It is a pleasure to follow Dr. Wright, who speaks with great authority, conviction and knowledge on the subject. I concur particularly with what he said towards the end, but I wonder whether he asked himself the right rhetorical question halfway through his speech. The question he posed was whether public trust and confidence in us was increased as a result of what he described as the crowded field of ethical regulators. He concluded that, although standards may have risen, public confidence had decreased. The real question is where would public confidence have been if we had not responded to the concerns over the past 20 or 30 years and done nothing—if we had not set up the Register of Members' Interests and the House procedures to deal with MPs' conduct. If we had not responded as we have, public trust in us would be lower than it is at the moment.
Earlier in the debate, a number of hon. Members wandered down memory lane and exhumed unhappy incidents in the Conservative party's past. I am not sure whether the House is at its best when it engages in such exercises. Despite the incidents that have been shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, I do not take the view that Ministers in this Government are basically sleazy, any more than those in the Major Government were. The Minister was on rather thin ice when he tried to claim some moral superiority for this Administration.
Fallibility is politically neutral. One or two individuals in both parties have made mistakes and paid a price. That has not infected the integrity of the political process in this country. By any international or historical standards, the integrity of the process of government in this country is remarkably high. We have a vigilant and at times over-intrusive press, a basically apolitical civil service, a fairly transparent decision-making process and an effective system of parliamentary accountability through Select Committees. As a result, there is a very high chance indeed that any irregularity will come to light, and when it does, judgment can be swift and harsh.
I agree, however, with those hon. Members who have said that there is no room for complacency. There is scope for improvement, not least because the perception outside the House is very different from the reality; and in our business, perception is crucial. That is why I welcome this debate on oversight of the ministerial code, which has a role to play in improving the perception, but it will not do so it on its own. In addition to an up-to-date and properly enforced ministerial code, the Government need to take action on party funding and, in particular, to put a cap on large donations, which would, in turn, remove any suspicion that money secures a place in the House of Lords or influences Government policy. We need a civil service Act, for which there is still no timetable, to regulate the interface between the Government and the civil service and, in particular, to clarify the role of special advisers.
You have indicated, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you do not want a digression into the Meyer memoirs, but paragraphs 9.17 and 9.18 of the ministerial code deal with the publication of ministerial memoirs. All that I would say in passing is that, if Lord Armstrong and Lord Butler are correct when they assert that the relationship between Ministers and civil servants is threatened if memoirs break confidences, that is true irrespective of whether the confidence is broken by one side or the other. There is a strong argument for a level playing field because at the moment people see Ministers publishing their memoirs without any consequences, but if a civil servant does that, having apparently gone through the requisite procedures, he is criticised without restraint by the Foreign Secretary on the "Today" programme. The rules should be consistently drafted and applied right across the board, but that does not seem to be the case at the moment.
I want to devote the substance of my brief remarks to comparing the enforcement of the code with which we are all familiar—the code for Members of Parliament, which was revised in July—with that for Ministers to determine whether we can learn from each other. Both codes have the common purpose of promoting high standards of conduct in public life, but they have important differences. One is the property of the House, while the other is the personal property of the Prime Minister—we enforce ours and he enforces his. That reflects the different lines of accountability: that of Ministers to the Prime Minister for their appointment and, indeed, survival, and ours to our electorate through the House.
There are differences, however. Members have security of tenure and a complaint against a Member usually does not precipitate a collapse in confidence in him or her. Allegations against Ministers are slightly different because collective responsibility means that they have the potential of spreading to the Government as a whole, which risks a more generalised crisis of confidence.
There are two key procedural differences. First, the House has built its procedures around a strong independent component: the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. His report is always published alongside that of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, and if the Committee disagrees with him, it must say so and explain why. The fact that that strong independent element is built into our system enhances the credibility and integrity of our self-disciplinary procedures. The second difference is that we have clear rules and procedures on how our system works. For those who are interested, they are available in detail on the Parliamentary Commissioner's website. Neither of those two key features is present in the ministerial code, which weakens its impact and credibility.
Taking the second point first, the enforcement of the ministerial code is shrouded in secrecy. In the polite language of the Library brief on today's debate:
"the Code is silent on the means by which allegations should be investigated."
Indeed, paragraph 4.77 of the Neill report says:
"In our view, while the Parliamentary route is well-defined by established procedures, the procedure for holding Ministers to account by the public is less clear".
The follow-up report in 2003 of the Committee on Standards in Public Life advocated mechanisms for investigating alleged misconduct by Ministers, which brings me to the second difference between the codes: the lack of an independent element.
In the 1997 Parliament, I had reason to believe that a junior Foreign Office Minister had broken the code, so I wrote to the Prime Minister, as custodian of his code. He did not investigate the matter, but passed the letter to Robin Cook, the then Foreign Secretary, who exonerated his colleague of any breach. We need not debate now whether there was a breach of the code, but what cannot be right is the process. The Prime Minister played no part in seeing whether his code had been observed. That was sub-contracted not to an independent observer, but to the Cabinet Minister of the Department in which the alleged breach took place. When I gave evidence to the Neill Committee, it shared my concern about what I called the circularity of the procedure.
The new code that was published in July does not address either of those two weaknesses. It rejects the recommendations on an independent element that were made by what had by then become the Wicks committee, and there is no clarity on procedure. There has been minor drafting amendment to allow for the possibility of external advice on Ministers' private interests, but the Government rejected the recommendation that two or three senior individuals should be appointed at the beginning of each Parliament to be available to investigate allegations of ministerial misconduct.
One advantage of having clear and well-publicised procedures for handling complaints against MPs is that when questions about Members arise, they can be considered in a way that takes them—at least temporarily—out of the party political arena. If similar processes could be established in the ministerial area, it would be to the advantage of all parties as well as to the benefit of the public standing of politics in general.
Another feature of our own arrangements is the ready availability to Members of impartial advice on their obligations under the code and rules. While permanent secretaries advice their Ministers on obligations under the code, they are not in turn supported by a source of independent advice about tricky cases to which both they and Ministers themselves can turn. The Minister might argue that the propriety and ethics team at the Cabinet Office—a body of men that the hon. Member for Cannock Chase omitted to mention when he described the regulatory field—already performs that function, but I am not sure that it would be seen to be independent.
The Wicks committee, which has of course now become the Graham committee, has expressed regret at the Government's decision not to proceed with the recommendations. The chairman set out his views in more detail in The Independent on Sunday on
The Government amendment has a welcome element, although they have never explained why they have taken so long to make progress, but the more that I listened to the Minister explain why the Government were rejecting the other recommendation about the independent panel, the less obvious the gap was between what the Government are now doing and what the Graham committee is advocating. The Prime Minister is prepared to draw on independent people in certain cases to investigate, and if so, what is the difficulty about the recommendation? I have high hopes that the new head of the civil service will apply his mind to those issues, and I am sure that the Public Administration Committee will want to review the matter.
I end on the point that independence and clarity are key features of the system of holding Ministers and Members to account. The system that the House has developed for its own procedures has that element of independence and clarity. I do not think that the ministerial code does so, and for that reason I hope that it may be further amended.