Ministerial Code

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:46 pm on 15th November 2005.

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Photo of Jim Murphy Jim Murphy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Cabinet Office) 9:46 pm, 15th November 2005

The debate has not been especially long for a variety of reasons, but we heard some high quality contributions from Back Benchers.

On the points made by Mr. Heath, we continually review the ministerial code, which is published after each general election. We take account of suggestions and recommendations from various Committees, including the Public Administration Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The precedent has been established, and I think that it will continue, because it would be remarkable if that procedure were turned on its head.

The hon. Gentleman made a fair speech and tried not to sound supercilious, but I remind him that a halo needs to slip only a foot or two to become a noose. It would be interesting to know whether the Liberal Democrats intend to return the £2.4 million dodgy donation from a Swiss bank account in line with his comments this evening.

Both Opposition and Government Members acknowledge that my hon. Friend Dr. Wright speaks with an enormous amount of experience and authority—he keeps Front Benchers on both sides of the House on their toes with his analysis and his experience. He has announced the PAC investigation into who regulates the regulators, and we will pay close attention to the evidence and the PAC's recommendations, as we always do and always should do.

The Cabinet Office has a vested interest, because it is responsible for the better regulation agenda. At least 12 organisations oversee the probity and ethics of the body politic, and the question is whether we need a 13th—my hon. Friend's Committee may make such a recommendation. My hon. Friend is right that enhancing public faith in politicians from all parties and in Governments—this one, the previous one and any future one—will not be achieved by tinkering with the details of the ministerial code. Although the ministerial code will continue to evolve, it is not a silver bullet to maintain public faith in politics. A much wider debate is taking place not only in this country and this Parliament, but across the world about the connection between the elector and the elected, and all Governments and Opposition parties across the world are grappling with it. I think that faith in politics and the political process will be enhanced not by tinkering with the ministerial code but by delivering real improvements in people's lives and then connecting those improvements to decisions that the Government, whom they have elected, have taken in respect of unemployment, the economy and investment in schools. Such improvements will drive up trust and faith in politics and the political process much more than any squabble across the Dispatch Box about independent assessment of business regulation and the ministerial code.

Sir George Young again demonstrated his enormous experience. We have been helped by the fact that although there were only two Back-Bench speeches they came from the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, both of whom made important and detailed suggestions. Instead of making a knee-jerk response to the right hon. Gentleman, I will reflect on some of the specifics that he mentioned and offer a more considered response. He mentioned the propriety and ethics team in the Cabinet Office. I add my tribute to the work of the men and women in that team. I will not be alone in thinking that we should have heard the right hon. Gentleman's speech delivered from the Front Bench instead of the two speeches that we did hear.

Chris Grayling started by saying that he did not want to rake over old coals, and then proceeded to do so. Again, he behaved like a copywriter for the Daily Mail or, on a good day, The Mail on Sunday. He was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase on the issue of demanding resignations based on ministerial conduct. I am not able to name and shame the hon. Gentleman on specifics, but he generally uses the tried and tested approach of demanding action based on growing concern expressed in the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday. That concern gets into those newspapers because he issues a press release demanding action on it, so the concern that he says is growing is one of his own creation.

For example, the hon. Gentleman wrote to Ministers challenging the use of public funds on a flight by the Prime Minister to Singapore and then on to Riyadh. I imagine that the Prime Minister must have been in Singapore supporting the 2012 Olympic bid, and I know that he was in Riyadh for a very good reason. The response to the allegation is that there are no scheduled flights between Riyadh and Singapore. Once again, an accusation made publicly in the press turns out to be founded on nothing but speculation and tittle-tattle. That is only the latest example of the hon. Gentleman performing that sort of activity.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we do not yet have a civil service Act. However, we now have a draft civil service Bill on which we have consulted. In 18 years of Conservative government, we had neither a Bill nor a consultation. The hon. Gentleman, like others, will have to be a good deal more patient. We have waited 148 years for the draft Bill, and he can wait a little longer.

In previous years, a debate on Government ethics and ministerial conduct would have taken place in a packed Chamber. It would have been tense and highly charged, with the cut and thrust of a parliamentary event. This evening's debate was attended by perhaps 10 Members, although I am sure that everyone else had important business to attend to.