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Ministerial Code - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 3:08 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, when I saw that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, had secured this debate—on which I congratulate him—I thought it would be incomplete without the participation of a former Cabinet Secretary. After all, we have been the guardians of this document down the years. Its origins were contemporaneous with the creation of the post of Cabinet Secretary. It was first intended by Sir Maurice Hankey not for Ministers but as a guide for officials on how to organise Cabinet and Cabinet committee business—Ministers probably never saw it. It was Prime Minister Attlee who extended it to Ministers, not so much to guide their behaviour as to increase their efficiency. Then, from the 1960s, under the title Questions of Procedure for Ministers, it hugely expanded. It has borne the footmarks of almost every ministerial scandal over the years, as well as other developments in our community. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, whom we miss today, was the one who found out about the document and waged a gallant campaign to have it published, which was successful when Prime Minister Major agreed to publish it in 1992. I was Cabinet Secretary at the time and I warned the Prime Minister that its publication would cause him and his successors trouble, which it duly has, but I do think it was right.

Now that Ministers have to be accountable for their behaviour not just to the Prime Minister but to the media and the public, it is right that there should be published standards to which they are expected to adhere. In my view, the availability of such standards in published form does contribute to the honesty of British public life. As has been said, this document has come into prominence again because of the allegations surrounding the behaviour of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Like others, I do not wish to comment on that case, of which I do not know the details, but I will conclude with two general points. The first is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, pointed out, the latest version of the code is dated August 2019, when the present Prime Minister came into office, and he says in his personal foreword:

“We must uphold the very highest standards of propriety … There must be no bullying and no harassment … The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document … must be honoured at all times, as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.”

Those words are very welcome, and we must assume that the Prime Minister means what he said.

My second point is that some media comments have suggested an absolutist application of the code. If a Minister has breached the code, they suggest, he or she must, for that reason, lose their post. That seems a clearly unreasonable approach. There must be, in this as in other things, a range of gravity in breaches of the code and then in the response to them. It is like school rules, and the code is like school rules. Some breaches will be so serious and so damaging to the community that they can be dealt with only by exclusion. Some will be less serious and can be dealt with by an uncomfortable interview with the head teacher and an undertaking about future behaviour.

I do not know whether the Home Secretary has breached the ministerial code and, if she has, the gravity of the breach, but if she has, I suggest that the consequences should depend on that question: what is the gravity of the breach? It should not be a binary decision. Pace the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I believe that the Prime Minister must be the judge of that. The code is not a legal document; this is not a legal process. The final arbiter about the Government are the public, but the final arbiter about who should be members of the Government must be the Prime Minister who leads them.