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

Yes, and is it not interesting to note that the forerunner of the ministerial code was published in 1917 under the prime ministership of David Lloyd George—a great Prime Minister of this country, but someone who was prepared to sell peerages in return for donations? Well, that could never happen now, could it? At least Lloyd George had the clarity and transparency to provide a clear tariff, so everyone knew what was happening, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point.

The Minister said earlier that sleaze was endemic in the Major Government. It may have been, but many of us are concerned to prevent that endemic disease from becoming a pandemic, in which all political parties are seen in exactly the same light as that historical position in respect of the Conservative party under Major. Complacency is greatly misplaced on this matter, as it does not take much to cause a generalised infection. I would like to quote a gentleman called Paul Masefield, speaking on Star Sports channel:

"One bad apple in the dressing room and everything can go pear-shaped."

Yes, it can, and the Minister should be aware of that.

Let us examine what the ministerial code says. Much of what it says is good. For example, it states under paragraph 1.5 that Ministers are required

"to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life."

Absolutely right. Under paragraph 1.5.f, it states:

"Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests".

Again, that is absolutely right. Then there is clear—I think, unambiguous—advice under paragraph 5.29:

"On leaving office, Ministers should seek advice from the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments about any appointments they wish to take up within two years of leaving office."

I find it very difficult to understand how anyone could misunderstand that particular provision.

In some aspects, then, the ministerial code is well constructed, but I could also cite paragraph 1.3, which states:

"The Code is not a rule book, and it is not the role of the Secretary of the Cabinet or other officials to enforce it or to investigate Ministers, although they may provide Ministers with private advice on matters which it covers."

The question that people outside the House are asking is: what is the point of having rules if no one is enforcing them? The answer from the Government, of course, is that the Prime Minister enforces those rules. Well, the Prime Minister has many qualities—some good, some bad. One of his qualities that many would consider admirable is loyalty to his colleagues, but such loyalty is not a substitute for policing the ministerial code in the manner in which it should be policed. On the basis of the investigations that the Prime Minister has carried out into Cabinet colleagues over recent years, I have to say that the only possible conclusion that one can reach is that the code can be breached with impunity. That should not happen and it reflects badly on the Prime Minister as well other members of his Government.

Mr. Jackson, who is no longer in his place, argued earlier that Ministers were more lightly policed in respect of their adherence to standards in public life than the average parish councillor. How can that be right? How can it be that Ministers who wield enormous powers over the budgets that they control and who take such important decisions are more lightly policed in respect of standards of public life than a parish councillor who, with the best will in the world, controls very little beyond some donations to the local village hall or the local recreation field? That is a matter of genuine concern, and I simply do not accept the defence of inadvertence. Explicit advice is given in the ministerial code, and if Cabinet Ministers are inadvertent as to what they should be doing, frankly, they are not fit to be Ministers of Cabinet rank.

So what can be done? First, we should have a debate along the lines of our perennial Standing Committee debates, in which it is often said of a particular Bill that we should delete "may" and insert "must". The ministerial code should say not that a Minister "should" do something, but that a Minister "must" do something. Secondly, there must be an absolute ban on Ministers taking up paid directorships or employment for two years following their leaving office, unless the advisory committee has said that doing so is acceptable. Such behaviour is incredibly corrosive. If Ministers are seen to be walking away from their Departments and joining companies with interests that are directly relevant to the Departments that they have just left, every civil servant will ask, "Why can't we do the same?" Every member of the armed forces who works in procurement will ask, "Why can't we do the same?" Every time that such things happen, the public's confidence that decisions are being taken with the proper interests of the country in mind is damaged.

I set aside the question of why it is assumed that a Minister has to have a highly paid job on leaving office. I take the puritanical view that I am a Member of Parliament, and that is my job. I do not see the need to have additional jobs, but I know that other Members take different views on the appropriateness or otherwise of paid employment. What is absolutely clear is that Ministers get generous severance pay on leaving office. Indeed, sometimes they get severance pay several times over, which is another matter that we might consider.