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Thinking ethically, acting ethically

Illustration of the ethical circles

Publication date: June 21, 2018

Portrait photo of Alan KershawWritten by Alan Kershaw, Chair of UKCP’s Ethics Committee

Wouldn’t it be nice if, whenever we faced a difficult decision, someone would step in and tell us exactly what to do, and we could always be certain that was the right thing, producing the best results for everyone?

Nice – but welcome to the real world …

This is where professional ethics comes in. The central principles of ethics for any profession are relatively easy to state, but everyday practice tells us that situations arise where there is no natural ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, where not only as professionals, but as adults, practitioners have to make judgements which they may later be called upon to justify.

Reviewing the Code

For the past couple of years the Ethics Committee have been reviewing UKCP’s Code of Ethics. The current version dates from 2009 so, as a matter of good practice, it was right to review it in the light of what we have learnt over the past decade. Some things need updating, some need to be clarified and there are some gaps to plug. Rather than just offering a new set of do’s and don’ts, we want to express UKCP’s standards in the context of a clear vision of what psychotherapy is and what it can achieve.

A profession’s ethical framework has a number of aspects. One way to look at this is as a series of concentric circles. The first of these contains the headline principles, which can be expressed in very few words. The second circle contains the standards which are the outworking of the headline principles – the statements of specifics which describe the ethical behaviour expected of practitioners, and against which a charge would be formulated in the rare instances where a serious question arises about an individual’s fitness to remain registered.

The guidance in these first two circles applies to all practitioners at all times, and this is what we cover in the new draft Code.

The third circle contains guidance for practitioners in specific groups – for example, those working in research, or with children, or with particular minority populations – for whom the Ethics Committee is producing separate statements focussing on the particular issues that arise. This guidance will apply to some, but not all, practitioners all the time. In the same circle is guidance which applies to all practitioners, but usually only some of the time – for example, the UKCP’s statement on Torture, which we are currently revising and updating on behalf of the organisation as a whole.

Taken together, these first three circles constitute the UKCP’s Ethical Framework.

The outer, fourth circle contains the guidance that would be offered – by UKCP, a college, a teaching body or perhaps a supervisor – to an individual practitioner seeking guidance on a specific dilemma. This by definition cannot be a published document but our expectation is that any such guidance will be based on, and consistent with, documents in the Ethical Framework.

The new draft Code

The new draft Code begins with our vision of psychotherapy. It then sets out a clear statement of the standards to which all UKCP members and registrants must adhere: these could form the basis of an allegation of misconduct should a serious complaint arise about an individual.

The third part of the draft gives expression to our view that professional ethics cannot reasonably be expressed as an encyclopaedia of rules covering every situation. We have developed the new draft Code as a stimulus to ethical thinking through engaging with an issue in the light of fundamental principles. That is why the Code contains not only clear guidance about what UKCP expects but, in its third part, a series of actual problems presented as questions without answers, with which we would encourage all practitioners to engage, through a dialogue on the UKCP website.

The fourth part of the draft Code then sets out a suggested systematic approach to tackling ethical dilemmas – again, a framework rather than a set of rules, and something to be used by individuals in discussion with supervisors and other experienced colleagues.

We want to know what you think about this approach and about the draft Code we have prepared. The consultation opened on 1 June and runs till 7 September. On this website you’ll find all the materials you need to take part: the draft Code itself; a series of short films picking up particular themes; and the consultation survey, which has guidance about how to give us your views.

Free consultation events

We would also like to see you at a couple of free events we’re holding. One is the regular UKCP Members’ Forum in Cardiff on Saturday 30 June, where one session will be all about the Code. Another is in London the following Saturday, 7 July, which is specifically about this consultation and a chance to discuss issues of professional ethics with colleagues and UKCP representatives.

After the consultation the Ethics Committee will look at everyone’s contributions and adjust the draft to meet as many of the points as we can. Where we can change something, we will. Where we can’t, we’ll explain why.

Finally, the draft will go to UKCP’s Executive Committee and then on to the Board of Trustees. If the Board agree, we will publish the Code and, along with your colleges, we’ll let you know all about it. We aim to be doing this early in 2019. Before that, we hope to hear from you so please join the debate!

Please find the consultation information here on this website.


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