Ministerial Code

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:57 pm on 15th November 2005.

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Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 7:57 pm, 15th November 2005

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."