BACP’s 2018 Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions comes into effect this month – a planned update to the 2016 revision to fill gaps identified in the first version and acknowledge changing client needs and legal requirements.

Some of the changes are quite small: the all-important ‘Commitments’ section now includes an additional commitment to ‘provide an appropriate standard of service’. The Commitments are also now available as a stand-alone document that can be downloaded from the BACP website and given to clients or colleagues from other professions.

There is a revised section on record keeping, to reflect the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). New points have also been added about gender identity and sexual orientation, to explicitly acknowledge BACP’s commitment to the Memorandum of Understanding on conversion therapy.

There are completely new sections on relationships with former clients, spelling out in much greater detail when it might be possible to engage in a personal relationship with someone who is no longer a client; on breaks and endings, including provision should the practitioner become severely ill or die, and on working with colleagues and in teams, stressing the need to treat them with the same dignity and respect that we accord our clients. ‘It seems that in some agencies, practitioners were exhausting their compassion and empathy on their work with clients and not expressing that with their colleagues,’ says Tim Bond, who has been lead author on all of BACP’s ethical frameworks since the 2002 version, which marked a radical departure from the preceding, more prescriptive Code of Conduct.

There is more about and for supervisors and trainees. For supervisors, there is clarification on their responsibilities vis-à-vis trainees on placement, reminding them that they need to collaborate with training and placement providers in order to ensure that the trainee’s client work meets professional standards. There is a reminder to supervisees and trainees of their own duty to be open and honest in supervision and on placements, and to raise any significant difficulties or challenges they may be encountering in their client work. Supervisors, trainers and educators are asked to provide a space where supervisees and trainees feel able to bring any difficulties and they will be heard ‘without blame or unjustified criticism’ and helped to resolve them. ‘The role of supervisors produced quite a lot of feedback,’ Tim Bond says. ‘It was important to affirm that supervisors have a legitimate and valued role that is ongoing and isn’t only a service for trainees.’

There is a whole new section directly addressed to trainees, outlining their professional responsibilities, including informing clients that they are trainees and that they should treat each other with respect and follow ethical good practice when working together. Significantly, they are also told they need to raise concerns if they encounter any contractual conflicts around standards and levels of service when they are on placement, and they are reminded that they are professionally accountable for their work, even though they are not yet qualified; they cannot pass the buck to their college, trainers or supervisor. Says Tim Bond: ‘Our research confirmed what we suspected, that trainees are major users of the Ethical Framework, so we have included a specific section on them as we feel it is important not to miss an opportunity to embed it in their practice in the early stages. But we also wanted to set out some principles on issues such as how do you create the right learning environment for trainees that permits them to experiment and make mistakes as they learn.’

The section on working with children has also been expanded to include more about consent. It now also underlines the need for the practitioner to have specialist knowledge of child development issues and how relationships are formed, and also about different cultural parenting/caregiving practices and how children and young people interact with each other and other significant people in their lives.

Finally, there’s an updated glossary of terms and index, for easy reference.

Living document

Some may question the need for a new version quite so soon after the major 2016 revision. Tim Bond points out that the 2016 framework was always regarded as a ‘living document’ that would adapt and respond to the changing needs of the profession and its clients and the rapidly changing wider world. The 2018 revision is based on a survey of the membership, to which some 1200 responded, and analysis of other key data sources, including members’ concerns raised with the BACP Ethics Helpdesk and clients’ calls to the Ask Kathleen service, and the annual monitoring reports submitted by BACP accredited courses, which shed useful light on the needs of trainees.

‘The overall feedback was that the Ethical Framework worked well for most but more was wanted on specific points or issues,’ Tim says. ‘We are hoping we have got it about right this time but we are likely to repeat the review in two to four years. The profession is constantly changing and so too is the world around us, with new demands and requirements, such as the new data protection regulations, and the Ethical Framework needs to be responsive to those changes.’

The framework has certainly got longer. The section on ‘Good practice’ in particular has grown quite considerably. It has also, in places, acquired a more directive tone, despite the original intention that it should simply set out the commitments and principles and encourage members to seek detailed guidance in the accompanying library of Good Practice documents.

‘We are having to be more directive,’ Tim Bond says. ‘I wish that were not the case. My guiding principle in 2016 and this revision was that the client has to be able to trust us as practitioners and, as we are going to be faced with a whole plethora of different circumstances, we have to be able to use our judgment in the event as to how to respond. I would like to think we are professional enough and mature enough to do that but some members, for good reasons, just need more guidance. They understand the principle but need to know what to do in practice. I underestimated people’s terror of codes and ethical frameworks.’

Lynne Gabriel, Professor of Counselling and Mental Health at York St John University, Director of its counselling and mental health clinic and a past chair of BACP, has been closely involved in the production and roll-out of the Ethical Framework. She says the counselling professions have, at long last, come of age, and need to shoulder and demonstrate their ability to act like professionals. ‘This latest iteration of the framework recognises that the profession is growing up, and we want our profession to grow up. It makes me think of the concept of the executive function in transactional analysis, which is attached to our adult ego state. Our problem is that, faced with an ethical dilemma, our adult ego state flies out of the window, but hopefully not so far that we can’t grab it back! This version of the Framework implicitly and explicitly invites the practitioner to get into the executive function. We are professionals and we need to be able to stand up and hold our own as a mature, respected profession, and that requires us to formalise certain things. For me, this is an invitation to elicit our inner adult. We can stand alongside counselling psychologists. We have arrived.’

Alistair Ross chaired the expert reference group whose deliberations helped shape the 2016 Ethical Framework. Director of Psychodynamic Studies and Psychology at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education and former chair of the BACP’s Professional Ethics and Quality Standards Committee, he thinks counsellors tend to misunderstand the underlying principle on which the Ethical Framework rests: it doesn’t seek to tell them how to practise, it offers basic principles to guide their own ethical decision-making. But counsellors either seem to regard it as a prescriptive set of rules or they panic when it doesn’t tell them exactly what to do.

There’s an extent to which counsellors struggle with the uncertainty that is intrinsic to the counselling process itself, he argues. ‘When the client comes into the room, you never know what they are going to say. It could be the same as last week or something completely different, but that is what makes it such a live profession. There are no set responses. It’s not like buying a house; there are no stock steps to take. That uncertainty is intrinsic to the job. I think people project their negative emotions onto the Ethical Framework so it becomes a critical parent; it becomes symbolic of people’s anxieties. We project out our fears.

‘I see it as a positive tool; other members probably see it as a guillotine, wound up and waiting to fall on their necks. The counselling profession can help people but it also can harm them and, because we are aware of that, we turn the Ethical Framework into a trap, waiting to strike.’

Alistair, Lynne and Faisal Mahmood, Senior Lecturer in Counselling & Psychotherapy at the Newman University in Birmingham, have been involved in the production of a new video resource to support ethical decision-making (see box). Faisal recalls his own attitude to the BACP Code of Conduct, as it was, when he trained. ‘Certainly, for me, it held strong connotations of fear, and that is how it was introduced to us by our tutors. That has changed for me. I now see it very much as a supportive document, affirming and validating my professional practice, and that is how I introduce it to my students.’


Another common complaint is that the Ethical Framework is part of a BACP project to regulate counselling and psychotherapy so tightly that it encourages defensive practice and stifles innovation. ‘In an ideal world, regulation should be unnecessary but we were aware, in our current culture and society, that all professions are more regulated and we have to engage with that regulated environment if we are to be considered a serious profession,’ Tim Bond says. ‘Too much detail can be infuriating, but it is part of a framework of providing better protection for clients.

‘In the pre-regulation days there was indeed some brilliant practice, but there was also some pretty eccentric and awful practice. I hope we have kept the space for the brilliance but are establishing a more predictable baseline. We need to honour the trust and confidence people have to place in us when they seek our help, and for some, when it goes wrong, it can be pretty disastrous.’

Tim is anxious to remind BACP members of what it is that is so very radical about the 2016 framework and the 2018 revision: that it opens with and foregrounds ‘Our commitment to clients’ throughout, rather than setting out a list of ‘duties’ with which practitioners are supposed to comply, as is more common in professional codes of conduct. ‘These ethical commitments are expressed as both a collective and a personal commitment made by members of BACP to their clients, not an obedience to some impersonal authority,’ he says. It’s an approach that emerged from the webinars we held leading to the writing of the 2016 version as more appropriate to services where the relationship between client and practitioner is an essential part of what is being offered.

‘A key aim of this review was to check this new approach and ensure that members have been given every opportunity to own their ethics.’

‘If we are changing people’s lives then we need to put people, not the therapist, at the centre,’ Alistair Ross says. ‘We need to demonstrate that we are a trustworthy profession by being utterly transparent about what our commitment to our clients is. Anyone can open the Ethical Framework and read the first few pages and come away thinking “These people are on my side”.’

Decision-making for ethical practice:  Stop, think, identify the situation or problem  Construct a description of the situation  Consider whose ethical issue or challenge it is  Review the situation in terms of the BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions  Consider principles and values of relevance to the issue  Reflect upon the relational processes that have played out in the situation  Identify what support is available  Identify an ethical goal  Consider possible courses of action to achieve the ethical goal  Implement the chosen course of action  Evaluate the outcome Check for personal impact

Embedded in practice

Now that it is formally launched, the work goes on to embed the revised Ethical Framework in professional practice. A key target group is, of course, students. Faisal Mahmood says training curricula should give more time to ethics, including space for students to explore, discuss and ‘own’ the Framework. As part of the ethics training on his course, he asks each new student intake what the Ethical Framework means to them. ‘Very often, they come up with phrases like “We need to be careful”, “Is my practice good enough?”, and “This is a standard it will take us many years to achieve”. Then I say, if they were asked to design a set of guidelines and standards for the counselling profession, what would they include? And they come up with much the same content – confidentiality, abuse of power, all those bedrock issues. Of course, it is easier in clear-cut cases of abuse of power and breach of confidentiality; it’s the grey areas where they really start to engage with the framework, when we move on to doing exercises on specific ethical dilemmas. But they completely move away from this “‘must do/must not do” place.’

‘You need to introduce ethics to students in a way that engages them, not scares them, although sometimes I think we are right to feel a frisson of fear; after all, we are dealing with people’s lives. Ethics are there all the time, in the micro-moments, not just the macro,’ says Lynne Gabriel. ‘What is perhaps more worrying is the potential complacency of the experienced practitioner who forgets or chooses not to engage with new practice and new research. I absolutely understand the anxiety of the new practitioner – they need help to translate the ethical concepts and guidelines into actual practice. That is the role of supervisors, mentors and trainers.’

Alistair Ross says supervisors are the prime route to practitioners. ‘Supervisors are the group I would want the Ethical Framework to reach. They could routinely ask every supervisee, every supervision session, what are the ethical issues that the work they’ve brought raises.

‘The Ethical Framework is BACP’s crown jewels. It sets out what we believe and what we aspire to, some of the things we do and some of the things not to do. I would love supervisors to have annual reviews with all their supervisees where they look back over the year through the lens of the Ethical Framework, and ask, “What have you been doing really well? Where have you got stuck and where do you need to develop?” We need to get away from all the projected anxiety and fear and tackle that attitude that you only need to think about ethics when things have gone wrong.’

You can find the new Ethical Framework, Good Practice in Action resources and other supporting information in Ethics and standards.