Ministerial Code

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:50 pm on 15th November 2005.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 8:50 pm, 15th November 2005

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.