Banks and the health service were both in the news this morning – a £400m fine for state-owned RBS for Libor-fixing; and a damning report on failings at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust where, in addition to multiple failings, patient deaths were hundreds above what one would expect for the hospital’s profile.

In both cases, questions on who did what are being asked, along the lines of ‘where were the regulators?’ and ‘what should senior management have done?’.

But I have another question that’s being asked by fewer people – where do professional ethics sit in all this?

In Mid Staffs there were a host of professionals involved, including doctors, nurses and lawyers. Each profession is supposedly defined not by technical skill alone, but also by codes of ethical behaviour – some moral, some regulatory – which are supposed be part of each professional’s DNA.

The pressures of financial and other targets are real and present. The pressure that a lone voice can feel for speaking out when others would rather they keep quiet is equally real.

In one incident, sad to say the trust’s lawyer comes out badly – criticised for wanting ‘an adverse report about care leading to a death’ to ‘be suppressed, in part because of a fear of adverse publicity’.

The A&E consultant comes out well, refusing to change his report in the way suggested by the trust’s lawyer. Other doctors and nurses, we now know, fell far short of this consultant’s conduct.

And so to professional ethics in the financial services world. The code here is laid out for professionals in regulatory terms, though not moral ones. And as we saw in Mid Staffs, established professional ethics are no guarantor of ideal conduct.

But it still might have given someone discomforted by their involvement in Libor-rigging a sense-check, a moral benchmark – even a measure of protection – if the frame in which they operated were more than a set of rules.

A striking feature of the, often anonymous, interviews being broadcast this week by people who were discomforted by, variously, conduct at Mid Staffs and at banks involved in Libor-rigging, is that, respectively, few or none, got to the point where their sense of professional ethics made them feel bold enough to either blow the whistle or even just walk out.

It isn’t much talked about, but these are roles in society that are seeking to ‘professionalise’, and a working professional code is at the centre of that.

The British venture capital association’s members sign up to a code. Better established is the code by which members of the Chartered Institute of Insurers commit to conduct themselves.

The Chartered Institute of Managers has a code of practice that stresses, among other things, the need to ‘uphold lawful policies, practices and procedures’. There is some nascent talk of the need for bankers to have their version of doctors’ hippocratic oath. There is a Chartered Banker Institute with a code of conduct – but as well as being the only remaining banking institute in the UK, it is a Scottish body whose voluntary membership leans towards people in senior roles.

I suspect that with some of these professional and quasi-professional codes that the main intention is increase the external respect for members’ ethics and standards.

That may be important.

But external respect for professional standing isn’t the aspect that allegedly absent or dozy regulators can rely on – in the law, banking, management or healthcare. For any professional code to work, it also needs to give the professional concerned self-respect.

That is what too many of the professionals involved in these otherwise very different worlds – healthcare and banking – seemed to lack. At some cost to their peace of mind – happiness even – they stayed in post, unlistened to, and put up with being bullied and disrespected.

Regulators fell short in Mid Staffs, and in any number of financial services scenarios – that is not in doubt, and is being picked over at length in many, many quarters. But surely all of us, regulators included, were entitled to rely to a degree on professional ethics and were let down.

Those professional codes in all fields – old, new and proposed – will need to perform better in the future. And to do that, they need to be as much about imbuing self-respect as they currently are about commanding external professional respect.

Otherwise I fear we’ll be here again – and sooner than you’d think.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor

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