PM’s Power to Preside Over Breaches of Ministerial Code Should be RemovedProposes New Bill
‘We can’t continue to have a situation in which the government is allowed to set and mark its own homework’, says campaigner Jennifer Nadel
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Prime ministers would be unable to block or delay investigations into ministers accused of wrongdoing – as Boris Johnson was regularly accused of doing – under plans put forward by a backbench Labour MP and backed by Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi.
The Elected Representatives (Code of Conduct) Bill is being presented to Parliament by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams MP on 24 March, with backing from Green MP Caroline Lucas and Liberal Democrat Layla Moran, among others.
It seeks to end the situation whereby prime ministers are the ultimate arbiters of the Ministerial Code – a process which falls apart when it is prime ministers themselves who are accused of breaking the rules.
Last year, the Independent Advisor on Ministers’ Interests, Lord Geidt, resigned in frustration that he was unable to launch investigations into scandals such as ‘Partygate’ due to interference from the Prime Minister.
New rules introduced last year after the scandal came to light “still fail” to give independence and autonomy to the advisor to initiate new investigations into breaches of the Ministerial Code or publish the findings of any investigations, according to Abrahams.
The bill – which is unlikely to become law – proposes that, as in Northern Ireland, the Ministerial Code is put into law, while the role of an Independent Commissioner on Ministerial Standards would also be put on a permanent legal footing.
Ministers are expected to resign if they breach the Ministerial Code – but the system is based on a loose set of conventions which can be ignored.
Jennifer Nadel, co-director of the cross-party group Compassion in Politics, said: “We can’t continue to have a situation in which the government is allowed to set and mark its own homework. Standards need to be debated, transparent, and enforceable… this essential bill will finally raise the bar in terms of standards and ensure that those who fall short can be held to account.
“We can’t expect good policies to come from bad politics. This is about cleaning-up our political processes so that, together, government, MPs, and the public, the primary goal of politics: to improve everyone’s lives for the better.”
A letter to MPs backing the bill, seen by Byline Times and led by Compassion in Politics, states: “The fabric of our body politic has been torn by repeated scandals and abuses of power. To repair it will require the efforts of stitchers and seamers from every party.
“Ms Abrahams’ bill would ensure that a truly Independent Commissioner on Ministerial Standards would be established to initiate, oversee, advise and investigate breaches of the Ministerial Code. This would guarantee independence, transparency, and effective enforcement.”
There is currently a patchwork of watchdogs – some largely toothless – which oversee investigations into rule-breaking among politicians.
The bill would extend oversight of MPs’ behaviour, putting the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner which investigates MPs on a proper legal footing, allowing them to initiate investigations and extending its remit to cover alleged serious and serial breaches of the Seven Nolan Principles of Public Life by sitting MPs.
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams told Byline Times: “The Commissioner on Ministerial Standards wouldn’t have to ask for permission to investigate wrongdoing, as happened with the investigation into Nadhim Zahawi under Rishi Sunak, if this passes.
“Sadly, we have not moved on since Boris Johnson. The new standards [launched in October] prohibit the commissioner from investigating breaches in the Nolan principles” on conduct in public life.
“We need a citizens’ assembly on a new code of conduct for MPs. I’m convinced it’s essential. They would work with an ethics committee, which would then put recommendations to Parliament.”
Asked if the Labour frontbench would back her bill, Abrahams said: “We’re still 18 months from a general election but this is on the same trajectory [as Keir Starmer]. I will be pushing my party on this. Partygate pointed to the need to have this in place and we’ve been working on this policy for five years.”
She added: “Our leaders help shape the conditions in our society. But over the last seven years we haven’t had good leadership. From 2016, we have seen a very nasty shift in politics. That needs to change.”
According to polling by Compassion in Politics, four in five people have no respect for politicians and 40% of parents would be concerned if their child expressed a desire to become a politician. Abrahams also she pointed to Office for National Statistics data that shows that only one in three people trust the Government, and two in three think politicians are only out for themselves.
Letter to Party Leaders from Compassion in Politics and Others:
We the undersigned are writing to ask you to support and endorse the Elected Representatives (Code of Conduct) Bill which is being presented to Parliament by Debbie Abrahams MP on 24 March 2023.
In order for a democracy to function well, its principles must be upheld, rules enforced, and representatives made accountable. Unfortunately, several deficits exist within our parliamentary system which mean efforts to meet and maintain such standards are being routinely undermined.
Firstly, the prime minister cannot remain as arbiter of the Ministerial Code. By placing responsibility for the content and enforcement of the code in the hands of the prime minister, the government is effectively being allowed to set and mark its own homework.
Ms Abrahams’ Bill would ensure that a truly Independent Commissioner on Ministerial Standards would be established to initiate, oversee, advise and investigate breaches of the Ministerial Code. This would guarantee independence, transparency, and effective enforcement.
Secondly, it would extend the oversight of MPs’ behaviour. It would also establish the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner as a statutory office, allowing them to initiate investigations but also extending their remit to cover alleged serious and serial breaches of the Seven Nolan Principles of Public Life by sitting Members. This would mean that those vital standards outlined in the Nolan Principles – including honesty, objectivity, and accountability – can, finally, be upheld and enforced.
Next, Ms Abrahams’ Bill would ensure that councillors are accountable to a uniform and nationally applied code of conduct. As front-line politicians, they are often the public’s first point of contact with elected representatives and the first experience they have of democratic engagement. Currently, the rules governing their behaviour have been largely locally defined – leading to a postcode lottery in standards. A more uniform approach will ensure that the highest possible standards are maintained nationwide whether one lives in Berwick or Bude, Cardiff or Cambridge.
Finally, Ms Abraham’s Bill also seeks to address the growing divide between politicians and those they are elected to serve. An Independent Ethics Commission and an associated citizens’ assembly would be established which would engage the public in the ongoing reform and improvement of our political system – ensuring it is fit for the 21st Century. Polling by Compassion in Politics found that 69% believe they should have the right to shape and influence MPs’ codes, rules and standards.
We need to extend that right beyond the current Parliamentary Standards and Privileges and the Standards in Public Life Committees.
Ms Abrahams’ Bill must be seen as an opportunity. The fabric of our body politic has been torn by repeated scandals and abuses of power. To repair it will require the efforts of stitchers and seamers from every party. We hope you will support her bill with the enthusiasm it deserves.
- Matt Hawkins, co-director, Compassion in Politics
- Titus Alexander, founder, Democracy Matters
- Tom Brake, director, Unlock Democracy
- Liz Crosbie, project director, Reboot GB
- Marijn van de Geer and Kathie Conn, co-ordinators, XR UK Citizens Assembly Working Group
- Diane Warburton, co-founder, Shared Practice
- Dr Peter Hirst
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