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Ministerial Code - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 3:18 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, the greatest tribute that can be paid to my noble friend Lord Tyler in securing this debate is the quality of the speeches we have heard and the embedded wisdom of the contributors so far. Today’s debate has at its heart the concept of governance—that interconnected system of laws and conventions that enable society to work.

Norms and conventions change. Hugh Dalton lost his job as Chancellor for a few indiscreet words to a journalist on his way into this Chamber to deliver his Budget; the other one was out of commission at the time. The leak to the Sunday Times the weekend before the Budget has almost become a tradition in its own right.

Times change—today a lot of the old conventions no longer hold across our society. In the City we no longer rely on “my word is my bond” or a twitch of the Governor of the Bank of England’s eyebrow to guarantee financial probity. In Parliament and government, the understanding that we are all honourable does not carry the weight that it did. Of course, Sir Mark Sedwill was right when he told a Select Committee that it was the expectation that

“professional people conduct professional relationships”.

But that expectation must be underpinned by clear rules of behaviour for those who have power, and protection for those whose duty it is to speak truth to power.

I recently signed up to the “Valuing Everyone” course that the noble Lord, Lord Young, referred to, organised by the House authorities. Do Ministers, on taking office, have any similar training programme? I do not mean just handing them the code; I mean a training programme. When I was chair of the YJB, I did such a training programme as part of the MoJ’s in-house staff relations programme.

We have heard a lot about special advisers, and I hope the Minister will clarify the role of special advisers and the lines of responsibility to them. As has been said, the Ministerial Code is very clear that

“the conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment.”

That is clearly no longer the case. Special advisers are now under the central direction of Mr Dominic Cummings, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, has indicated. Can the Minister say, given the power that Mr Cummings now has, whether there is any reason, other than his own contempt for Parliament, why he should not give evidence before a Parliamentary committee examining these matters?

Just over 20 years ago I was a member of a Select Committee of this House under the chairmanship of the late Lord Slynn of Hadley. We were looking into the state of the public service, after the change of Government in 1997. Our findings were clear; we received much evidence testifying to the

“high standards of efficiency, integrity, impartiality and intellectual rigour which continue to characterise the Civil Service.”

Incidentally, many of our recommendations were somewhat belatedly included in the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, to which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred. I still believe our findings are true of our Civil Service and civil servants.

It is probably time for the Lords to establish another Select Committee to look again at these matters, and how they are affecting our public service. I could think of no better chair than the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale. What has been emphasised time and again is that the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service. His recent foreword to the code was full of fine words; but he will be judged on his actions, and he cannot outsource these responsibilities to Dominic Cummings.