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Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): We have had an excellent debate, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) made a notable contribution. As Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, he is able to bring his experience of many complaints against Members of Parliament and how they have been dealt with, and to compare that regime with what happens to Ministers under the ministerial code. When he asked where confidence would be if nothing had been doneif we had not had the register, the Committee of Standards and Privileges and the other changesI agreed with his point.
That contrasted with the point made somewhat unusually by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who took an establishment view that we should just stop talking about possible breaches of the ministerial code and try to reduce the number of regulators, and everything would be all right. He must accept that there has been a change in culture over recent years, partly to do with the fact that previously Members of Parliament were paid very little and had outside interests, whereas now that is not the case. The public now expect transparency in what we do and to have an independent element of both advice and investigation.
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Mr. Heald: The Minister may say that, but to me he sounded slightly pompous when he said, "Oh well, we can have the independent adviser and we will make an announcement shortly." Surely the public would react to that attitude by saying, "My goodness, can't they just say they'll do it?" The Minister also showed a certain complacency when he appeared to suggest that everything that the Government do is above board and that there was never a problem.
I began to think about a civil service Bill, on which I initiated a debate last year. Since 1997, the Government have been promising a civil service Bill, and to be fair to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, he drafted one. I tried to debate such a Bill in the House, and when I managed to do so the Government said that they would be doing something in due course. Yet here we are today1997 is a long time agoand we still do not have a civil service Act on the statute book. The question of whether we are to have independent mechanisms to make the ministerial code work seems to be going the wrong way.
Dr. Tony Wright: One reason why we do not have such a BillI have heard this not just from Ministers but from senior civil servants, both serving and retiredis that people are terrified that Members will revert to type and simply play political games with its content. The last Conservative Government asked for an assurance that a measure could be introduced on a bipartisan basis. If the present Government could be confident that that was the case, more progress could be made.
In 2003, the Committee on Standards in Public Life made those two recommendations. The Government accepted the need for an adviser on ministerial interests. It is extraordinary that the Minister felt it necessary to rake up all the old dirt from years ago, as we are suggesting that he should do something to which the Government have already agreed. Even so, they still will not establish such a post. The heart of the problem concerns the Prime Minister and his wish to remain unfettered by controls such as a civil service Bill and an independent mechanism to monitor compliance with the code. We could probably achieve consensus on a range of measures, so it is sad that the Prime Minister should say that the Government are not prepared to go down that route.
The Prime Minister's involvement in various incidents in recent years demonstrates why the problem has arisen. When the committee made its recommendation two years ago, it did not allow it to rest. Sir Alistair Graham has said on three recent occasions that the matter must be pursued. He said so at the beginning of this Parliament, and he said so again in
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July, when the code was issued, even though his committee was not consulted about it. He made the point, however, that we should have a ministerial adviser. During the recent troubles of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) he made the point again. In The Independent on Sunday he said:
"you sign up to a foreword to the Ministerial Code in which you expect ministers not only to sign up to the letter but the spirit as well . . . then if your actions don't live up to those words you're in danger of getting criticised and being perceived to be weak . . . and there is a danger that the Prime Minister could be under that charge".
"How many people in this country have the opportunity to invest £15,000 to possibly get back £300,000 within a few months' time? . . . You can give a rather obscure and muddied message about ethical standards. These issues in the end are always matters of leadership."
He made the point that Parliament and the entire political class will suffer a serious loss of confidence if they do not take those issues seriously. I am not suggesting that we should make changes just for the sake of it.
Mr. Kemp: The hon. Gentleman talked about a loss of confidence in Parliament and the political classes. May I return to my earlier point and ask whether he is prepared to endorse the recommendations of Lord Neill of Bladen, who told the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the application of the code of conduct to members of the Opposition Front Bench warrants investigation? In the past, shadow Chancellors have received money from oil companies but have taken part in Divisions on fuel tax. That is not acceptable and diminishes the House. Will he accept Lord Neill's recommendationsyes or no?
Mr. Heald: Lord Neill made his recommendation some years ago. The hon. Gentleman may wish to know that since that time hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench have taken advice from the Parliamentary Commissioner on these matters, and in recent years there have been no examples of the sort that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Those who wish to be shadow Chancellor give up interests that might conflict.
but it is clear that Ministers need a little more help. It may be that they find it hard to ask for or accept advice from their senior civil servant. Perhaps the evidence that the Public Administration Committee received from Sir Robin Mountfield shows that senior civil servants also find the present position difficult. The culture is changing from one where people used to resign quite readily to one where they hardly ever do.
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The issues that cause the difficulty are not so much those where there is a clear disaster in the Department or a clear problem resulting from a Minister's work. The real problems are the cases of actual or perceived conflict of interest. Those are the ones where the new adviser would be most useful, bringing an independent element, available at an early stage, before the Minister acts ill-advisedly. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out in an excellent and measured contribution, what is the point of rules if they are not properly policed and if independent advice is not available?
It is not good enough to wait until Parliament is asking questions and the media are sniffing about. We need proper advice for Ministers at an early stage. I like the recommendation about the panel of investigators too, for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and others made clear, but the new adviser would be useful to Ministers in a range of ways on questions not just about their own position, but about spouses, relatives and the like. The outside world sees conflicts of interest and expects them to be stopped. Often the Government do not recognise them. Independence is vital in terms of advice and oversight, because often the Prime Minister is not a neutral and disinterested arbiter.
When the Labour party took £1 million from motor racing and then delayed the ban on tobacco advertising, it was the Prime Minister who was in the front line having to defend that. It seemed like a conflict of interest, but he said:
and somehow it was not a problem. It was he who wrote the controversial letter in the Mittalgate scandal, asking a foreign Government for a contract for a Labour donor. It seemed like a conflict of interest, but he said no, it was not.
When Peter Mandelson accepted a loan of £373,000 from the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) to buy a house in Notting Hill, he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and had oversight of inquiries into the hon. Gentleman's business dealings. It seemed like a conflict of interest, but not to the Prime Minister. It must have done to Mr. Mandelson, because he resignedbut not to the Prime Minister, who said he had done nothing wrong. In the Hinduja passport affair, where wealthy brothers donated £1 million to the faith zone of the dome when Peter Mandelson was the Minister, he called the then Minister with responsibility for immigration matters, now the Solicitor-General, the hon. and learned Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), to inquire about their passport applications, which I believe were then granted. It seemed like a conflict of interest. Mr. Mandelson resigned, but the Prime Minister said that he had done nothing wrong.
Then we come to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and shares owned in a company bidding for work in his Department. It seemed like a conflict of interest. The right hon. Gentleman resigned, but the Prime Minister said that he had done nothing wrong, except that there had been a technical breach, and he left office without a stain on his character. On each of those occasions, there was a public perception of a conflict of interest and a Prime Minister in denial. It would be
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much better if we had a robust and transparent process with an independent element of investigation and advice, which would deter Ministers from sailing too close to the wind and enable them to take independent advice confidentially and without involving their civil servants. The funny thing is that although the Government have agreed to that step, they will not approve the motion.
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