When resignations occur, it is very important that the proprieties are not only respected, but seen clearly to be respected, by Ministers on leaving office. There have been several instances of repeat ministerial resignations; indeed, I am reminded of the programmes that seem to appear on satellite television every couple of days, with titles along the lines of "Britain's Funniest Ministerial Resignations". We need to police this issue very carefully if we are to maintain the general public's respect for the body politic as a whole.
The trouble is that this is not the only issue that is in danger of souring the position of us all, frankly, and of the democratic system. Mention was made earlier of David Lloyd George's appointing major Liberal party donors to the House of Lords. He had complete contempt for the Lords, which is why he used that method, but the Lords has now changed. It is now primarily an appointed House, so it is even more important that those appointed to it are not tinged with any suspicion that the main reason for their appointment is their having donated large sums to one or other of the parties. However, there is more than a suspicion that some Members of the Lords are being appointed for precisely that reason.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman is doubtless aware that the Prime Minister has appointed some 292 peers, so he is responsible for the creation of more Labour peers than he is the election of new Commons Members.
I am trying to express the view that these issues are not compartmentalised but cumulative. If the impression is given that the main motivating factor for Ministers, civil
15 Nov 2005 : Column 922
servants or members of the legislature is the financial advantage that they may gain, we will lose something precious in our political life.
In addition, an appalling example will be set. Ministers give a direct example to senior civil servants when it comes to what is acceptable. Mention has been made already of Christopher Meyer, who made the matter plain when he said, "If it's good enough for Ministers, it's good enough for me." I think that the book betrays some absolutely inappropriate confidences, and I look forward to learning how on earth it was given clearance
I repeat: the standing of Government is important not only to the Government, but to the House and to the body politic as a whole. Some things can and should be done to make the ministerial code better able to police the activities of Ministers. More importantly, we must make sure that the impression is given that Ministers' conduct is of the highest integrity.
The arguments in favour of independent investigation and of making the code clearer about what Ministers must do rather than what they might, should or could do on a wet afternoon seem compelling, to use the term of the moment. I am disappointed that the Minister could not accept that today, but I believe that the House should do so. We should give a very clear signal to the Prime Minister that our patience regarding this matter is running a little thin.
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I think that a tiny bit of perspective might be in order. The other day, I read again Roy Jenkins's splendid book on Churchill, in which he described how Churchill received an especially munificent gift from a benefactor. As an aside, Jenkins asks us to think what would have happened if the gift had been offered in the age of the ministerial code or parliamentary commissioner.
In fact, ministerial conduct was not better in the past, but a good deal worse, and both main parties have spent a lot of time on improving matters. Attlee would smile to hear today's debate. After the war, he brought together the assorted bits of procedural guidance for Ministers. He sent around a note to Ministers, in which he said that that collection of guidance might be "convenient" for colleagues.
Attlee's version of the code had 65 paragraphs. By 1997, the code had grown to 135 paragraphs, and its latest edition has 173. The code is now expected to cover everything, from air miles to lottery bids. That shows that a good deal of attention has been given to the document over the years.
Given the exchanges in the debate so far, it is worth remembering that both major parties have strengthened the ministerial code, and also resisted suggestions about how it could be strengthened. I sat on the Opposition
15 Nov 2005 : Column 923
Benches in the 1990s, when the Committee on Standards in Public Life had just been set up. One of its first recommendations was that the Prime Minister should take responsibility for the code. The Committee said that it should not be left to Ministers to behave properly, but that the Prime Minister should assume formal responsibility for the code. It should be his document. That proposition was resisted by John Major, with all the authority he had. However, the proposal was incorporated into the code by this Government, so the first section now states that the Prime Minister will take responsibility for the conduct of Ministers. I believe that that is an advance.
I suggest that not only has the ministerial code grown in status and size, but the whole of the ethical regulation of Government has grown. We now have an army of ethical regulators, who have usually been introduced in response to some crisis or scandal. We have the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the public appointments commissioner, the Parliamentary Commissioner For Standards, the advisory committee on business appointments, the civil service commission, a new Electoral Commissionwhich addresses issues such as party funding that were once seen to be outside any kind of regulatory structureand a standards board for local government. We have a crowd of ethical regulators and a crowd of codes governing behaviour in various areas. We have a code for Ministers, now published and ever expanding, covering ever more areas. We have a code for civil servants and for special advisers. Now we have demands that some of those codes should be converted into legislation.
It is not as though we have been casual in the matter of the ethical regulation of Government in recent times. Ethical regulation has grown in importance and is now on the scale that I have described. As a result, has trust in Government and the political class increased or decreased? I am afraid that it has decreased, and that is what should concern us in this debate, instead of playing the party games of saying, "Oh, you were worse than we are", and replying, "Oh no, you are worse than we were." That brings the whole of public life down, because it is comfortable for a large section of the public to think that the political class is sleazy and corrupt. The newspapers love to feed the idea that the political class is sleazy and corrupt. It sells newspapers and feeds the popular assumption. We also feed that by always saying that the other lot are more corrupt than we are. We have all been guilty of that. We were guilty of it in the 1990s, although it must be said that we had rich material to work with. In any case, we exploited it for all it was worth, because of the great political dividend it provided. As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, the Conservativesrationally, from their point of viewsaid, "Look, we're suffering a great disadvantage in the sleaze stakes, because people think that we are sleazy. It is essential that we make people realise that the new lot are as sleazy as we were." They have had a concerted strategy to achieve that, which is rational in its own terms, but mutually ruinous for the standing of politicians and political life.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con):
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's remarks with care and agree with much of what he says. Does he believe that hon. Members are now less honourable than they were
15 Nov 2005 : Column 924
in years gone by? Does he feel that the failure of Ministers to resign when they have done wrongthey now have to be forced to resignis also an indication that we now have career politicians rather than Members who come here to serve the people of their constituencies and the country?
Dr. Wright: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who raised several points. I shall deal with two of them if I may. First, do I think that standards have gone down? No, I do not; they have gone up quite considerably. The tragedy is that we have given people grounds to think that standards have gone down while in fact they have been rising. Not only have they gone up, but any intelligent historical or comparative tests show that we probably have the least corrupt way of doing politics of almost any political system in the worldacross party. Why then do we spend so much effort trying to suggest that our political opponents are corrupt and sleazy? We do so because we think there may be some temporary political advantage in doing so. That brings me to the hon. Gentleman's second point, which is about resignation.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has never knowingly undersold when making allegations against Ministers, usually demanding their resignation. But when someone jumps up every time anything happens, however minor, saying, "This is a scandal. This is outrageous. This is a resigning matter", when they go through the whole hyperbolic routine, the effect is to diminish regard for political life. Indeed, it loses the sense of the moment when that kind of language is required because something serious really has happened. Across the House, we have a responsibility to be far more intelligent and sensible about such matters.