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Ministerial Code

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 27 April 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 26 April.

“The Ministerial Code is the responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day. It is customarily updated and issued to Ministers upon their assuming or returning to office. The code sets out the behaviour expected of all those who serve in government. It provides guidance to Ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs to uphold those standards. The code exists and should be read alongside the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life.

The current version of the code was issued by the Prime Minister in August 2019 shortly after he assumed office. While the code sets out standards and offers guidance, it is Ministers who are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in light of the code, and, of course, for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and to the public. That is as it should be in a robust democracy such as ours. Ministers are not employees of the Government, but rather officeholders who hold their office for as long as they have the confidence of the Prime Minister as the Head of Government. It is always, therefore, the Prime Minister who is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of an individual Minister and of the appropriate consequences were a breach of those standards to occur.

The code also sets out a role for an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. It is an important role, the principal duty of which is to provide independent advice to Ministers on the arrangement of their private interests. The independent adviser also has a role in investigating alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code. As the House will be aware, Sir Alex Allan stepped down from his role towards the end of last year. Following the practice of successive Administrations, the Prime Minister will appoint a successor to Sir Alex. The House will understand that the process of identifying the right candidate for such a role can take time. However, an appointment is expected to be announced shortly. The House will be informed in the usual way as soon as that appointment is confirmed. It will clearly be an early priority for the new independent adviser to oversee the publication of an updated list of Ministers’ interests. I expect that that will be published shortly after a new independent adviser is appointed.

I can, of course, reassure the House that the process of managing Ministers’ interests has continued in the absence of an independent adviser, in line with the Ministerial Code, which sets out that the Permanent Secretary in each department and the Cabinet Office overall have a role. Ministers remain able to seek advice on their interests from their Permanent Secretary and from the Cabinet Office. The Ministerial Code has served successive Administrations well and has been an important tool in upholding standards in public life. It will continue to do so.”

My Lords, there is a flaw in the Ministerial Code because, as the Statement says, the Prime Minister is the “ultimate judge” of the standards expected—but who judges the judges? Who will judge the Prime Minister as to whether he acts with the selflessness, integrity, honesty and openness demanded in the code? Only Parliament can judge. Will the Government provide all the information sought on lobbying and on the payments, including loans, for the No. 10 flat, so that we can end the innuendo and allow Parliament to judge on the basis of facts?

My Lords, I assert again the importance of the Ministerial Code, which, as the noble Baroness said, is the responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day. The fact is that Ministers remain in office only for as long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister, whose constitutional role means that the management of ministerial appointments is his and is separate from the legislature. On the general running interest that there appears to be in the refurbishment of the Prime Minister’s flat, the costs of the wider refurbishment have been personally met by the Prime Minister. As has been said, the Government have been considering the merits of whether works on parts, or all, of the Downing Street estate could be funded by a trust, and this work is ongoing.

My Lords, the Statement refers to Britain as a “robust democracy”. We have done without a written constitution because we have rested on the honour and good conduct of our Ministers and, above all, our Prime Ministers. Can the Minister name any other constitutional democracy, or any other democracy in the world, in which the Prime Minister decides on the rules of ministerial conduct and appoints his own independent adviser without checks and balances from the justiciary or his legislature? Should we not now have to move towards an explicitly constitutional democracy, or risk drifting towards a people’s democracy?

My Lords, I am rather old and to me “people’s democracy” conjures up the old eastern bloc. I am interested in high-quality, high-integrity government. The Ministerial Code is the foundation of that. But I must repeat to noble Lords, as I did to the noble Baroness opposite: the constitutional reality is that the appointment of Ministers is in the hands of the Prime Minister of the day. The Government are not considering a change to that position.

Is my noble friend able to assure the House today that significant changes will be made to the Ministerial Code to ensure that there is independent enforcement and clear sanctions, unlike under the current arrangement?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness opposite did, my noble friend raises an important point. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has made a number of thoughtful recommendations about the role of the independent adviser. I know that the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Secretary, as part of the process of identifying a candidate, to look at how the remit might be amended. We will announce any changes alongside the appointment.

Is the Minister as baffled as I am that the state does not pay more for the regular refurbishment of the residential parts of that most iconic building, 10 Downing Street? Vice-chancellors and trade union chiefs get far bigger sums spent on their official residences. The Guardian reported that £117,000 was spent on the house of the Speaker of the Commons within a few months of him taking up the post. Will the Minister press for the rules to be changed? Catering services ought to be offered, too.

My Lords, many have expressed views similar to those of the noble Baroness. Other countries have slightly different practices on this, but, as I said in response to an earlier question, I am interested in practices in this country. Chequers and Dorneywood are operated in long-standing ways, reducing the need for subsidy from the public purse. These matters are complex, and policy development is ongoing. The Government did engage with the leader of the Opposition’s office on such proposals in July.

My Lords, I will not advise on internal decorations, but I observe that, by virtue of being here, we are all inhabitants of glass houses. We note the adage that being in a glass house makes us visible, so it is wise to behave in ways that do not disgrace this place or ourselves. We often hear words from or about Ministers and others in public office to the effect that he or she did not “break the rules”. Is that not to set the bar fairly low? Does the Minister agree that, while we are all fallible human beings, we, in public office, should aspire to the highest possible standards of probity and behaviour and not simply settle for keeping the rules? If we do not, public opinion will lead to ever tighter rules.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has missed the point. Does the Minister not recall, as I do, that in the past Ministers, both Conservative and Labour, have resigned immediately when it has been clear that just one aspect of the Nolan principles, which include integrity, honesty—that is telling lies, by the way—and transparency, has been transgressed, particularly where Ministers have found advantage for themselves, their friends or their families? How many of these principles need to be transgressed these days before a Minister, and the Prime Minister in particular, will even consider resigning?

My Lords, I believe the Prime Minister does and will conduct himself, as he has, in accordance with the principles of public life.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that while Westminster and the mainstream media are getting excited about things such as the decoration of the Prime Minister’s flat and who said what to whom in texts, away from the Westminster bubble, people are much more interested in getting their vaccinations, getting back together with their families and friends and getting the recovery of the economy under way?

I do agree with my noble friend. The Prime Minister, in denying one of the more absurd allegations, made the same point. If I am allowed a personal comment: I have the privilege of having my second vaccination tomorrow thanks to a modern miracle of science. We should all be profoundly grateful for that and the way it has been carried through in this country.

My Lords, Mr Johnson seems to suffer from severe memory loss when it comes to recalling what he has said or written, not least with regard to the commitments he gave in his introduction to the code, when he vowed Ministers would all avoid

“actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”

Given his cavalier approach, is it any wonder that Ministers appear to regard its obligations as entirely voluntary? Can the Minister assure us that he has never infringed the requirements of the code?

I am not sure who the “he” is in that question. If the “he” is me: I have always sought to adhere to the Ministerial Code. If the “he” is the Prime Minister: I have said I believe the Prime Minister conducts himself in accordance with all the principles of public life.

My Lords, we need proper rules, transparency and accountability, but does my noble friend agree that when the Civil Service faces such significant capability gaps—as we have seen, for instance, in the difficulties experienced by successive Governments in delivering major projects —we also need good people to be able to come into government and help? We must not make that excessively hard. After all, if that had not been the case for the vaccine rollout and delivery, we might not have procured those vaccines in the first place.

My Lords, I certainly agree that we need a measure of objectivity on this, echoing the words of the right reverend Prelate. It is important that any malpractice should be dealt with. Transparency is important. As the noble Baroness asked, any reportable benefits will be recorded in the list of ministerial interests on the advice of the independent advisers. So far as broader Civil Service arrangements are concerned, my noble friend will know that Mr Boardman is looking into the matters in relation to Greensill. It is better to await the outcome of that inquiry. But, of course, I take note of what my noble friend said.