What is the Ministerial Code and why is it rarely enforced?

The Prime Minister is the sole arbiter of the Ministerial Code.

The Ministerial Code is the ‘rule book’ for Government Ministers. It outlines the expectations placed upon Government Ministers and outlines the things that they should and should not do in carrying out their role. However, it is controversial. This is because it has no statutory standing. The only person responsible for ensuring the Ministerial Code is carried out is the Prime Minister. This inevitably leads to a significant and unavoidable conflict of interest that is often controversial.

Traditionally expectations of Ministers were entirely bound by convention. However, in the 1980s these began to be codified in a Cabinet Office Document called the Questions of Procedure for Ministers. Since 1997 what is now known as the Ministerial Code has been published. Its standards are largely based on a report by the Committee of Standards in Public Life. This report highlighted seven values that public servants should uphold: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership.

By convention each Prime Minister updates and publishes their own version of the Ministerial Code when they take up the office. The latest version was therefore published in 2019:

Under the Ministerial Code, it is clear that a breach of certain issues would require a Minister to offer their resignation. For example, excerpts from the code state:

“The principle of collective responsibility applies to all Government Ministers”

Lord Frost is the most recent Minister to resign under Collective Responsibility.

This means that if a Government Minister cannot uphold collective responsibility, they should resign from office. Most recently this occurred in the case of Lord Frost who resigned from the Cabinet stating that he could not advocate the Government’s policies on COVID-19 in December 2021.

” 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”

This means that Ministers who lie (knowingly mislead) to Parliament cannot carry on their positions and are expected to resign.

Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the Ministerial Code and will not be tolerated.”

This means that any Minister found to have carried out any behaviours that amount to bullying should resign from office.

” Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests”

This means that Ministers should not, for example, profit financially, or allow close associates to profit financially, from Government decisions.

Case Studies – Why are there so few resignations under the Ministerial Code?

Despite these clear rules, there are relatively few resignations that cite the Ministerial Code. The most common are resignations are under collectively responsibility, however, even these are normally rare. Yet, during the Brexit crisis between 2016 and 2019 Theresa May suffered over 30 resignations under Collective Responsibility, including two Brexit Secretaries (David Davies and Dominic Raab).

For other issues, resignations under the Ministerial Code are very rare.

Priti Patel and Bullying

Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the Ministerial Code and will not be tolerated.

Priti Patel was found to have bullied Civil Servants and yet was not removed as a Minister.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel was accused in 2020 of bullying civil servants, including by swearing at them and belittling them. The Permanent Secretary of the Home Office even resigned citing her behaviour. In November 2020 a Cabinet Office enquiry found that Patel “had not met the requirements of the ministerial code to treat civil servants with consideration and respect”. Boris Johnson, however, refused to ask for Patel’s resignation and she continues in position to this day. It is quite clear that the Cabinet Office report found clear evidence that Patel had been a bully. However, she is consistently found to be a popular member of the Conservative Party with its members. It would not have been in Boris Johnson’s political interest to remove her. Therefore, he ignored the requirements of his own ministerial code and did not remove her from office. Following this decision, the author of the report Sir Alex Allen even resigned in protest at the Prime Ministers decision.

Boris Johnson and misleading Parliament

” 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”

John Profumo resigned for misleading Parliament.

All Ministers are expected to tell the truth to Parliament. If a Minister inadvertently misleads Parliament they are expected to correct the record. However, if a Minister deliberately misleads Parliament they are expected to resign. There is one particularly famous example of a resignation under this doctrine. John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, was forced to resign in 1963 for misleading Parliament about over the affair he had with a mistress of a Soviet Spy.

Recently, the curretn Prime Minister has himself been accused of deliberately misleading Parliament. A video produced by Peter Stefanovic went viral with over 42 million views which selected a number of times that Boris Johnson was alleged to have mislead Parliament.

Of course, the Prime Minister is pretty unlikely to call for his own resignation under the code. However, critics will argue that this shows a fundamental weakness – that the code is not independently set or monitored. In a petition calling on making lying to Parliament received 133,021 signatures. Unsurprisingly, the Government response was that:

” The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature. MPs must abide by the Code of Conduct and conduct in the Chamber is a matter for the Speaker.”

Government COVID Contracts

” Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests”

Michael Gove’s involvement in the awarding of Government contracts has been highly questionable.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis there have been consistent accusations that the Government Ministers have profited in a personal way from the awarding of COVID contracts. During the pandemic, the normal tendering process for Government contracts was suspended. In total, 50 companies were fast-tracked through the approvals process following being recommended by Conservative Politicians. A report by the National Audit Office found that those companies were ten times more likely to be awarded a Government contract.

There are two examples surrounding one Government Minister alone – Michael Gove:

  • Meller Designs (a fashion and beauty firm, not a healthcare firm) were awarded six PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) contracts worth £164 million during the pandemic. Since 2009, the owner of the company has donated almost £60,000 to the Conservative Party and was Michael Gove’s Chair of Finance when he ran for the Conservative Leadership. It was Michael Gove who referred the company for a contract.
  • In a High Court Judicial Review Case in 2021 the Good law Project sued the Cabinet Office over the award of a £560,000 research contract given to former colleagues of Michael Gove.

Despite the contract being found by the High Court to be the result of “apparent bias”, Gove was not asked to resign.

Why is the Ministerial Code so rarely enforced?

The reason that resignations under the Ministerial Code as so rare is because, ultimately, the Prime Minister is ‘judge, jury and executioner’. It is they alone who decide whether or not someone has breached the Ministerial Code and finding that someone has is likely to reflect badly on them as Prime Minister. Therefore, they will normally do everything in their power not to find this. Ultimately, this can have the effect of undermining confidence in the Government, as has been seen numerous times when Ministers have seemingly got away with breaches of the Ministerial Code without any reprimand.

References:

Information on Mellor case taken from – https://inews.co.uk/news/covid-ppe-contracts-government-companies-sleaze-row-1308725

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