Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report



a.  We believe that the development of such codes of conduct across public life reinforces the need for the constitutional status of the Ministerial Code to be properly recognised. It is not a legal document but a set of guidelines. It does not necessarily cover all aspects of what should be considered acceptable Ministerial practice or behaviour and should not substitute for the Prime Minister's judgement, for which he must account to Parliament. It is unsatisfactory for its status still to be in doubt. It is the rule book for ministerial conduct, including the responsibilities of Ministers to Parliament, and its status should reflect its importance. It may have developed in a private and ad hoc way, but it is now an integral part of the new constitutional architecture. It is time for it to be recognised as such (paragraph 15).

i.  We recommend that a free-standing code of ethical principles is devised. We further recommend that the Committee on Standards in Public Life should be formally consulted on the drafting of such a code (paragraph 34).

k.  We recommend that when the Code is next revised the opportunity is taken to give greater coherence and clarity to its structure (paragraph 36).

The Government welcomes the Committee's support and endorsement for a Ministerial Code and agrees with the Committee on the importance of the Code. The Code - and its predecessor document, Questions of Procedure for Ministers - are important in providing guidance to Ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs in order to ensure that they undertake their official duties in a way that upholds the highest standards of public life. The Code also makes explicit how Ministers are expected to discharge their responsibilities to Parliament by incorporating the terms of a Resolution carried by Parliament in March 1997. The Government agrees with the Committee that the Code is a set of guidelines and cannot constitute a comprehensive rulebook on all aspects of Ministerial practice or behaviour. This point is stressed in the revised Ministerial Code. However, the Code does provide Ministers with a framework against which to make decisions on how to act in circumstances not covered by the Code. The revised Ministerial Code also includes an annex setting out the Seven Principles of Public Life. Publication of the revised Ministerial Code in July 2001 provided an opportunity to make clearer Ministers' responsibilities in relation to the Code and Parliament. The Government is confident that, with these additional clarifications, the status of the Code is not in any doubt. The Government is not convinced that a further code of ethical principles is needed.

b.  In 1996 the Public Service Committee recommended that the Prime Minister has to be the final judge of Ministerial conduct and performance. [52] We repeat our predecessors' view and recommend that prime ministerial ownership should be both explicitly acknowledged and reflected in the wording of the Code (paragraph 20).

d.  The Code is the Prime Minister's document; and it is with the Prime Minister that the buck must finally stop. This closes the accountability gap and resolves the problem of circularity. We therefore recommend that the Government reconsider its response to Lord Neill's report and implement fully recommendations 13 and 14 in order to establish the final and clear responsibility of the Prime Minister for ministerial conduct under the Code (paragraph 22).

The revised Ministerial Code, published in July 2001, makes it clear that the Ministerial Code is the Prime Minister's guidance to his Ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs in order to uphold the highest standards of constitutional and personal conduct in the performance of their duties. It also makes clear that the Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards, although he will not expect to comment on every allegation that is brought to his attention.

c.  We do not believe that Prime Minister's Question Time is an adequate or sufficient forum for considered probing of Government policy and recommend that an annual meeting should be arranged between the Prime Minister and the Liaison Committee, representing the chairs of all the select committees, under strict terms of agreement, using the Government's Annual Report as its basis. Questions might include the Prime Minister's responsibility for the Ministerial Code, and any alleged breached, while the Prime Minister's own duty to account to Parliament in this way should be included as a provision of the Code (paragraph 21).

The Government notes this recommendation but continues to believe that the current arrangements, based on precedent under successive Administrations, provide for full accountability to Parliament. As with all Ministers, the Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament for his decisions and actions. He appears before the House more often than any departmental Minister. The Prime Minister's weekly 30 minute Question Time provides the House with an opportunity to question the Prime Minister, as head of the Government, on any issue of Government policy, including the operation of the Ministerial Code. The Government fully supports the role of Select Committees in holding the Government to account, and questioning Ministers on matters of policy. However, it believes that those best placed to answer these questions and to account for their actions and decisions are the Ministers with responsibility for the specific area of interest.

e.  We recommend that, when next revised, the Ministerial Code should be amended to include a reference to contacts with lobbyists (paragraph 23).

The Ministerial Code, published in July 2001, makes it clear that the basic facts of formal meetings between Ministers and outside interest groups (including lobbyists) should be recorded setting out the reasons for the meeting, and the names of those attending and the interests represented.

f.  We recommend that when the Ministerial Code is next revised the spirit of the original wording should be restored in respect of announcements of important Government policy (paragraph 24).

The Government accepts this recommendation and agrees to restore the original wording. It is an important principle that when the House is sitting, announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament. The Ministerial Code will be amended accordingly when the next version is issued.

g.  We recommend that the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards be expanded to include the provision of independent advice to Ministers on their responsibilities under the Code. We further recommend that, on referral from the Prime Minister, or by a resolution of the House proposed by the chair of the Liaison Committee, the Parliamentary Ombudsman should be empowered to conduct independent investigations on alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code and to report to the Prime Minister and to the House. Such reports should be published (paragraph 30).

In its response to the sixth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Government agreed with the Committee that no new office for the investigation of allegations of ministerial misconduct should be established. The Government also agreed with the Committee that there was no single approach to the investigation of allegations of ministerial misconduct that would be helpful in all cases, and that it would be undesirable to fetter the Prime Minister's freedom to decide how individual cases should be handled. The Government continues to believe that this is the most effective approach.

h.  We recommend that the Seven Principles of Public Life are prominently included in the next version of the Code (paragraph 34).

The Ministerial Code now includes an explicit requirement on Ministers to observe the Seven Principles of Public Life which it sets out in full.

j.  We recommend that all those aspects of the Ministerial Code relating to parliamentary accountability should be included in an up-to-date version of the House Resolution (paragraph 35).

l.  Endorsement by the legislature enhances accountability and we recommend that the section of the Code incorporating the House Resolution is formally debated and approved in each Parliament (paragraph 37).

The Government believes that the current Resolutions of the House continue to provide a comprehensive account of Ministers' responsibilities to Parliament and is not persuaded that the Resolutions require amendment (other than the routine updating of certain documents referred to in the text). The Government would, of course, welcome the views of the Committee on any specific concerns.

m.  We recommend that the proposed Ministerial Code is presented to Parliament within three months of a new administration taking office (paragraph 38).

n.  We recommend that a debate be held on the Ministerial Code immediately following its publication, prior to the approval process we recommend above, that any subsequent revisions to it are also published, and that any revisions relating to parliamentary accountability should be considered and approved by Parliament (paragraph 38).

The Ministerial Code is the Prime Minister's guidance to his Ministers on how he expects them to undertake their official duties. It is for the Prime Minister to determine the terms of the Code. The Government notes the Committee's concern that there is no requirement for the Ministerial Code to be published. It is, however, normal practice for the Ministerial Code to be updated after an Election, and since 1992, each revision has been published. The Prime Minister undertakes that he will continue to publish the Code and any revisions to it on this basis.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 11 December 2001