Skip to main content

Ministerial Code

Volume 815: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021


Asked by

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

My Lords, that is a disappointing but not unexpected Answer. However, does the Minister agree with me that the ways in which the Prime Minister dealt with the Hancock affair, the Jenrick planning fiasco and the Priti Patel bullying saga—where the wrong person resigned—were not exactly models of integrity and transparency, as required in the code? Will the Government now reconsider the recommendations of the Institute for Government and others that the code should have a statutory underpinning and that the independent adviser should be given some real powers before our parliamentary democracy becomes a laughing stock around the world?

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord’s more general observations. I agreed with Mr Speaker in the other place yesterday that we should speak softly on these matters. 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. The Prime Minister alone—we have discussed this in this House before—advises the sovereign on the exercise of powers in relation to government, such as the appointment, dismissal and acceptance of resignation of Ministers. Therefore, it is right constitutionally that the Prime Minister of the day has responsibility for the Ministerial Code, and I cannot see the Government being persuaded that a statutory basis for an inherently prerogative function would be appropriate or desirable.

Does the Minister to any degree share my sense of shame and outrage at the extent to which the requirements of the Ministerial Code have been trashed by this Government? As there are no planned changes to the Ministerial Code, can we at least anticipate that the Government will take their existing responsibilities seriously as a solemn and binding duty to the British people?

My Lords, of course. Again, I do not agree with the political comment at the outset. The Government will carefully consider comments made by parliamentarians in both Houses, as well as the work of Mr Nigel Boardman, the CSPL and PACAC, when the committee reports. We will make a policy statement in due course but, as your Lordships would expect, we intend to consider these matters carefully.

Will my noble friend agree that, while some Members of your Lordships’ House may have had memory blackouts of before 2010, they have always previously been very happy for this to be a non-statutory body? Does he agree that it is right that the Prime Minister, who is elected, is the sole arbiter of who serves in his Government.

I agree with my noble friend, but I will continue my policy of not throwing political stones—we all know that they exist. The Prime Minister is accountable to the electorate, as well as to Parliament. As my noble friend says, the electorate will be the ultimate judge of what I consider to be his high service to this country.

My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, does the Minister understand why the Ministerial Code being made statutory is such an issue now? I put it to him that, whether it is ignoring the judgment of HOLAC about the appointment of Conservative Party donors to your Lordships’ House, ignoring the judgment of the independent adviser on allegations of bullying by the Home Secretary, or the shenanigans that have brought shame on Parliament as the Government attempted to defend Owen Paterson and defy the Commons standards commissioner and the committee, there is increasing evidence that this Prime Minister considers the rules to be for other people and not to apply to him or his close chums. Will the Minister now accept, as many others have done, and as my noble friend Lord Foulkes raised, that this Prime Minister—this Prime Minister—cannot be trusted to uphold the Ministerial Code?

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is fully briefed on the report last week from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Paragraph 2.25 says:

“It is clear to the Committee that the degree of independence in the regulation of the Ministerial Code … falls below what is necessary to ensure effective regulation and maintain public credibility.”

Do the Government accept this criticism and, if so, are there plans to strengthen the independence of the adviser on ministerial interests?

My Lords, I have partly answered that, in saying that the Government are obviously considering all the very important and thoughtful reports that have been presented on these matters in recent weeks and months. We take matters of ethics extraordinarily seriously, as I believe every Member of your Lordships’ House does, on all sides. I give an assurance to the House that we will come back with a Statement on these issues in due course.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the vast majority of Ministers, of all parties, have been honourable, decent, hard-working people, committed to the public weal, and that the current Ministers have been facing a challenging pandemic and emergency of unprecedented character, and that the sound of the wolf pack in your Lordships’ House is particularly disedifying?

My Lords, I would never characterise Her Majesty’s Opposition as wolves, but my noble friend makes a point of great importance. We should all reflect that the overwhelming character of British government and public life is not corrupt but driven by a sense of public duty that goes right to the top of this Government.

I feel for the Minister. I know him—indeed, I think the whole House knows him—to be a particularly honourable Member, and we value everything that he has done here. However, I have to ask him whether he is at all ashamed of some of his colleagues in the other place.

My Lords, I do not comment on the other place, but I refer noble Lords to the observations made by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at the outset of the debate in the other place yesterday.

My Lords, the Speaker in the other House invited the Members to speak softly. The Prime Minister took that literally, because he was 400 metres away—

I beg noble Lords’ pardon; I have moved rather too quickly away from imperial measures.

The Prime Minister certainly did not contribute—he spoke softly. The issue is not one of changing the code. Is not the real problem getting the Prime Minister to implement it?

My Lords, I have explained the constitutional position. So far as the Prime Minister’s movements are concerned, I am thankfully not responsible for them, but he was on a prearranged official visit to the north-east. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who heads up the Cabinet Office and is responsible for this, led in the parliamentary debate. The Speaker was informed that both my right honourable friend and the leader of the Scottish nationalists would be unable to attend.

My Lords, until a generation or so ago there was almost no statutory regulation of Ministers, Members of the other place, or Members of this Chamber. Does my noble friend the Minister see a danger that the proliferation of codes, statutes and commissions skews incentives, encouraging politicians to tick the boxes, rather than asking themselves whether their behaviour is, in the broader sense, moral or edifying? Is there not a danger that we are replacing a culture of conscience with one of compliance?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right to say that the background, provisions and guidance have changed and evolved over time, and they will continue to evolve.

Does the Minister agree that, when you are in position of leadership, asking people to do things, it is always good if you can set an example? Can he give us two examples of where the Prime Minister has done something under the code to set an example to other Ministers?

My Lords, with nine seconds left, I deliberately gave rather a short answer to my noble friend to enable the noble Lord, who I very greatly admire, to make his point. I wish it had been a better point. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister adheres to high standards of behaviour, and he expects the highest standards of behaviour from Ministers every day—far more than on two occasions; every day.