Ministerial Code

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:07 pm on 15th November 2005.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 9:07 pm, 15th November 2005

I think that a tiny bit of perspective might be in order. The other day, I read again Roy Jenkins's splendid book on Churchill, in which he described how Churchill received an especially munificent gift from a benefactor. As an aside, Jenkins asks us to think what would have happened if the gift had been offered in the age of the ministerial code or parliamentary commissioner.

In fact, ministerial conduct was not better in the past, but a good deal worse, and both main parties have spent a lot of time on improving matters. Attlee would smile to hear today's debate. After the war, he brought together the assorted bits of procedural guidance for Ministers. He sent around a note to Ministers, in which he said that that collection of guidance might be "convenient" for colleagues.

Attlee's version of the code had 65 paragraphs. By 1997, the code had grown to 135 paragraphs, and its latest edition has 173. The code is now expected to cover everything, from air miles to lottery bids. That shows that a good deal of attention has been given to the document over the years.

Given the exchanges in the debate so far, it is worth remembering that both major parties have strengthened the ministerial code, and also resisted suggestions about how it could be strengthened. I sat on the Opposition Benches in the 1990s, when the Committee on Standards in Public Life had just been set up. One of its first recommendations was that the Prime Minister should take responsibility for the code. The Committee said that it should not be left to Ministers to behave properly, but that the Prime Minister should assume formal responsibility for the code. It should be his document. That proposition was resisted by John Major, with all the authority he had. However, the proposal was incorporated into the code by this Government, so the first section now states that the Prime Minister will take responsibility for the conduct of Ministers. I believe that that is an advance.

I suggest that not only has the ministerial code grown in status and size, but the whole of the ethical regulation of Government has grown. We now have an army of ethical regulators, who have usually been introduced in response to some crisis or scandal. We have the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the public appointments commissioner, the Parliamentary Commissioner For Standards, the advisory committee on business appointments, the civil service commission, a new Electoral Commission—which addresses issues such as party funding that were once seen to be outside any kind of regulatory structure—and a standards board for local government. We have a crowd of ethical regulators and a crowd of codes governing behaviour in various areas. We have a code for Ministers, now published and ever expanding, covering ever more areas. We have a code for civil servants and for special advisers. Now we have demands that some of those codes should be converted into legislation.

It is not as though we have been casual in the matter of the ethical regulation of Government in recent times. Ethical regulation has grown in importance and is now on the scale that I have described. As a result, has trust in Government and the political class increased or decreased? I am afraid that it has decreased, and that is what should concern us in this debate, instead of playing the party games of saying, "Oh, you were worse than we are", and replying, "Oh no, you are worse than we were." That brings the whole of public life down, because it is comfortable for a large section of the public to think that the political class is sleazy and corrupt. The newspapers love to feed the idea that the political class is sleazy and corrupt. It sells newspapers and feeds the popular assumption. We also feed that by always saying that the other lot are more corrupt than we are. We have all been guilty of that. We were guilty of it in the 1990s, although it must be said that we had rich material to work with. In any case, we exploited it for all it was worth, because of the great political dividend it provided. As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, the Conservatives—rationally, from their point of view—said, "Look, we're suffering a great disadvantage in the sleaze stakes, because people think that we are sleazy. It is essential that we make people realise that the new lot are as sleazy as we were." They have had a concerted strategy to achieve that, which is rational in its own terms, but mutually ruinous for the standing of politicians and political life.