Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I support the motion, and I am disappointed that the Government did not feel able to support it as well. It would have been far better had the House been able to unite on a common view of what is needed to maintain the integrity of both the Government and the House. If the Minister wishes, he can close his eyes tight and not see the obvious concerns being expressed outside the House, but I strongly advise him not to do so, because this is a matter of considerable concern.
Let me give the Minister credit: he is right in some of what he has said about what the Government have done to improve the situation. The publication of the ministerial code, in the form in which it has been published, is an improvement, and there have been other improvements to which the Minister can rightly draw attention. He was in danger of overstating the case on the Freedom of Information Act 2000, though, particularly when he said that Opposition partiespluralopposed it. I think that the Liberal Democrats have been the strongest advocates of freedom of information for a very long time.
The Minister will recall that a former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, David Clarknow Lord Clarkwas the author of much more extensive provisions for freedom of information than the Government were, in the end, prepared to accept. Even the rather meagre provisions of the Freedom of Information Act have been largely circumvented whenever possible by some members of the Government ever since. The Minister should be cautious about such matters. As I have said, we should recognise that there have been advances since the time of the last Government, but the Minister should recognise that there are genuine concerns.
The Minister referred to the comment by Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, that he preferred to deal with breaches of the ministerial code by providing a glass of whisky and a pearl-handled revolver in a
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darkened room[Hon. Members: "Brandy!"] I am sorry: brandy. How different that is from the position of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in recent weeksbut, in fact, we are in exactly the same position, and I think that that too is of concern.
Is the ministerial code properly constructed? Is it properly policed? If the answer to either of those questions is in the negative, are there alternatives that we can consider? When we deal with matters of this kind, the House is in danger of resembling a mud-wrestling competition. We must try hard not to descend to party-political tit-for-tats, because that does none of us any good in the end. I think the Conservatives would be wise to accept, however, that the last Conservative Government had a real problem. They were considered by many to be "enmired in sleaze"the term that was used at the time. Of course that did not apply to every member of the Government or every member of the Conservative party, but it was the perception at the time.
I think it is also fair to say that the present Government are not yet in the same position. When Sir John Major claimed recently that Labour was now more sleazy than his own Government, Sir Alistair Graham said
"Our recent work has suggested that this government has been rather less guilty of sleaze of which the Major government was accused and more guilty of spin, of over-exaggeration of achievements to try and gain support rather than direct sleaze."
With that somewhat faint praise, we can accept that the Government, although moving in a direction that none of us would wish to see, have not yet achieved the position that the public perceived the John Major Government to be in.
Dr. Tony Wright : In a spirit of total fairness and complete historical accuracy, will the hon. Gentleman also put on the record the fact that the last Liberal Government were also immersed in sleaze?
Mr. Heath: Yes, and is it not interesting to note that the forerunner of the ministerial code was published in 1917 under the prime ministership of David Lloyd Georgea great Prime Minister of this country, but someone who was prepared to sell peerages in return for donations? Well, that could never happen now, could it? At least Lloyd George had the clarity and transparency to provide a clear tariff, so everyone knew what was happening, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make that point.
The Minister said earlier that sleaze was endemic in the Major Government. It may have been, but many of us are concerned to prevent that endemic disease from becoming a pandemic, in which all political parties are seen in exactly the same light as that historical position in respect of the Conservative party under Major. Complacency is greatly misplaced on this matter, as it does not take much to cause a generalised infection. I would like to quote a gentleman called Paul Masefield, speaking on Star Sports channel:
"The Code is not a rule book, and it is not the role of the Secretary of the Cabinet or other officials to enforce it or to investigate Ministers, although they may provide Ministers with private advice on matters which it covers."
The question that people outside the House are asking is: what is the point of having rules if no one is enforcing them? The answer from the Government, of course, is that the Prime Minister enforces those rules. Well, the Prime Minister has many qualitiessome good, some bad. One of his qualities that many would consider admirable is loyalty to his colleagues, but such loyalty is not a substitute for policing the ministerial code in the manner in which it should be policed. On the basis of the investigations that the Prime Minister has carried out into Cabinet colleagues over recent years, I have to say that the only possible conclusion that one can reach is that the code can be breached with impunity. That should not happen and it reflects badly on the Prime Minister as well other members of his Government.
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), who is no longer in his place, argued earlier that Ministers were more lightly policed in respect of their adherence to standards in public life than the average parish councillor. How can that be right? How can it be that Ministers who wield enormous powers over the budgets that they control and who take such important decisions are more lightly policed in respect of standards of public life than a parish councillor who, with the best will in the world, controls very little beyond some donations to the local village hall or the local recreation field? That is a matter of genuine concern, and I simply do not accept the defence of inadvertence. Explicit advice is given in the ministerial code, and if Cabinet Ministers are inadvertent as to what they should be doing, frankly, they are not fit to be Ministers of Cabinet rank.
So what can be done? First, we should have a debate along the lines of our perennial Standing Committee debates, in which it is often said of a particular Bill that we should delete "may" and insert "must". The ministerial code should say not that a Minister "should" do something, but that a Minister "must" do something. Secondly, there must be an absolute ban on Ministers taking up paid directorships or employment for two years following their leaving office, unless the advisory committee has said that doing so is acceptable. Such
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behaviour is incredibly corrosive. If Ministers are seen to be walking away from their Departments and joining companies with interests that are directly relevant to the Departments that they have just left, every civil servant will ask, "Why can't we do the same?" Every member of the armed forces who works in procurement will ask, "Why can't we do the same?" Every time that such things happen, the public's confidence that decisions are being taken with the proper interests of the country in mind is damaged.
I set aside the question of why it is assumed that a Minister has to have a highly paid job on leaving office. I take the puritanical view that I am a Member of Parliament, and that is my job. I do not see the need to have additional jobs, but I know that other Members take different views on the appropriateness or otherwise of paid employment. What is absolutely clear is that Ministers get generous severance pay on leaving office. Indeed, sometimes they get severance pay several times over, which is another matter that we might consider.