HC Deb 27 June 2000 vol 352 cc729-32

4.3 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for enforcement of the ministerial code of conduct. I begin with a quotation. In issuing this Code, I should like to reaffirm my strong personal commitment to restoring the bond of trust between the British people and their Government … I will expect all Ministers to work within the letter and spirit of the Code. Ministers will find the Code a useful source of guidance and reference as they undertake their official duties in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety. The House will recognise the quotation. It is from the foreword to the ministerial code, written personally by the Prime Minister in July 1997.

In January, Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life found that: The effect of the foreword is to underline the status of the Code as the Prime Minister's document, written not only as guidance for Ministers but also as a pledge to the public. It also said that the role of the Prime Minister should be clarified. It pointed out: The Prime Minister remains the ultimate judge of the requirements of the Code and the appropriate consequences of breaches of it. Therefore, this is the Prime Minister's code; he is its author. To quote the Cabinet Secretary, it bears the Prime Minister's "personal imprint".

The Prime Minister, however, declines to enforce the code. As the House knows, the Deputy Prime Minister, somewhat grandly, has four residences—one a flat on Clapham common occupied by his son. That flat is owned by the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union and the Deputy Prime Minister is also the Secretary of State responsible for transport.

Hon. Members are probably not familiar with all the provisions of chapter 9 of the ministerial code on Ministers' private interests. Paragraph 113 deals specifically with trade unions. It says: There is.. no objection to a Minister holding trade union membership but care must be taken to avoid any actual or perceived conflict of interest. Ministers should arrange their affairs so as to avoid any suggestion that a union of which they are a member has any undue influence. There can be no question but that the Deputy Prime Minister has failed to do that. I quote again: They … should receive no remuneration from a union. The controlled rent on the flat is at least £12,000 a year less than the market rate. Although I do not suggest any improper behaviour by the Deputy Prime Minister, most people would see that as a considerable financial benefit.

Paragraph 114 states: Ministers must scrupulously avoid any danger of an actual or apparent conflict of interest between their ministerial position and their private financial interests. Can anyone doubt that there is at the very least an apparent conflict of interest between the duties of the Secretary of State responsible for transport and his beneficial tenancy of a flat from a transport union? The principle is stated in paragraph 126: It is a well-established and recognised rule that no Minister or public servant should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him under an obligation. Paragraph 109 states: Ministers will want to order their affairs so that no conflict arises or is thought to arise between their private interests … and their public duties. Where there is a doubt it will almost always be better to relinquish or dispose of the interest but Ministers should submit any such case to the Prime Minister for his decision. Sadly, the Prime Minister is unwilling to tell us whether this case has been put to him for his decision. Nor do we know whether the Deputy Prime Minister has consulted his permanent secretary, as required by paragraph 118. That becomes very relevant in considering the Transport Bill, on which the RMT not surprisingly made representations and on which the Deputy Prime Minister led the debate.

Even more relevant was the Rent Acts (Maximum Fair Rent) Order 1999, brought in by the Deputy Prime Minister's Department, which specifically capped increases in rent on flats such as his. Under paragraph 110 of the code, the right hon. Gentleman should have declared his interest to ministerial colleagues and remained entirely detached from the consideration of that business. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said that she would have expected Mr. Prescott to have made some mention within his Department of his interest in the subject matter of the order. We should remember that this statutory instrument would have had a direct effect on the right hon. Gentleman's personal circumstances. The Parliamentary Commissioner also found that the Deputy Prime Minister should certainly have registered the benefit obtained from his tenancy of the flat. Unfortunately, the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges overruled the commissioner for reasons best known to itself—a bizarre decision, in my view, especially because it then "invited" the Deputy Prime Minister to register the flat.

I hope that I have demonstrated that this is a very obvious breach of the letter and spirit of the ministerial code for which the Prime Minister is personally responsible. However, the Prime Minister has seen fit to ignore this contravention of his code.

In a letter to a Conservative colleague, the Prime Minister deliberately confused the code of conduct for Members—for which the House of Commons has responsibility—and his own ministerial code. He pretended that the decision of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges "vindicated" the breaches of the ministerial code—when the Committee could not even consider the subject.

Yesterday, I received a letter from the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson. It said: It is not for me … to adjudicate publicly on Ministers' conduct. The Prime Minister is fully satisfied that John Prescott has done nothing which in any way, shape or form reflects on his integrity or his ability to do his job. I accept that reply, but Sir Richard is, of course, responsible for the conduct of civil servants. I wonder whether and how he would have judged a civil servant who ignored the rules in such a manner.

The Prime Minister is wilfully blind to this clear breach of the ministerial code. Members must decide for themselves the cause of this blindness. It is not the Nelsonian blind eye which all Britons used to be taught to admire. On the contrary, it exposes the dishonesty of the Government, and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber might join me in condemning that.

Since RMT members complained and exposed the position of the Deputy Prime Minister, he has shown breathtaking arrogance. He has treated the parliamentary commissioner with disdain verging on contempt; he has ignored the request of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges that he register his interest; and he still refuses to concede that the ministerial code might even apply to him. He has made no attempt to distance himself from his benefactor or to put the matter right. Had he been a Minister in the previous Conservative Government, he would have been obliged to resign long ago. He should resign now.

Who on the Government Benches recalls the Prime Minister telling all Labour Members—

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)


Madam Speaker

Order. Ten-minute Bills are not usually interrupted.

Mr. Robathan

Who on the Government Benches recalls the Prime Minister telling all Labour Members a week after Labour's election victory that they were not in government to enjoy "the trappings of power"? Does the Prime Minister believe that this is an illustration of the "highest standards of propriety" which he then demanded? Members may doubt it. This may explain why within the past month the Prime Minister has twice refused to give evidence on the workings of the ministerial code to the Select Committee on Public Administration. The right hon. Gentleman has therefore shown that he is neither fit nor capable to administer his own code.

Ten-minute Bills can be used to highlight many issues. I hope that the House, including some honest Labour Members, will agree that this is an issue—

Madam Speaker

Order. I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. He has kept within the bounds of the motion but he is now going far from them. I ask him to withdraw his last remark.

Mr. Robathan

I certainly withdraw, Madam Speaker. I hope that all Labour Members will agree that this is an issue of genuine and great concern. I feel that we should beware of over-regulating the behaviour of Members, but in the case of Ministers there can be no doubt, as the Prime Minister agrees, that the "highest standards" of behaviour and propriety should be seen to be enforced. This case makes a mockery of the words and spirit of the ministerial code. It can only further undermine public respect for Ministers and other politicians.

My Bill would leave the day-to-day workings of the code in the hands of the Prime Minister. However, it would provide for a final judgment to be allowed by Lord Neill's committee. I would not envisage that involving many cases, but they would be ones of great importance. The Bill would oblige the Prime Minister to ensure that his Ministers obeyed his own code and that his actions matched his empty rhetoric.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Robathan and Mr. Martin Bell.