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Upholding Standards in Public Life

Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will respond to the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its report Upholding Standards in Public Life, published on 1 November 2021; and in particular, the recommendations on the Ministerial Code and the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests.

My Lords, the Government have responded to recommendations on the code. They have made important changes to strengthen the Ministerial Code and the role of the independent adviser on ministerial interests, including an enhanced process for the independent adviser to initiate investigations and new detail on proportionate sanctions for a breach of the code.

I am grateful to my noble friend. Does he recall that in its report in November last year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that the

“government needs to take a more formal … approach to its own ethics obligations”?

Does he agree that recent events have underlined the importance of the Prime Minister securing the public trust expected of holders of that high office? Will he encourage the Prime Minister to respond constructively to the remaining 25 recommendations that have not been addressed? Will he ask the Prime Minister to reconsider his decision to have a veto on investigations launched by the independent adviser?

My Lords, in making the changes I have referred to, the Government carefully considered the recommendations made by the committee on those matters in the Upholding Standards in Public Life report, which was published only six months ago, alongside consulting the noble Lord, Lord Geidt. The Government are considering the other matters and will issue a response to the committee’s other recommendations in due course.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I am aware from the work we do that much of the process leading to the recommendations we are currently discussing depends on hard work by independent members of the committee. Is the Minister aware that for the last six months there has been a vacancy among the independent members that, so far, the Government have failed to even initiate the process for filling? Why are the Government seemingly reluctant to ensure that the committee has the relevant membership, and when will that process be kicked off?

My Lords, I am not aware of any reluctance, but I will certainly note the noble Lord’s comments and take those to the appropriate quarter.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, in the light of recent events culminating in the vote of confidence in the Prime Minister on Monday and its outcome, the very least the Government can try to do to restore trust is to enable a debate on ministerial standards to be held in government time in this House?

My Lords, I am at the disposal of your Lordships’ House but, as the noble Viscount will understand, matters on debates are for the usual channels. Should such a debate be scheduled, I will be happy to answer to your Lordships’ House, as always.

My Lords, the Ministerial Code is clearly vital to maintaining trust between the Civil Service and Ministers. The November 2021 report cited a public opinion poll which suggested

“that 85% of the Senior Civil Service and 90% of Fast Streamers had no confidence in the regulation of the Ministerial Code”.

Does the Minister not think that suggests we have an underlying crisis in the relationship between the Civil Service and No. 10?

No, my Lords, I do not agree. I can speak only as I find. Having the honour to serve as a Minister in Her Majesty’s Government, I have the privilege of working day by day with senior civil servants and civil servants of all levels. My experience is that there is a relationship of great trust and co-working between Ministers and civil servants. I strongly underline the respect that I and other Ministers in government have for the work of public servants.

Does my noble friend agree that the most important quality that any Prime Minister can possess is integrity? Does he agree with me that Theresa May was a wonderful example of that?

My Lords, I do not wish to extend the tread into history, but certainly Margaret Thatcher was also a great example of integrity.

My Lords, I think neither of the Prime Ministers mentioned would have behaved in the way that this Prime Minister has. The Prime Minister seems to regard the Ministerial Code as somehow his own personal property or plaything. I think many of us were disappointed by the new introduction, which has no reference to integrity, honour or truth. Given the lack of confidence in this Prime Minister, which permeates into the Government and is so damaging to government that even a majority of his own Back-Benchers have no confidence in him, does the Minister not think he should answer very positively the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Young: that the Government have to respond urgently to the recommendations of the committee and do their best to implement those, otherwise confidence is going to be lost?

My Lords, the Government have a responsibility to respond, to consider, and to bring to Parliament the considered results of their reflections on the advice that they are given. As I told the House earlier, the important report that we are discussing was presented last November; we have made some responses and more will follow shortly.

My Lords, the Minister says that it is only six months since the committee’s report was published. Why is it taking so long for these recommendations to be considered and what processes are being undertaken to consider them?

My Lords, far be it from me to advise a former Cabinet Secretary on what processes take place within government. There are matters to consider, which are considered by appropriate departments that may be affected. It is not unusual for a period of six months to pass—even in relation to a report from this particular committee. I could cite other cases, but the important thing is that we come forward with a considered response, which is precisely what I have undertaken to do.

My Lords, is the Minister surprised that, so far, no Conservative Peer has risen in support of the Prime Minister?

My Lords, the other day my doctor prescribed me drugs that she said might cause confusion, depression and panic attacks. I said, “But I am a Tory Back-Bench Peer—how will I know?” Will the Minister cast aside my depression and agree with me that this is not a matter of trust in one individual, one personality; it is not even a matter of trust in one political party, it is a matter of trust in our entire system? Those politicians who regularly use vicious terms of abuse, publicly calling their opponents “liars” or “political scum” simply pour acid over our entire system. We should all condemn the use of such language.

I strongly agree with what my noble friend has said. Of course, the issue of trust runs much wider, as he says, than individuals. We in your Lordships’ House were given a great trust by the British people in the referendum in 2016; can we all answer that we held to that trust promptly and fully?

My Lords, I have never used the language that has just been adduced in the previous speaker’s question, but I have used the language that was used by the Prime Minister in the reading that he gave in St Paul’s Cathedral, and would hold all people to account by the standards implicit in the words that he read. Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, I refer the noble Lord to the exchange of correspondence between the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, and the Prime Minister. In his letter to the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister set out his own sense of his actions—I refer noble Lords to that letter and the way that he has held himself accountable publicly for those actions.

My Lords, the Minister clearly thinks that six months is not enough time to consider the recommendations. He may well be right, but would he like to hazard a guess as to how much more time will be needed before they have been considered?

My Lords, it is always dangerous to specify any date in your Lordships’ House. What I will say is that I personally—as do many people across the Government; in fact, the whole Government—view the recommendations and the advice that we receive from independent bodies as of great significance and importance. I hope before too long to come forward with responses on other recommendations. They will not all be in line with the recommendations; for example, the Labour Party has rejected the view that a single ethics commission should not be set up, and is calling for one.