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Ministerial Code

Volume 816: debated on Monday 6 December 2021


Asked by

My Lords, the Ministerial Code is the responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day. It is customarily updated and issued on their assuming or returning to office, and any amendments to the code are a decision for the Prime Minister.

My Lords, I recognise that the Prime Minister issued the latest version on almost the same day when he advised Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament so that he could avoid parliamentary scrutiny of his actions for another couple of months. Is not it time now, given the widespread concern about behaviour in public life and the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, for a more measured review, which might well include asking for comments and contributions from the relevant committees of both Houses?

My Lords, high standards in public life are of fundamental importance. I respectfully submit, regularly from this Dispatch Box, that we are fortunate in this country in the high standards we have in public life. Of course this Government look carefully at reports and advice given on various aspects. As the noble Lord will know, we are carefully considering a number of recently published reports and will respond in due course.

Would it be a good idea if Ministers obeyed the law, rather than seeking to overturn it either in judicial review or by a court should they be found to have flaunted it?

My Lords, I am not certain what specifically the noble Baroness is referring to. This Government respect the judgment of the courts and that is a principle of our polity, but any Government are entitled to review the existing law and submit to Parliament proposals for changing it.

My Lords, has my noble friend read paragraph 9.1 of the Ministerial Code? It says:

“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”

Does he agree that in the last 20 years that paragraph has been widely overlooked? Would he agree that it should either be abolished or enforced—with Ministers who breach it losing their passports?

That would be a novel sanction for Ministers; obviously I welcome the proposals made this morning on another matter. I have read that, and I personally take it very seriously. As a Minister in your Lordships’ House, I believe that the first duty is to your Lordships’ House. Like my noble friend, I am advancing in years and I remember the days when news was news and not spin disseminated aforehand. We should all aspire to respect for Parliament.

My Lords, if the Prime Minister respects Parliament, he surely has to respect the Ministerial Code. It seems that he has a rather arm’s-length relationship with it at times. Perhaps, instead of having a review, we should see the code adhered to, which I think would please your Lordships’ House more than seeing it change. When the code is reviewed, we should also look at the foreword from the Prime Minister, because I think perhaps his priorities were wrong when he drafted that, as Brexit is mentioned three times yet integrity is mentioned only once.

My Lords, I am sure that events evolve and that what must remain constant is high standards of behaviour. Personally, I am proud to be a Member of my right honourable friend’s Government, and I do not share the view held of him by some on Benches opposite.

My Lords, the first paragraph of the Ministerial Code requires Ministers to follow the principles of public life, which include integrity, openness, honesty and leadership. Did the Prime Minister exhibit these qualities when he allowed No. 10 to be used for an illegal Christmas party on 18 December last year?

My Lords, I can only repeat what I have said: standards in public life are important. I believe that the Prime Minister respects those fully. As far as the alleged events the noble Lord refers to, I point him to the statement made by Downing Street: that No. 10 has always followed, and continues to follow, Covid regulations at all times.

My Lords, the Prime Minister sets the Ministerial Code and is the ultimate judge of standards of behaviour, but now highly reputable bodies are increasingly calling for reforms. It is the age-old question: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Does the Minister agree that, to restore public confidence, the code needs to set stronger standards on how Ministers should use social media and respond to lobbying?

My Lords, obviously the use of social media and lobbying are important and relevant matters. As the noble Baroness will know, there are recommendations before the Government and the country on lobbying, for example. My right honourable friend recently wrote to the Speaker supporting action on lobbying in the other place.

My Lords, as it is the Prime Minister’s responsibility to update the manual, has he been asked whether he will do this? If not, will my noble friend undertake to ask him?

My Lords, the answer to the first question is that I think your Lordships have frequently suggested it. I will draw my right honourable friend’s attention to the remarks of my noble friend.

My Lords, I recently wrote to the Cabinet Secretary, asking him to investigate a breach of the Ministerial Code by Ministers misquoting the cost of HS2. He said that, under section 1.4, he would have to ask the Prime Minister first. Is there not a conflict between the Prime Minister’s personal and possible political role and that of making a judicial decision on such issues?

My Lords, a case was determined this morning relating to the operation of the Ministerial Code, which I am sure your Lordships will wish to study. The independent adviser has confirmed that he is content that the Transport Secretary followed the process required under the Ministerial Code for the declaration of his private interests.

My Lords, is it not the simple fact that the only person accountable to the British public is actually the Prime Minister, through elections, and all these people who call for some other person to be in charge of the Ministerial Code forget that any such person would be non-electable?

My Lords, that seems to be causing some surprise on the other side—perhaps some of them have never actually faced the electorate, as many of us have.

Others can investigate who has stood for election here and who has not. I agree with what my noble friend said. Ultimately, any Prime Minister is accountable in the conduct of his duty to the British people and is always conscious of that high responsibility.

Will the Minister think again? The Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament, and Members of the House of Commons individually are elected by the British people. The Prime Minister should be accountable to Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, said, by making Statements and by answering Questions—which the Prime Minister never does; he tries to make it leader of the Opposition’s Questions and challenges my right honourable friend Keir Starmer. Will the Minister, however, confirm that a number of organisations, including the Institute for Government, have recommended that the Ministerial Code should be incorporated in statute and that the independent adviser should be given more powers, including to start investigations? Why is this taking so long? Why is something not done about it, so that we have real democracy in this country?

My Lords, I have repeatedly answered this question in the House. I know that the noble Lord does not agree with the answer, but the answer is that the Prime Minister’s constitutional role as the sovereign’s principal adviser means that the management of the Executive is wholly separate from the legislature. It is for the Prime Minister to advise the sovereign on the appointment, dismissal and acceptance of the resignation of other Ministers. That is why it is right that the Prime Minister has responsibility for the Ministerial Code, which was underlined in the judgment this morning.

Does the Ministerial Code regulate the private and public use of social media, which is a relatively new phenomenon and was not in place when it was first drafted? Is it not better to have strict rules so that diplomacy and tweeting do not become confused?