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Ministerial Code

Volume 808: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether their Ministers are expected to abide by the standards of conduct in the discharge of their duties as set out in the Ministerial Code.

Yes, they are, my Lords. The Ministerial Code sets out standards of behaviour that Ministers are expected to maintain. 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 to the public to whom they are ultimately accountable. The Prime Minister takes any allegations about misconduct very seriously and is the ultimate arbiter of conduct.

My Lords, on 2 November the Minister assured me and the House that the inquiry into bullying by the Home Secretary was wholly independent and free of all political and personal interference. Given that the Prime Minister prejudged that inquiry by expressing every confidence in her, promised to stick by her and then tried unsuccessfully to tone down the report before sitting on it for many months and rubbishing its recommendations, does the Minister now regret that he was misled? The Prime Minister promised that the Ministerial Code would outlaw bullying and harassment, but he has made the process a sham and the outcome shambolic. This is what Obama calls “truth decay”. Why should civil servants—or, indeed, anyone else—now trust the Prime Minister’s promises?

My Lords, I infer from his remarks that the noble Lord did not prejudge the outcome of the inquiry. The Cabinet Office published the Sir Alex Allan’s findings on the Home Secretary’s conduct. The PM, as the arbiter of the code, considered all the findings carefully and, weighing up all the factors, the Prime Minister’s judgment is that the Ministerial Code was not breached.

My Lords, just as Ministers take responsibility for their department, good or bad, so civil servants do not publicly criticise their Ministers. Does the Minister agree that Sir Philip Rutnam behaved disgracefully badly when he crossed that boundary by rubbishing a Secretary of State? He brought even further disgrace on our superb Civil Service by appearing on television. Does the Minister agree that in future snowflakes should be barred from being Permanent Secretaries or, indeed, holding any other senior position in the Civil Service?

Well, my Lords, my noble friend always asks his questions in a direct manner. I will not comment on any individual case, but it is certainly true that being at the top of a major department is a challenging role for Ministers and senior civil servants alike—and, frankly, I have not known many snowflakes in either of those capacities.

My Lords, it would have been good if the Minister had condemned the terms of the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Howard. Under this Prime Minister, the conduct of the Government and their Ministers has been criticised by the Supreme Court, the National Audit Office in relation to their conduct of procurement, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on ministerial conduct. Do the Government take these criticisms seriously? If so, what proposals do they have to restore confidence in the probity of public life?

My Lords, I do not agree that confidence in the probity of public life, as the noble Lord puts it, is destroyed. The Government take all criticism and comment seriously and reflect on all comment, positive and negative. That is the wise thing to do, and I am sure the Government will continue to do it.

My Lords, are there any previous cases of Prime Ministers overruling and ignoring the results of an inquiry under the Ministerial Code?

My Lords, I would not characterise it in that particular way. The Prime Minister concluded in this case that the Ministerial Code was not breached. There was a prior case in 2012 when there was a finding that the code had been breached and the Minister also remained in office.

My Lords, has the Minister read the lecture given by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, to the Institute of Business Ethics on 11 November? The noble Lord commented that

“too many in public life, including some in our political leadership, are choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years, and … when contraventions of ethical standards occur, nothing happens.”

Does the Minister agree?

No, my Lords, I do not agree, because I do not consider that that generalised charge against people in public service is justified. I find high standards of probity among the colleagues I work with and among the people I have had the honour of opposing in the past when they were in government.

I am proud to be part of a House that places such emphasis on standards and codes of conduct when working with civil servants and staff, and I take this opportunity to thank those who serve us so brilliantly in every aspect of this House. The Civil Service needs to attract the brightest and best, and at the moment it is in competition with many other organisations which, equally, are trying to attract young people. If it is widely perceived that they will not be valued and respected, will that not, in the long run, affect recruitment to the Civil Service?

My Lords, I am grateful for the right reverend Prelate’s first comment. It is not the case that this Government do not value civil servants. Indeed, the joint letter sent out by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary yesterday reaffirmed their admiration for the work of civil servants.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is a strength of the Ministerial Code is that it does not require the removal from office of a Minister who breaches it but emphasises that the Prime Minister is the final arbiter on whether a breach has occurred and, if so, what the consequences are, which then allows him to make considered judgments in cases that are not black and white?

Yes, my Lords, these things are a matter of judgment. No one has referred to the fact that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made a very strong apology for her actions.

My Lords, I was disappointed with the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who sought to place this issue in the context of how the Government see their role. The Prime Minister has to understand—as Donald Trump has had to do—that his saying something does not make it true. In his introduction to the Ministerial Code in 2019, the Prime Minister was resolute that there would be no bullying. Yesterday, in the extraordinary letter to civil servants and Ministers, he repeated that there is no place for bullying. He may be the final arbiter, but in the first test that he had, he overruled an independent report into a senior Minister who urges the rest of us to uphold the rule of law. Perhaps I may ask him one specific question on this. Did the Prime Minister seek—albeit unsuccessfully—to have the final report watered down before it was officially presented to him?

My Lords, I said in answer to an earlier question that I am not commenting on any part of the process. The Prime Minister’s conclusion was that the Home Secretary was not a bully. That does not mean that there were not difficult circumstances, which were brought out in Sir Alex’s report, or that bullying should not be something that we all take extraordinary seriously and combat.

I absolutely accept that the Prime Minister should make the final decision on these matters, and I respect the fact that the Home Secretary has apologised, but does the Minister agree that the fact that the Prime Minister immediately sent round an email saying that there must be no bullying, against the background of rejecting the advice of his adviser, is bound to at least raise a great number of eyebrows?

I am afraid that I cannot follow the noble and right reverend Lord. I have answered that the Prime Minister did not consider that the Home Secretary was a bully, and the noble and right reverend Lord referred to the Prime Minister’s views on the matter. I learned in Sunday school that forgiveness is a Christian quality, and I believe that we should accept the apology and move on.

My Lords, given that four senior civil servants who gave evidence under oath to the Salmond inquiry have had to return with corrections to their testimony, is my noble friend sure that the Civil Service Code is fit for purpose? On the enforcement of the Ministerial Code, does he share my concern that, unlike the Prime Minister, Sir Alex Allan was able to reach his conclusions without interviewing the Home Secretary himself?

My Lords, as I have said, I cannot comment on the details of the investigation or on who was involved. I think that many would be surprised by my noble friend’s hypothesis. However, I can say again that the Prime Minister has reviewed the matter, including Sir Alex Allan’s report, and does not consider that the code was breached. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary have issued a letter setting out the joint responsibilities of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries. As my noble friend implies, there is a duty on both sides to work together harmoniously. I believe that we should now all get on with the job of doing good public service.

Sitting suspended.