The Ministerial Code is a document setting out “rules” and standards for government ministers in the United Kingdom. Separate codes exist for ministers of the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Executive (based on the St Andrews Agreement) and the Welsh Government.
Codes of conduct for ministers are amongst a range of initiatives designed to respond to perceptions of the erosion of ministerial accountability. A range of scandals, most notably MP’s Expenses culminated in the unforgettable tag “The Rotten Parliament” has driven political will to preserve public trust in the institutions of cabinet government which, to date, has been largely unsuccessful.
Written guidance for British cabinet ministers began as the document Questions of Procedure for Ministers (QPM), which was a confidential document prepared by the Cabinet Office to assist ministers, and dates to at least the 1980s.
The earliest published form of the Code was when the QPM was released by the Major Government in 1992, and further editions have been adapted based on suggestions and recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The first edition to be entitled ‘Ministerial Code’ was Tony Blair’s 1997 set of rules. The most recent version was released in May 2010 (it being a convention for each new Prime Minister to issue their own). The Code is currently administered by the Propriety and Ethics group within the Cabinet Office.
It is ironic that Tony Blair’s edition was renamed the ‘Ministerial Code’ given recent revelations of his conduct with the invasion of Iraq, irrespective of the scope of that code.
It appears though that the latest 2015 version released last week has been adjusted, as is the prerogative of the PM, to fit his agenda irrespective of ethics or indeed in this case, for the rule of law.
The former head of the government’s legal service has accused Downing Street of “contempt for the rule of international law” after it quietly abandoned a key plank of the ministerial code. Paul Jenkins, who was the government’s most senior legal official from 2006 until he stepped down last year, is the most high-profile legal figure to raise the alarm over a rewrite of the ministerial code published last week. Until last Thursday, the ministerial code referred to an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice”. The new version simply refers to a duty to comply with “the law”. Jenkins wrote: “It is disingenuous of the Cabinet Office to dismiss the changes to the ministerial code as mere tidying up”.
It was clear from 2010 that the Ministerial Code imposed upon the coalition was not agreeable to the Cameron clan as complying with international laws does not sit well with their brand of commercialism or international “influence”.
However, the Tory party are keen to give the impression of being internationally responsible and law-abiding. Back in 2012 Tory Foreign Secretary William Hague in his speech in The Hague said
“Justice and international law are central to foreign policy. The rule of law is critical to the preservation of the rights of individuals and the protection of the interests of all states. To borrow Erasmus’s words, justice ‘restrains bloodshed, punishes guilt, defends possessions and keeps people safe from oppression’”. Hague continued – “Such agreements – if they are upheld – are a unifying force in a divided world, and they underpin our collective security and a growing reliance on a rules-based international system”
The current Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said in his speech to the UN General Assembly just last month
the rules-based international system that keeps the peace between nations is being undermined by states willing to violate the territorial integrity of others.
Both speeches are significant as both talk of justice and international law being central to Conservative party values and principles befitting of an influential nation state such as Britain. Hammond even focuses on international laws and violating the territorial integrity of others.
However, international lawyers think that the recent update to the code is a considerable shift in the UK government’s stance in respect for the rule of law, which they say is particularly concerning just at the moment when David Cameron is working so hard to expand its use of lethal force abroad.
Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC, delivered a keynote speech to the government legal service international law conference and it is interesting to note his tone that again reiterates the government’s position.
International law binds the UK, both as a central tenet of our constitutional framework and as a distinct legal regime at the international level. The constitutional principle to respect the rule of law and comply with our international obligations is reflected in the ministerial code.
The recent Ministerial Code as published last week has been quietly changed to reflect, quite possibly, intended government aggression overseas. The Freedom Of Information Act is currently under review by ministers who clearly want more secrecy over such matters (It was FOI that uncovered Cameron’s authority for military action in Syria against a Parliamentary vote). You can see where this is going as politicians plot a charter of secrecy.
Irony is clearly not understood by the current government. This significant change to the ministerial code, implemented inaudibly breaks the first three principles of the new ministerial code as defined by …. the politicians themselves.
The updated 2015 code “Principles of Ministerial Conduct”
The principle of collective responsibility applies to all Government Ministers;
- Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies;
- It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister;
- Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest which should be decided in accordance with the relevant statutes and the Freedom of Information Act 2000;
- Ministers should similarly require civil servants who give evidence before Parliamentary Committees on their behalf and under their direction to be as helpful as possible in providing accurate, truthful and full information in accordance with the duties and responsibilities of civil servants as set out in the Civil Service Code;
- Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests;
- Ministers should not accept any gift or hospitality which might, or might reasonably appear to, compromise their judgement or place them under an improper obligation;
- Ministers in the House of Commons must keep separate their roles as Minister and constituency Member;
- Ministers must not use government resources for Party political purposes;
- Ministers must uphold the political impartiality of the Civil Service and not ask civil servants to act in any way which would conflict with the Civil Service Code as set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.
Reading this updated version of the code makes you think it was written by people with a sense of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – almost universally rejected in practice by today’s politicians.
You can read more from Graham Vanbergen at his site http://truepublica.org.uk