Before I call the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) to move the motion, I should explain to the House that this is not a vehicle for the utterance of ad hominem attacks on individual right hon. or hon. Members. For the purpose of such attacks or criticism, a substantive motion relating to an individual right hon. or hon. Member would be necessary. The issue here is the principle and the proposal that the hon. Gentleman wishes to put before the House.
I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to implement the recommendation made by the Public Administration Select Committee in paragraph 44 of its Twenty-second Report of Session 2010-12, The Prime Minister’s Adviser on Ministers’ Interests: independent or not?, that the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests ‘should be empowered to instigate his own investigations’; and notes that this motion has been agreed by the Public Administration Select Committee.
I am extremely grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving the House this brief opportunity to express an opinion on this question today. The Public Administration Select Committee motion is supported by no less than 18 Select Committee Chairmen. The issue turns on a simple question of principle, which is whether or not the Prime Minister’s adviser on Ministers’ interests should be able to decide for him or herself to investigate a potential breach of the ministerial code. All the credible advice that we have received suggests that such a decision should be a matter for the adviser and not for the Prime Minister.
The Public Administration Select Committee—PASC—has advocated that course of action since the first adviser, Sir John Bourn, was appointed by Tony Blair in March 2006. The ministerial code sets out the circumstances in which the adviser—always referred to as the “independent adviser”—is requested to investigate alleged breaches of the code. Under the present arrangements, the question of whether or not to investigate is therefore in the hands of the Prime Minister of the day, on the advice of the Cabinet Secretary.
In 2006, in paragraph 17 of PASC’s report entitled “The Ministerial Code: the case for independent investigation”, the Committee warned:
“It is hard to see how the Independent Adviser can command public confidence if the Prime Minister can decide that prima facie breaches of the Code will not be investigated. Put simply, there is no point in having an investigator in post if he is not given discretion to investigate very public allegations that the Code has been breached.”
Paragraph 20 of the report points out:
“The decision to instigate an investigation still lies with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is clearly not an impartial figure when it comes to deciding whether or not to instigate an investigation. If the regulatory system is to have credibility, that decision must be taken out of political hands.”
In paragraph 34 of the report, the Committee therefore concluded:
“Until the changes we outline have taken place, it is inappropriate to refer to the new investigator as an Independent Adviser.”
The previous Government refused to accept PASC’s recommendation because they believed that
“it must ultimately be for the Prime Minister to account to Parliament for his decisions and actions in relation to the appointment of his Ministers”.
I have to say that that rather missed the point. The Committee was not suggesting that the Prime Minister should cease to make decisions about who to appoint or to dismiss as Ministers, or that he should cease to account to Parliament for those decisions. It merely suggested that he should be supported by truly independent advice.
PASC’s most recent report on the subject, entitled “The Prime Minister’s adviser on Ministers’ interests: independent or not?” was published this year. In it, we concluded that, because our previous recommendations had not been implemented,
“the title of ‘independent adviser’ is a misnomer.”
Paragraph 44 of that report also reiterated PASC’s central recommendation
“that the independent adviser should be empowered to instigate his own investigations. The Prime Minister could do this on his own initiative, without any need for legislation, but placing the post on a statutory footing would be preferable.”
The disadvantages of the present arrangements have been manifest in recent months. Sir Philip Mawer, the previous incumbent, expressed his frustration to the Committee that he was given no role in the investigation of the conduct of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) in respect of Adam Werritty, and suggested that there needed to be a willingness to engage the adviser earlier in the process of investigating potential breaches of the ministerial code. In that case, the Cabinet Secretary conducted the investigation instead of the adviser. Why? We were told that the adviser would have taken too long. However, PASC has established that Sir Philip’s successor, Sir Alex Allan, will conduct swift preliminary inquiries if asked to do so, so that he can play his proper role. The problem of public perception was all the more acute in the case of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and the conduct of his special adviser, Adam Smith.
The problem with the present system is that as soon as the question of a serious potential breach of the code and a possible referral to the Prime Minister’s adviser arises, the Prime Minister is damned if he does, and damned if he does not. Referral is seen either as condemnation of the Minister’s conduct or as an attempt to protect the Minister from a full investigation. The same damage is done to the reputation of the Minister in question who, if innocent, would doubtless prefer the clean bill of health given by an independent investigation. In the more recent case, we finished up with one of the most unpleasant and acrimonious debates in the House of Commons that I have ever witnessed. The office of the independent adviser was set up to improve public confidence in the conduct of Government, but that episode does not vindicate it as a success.
Changing the procedure would avoid all that. It would make the adviser more genuinely independent, and it would help to remove the public suspicion that ministerial conduct can be protected from proper investigation. Short preliminary investigations, unimpeded by political considerations, would speed up the whole process.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his chairing of the Committee and for the contribution that he is making today. I strongly support what he is saying. Can he offer the House any guidance on how we can best protect against potential witch hunts by those in the media who simply want to make life difficult for a Minister and get an investigation under way?
I submit that that would be a question of the robustness of the adviser. The process would operate in a similar way to that of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, in that if the adviser felt that there was a serious case to answer, he would pursue it. If he thought that it was based on hearsay or tittle-tattle, he would dismiss it. Obviously, the moment at which he announced an investigation would be a threshold moment, but we have experience of that with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who operates in that manner.
I support what the hon. Gentleman is saying. In response to the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), I think that media witch hunts would be less likely if the new arrangements were to be adopted, because the media would be less suspicious that anything untoward was happening.
The hon. Gentleman also serves on the Committee, and I am grateful to him for his participation. He makes his point extremely well. Witch hunts start when there is a suspicion that the Prime Minister is seeking to protect a Minister from an investigation. That is when the media—and, indeed, Her Majesty’s official Opposition—tend to jump on the bandwagon.
I want to express my full support for the motion and for the Committee’s report. There are certain questions that many people will ask, and they need to be put on public record. To whom should the independent adviser be directly accountable, and who should appoint him if we are to ensure the maximum degree of genuine independence?
The hon. Gentleman raises a salient point. The manner of the adviser’s appointment was mentioned in the report, although I am not going to address it directly today. In 2003, before the post was established, the Committee on Standards in Public Life originally recommended that the appointment should be made through the public appointments process and overseen by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. That has not happened. It did not happen with the appointment of Sir Alex Allan, and we have been highly critical of that fact. We believe that there should be an open public appointments process for this role, as there is for any other significant public appointment.
My hon. Friend seems to be making an unanswerable case. Will he explain to the House the present position if a Minister chooses to refer him or herself to the independent adviser? Would that position change if his proposals were adopted?
I imagine that any Minister who pressed the Prime Minister for referral should be granted one; however, it might be granted or it might not be—it is a matter for the Prime Minister. That is that. I do not know what a Minister who wanted to be referred would do if the Prime Minister refused that; I think he would just have to lump it.
It is a privilege to serve under my hon. Friend’s chairmanship on the Public Administration Select Committee. Will he confirm that, although the report recommends that the Prime Minister’s adviser should be independent in making the decision, he will nevertheless operate under a clear set of guidelines to help him make that decision?
I think the guidelines are the ministerial code, and it should be for the adviser to determine his own process, but it is perfectly reasonable for the Government and the Prime Minister to insist that the adviser has a quick process to establish prima facie cases and decide whether they are worthy of further investigation rather than go into the full process straight away. I can understand the Prime Minister being reluctant to refer cases to Sir Philip Mawer, who had established a very long, tortuous and indisputably fair process, but not one that could be quick under the pressure of political events as required.
We held a hearing with the new adviser on Minister’s interests, but we were anxious—at least, I was anxious—to make it clear that it was not a pre-appointment hearing. Personally, I have absolutely no doubt of Sir Alex Allan’s bona fides and integrity. Unfortunately, we expressed the view that the manner of his appointment undermined the idea that he is actually an independent adviser, although he is certainly an adviser. He has a day job, too, in that he advises Ministers on their respective private interests and potential conflicts of interests, and ensures that there is a register of Ministers’ interests. That is his main job, and I have no doubt that he does it extremely efficiently. As I say, however, the manner of his appointment does not lead the public to believe that he is truly independent.
Does the hon. Gentleman have any plans to persuade his Committee to do further work in this area, perhaps in line with Sir Philip Mawer’s suggestions for trying to establish ground rules for assessing whether Ministers should be suspended as and when an investigation is taking place—a suggestion made in answer to an earlier question from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns)?
We are certainly minded to conduct a further inquiry into the ministerial code at some stage. At the moment, we are waiting for the Government to respond to our latest report on the Prime Minister’s adviser.
To reiterate, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has the power to instigate his own investigations. Who would suggest now that he should not? His office would command little public support and therefore provide little protection for the reputation of this House and its Members. Other systems in countries such as Canada allow political ethics regulators to instigate their own inquiries into ministerial conduct. How can the Prime Minister—any Prime Minister—be objective or, perhaps more importantly, be seen to be objective when he has to make judgments about close colleagues that could have far-reaching political consequences? I appreciate the fact that Government insiders, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, see this as a potentially huge change, but those who are outside government and not imbued by being in government see this as a very obvious change to make.
Today, on the last day of term, not many colleagues are here, but I nevertheless intend to press this matter to a vote. I challenge Ministers not to resist, and I challenge Labour Members, too, to show how they now embrace what they resisted when they were in office. I have no doubt where public sentiment lies, so let us not delay any longer to bring about what should have been implemented years ago, for this issue will return again and again. PASC will return to it, too, until this recommendation is accepted.
Order. If hon. Members will resume their seats, let me announce that this debate is time limited to 2.20 pm. I intend to call Gareth Thomas at 1.58 pm for 10 minutes, Nick Hurd at 2.08 pm for 10 minutes, and finally Mr Jenkin to sum up in the last two minutes. Six Members wish to contribute, so I ask them to take account of the time constraints in order to be fair to others.
Before making a few substantive points, I would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for prioritising this debate, ensuring that we have time for it on the last sitting day before the recess. The Backbench Business Committee has earned our respect and admiration for ensuring that such vital matters are the focus of attention—and what could be more important than propriety and integrity in public life?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, on his powerful speech, which set out a clear rationale for the independence of the adviser on the ministerial code of conduct. I commend the hon. Gentleman’s tenacity and his determination to succeed in pursuing this vital issue. It is a matter that has the support of all PASC members, and indeed the independent Chairs of other Select Committees.
I, too, start from a premise—one that it is absolutely fundamental to effective government that it must abide by underpinning principles of integrity, fairness, openness and transparency. I have no doubt whatever that it was in that spirit that the office of the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests was established. It was, I believe, set up in good faith, with the Prime Minister having the power of decision on whether or not to instigate investigations. However, based on experience over the last four years, that notion is well past its sell-by date. Since that time, we have seen a dramatic turn of events, including the expenses scandal, which has called the integrity of Parliament into question. To put it bluntly and specifically in relation to the ministerial code, experience over the last few years underscores the need for outright independence.
When in opposition in 2010, the Prime Minister promised to strengthen the ministerial code. He said:
“we must remember that we are not masters but servants. Though the British people have been disappointed in their politicians, they still expect the highest standards of conduct. We must not let them down.”
When questioned in a recent interview about six significant changes in Government policy, he said:
“When you’ve got something wrong, there are two things you can do in government: you can plough on regardless, or you can say, ‘No, we’re going to listen, we’re going to change it, we’re going to get it right.’”
My challenge to the Prime Minister is to say, “Stop ploughing a lone furrow, and take this opportunity to ‘get it right’”. The strength of feeling in this House and in the wider public domain sends a clear message—that the application of scrutiny of the ministerial code lies not just with the Prime Minister, but indeed with the whole House. The overwhelming view is that the independent adviser must be given the power to instigate his own investigations on our behalf.
The retirement of Sir Philip Mawer provided a timely opportunity for the Prime Minister to change the status of, and relationship with, the independent adviser. However, not only was that golden opportunity missed but, to add insult to injury, the new appointment was made through a closed recruitment process. This added fuel to allegations that the independent adviser was merely a pawn of the Prime Minister. So let me make my position very clear: no longer can the Prime Minister act as team captain, goalkeeper and referee at the same time; no longer can the Prime Minister alone dictate the interpretation of the rules that might merit invoking an independent investigation; no longer should we need to devote part of an Opposition day to debating robust and fair application of the codes, and neither should we have the highly charged and intensely heated exchanges, to which our Chairman referred earlier, within this Chamber that characterised the most recent debate.
In these volatile political times, the concentration of such power in the hands of the Prime Minister leaves him open to charges of partisan treatment and bias. Because ours is a largely unwritten constitution, we must be particularly careful that institutions and political offices retain their integrity and credibility. An independent adviser must have the authority to speak truth unto power. In addition, there are weighty matters of state that demand the Prime Minister’s full attention, both at home and abroad. With such a heavy and important political agenda, the argument that application of the “Ministerial Code” must be vested in the adviser is all the more cogent.
I entirely endorse the summary by the Public Administration Committee, which states:
“The reform of ethical regulation in British public life must be undertaken openly, consensually and on the basis of sound principle.”
Whatever the reality, there is a public perception of ad-hockery surrounding the appointment of the independent adviser by the Prime Minister, and the current situation creates further attention to bring our political process into disrepute. I urge everyone to support the motion so that we can ensure that there is a real separation of powers when we are dealing with the propriety and integrity of Members of this august House.
Paragraph 1.5 of the
“Ministerial Code” states:
“Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the Code and for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and the public. However, Ministers only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. He is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected”.
The passing of this motion would change that. Rather than decisions being made by Ministers and the Prime Minister, an independent adviser would, at his own instigation, pass judgments on Ministers. The Prime Minister is Prime Minister because he commands a majority in the House, and under our constitution it is the Prime Minister who appoints Ministers who are accountable to him and to the House, but passing the motion would change that.
What worries me is that a huge constitutional weight would be placed on the “Ministerial Code” for which it is entirely ill-suited. This document has not been approved by the House; it has not even been approved by the Cabinet. John Major’s Cabinet agreed to publish it, but there was a strong view that it should not be published because it would lead to inappropriate weight being placed on it. At best it is a prime ministerial document, but in reality it was only under Attlee that that was the case.
According to what I believe is the only history of the development of the “Ministerial Code”, by a lady called Amy Baker,
“Attlee had tailored the document very much to his own style and the needs of his own Labour administration—and succeeding Prime Ministers may have followed suit, had the Cabinet Office not intervened.”
However, the original Cabinet Secretary, Hankey,
“had drafted the very first guidelines in order to establish some continuity of procedure which would enable the Cabinet Office to organise business without being disrupted too much on a change of government.”
We know what has happened as the code has developed. Winston Churchill took no interest in it and Eden refused to issue a code, but it was used by Macmillan. Home and then Wilson took over in 1963 and 1964, and the Cabinet Secretary claimed that the document bore the great imprimatur of various Prime Ministers when that was in fact not the case. What had happened in 1963 and 1964 was used to push through paragraph 4.7, which puts junior Ministers under the thumb of the permanent secretary and says that they cannot tell the permanent secretary what to do even if the Secretary of State is happy for them to do so. According to Amy Baker’s book, at the time that
“may have seemed quite convenient”
to the drafters of what was then “Questions of Procedure for Ministers” ,
“who knew that their amendments would now be ‘automatically’ approved by the new Prime Minister”.
Similar circumstances arose when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and the rules governing the roles of parliamentary private secretaries changed. According to the book,
“amongst those directives which senior officials selected for incorporation into QPM, were instructions prohibiting dissent in the Commons from parliamentary private secretaries.”
Again, we see a system whereby the House is denuded of its rights and civil servants decide what happens to the “Ministerial Code”.
According to a former Cabinet Secretary,
“This process meant that on a change of government, senior officials in the Cabinet Office had a wider discretion to initiate amendments, as the incoming Prime Minister would be unaware of recent issues and would generally approve the draft handed to them on appointment.”
That is how we arrived at the reference to an overarching duty to obey international law. There is no basis for it in this Parliament or in our courts, but if the motion is passed, the position will become even worse. Not only will the code be a constitutional document, but a retired civil servant will decide how it applies to each individual Minister, and I think that that is wrong.
We have seen the degradation of a very valuable reform that was made when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. I was a member of the Public Administration Committee at the time, and we were not happy with everything that the last Government did. We wanted to go further: we wanted a pre-appointment hearing. However, if we look at the history of the code, we see that it was used once by the last Government on an occasion involving Shahid Malik and has not been used by the present Government in three serious cases, although it was used in a minor case.
We should heed what was said about lobbying by the Prime Minister when he was in opposition, and in last week’s report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. When in opposition, the Prime Minister said, quite rightly, that lobbying was the greatest scandal facing us, and that money was buying power and power was fishing for money. Sadly, that is exactly what has happened under this Government, and to an even greater extent. We must look to our reputation. We must recognise the fact that we are not winning back the trust and the confidence of the people, which is our prime task after the expenses scandal, but are losing that trust and that confidence and providing even greater cause for scandal.
The first of the three cases that should have been investigated by the independent adviser, as he says himself, was the case of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). We now have a new doctrine of absolution by resignation: those who resign will not be subject to a full investigation of their conduct by the only legal enforcer of the “Ministerial Code”. An investigation was carried out virtually over the weekend for party political reasons, in order to get it over with rapidly.
The second case involved a Minister who argued that he did not have to declare a meal with which he had been provided by a lobbyist because on the day in question he was digesting with his private rather than his ministerial stomach. That was accepted, and no investigation was carried out.
Thirdly, there was the case of the Culture Secretary, on which we had a debate the other day. I believe that we must look to the conduct of the adviser on that. In extraordinary circumstances, following receipt of a letter from the Prime Minister dated the day of the debate, an answer came back before 12 pm virtually absolving the Minister involved of the charge that he and his staff had been approached by a lobbyist 500 times, because it had been deemed not to be a legitimate area for investigation. All those cases should have been investigated under the “Ministerial Code”.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, which is behaving as it should. There is unanimity on the Committee about the reform that is necessary. When the new independent adviser appeared before the Committee, I asked him what he would do if we expressed our unhappiness about his appointment. We suggested that he had a reputation for being a poodle—for having followed Ministers around for years, obeying them with “Yes sir” and “No sir”. That had long been his role. He was not the Rottweiler that we needed. He said that if we expressed our unhappiness he would consider relinquishing his post, and we did express our unhappiness. I believe that before appointing such a person we must decide by means of a pre-appointment hearing whether he possesses the necessary robust independence.
No, it would not, because, under this Government, in the three serious cases I have mentioned, the code has not been used, when it should have been. The only time it has been called upon was in a case of some triviality, where the person involved admitted her guilt, and that went through. These other serious potential abuses have not even been investigated, and we must question the impartiality of the adviser because of his conduct on the day of the debate in question. All the misgivings we had were justified.
We, as an institution, are in grave danger of deepening public cynicism against us. We have had new cases of allegations, backed up with films showing a lobbyist trying to get access to the Prime Minister or boasting of access—
The Public Administration Committee has been consistent on this matter, and it has been right on this matter. It is not about the choosing of Ministers; it is not even about the dismissal of Ministers. It is about ensuring that, if there is the possibility of impropriety in ministerial conduct, that can be investigated. It is too much to expect the Prime Minister not to be influenced by other factors in deciding whether to refer such a matter. To lose one Minister is bad enough; to lose several is careless. The Prime Minister will always have an anxiety that an adverse report by the investigator could lead to his needing to dismiss a Minister. It is simply naive to suppose that no Prime Minister will be affected by such considerations. Therefore, the adviser should be free to initiate investigations. Indeed, they would often do so in circumstances where it is to the advantage of the Minister concerned that there be a straightforward, clear and swift way of vindicating him, if he is innocent.
I rise to speak briefly in support of the comments of the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), the Chair of the Select Committee. He put the case very well. We do not need to use extreme language, as the proposal is common sense, particularly given recent events. We want an investigator who has the capacity to conduct proper investigations and offer advice. The constitutional relationship between the Prime Minister and this House would not be changed by that. He could accept or reject the advice, but at least investigations could be made independently, without having to ask the permission of the Prime Minister first. That would be a significant change.
Regardless of the formal situation, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the political reality will be that if this independent investigator decides to conduct an investigation off his own bat and then gives a withering condemnation of the Minister concerned, it would be very difficult for the Prime Minister to keep that Minister in office, and de facto control would pass to the adviser?
I trust that the investigator would make a withering condemnation only if that were justified. The recent events surrounding the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and his amanuensis, Adam Werritty, deserved to be thoroughly investigated, but in my view they were not properly investigated.
Such a situation would not arise in future. I hope the Chairman of the Select Committee will not mind my mentioning that we will undertake a report on special advisers. I hope we will recommend putting their relationship with Ministers on a better footing in future, so that situations such as the Adam Werritty case do not arise again.
This proposal is timely. Recently, Prime Ministers have operated in an extremely powerful, individualistic way, and in a secretive way. They have often not trusted full Cabinets to discuss important matters. We are now moving towards a situation where the Prime Minister will be a little more open and accountable, without damaging our constitution in any way—in fact, this proposal will improve it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. A situation might arise in which a Minister who has not behaved very well is a personal friend of the Prime Minister of the day. The Prime Minister could then say to the Minister, “Well, the investigation wasn’t instigated by me. It was instigated independently, and I have to accept the advice of the report. It is not me who is causing you difficulty; it’s the investigation by the independent adviser.”
In every way, therefore, this proposal is a progressive advance that is in keeping with the spirit of the times. I hope that in future more of the Prime Minister’s current powers will be devolved.
I am a member of the Public Administration Committee, and I am very proud that we have come up with this sensible and important proposal. It is hugely important for Parliament, as it addresses the holding of Ministers to account, which is one of our key roles. We must remember that it is important outside this place, too; it is important to ordinary people, who saw the unseemly events of the past few months and have therefore come to regard the current system of accountability as wholly inadequate. Recent episodes have also left a nasty taste in the mouths of Members on both sides of the House, who agree that the current situation is wholly unacceptable.
When Sir Alex Allan appeared before our Committee, we had what can only be described as a wholly unsatisfactory discussion with him in respect of both the realities of the role and, I am afraid, our confidence in his ability to perform it as it should be performed, rather than as it is, sadly, currently performed.
We must remember that this proposal was introduced by the previous Government. In response to the predecessor Committee’s previous report on the issue, they made it clear that the appointment would be a personal one by the Prime Minister and that he would need to have confidence that the person appointed would be able to provide independent and impartial advice.
We want the Minister to say that the Government will accept our sensible proposal, and we also want the Opposition to agree to it; they must accept the original principles of this new office as set out under the last Government. I have asked the same of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I believe that he is happy to do so on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.
The full title of this post is “the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests” but the simple reality is that it is the Prime Minister’s adviser on Ministers’ interests. The current title is fraudulent and misleading to Parliament and the public. If these reforms are not accepted and implemented, the Government should at least have the decency to change the title to “the Prime Minister’s adviser on Ministers’ interests.”
Sir Alex Allan was appointed to the post with no open competition. We do not believe anyone else was even in the frame for the job, and there was no detail whatever on the process he went through. That is simply unacceptable.
Our proposal is based on an extremely simple idea. If—free from political interference and regardless of any media witch hunt—the independent adviser believes there is sufficient genuine evidence for an investigation, he should intervene. That is all we are asking for.
This has been a brief but interesting debate. I commend the work of the Public Administration Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). He has rightly received praise for the tenacious way in which he and his Committee have pursued these issues. I hope he will forgive me if I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), too, for he has also pursued these issues with considerable vigour and tenacity.
I studied the contributions of all Select Committee members. I carefully read the questions they put to Sir Philip Mawer and Sir Alex Allan, and noted in particular the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is also a consistent campaigner on these issues, my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy), and the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland). They all made good contributions to this debate, too.
This debate would not have the resonance it currently has outside the House if it were not for the Prime Minister’s mishandling of key questions about possible violations of the ministerial code—a point that was implicit in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes.
The Opposition remain determined to take the steps necessary to continue the process of restoring trust in the political process. When we were in government, we took steps to reform Parliament, passing new laws to protect our democracy. We acted to increase transparency and strengthen public accountability for Members of the House of Commons. On ministerial accountability, we also introduced further reforms. The then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), introduced the publication of an annual report and a list of Ministers’ interests, again to increase transparency and Ministers’ accountability to this House. He also appointed Sir Philip Mawer as the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, calling on him, as a number of Members have mentioned, to investigate the then Member for Dewsbury in May 2009, against whom a particular allegation—it was unfounded, as it turned out—had been made. Sir Philip investigated and the Minister was cleared and returned to his ministerial duties.
I have a number of questions for the Minister and, if I may, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, but the context of our debate is worth touching on. It is the Prime Minister’s refusal, using the Leveson inquiry as his reason, to ask Sir Philip’s successor, Sir Alex Allan, to investigate the conduct of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Prime Minister’s failure to call in the independent adviser in the case of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), that form the backdrop to our debate. The fact that so many Members wanted this debate is in no small part due to the Prime Minister’s refusal to use consistently a system which the last Prime Minister established and used, but which the current Prime Minister now appears unwilling to use—except when he is sure of the outcome.
In short, the motion before the House today is the direct result of the belief of too many Members, on both sides of the House, that the Prime Minister has mishandled his responsibility for the ministerial code.
I resent the hon. Gentleman making that implication, because I do not think that it does reflect why all the signatures are on the motion. What it does reflect, however, is the fact that the previous Labour Government did not accept this recommendation from the predecessor Committee. It is incumbent on him to explain whether the Labour party has now changed its mind and will support this motion, or whether he is just going to use this opportunity to make political points in this debate.
I will come to the position that Opposition Front Benchers are taking, but the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee is wrong not to recognise the considerable concern on the Opposition Benches—and the Government Benches—at the Prime Minister’s decision not to refer the case of the right hon. Member for North Somerset to the independent adviser, which I understand prompted the Committee’s original inquiry into this issue in this Parliament. The Prime Minister’s more recent decision to refer the case of the noble Baroness Warsi and not that of the Culture Secretary has galvanised interest in the Committee’s work in this area.
The shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), set out in her speech on 13 June some detailed concerns, which I do not intend to dwell on now, about the Prime Minister’s failure to uphold the code and to ensure that an appropriate investigation took place.
As I think I set out earlier, we did take action when we were in government, and the House is better for it. However, I want to come to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made not only in this debate but in the Public Administration Committee’s hearings.
There is a particular outstanding question that the Prime Minister still needs to answer, and perhaps the Minister can give us some clarity on it. Why is it appropriate for the independent adviser to be used in the case of the noble Baroness Warsi and not that of the Culture Secretary? I also have a series of questions on which I would welcome the views of the Chair of the Public Administration Committee in his concluding remarks. As I hope I made clear, I think some further work by his Committee in this area would be useful for the whole House, not least in questioning the current ministerial adviser on his lack of consultation in the case of the Culture Secretary.
The new independent adviser told the Committee when giving evidence that he had made the point to the new Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, that
“there are advantages to him in bringing the Adviser in early and whenever major issues arise.”
That appears at odds with the comment in a letter from Sir Alex that was deposited in the Library, accepting the Prime Minister’s decision not to refer the case and noting the work of the Leveson inquiry, and with the clear view of Sir Brian Leveson that his inquiry was not an appropriate place for the Secretary of State’s conduct to be investigated. I raise this question not in any way to express doubt about Sir Alex’s capacity or commitment, but to inquire whether the Committee will continue to explore the circumstances in which it would be appropriate for the ministerial adviser to be brought in, and to suggest—in a spirit of helpfulness, I hope—that Sir Alex’s evidence may well be helpful in that context.
Will the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee be summoning the Cabinet Secretary to explore the extent to which there was consultation with Sir Alex over the Culture Secretary’s case? In my intervention on the Chairman, I raised the possibility of further work by his Committee in this area, highlighting two issues that Sir Philip Mawer raised, in part in answer to some questions from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns): whether suspension of a Minister is really possible during a code investigation in practical political terms; and the possibility of the Committee helping to establish a set of “ground rules”—his words—for a situation where an investigation is under way and the media is in full pursuit of that Minister.
The Opposition will listen carefully to the position and argument that the Minister, and indeed the Public Administration Committee Chairman, develop. We will want to consider the Government’s response to the Committee’s report, which it is a pity was not available for today’s debate. I have genuinely an open mind on this issue. The Opposition’s instinct is that further work is required.
This debate is born out of frustration with the Prime Minister’s handling of his responsibility for the ministerial code.
I am winding up.
The failure to use the independent adviser in the case of the right hon. Member for North Somerset, compounded by the failure to contemplate using him in the case of the Culture Secretary, provides the context for this debate. Sadly, it is yet another debate called in this great House because of the errors of judgment of the current Prime Minister.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for clarifying the Labour party’s position on this issue—or not. I would like to begin by registering my personal respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and the other members of his Committee for their persistence on this matter. I note carefully his comment that that persistence is not going away. I also note, on the Government’s behalf, that the motion has cross-party support and has been signed by a number of distinguished Chairmen of Select Committees. This short debate is therefore one the Government must listen to, and I believe are listening to, carefully, and we will consider carefully what has come out of it.
I think it would be helpful if I restated an important principle that the Labour party also clung to in its 13 years in power: when it comes to the ministerial code, the Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) pointed out. The bottom line is that Ministers remain in office only for as long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. He or she decides, and is accountable to Parliament for those decisions.
The advent of an independent adviser is clearly welcome—although the Labour party seemed to fight it for many years—and he or she clearly has an important role. It is worth clarifying that there are two aspects to the role, both of which are important. One part of the role is, at the request of the Prime Minister, to look into allegations of breaches of the ministerial code, if the Prime Minister thinks that is necessary, and to advise the Prime Minister. But it is for the Prime Minister to take this decision and be accountable for it. In some cases, the Prime Minister will have no need to ask for advice, as the issues will be clear. In other cases, there may be the need for further investigation before the Prime Minister can take a decision. In those instances, he will refer to the independent adviser.
It is to misunderstand the intended role of the independent adviser to suggest that he or she should be able to instigate his or her own investigations. The adviser is there, personally appointed by the Prime Minister, to advise the Prime Minister on allegations of breaches of the code, if the Prime Minister thinks it is necessary. I shall now read out an important quote from the Prime Minister’s evidence to the Liaison Committee on 3 July:
“The ministerial adviser on interests is there to advise the Prime Minister; he gives the advice and the Prime Minister has to make the decision.”
There has been no change in approach; this is the same practice that existed under the previous Government.
I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend, as he is actually dealing with the issue, unlike the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) in his extraordinary and pathetic contribution. Does my hon. Friend not accept that if the independent adviser had the powers we are talking about, he himself would say that there is not the evidence to proceed with an inquiry? The proposed approach would do that job and give the public confidence that there was no need for an inquiry in the first place.
The Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Christopher Kelly, said in evidence to the Public Administration Committee that in his view the Prime Minister had broken the ministerial code in one of these instances. As the Prime Minister is unlikely to refer himself to the adviser, is it not crucial that we have someone of independence who can take on the Prime Minister when he is suspected of breaking the ministerial code?
I have not seen Sir Christopher Kelly’s evidence on that, but there is no shortage of opportunities to hold the Prime Minister to account on anything.
Providing advice to the Prime Minister on allegations about a breach of the ministerial code is one aspect of the independent adviser’s role. I also wish to explain the other important aspect of the role, as it has been ignored in the debate: the adviser provides an independent check and source of advice to Ministers on the handling of their private interests in order to avoid any conflict between those interests and their ministerial responsibilities, as set out in section 7 of the ministerial code. This is very much behind-the-scenes work; it is about sorting out issues before they arise. However, it does result in the publication by the Cabinet Office of the list of Ministers’ interests, which puts into the public domain a list of all the relevant interests of all Ministers and enables external scrutiny of possible conflicts of interest. Obviously, this is an ongoing process as issues arise, not a one-off. It is important to put on record that second dimension to the independent adviser’s work.
Some questions were raised about particular cases this afternoon, although I think that the hon. Member for Harrow West struck the wrong tone, not for the first time, by seizing the opportunity to try to make a political attack on the Prime Minister. Rather than rehearse some arguments about why one particular case was referred or otherwise, I simply say that in each case—those of the former Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary and Baroness Warsi—there were no shortages of opportunities for the House or for the media to hold the Prime Minister to account for the decisions he took.
Did not the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) go beyond that by suggesting that the code, rather than being a prime ministerial document for Ministers, actually applies to the Prime Minister, too, and that the independent investigator should investigate whether the Prime Minister has breached it? If that were the case, should we not all just pack up, go home and let the independent advisers decide everything?
I share my hon. Friend’s reservations about placing too much weight and responsibility on someone who is ultimately an adviser, and this will not be the first time that the hon. Member for Newport West has overstated his case. The point that I was trying to make about the political attacks on the Prime Minister by the hon. Member for Harrow West was that the reasons in each particular case that he cited were made public and the Prime Minister, as we are extremely well aware, was held very accountable for all those decisions.
Does the Minister not recognise that history shows that the ministerial code has been invoked more as a shield against public and parliamentary accountability than as a tool for enabling those things? For as long as the code remains the personal app of the Prime Minister and the independent adviser does not have independence, surely all we are looking at is a feeble cross between a figment and a fig leaf.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his suit, which has enlivened proceedings today.
In the time available to me, I wish to make a comment about the issue of the independence of Sir Alex Allan, because it has been suggested that he is not independent enough or even that he is perhaps not up to the job, having only just retired from a senior role at the heart of government before taking up the role. As I have said, this is a personal appointment by the Prime Minister of the day. A number of qualities are required for the job. In particular, the independent adviser needs to be somebody whose expertise and experience enable them to provide confidential and trusted advice to Ministers and their permanent secretaries. It is our judgment, and the judgment of the Prime Minister, that Sir Alex Allan has that experience, as well as the necessary skills and judgment to make him ideally suited for the role.
In conclusion, today’s debate has shown the range of views on the issue. I hope that we have made it clear that the Government treat issues of ministerial conduct with the utmost seriousness. The Government will reflect carefully on the points made in this debate, and will reflect on them in our response, overdue as it is, to the Public Administration Committee report. That response will be published shortly.
I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to reply to this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is custom and practice in this place to say what an interesting debate we have had, but we really have had an interesting exchange on this occasion. I am very grateful for, and indeed touched by, the warm remarks of members of the Public Administration Committee who have made comments about how much they enjoy working on that Committee—that goes for me, too. I very much appreciate their participation and support for our activity.
Many of those hon. Members spoke in this debate, but by far the most interesting contribution was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), who raised a number of interesting things about the ministerial code. We are not debating its content; we are debating how the code should be enforced. He should somehow take part in our inquiry into the ministerial code, when we get to it, because he has a lot of important and interesting contributions to make, but I submit to him that the code should be owned by Parliament and controlled by Parliament in order that it can become a mechanism that can be used by Parliament to hold Ministers to account.
Let us remember that the code was secret until quite recently. It was published only recently and it was only very recently that it started being referred to in statute. The point has been made that a change has been smuggled in whereby Ministers have to obey international law even if there is no statute that requires them to obey that law. That is an extraordinary constitutional innovation and it is one of the things that we would want to look at.
I want to complete my remarks by referring to the two Front Benchers. They are both erudite and intelligent people who have done their best to avoid addressing the crunch issue. I understand why the Government are reluctant to make the change, but I am prepared to press this to a vote because otherwise we will be back again having exactly the same debate as we always do. I put it to the Opposition spokesman: if we finish up with another debate moved by the Opposition on why somebody has not been referred—
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question (Order, 11 July).
Question agreed to.
That this House calls on the Government to implement the recommendation made by the Public Administration Select Committee in paragraph 44 of its Twenty-second Report of Session 2010-12, The Prime Minister’s Adviser on Ministers’ Interests: independent or not?, that the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests ‘should be empowered to instigate his own investigations’; and notes that this motion has been agreed by the Public Administration Select Committee.