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

That is the impression that the hon. Gentleman has given me and many other people. I really am not making a party political point and I am certainly not making a personal point. We would be doing just the same thing. We would have the same knee-jerk reaction: talking up the incident to make it a major constitutional scandal, expressing outrage that standards of conduct in Government had been breached and suggesting that the consequence should be a ministerial head rolling. I merely suggest that that is not an intelligent or sensible way of doing politics—not if we care for the regard in which, on the whole, an uncorrupt political system is held by the people we represent.

I conclude, therefore, that it is not necessary or desirable to think about inventing yet more ethical regulators, as the motion proposes; it would simply be desirable, in terms of the motion, to correct the wording in the ministerial code. If the motion proposed that the words "are advised to" in paragraph 5.3,

"Ministers are advised to provide their Permanent Secretary with a full list . . . of . . . interests", be changed to "should", I would give it my wholehearted support. That is all that is required.

It would diffuse accountability to the House if the proposition is that we introduce another ethical regulator on to such a crowded field, when it is actually entirely clear—or should be—what Ministers should do and what permanent secretaries should do. Once we begin to cloud the process, and other people are involved, accountability is diminished and diffused rather than enhanced.

Earlier, I made the case for an independent investigator, a point that was raised by the Public Administration Committee back in 2001, long before the Committee on Standards in Public Life got involved. For all kinds of reasons, I am as attached to that proposition now as I was then. The time has come to take a fresh look at the whole field of ethical regulation—all the bodies that we set up for particular reasons at particular moments—and to try to sort them out. As part of that sorting out, I hope that we shall introduce an independent investigatory element.

I end by saying that the Prime Minister said that

"no one will be better governed through fine-tuning the ministerial code."—[Hansard, 13 July 2000; Vol. 353, c. 1098.]

I have some sympathy with that view, but people will be better governed if they have more confidence than they now do in the system that we have to maintain probity in government. That is a serious matter; it deserves to be taken seriously, but we are not well served if we play party games with it because we will find that we are all brought down by that and the whole of public life will suffer as a consequence.