Ministerial Code

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 29th November 2022.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards 11:00 am, 29th November 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Ministerial Code.

It is a delight to see you in your place, Mr Vickers. I am speaking in my own capacity, and not as Chair of the Standards Committee. The ministerial code is bust; it does not work. Civil servants find it confusing, Ministers do not care about it and Prime Ministers find it irritating. Central to it is the adviser on the ministerial code, but it is now 167 days since Lord Geidt resigned, and I gather the new Prime Minister has offered the post to three people, all of whom have said, “Not on your nelly”. At least two investigations are already pending, but they cannot be investigated because there is no adviser. There cannot be a publication of the ministerial list of interests because there is no adviser. Frankly, the system is broken.

Most importantly, the code does not do what it says. It says that Ministers are expected to observe the seven principles of public life—the Nolan principles. Let us just go through a couple of them. First, transparency. One would think that transparency requires that the public know all interests held by Ministers: what business interests they have, if any; who had invited them to expensive social occasions, such as movie premieres; what clubs give them free membership; who had paid for trips abroad; what charities they were trustees of; and what meetings they had with lobbyists, trade associations or press barons—anything that might affect their decisions as Ministers. One might also expect the interests of Ministers’ spouses and family members to be publicly available, and that all that information would be available within a week or so of any Minister taking up office or acquiring a new financial or personal interest.

That could not be further from the truth. The most recent register of Minister’s interests was published on 31 May this year. It is not an accurate list of Ministers now. It is not even an accurate list of ex-Ministers, or of Ministers who have been Ministers in the intervening period. In case we think that this year they should be forgiven for being in a bit of a mess, because of the terpsichorean dance that has been played in Downing Street—let us face it, many of us do not know who is the Minister for what at the moment, including some Ministers, who do not quite know their areas of responsibility—the list itself is very out of date.

At the best of times, the list is published only once every six months. By contrast, the Commons Register of Members’ Financial Interests is updated every fortnight when the House is sitting. The situation is often even worse with the ministerial register. The new Government appointed in December 2019 did not produce a list of its Ministers’ interests until July 2020. There was then a 10-month gap before a new list was produced, during which lots of new Ministers had arrived in post.

As for the supposedly annual report by the adviser on ministerial interests, there was no annual report in 2020 because there was no adviser. Ministers are meant to advise their Department of any relevant interests whenever they take up a new ministerial post. However, because that is published at best only twice a year, the public is nearly always in the dark about what financial interests a Minister might or might not have.

Bizarrely, because the report appears so infrequently, some financial interests are reckoned to be more than six-months old by the time they are reported, and are therefore never published at all. That is not transparency. As things stand, we have no idea what ministerial interests the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Transport Secretary, the Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions or the Minister for Security might have, because they simply have not been published.

The system leads to glaring anomalies—the following instances prove my point. None of the Members concerned have done anything wrong. To my knowledge, they have fully declared everything they are required to declare, but the way the Government operate ministerial registrations means that discrepancies abound. I have told all Members to whom I am about to refer exactly what I am going to say.

For instance, the latest version of the register, dated 31 May, states that Oliver Dowden, who is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has as his only interest his role as patron of Watford Peace Hospice, yet according to Companies House he is the director of C&UCO Services Ltd, C&UCO Management Ltd and C&UCO Properties Ltd of 4 Matthew Parker Street, London. I do not know whether that is still true—I presume those are the Conservative and Unionist party’s official management companies—but there is a discrepancy. I am told that he declared that to his Department, but it was decided that it was not a relevant interest. I do not understand why.

Likewise, the entry for Michael Ellis states:

“Trustee of discretionary family trusts” without specifying what the trusts are, unlike the entry for Lord Benyon, which specifies all the trusteeships he holds. The entry for the right hon. and learned Member for Northampton North does not include the following shareholdings, which are in the Commons register, however: Arnold Estates Ltd, Arnold Estates LLC and MSA Properties Ltd. I do not understand why those are not in both registers.

Similarly, Andrew Griffith, who is Economic Secretary to the Treasury, has registered in the Commons that he has been a member of Wilton Park Advisory Council from 1 July 2020—that is, he assures me, an unremunerated ex officio role that he quite properly disclosed to the permanent secretary to the Treasury—yet that does not appear in his list of ministerial interests, presumably because the Department or the adviser—

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

Order. May I clarify whether the Member has advised any relevant Members that he will refer to them?

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

I wanted to place that on record.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I have sent Members copies of precisely what I am going say.

However, that role does not appear in the list of ministerial interests for the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, presumably because either the Department or the adviser, for some reason best known to themselves, thought it irrelevant.

The ministerial entry for Chris Philp, the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, says that he is

“a director of Millgap Ltd, an investment holding company personally owned by him.”

The Commons register, however, lists the following:

“Shareholdings: over 15%... Pluto Capital Management LLP… Millgap Ltd… Pluto Partners LLP… Pluto Silverstone Co Invest LLP… Pluto Monza Co Invest LLP… Pluto Development Partners LLP”,

although it does not include his directorship of Millgap Ltd.

I do not think that any Member I have mentioned has sought to hide anything. Indeed, I think in each case the Member has made a full declaration to their Department, but the Department, or the adviser, has published only what it thinks fit. Different Departments clearly treat matters such as trusteeships differently, and the rules differ as between the ministerial code and the House of Commons code of conduct, which leads to ludicrous anomalies and undermines transparency.

Moreover, the Government continue to insist that Ministers acting in their ministerial capacity should be exempted from the requirement placed on all other MPs to register within 28 days hospitality they receive that is worth more than £300. The Government say that ministerial transparency returns cover that, but those returns carry far fewer details than the Commons register, and they are published at least three months late, and sometimes up to a year late. Unlike the Commons, which produces a single document, each Department does that separately, so anyone who wants to see the full picture of ministerial interests across a year has to look at more than 300 online forms every year.

This is about as transparent as a hippopotamus’s bathwater. It would make far more sense for all financial and other interests of a Member, whether a Minister or not, to be available in one place, published as close as possible to real time, and certainly no less than every month.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Does he agree that it is simply wrong that there is a difference between what we register as MPs and what Ministers register, particularly given that the point of registration is to ensure transparency over how decisions are made? That is even more important for Ministers, arguably, than it is for MPs.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

It seems to me utterly bizarre that we have a lower level of transparency for Ministers, who make decisions in their personal capacity, than we do for ordinary Back-Bench Members of Parliament. The best decisions we get to make are about our own diaries, and sometimes not even that.

It seems we have entered into a preposterous set of arrangements. The Standards Committee has made proposals for a new code of conduct that would no longer exempt Ministers from the requirement placed on all other hon. Members. I very much hope that the Minister, when he gets up later, will say that when we have the debate on the new code of conduct on 12 December, as I understand it, the Government will support the measures advocated by the Committee.

Let us try another Nolan principle: accountability. It might be thought that a code of conduct should be enforceable and if someone breaks the rules, they should face disciplinary action. Yet the Government constantly assert that ministerial appointments and discipline are solely a matter for the Prime Minister. I understand the argument—sort of—but only to a degree. If a Minister makes a minor error of judgment, it should ultimately be up to the Prime Minister to decide whether they should stay in post. However, we do not have a separation of powers in the United Kingdom, despite what several Ministers continue to assert. I am sure the Minister who is about to speak, and who is a better historian than some others, will agree that the amendment that would have removed Ministers from Parliament and inserted a separation of powers in the UK was lost in 1713 by the Whigs.

By common law, all Ministers are Members of one or other House of Parliament. That is just a fact. It therefore undermines the whole of Parliament when a Minister is seen to get away with behaviour in their Department as a Minister that, if committed on the parliamentary estate and within the parliamentary community, would see them suspended from the House and possibly expelled. How can it be right that we have a stricter and more independent system for disciplining sexual harassment and bullying in Parliament than in Government? How can we change the culture across Parliament or in any Government organisation if Ministers are exempted?

I understand that people draw the line differently when it comes to bullying. I have a very low threshold and see behaviour as intimidatory when others might think it is acceptable. Others think they are just being forceful, exacting or demanding. I would draw a distinction between assertive, which is okay, and aggressive, which is not. I would say that an MP should always remember the imbalance of power when assessing their personal behaviour. Veering between exorbitant praise and sharp public criticism can completely undermine staff, and I would worry if a single member of my staff were ever reduced to tears by my behaviour.

More importantly, all MPs are in this together. We need to change the culture of the whole of British political and parliamentary life, and we will never succeed in doing that if we have a separate rule for Ministers. Some, including the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, have argued that the independent adviser should be put on a statutory basis, that he or she should be allowed to initiate and conclude investigations into alleged breaches of the ministerial code without the say-so of the Prime Minister, and that he or she should be allowed to recommend or impose suitable sanctions. I have argued that myself, but I no longer think that is enough—for four reasons.

First, the spider’s web of our standards system is now far too complex. In addition to the law of the land, MPs are subject to 12 different sets of rules. It is difficult for us to understand all the rules that apply to us and even the system that applies to us, let alone for the public to do so. That undermines parliamentary democracy.

Secondly, since the last general election 177 Conservative MPs have been Ministers. Some have not lasted long, of course. The Minister himself has been in and out of Government. He had 292 days at the Department for Education, then 76 days out of office and 37 days at the Department for Work and Pensions before starting his present job. MPs’ financial and other interests, including his, have remained the same throughout that period, but he has been governed by different systems at each of those moments. It is manifestly bonkers that MPs have to switch in and out of different regimes, and that the public do not get to know about it, in many cases until many months afterwards.

Thirdly, the Owen Paterson debacle showed that Ministers and their offices do not understand the Commons rules. Rory Stewart, formerly of this parish, argued that his meetings with Mr Paterson were fine because his private office would have advised him if they were a problem, but that office did not spot that Paterson was clearly engaged in paid lobbying and peddling influence on behalf of his paying clients, because, frankly, interpreting the Commons code of conduct is not its job.

Fourthly, it is simply no longer good enough for Prime Ministers to say, “As long as I enjoy a majority in the Commons, I and I alone get to choose who is a Minister.” That is the winner-takes-all approach to politics. We have very few checks and balances in the British system as it is, but when Ministers’ behaviour brings Parliament into disrepute, it is a matter for Parliament, not just the Executive.

It is time to amalgamate or at least align the ministerial code with the code of conduct of the House of Commons. The ministerial exemption for registering interests in the House within 28 days should come to an end, as should the ministerial exemption from the rules on bullying and sexual harassment in their Department. Either the House should appoint the independent adviser on the ministerial code directly, which I know some have advocated, or the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should be given that responsibility.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 11:15 am, 29th November 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and to respond to Chris Bryant in whatever capacity and with whichever hat he is wearing today. He, like me, has a second job—mine is currently as a Minister in the Cabinet Office. It was very good of him to enunciate how many days I was in my previous post; now I have a record in Hansard that I can refer back to when I want to check it.

Although my response today will be relatively brief, I want the hon. Gentleman to know that, as a new Minister, I am genuinely interested in the points he has raised and I will certainly consider them with colleagues. He has previously raised these important points in the House on a number of occasions, including 7 September, I think—it is my birthday; I remember it well—and again on 18 October. He is right to say that in the coming weeks we will have an opportunity to debate these matters again.

The hon. Gentleman raises substantial issues concerning transparency, timeliness and the independent adviser. As the Leader of the House said a few weeks ago of the recommendations proposed by the Committee on Standards, which the hon. Gentleman chairs, we are

“very conscious that there is further progress to be made and the House should have the opportunity to consider the additional recommendations”.

We are looking to identify solutions that command cross-party support on outstanding issues, including to improve the transparency and timeliness of ministerial declarations. The Government are very clear in our views that, as the Leader of the House said,

“the rules regulating Members’ interests and ministerial interests”—[Official Report, 18 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 636.]

are distinct. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised important points about consistency that bear further cogitation.

I can confirm that we are talking to officials about proposals we are considering to bring forward and improve the system, and that revised guidance on ministerial transparency data will be published in the coming weeks, first on gov.uk. The guidance will be updated to more closely reflect modern working practices and Ministers’ obligations under the ministerial code. As the Leader of the House has said, we are mindful of the BAFTA challenge that has been set by the hon. Gentleman. As I said, there are important points on consistency.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

The Minister entices me on the BAFTA point—and it is not just the BAFTA point, but the Bond point. If I were invited to a Bond premiere, with tickets worth something like £2,000 or £2,500, I would have to declare that within 28 days, detailing the cost and who had paid for it. All that would then be published within two weeks. However, several Home Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries ago, when the then Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and the then Foreign Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, went, they decided that they had gone in their ministerial capacities. A colleague of the Minister said that they had gone in a ministerial capacity because the Home Secretary has responsibility for MI6, which is incorrect.

Can the Minister see that the whole concept of going to a Bond premiere in a ministerial capacity brings the whole system into disrepute? Would it not be simpler for everything to be in a single place, so that members of the public could openly and transparently see the full range of a Minister’s interests?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman has made his point very clearly once again.

On timeliness, in autumn this year the Government reaffirmed their commitment to transparency, and said they would publish transparency data within 90 days of the end of each quarter. The Cabinet Office has strengthened advice to Departments on open access data, which will ensure that ministerial transparency is easily accessible to all. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Rhondda says about the importance of members of the public being able to see what is happening as promptly as possible. I can see that he is anxious to intervene again.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

It is just that 90 days is not prompt; it is 28 days in this House. After 90 days, people have forgotten what they went to. I do not understand why it could not be within a fortnight, especially given the fact that Ministers might move on or make different decisions in the intervening time.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers will not have forgotten what they went to. As he is aware, there is a very clear process, which involves permanent secretaries and good internal recording systems. He is right that the last account was published in May. It is ordinarily published every six months, so although we have been without an independent adviser, we would only be coming up for the next publication now. Because the new independent adviser is yet to be appointed, that will probably be delayed, but the Government expect it to be a very high priority for the new adviser, when he or she is appointed.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

The obvious questions are, when will the adviser be appointed, and can the Minister confirm that at least three people have already been offered the post and turned it down?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman appears to have information, if it indeed is true, that is not available to me. I have not been made aware that anyone has turned the job down. I reiterate that the Prime Minister has said that the appointment of an independent adviser is a priority for him. He is pursuing it with urgency, and we very much hope and expect that an independent adviser will be in place soon. That will kick-start a number of processes that have fallen into abeyance.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I am sorry to impose on the Minister in this way, but I just offer a piece of—I hope—helpful advice. My guess is that people might be refusing the job because they are worried that their position, credibility and reputation will be at risk unless the Prime Minister agrees that a new adviser can initiate investigations, including into the Prime Minister if necessary, without the say-so of the Prime Minister, and can recommend sanctions. Unless the Government make that change, I cannot see how anybody worth having in the role will accept it.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Obviously, in May the Government said that the independent adviser would have the power to initiate investigations. The then independent adviser Lord Geidt said that that was a workable solution. As I say, there will be a new independent adviser soon. That is the desire of the Prime Minister. He is keen to ensure that our process is fit for purpose, and he is keen, as the hon. Member for Rhondda is, to ensure that we have transparency, accountability and timeliness. I am very confident that this Administration, under this Prime Minister, with a new independent adviser, can deliver that.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.