I beg to move,
That this House
notes the recommendation made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life that there should be an independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests;
and insists that the Government should immediately begin the process of establishing such a position.
Let me start by saying that it is always a pleasure to debate with the Minister, but I am sure that even he would agree that it is nothing short of astonishing that we still do not have a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to lead for the Government in tonight's debate three weeks after that vacancy was created. It is no sign of the Prime Minister's confidence in the importance of the Cabinet Office.
This debate follows a number of recent controversies, including the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, creating the vacancy to which I referred. However, the purpose of tonight's motion is not to rake over the coals of that resignation—that would be wrong and inappropriate. The events of the past few weeks have raised important issues about the oversight of the ministerial code and, in particular, have reinforced criticisms made by Sir Alistair Graham, who chairs the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Government have ignored those issues for too long, but in the wake of the resignation of Mr. Blunkett they can no longer be allowed to do so.
My hope is that the Government will not seek to oppose the motion, but that they will instead accept its inevitability. In the Government's amendment, they claim that they will make an announcement on these matters "shortly". We have been waiting for that announcement for the past two years, much to the fury of those involved in putting together the original recommendation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Frankly, shortly is not good enough.
The Government have always made the right noises over standards in public life. They have introduced a stronger ministerial code and made tough noises about keeping to it. In the introduction to the code, the Prime Minister is unequivocal about its importance:
"In issuing this Code, I should like to confirm my strong personal commitment to the bond of trust between the British people and their Government. We are all here to serve and we must serve honestly and in the interests of those who gave us our positions of trust."
Those are fine-sounding words, but on many occasions they have proved to be just that—words and not a yardstick by which all ministerial action is judged. Fine words, little action.
I want to give the House some other wise words that were passed to me by one my constituents on the day after the resignation of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The words come from one of the House's most distinguished and much missed figures. My constituent said:
"I may have told Chris the story of how I decided to go to the Scott enquiry one day, was told I had to get into the queue by 8 if I wanted to be sure of getting in at 10, and found myself to my surprise next to Robin Cook. At one stage I asked him whether the Matrix Churchill business was just a one-off with particular people being in particular places at the same time or whether it was something endemic in the British system of government. He gave what I thought was an excellent answer—No, it wasn't either of those—it was more that when one party had been in power for a long time Ministers become progressively less able to distinguish between the public interest, their party interest and their private interests."
Those words were spoken in a very different period of government, but they ring true today. Ministers, from the Prime Minister down, seem to have forgotten the things that they said in opposition and the commitments that they made when they came to power. Either that, or they just do not think that the rules apply to them.
The origins of the motion lie in the work done two years ago by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, now chaired by Sir Alistair Graham, but then chaired by Sir Nigel Wicks. Government Members will remember the establishment of the committee in the mid-1990s, after the last Conservative Government found themselves under pressure about standards from Mr. Blair, who was then Leader of the Opposition. The then Prime Minister described the committee as a welcome response to "public anger" and claimed that
"the warning signs over these issues have been ignored for much too long."
Tonight, my charge against the Prime Minister is that he is guilty of the very offence of which he accused his Conservative predecessors. The warning signs have been present for much too long, and he continues to ignore them.
Not one but two Cabinet Ministers have resigned twice from the Government. One of them, the European Commissioner Peter Mandelson, even appears to have been guilty of a third offence of not declaring a position that he accepted with the Advisory Committee on Ministerial Appointments. If he were still a member of the Government he would now be in danger of an unprecedented hat-trick of resignations. Unbelievably, he said:
"Why cannot ex-Ministers face the same requirements concerning their business appointments as civil servants?"—[Hansard, 2 November 1995; Vol. 265, c. 479.]
Mr. Mandelson went on to ignore those very requirements when he left office.
Other examples have been in circulation in recent weeks. One Cabinet member apparently rushed to lodge a declaration of interests with the permanent secretary under the ministerial code only when a newspaper started to ask difficult questions. I sometimes wonder whether Ministers think that they enjoy some kind of moral superiority and that the rules do not apply to them. In fact they do, and it is time that there was proper independent scrutiny to stop them ignoring their responsibilities in an often cavalier way.
Two years ago, the Committee on Standards in Public Life completed its ninth report. It is, as always, a comprehensive and detailed work that looks at a wide range of issues that affect the governance of our country. A key part of its work that year was to look at the detailed workings of the ministerial code. In particular, it set out two key recommendations, one of which is central to tonight's motion. I hope that the Government will give the other recommendation due consideration in the light of recent events.
Let me set out for the House the recommendation that I will ask Members to support at the end of our debate. The committee called for an independent office-holder—called an adviser on ministerial interests, to be established to provide advice to Ministers on compliance with those sections of the ministerial code that cover the avoidance of perceived and actual conflicts between their public duties and private interests, formal or otherwise. The committee went on to say:
"The Ministerial Code should be amended to require an incoming Minister to provide the Adviser . . . with a full list in writing of all interests which might be thought to give rise to a conflict . . . the Adviser should consult the Minister's Permanent Secretary about departmental business where necessary to enable the Adviser to ascertain whether a conflict of interest may exist . . . The Adviser should be responsible for maintaining a record of ministerial interests and should keep a note of action taken by a Minister on taking up office . . . The Adviser should publish information and guidance on how Ministers should deal with conflicts of interest . . . Where unforeseen conflicts arise subsequently during the course of a department's work, the Minister should consult the Adviser."
Finally, the Committee said:
"The Adviser should refer any breach or allegation of a breach to the Prime Minister."
That seems to be an eminently sensible set of recommendations. At present, the system requires Ministers to refer their interests to their permanent secretaries, and any breaches are a matter for the Prime Minister.
That system is clearly flawed. Government Ministers, particularly Cabinet Ministers, are required to work on a daily basis with their permanent secretaries, so a close personal working relationship is established. It is entirely wrong to ask permanent secretaries to serve as the referee for the financial and other dealings of Ministers, as that risks compromising that day-to-day working relationship. That was certainly the view of Sir Nigel Wicks and his committee in the report:
"Permanent Secretaries should have no responsibility for giving advice to Ministers on conflicts of interest arising under the Ministerial Code."
The role of the Prime Minister as both poacher and gamekeeper is one that should be questioned, and I will return to that in a moment. The system places the Cabinet Secretary in an extremely difficult position. Two weeks ago, both the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary about his breach of the ministerial code, which he failed to consult before taking appointments outside Government after leaving ministerial office. The Cabinet Secretary replied to both of us. In his reply to the right hon. Gentleman, he said that he believed that there had been a breach of the ministerial code. In his response to me, however, he made it quite clear that that was not a matter for him. I do not blame him for that, but there is a confusing situation, which is not tenable.
One of the people who contributed to the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life two years ago was Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian. His view was typical of many people involved in producing the report:
"I said to an earlier meeting of this Committee some years ago that I thought it was completely wrong that Cabinet Secretaries should be wheeled on, as sort of ad hoc men of probity, when there was a question under the Ministerial Code . . . If the supreme code, the Ministerial Code, now much embellished under this government, does not have an independent element in investigating and deciding what happens under it, everything else becomes bendy and much less satisfactory than it should be."
I hope that our debate tonight will mark the start of a process that will redress that situation. Furthermore, the motion before the House seeks, in substantial measure, to follow a path already accepted by the Government two years ago. That is why I dispute the Government amendment. Two years ago, the Government accepted many of the principles behind our motion, but they have done nothing since. That is why we do not accept the platitudes in the Government amendment. Why cannot the Minister accept the Opposition motion or at least give the House a straightforward timetable for their plans? The word "shortly" is simply too vague for us to accept.
The hon. Gentleman is confusing two separate recommendations. There was a recommendation to establish an adviser on interests, which is not a sensible suggestion, as I hope I have a chance to explain later. There was also a recommendation to establish an independent investigator of complaints, which is a sensible suggestion. Unfortunately, however, the Opposition have pursued the silly proposition and ignored the sensible one.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there are two recommendations and I intend to deal with both of them. Our motion is designed to put in place an independent adviser on ministerial interests, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my explanation of why that is the first step. I believe that both recommendations are desirable, but in tabling the motion I hoped that the Government would accept the first one, although I fear that I will be disappointed.
The Government did not agree with all the committee's recommendations on the ministerial code. They did not like all the proposals for an independent adviser and they wanted to leave permanent secretaries as the focal point for discussions about the code. However, as the Minister will know, they accepted that it would be sensible to have an independent adviser from whom additional advice could be sought by both Ministers and permanent secretaries. At the very least, that would provide a second opinion for Ministers in difficult situations. Nothing, however, has happened. The chairman of the Committee, Sir Alistair Graham, has expressed anger about that and went public with criticisms of the Government this summer. I asked him if his Committee would make recommendations about the role of prime ministerial spouses, the rules that apply to them and the support provided for them after public concerns were expressed about the commercial activities of the Prime Minister's wife. Sir Alistair gave me a direct response. He stated:
"The Ministerial Code, as revised and published on the day before the Recess, makes it clear that proper consideration of Ministers' private interests include the private interests of a spouse or partner (paras 5.1–5.3]. In its Ninth Report . . .the Committee made a detailed proposal . . . for the creation of an Adviser on Ministerial Interests whose advice and guidance might have been useful in the circumstances you drew our attention to. Unfortunately, while the Government in its Response (Cm 5964, September 2003) accepted the case for appointing an independent adviser (Ibid, pp. 2–3) no action has been taken."
That is not from me or from a member of the Conservative party, but from the independent chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
That was not the only time during the summer that Sir Alistair had cause to criticise the Government. In July, he expressed great unhappiness at the way in which the Government had dealt with the issue of the code of conduct for special advisers. He expressed
"dismay at the way the Government had changed the legislation governing the role of Special Advisers without proper parliamentary or public debate" and stated:
"I am naturally disappointed that the concerns my Committee raised about the revisions to the Code of Conduct have not been taken into account."
What is the point of an independent committee to monitor standards in public life if the Government of the day do not listen to what it says? Is it not the height of arrogance for Ministers who railed about public standards when they were in opposition to act as though the independent mechanisms that they demanded then do not have to be listened to now that they are in office themselves?
The other central issue in the debate tonight is the role of the Prime Minister as ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code. That surely cannot satisfactorily remain in place in the future. We have seen in the past few weeks issues about the ministerial code raised over the activities of one of his closest friends and allies in the Cabinet. There is no doubt that the loss of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside was a major blow to the Prime Minister at a time when things are just a little heated within his party, yet it fell to the Prime Minister to be the judge of the rights and wrongs of the situation.
In the past few months legitimate questions have also been raised about the commercial activities of the Prime Minister's wife and how they relate to the ministerial code. In these two cases, involving a close colleague of the Prime Minister who can provide advice to him, and the Prime Minister's wife, which raises questions about who she turns to for advice, how can the Prime Minister possibly fulfil the role of ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code?
When the issue of the Government's support for the businessman Lakshmi Mittal arose, criticisms were directed at the Prime Minister and questions were asked about his conduct. Yet on questions about the Prime Minister's action and guidance to the Prime Minister, the ultimate referee was the Prime Minister himself. That cannot be the proper way of handling standards issues in a modern democracy.
The question has also been raised about the ability of any Prime Minister to serve as overseer or arbiter of the code, given all the other pressures on him or her. During the last few hours in office of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, the Prime Minister at one point openly admitted that, owing to pressure of work, he was not fully up to date with what was going on. Of course he cannot be. The Prime Minister of the day cannot be expected to fulfil that role and to have the time to study everything that is going on.
That is why I hope the Minister will give an indication tonight that the Government will consider the creation of the other element of the recommendations to which Dr. Wright referred a moment ago—not simply an independent adviser, but an independent investigatory process for people who are alleged to have transgressed in relation to the ministerial code, and where there are doubts whether the ministerial code has been fulfilled.
The Committee recommended that
"At the beginning of each Parliament, the Prime Minister should nominate two or three individuals of senior standing after consultation with leaders of the major opposition parties.
(b) The names of these individuals should be made public.
(c) Should the Prime Minister consider an investigation into an allegation of a breach of the Ministerial Code appropriate, the Prime Minister would invite one of these individuals to conduct that investigation.
(d) The individual selected to carry out an investigation should investigate the facts and report his or her findings to the Prime Minister, who would decide on the consequences for a Minister. The report should be published."
For the sake of accuracy, perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman a little further. The problem is that the sixth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life stated with great authority that there should not be any independent investigator. Three years later, the ninth report stated that there should be. Ultimately, we cannot call in aid such external bodies. We have to decide for ourselves about these things.
Perhaps the Committee was taken in by the protestations of purity that the Government articulated when they first took office, found itself disappointed some years later and realised that it needed tougher action after all. At the very least, the House must surely agree that it is odd that Members of Parliament can be referred to our own Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards or the Committee on Standards and Privileges, but that there is no point of reference for potential breaches of the ministerial code. Does the Minister consider the situation satisfactory?
If the hon. Gentleman's proposition is successful, will he urge the independent adviser to take on board a report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which pointed out that for Opposition spokesmen there was "no specific requirement" that they divest themselves of financial interests along the lines of the ministerial code? However, Lord Neill of Bladen went on to say that they are able to exercise influence over parliamentary matters and over the wider political debate in their capacity as spokesmen and women, and that that warrants investigation. Will the hon. Gentleman urge his independent adviser to take on board the comments of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, in order that we can avoid any sense of impropriety when Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen and women receive funds from companies and organisations which cover their sphere of influence on the Opposition Front Bench?
I know that you will not allow me to stray too far from the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I look forward to having the chance as a Minister after the next general election to conform closely to the terms of the ministerial code.
It is not often that Opposition Members quote from the diary of Piers Morgan, the former editor of the Daily Mirror, but let me tell the House about the entry for
"'I won't be weak on sleaze like the Tories," he said. "We have got to be whiter than white if we are to rebuild trust in government.'"
What was Morgan's prediction?
"I reckon that might just come back to haunt him."
I think that it has.
The Prime Minister told us:
"I'm a regular kind of guy"— after accepting a multimillion pound donation and then changing his policy to help the donor. He defended the former Minister for Europe before he resigned, saying he thought he had done nothing wrong. He defended Peter Mandelson before he resigned, and resigned again, saying he did not think he had done anything wrong. Two weeks ago he defended the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside before he resigned, and then said that he left office without a stain on his character.
Surely the Government must realise that it is not tenable for the Prime Minister to be the ultimate arbiter of ministerial standards, and that the time has come to bring an independent element into the process of monitoring and advising on the way in which Ministers treat the code. There is no point in having an independent committee to advise on standards in public life if we do not listen to what it says. The Prime Minister and his colleagues argued for it when they were in opposition, when they were challenging the Conservative party over issues of standards. Now that they are in government, they find it much less convenient to pay attention, and much less convenient to do what is right. In my book, that is not upholding standards—it is nothing less than double standards, and it is not good enough.
Let me conclude by taking Labour Members back to the days when their party was in opposition, and in particular to the words of the Prime Minister on the night that the Commons debated the first report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan. That night the then Government did not agree with everything Lord Nolan wanted and they faced an onslaught from an outraged Opposition, led by the current Prime Minister, who demanded of the then Prime Minister:
"Just what do he and his party have to hide?"
He went on:
"If now, in weakness, the Prime Minister goes back on his word to implement the report that he commissioned, it will leave a stain on his prime ministership and on his Government that will not be removed until this rotten Administration is swept from office."—[Hansard, 2 November 1995;Vol. 265, c. 387]
A decade on from that night, that same Leader of the Opposition is now the Prime Minister and he has performed a complete about-turn. Now he does not want to implement a report on standards that he commissioned. Tonight, my question to him and to the Minister is the same question as he once asked: just what do he and his party have to hide?
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"acknowledges that, amongst other measures, this Government introduced a requirement for individual Ministers, on appointment to each new office, to provide their Permanent Secretary with a full list in writing of all interests which might be thought to give rise to a conflict;
welcomes the section of the Ministerial Code on handling Ministers' private interests which is more comprehensive than Questions of Procedure for Ministers;
and recognises that this Government has agreed to appoint an independent adviser to provide Permanent Secretaries and Ministers with an additional source of professional advice as required and will make an announcement on this shortly.".
Chris Grayling began by saying that he would not rake over recent events, before he raked over every recent insinuation. The good thing about debating with him is that he always gives notice in a rather polite way of the points that he is about to make through the pages of the Daily Mail. He is often tempted to behave like a Daily Mail copywriter, and he always succumbs to that temptation.
It is important to put the debate about standards, openness and the ministerial code in context. We have always made it clear that the public should expect the highest standards of propriety in public life, and this Government have introduced transparency, which did not exist under previous Conservative Administrations. That transparency relates to Ministers, special advisers, Parliament and the public.
We were the first to publish a ministerial code and the annual list of gifts to Ministers, which was strongly opposed by the previous Government, for whatever reason.
No, it has not. The ministerial code was first published in 1997, and the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to discuss that matter. [Interruption.] He is contradicting his own intervention from a sedentary position. What was published in 1992 was not a ministerial code—it was called something entirely different—and it was reformed, reviewed and extended to make it much more powerful. He is making the winding-up speech for the Opposition, so he should not contradict his own intervention.
We were the first to publish a ministerial code and a list of gifts worth more than £140 that are given to Ministers, and we were also the first to publish a code of conduct for special advisers and the number, cost and names of special advisers, none of which happened before. On openness in Parliament, the Prime Minister was the first to appear before the all-party Liaison Committee, which was previously unheard of, and opportunities for pre-legislative scrutiny have also increased.
On public openness, we have the long-campaigned-for Freedom of Information Act 2000, which was long opposed by other parties.
With due respect to the smaller parties, the 2000 Act was opposed by the main Opposition party. Through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, we reformed donations from overseas donors.
"The Government have put in hand important constitutional changes with positive implications for enhanced accountability."
That contrasts with what happened before, when there was, at best, intransigence on those issues about public life.
Before Conservative Members start to think that the ministerial code is a development for which they can take credit, I should point out that a template for questions of procedures for Ministers was originally drafted in 1917 by the first secretary to the Cabinet, Sir Maurice Hankey. Directives on procedures for Cabinet government issued by the Prime Minister during the second world war were drawn up into a single document by a gentleman called Clement Attlee and issued to all incoming Ministers in 1945 on a confidential basis.
The Minister has said that the Government have made the ministerial code more transparent. Paragraph 1.3 of the code states:
"The Code is not a rulebook".
In the foreword to the code, the Prime Minister states:
"I will expect all Ministers to work within the letter and spirit of the Code."
When the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr. Blunkett, resigned, the Prime Minister told this House that he thought that the former Secretary of State had done nothing wrong. How do those three things make a more transparent process?
I will come on to some important aspects of the ministerial code later, but I shall deal with the case of the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions now. My right hon. Friend made a mistake—a technical breach of the ministerial code—and resigned. He paid a heavy price, which is in stark contrast to significant numbers of Conservative Members being paid to ask questions in this House. Not one, but two former Conservative Ministers ended up in prison for their actions, and another Minister from that time had to resign because of detailed allegations about how he sought to block investigations into the cash for questions affair. Yes, my right hon. Friend has paid a heavy price. He made a mistake, but it involved breaching the ministerial code on a technicality, which is a world away from events under previous Conservative Administrations.
The hon. Gentleman spoke for a substantial time, and I want to make some progress before I give way.
In contrast to what went before, the ministerial code is updated and published after each general election, so the most recent version was published in July 2005. The ministerial code provides guidance to Ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs in order to uphold the highest standards of constitutional and personal conduct in the performance of their duties.
The new ministerial code takes into account a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and is split into two parts—a ministerial code of ethics and procedural guidance for Ministers. Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the code and for justifying their actions and conduct in Parliament. The Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and of the appropriate consequences of a breach of standards. Given the wide range of topics covered by the ministerial code—they range from appointments made by Ministers to arrangements for contacting diplomatic posts overseas in relation to ministerial travel plans—the Prime Minister should not be expected to comment on every allegation, although Conservative Members expect him to. As the Public Administration Committee said in its report, "The Ministerial Code: Improving the Rulebook":
"It is not possible for a Ministerial Code to cover all possible cases and circumstances. Nor should that be its purpose. It should identify the basic ethical principles of Ministerial conduct".
Turning to the specific point raised by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell about the independent investigation of alleged breaches, as my hon. Friend Dr. Wright, who chairs the Public Administration Committee, has said, the Committee on Standards in Public Life considered the merits of the appointment of an independent investigator in its sixth report in 2000. The Committee concluded that it would be
"undesirable to make a recommendation that would fetter the Prime Minister's freedom", and it went on to recommend that
"No new office for the investigation of allegations of ministerial misconduct should be established."
The Committee reversed its position in its ninth report, but the arguments that it advanced in its earlier report are still valid. We have not changed our minds on that.
This proposal involves a point of principle and a point of practicality. It strikes at the principle of democratic accountability and the way in which the Government are run. The electorate decide who is in power and the Prime Minister decides who serves in his or her Government. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made the position clear in his press conference on
"The only person who decides who is in the Government or not in the end is the Prime Minister. You can't subcontract that decision. That is why I didn't agree with the recommendation and still don't."
That brings me to the question of practicality. The Government do not believe that it is practical to identify, in the way in which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and others have suggested, an individual or group of individuals who can be appointed on a standing basis to investigate any or all inquiries that are recommended through Members of Parliament bringing a matter to their attention or—an almost weekly occurrence—through the pages of the press.
The important difference is that the Prime Minister reserves the right to decide who is in Government, to decide when an inquiry is necessary, and to appoint an independent person if required. Sir Alan Budd did indeed carry out that inquiry. As an eminent individual and a member of the Monetary Policy Committee, he was the appropriate person called in by the Prime Minister. However, there is a strong belief that it is entirely impractical to appoint on a standing basis someone like Sir Alan Budd—Sir Anthony Hammond, for example, who carried out another investigation at the Prime Minister's request—and perhaps one or two other individuals. We expect to get people of good standing with great experience and high personal morality. Practically speaking, it is very difficult to require them to give a commitment to investigate what may initially be one case, but will subsequently lead to others as a consequence of allegations that may be well founded or may be based on media tittle-tattle.
Members on both sides of the House have mentioned not only ministerial codes of conduct but standards in public life in general. The Minister referred to what we see in the pages of the press. On what basis did the Cabinet Office approve the memoirs of Sir Christopher Meyer, which have been serialised in one of our daily papers?
The debate on standards in public life is very wide ranging. There have been written questions about the matter that my hon. Friend raises, so I have of course been briefed about it. The fact is that the Cabinet Office did not clear such a book—
I am grateful to the Minister—I hope that it makes as entertaining reading as the excerpts.
The Minister said that it would be impossible for a person of appropriate standing to carry out this role on a permanent basis. He needs to be careful in his choice of words not to undermine the positions of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards or the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, both of whom have standing positions as well as, in the view of most of us, extremely high standing.
Nothing could be further from my mind than questioning the integrity and professionalism of those individuals. The Government and the Prime Minister have made it clear that we do not rule out the possibility of asking individuals outside the Government to conduct an investigation into allegations of ministerial misconduct. We have been judged on our actions and, when necessary, external inquiries have taken place.
For example, in 2001, Sir Anthony Hammond QC was asked to conduct an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the naturalisation of Mr. Hinduja. Of course, Sir Anthony Hammond is standing counsel to the General Synod of the Church of England and, as I said, Sir Alan Budd, who was a member of the Monetary Policy Committee from 1997 to 1999, undertook another inquiry in 2004. We have the flexibility to enable external investigation of serious allegations to take place when the Prime Minister believes that it is merited. That method has been tried and tested.
I am reluctant to criticise the Parliamentary Secretary, who is a good man with a promising career ahead. I say that in the spirit of the helpful motion tabled by the responsible and measured Opposition, who are trying to help Parliament and the Government to get through the mess. However, there is an element of complacency about the Parliamentary Secretary's response so far. Surely he recognises that there is confusion about the code, doubts about the lines of accountability, genuine uncertainty about the Prime Minister's role and a Committee on Standards in Public Life whose advice is not taken seriously. He should not be complacent. We must move on from the current position. What about the improvements that could be made? We need to hear a little more in that spirit.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his compliment and take it in the spirit it was offered. However, he will single-handedly ensure that the future that he predicted does not happen if he persists with such compliments. I know that he is a good and honourable person and I assure him that there is no complacency. The Government continue to consider ways in which to improve standards in public life. They have done so since 1997 and continue that drive.
As I said, we were the first Government to introduce a ministerial code, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, cleaning up party political donations, pre-legislative scrutiny, the Prime Minister's attendance at the Liaison Committee and many other things that simply did not happen under the previous Administration, despite the well catalogued failings of standards in public life. Belmarsh almost began its own Conservative Association as increasing numbers of former Conservative Ministers went there.
I shall write to the hon. Lady. Time does not permit me to go through all seven. [Interruption.] She holds up a copy of the ministerial code—I am sorry to say that I cannot read it from here.
Our approach to such matters is in stark contrast to the evidence that Sir John Major presented to the Public Administration Committee. He said that, when breaches of the ministerial code were alleged, he
"preferred to leave a large glass of brandy and a pistol in a darkened room for the Minister to make up their mind."
We do not operate in that way.
The Government made it clear in our response to the ninth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the recommendation for an independent adviser on ministerial interests that permanent secretaries are best placed to understand Departments' work and advise Ministers on handling potential conflicts of interest. We have agreed to appoint an independent adviser on ministerial interests to provide private advice to Ministers and permanent secretaries, especially about more complicated cases. That will be in addition to the wide range of advice that is already available. Whoever is appointed to that office will need to understand how government and Parliament work and have the necessary expertise. As the amendment states, we will make an announcement on the matter shortly.
However, I emphasise that the Government continue to believe that permanent secretaries are best placed to understand Departments' work and advise Ministers on handling potential conflicts of interest. No external adviser could be expected to match permanent secretaries' understanding in terms of knowledge of their Departments and the potential for conflict.
The Parliamentary Secretary said that the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions committed a technical breach of the code and that that was why he resigned. If there was clarity in the code and an independent adviser was helping, such a breach would not have occurred. Surely the fact that he had to resign shows that the system is not working.
There is no evidence whatsoever that what happened with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside could have been avoided by the availability of such an independent adviser. I say that that was a technical breach because that is what it was. It did not involve sneaking into a dark corner and asking for thousands of pounds to speak in the Chamber, or going into a court of law and committing perjury, or trying to block investigations into financial sleaze in the Government. It was a technical breach.
I cannot let the Minister get away with that. It is not my intention to spend too much time raking over the coals, but he must accept that the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has since admitted making telephone calls to investment bankers while he was a Cabinet Minister. In my view, that is not a technical breach of the code but one of the most serious breaches in recent years.
The former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was in technical breach of the code. That is the reality of the situation. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell might wish to issue a press release to the Daily Mail, but if he wishes to enter into correspondence with me about this, I shall be happy to respond. On the Conservatives' wider agenda on this matter—in terms of the drip, drip, drip of press releases and so on—they seem unable to persuade anyone that the previous Conservative Government were not a national sleaze-fest, or that they have now reformed and deserve a second chance, or that an apology would be believed. My personal view is that some prominent members of the Opposition—by no means all of them—have therefore adopted a strategy of planting the seed of the idea that the other parties are just as bad as they are and, given the opportunity, would behave just as they did. Well, that will not work, because it is not true.
The technical breach by the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was just that. It was not a deliberate attempt to commit the kind of criminal or fraudulent acts that were committed in a small number of cases over previous years. The Conservatives' strategy of suggesting that we are all the same reflects badly on all of us, and, it will not work. The public know which party was shrouded in the kind of sleaze that became endemic in the Conservative Government during the 1990s—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell says from a sedentary position that the Conservatives won the last sleaze poll. Well, the poll that mattered was the general election, and that is why he is sitting on the Opposition Benches and we are sitting here. The public have made their decision on a whole variety of matters. However, we should get back to the debate that we are meant to be having, rather than continuing this interesting chat that the hon. Gentleman and I are having across the Dispatch Box.
The Government have already done much to strengthen the ministerial code, as I said earlier. All Ministers are now required, on appointment to each new office, to provide their permanent secretary with a full list in writing of all their interests that could give rise to conflict. There is also detailed guidance on options for Ministers who may need to dispose of an interest or take steps to do so. Ministers are required to consult their permanent secretary on all these matters. There is also provision in the ministerial code for Ministers, when necessary, to obtain expert or professional advice from inside or outside Government.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell mentioned the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Even a cursory glance at the recent history of Government responses to the independent regulators of our body politic shows a whole series of recommendations by those charged with responsibility for keeping us on our toes, in terms of ethics and standards. The previous Conservative Government entirely flouted those recommendations and responded to them in a very negative way. For example, on the Treasury and Civil Service Committee's proposal for guidelines for Ministers, the Tory response was that it was not necessary. The ministerial code now contains those provisions. On a proposal on ministerial accountability, the Tory response was: "It is impossible." Aspects of the ministerial code now contain such provisions. On the Public Services Committee report of 1996–97 on ministerial standards, the Tory response summoned up the ability to "note the conclusions". Those recommendations are now covered by the ministerial code.
The fact is that there was an ailment in our body politic, and there is still a degree of cynicism towards politics and politicians across the world. It does no good, however, for the Conservatives to adopt this strategy of suggesting that we are all in it for ourselves. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said that the Labour party had forgotten what we said in opposition. This evening, it is as if he has forgotten what his party did in government. He sought election to this place in 1997 at the height of all those difficulties. I half expected him to wield the sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play this evening, but I am glad that he kept that well sheathed.
I want to thank the Conservative party, which has performed a great service to ethics in British politics. I know that many Conservative Members were not involved in what happened in the 1990s.
On the question of Conservative ethics, Chris Grayling was uncharacteristically reticent when I raised the recommendation from the noble Lord Neill that there should be an investigation into whether the ministerial code should apply to Opposition Members. Will the Minister at least consider those recommendations to avoid impropriety on either side—not to engage in party political point scoring—and to make sure that the probity of the House, Ministers and shadow Ministers is always maintained?
My hon. Friend's suggestion is reasonable and fair. I would be interested to hear whether the Conservatives find that approach attractive, as it would be much easier to do that on a bipartisan basis, and the Conservative wind-up should offer a detailed response on that.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell referred to control over special advisers and their work, which is a regular theme for him, but he ignores the fact that we introduced a contract, oversaw the numbers and published those details, which had never happened previously.
Another substantial area of public investment in which there seems to be limited oversight, which was raised in questions in the House either today or yesterday, is the way in which the taxpayer legitimately subsidises unpopular political parties through the Short money. I am not questioning the principle, which is accepted—
Of course I was, but the Liberal Democrats have also had vast sums of public money invested in propping them up. I am not questioning the principle of that. On a much wider point, this was a UK Parliament the last time that I checked, for UK politicians and from a UK general election. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to create an English Parliament—
Time is running out, and the hon. Gentleman will have time to respond to this point and the one about shadow Ministers' accountability when he winds up.
There is a UK Parliament and a UK general election, and we are elected here by our constituents. I hope that the previous intervention was not some sort of sideways endorsement of the Liberal policy of proportional representation, on which we would disagree strongly. On the question of Short money, some people have started to ask about value for money and the public ethics of it. I will leave that legitimate point there, and the hon. Gentleman might respond to it later.
I will try your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I continue for much longer on the question of Opposition accountability in relation to the ministerial code and use of taxpayers' money—£22 million of it since 1997. I want to thank the Conservative party, however, and I look forward to hearing whether it is willing to adhere to the same standards as Ministers.
Had it not been for the galling sight of two Ministers committing perjury, and for the fact that a number—not all—of Conservative Members of Parliament were lining their own pockets from asking questions in this Chamber, the momentum for many reforms, in terms of the growth in regulation of our body politic, important decisions about the ministerial code, openness in government, overseas donations and publishing the list of gifts to Ministers, would not have been in place. In that at least, we find common cause. We thank the Conservative party for getting itself into such a mess prior to the 1997 election that we have been forced to clean that up. We do not, however, feel any sense of complacency, and we will continue to find ways of improving our body politic. That is an issue on which the public will judge us each and every day, and come the general election.
I support the motion, and I am disappointed that the Government did not feel able to support it as well. It would have been far better had the House been able to unite on a common view of what is needed to maintain the integrity of both the Government and the House. If the Minister wishes, he can close his eyes tight and not see the obvious concerns being expressed outside the House, but I strongly advise him not to do so, because this is a matter of considerable concern.
Let me give the Minister credit: he is right in some of what he has said about what the Government have done to improve the situation. The publication of the ministerial code, in the form in which it has been published, is an improvement, and there have been other improvements to which the Minister can rightly draw attention. He was in danger of overstating the case on the Freedom of Information Act 2000, though, particularly when he said that Opposition parties—plural—opposed it. I think that the Liberal Democrats have been the strongest advocates of freedom of information for a very long time.
The Minister will recall that a former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, David Clark—now Lord Clark—was the author of much more extensive provisions for freedom of information than the Government were, in the end, prepared to accept. Even the rather meagre provisions of the Freedom of Information Act have been largely circumvented whenever possible by some members of the Government ever since. The Minister should be cautious about such matters. As I have said, we should recognise that there have been advances since the time of the last Government, but the Minister should recognise that there are genuine concerns.
The Minister referred to the comment by Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, that he preferred to deal with breaches of the ministerial code by providing a glass of whisky and a pearl-handled revolver in a darkened room—[Hon. Members: "Brandy!"] I am sorry: brandy. How different that is from the position of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in recent weeks—but, in fact, we are in exactly the same position, and I think that that too is of concern.
Is the ministerial code properly constructed? Is it properly policed? If the answer to either of those questions is in the negative, are there alternatives that we can consider? When we deal with matters of this kind, the House is in danger of resembling a mud-wrestling competition. We must try hard not to descend to party-political tit-for-tats, because that does none of us any good in the end. I think the Conservatives would be wise to accept, however, that the last Conservative Government had a real problem. They were considered by many to be "enmired in sleaze"—the term that was used at the time. Of course that did not apply to every member of the Government or every member of the Conservative party, but it was the perception at the time.
I think it is also fair to say that the present Government are not yet in the same position. When Sir John Major claimed recently that Labour was now more sleazy than his own Government, Sir Alistair Graham said
"Our recent work has suggested that this government has been rather less guilty of sleaze of which the Major government was accused and more guilty of spin, of over-exaggeration of achievements to try and gain support rather than direct sleaze."
With that somewhat faint praise, we can accept that the Government, although moving in a direction that none of us would wish to see, have not yet achieved the position that the public perceived the John Major Government to be in.
In a spirit of total fairness and complete historical accuracy, will the hon. Gentleman also put on the record the fact that the last Liberal Government were also immersed in sleaze?
Yes, and is it not interesting to note that the forerunner of the ministerial code was published in 1917 under the prime ministership of David Lloyd George—a great Prime Minister of this country, but someone who was prepared to sell peerages in return for donations? Well, that could never happen now, could it? At least Lloyd George had the clarity and transparency to provide a clear tariff, so everyone knew what was happening, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point.
The Minister said earlier that sleaze was endemic in the Major Government. It may have been, but many of us are concerned to prevent that endemic disease from becoming a pandemic, in which all political parties are seen in exactly the same light as that historical position in respect of the Conservative party under Major. Complacency is greatly misplaced on this matter, as it does not take much to cause a generalised infection. I would like to quote a gentleman called Paul Masefield, speaking on Star Sports channel:
"One bad apple in the dressing room and everything can go pear-shaped."
Yes, it can, and the Minister should be aware of that.
Let us examine what the ministerial code says. Much of what it says is good. For example, it states under paragraph 1.5 that Ministers are required
"to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life."
Absolutely right. Under paragraph 1.5.f, it states:
"Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests".
Again, that is absolutely right. Then there is clear—I think, unambiguous—advice under paragraph 5.29:
"On leaving office, Ministers should seek advice from the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments about any appointments they wish to take up within two years of leaving office."
I find it very difficult to understand how anyone could misunderstand that particular provision.
In some aspects, then, the ministerial code is well constructed, but I could also cite paragraph 1.3, which states:
"The Code is not a rule book, and it is not the role of the Secretary of the Cabinet or other officials to enforce it or to investigate Ministers, although they may provide Ministers with private advice on matters which it covers."
The question that people outside the House are asking is: what is the point of having rules if no one is enforcing them? The answer from the Government, of course, is that the Prime Minister enforces those rules. Well, the Prime Minister has many qualities—some good, some bad. One of his qualities that many would consider admirable is loyalty to his colleagues, but such loyalty is not a substitute for policing the ministerial code in the manner in which it should be policed. On the basis of the investigations that the Prime Minister has carried out into Cabinet colleagues over recent years, I have to say that the only possible conclusion that one can reach is that the code can be breached with impunity. That should not happen and it reflects badly on the Prime Minister as well other members of his Government.
Mr. Jackson, who is no longer in his place, argued earlier that Ministers were more lightly policed in respect of their adherence to standards in public life than the average parish councillor. How can that be right? How can it be that Ministers who wield enormous powers over the budgets that they control and who take such important decisions are more lightly policed in respect of standards of public life than a parish councillor who, with the best will in the world, controls very little beyond some donations to the local village hall or the local recreation field? That is a matter of genuine concern, and I simply do not accept the defence of inadvertence. Explicit advice is given in the ministerial code, and if Cabinet Ministers are inadvertent as to what they should be doing, frankly, they are not fit to be Ministers of Cabinet rank.
So what can be done? First, we should have a debate along the lines of our perennial Standing Committee debates, in which it is often said of a particular Bill that we should delete "may" and insert "must". The ministerial code should say not that a Minister "should" do something, but that a Minister "must" do something. Secondly, there must be an absolute ban on Ministers taking up paid directorships or employment for two years following their leaving office, unless the advisory committee has said that doing so is acceptable. Such behaviour is incredibly corrosive. If Ministers are seen to be walking away from their Departments and joining companies with interests that are directly relevant to the Departments that they have just left, every civil servant will ask, "Why can't we do the same?" Every member of the armed forces who works in procurement will ask, "Why can't we do the same?" Every time that such things happen, the public's confidence that decisions are being taken with the proper interests of the country in mind is damaged.
I set aside the question of why it is assumed that a Minister has to have a highly paid job on leaving office. I take the puritanical view that I am a Member of Parliament, and that is my job. I do not see the need to have additional jobs, but I know that other Members take different views on the appropriateness or otherwise of paid employment. What is absolutely clear is that Ministers get generous severance pay on leaving office. Indeed, sometimes they get severance pay several times over, which is another matter that we might consider.
Perhaps we ought not to consider that issue at the moment.
When resignations occur, it is very important that the proprieties are not only respected, but seen clearly to be respected, by Ministers on leaving office. There have been several instances of repeat ministerial resignations; indeed, I am reminded of the programmes that seem to appear on satellite television every couple of days, with titles along the lines of "Britain's Funniest Ministerial Resignations". We need to police this issue very carefully if we are to maintain the general public's respect for the body politic as a whole.
The trouble is that this is not the only issue that is in danger of souring the position of us all, frankly, and of the democratic system. Mention was made earlier of David Lloyd George's appointing major Liberal party donors to the House of Lords. He had complete contempt for the Lords, which is why he used that method, but the Lords has now changed. It is now primarily an appointed House, so it is even more important that those appointed to it are not tinged with any suspicion that the main reason for their appointment is their having donated large sums to one or other of the parties. However, there is more than a suspicion that some Members of the Lords are being appointed for precisely that reason.
The hon. Gentleman is doubtless aware that the Prime Minister has appointed some 292 peers, so he is responsible for the creation of more Labour peers than he is the election of new Commons Members.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I must be very careful not to stray from the terms of the debate.
I am trying to express the view that these issues are not compartmentalised but cumulative. If the impression is given that the main motivating factor for Ministers, civil servants or members of the legislature is the financial advantage that they may gain, we will lose something precious in our political life.
In addition, an appalling example will be set. Ministers give a direct example to senior civil servants when it comes to what is acceptable. Mention has been made already of Christopher Meyer, who made the matter plain when he said, "If it's good enough for Ministers, it's good enough for me." I think that the book betrays some absolutely inappropriate confidences, and I look forward to learning how on earth it was given clearance—
I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is so tempting to stray into such matters, but of course they do not fall within the terms of the motion.
I repeat: the standing of Government is important not only to the Government, but to the House and to the body politic as a whole. Some things can and should be done to make the ministerial code better able to police the activities of Ministers. More importantly, we must make sure that the impression is given that Ministers' conduct is of the highest integrity.
The arguments in favour of independent investigation and of making the code clearer about what Ministers must do rather than what they might, should or could do on a wet afternoon seem compelling, to use the term of the moment. I am disappointed that the Minister could not accept that today, but I believe that the House should do so. We should give a very clear signal to the Prime Minister that our patience regarding this matter is running a little thin.
I think that a tiny bit of perspective might be in order. The other day, I read again Roy Jenkins's splendid book on Churchill, in which he described how Churchill received an especially munificent gift from a benefactor. As an aside, Jenkins asks us to think what would have happened if the gift had been offered in the age of the ministerial code or parliamentary commissioner.
In fact, ministerial conduct was not better in the past, but a good deal worse, and both main parties have spent a lot of time on improving matters. Attlee would smile to hear today's debate. After the war, he brought together the assorted bits of procedural guidance for Ministers. He sent around a note to Ministers, in which he said that that collection of guidance might be "convenient" for colleagues.
Attlee's version of the code had 65 paragraphs. By 1997, the code had grown to 135 paragraphs, and its latest edition has 173. The code is now expected to cover everything, from air miles to lottery bids. That shows that a good deal of attention has been given to the document over the years.
Given the exchanges in the debate so far, it is worth remembering that both major parties have strengthened the ministerial code, and also resisted suggestions about how it could be strengthened. I sat on the Opposition Benches in the 1990s, when the Committee on Standards in Public Life had just been set up. One of its first recommendations was that the Prime Minister should take responsibility for the code. The Committee said that it should not be left to Ministers to behave properly, but that the Prime Minister should assume formal responsibility for the code. It should be his document. That proposition was resisted by John Major, with all the authority he had. However, the proposal was incorporated into the code by this Government, so the first section now states that the Prime Minister will take responsibility for the conduct of Ministers. I believe that that is an advance.
I suggest that not only has the ministerial code grown in status and size, but the whole of the ethical regulation of Government has grown. We now have an army of ethical regulators, who have usually been introduced in response to some crisis or scandal. We have the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the public appointments commissioner, the Parliamentary Commissioner For Standards, the advisory committee on business appointments, the civil service commission, a new Electoral Commission—which addresses issues such as party funding that were once seen to be outside any kind of regulatory structure—and a standards board for local government. We have a crowd of ethical regulators and a crowd of codes governing behaviour in various areas. We have a code for Ministers, now published and ever expanding, covering ever more areas. We have a code for civil servants and for special advisers. Now we have demands that some of those codes should be converted into legislation.
It is not as though we have been casual in the matter of the ethical regulation of Government in recent times. Ethical regulation has grown in importance and is now on the scale that I have described. As a result, has trust in Government and the political class increased or decreased? I am afraid that it has decreased, and that is what should concern us in this debate, instead of playing the party games of saying, "Oh, you were worse than we are", and replying, "Oh no, you are worse than we were." That brings the whole of public life down, because it is comfortable for a large section of the public to think that the political class is sleazy and corrupt. The newspapers love to feed the idea that the political class is sleazy and corrupt. It sells newspapers and feeds the popular assumption. We also feed that by always saying that the other lot are more corrupt than we are. We have all been guilty of that. We were guilty of it in the 1990s, although it must be said that we had rich material to work with. In any case, we exploited it for all it was worth, because of the great political dividend it provided. As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, the Conservatives—rationally, from their point of view—said, "Look, we're suffering a great disadvantage in the sleaze stakes, because people think that we are sleazy. It is essential that we make people realise that the new lot are as sleazy as we were." They have had a concerted strategy to achieve that, which is rational in its own terms, but mutually ruinous for the standing of politicians and political life.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's remarks with care and agree with much of what he says. Does he believe that hon. Members are now less honourable than they were in years gone by? Does he feel that the failure of Ministers to resign when they have done wrong—they now have to be forced to resign—is also an indication that we now have career politicians rather than Members who come here to serve the people of their constituencies and the country?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who raised several points. I shall deal with two of them if I may. First, do I think that standards have gone down? No, I do not; they have gone up quite considerably. The tragedy is that we have given people grounds to think that standards have gone down while in fact they have been rising. Not only have they gone up, but any intelligent historical or comparative tests show that we probably have the least corrupt way of doing politics of almost any political system in the world—across party. Why then do we spend so much effort trying to suggest that our political opponents are corrupt and sleazy? We do so because we think there may be some temporary political advantage in doing so. That brings me to the hon. Gentleman's second point, which is about resignation.
Chris Grayling has never knowingly undersold when making allegations against Ministers, usually demanding their resignation. But when someone jumps up every time anything happens, however minor, saying, "This is a scandal. This is outrageous. This is a resigning matter", when they go through the whole hyperbolic routine, the effect is to diminish regard for political life. Indeed, it loses the sense of the moment when that kind of language is required because something serious really has happened. Across the House, we have a responsibility to be far more intelligent and sensible about such matters.
That is the impression that the hon. Gentleman has given me and many other people. I really am not making a party political point and I am certainly not making a personal point. We would be doing just the same thing. We would have the same knee-jerk reaction: talking up the incident to make it a major constitutional scandal, expressing outrage that standards of conduct in Government had been breached and suggesting that the consequence should be a ministerial head rolling. I merely suggest that that is not an intelligent or sensible way of doing politics—not if we care for the regard in which, on the whole, an uncorrupt political system is held by the people we represent.
I conclude, therefore, that it is not necessary or desirable to think about inventing yet more ethical regulators, as the motion proposes; it would simply be desirable, in terms of the motion, to correct the wording in the ministerial code. If the motion proposed that the words "are advised to" in paragraph 5.3,
"Ministers are advised to provide their Permanent Secretary with a full list . . . of . . . interests", be changed to "should", I would give it my wholehearted support. That is all that is required.
It would diffuse accountability to the House if the proposition is that we introduce another ethical regulator on to such a crowded field, when it is actually entirely clear—or should be—what Ministers should do and what permanent secretaries should do. Once we begin to cloud the process, and other people are involved, accountability is diminished and diffused rather than enhanced.
Earlier, I made the case for an independent investigator, a point that was raised by the Public Administration Committee back in 2001, long before the Committee on Standards in Public Life got involved. For all kinds of reasons, I am as attached to that proposition now as I was then. The time has come to take a fresh look at the whole field of ethical regulation—all the bodies that we set up for particular reasons at particular moments—and to try to sort them out. As part of that sorting out, I hope that we shall introduce an independent investigatory element.
I end by saying that the Prime Minister said that
"no one will be better governed through fine-tuning the ministerial code."—[Hansard, 13 July 2000; Vol. 353, c. 1098.]
I have some sympathy with that view, but people will be better governed if they have more confidence than they now do in the system that we have to maintain probity in government. That is a serious matter; it deserves to be taken seriously, but we are not well served if we play party games with it because we will find that we are all brought down by that and the whole of public life will suffer as a consequence.
It is a pleasure to follow Dr. Wright, who speaks with great authority, conviction and knowledge on the subject. I concur particularly with what he said towards the end, but I wonder whether he asked himself the right rhetorical question halfway through his speech. The question he posed was whether public trust and confidence in us was increased as a result of what he described as the crowded field of ethical regulators. He concluded that, although standards may have risen, public confidence had decreased. The real question is where would public confidence have been if we had not responded to the concerns over the past 20 or 30 years and done nothing—if we had not set up the Register of Members' Interests and the House procedures to deal with MPs' conduct. If we had not responded as we have, public trust in us would be lower than it is at the moment.
Earlier in the debate, a number of hon. Members wandered down memory lane and exhumed unhappy incidents in the Conservative party's past. I am not sure whether the House is at its best when it engages in such exercises. Despite the incidents that have been shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, I do not take the view that Ministers in this Government are basically sleazy, any more than those in the Major Government were. The Minister was on rather thin ice when he tried to claim some moral superiority for this Administration.
Fallibility is politically neutral. One or two individuals in both parties have made mistakes and paid a price. That has not infected the integrity of the political process in this country. By any international or historical standards, the integrity of the process of government in this country is remarkably high. We have a vigilant and at times over-intrusive press, a basically apolitical civil service, a fairly transparent decision-making process and an effective system of parliamentary accountability through Select Committees. As a result, there is a very high chance indeed that any irregularity will come to light, and when it does, judgment can be swift and harsh.
I agree, however, with those hon. Members who have said that there is no room for complacency. There is scope for improvement, not least because the perception outside the House is very different from the reality; and in our business, perception is crucial. That is why I welcome this debate on oversight of the ministerial code, which has a role to play in improving the perception, but it will not do so it on its own. In addition to an up-to-date and properly enforced ministerial code, the Government need to take action on party funding and, in particular, to put a cap on large donations, which would, in turn, remove any suspicion that money secures a place in the House of Lords or influences Government policy. We need a civil service Act, for which there is still no timetable, to regulate the interface between the Government and the civil service and, in particular, to clarify the role of special advisers.
You have indicated, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you do not want a digression into the Meyer memoirs, but paragraphs 9.17 and 9.18 of the ministerial code deal with the publication of ministerial memoirs. All that I would say in passing is that, if Lord Armstrong and Lord Butler are correct when they assert that the relationship between Ministers and civil servants is threatened if memoirs break confidences, that is true irrespective of whether the confidence is broken by one side or the other. There is a strong argument for a level playing field because at the moment people see Ministers publishing their memoirs without any consequences, but if a civil servant does that, having apparently gone through the requisite procedures, he is criticised without restraint by the Foreign Secretary on the "Today" programme. The rules should be consistently drafted and applied right across the board, but that does not seem to be the case at the moment.
I want to devote the substance of my brief remarks to comparing the enforcement of the code with which we are all familiar—the code for Members of Parliament, which was revised in July—with that for Ministers to determine whether we can learn from each other. Both codes have the common purpose of promoting high standards of conduct in public life, but they have important differences. One is the property of the House, while the other is the personal property of the Prime Minister—we enforce ours and he enforces his. That reflects the different lines of accountability: that of Ministers to the Prime Minister for their appointment and, indeed, survival, and ours to our electorate through the House.
There are differences, however. Members have security of tenure and a complaint against a Member usually does not precipitate a collapse in confidence in him or her. Allegations against Ministers are slightly different because collective responsibility means that they have the potential of spreading to the Government as a whole, which risks a more generalised crisis of confidence.
There are two key procedural differences. First, the House has built its procedures around a strong independent component: the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. His report is always published alongside that of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, and if the Committee disagrees with him, it must say so and explain why. The fact that that strong independent element is built into our system enhances the credibility and integrity of our self-disciplinary procedures. The second difference is that we have clear rules and procedures on how our system works. For those who are interested, they are available in detail on the Parliamentary Commissioner's website. Neither of those two key features is present in the ministerial code, which weakens its impact and credibility.
Taking the second point first, the enforcement of the ministerial code is shrouded in secrecy. In the polite language of the Library brief on today's debate:
"the Code is silent on the means by which allegations should be investigated."
Indeed, paragraph 4.77 of the Neill report says:
"In our view, while the Parliamentary route is well-defined by established procedures, the procedure for holding Ministers to account by the public is less clear".
The follow-up report in 2003 of the Committee on Standards in Public Life advocated mechanisms for investigating alleged misconduct by Ministers, which brings me to the second difference between the codes: the lack of an independent element.
In the 1997 Parliament, I had reason to believe that a junior Foreign Office Minister had broken the code, so I wrote to the Prime Minister, as custodian of his code. He did not investigate the matter, but passed the letter to Robin Cook, the then Foreign Secretary, who exonerated his colleague of any breach. We need not debate now whether there was a breach of the code, but what cannot be right is the process. The Prime Minister played no part in seeing whether his code had been observed. That was sub-contracted not to an independent observer, but to the Cabinet Minister of the Department in which the alleged breach took place. When I gave evidence to the Neill Committee, it shared my concern about what I called the circularity of the procedure.
The new code that was published in July does not address either of those two weaknesses. It rejects the recommendations on an independent element that were made by what had by then become the Wicks committee, and there is no clarity on procedure. There has been minor drafting amendment to allow for the possibility of external advice on Ministers' private interests, but the Government rejected the recommendation that two or three senior individuals should be appointed at the beginning of each Parliament to be available to investigate allegations of ministerial misconduct.
One advantage of having clear and well-publicised procedures for handling complaints against MPs is that when questions about Members arise, they can be considered in a way that takes them—at least temporarily—out of the party political arena. If similar processes could be established in the ministerial area, it would be to the advantage of all parties as well as to the benefit of the public standing of politics in general.
Another feature of our own arrangements is the ready availability to Members of impartial advice on their obligations under the code and rules. While permanent secretaries advice their Ministers on obligations under the code, they are not in turn supported by a source of independent advice about tricky cases to which both they and Ministers themselves can turn. The Minister might argue that the propriety and ethics team at the Cabinet Office—a body of men that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase omitted to mention when he described the regulatory field—already performs that function, but I am not sure that it would be seen to be independent.
The Wicks committee, which has of course now become the Graham committee, has expressed regret at the Government's decision not to proceed with the recommendations. The chairman set out his views in more detail in The Independent on Sunday on
The Government amendment has a welcome element, although they have never explained why they have taken so long to make progress, but the more that I listened to the Minister explain why the Government were rejecting the other recommendation about the independent panel, the less obvious the gap was between what the Government are now doing and what the Graham committee is advocating. The Prime Minister is prepared to draw on independent people in certain cases to investigate, and if so, what is the difficulty about the recommendation? I have high hopes that the new head of the civil service will apply his mind to those issues, and I am sure that the Public Administration Committee will want to review the matter.
I end on the point that independence and clarity are key features of the system of holding Ministers and Members to account. The system that the House has developed for its own procedures has that element of independence and clarity. I do not think that the ministerial code does so, and for that reason I hope that it may be further amended.
We have had an excellent debate, to which my right hon. Friend Sir George Young made a notable contribution. As Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, he is able to bring his experience of many complaints against Members of Parliament and how they have been dealt with, and to compare that regime with what happens to Ministers under the ministerial code. When he asked where confidence would be if nothing had been done—if we had not had the register, the Committee of Standards and Privileges and the other changes—I agreed with his point.
That contrasted with the point made somewhat unusually by Dr. Wright, who took an establishment view that we should just stop talking about possible breaches of the ministerial code and try to reduce the number of regulators, and everything would be all right. He must accept that there has been a change in culture over recent years, partly to do with the fact that previously Members of Parliament were paid very little and had outside interests, whereas now that is not the case. The public now expect transparency in what we do and to have an independent element of both advice and investigation.
The Minister may say that, but to me he sounded slightly pompous when he said, "Oh well, we can have the independent adviser and we will make an announcement shortly." Surely the public would react to that attitude by saying, "My goodness, can't they just say they'll do it?" The Minister also showed a certain complacency when he appeared to suggest that everything that the Government do is above board and that there was never a problem.
I began to think about a civil service Bill, on which I initiated a debate last year. Since 1997, the Government have been promising a civil service Bill, and to be fair to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, he drafted one. I tried to debate such a Bill in the House, and when I managed to do so the Government said that they would be doing something in due course. Yet here we are today—1997 is a long time ago—and we still do not have a civil service Act on the statute book. The question of whether we are to have independent mechanisms to make the ministerial code work seems to be going the wrong way.
One reason why we do not have such a Bill—I have heard this not just from Ministers but from senior civil servants, both serving and retired—is that people are terrified that Members will revert to type and simply play political games with its content. The last Conservative Government asked for an assurance that a measure could be introduced on a bipartisan basis. If the present Government could be confident that that was the case, more progress could be made.
The hon. Gentleman can look at Hansard, but I offered every possible co-operation and received nothing in return.
In 2003, the Committee on Standards in Public Life made those two recommendations. The Government accepted the need for an adviser on ministerial interests. It is extraordinary that the Minister felt it necessary to rake up all the old dirt from years ago, as we are suggesting that he should do something to which the Government have already agreed. Even so, they still will not establish such a post. The heart of the problem concerns the Prime Minister and his wish to remain unfettered by controls such as a civil service Bill and an independent mechanism to monitor compliance with the code. We could probably achieve consensus on a range of measures, so it is sad that the Prime Minister should say that the Government are not prepared to go down that route.
The Prime Minister's involvement in various incidents in recent years demonstrates why the problem has arisen. When the committee made its recommendation two years ago, it did not allow it to rest. Sir Alistair Graham has said on three recent occasions that the matter must be pursued. He said so at the beginning of this Parliament, and he said so again in July, when the code was issued, even though his committee was not consulted about it. He made the point, however, that we should have a ministerial adviser. During the recent troubles of Mr. Blunkett he made the point again. In The Independent on Sunday he said:
"In the end it is a matter of style, tone and leadership of the Prime Minister. In the end, that's the central issue".
He said that those rules should be strictly adhered so that
"everybody knows that if they step out of line, they won't get a second chance."
Sir Alistair went on to say that if, as the Prime Minister has done,
"you sign up to a foreword to the Ministerial Code in which you expect ministers not only to sign up to the letter but the spirit as well . . . then if your actions don't live up to those words you're in danger of getting criticised and being perceived to be weak . . . and there is a danger that the Prime Minister could be under that charge".
Sir Alistair does not take the same view as the Prime Minister of the incident involving the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside. He asks:
"How many people in this country have the opportunity to invest £15,000 to possibly get back £300,000 within a few months' time? . . . You can give a rather obscure and muddied message about ethical standards. These issues in the end are always matters of leadership."
He made the point that Parliament and the entire political class will suffer a serious loss of confidence if they do not take those issues seriously. I am not suggesting that we should make changes just for the sake of it.
The hon. Gentleman talked about a loss of confidence in Parliament and the political classes. May I return to my earlier point and ask whether he is prepared to endorse the recommendations of Lord Neill of Bladen, who told the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the application of the code of conduct to members of the Opposition Front Bench warrants investigation? In the past, shadow Chancellors have received money from oil companies but have taken part in Divisions on fuel tax. That is not acceptable and diminishes the House. Will he accept Lord Neill's recommendations—yes or no?
Lord Neill made his recommendation some years ago. The hon. Gentleman may wish to know that since that time hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench have taken advice from the Parliamentary Commissioner on these matters, and in recent years there have been no examples of the sort that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Those who wish to be shadow Chancellor give up interests that might conflict.
The Prime Minister writes in the forward to the code that he expects Ministers
"to work within the letter and spirit of the Code", but it is clear that Ministers need a little more help. It may be that they find it hard to ask for or accept advice from their senior civil servant. Perhaps the evidence that the Public Administration Committee received from Sir Robin Mountfield shows that senior civil servants also find the present position difficult. The culture is changing from one where people used to resign quite readily to one where they hardly ever do.
The issues that cause the difficulty are not so much those where there is a clear disaster in the Department or a clear problem resulting from a Minister's work. The real problems are the cases of actual or perceived conflict of interest. Those are the ones where the new adviser would be most useful, bringing an independent element, available at an early stage, before the Minister acts ill-advisedly. As Mr. Heath pointed out in an excellent and measured contribution, what is the point of rules if they are not properly policed and if independent advice is not available?
It is not good enough to wait until Parliament is asking questions and the media are sniffing about. We need proper advice for Ministers at an early stage. I like the recommendation about the panel of investigators too, for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and others made clear, but the new adviser would be useful to Ministers in a range of ways on questions not just about their own position, but about spouses, relatives and the like. The outside world sees conflicts of interest and expects them to be stopped. Often the Government do not recognise them. Independence is vital in terms of advice and oversight, because often the Prime Minister is not a neutral and disinterested arbiter.
When the Labour party took £1 million from motor racing and then delayed the ban on tobacco advertising, it was the Prime Minister who was in the front line having to defend that. It seemed like a conflict of interest, but he said:
"I'm a regular kind of guy", and somehow it was not a problem. It was he who wrote the controversial letter in the Mittalgate scandal, asking a foreign Government for a contract for a Labour donor. It seemed like a conflict of interest, but he said no, it was not.
When Peter Mandelson accepted a loan of £373,000 from Mr. Robinson to buy a house in Notting Hill, he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and had oversight of inquiries into the hon. Gentleman's business dealings. It seemed like a conflict of interest, but not to the Prime Minister. It must have done to Mr. Mandelson, because he resigned—but not to the Prime Minister, who said he had done nothing wrong. In the Hinduja passport affair, where wealthy brothers donated £1 million to the faith zone of the dome when Peter Mandelson was the Minister, he called the then Minister with responsibility for immigration matters, now the Solicitor-General, Mr. O'Brien, to inquire about their passport applications, which I believe were then granted. It seemed like a conflict of interest. Mr. Mandelson resigned, but the Prime Minister said that he had done nothing wrong.
Then we come to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and shares owned in a company bidding for work in his Department. It seemed like a conflict of interest. The right hon. Gentleman resigned, but the Prime Minister said that he had done nothing wrong, except that there had been a technical breach, and he left office without a stain on his character. On each of those occasions, there was a public perception of a conflict of interest and a Prime Minister in denial. It would be much better if we had a robust and transparent process with an independent element of investigation and advice, which would deter Ministers from sailing too close to the wind and enable them to take independent advice confidentially and without involving their civil servants. The funny thing is that although the Government have agreed to that step, they will not approve the motion.
I keep reminding the hon. Gentleman that the motion does not propose the appointment of an independent investigator, which is sensible. It proposes the appointment of an "Adviser on Ministerial Interests", which is not sensible. I agree neither with the Opposition nor with the Government, who have, however, agreed to the proposal.
The Government have agreed to such an appointment, but they keep dragging their heels, as they do over a civil service Bill. The Prime Minister does not like independent oversight and does not want to be fettered, but it is time for Ministers to make that change and for Parliament to have an extra independent element.
The debate has not been especially long for a variety of reasons, but we heard some high quality contributions from Back Benchers.
On the points made by Mr. Heath, we continually review the ministerial code, which is published after each general election. We take account of suggestions and recommendations from various Committees, including the Public Administration Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The precedent has been established, and I think that it will continue, because it would be remarkable if that procedure were turned on its head.
The hon. Gentleman made a fair speech and tried not to sound supercilious, but I remind him that a halo needs to slip only a foot or two to become a noose. It would be interesting to know whether the Liberal Democrats intend to return the £2.4 million dodgy donation from a Swiss bank account in line with his comments this evening.
Both Opposition and Government Members acknowledge that my hon. Friend Dr. Wright speaks with an enormous amount of experience and authority—he keeps Front Benchers on both sides of the House on their toes with his analysis and his experience. He has announced the PAC investigation into who regulates the regulators, and we will pay close attention to the evidence and the PAC's recommendations, as we always do and always should do.
The Cabinet Office has a vested interest, because it is responsible for the better regulation agenda. At least 12 organisations oversee the probity and ethics of the body politic, and the question is whether we need a 13th—my hon. Friend's Committee may make such a recommendation. My hon. Friend is right that enhancing public faith in politicians from all parties and in Governments—this one, the previous one and any future one—will not be achieved by tinkering with the details of the ministerial code. Although the ministerial code will continue to evolve, it is not a silver bullet to maintain public faith in politics. A much wider debate is taking place not only in this country and this Parliament, but across the world about the connection between the elector and the elected, and all Governments and Opposition parties across the world are grappling with it. I think that faith in politics and the political process will be enhanced not by tinkering with the ministerial code but by delivering real improvements in people's lives and then connecting those improvements to decisions that the Government, whom they have elected, have taken in respect of unemployment, the economy and investment in schools. Such improvements will drive up trust and faith in politics and the political process much more than any squabble across the Dispatch Box about independent assessment of business regulation and the ministerial code.
Sir George Young again demonstrated his enormous experience. We have been helped by the fact that although there were only two Back-Bench speeches they came from the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, both of whom made important and detailed suggestions. Instead of making a knee-jerk response to the right hon. Gentleman, I will reflect on some of the specifics that he mentioned and offer a more considered response. He mentioned the propriety and ethics team in the Cabinet Office. I add my tribute to the work of the men and women in that team. I will not be alone in thinking that we should have heard the right hon. Gentleman's speech delivered from the Front Bench instead of the two speeches that we did hear.
Chris Grayling started by saying that he did not want to rake over old coals, and then proceeded to do so. Again, he behaved like a copywriter for the Daily Mail or, on a good day, The Mail on Sunday. He was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase on the issue of demanding resignations based on ministerial conduct. I am not able to name and shame the hon. Gentleman on specifics, but he generally uses the tried and tested approach of demanding action based on growing concern expressed in the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday. That concern gets into those newspapers because he issues a press release demanding action on it, so the concern that he says is growing is one of his own creation.
For example, the hon. Gentleman wrote to Ministers challenging the use of public funds on a flight by the Prime Minister to Singapore and then on to Riyadh. I imagine that the Prime Minister must have been in Singapore supporting the 2012 Olympic bid, and I know that he was in Riyadh for a very good reason. The response to the allegation is that there are no scheduled flights between Riyadh and Singapore. Once again, an accusation made publicly in the press turns out to be founded on nothing but speculation and tittle-tattle. That is only the latest example of the hon. Gentleman performing that sort of activity.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we do not yet have a civil service Act. However, we now have a draft civil service Bill on which we have consulted. In 18 years of Conservative government, we had neither a Bill nor a consultation. The hon. Gentleman, like others, will have to be a good deal more patient. We have waited 148 years for the draft Bill, and he can wait a little longer.
In previous years, a debate on Government ethics and ministerial conduct would have taken place in a packed Chamber. It would have been tense and highly charged, with the cut and thrust of a parliamentary event. This evening's debate was attended by perhaps 10 Members, although I am sure that everyone else had important business to attend to.
Surely the Parliamentary Secretary accepts that we are asking the Government to do something that they promised to do. It is obvious that nobody believes that that will happen.
In the hon. Gentleman's winding-up speech, he argued for something that was not even in the motion and had to be clarified from the Labour Back Benches. It is a short motion but he managed to fail to understand what it demanded. He made up a whole speech on an entirely different matter, which did not appear in the motion.
Opposition Members mentioned complacency, but only six Opposition Back Benchers were present this evening. That does not suggest great demand to discuss—or difficulty with—issues of propriety and public service. However, the idea that there is complacency about those matters is wide of the mark. We are clearing up many of the issues that the Conservatives left unresolved in the 1990s. We are the first Government to publish the ministerial code, introduce a Freedom of Information Act and clean up party political funding. It is clear that those measures have helped to increase public trust in politics and will continue to do that.
Earlier, my hon. Friend Mr. Kemp asked whether the Opposition would abide by some of rules and regulations that they understandably expect Ministers to obey. Mr. Heald was silent on the matter. Will he confirm that all members of the shadow Cabinet will voluntarily or collectively adhere to a similar set of principles to those by which Ministers are expected to abide?
I am sorry if the Parliamentary Secretary was not listening but I answered the question. I said that the report to which he referred was from some years ago and that the practice now is, as I described, in line with the principles.
The Parliamentary Secretary knows that I have listened to the whole debate. It is a bit rich for him to talk about the principles to which Ministers adhere. When I asked him to define the seven principles of public life, he could not relate one. I know that the list has now been sent down from the Box. Would he like to read them out simply to fill up the next three minutes? The other Ministers present might be enlightened about the principles by which they are meant to be living.
The hon. Lady is one of the few who attended the whole debate. [hon. Members: "Read them out."] I shall not read them out. Time will not allow me to do that.
In his winding-up speech, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred to the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. My right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett visited my constituency during the election campaign. He had a good campaign visit. However, one lady in particular was very keen to meet him. She approached him and said, "Mr. Blunkett, I'm delighted that you've come to East Renfrewshire. I wanted to meet you to tell you how much I dislike you." I do not know how many hon. Members have shared such a campaign experience. Of course, my right hon. Friend committed a technical breach of the ministerial code and he paid for it with his political career. That is a heavy price.
However, I reiterate that it is a world away from Conservative Members being paid to ask questions in the Chamber with brown envelopes in their pockets. It is a different world from former Conservative Cabinet Ministers occupying Belmarsh rather than the Opposition Benches—as I said earlier, Belmarsh was on the verge of setting up its own Conservative Association because so many Conservatives were being locked up there. It is a far cry from Ministers having to resign because they were trying to block investigations into the cash-for-questions inquiry.
The fact is that we have introduced a whole series of firsts: the first ministerial code; the first Freedom of Information Act; the first draft civil service Bill—
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Mr Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House acknowledges that, amongst other measures, this Government introduced a requirement for individual Ministers, on appointment to each new office, to provide their Permanent Secretary with a full list in writing of all interests which might be thought to give rise to a conflict; welcomes the section of the Ministerial Code on handling Ministers' private interests which is more comprehensive than Questions of Procedure for Ministers; and recognises that this Government has agreed to appoint an independent adviser to provide Permanent Secretaries and Ministers with an additional source of professional advice as required and will make an announcement on this shortly.