What are the fundamental principles of corporate governance?

Board diversity and appointments make good headlines - but the basic principles required for successful board-led leadership are even simpler. It's time we stated them again.

In my last New Statesman blog in July 2013 I talked about the responsibilities of companies operating today; what these might be and why we think they are important, as we continue to examine what went wrong and led us to the global financial crisis.

In the light of this, our focus on the role of corporate boards heightened. They are the people who set a company’s strategic aims and provide the leadership needed to put them into effect. This is nothing new: company boards have always had this task. The UK Corporate Governance Code, which guides many businesses, states that the board sets the values of the company, and this is very different from running the business day-to-day.

For example, there is much discussion of who should be on the board. The diversity debate comes to mind immediately, but that is only one aspect. It makes a good news item when a novel appointment has been made from outside the usual candidates.

But this is not just about diversity. At the same time, there is a lot of support for getting people with extensive experience and competence on board. This could be particularly meaningful in highly specialised industries. But it might risk board members getting too close to the operational management of the company.

What board members need to remind themselves is that they are collectively responsible for the long-term success of their company. This may sound obvious but it is not always recognised.

Why do I feel the need to say this? Perhaps because the idea might feel slightly awkward in light of current concerns about the harm that dominant individuals on boards or a "group-think" mentality can do to decision making. Indeed, the challenge is for a board member to be independent, bringing in a different viewpoint and wider experience, but at the same time working together to achieve the same objective.

In a way, this is asking board members to deliver multiples of responsibilities. But then again, how different is it from us accepting the need to balance different – sometimes conflicting – responsibilities in our daily life? A good mix of people who can constructively challenge each other in the board room can help businesses to make meaningful decisions in rapidly changing markets.

Our suggestion is to get back to the fundamental principles of good governance which board members should bear in mind in carrying out their responsibilities. If there are just a few, simple and short principles, board members can easily refer to them when making decisions without losing focus. Such a process should be open and dynamic.

In ICAEW’s recent paper What are the overarching principles of corporate governance? we proposed five such principles of corporate governance.

·       Leadership

An effective board should head each company. The Board should steer the company to meet its business purpose in both the short and long term.

·       Capability

The Board should have an appropriate mix of skills, experience and independence to enable its members to discharge their duties and responsibilities effectively.

·       Accountability

The Board should communicate to the company’s shareholders and other stakeholders, at regular intervals, a fair, balanced and understandable assessment of how the company is achieving its business purpose and meeting its other responsibilities.

·       Sustainability

The Board should guide the business to create value and allocate it fairly and sustainably to reinvestment and distributions to stakeholders, including shareholders, directors, employees and customers.

·       Integrity

The Board should lead the company to conduct its business in a fair and transparent manner that can withstand scrutiny by stakeholders.

We kept them short, with purpose, but we also kept them aspirational. None of them should be a surprise – they might be just like you have on your board. Well, why not share and exchange our ideas - the more we debate, the better we remember the principles which guide our own behaviour.

Back to basics: What are the fundamental principles of corporate governance? Photograph: Getty Images.

Jo Iwasaki is Head of Corporate Governance at ICAEW.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.