[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. The debate is surprisingly topical. Only two hours ago in the Chamber, in response to an urgent question from the Opposition, the Minister responsible for press regulation, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, answered on behalf of not the Government, but the Conservative party, which I thought was rather bizarre. There followed a contribution from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech)—who is not a member of the Government or part of ministerial collective responsibility—who purported to make a statement on behalf of the Liberal Democrat party. Surely the whole purpose of collective ministerial responsibility is to ensure that there is certainty outside about the Government’s view on a particular issue, so that they do not speak with forked tongue.
Although I welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who will respond to the debate, I am rather disappointed that the Prime Minister is not here in person, because it was primarily his failure to answer my written questions on how he exercises collective ministerial responsibility that caused me to request the debate.
I started asking questions about the subject in December. I asked the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude)—to whom my question to the Prime Minister was transferred—about the number of occasions on which collective ministerial responsibility had been set aside in this Parliament. I received a non-answer. I then went to ask some questions directly of the Prime Minister, but again my questions were not answered. Some of those non-answers are referred to in the briefing that is available to hon. Members. I will not go through those answers, because they are not answers. I could not understand why the Prime Minister was so reluctant to be accountable to Members of Parliament and put a straight answer to a straight question on how many occasions collective ministerial responsibility had been set aside.
After the set of answers—or non-answers—from the Prime Minister, I asked specific questions about what had happened in relation to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill last month. During consideration of Lords amendments, the Leader of the House of Commons announced that collective ministerial responsibility had been set aside—the first time that we have heard officially that that has happened—and, in answer to my intervention, explained that that was the Prime Minister’s decision. Following that, I asked the Prime Minister on what day he had set aside ministerial responsibility in relation to the Bill and the reasons for that. I have had no answers to those questions; in fact, I have had a deliberate refusal to answer. I cannot understand why, because I thought that the Government were interested in transparency and openness and that they would want to put their answers on the record.
My last stab at trying to get some answers from the Prime Minister was in the form of questions, which were answered on Monday this week. I asked,
“what the arrangements are for informing Ministers of the setting aside of collective ministerial responsibility in respect of votes in the House”
“on how many occasions a formal Cabinet decision has been made to set aside collective ministerial responsibility in the last 12 months.”
The answer I received was:
“It has been the practice of successive Governments not to disclose information relating to internal discussions”—
I did not ask about internal discussions, of course—
“information or forums in which decisions are made.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 462W.]
Apparently that is the Government’s policy.
However, that does not fit in well with a report in The Daily Telegraph on 15 January, by Tim Ross, about the “revolt”—as he put it—in the upper Chamber by six of the seven Liberal Democrat Front Benchers, who voted against the coalition Government on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. He wrote:
“Downing Street said Prime Minister David Cameron would seek to overturn the amendment in the Commons, but without an overall…majority the parliamentary arithmetic is against him. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had formally agreed to suspend the convention of ‘collective responsibility’ which applies to all Cabinet ministers on Government decisions. No. 10 said the decision to suspend ministerial responsibility, agreed before the Lords vote yesterday, was ‘the first time it has happened under this Coalition’.”
In a sense, a No. 10 spokesman was giving answers to my parliamentary questions, which the Prime Minister himself had refused to answer before the House. I find that extraordinary.
The situation was compounded. The article continued:
“Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, witnessed and recorded the agreement between the Tory and Lib Dem leaders yesterday and ruled that the approach was permissible under current rules governing the ministerial code.”
Where does that fit in with the non-answer that I received from the Prime Minister, saying that it is not the practice to disclose information relating to internal discussions, information or forums in which decisions are made?
The article continued:
“‘Having consulted the Cabinet Secretary they (Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg) have recorded their agreement to set aside collective responsibility on this occasion,’ the spokesman said.”
My concerns are, first, to see whether we can get the issue of collective ministerial responsibility out in the open, and secondly, to chide the Government and the Prime Minister—I have to name him, as head of the Government —for not following the policy that he has said he would follow, which is to promote transparency in government.
In a speech the Prime Minister made on 26 May 2009, titled “Fixing broken politics”, he said, under the sub-heading of “Transparency”, that
“there’s one more item on the agenda: transparency. Ask most people where politics happens and they’d paint a picture of tight-knit tribes making important decisions in wood-panelled rooms, speaking a strange language. If we want people to have faith and get involved, we need to defeat this impression by opening politics up—making everything transparent, accessible and human. And the starting point for reform should be a near-total transparency of the political and governing elite, so people can see what is being done in their name.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for spelling out his argument. Before the upper House broke ranks, as it were, when some Liberals voted with the Labour party and most Conservatives voted with the Government, was it clear that that would happen? Those of us who just read the newspapers were told that it was a surprise; we were not told that it was planned in advance by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, because the revolt was on primary legislation, whereas the only issue on which the Deputy Prime Minister had given notice that he would lead his troops in the opposite direction to the rest of the coalition was when, in August, he said he would withdraw his support for any Boundary Commission proposals put through the House via a statutory instrument. The revolt must have come as a bit of a surprise, but back in August he was giving public notice that he himself would set aside collective Cabinet responsibility, with or without the Prime Minister’s consent. In light of the information I have set out, it seems as though there was no consent at that stage to set aside collective ministerial responsibility.
Will my hon. Friend express a view in his narrative on whether the principle of collective ministerial responsibility is being applied rather capriciously? I have in mind those Parliamentary Private Secretaries who had to resign their admittedly very junior Government positions because they were in favour of an in/out referendum on Europe, which is now such a mainstream policy that the Opposition are being taunted about whether they, too, subscribe to it. Does he know whether those people have been offered their jobs back and on what definition of collective responsibility they were deprived of them in the first place?
That is a telling point. All I know is that, for one Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Private Secretary who voted against the Government on tuition fees and consequently was forced to resign her position, it was only a few weeks before she was reinstated, and she has subsequently reached ministerial level. That is the rule that seems to apply to minority members of the coalition. As far as those on the Conservative side of the coalition are concerned, I have no information that suggests any Parliamentary Private Secretary who has been forced to resign has subsequently been reinstated, even if their reinstatement would coincide with a change of Government policy.
On the face of it, double standards seem to be operating, which is why transparency on the rules that apply to Parliamentary Private Secretaries is important. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be rather more forthcoming than the Prime Minister has been so far, because collective ministerial responsibility is a developing subject. We have already heard the Prime Minister, having initially said that he has not made up his mind, publicly say that, in the event of an in/out referendum in the next Parliament, which we all welcome, it would not be possible for members of his Government to vote for us to leave the European Union if he, the Prime Minister, were of the opinion that we should stay in the European Union. Collective ministerial responsibility apparently will not, therefore, be set aside on that very important issue, on which divisions within the Conservative party, and indeed across parties, go very deep.
If the Prime Minister were not to achieve the great repatriation of powers that he expects, and if he were to choose instead to lead the campaign to leave the European Union, would the same provisions for collective responsibility apply?
I do not know, but it is a good question. Unfortunately, the only way to receive an on-the-record response to that question from the Prime Minister is by tabling a parliamentary question. So far, there are no responses to such questions on the record, but perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten my hon. Friend with an answer.
Obviously, a lot of people are saying, “If we are to have a renegotiation, we should wait to see the outcome before deciding whether we wish to leave.” That view is taken, for example, by the Mayor of London, and it seems odd to announce at this stage that in the future, irrespective of how much or how little is clawed back as a result of renegotiation, no one will be allowed to vote against the Government by voting to leave the European Union, without giving up their ministerial position. Of course that is different from when we last had a referendum on the European Union, when it was possible for members of the Government to campaign on either side of the argument.
My hon. Friend referred to Parliamentary Private Secretaries resigning over European votes, even though what they resigned over is now effectively Government policy, but what about casualties of the vote on House of Lords reform? The interpretation of many Conservatives, including me, is that they were not voting against their Government because the coalition agreement simply stated that a committee would be established to bring forward proposals, yet they lost their jobs. Just a few months later, they see Liberal Democrat Ministers walking through the Lobby to vote against coalition policy although there was not a comma between the reform of parliamentary boundaries and the alternative vote referendum.
My hon. Friend makes a good point that demonstrates the inconsistency, and the feeling of unfairness, or even injustice, that it generates among parliamentary colleagues. That is why I hope for clarification on to what extent, if at all, the Government have altered the concept of collective ministerial responsibility. It seems to many, including from a number of comments made by Liberal Democrats, that notwithstanding what is said in the coalition agreement and the guidance for Ministers, there has been a change in the approach to collective ministerial responsibility.
One of the problems is that the Deputy Prime Minister cannot differentiate between collective ministerial responsibility and collective responsibility. He sees everything in terms of coalition, and thinks that Back-Bench Members of either the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats have responsibility equal to that of members of the coalition Government, which is palpably wrong.
At oral questions yesterday, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he would
“make it a priority to introduce transparency into collective ministerial responsibility, which seems to be being set aside without any proper accountability to the public or the House”.
“As the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed before, collective responsibility prevails where there is a collective agreement and a collective decision on which collective responsibility is based. It is not easy, and certainly not possible to enforce collective responsibility in the absence of a collective decision taken first.”—[Official Report, 12 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 697.]
I think A-level English language students will in due course be asked to interpret that. By muddling up collective ministerial responsibility and collective party political responsibility, the Deputy Prime Minister demonstrates a lack of understanding of the significance and importance of the concept of collective ministerial responsibility; its importance is that it gives certainty to people outside who want to know about Government policy.
The Liberal Democrats have a history of speaking with forked tongue. They often enunciate a different policy for different groups of potential electors, or electors in different parts of the country, because they think no one will check on the inconsistencies between policies. It seems as though their attitude towards speaking with forked tongue is tainting the whole Government.
I worry that a lack of intellectual rigour is being brought to the issue. That goes to the heart of the governance of our country. It is not just an academic topic to be discussed in essays; it bears on how the Government operate, the predictability with which they operate and, most importantly, the information available to people who rely on Government decisions. As I said at the outset, the situation today is that nobody knows the Government’s view on press regulation, because all that we had in response to the urgent question were statements in the House from party spokesmen. The issue will develop further in future, which is why we need proper accountability.
In a debate on 29 January, I asked my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to tell us who had set aside collective responsibility and, if it was the Prime Minister, why. He said:
“My hon. Friend will be aware that the Prime Minister has responsibility for the ministerial code. Indeed, when ministerial collective responsibility is explicitly set aside, it is the Prime Minister who makes that decision”—
the Prime Minister alone, not the Deputy Prime Minister. The Leader of the House continued:
“He is clearly doing it, as the House will understand, in the context of coalition government.” —[Official Report, 29 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 807-8.]
When I asked the Prime Minister about that, all I got was a reference back to what the Leader of the House had said, even though according to the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister is solely responsible, and therefore accountable for the policy.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Cannot the entirety of what he is saying be summed up in one sentence? I speak with some experience from Northern Ireland. When political parties and philosophies in a coalition are diametrically opposed, inevitably we will end up with the problem that he is trying to rationalise.
I submit that we should not necessarily end up with that problem. We know that one of the disadvantages of coalition government is that it leads to indecision, lowest common denominator decision-making and so on, but lowest common denominator decision-making does at least have a lowest common denominator. What we seem to have is a Government who take two parallel decisions at the same time and pick and mix.
That is evidenced further by the answer given yesterday to complaints about the change in the Government’s approach to inheritance tax. The answer, given by the Secretary of State for Health, was that there is an important difference between promises made by the Conservatives while in opposition and pledges made after the coalition agreement:
“That commitment on inheritance tax was a Conservative manifesto commitment. It’s not in the coalition agreement, so there is an important difference”.
It is not in the coalition agreement, but it is not specifically ruled out of the agreement either. Now the coalition and the agreement are being used as excuses for basically ripping up any policy that the Government do not like and replacing it with another. That is creating a lot of confusion among people outside, who are wondering where that leaves manifestos. We vote for parties on the basis of manifestos. If at the next general election a lot of people vote for the Conservative party on the basis that they will get an in/out referendum, and we then find that we do not have an overall majority and enter into some sort of coalition agreement, the manifesto pledge on which we got so many millions of votes will be torn up.
I am afraid that I am surprised that my hon. Friend has taken so long to realise that the creation of the coalition automatically meant the ripping up of the manifestos, except in so far as the manifesto policies were identical to those in the coalition agreement. Wherever they were not, all bets were off. That is what is so undemocratic about coalition politics.
I have a question to put to my hon. Friend. Let us say that our starting point is what was in the coalition agreement, forgetting about the manifestos. What does he think should happen under collective ministerial responsibility if one of the parties to the coalition agreement decides that, after all, it is not going to abide by a particular policy to which it signed up? What sanction would the Prime Minister have, for example, if the Deputy Prime Minister decided to renege? Would he basically sack the entire Liberal Democrat party from the coalition? Can we live in hope of that?
I know that my hon. Friend and I come from a similar position on this issue; neither of us was an enthusiast of the coalition in the first place. I certainly went on record as saying that we would have been much better off having a minority Government untainted by the Liberal Democrats.
To answer my hon. Friend, that is a question for the Prime Minister. He is solely responsible for collective ministerial responsibility. If he had chosen not to set aside collective ministerial responsibility in relation to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, it probably would have been the end of the coalition. He would have ordered the Deputy Prime Minister to resign on the basis that he had breached collective ministerial responsibility, along with all the other Liberal Democrat Ministers who had done so. Then he could either have carried on with a minority Conservative Government and given people such as my hon. Friend the opportunity to join the Government as a Minister. Or, if there had been a subsequent vote of no confidence, we would have had a general election.
However, we cannot carry on like this, gradually eroding the principle of collective ministerial responsibility without anybody being held properly to account. Either the coalition Government stick together on the basis of collective ministerial responsibility or they break asunder, leading to an early general election, which I would certainly favour; that is my personal view. Otherwise, we face two years ahead during which there will be an increasing amount of muddle on these issues. We have only seen the beginning of it so far.
I am delighted that other hon. Members have come along to participate in this debate, as it is important. Although I would have been happy to have a half-hour Adjournment debate, it demonstrates that a much wider audience is interested in the issue, including colleagues from all parties.
We have listened to an interesting analysis of what is going on from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), whose basic underlying thesis seems to be that all the constitutional arrangements that apply in the event of a single-party Government should carry on in exactly the same way in instances of a coalition.
I understand entirely why a very conservative sort of Conservative would believe that business should carry on as usual, because he would have an aversion to change and indeed to novelty. However, I put it to the hon. Gentleman that if he wishes for business to continue as usual, and if he expects things to continue just as they do under a single-party Government, he and his colleagues will simply have to go to the trouble of winning an election first. If they can win an election in their own right, they can by all means implement their manifesto and their doctrines, such as that of collective responsibility, in the traditional way. The fact is that the Conservatives did not win the election in May 2010; nobody won it. We therefore found ourselves going into novel territory and setting up arrangements that we have not seen in the UK since the second world war.
Coalition is different. Everybody is finding their way in this different world. Parliamentary systems, media coverage and party management are all having to take account of it, and the public are having to get used to a different world.
I remind my hon. Friend that the key cause of this discussion is the decision to have a certain number of Members of Parliament. That was agreed by the coalition, and agreed by vote, but then the Deputy Prime Minister announced that he had changed his mind and would not do what he had agreed to do. This was after the coalition was created.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and puts the case from his point of view; I do not criticise him for so doing. Of course, in the coalition agreement, it was agreed that the Liberal Democrats would support legislation that would provide for a redrawing of the boundaries and the creation of 600 seats. The Liberal Democrats fulfilled that obligation in its entirety a couple of years ago. We did not agree to support any barmy map that happened to emerge as the product of that process. We fulfilled our part of the deal some 18 months ago.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way, as he always does. In a spirit of consensus, may I move away from the particular example to the general point? To form a coalition, there had to be a coalition agreement. Does he acknowledge that a code of ministerial collective responsibility should apply to the contents of that collective agreement? If so, what is it, and why will the Prime Minister not make it public?
It is certainly not for me to speak for the Prime Minister or the Government, because I am no longer a member of the Government. However, my hon. Friend is right: the question is about the nature of the agreement made. At the outset of a five-year term, an attempt is made to agree a coalition agreement that is to run for the five years. Such an agreement was novel territory in UK politics. We had not seen one for a long time. There were pressing economic circumstances in May 2010, as there still are today, and the judgment was made by both sides in the negotiation that speed was of the essence. However, if historians draw any lessons from this experience, they will surely come to the view that we may have something to learn from the experiences typical in continental Europe, where coalitions are negotiated over weeks, or even months.
Agreements reached in a matter of a few short days, however comprehensive they seek to be, cannot by definition possibly take account of every twist or turn that current affairs or political life will take in the five years that follow. There are, of course, “Events, dear boy, events.” Governments will have to take a position on issues that they had not anticipated at the start of a five-year term; that is inevitable. Collective responsibility, in the sense in which we have understood it, can exist only where there is a collective view, a collective agreement and a collective decision between the two parts of the coalition that they will proceed in a certain way. Where something breaks down or has not been anticipated, or something new arises on which the two parties are unable to reach agreement, it is inevitable that we will not be able to apply a traditional doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility. We should not fret about that or worry ourselves unduly about it.
Transparency has been mentioned. On the point that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) made with reference to Northern Ireland, when there are two parties in a coalition, the world can see, recognise and understand that there are differences of view because there are different underlying philosophies. That is healthy and transparent. In Labour’s years in office, there was the running soap opera of the view in No. 10 and the view in No. 11 Downing street. I should have thought that the differences of view between the wings of that Government were every bit as large as those within the coalition, but there was no transparency there—nobody could really see or understand the debates. We relied on the columns of Mr Andrew Rawnsley and others, who provided us with a running commentary on what they thought was going on. It is far more transparent when two parties with acknowledged differences are conducting a debate. There will always be occasions when the two parties are not able to reach an agreement. Therefore, inevitably, the doctrine of ministerial responsibility cannot be applied.
My hon. Friend has enunciated a perfectly reasonable proposition, but unfortunately it does not fit in with the express provisions of the ministerial code, which was revised immediately after the general election to take account of the coalition. Why is he enunciating a proposition that is not reflected in the exact words of the ministerial code?
I am not saying that the ministerial code is perfect in every detail—I do not think for one moment that it is—but I am not entirely sure that it is as deficient or inapplicable in the circumstances that I have been describing as the hon. Gentleman suggests. He said that the responsibility is very much at the top, with the Prime Minister carrying the responsibility for the way that the collective ministerial responsibility provision operates. That is quite correct.
During my short spell in government, I was surprised at the extent to which more or less all Government business seemed to be escalated to No. 10 and the Cabinet Office, and seemed to be resolved on the desks of the Prime Minister and, in most cases, the Deputy Prime Minister. If we recall the provisions of the coalition agreement at the outset, they were that documents passing the Prime Minister’s desk were also to pass the desk of the Deputy Prime Minister.
The hon. Gentleman’s assertion that responsibility for setting aside the ministerial code, where it is set aside, lies with the Prime Minister is basically correct. Given the way the Government conduct their business, things seem to end up either in a one-to-one negotiation between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister or in the quad—the quadrilateral meeting that brings into play the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It is at the absolute top that the conclusion has to be drawn that agreement cannot be reached on a particular matter.
Effectively, responsibility for setting aside the collective responsibility provision lies with the Prime Minister. He faces a choice. He must decide, in discussion with the Deputy Prime Minister, whether there is a collective view on the subject matter at hand. If there is not, he must conclude whether that is so serious and fatal to the ongoing continuity of the coalition that—this is precisely the choice that the hon. Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and for Christchurch, hypothesised about—the coalition must be ended, or whether it is just a tiresome irritant that will have to be taken on the chin, with the overriding work of the coalition continuing, regardless. It is always open to the Prime Minister to arrive at that judgment.
I completely understand that some Conservative Back Benchers are not great enthusiasts for the coalition, but I should not have thought that a day when the opinion polls showed Labour at 41% and the Conservatives at 29% was quite the optimal moment to aspire to an early general election.
I urge the hon. Members for Christchurch, and for New Forest East, to have a jolly good look at the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, because it simply is not the case that ending the coalition, and the Government ceasing to be able to hold their own in a vote of confidence, results in a general election; it would have done previously, but, now that the Act has been passed, bringing about a general election is a very different proposition altogether. The removal of the Government requires a simple majority, but the early dissolution of Parliament requires a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons. Numerically, that can be achieved only if, on the same day, the Conservative and Labour parties feel they have an interest in an early general election.
As a mental exercise, I often try to think of the circumstances in which the Conservatives and the Labour party could both, at exactly the same moment, think it was in their interests to have an early election. Even in the entirely improbable situation that the Liberal Democrat vote had seemingly evaporated to nothing, I cannot see why the Conservatives and the Labour party would both think, at the same time, that it was in their interests to have an early election, so I have concluded that an early election is very improbable indeed.
The alternative to a Conservative minority Government is simply a Labour minority Government, which might appeal to the hon. Member for Christchurch as being quite helpful in the long term. However, an early election is simply not on offer with the ease that hon. Members believe it is.
We have a coalition, which brings together two parties. Where they can agree, we have collective responsibility; where they cannot, we have a free vote—that is, in effect, what happens when collective responsibility is set aside. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat Whips might then attempt a whipping operation to get the two parts of the coalition to vote in line with a party view, but, in Government terms, there is simply a free vote, which is what has happened on the occasions that have been cited.
For the sake of clarity, before the hon. Gentleman concludes his fascinating speech, will he explain whether he is really saying that, in a coalition, collective ministerial responsibility applies when both parts of the coalition agree, or in other words, when it is not needed, but not when they disagree, when it is needed?
I believe that it applies in all circumstances other than those where it has been concluded at the top that it does not apply. It clearly applies in the vast majority of cases; the instances where it does not apply are few and far between. It is a matter for ongoing judgment on the part of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister whether these occasional disagreements, which require collective responsibility to be set aside, are of such significance that the coalition’s overall functioning is at stake. I do not believe that anything we have seen to date brings us anywhere near the realm where anyone would rationally conclude that the coalition cannot continue or cannot work, but if such events became increasingly common, the question would arise.
I am sorry that Conservative colleagues interpreted coalition as meaning a situation in which Liberal Democrats were imprisoned as hostages and simply had to do whatever the Conservatives wished them to do. I am afraid that is not what coalition is all about; coalition is about two parties agreeing. The Conservatives did not actually win the election, and would not have been able to form a Government capable of doing very much at all if they had not been able to reach some agreement on key issues with the Liberal Democrats. That is the only way the Government could be formed, and it is the only thing that sustains them in nearly all circumstances now.
Occasionally agreement will break down and the parties will go their separate ways. That is transparent, and it is not unhealthy. The world can have a look at that arrangement and draw its own conclusions. We need to get increasingly familiar with, used to and comfortable with coalition, because I have a suspicion that, during our lifetimes, there will be more coalitions, of whatever colour and stripe—[Hon. Members: “Oh no!”] If those Members behind me who groan at the prospect find it unappealing, they will simply have to go to the trouble of winning a general election in their own right.
Order. I can see two further Members trying to catch my eye. It would be helpful if they could conclude their remarks by 3.40 pm —they may, in any case, have concluded them before then—because I would like to invite the Front Benchers to start speaking then, so that they have 10 minutes each.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey). I particularly note his assurance that the only alternative to a coalition or a minority Conservative Government is a minority Labour Government and that Liberal Democrats will, under no circumstances, seek to establish a rainbow coalition with the Labour party.
I was slightly surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to—“lecture” might be a little strong—explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) the arrangements and percentages needed to call a general election. My hon. Friend succeeded in securing what is still probably the best-attended Adjournment debate—certainly that I have attended—in which he questioned why the percentage required to trigger an early election under the initial coalition agreement was 55%. We owe him great credit and great thanks for the fact that it was changed to two thirds.
In that case, I shall move on.
There are clearly events that were not anticipated in the coalition agreement; we have heard examples of them today, and Lord Justice Leveson’s report is a good one. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I believe that we still need greater clarity on how the mechanisms of government should operate in such circumstances. Today, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was called to answer an urgent question in the main Chamber, and I rushed along, interested to hear what Government policy was on a royal charter. I listened intently, but it was only after 20 minutes that she referred to the fact that she was making a Conservative party announcement. If that was the case, why was she answering for the Government? Clearly, the Speaker will, with respect, have been correct to make his wise decision to allow this urgent question, but I was left in a state of confusion about whether the discussion related to Government policy or to a Conservative party policy that had not yet been discussed, or at least agreed, with the Liberal Democrats.
The same issue arose when, in response to Leveson, the Deputy Prime Minister gave a separate statement immediately after the Prime Minister’s. That struck me as a constitutional innovation. Some people may have mentioned precedents, but they went back decades, if not centuries. I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he was speaking for the Government; I was not seeking to be difficult, so I referred to Cabinet responsibility and sought further information about how it was now operating, but I did not get a satisfactory response. As a Back Bencher, I would appreciate clearer guidance, in my interaction with Ministers of whichever party, on whether they are speaking as Ministers or merely as party leaders or party representatives on particular issues.
The coalition agreement is behind a lot of this. It is half incorporated into the ministerial code. Paragraph 1.2 of the code says:
“The Ministerial Code should be read alongside the Coalition agreement and the background of the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations”.
I have had great problems with that in another context. Our highest Court has ruled that we may deport a certain individual—Abu Qatada—but Ministers refuse to do so, on the basis that the Court in Strasbourg does not wish us to do so. I have been referred by the Attorney- General, among others, to that bit of the ministerial code. I do not quite understand its applicability, to the extent that our own highest Court has interpreted the relevant international law and has said that the individual in question can go. I note that the same sentence refers to the coalition agreement, and how the ministerial code needs to be read alongside it. When there is an apparent breach, issues to do with the ministerial code are raised—of which, clearly, the Prime Minister is the arbiter. I wonder whether we are giving too much semi-constitutional significance to the ministerial code—a significance that it is no more designed to bear than is the coalition agreement.
The coalition agreement is a different thing for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, because the Liberal Democrats took an admirably democratic and participative approach to it. They had a parliamentary meeting, not just of all their Members of Parliament, but of all their Members of the House of Lords too, and agreed, if not unanimously at least overwhelmingly, the coalition agreement and participation in the coalition with the Conservative party. Liberal Democrats act as though our arrangements were theirs, or as though Conservative Back Benchers had the same commitment—moral commitment, at least—to the agreement, which they present as almost contractual.
However, we of course were not party to that agreement. Four individuals, perhaps with the expectation of ministerial office, and the leader of our party agreed it, but it was not agreed by our parliamentary party. We had one meeting, at which there was arguably agreement, or acquiescence—although not all of us were allowed to speak—on the issue of having a referendum on the alternative vote in exchange for equal boundaries. That was the only discussion that the Conservative parliamentary party had, so the Liberal Democrats should not complain if we seek to hold them to that deal. We gave them the AV referendum and took the risk of a change to the electoral system that would disproportionately benefit their party, and won our argument in public, and the other side of the coin was fair, equal boundaries. Now they have welshed on the deal. That was the only deal into which the Conservative parliamentary party had any input.
Previously, the Liberal Democrats believed in, or spoke quite highly of, parliamentary procedures, the importance of Parliament, and the holding to account of the Executive. However, now that they are in coalition, too often it is a question of a deal between the party heads, or the quad, and there are great problems with that. Quite minor issues are pushed all the way to the top of Government. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are extremely busy people, as are the two Treasury representatives, and I fear that that approach has led to yet more power being put in the hands of the civil service—Sir Jeremy Heywood has been mentioned—and that the civil service has its own interests.
I first came across an instance of that in the context of policing finance. There was a White Paper in July 2010 called “Policing in the 21st century”, which was sound in many respects. It included the agreement that Liberal Democrats and Conservatives had reached on what to do in policing. It encompassed the directly elected police and crime commissioners that we wanted; but the Liberal Democrats also wanted the police and crime panels, which we agreed to. The White Paper said that if it was not possible to agree on a police precept, the panel, perhaps by a super-majority, could trigger a local referendum. I thought that was an excellent localisation and democratisation of politics, and I was grateful for the Liberal Democrat input.
However, between the publication of the White Paper and Royal Assent to the legislation that emerged, the referendum element was removed and replaced with a weak power for the panel, which was misleadingly described as a veto. The panel can say it does not like the precept once, and as long as the elected PCC comes back and says something slightly different he can just impose it. That is all that the panel can do. My view was that we did not want that; we wanted a democratic local approach that would permit a referendum if there was strong enough feeling, but I was told that that could not happen because the Liberal Democrats would not accept it, and the Deputy Prime Minister insisted that the panel should have much stronger powers and a veto.
I took the trouble to explain that to the Deputy Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and to talk to other Liberal Democrats, to try to get our mutually agreed view reflected in the legislation. However, I failed, and I believe that that was because civil servants exploited the coalition, and a claim that the Liberal Democrats did not want what we all wanted, to keep power in Whitehall, rather than giving it to local areas. The structures of the coalition are significant in explaining that.
Order. The hon. Gentleman’s discussion of the role of the civil service went a little wider than the debate’s terms of reference, which are collective responsibility. He should confine his remarks to those policy areas where there appears to have been a breakdown in collective responsibility.
I will of course follow your ruling, Mr Bayley, for which I thank you.
Two other areas that I want to discuss are Europe and boundaries. As to Europe, the Liberal Democrats had a manifesto commitment to an in/out referendum, and I was disappointed that it was not carried through to the coalition agreement. However, I am delighted that that is now my party’s policy. I am slightly confused about why it is not the Government’s responsibility, given that it is now, at least on the face of it, the policy of both parties.
Similarly, I was delighted to table an amendment and to secure majority support in the House for a cut in the EU budget. I was a little disappointed that the Deputy Prime Minister described it as “completely unrealistic” to expect a cut, not least because he should be subject to collective responsibility on such matters. Apparently it was hopeless for the Prime Minister, or anyone else, to seek such a reduction. We were miles away from other countries on that matter, and it could not be done. Yet yesterday at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions, speaking as the Deputy Prime Minister—with, I assume, collective responsibility—he told us that he supported that approach, and that it was because of him we had got the cut. He had spent months going around Europe pushing that extraordinarily tough stance, while publicly saying that he disagreed with it and it was completely unrealistic. Which is it?
If we have collective responsibility, we should have answers to those questions. I know that sometimes a coalition is difficult, and that the circumstances are new, but we should not take the attitude of sweeping away all the dusty old conventions because they do not matter very much; there is a reason for collective responsibility. I do not accept that there was any breach of the coalition agreement until the Deputy Prime Minister decided that he would welsh on it with respect to boundaries. Then his Ministers voted against it. Yet they stayed in the Government, notwithstanding collective responsibility and paragraph 1.2 of the ministerial code. If the Prime Minister has waived that, and the need to refer to the coalition agreement on all things in government, I trust that he has also waived the part about international law, at least where our own highest Court has said that international law is being respected.
What is the situation with respect to boundaries? I was disappointed that several Conservative Back Benchers voted against the Government, and that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), for whom I have great respect, was not with us on the issue. His near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), abstained. However, I was astonished that a Conservative Minister abstained: the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), did not vote in that Division. I knew that she was concerned about various issues to do with boundaries, but she is a Minister. Why did not she vote for Government policy?
For the sake of fairness, I point out that I believe some Conservative colleagues who voted against the changes did so not because of the boundaries, as such, but because they did not approve of the reduction in the number of MPs with no corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers. In other words, they were concerned that the House of Commons would become less capable of keeping the Executive in check. I think that that was their reasoning.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I make no criticism of Back Benchers who take that view. I voted for the motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on precisely that issue. However, I did not consider that occasion to be the point at which to press the issue further.
Ministers have an obligation to support Government measures. As a Back Bencher, I do not have the same level of obligation, although I have a significantly greater desire to do so now that the Government have such a successful policy of cutting the EU budget. At least my party has the policy of holding an in/out referendum. I look forward to being as enthusiastic a supporter as I can be of the Government and what they are trying to do. However, Ministers should vote for Government policy and should not be allowed to abstain. The hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) abstained in a vote on the welfare cap, and then boasted that she did so despite being a Minister, and nothing was done about it.
I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald was responsible for a positive abstention on the issue of Catholic succession to the Crown. I assumed that was because she is also the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and, as Equalities Minister, she was abstaining because of discrimination against Catholics, but apparently that was not right: it was a mistake. There was also an abstention, however, on the matter of the boundaries, so we had not only the Liberal Democrats voting against Government policy, but a Conservative Minister failing to support it. We need to clarify the position on collective responsibility so that we can all understand it and work with Ministers and our constituents successfully.
Does my hon. Friend not think it ironic that the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) talked about the transparency of the coalition agreement? The most transparent part of that agreement was the deal for a referendum on the alternative vote, in exchange for fairer boundaries. That was the one promise, as my hon. Friend so eloquently said, that the Prime Minister gave to his parliamentary party. If we voted for an AV referendum, that could have affected the Conservative party adversely, reducing our potential to get a majority Government in future. We crawled through the Lobby on the absolute, cast-iron promise in the agreement and from our Prime Minister that it was in return for fairer boundaries.
My hon. Friend said he crawled through the Lobby, but I did not see that, because I abstained. I felt that we had been told by the Deputy Prime Minister that the Labour party had offered him AV without a referendum. When my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) found out that that was not the case, first from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and then from the Deputy Prime Minister, it seemed to me that the deal we had done had been based on something that did not appear to hold water or—
I was trying to find the appropriate parliamentary language. I thank my hon. Friend for “correspond with the facts”, if that is allowable, Mr Bayley.
The Deputy Prime Minister, then only the leader of his party, promised a real referendum on Europe—an in/out referendum—but now he is stopping us from having one. Furthermore, he said that it was absolutely hopeless to try to get a cut in the EU budget—completely unrealistic—and he gave us all a hard time for even trying to do that. Now, when we achieve it, when the Prime Minister gets what Parliament mandated in response to my amendment, he claims the credit.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I was not originally going to speak; I just came to listen to a fascinating debate. The concept of collective responsibility is interesting, but when the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) said he saw a future world in which coalition Government would carry on ad infinitum, for years and years, I found myself losing the will to live slightly. I will explain why.
I am taken aback by the Prime Minister’s decision, of which I was not previously aware; he seems to have said that whether he is in favour of a yes vote or a no vote in the referendum, he will compel Conservative MPs, whether Ministers or not, to campaign in exactly the same way. That is taking collective responsibility to a ridiculous level. At the same time, on many other issues, he is allowing collective responsibility almost to disappear through the floor. That is completely different from the position in the 1975 referendum, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).
I am not aware of the Prime Minister saying that. I understood that what he said applied only to Ministers, who will be expected to support the position, while Back Benchers would be able to campaign to leave the EU, even if that were not the Government position.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I misunderstood what the hon. Member for Christchurch said and thought the concept applied to the whole of the Conservative parliamentary party. Even if it applied only to Ministers, the position remains different from 1975. When Harold Wilson called for a referendum on the basis that he had renegotiated Britain’s terms of entry to what was then the Common Market and won a great victory—although it turned out that he had not; we might see a similar set of circumstances in 2017 or 2018—he allowed Ministers to campaign in whatever way they saw fit. I was only 11 years old at the time, but I remember Tony Benn and Michael Foot, for example, campaigning on the no platform, while other members of the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet were campaigning for a yes vote.
As has been mentioned extensively, a number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries were forced to resign over the vote on the in/out referendum a few months ago. I can remember the first rebellion against the Labour Government in 1997, which was on single-parent benefit. We probably all remember that, and it was a particularly scarring experience—I was one of those who voted against the Government. A large number of PPSs and one junior Minister were forced to resign as a result. At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair got a lot of stick for being a control freak, but I had no problem with that. My view was that people either abide by collective responsibility and back what the Government are doing, or they resign and go on the Back Benches with the rest of us, so that they are free to criticise, but people cannot have it both ways.
Many Ministers, over many years, not only in this Government but in previous ones, have tried to have it both ways. In previous Governments, some have taken the route of giving off-the-record briefings to the press. Certainly when we were in power, that was done an awful lot by certain Cabinet and junior Ministers. That is completely unacceptable, as is, although I am not directly involved, the current idea that Ministers can more or less do what they want and let collective responsibility simply disappear.
I tend to be a less than unqualified fan of coalition government anyway. I am not a fan of proportional representation, although I do not want to go too far into that subject, because you will probably stop me, Mr Bayley. One of the great problems with PR—this has been debated a lot in the main Chamber—is that we would get coalition Governments, and they tend to undermine faith in democracy, because what then happens is deals behind closed doors, with a lack of accountability. After an election and the subsequent negotiations, Ministers emerge and say that they stood for election on this or that issue or policy, but have completely ripped up their manifesto, because they have done a deal with the lot who stood against them.
My view, although this is not directly my business, is that minority Government is a much more honourable way to go about things. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Steady on! Hon. Members might not like what I have to say next. The minority Labour Government of 1976 to 1979 went about things in a more honourable way. There was not a coalition, but there were disadvantages: every vote was on a knife edge, and there were tragic stories. The story of Doc Broughton springs readily to mind: he was extremely ill, but had to be driven to Parliament in an ambulance to take part in votes before being driven back up the M1 to hospital. It would not be the same now, because we do not have all-night sittings, and we sit after 10 o’clock only on rare occasions. That is another issue, of course; I voted against programming and am against it to this day. The circumstances of a minority Government, however, are far more accountable and clear, and they tend to bolster people’s faith in democracy, unlike a coalition Government, in which decisions are made in private.
The Liberal Democrat leader, one year after the formation of the coalition, gave an interview in The Observer. He was asked if he had done the right thing by going into coalition with the Conservatives. “Of course we did,” he said, “The arithmetic would not have allowed a coalition with Labour. What would the alternative have been? A minority Conservative Government, probably followed by an early election and a majority Conservative Government.” I could not have agreed with him more.
The hon. Gentleman was making a comparison with the Labour minority Government of the late 1970s, in which, as he observed, every vote was on a knife edge. Does he not acknowledge the difference? The Conservatives pulled up 20 votes short of the finishing line on this occasion. Every vote would not have been on a knife edge; they simply would not have been able to get anything through.
That would be their problem, not mine. The hon. Gentleman confuses me with someone who would be that bothered. I would be present to hold the Government to account as a Back-Bench MP. Actually, I am here to hold any Government to account as a Back-Bench MP, whether a coalition, Conservative majority or Labour majority Government. One of the most outrageous examples of accountability going out the window in a coalition Government was the time when Hans-Dietrich Genscher swapped sides in Germany in the early 1980s, putting a different Chancellor in power without the need for an election.
As we know, the Lib Dems tend to be inconsistent. Consistency is not their strong suit, as I have experienced in my constituency. Collective responsibility means more than just supporting a collective decision by the Cabinet or a similar body, such as a Cabinet Committee. It means supporting anything that another Minister says; it is as radical as that. The Deputy Prime Minister said that collective responsibility applies when there has been a collective decision—presumably he was talking about the Cabinet—but it does not; it means, and always has meant, that if a Minister is asked about something another Minister, particularly a senior Minister, has said, they support that other Minister. That is completely disintegrating, and we are seeing clear and rapid erosion of ministerial responsibility. In turn, that is undermining public faith in the democratic process, and we must rebuild that faith.
It is a pleasure, Mr Bayley, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this debate. Collective Cabinet responsibility is a major concern to perhaps dozens of our constituents. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have argued passionately that collective Cabinet responsibility is an important pillar of our constitution and underpins our system of government. The economy, jobs, housing, health care, crime and education may be at the forefront of our constituents’ minds, but it is important to discuss how government is carried out.
In his 2009 speech on fixing our broken politics, the Prime Minster, who was then Leader of the Opposition, promised to end the culture of sofa government. He said:
“we’ll put limits on the number of political advisers, strengthen the ministerial code, protect the independence of the civil service, and ensure that more decisions are made by cabinet as a whole.”
I would welcome an update from the Minister on progress on each of those points.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has said that we must put
“democratic renewal and a willingness to reach out to others beyond our party at the heart of the way we do our politics.”
Labour Members have a one-nation vision for governing this country that will deliver a fairer and more productive economy. The coalition parties do not.
We all understand that although coalition government is not new, it is something of a novelty, and that conventions may need to be tweaked and adjusted. Our system of government has evolved over centuries, and it must continue to evolve. One-party Governments often disagree, so it is no surprise that a Government comprising two parties will disagree regularly. We have heard many examples today, and Leveson is the most obvious. It was the first example of a double statement from the Government since 1932, which was the last time we had a peacetime coalition Government.
The ministerial code states:
“The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, requires that Ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached.”
We have heard that the Cabinet Secretary signed off suspension of collective responsibility for the boundary review and Leveson, but questions remain to be answered—for example, on why the Conservative party yesterday published its ideas for Leveson on a Government website before they were agreed by both parties. The Prime Minister’s inability to answer hon. Members’ questions comes as no surprise to anyone who has sat through Prime Minister’s questions.
Clearly, it is essential to understand the difference between Ministers speaking as Ministers, and Ministers speaking as representatives of their party, if we are to hold the Government to account. Clarity on when Lords and others are speaking for Cabinet Ministers would also be welcome. We know, for example, that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has the noble Lord Oakeshott to make his views known to anyone who will listen. Last year, following the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, the Deputy Prime Minister vowed to have more public rows with the Prime Minister, just to remind people that the Liberal Democrats still have a separate identity. As my right hon. Friend the leader of the Opposition said at the time,
“That is an unusual, probably unhealthy, way to conduct any relationship let alone one in a government that is having such a profound impact on people’s lives. I suspect it is a symptom of a having coalition based on political convenience rather than values.”
In his 2009 speech, the Prime Minister said:
“the driving principle of reform should be the redistribution of power—from the powerful to the powerless. That means boosting Parliament’s power to hold the government of the day to account.”
I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, but it is not possible when we are unsure who is speaking as a Minister and when. Sad as it is—we have heard criticisms from coalition Members—setting aside collective responsibility is not the worst scandal of this Government. The worst is their chaotic, ad hoc approach to government in general. That may in some part be due to the nature of coalition, as might be the concerns about the suspension of collective ministerial responsibility, but my argument is that it has more to do with incompetence, from those at No. 10 downwards.
As we have heard, there are precedents for setting aside collective responsibility in the European Community referendum in 1975, and back in the ’30s under the last coalition. However, there is no precedent for the scale of incompetence and incoherence we see from Ministers almost weekly. Ministers have locked themselves in Lobby toilets; they have forgotten to vote, sometimes very conveniently; they have been absent from important votes; they have voted both ways; and Cabinet Ministers have mooted abstaining on their own Bills.
The Liberal Democrats seem happy to put collective responsibility aside when it comes to media reform and boundary reform—that is, when that is in their interests—but there was no such hand-wringing when it came to tuition fees, welfare reform or tax cuts. I do not want to let Conservative Members off the hook; last week, when Liberal Democrat Members faced both ways, one Minister referred on her website to her pride in the Government’s commitment to gay marriage, and then voted against it. The fact that we are having this debate highlights the confusion that seems to be the only constant in how this Government are run. It is no wonder staff in No. 10 wake up and tune in to Radio 4 to find out what the Government are up to.
The most serious implication of the repeated suspension of collective responsibility, official or not, is that it is a sign that senior Ministers cannot work together. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said when winding up yesterday’s infrastructure debate,
“The Olympics showcased Britain for the great country and the one nation that it is, but that was Labour’s legacy. What will be this Government’s legacy? If they are not careful, it will be dither, delay, stifled economic growth and stagnation.”— [Official Report, 12 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 820.]
We know the Business Secretary agrees. It is nearly a year since his letter to the Prime Minister was leaked, in which he said that the Government were missing
“'a compelling vision of where the country is heading”.
People and businesses in this country need certainty and confidence in Government. That is even more important in these tough economic times. In the past year, we have only narrowly averted a triple-dip recession, and Ministers still have no plan B on the economy. I am not convinced that a revised ministerial code will provide that, but we need a strategy and a coherent plan of implementation to get the economy moving. The Minister could start today, if she feels up to it, by setting out the economic vision for the country, which would help us to understand what, collectively, the Government feel they are responsible for.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for securing the debate and all hon. Members for contributing to it so extensively. It will not surprise you, Mr Bayley, to hear that I will decline the offer that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) made at the end of her speech. That subject matter rightly belongs elsewhere, and she would expect me to do you no dishonour by going outside the scope of the debate. I want to address collective ministerial responsibility, as is correct, instead of other extraneous questions.
As I understand it, the central question among the many posed by my hon. Friend was about accountability for collective responsibility. I interpret that to mean that it falls to me today to explain the Government’s doctrine, and to articulate how the Government believe that it ought to be applied.
I shall start with the historical view, in brief. Collective ministerial responsibility has a long-standing place in the British constitution. As far as historians can tell, the doctrine came into being during the reign of George III, who had the perhaps rather dangerous habit of asking Ministers to come and see him individually to give him their views on important matters of state. I do not know whether he did that sitting on a sofa, or whether there were briefings later in the Red Lion. Who would know better than some Members in the Chamber where that style of government ends up, and what happens when senior Ministers cannot agree and go so far as to change their Prime Minister or Head of State without an election, which the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) suggested was a very bad thing indeed? To return to George III, the Cabinet realised that the King’s actions were an attempt to undermine their unity and work out who his supporters were. They therefore agreed that they would tell him exactly the same thing, taking collective responsibility for their decisions.
Clearly, we have moved on a long way since then, in historical terms. Collective ministerial responsibility is about how Ministers behave towards the public and Parliament, rather than towards the Crown. However, the basic point remains the same: Ministers need to be able to have frank discussions and disagreements in private, while maintaining a common purpose once a decision has been taken.
It is to maintain the principle of collective ministerial responsibility that the ministerial code states that the Government will not normally disclose the level at which, or forum where, a decision was taken—my hon. Friend has sought to discuss that matter through parliamentary questions. If the code were not applied, it would be possible to work out which Ministers were present at a meeting. It would also open up debates about which decisions were accorded a higher or lower perceived level of importance than others. That would detract somewhat from the policy quality of issues that might be scrutinised in that way.
Collective ministerial responsibility does not abolish individual responsibility. Each Minister must decide for themselves whether they are happy to remain part of the Government and to support the Government’s decisions. There have been many cases of people feeling no longer able to stand behind the collective conclusion. Famous examples include the noble Lord Heseltine, who, when he was merely Michael Heseltine, famously walked out of Cabinet following the decision on the future of Westland, and the late Robin Cook, who resigned from Cabinet because he did not feel able to take collective responsibility for the decision to go to war in Iraq.
The current version of the ministerial code makes it clear that collective responsibility can be explicitly set aside on occasion. Even before the inclusion of that provision in the code, there was an established practice of doing so on specific issues. Most notably, it has long been the case that collective responsibility does not apply to issues of individual conscience. Most recently, there was a free vote of that kind on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill last week.
I would be only too delighted to engage in that discussion with my hon. Friend, but as he knows, I no longer practise the dark arts carried out by what are known as the usual channels. I regret that I would not be able to do that decision justice; nor could I report back to those who make those decisions, if I even tried.
On the ministerial code, it is important to note that there is clear precedent, as has been said several times today, for suspending collective ministerial responsibility on specific issues, when the Government of the day decide that it is appropriate. A notable example, which we have discussed, is Harold Wilson’s decision on whether the UK should continue to be a member of the European Economic Community. He allowed members of his Cabinet to speak and campaign on both sides.
Let me offer the Chamber a few other historical examples. Shortly after the formation of the national Government in 1931, an “agreement to differ” was agreed. The terms of that were published in The Times in January 1932, and in February that year, the Home Secretary began a speech by commenting on the doctrine of collective responsibility:
“The House will have an opportunity…of discussing fully the departure from the doctrine of collective responsibility which is marked by my appearance at this Box this afternoon”—[Official Report, 4 February 1932; Vol. 261, c. 316.]
It is also helpful to note that in 1977, James Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, said:
“I certainly think that the doctrine should apply, except in cases where I announce that it does not.”—[Official Report, 16 June 1977; Vol. 933, c. 552.]
That demonstrates that the terms, duration and enforcement of the arrangement are ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister.
It is most important to add that the current Government have decided to set collective responsibility aside on some specific occasions. That is a fact of life in a coalition, and it shows how our constitutional practice can evolve to suit new situations.
The Minister is talking a lot about the history, but can she explain why the Prime Minister was unable to give me a straight answer to my question, asking why he set aside collective ministerial responsibility in respect of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, and on what date that decision was taken? Why could the Prime Minister not let me have a straight answer on that?
I wanted to go on to say, in addressing what I took to be my hon. Friend’s central point—accountability for the decision, when taken, to set aside collective ministerial responsibility—that the key is that Parliament certainly ought to be informed in a way that is appropriate to the instance in hand. I will not comment on whether the Prime Minister did or did not do that for the hon. Gentleman in parliamentary questions, but in the instance of the Lords amendments to the ERA Bill, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons made such a statement to the House, explaining why he was speaking and how it was that collective responsibility had been set aside. I believe that the explanation has been offered in cases where such a departure has been outlined, and I think that that provides the kind of transparency and accountability that we are all seeking in this important area.
In conclusion, I note that the coalition agreement, in so far as it relates to the debate, sets out specific areas where the normal rule is not expected to apply. The citizens whom we all serve have had the chance to observe that in advance, and so hold us to account. Through that, there is no undermining of the coalition’s shared commitment to reducing the deficit and delivering a radical programme of reform that gets Britain back on track, after the catastrophic position in which it was left in 2010.
It has been possible in my short remarks to address only the notion of accountability for such decisions, but I want to finish by saying that it is vital that we are not distracted from our core task in Government at this time, which is to put right the mess that the Labour party made of Britain.
We now come to a half-hour Adjournment debate about engineering as a career choice for young people. It might be a courtesy to all hon. Members who want to listen to this debate if we wait just a minute or two for hon. Members who attended the previous debate to leave the room quietly.