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Ministerial Code

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 25 April 2024

1. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of compliance with the ministerial code. (902477)

9. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of compliance with the ministerial code. (902495)

The Prime Minister is responsible for the ministerial code, and is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of Ministers, which are set out in that code. All Ministers are expected to uphold the principles of the code, as the Prime Minister has made clear.

On 19 April, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister to report a breach of the rules by the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in relation to a visit to Venezuela to meet President Maduro on behalf of the hedge fund Merlyn Advisors. Was the Cabinet Office aware of the visit in advance, and did the Deputy Prime Minister—the Secretary of State—or officials have a conversation with the Foreign Office about any tax-funded briefings that he may have received?

The Government expect all former Ministers, including Prime Ministers, to abide by their obligations with regard to the business appointment rules set out in the ministerial code. The Cabinet Office is currently considering a letter on this matter from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, and will respond in due course.

In addition to Boris Johnson’s hedge fund lobbying in Venezuela there is his Daily Mail column, as well as his lettuce PM successor’s contravention of the Radcliffe rules in betraying royal confidences in her book. The Minister has said that the Prime Minister is judge and jury in respect of the code. Is it not time for a more independent system, such as Labour’s proposed ethics and integrity commission? If the Government will not do that, can they not just call a general election now?

The seven principles on public life are very clear, and I have set out the Prime Minister’s expectations, but let me draw the hon. Lady’s attention to what was said by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2021, namely, that a single commission would “come with considerable disadvantages” and that

“the concentration of such power to a body…does not sit well in our democratic system”.

It is fascinating to see four times as many Ministers as Conservative Back Benchers in the Chamber today.

Paragraph 1(3)(d) of the ministerial code says:

“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public”,

and paragraph 1(3)(f) says:

“Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise”.

Why, then, are the Government still refusing to publish the details of the financial interests that the Foreign Secretary had before he was appointed to the House of Lords, why are they still refusing—despite numerous requests from newspapers and others—to publish the facts of whether or not the Foreign Secretary has had to recuse himself from certain elements of his job because of his previous involvement with the Chinese state, and why are they point-blank refusing to say which parts of his job he is recused from?

According to the advice of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, last published on 14 December 2023, following a previous publication on 17 July which updated advice issued on 19 April, the process of ministerial engagement with the register is ongoing, and is updated on an ongoing basis. When Ministers are appointed, they fill in an extensive form which their permanent secretaries then review, and there is a continuous process of updating that as interests evolve.

In a letter to me, the Deputy Prime Minister said of Mr Johnson’s recent trip to Venezuela that he was

“not acting on behalf of the Government, and the trip was not funded by the Government.”

In a written parliamentary answer to me, we were told that Mr Johnson had only made a “courtesy call” to the British residence. Last week, however, the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments made it clear that Mr Johnson was “in breach” of the Government’s British appointment rules. We also know from Mr Johnson himself that he had been “extensively briefed” by the embassy. When will the Government come clean about what has actually gone on with Boris Johnson’s Venezuela visit?

I explained in an earlier answer where we are in terms of the Cabinet Office considering the letter from ACOBA. We do expect all Ministers, civil servants and special advisers to abide by those business appointment rules. They are contractual requirements for civil servants and are drawn to the attention of Ministers by the ministerial code. As was announced in the Government’s response last July to the report from the Committee on Standards on Public Life, Mr Boardman’s review and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, we are continuing to consider methods of strengthening the system and encouraging compliance with those rules. As for the specific case that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, I have said that the Cabinet Office is due to respond to that letter.