Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report


The Public Administration Select Committee has agreed to the following Report:—


1. The Ministerial Code is a vital part of the constitution. It sets out what citizens should expect of those who govern them, and provides an important means by which they should be held to account. It is an important safeguard against abuse and incompetence.

2. That is why the Committee produced a report[2] earlier this year on how the Code operated and what was needed to improve it. The report was timely, coming just before an expected general election, for the convention is that the Code is reissued, with any revisions, following a general election. The Committee was anxious to ensure that the revised Code would incorporate some important principles and operational improvements.

3. These recommendations included measures to strengthen accountability and clarify the responsibilities owed by Ministers to Parliament and the public. They focused also on standards of conduct and how they were to be maintained.

4. The Government published the revised Ministerial Code in July 2001, and has recently produced its Response to the Committee' s Report, attached as an Appendix to this Report.

Recognition of Important Developments

5. We welcome several features of the new Code and the Government's Response. They incorporate a number of the Committee's recommendations, in particular

  • that the Code is not only a guide for Ministers but a framework. As the Government Response says "the Code provides Ministers with a framework against which to make decisions on how to act in circumstances not covered by the Code".

  • that the Seven Principles of Public Life are included as an explicit requirement for Ministers to observe. The inclusion in the July 2001 version of the Code of the Seven Principles set out by the Committee on Standards in Public Life is a positive development, bringing Ministers into line with many other groups of public servants.

  • that the Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour of Ministers. The Government accepts the Committee's recommendations (and those of the Committee on Standards in Public Life) that the Code should contain an explicit recognition that the Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister.

Remaining Gaps in Accountability

6. Whilst there is much to welcome in the Government's Response, we are disappointed with some aspects, where we hoped the gaps in accountability that our Third Report identified would be closed. These are:

  • that the Prime Minister continues to refuse to appear before a select committee of the House of Commons (recommendation c). As the Government Response put it, "those best placed to answer these questions and to account for their actions and decisions [before select committees] are the Ministers with responsibility for the specific area of interest". The argument that this exempts the Prime Minister from answering detailed questions in the forensic forum of a select committee is now looking increasingly threadbare.

7. We regret that the Government has not chosen to take up recommendation (g) which could have given greater transparency and accountability to the process of dealing with complaints against Ministers. We continue to believe that an independent parliamentary mechanism for complaints, such as the Ombudsman, offers substantial benefits. It would carry greater weight than the judgement of the Minister, the Prime Minister or the Cabinet Secretary. That applies where there is a breach of the Code. But it also applies where a Minister has not transgressed and deserves to be cleared in the most transparent and authoritative manner.

Developments since the General Election

8. This issue has become even more pressing since our Third Report because the Prime Minister's role has developed further. Since the Election, the Prime Minister has unequivocally acquired "specific" responsibility for several important new bodies. These include the Office of Public Services Reform and the Forward Strategy Unit, which both report direct to the Prime Minister with no other Ministerial accountability. These units have very significant roles in helping the Government deliver on its promises. Yet no select committee is able to hold the responsible Minister to account. We find this profoundly unsatisfactory and illogical.

9. The non-appearance of Prime Ministers before select committees is a relatively recent convention. We do not believe it can be sustained any longer, if there is to be effective accountability for the Ministerial Code and for the developing centre of government. This is a gap in parliamentary accountability that has to be closed.

2  Third Report (Session 2000-01) HC 235 Back

3  Third Report (Session 2000-01) HC 235, paragraph 24 Back

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Prepared 11 December 2001