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

Lord Neill made his recommendation some years ago. The hon. Gentleman may wish to know that since that time hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench have taken advice from the Parliamentary Commissioner on these matters, and in recent years there have been no examples of the sort that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Those who wish to be shadow Chancellor give up interests that might conflict.

The Prime Minister writes in the forward to the code that he expects Ministers

"to work within the letter and spirit of the Code", but it is clear that Ministers need a little more help. It may be that they find it hard to ask for or accept advice from their senior civil servant. Perhaps the evidence that the Public Administration Committee received from Sir Robin Mountfield shows that senior civil servants also find the present position difficult. The culture is changing from one where people used to resign quite readily to one where they hardly ever do.

The issues that cause the difficulty are not so much those where there is a clear disaster in the Department or a clear problem resulting from a Minister's work. The real problems are the cases of actual or perceived conflict of interest. Those are the ones where the new adviser would be most useful, bringing an independent element, available at an early stage, before the Minister acts ill-advisedly. As Mr. Heath pointed out in an excellent and measured contribution, what is the point of rules if they are not properly policed and if independent advice is not available?

It is not good enough to wait until Parliament is asking questions and the media are sniffing about. We need proper advice for Ministers at an early stage. I like the recommendation about the panel of investigators too, for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and others made clear, but the new adviser would be useful to Ministers in a range of ways on questions not just about their own position, but about spouses, relatives and the like. The outside world sees conflicts of interest and expects them to be stopped. Often the Government do not recognise them. Independence is vital in terms of advice and oversight, because often the Prime Minister is not a neutral and disinterested arbiter.

When the Labour party took £1 million from motor racing and then delayed the ban on tobacco advertising, it was the Prime Minister who was in the front line having to defend that. It seemed like a conflict of interest, but he said:

"I'm a regular kind of guy", and somehow it was not a problem. It was he who wrote the controversial letter in the Mittalgate scandal, asking a foreign Government for a contract for a Labour donor. It seemed like a conflict of interest, but he said no, it was not.

When Peter Mandelson accepted a loan of £373,000 from Mr. Robinson to buy a house in Notting Hill, he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and had oversight of inquiries into the hon. Gentleman's business dealings. It seemed like a conflict of interest, but not to the Prime Minister. It must have done to Mr. Mandelson, because he resigned—but not to the Prime Minister, who said he had done nothing wrong. In the Hinduja passport affair, where wealthy brothers donated £1 million to the faith zone of the dome when Peter Mandelson was the Minister, he called the then Minister with responsibility for immigration matters, now the Solicitor-General, Mr. O'Brien, to inquire about their passport applications, which I believe were then granted. It seemed like a conflict of interest. Mr. Mandelson resigned, but the Prime Minister said that he had done nothing wrong.

Then we come to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and shares owned in a company bidding for work in his Department. It seemed like a conflict of interest. The right hon. Gentleman resigned, but the Prime Minister said that he had done nothing wrong, except that there had been a technical breach, and he left office without a stain on his character. On each of those occasions, there was a public perception of a conflict of interest and a Prime Minister in denial. It would be much better if we had a robust and transparent process with an independent element of investigation and advice, which would deter Ministers from sailing too close to the wind and enable them to take independent advice confidentially and without involving their civil servants. The funny thing is that although the Government have agreed to that step, they will not approve the motion.