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Ministerial Code - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:39 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 3:39 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, many of whose thoughtful remarks struck a chord not only with the House in general but with me. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for giving us this further opportunity to debate the Ministerial Code. I have been a Minister for less than a month; in that time, I have signed the Ministerial Code and responded three times to your Lordships on this subject. I am therefore left in little doubt that it is a matter of importance and one in which your Lordships, quite rightly, take a great interest from a position of great experience.

I will try to answer as many questions as possible that have quite reasonably been raised in the debate, but perhaps I might offer a preface. Here I echo some of the comments made by a number of those who have spoken. We must strive to secure good governance, which means that Ministers and officials work well and harmoniously together. That is the aim of effective administration, and it is from that sense of a shared objective that good decisions and implementation should follow.

I was there in 1992 when Prime Minister Major agreed to publish the Questions of Procedure for Ministers. I suspect that some of us on the political side probably gave similar advice to the noble Lord. However, we must not overdramatise; we must recognise the issues that we have to address, some of which have been raised in this debate. In general, however, the quality of governance in this country—I do not accept, as some noble Lords put forward, that a dramatic new kind of cowboy Administration have come in—and the standards are extraordinarily high, and we do not serve good governance by denying that or overdramatising the situation. I was asked whether I wanted to defend the indefensible: I do not think that I am defending the indefensible when I say that governance generally operates well, and the Ministerial Code is part of that.

When an Administration change and when a new Prime Minister comes in, it has always been the case that there is a challenge. I remember talking to the noble Lord, Lord Butler, two days before the change of administration in 1997, saying to him, “Here you are at this stage of your career; a change of Government will present a great career challenge.” The noble Lord quite rightly relished that. Of course, we all know that history proved that a new Government came in and I am sure that the Conservatives said some of the same things about the incoming Blair Government as are being said today.

That takes me directly to the point made about the position of Mr Cummings and his authority. The cases of Alistair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, who were given direct authority over officials in 1997, is not analogous. Following the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, to which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred—I thank him for his work on that—the position of special advisers was put on a statutory basis, and Mr Cummings’s role is governed by that Act.

Turning to some of the other points that were made, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said about balance and degree. That is inherent in what I just said about not exaggerating the degree of the problem. Every case and every serious allegation that is made must be subject to a testing of the facts. That is the way things are going on currently, which has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. That must always be the case. In any judgment, at the end of the day—I do not refer to this particular case; I refer to any judgment—an element of degree must always come into it, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said.

My noble friend Lord Young asked me a series of questions, some of which he was kind enough to give me notice of, so I will try to answer one or two of them. As far as training is concerned—this issue was raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, at the start—all Lords Ministers have done the Valuing Everyone course or have slots booked to do it. I have done it myself and agree that it is a very valuable and important course; I would encourage everyone to undertake it. There is quite a queue to take the course in this large House, as noble Lords can imagine, but I assure noble Lords that this training is being given. It is vital that all parties in both Houses continue to encourage completion of that training.

On the case of Ms Khan, I cannot comment because it is subject to litigation. I hope that the noble Lord will understand; he has put his point on the record and I am sure that that is there for people to see.

On the point about a story in the Daily Mail, it may surprise some noble Lords in this House that I do not believe everything I read in that paper. I am particularly surprised that my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham is such an aficionado of the Daily Mail, but one lives and learns. I am aware of no such contract. The advice I am given is that Mr Cummings is a special adviser and subject to the special adviser code of conduct.

As far as contractors are concerned—I was away for a week when Mr Sabisky was enjoying his career in government—contractors are subject to the Civil Service code of principles, but again it would be inappropriate for me to comment on a particular vetting status or contractual arrangement applying to an individual. I hope that I have answered, or at least responded to, most of the points that my noble friend made.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, raised the issue of ministerial training and I have sought to respond to that. On the question of the employment of special advisers, I thought we were discussing the Ministerial Code but I will always try to assist your Lordships. On special advisers, the point has been made that, as set out in the 2010 Act, they are selected for appointment by Ministers, and Ministers are ultimately responsible. However, all appointments must be approved by the Prime Minister, and it is inherent in that that the Prime Minister has a role in ensuring that special advisers are appropriate to their appointment and are conducting their activities appropriately. I see nothing particularly sinister in that.

My noble friend Lady Finn made some strong and powerful points, and I am sure that everyone who heard them will reflect on them. I said earlier in my remarks that I think there is a shared challenge in making good governance work. Sometimes there will be robust exchanges and sometimes friendly ones. When a Government come in with a new approach and a new mandate, or are refreshed by a general election, of course it is incumbent on the system to seek to implement in the most expeditious and effective way what that would-be Government have promised to the people.

Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I am not afraid of using the word “people” because ultimately it is from a popular mandate that a Government’s authority arises. It is always interesting to hear a Liberal criticising insurgency; I thought that the beauty of the Liberal Party was that it had always been insurgent.