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 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.