Ministerial Code

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:31 pm on 15th November 2005.

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Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State 9:31 pm, 15th November 2005

The hon. Gentleman can look at Hansard, but I offered every possible co-operation and received nothing in return.

In 2003, the Committee on Standards in Public Life made those two recommendations. The Government accepted the need for an adviser on ministerial interests. It is extraordinary that the Minister felt it necessary to rake up all the old dirt from years ago, as we are suggesting that he should do something to which the Government have already agreed. Even so, they still will not establish such a post. The heart of the problem concerns the Prime Minister and his wish to remain unfettered by controls such as a civil service Bill and an independent mechanism to monitor compliance with the code. We could probably achieve consensus on a range of measures, so it is sad that the Prime Minister should say that the Government are not prepared to go down that route.

The Prime Minister's involvement in various incidents in recent years demonstrates why the problem has arisen. When the committee made its recommendation two years ago, it did not allow it to rest. Sir Alistair Graham has said on three recent occasions that the matter must be pursued. He said so at the beginning of this Parliament, and he said so again in July, when the code was issued, even though his committee was not consulted about it. He made the point, however, that we should have a ministerial adviser. During the recent troubles of Mr. Blunkett he made the point again. In The Independent on Sunday he said:

"In the end it is a matter of style, tone and leadership of the Prime Minister. In the end, that's the central issue".

He said that those rules should be strictly adhered so that

"everybody knows that if they step out of line, they won't get a second chance."

Sir Alistair went on to say that if, as the Prime Minister has done,

"you sign up to a foreword to the Ministerial Code in which you expect ministers not only to sign up to the letter but the spirit as well . . . then if your actions don't live up to those words you're in danger of getting criticised and being perceived to be weak . . . and there is a danger that the Prime Minister could be under that charge".

Sir Alistair does not take the same view as the Prime Minister of the incident involving the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside. He asks:

"How many people in this country have the opportunity to invest £15,000 to possibly get back £300,000 within a few months' time? . . . You can give a rather obscure and muddied message about ethical standards. These issues in the end are always matters of leadership."

He made the point that Parliament and the entire political class will suffer a serious loss of confidence if they do not take those issues seriously. I am not suggesting that we should make changes just for the sake of it.