Ministerial Code

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:19 pm on 15th November 2005.

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Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office) 8:19 pm, 15th November 2005

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 7 November when he said:

"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."