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Q. Why has the University introduced a Conflict of Interest Policy?

The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.  Accordingly, many staff of the University are actively engaged in external activities, both within the UK and overseas.  These activities may for example include: providing expert advice and media commentary; serving on the boards of public and private sector organisations; partnerships with business, charitable foundations, and healthcare; collaborative research and development; consultancy work; spin-out companies; and outreach work.  Alternatively, someone with a close personal connection to a member of staff may have such associations. In addition, many staff - or those with a close personal connection to them - will also be affiliated to, and owe duties to, one or more of the Colleges within the collegiate University.

Because of these activities, most staff will almost certainly encounter situations during their careers when personal interests could reasonably be perceived as affecting, or having the potential to affect, their ability to make impartial decisions on the University’s behalf. This does not imply improper conduct or lack of integrity.  What is important is that all such conflicts are disclosed, reviewed and (if necessary) managed in order to avoid the risk of decisions being, or appearing to be, improperly influenced and to prevent damage to the reputation of the individual or the University.

The aims of the University’s new Conflict of Interest Policy are to:

  1. enable staff, plus student and external committee members, to recognise where their personal interests conflict with, or may reasonably be perceived to conflict with, their University duties (see Section C);
  2. communicate the expectations for declaring and recording such conflicts (see Section D); and
  3. set out the processes for managing conflicts of interest in order to ensure that business decisions are made objectively and in the best interests of the University (see Section E). 

Most organisations have policies on disclosing and managing conflicts of interest: this Policy is consistent with those of other UK universities.  It does not differentiate between conflicts that arise from domestic or oversees interests.

Q. Who does this Policy apply to?

Section B of the Policy states that the Policy applies to all those working within the University at all levels (whether paid or unpaid), as well as to student and external members of University committees or equivalent bodies.  All individuals who fit the above definition are encouraged to read the Policy and the relevant FAQs.

Q. What are the main features of the Policy?

The Policy distinguishes between two types of disclosures, which will be recorded in two different types of register:

  • Heads of Institutions, plus members and regular attendees of the University’s principal, central, decision-making bodies, are required to declare any interests which constitute existing or potential conflicts with their University duties annually via an online declaration of interests form,  The form will be administered by the Governance and Compliance Division and the declarations will be recorded in Committee or School-based registers of interests;
  • all other members of staff will only need to disclose conflicts of interest with their University duties when they first arise or become known, including when it is recognised that a conflict might reasonably be perceived. These conflicts will be recorded in the institution's register of conflicts of interests.

‘Declarations of interest’ should also be a standing item at the beginning of every committee meeting, so that members can declare any conflicts of interest in relation to that specific agenda. Both the declarations and any mitigating actions should be minuted.

This approach recognises that for the large majority of members of staff at the University it will be sufficient to declare conflicts of interests with their University duties when they arise. The approach will also reduce the administrative burden on institutions.

Q. How do I know whether I have a conflict of interest?

All staff are asked to familiarise themselves with the Policy and to disclose conflicts of interest with their University duties to their Head of Institution at the earliest opportunity.

Section C of the Policy provides guidance on how to recognise a conflict of interest.  Questions to consider when deciding whether an interest, or the interests of someone with a close personal connection to you, could (or could appear to) conflict with, your University duties include:

  • Is there any risk that others might conceivably think my judgment was potentially clouded by this interest?
  • Could a decision in which I was involved be potentially criticised because of my involvement?
  • Do I have any personal reason for wanting a particular outcome from a decision-making process in which I am involved?
  • If I became aware of someone else in a similar position, would I take the view that they might have a conflict of interest?

If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions you should declare a conflict of interest, even if you believe that there is no actual conflict.  If you are in doubt about whether to disclose a particular interest it we suggest that you declare it.  Often disclosure will be sufficient, and your declaration of interest will be on record if questions ever arise. 

Q. What is meant by a ‘close personal connection’?

The Policy asks you to declare any interests of your ‘close personal connections’ that could reasonably be perceived as representing a conflict of interest with your University duties.  Close personal connections will include, but not be limited to, any children, in-laws, siblings, partner or spouse. You should exercise your judgement if you think that the interests of another close personal connection (for example, a long-standing friend or a niece who lives with you) could reasonably be perceived as representing a conflict of interest with your University duties and so need to be declared.

Q. How and when should I disclose a conflict of interest?

Please disclose any conflicts of interest with your University duties in writing (via email or any online form set up by your institution to capture such declarations) to the Head of your Institution as soon as the conflict first arises or becomes known, or as soon as you realise that a conflict might be perceived. 

Please see the flow chart below for an outline of the process.

 

Q. Who will see my information and where will it be stored?

Your declarations will be reviewed by the Head of your Institution (or their nominated delegate) in order to assess whether any action is necessary to manage conflicts of interest with your University duties.  They may share the information with the Chair of a local committee, if the conflict is relevant to your membership of that committee. 

The information will be recorded and stored securely in the institution’s register of conflicts of interests, with access restricted to those who have a legitimate reason to use it.  It will be treated confidentially insofar as the law permits.  Information will be retained while you remain a member of University staff, plus a further six years.  Wider statements about the uses made of the personal data of staff, students and others are published at https://www.information-compliance.admin.cam.ac.uk/data-protection.

Q. What kind of actions may be put in place and will I be informed?

Section E of the policy sets out some examples of how conflicts of interest may be managed.  These range from a simple record of the declaration, through more active management plans to (in extreme cases) avoidance of the conflict.  Please note that the Head of Institution has discretion to implement other solutions that are compatible with the principles in Section E.

Your Head of the Institution (or their nominated delegate) should discuss with you any actions which they wish to put in place to manage a particular interest.  All actions - or a decision that no actions are necessary - should be confirmed to you via email and recorded in the institution’s register of conflicts of interests. 

Q. Will my declarations be subject to Freedom of Information requests?

As mentioned above, information relating to declarations of conflicts of interest will be treated confidentially insofar as the law permits.  The FOI Act includes an exemption to prevent the disclosure of personal information.  In the vast majority of cases, this will mean that personal information about your conflicts of interest will not be publicly disclosed in response to an FOI request unless you have consented to it.  However, the exemption works in a case- and circumstance-specific way, and it is conceivable that rare circumstances might arise where declarations needed to be disclosed even in the absence of consent.

Q. What do I need to do if I've been asked to complete the annual declaration of interests form?

As noted above, Heads of Institution, plus members and regular attendees of the University’s principal, central decision-making bodies, are required to declare their interests annually via an online declaration of interests form which is administered by the Governance and Compliance Division.  Given the rolling and prospective nature of this declaration, the level of disclosure required in the declaration of interests form exceeds the expectations of other staff, by encompassing not only existing conflicts of interest but also potential conflicts of interests. 

If you are asked to complete the annual declarations of interest form your declarations will be filtered and sent to the relevant committee and/or School contacts for inclusion in their registers of interests. 

Please note that you should still declare conflicts in relation to particular agenda items as they arise.  Unless you are Head of Institution* you should also separately disclose conflicts of interest with your University duties to your Head of Institution at the earliest opportunity, so that these can be recorded in your institution’s register of conflicts of interests.

*If you are a Head of Institution, your Head of School (or the Registrary for non-School institutions) will receive your declarations of interest via the annual declaration of interests process, so you do not need to separately disclose your conflicts to them.

A separate FAQ is available about the online declaration of interests form.