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Ministerial Code - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:29 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, many years ago, when I was a graduate student teacher at an American university, I used to discuss with the students the differences between the British and American constitutions. The American constitution is based on the idea that you cannot entirely trust people in power; you need a carefully written constitution and checks and balances to prevent the unconstrained power of the Executive going too far. It has advantages and disadvantages; sometimes it leads to policy not getting through or even to complete deadlock.

Our system is based on a much more flexible unwritten constitution and what the noble Lord, Lord Young, has called on more than one occasion the “honour code”: that people will behave well in British politics, that the conventions will be respected and that the mechanisms which hold the British establishment together and exclude those who do not accept its rules ensure that people do not behave badly. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has called it the “good chaps theory”. The Lords plays a certain role in this as a backup against the popular House being swept away by a surge of populist enthusiasm; successive Marquesses of Salisbury made many speeches about the quiet, calm deliberation that the Lords could bring to British politics.

Part of our unwritten constitution was the relationship between Ministers and officials. It is not only a British aspect; Max Weber once wrote that the difference between politics and administration is that politics is the realm of campaigning, emotions and principle while administration is the realm of reason, evidence and advice. That is an unavoidable tension, made even more difficult when ministerial turnover in Britain is so extraordinarily high, as it has been in the last few years. Officials have to try to keep the show on the road as Ministers pass through every six, nine or 12 months.

That consensus has clearly broken down. The current Cabinet has two Members—one being the Prime Minister—who have broken the Ministerial Code. Indeed, the Prime Minister broke it in three places when he resigned as Foreign Secretary, extending that by continuing to live in his official residence for a further three weeks. In December 2018 the Committee on Standards in the Commons rebuked him for a “casual failure to declare” £52,000 of expenses. Even old Etonians nowadays do not entirely obey the codes of political and social life.

We have a Government who present themselves as insurgent and anti-establishment. Indeed, they often present the establishment, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord True, approves of, as the “liberal elite.” We have a Government who occasionally describe themselves as post-liberal and even suggest that they have some sympathy with those who have an illiberal approach to democracy. I found the deeply partisan responses to the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam in the Commons very worrying. There was neither a sense that one had to think about the national interest as a whole nor a recognition that politics and campaigning are different from carrying on the complex problems of government.

The will of the people may establish the principle that we should leave the European Union but it cannot decide whether we should leave the European Aviation Safety Agency or the European medical emergency alert process. That is government; it is complicated and needs officials. Therefore, we need to reconsider some of these fundamental issues. I hope the Minister will say something about the Government’s plans for the commission they have promised to hold on the constitution and democracy, so that we can discuss how to adapt our flexible rules and honour codes to a less British-establishment style of politics—which is what we have now achieved—and how the relationship between Ministers and officials, which is at the heart of that, works in a constitution that we do not want to be on the American scale of constitutional restraints, but which we clearly need to revise.