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Ministerial Code

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the constitutional convention of Cabinet collective responsibility, as confirmed in the Ministerial Code, remains in force.

I thank the noble Lord for his very helpful and complete reply. However, as noble Lords are doubtless aware, in the votes that took place last month in both Houses, none of the Liberal Democrats who are members of the Government supported the proposals of the independent Electoral Commission to ensure fair voting by making equal, even-sized constituencies. What are the current sanctions available to the Prime Minister against Ministers who vote against government legislation?

My Lords, perhaps I may read from paragraph 1 of the Ministerial Code:

“The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, applies to all Government Ministers”.

Three sentences before that, it states:

“The Ministerial Code should be read alongside the Coalition agreement”.

My Lords, in coalition government, does the application of sanctions against Ministers who fail to respect the convention of collective responsibility lie with the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister?

My Lords, this is, as the noble Lord said, a convention. I am sure he recalls that it was developed in the 1780s as a way to protect the Cabinet as a whole against the monarch, who wished to call Cabinet Ministers in one by one to ask them what they personally thought; it was not originally concerned with Parliament at all. There is a very useful document with which noble Lords may not be familiar, which accompanied the coalition agreement, entitled the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform, which states:

“There is no constitutional difference between a Coalition Government and a single party Government, but working practices need to adapt to reflect the fact that the UK has not had a Coalition in modern times”.

My Lords, is it not the case that, apart from the words as written down in the paper, there is much more to collective responsibility? Does not a moral judgment apply here? Should it not be a matter of honour, or does the story that there is honour among thieves not apply in this case?

My Lords, if one compares this Government with the previous Government, there has been much less briefing by Ministers against other Ministers than there was between 1997 and 2010. If I may cite my favourite senior official, this coalition Government are rather easier for officials to work with than their predecessors because, “You have to have your discussions out in the open rather than in secret”.

My Lords, given that collective responsibility exists, how can the Minister stand there and answer as he has, with a straight face, as if we are expected to believe what he is telling us? Will he do me the honour of personally asking the Prime Minister what disciplinary action he intends to take against Lib Dem Ministers at both ends of the Corridor, and then do me the courtesy of writing to tell me what reply he got?

I am happy to write to the noble Lord but I reiterate: this is a coalition Government. Working practices have to adapt to accept that this is a coalition Government. That is what was formed in 2010; that is what I trust will continue until 2015.

My Lords, does the agreement between the coalition include that one party should be whipped to vote against the coalition?

My Lords, we proceed case by case as we move ahead. There are a number of issues on which it is agreed that neither party will be whipped. As on the question of same-sex marriage, some issues are not whipped; however, the programme Motion in the Commons was whipped. One takes it case by case and on particularly sensitive social issues we do not have a Whip at all.

My Lords, the coalition agreement does indeed make the point about collective responsibility, where the two parties agreed that on certain issues they might not be able to vote together. I have two points. First, does the noble Lord not acknowledge that the coalition agreement has had no endorsement from the British public and that it is very odd for the current Government just to set aside what the Ministerial Code says, of their own volition? More specifically, can he tell the House where in that agreement there was a specific set-aside on the issue of the vote that took place a couple of weeks ago when his own party—and he as a Minister—did not support the Government?

As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, points out, I was in Berlin at the time so I was not involved in that particular dimension. I recall some time ago being asked by the noble Baroness, when she was on a committee, whether I felt that one could operate as a Government against the mandate of the manifesto. I pointed out that the strongest mandate in the 1997 Labour manifesto was a commitment that the Labour Government never fulfilled, so there is a degree of flexibility in all these issues.

Does my noble friend accept that on the specific occasion to which the noble Baroness referred, the Prime Minister himself accepted that there could not be collective responsibility where there had not been collective agreement? That was explicit in the coalition agreement and, as with Leveson, which we will refer to later, there are disagreements that are accepted. In a grown-up society, it is surely right to be transparent about that rather than covering up artificial disagreements, as in the previous Administration, where collective responsibility was disguised.

As the opening paragraph of the coalition’s working agreement also stresses:

“In the working of the Coalition, the principle of balance will underpin both the Coalition Parties’ approaches to all aspects of the conduct of the Government’s business”.

My Lords, of course we hate to intrude on private grief, but will the Minister tell us whether we will have one response on the charter or two?

My Lords, that question is currently under discussion, although of course the doctrine of collective responsibility prevents my telling the House exactly where those discussions are at present.

My Lords, did the Liberal Democrat Ministers change their minds as well as their votes, bearing in mind the Deputy Prime Minister’s earlier firm agreement to boundary changes?

My Lords, coalition government is a matter of constant negotiation and discussion. Unfortunately, we have not managed to deliver much of the political reform agenda that we agreed to in the coalition agreement. All three parties bear some responsibility for failing to deliver that agenda.