substances or social drinking.

"If, as a parliamentarian, I drink socially or take recreational drugs on the weekend, that may be viewed differently than if I have a substance abuse. The question is, how my private actions impact on my public one, or to be more nuanced, how is my private action impacting on the perception of my public life. As a lawmaker, should I be taking banned substances, even though its recreational and private?" she said.

She noted that if, for example, a person in public office is championing the moral values of family life, it could be seen to be in the public interest to expose an extra marital affair.

Dr Stone was among a diverse panel of presenters from local state agencies, academia, and international academia, and interests who addressed the forum, themed, 'Engaged Citizens, Good Governance and the Rule of Law – Key Pillars of Democracy'.

She spoke against the background of incidents of corruption and impropriety among some UK politicians, citing examples such as the case of a former conservative MP for North Shropshire who was found to have been lobbying for a private company, by which he was being paid, and had not declared his position on the public register of interests.

Dr Stone noted the attempt to dismantle the current standards regime for the House of Commons following her investigation into that matter.

"Other reports of sleaze, scandals, and corruption followed. At one point the allegations were coming so thick and so fast that no one was really surprised when the news broke that I was asked to look at allegations that a Member of Parliament had been caught watching pornography on his telephone in the chamber. He said he was looking for tractors at the time," she told the conference.

Dr Stone also pointed to incidents during the COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK, in which senior officials breached protocols to visit family, lovers, and tourist attractions.

"These resulted in resignations, sackings, and apologies," she said. "Standards matter. They are our moral compass. If we have no moral compass, we will quickly become lost."

Other panellists and presenters at the conference, which marked the 20th anniversary of the Office of the Political Ombudsman, included Herbert McKenzie, public defender; head of the Independent Commission of Investigations Hugh Faulkner; head of National Integrity Action Professor Trevor Munroe; executive director of Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal Jeanette Calder; Dr Garry Conille, resident coordinator of the office of the United Nations in Jamaica, Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Cayman Islands; and Lloyd Waller, professor of digital transformation policy and governance in the department of Government, The University of the West Indies.

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

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