It has certainly been another big year for Victorians! Having endured pandemic lockdowns and even an earthquake, many of us are feeling ready and excited for the festive season. As the end of the year draws near, your VPS colleagues and suppliers may wish to celebrate with you. Even with our fantastic vaccine rates, rules about social distancing and wearing masks will be front of mind – but do you remember those rules about gifts, benefits and hospitality (GBH)? CourtHeath's latest blog explores the do’s and don’ts of gifts and hospitality so you will know what you can and cannot do during this festive season.
The Victorian Public Sector Commission (VPSC) Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Policy Guide provides guidance on the minimum accountabilities which are binding on Victorian public sector employees and employers through the Standing Directions 2018 made under the Financial Management Act 1994:
- These requirements apply to workplace participants including executives, board members, employees, contractors, consultants and any individuals or groups undertaking activity for or on behalf of the VPS organisation.
- The VPSC defines non-token GBH as those that are valued at more than $50. It is now a requirement that all public officials declare non-token offers even if they don’t accept them (this includes things like offers to Christmas parties where the per head cost is likely to meet the non-token threshold).
- Public sector organisations are required to record all offers in a register and to publish the register on their website. The VPSC also requires that non-token gifts are only accepted with written approval from the invitee’s manager or an organisational delegate.
- The guidance highlights the importance of VPS employees considering conflicts of interest and other risks when they are offered or provided with a GBH. Public sector employees should carefully consider any offer, and refuse GBH not in line with the guidance, particularly where this concerns a current or potential supplier. Even if you are confident that accepting a gift from a supplier or prospective supplier won’t sway you in future procurement decisions, the perception that you might not be objective is what counts when considering conflict of interest. By avoiding actual, potential and perceived conflicts of interest, public sector employees can maintain integrity and avoid damage to their own reputation and that of their organisation and sector.
- Workplace participants have a duty to place the public interest above their own interests when carrying out their official functions. They are not permitted to accept GBH that could raise a reasonable perception of bias or preferential treatment – and they must not accept GBH offers from those about whom they are likely to make business decisions.
- Under the Supplier Code of Conduct, suppliers to the State agree not to offer GBH to VPS personnel. Reminding suppliers of this requirement (rather than accepting GBH) will help them avoid breaching the Code which is a mandatory requirement in every State tender process.
The VPSC also provides guidance on the provision of gifts, benefits and hospitality by public officials. For example, holding a stakeholder Christmas function. In such a case, the VPSC requires that the “hospitality is provided for a business purpose in that it furthers the conduct of official business or other legitimate organisational goals or promotes and supports government policy objectives and priorities.” The costs of such functions must be proportionate to the benefits and be reasonable in terms of community expectations.
Generally, there is nothing wrong with socialising with people – including suppliers – that you have been working with throughout the year. In those situations, it is best for public officials to pay for themselves. Officials will, of course, need to ensure that too much ‘Christmas spirit’ doesn’t result in ‘loose lips’. That is, it is a requirement to comply with the VPS Code of Conduct – especially the confidentiality provisions – at all times.
The VPSC has a Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Resource Suite available on its website. It includes a policy guide and minimum accountabilities, a model policy and gift register, and a useful one page ‘ready reckoner’ – the GIFT and HOST tests – for public officials thinking about giving and receiving gifts.
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CourtHeath would like to extend best wishes for the festive season to all of our clients. Our offices will be closed from 22 December 2021 and re-open on 10 January 2022. Have a COVID-safe and restful break.
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IMAGE: CourtHeath Consulting
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