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.