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List of Ministers’ Interests and Ministerial Code

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 24 April.

“I am pleased to confirm that the latest list of Ministers’ interests was published last week on 19 April by the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, Sir Laurie Magnus. The list has been deposited in the Library of the House and is also available online on GOV.UK.

I note that the honourable Lady’s Question talks of a register of ministerial interests. I am afraid that I must point out, for the sake of clarity, that that is not an accurate term. It is important that I provide a little explanation about the list, what it contains and the role it performs. The Ministerial Code makes it clear that:

‘Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise’.

It is their personal responsibility

‘to decide whether and what action is needed to avoid a conflict or the perception of a conflict, taking account of advice received from their Permanent Secretary and the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ interests’.

On appointment, each Minister makes a declaration of all interests. They remain under an obligation to keep that declaration up to date throughout their time in office. Ministers are encouraged to make the fullest possible disclosure relating to themselves, their spouses and partners, and close family members, even where matters may not necessarily be relevant. The information supplied is then reviewed and advised on by their Permanent Secretary and by the independent adviser. Where needed, steps are taken to avoid or mitigate any potential conflicts of interest. That is the process by which Ministers’ interests are managed. It is thorough and ongoing, and it provides individual advice to all Ministers that reflects their circumstances and responsibilities.

Twice a year, a list is published, covering those interests that are judged by the independent adviser to be relevant to each Minister’s portfolio. The list is not a register. It is designed to be read alongside the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which is maintained by this House, and the register of Members’ interests that operates in the other place. For that reason, the list does not generally duplicate the information that is available in the registers.

The independent adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, makes it clear in his introduction to the list published last week that it would not be appropriate for all the information gathered as part of the ministerial interests process to be made public. He states that such a move would

‘represent an excessive degree of intrusion into the private affairs of ministers that would be unreasonable, particularly in respect of’

honourable Members’ families. I am sure honourable Members will understand that the system is designed to gather the fullest amount of information, provided in confidence, so that the most effective advice can be given.

All Ministers of the Crown uphold the system that I have described. That is true for all Ministers, from the Prime Minister, who has been clear that all his interests have been declared in the usual way, all the way down to, and including, an assistant Whip. In the latest list, the independent adviser highlights the importance of Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries remaining alert in the context of their respective portfolios if Ministers’ interests change. That is, of course, right. Importantly, though, Sir Laurie Magnus provides his opinion as independent adviser on Ministers’ interests that

‘any actual, potential and perceived conflicts have been, or are in the process of being, resolved’.”

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt for the Minister, the Question is in two parts, about first the ministerial register of interests, and secondly the Ministerial Code, and my question is specifically about the Ministerial Code. She will know that finally the Prime Minister has appointed an ethics adviser. Officially the adviser’s title is “the independent adviser on ministerial interests”, but I ask whether she considers the job title somewhat misleading. Only the Prime Minister can decide to initiate an investigation and only the Prime Minister has a veto as the sole arbiter of whether the code has been broken. Either the adviser has the independence that the job title implies, or at minimum should be able to investigate. In the interests of integrity and clarity, should the job title not be changed to “the Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial interests”? It is very hard to see where the independence applies. Will the Minister tell the House whether she considers that change to be appropriate?

I do not think we should make the change that the noble Baroness suggests. I draw the House’s attention to the fact that the terms of reference for the role of the independent adviser were strengthened in May 2022 when the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, was in the post. The changes made expanded the powers of the independent adviser, in particular giving the office holder the ability to initiate investigations. Where the independent adviser considers that an alleged breach of the Ministerial Code warrants further investigation and that has not already been referred to him, he may initiate an investigation. Before doing so, he will consult the Prime Minister, who will normally give his consent.

I am very pleased that we now have the independent adviser and, for completeness, I should revert to one or two of the points made in response to this Question when it was asked yesterday in the other place. The list of Ministers’ interests was published by the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests on 19 April. The list is not exhaustive but is designed to be read in conjunction with the register of interests in this House, which we all complete. I am very happy to answer further questions in relation to the list of Ministers’ interests, which has now been published in relation to all 120 Ministers.

My Lords, can I therefore ask the Minister a further question in relation to the list of Ministers’ interests? Does she agree that, in the interests of accountability, it needs to be updated regularly on the same monthly basis as the register of Members’ interests rather than a couple of times a year at best, as has recently been the case? More generally, does she accept that the Civil Service provides advice to Ministers with impartiality and integrity, and to argue that this is not the case, as some Ministers and former Ministers have done in recent days, is unfair, untrue and damaging to Civil Service morale?

The noble Lord asks why the register is not updated on a monthly basis in the same way as the register of interests that applies in our House and in the other place. It is important to understand that they are different. The list published by the independent adviser is a list: it is published every six months as the public endpoint of an ongoing process. Ministers’ interests are declared on appointment and on an ongoing basis to Permanent Secretaries, and are reviewed by the independent adviser. Any changes have to be notified in real time but, because of the nature of ministerial office, the number of new interests is normally fairly small at any point in time, so it makes sense to publish a new list every six months. There was a delay because of changes in government, which the noble Lord will be well aware of.

I started life as a civil servant and I have worked as a Minister with many brilliant civil servants, a view I know is shared by my colleagues. I believe in an independent Civil Service, and its fearless and impartial advice is vital to this country.

My Lords, is it not true that the so-called independent adviser is still a creature of the Prime Minister? The Committee on Standards in Public Life made a number of recommendations to improve the situation, most of which were not adopted. Will the Government reconsider those recommendations from the committee and adopt them so that this position could be seen to be genuinely independent and not a creature of the Prime Minister?

The Government’s work on reforms to strengthen ethics and integrity in central government is now nearing conclusion and we hope to publish our response soon. There have been a number of reports, including Upholding Standards in Public Life, the recommendations of Sir Nigel Boardman’s report on supply chain finance, and PACAC’s fourth report, so we can look forward to a response.

My Lords, we welcome the belated publication of the latest version of ministerial interests. There is a related document which we are also impatiently awaiting, which is the Cabinet Manual. The Government have promised that they will publish it within the foreseeable future, and I understand that there is already a draft in Whitehall. Can the Minister give us any indication of when that Cabinet Manual draft will be complete and will be published?

The Tolley report into the former Deputy Prime Minister spends a lot of time listing the sources he used to define “bullying”, but concludes that his role

“is not to determine as a matter of law what ‘bullying’ means for the purpose of the Ministerial Code”.

Given that the former Deputy Prime Minister disputes that he was a bully, and that other Ministers have supported him, does the Minister think it would be wise for the Prime Minister to amend the Ministerial Code to put his definition of bullying into it, so there is no ambiguity going forward?

Since the noble Lord mentions the former Deputy Prime Minister, I remind the House that he made an important contribution to the country, not least by his work during the pandemic. On a personal note, he supported me and indeed the Bench opposite on justice for retail workers facing harassment. He felt obliged to resign following the Tolley report, and I respect his decision. The noble Lord may have seen the letter to the former Deputy Prime Minister from the Prime Minister. It said,

“it is clear that there have been shortcomings in the historic process that have negatively affected everyone involved. We should learn from this how to better handle such matters in future”.

My Lords, the Tolley report, which looked into the matter in great detail, referred to intimidation rather than bullying as the cause of the conduct which led the former Deputy Prime Minister to resign. There is a difference between intimidation and bullying, and that should be recognised.

I do not think I have a great deal to add to the Prime Minister’s reply, other than to underline the point that has been made about how we learn to better handle such matters in future. The points that noble Lords have made are, of course, relevant to that.

My Lords, we have a code of conduct that governs the behaviour of special advisers, the Civil Service Code and the Ministerial Code. In most other environments, those in authority in organisations have the protection of the whistleblowing Act. Has anybody considered—perhaps my noble friend could ask the independent adviser on ethics to consider it —how we are making good the gap that exists, potentially, where there are not those protections for those in office when one might need to blow the whistle?

I obviously come from a business background, where whistleblowing is a very important and helpful constraint on wrongful behaviour. I will certainly reflect on my noble friend’s point about whistleblowing in the work that we do following up on these issues.