Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Tony Wright: I keep reminding the hon. Gentleman that the motion does not propose the appointment of an independent investigator, which is sensible. It proposes the appointment of an "Adviser on Ministerial Interests", which is not sensible. I agree neither with the Opposition nor with the Government, who have, however, agreed to the proposal.

Mr. Heald: The Government have agreed to such an appointment, but they keep dragging their heels, as they do over a civil service Bill. The Prime Minister does not like independent oversight and does not want to be fettered, but it is time for Ministers to make that change and for Parliament to have an extra independent element.

9.46 pm

Mr. Jim Murphy: The debate has not been especially long for a variety of reasons, but we heard some high quality contributions from Back Benchers.

On the points made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), we continually review the ministerial code, which is published after each general election. We take account of suggestions and recommendations from various Committees, including the Public Administration Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The precedent has been established, and I think that it will continue, because it would be remarkable if that procedure were turned on its head.

The hon. Gentleman made a fair speech and tried not to sound supercilious, but I remind him that a halo needs to slip only a foot or two to become a noose. It would be interesting to know whether the Liberal Democrats intend to return the £2.4 million dodgy donation from a Swiss bank account in line with his comments this evening.

Both Opposition and Government Members acknowledge that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) speaks with an enormous amount of experience and authority—he keeps Front Benchers on both sides of the House on their toes with his analysis and his experience. He has announced the PAC investigation into who regulates the regulators, and we will pay close attention to the evidence and the PAC's recommendations, as we always do and always should do.

The Cabinet Office has a vested interest, because it is responsible for the better regulation agenda. At least 12 organisations oversee the probity and ethics of the body politic, and the question is whether we need a 13th—my hon. Friend's Committee may make such a recommendation. My hon. Friend is right that enhancing public faith in politicians from all parties and in Governments—this one, the previous one and any future one—will not be achieved by tinkering with the
15 Nov 2005 : Column 933
details of the ministerial code. Although the ministerial code will continue to evolve, it is not a silver bullet to maintain public faith in politics. A much wider debate is taking place not only in this country and this Parliament, but across the world about the connection between the elector and the elected, and all Governments and Opposition parties across the world are grappling with it. I think that faith in politics and the political process will be enhanced not by tinkering with the ministerial code but by delivering real improvements in people's lives and then connecting those improvements to decisions that the Government, whom they have elected, have taken in respect of unemployment, the economy and investment in schools. Such improvements will drive up trust and faith in politics and the political process much more than any squabble across the Dispatch Box about independent assessment of business regulation and the ministerial code.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) again demonstrated his enormous experience. We have been helped by the fact that although there were only two Back-Bench speeches they came from the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, both of whom made important and detailed suggestions. Instead of making a knee-jerk response to the right hon. Gentleman, I will reflect on some of the specifics that he mentioned and offer a more considered response. He mentioned the propriety and ethics team in the Cabinet Office. I add my tribute to the work of the men and women in that team. I will not be alone in thinking that we should have heard the right hon. Gentleman's speech delivered from the Front Bench instead of the two speeches that we did hear.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) started by saying that he did not want to rake over old coals, and then proceeded to do so. Again, he behaved like a copywriter for the Daily Mail or, on a good day, The Mail on Sunday. He was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase on the issue of demanding resignations based on ministerial conduct. I am not able to name and shame the hon. Gentleman on specifics, but he generally uses the tried and tested approach of demanding action based on growing concern expressed in the Daily Mail and The   Mail on Sunday. That concern gets into those newspapers because he issues a press release demanding action on it, so the concern that he says is growing is one of his own creation.

For example, the hon. Gentleman wrote to Ministers challenging the use of public funds on a flight by the Prime Minister to Singapore and then on to Riyadh. I imagine that the Prime Minister must have been in Singapore supporting the 2012 Olympic bid, and I know that he was in Riyadh for a very good reason. The response to the allegation is that there are no scheduled flights between Riyadh and Singapore. Once again, an accusation made publicly in the press turns out to be founded on nothing but speculation and tittle-tattle. That is only the latest example of the hon. Gentleman performing that sort of activity.
15 Nov 2005 : Column 934

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we do not yet have a civil service Act. However, we now have a draft civil service Bill on which we have consulted. In 18 years of Conservative government, we had neither a Bill nor a consultation. The hon. Gentleman, like others, will have to be a good deal more patient. We have waited 148 years for the draft Bill, and he can wait a little longer.

In previous years, a debate on Government ethics and ministerial conduct would have taken place in a packed Chamber. It would have been tense and highly charged, with the cut and thrust of a parliamentary event. This evening's debate was attended by perhaps 10 Members, although I am sure that everyone else had important business to attend to.

Mr. Heald: Surely the Parliamentary Secretary accepts that we are asking the Government to do something that they promised to do. It is obvious that nobody believes that that will happen.

Mr. Murphy: In the hon. Gentleman's winding-up speech, he argued for something that was not even in the motion and had to be clarified from the Labour Back Benches. It is a short motion but he managed to fail to understand what it demanded. He made up a whole speech on an entirely different matter, which did not appear in the motion.

Opposition Members mentioned complacency, but only six Opposition Back Benchers were present this evening. That does not suggest great demand to discuss—or difficulty with—issues of propriety and public service. However, the idea that there is complacency about those matters is wide of the mark. We are clearing up many of the issues that the Conservatives left unresolved in the 1990s. We are the first Government to publish the ministerial code, introduce a Freedom of Information Act and clean up party political funding. It is clear that those measures have helped to increase public trust in politics and will continue to do that.

Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) asked whether the Opposition would abide by some of rules and regulations that they understandably expect Ministers to obey. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) was silent on the matter. Will he confirm that all members of the shadow Cabinet will voluntarily or collectively adhere to a similar set of principles to those by which Ministers are expected to abide?

Mr. Heald: I am sorry if the Parliamentary Secretary was not listening but I answered the question. I said that the report to which he referred was from some years ago and that the practice now is, as I described, in line with the principles.

Mr. Murphy: I am not sure what that mumble was.

Angela Browning: The Parliamentary Secretary knows that I have listened to the whole debate. It is a bit rich for him to talk about the principles to which Ministers adhere. When I asked him to define the seven principles of public life, he could not relate one. I know
15 Nov 2005 : Column 935
that the list has now been sent down from the Box. Would he like to read them out simply to fill up the next three minutes? The other Ministers present might be enlightened about the principles by which they are meant to be living.

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Lady is one of the few who attended the whole debate. [hon. Members: "Read them out."] I shall not read them out. Time will not allow me to do that.

In his winding-up speech, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred to the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr.   Blunkett) visited my constituency during the election campaign. He had a good campaign visit. However, one lady in particular was very keen to meet him. She approached him and said, "Mr. Blunkett, I'm delighted that you've come to East Renfrewshire. I wanted to meet you to tell you how much I dislike you." I do not know how many hon. Members have shared such a campaign experience. Of course, my right hon. Friend committed a technical breach of the ministerial code and he paid for it with his political career. That is a heavy price.

However, I reiterate that it is a world away from Conservative Members being paid to ask questions in the Chamber with brown envelopes in their pockets. It is a different world from former Conservative Cabinet Ministers occupying Belmarsh rather than the Opposition Benches—as I said earlier, Belmarsh was on the verge of setting up its own Conservative Association because so many Conservatives were being locked up there. It is a far cry from Ministers having to resign because they were trying to block investigations into the cash-for-questions inquiry.

The fact is that we have introduced a whole series of firsts: the first ministerial code; the first Freedom of Information Act; the first draft civil service Bill—

Next Section IndexHome Page