MP proposes bill to force government to comply with ministerial code

A new law aiming to force government ministers to comply with their official code of ethics is to be debated in parliament.

What chance? – Owl

Lizzie Dearden

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams is calling for a bill that would put the ministerial code, which governs standards of behaviour, honesty and accountability, on a statutory footing.

Her ten-minute rule bill, which allows backbench MPs to make their case for a new law in a short speech, is due to be debated on 10 January.

Ms Abrahams will call for codes of conduct for ministers, MPs, peers and councillors to be written into law in the same way as happens in Northern Ireland.

She told the PA news agency that putting the code onto a statutory footing would “take it out of a political arena”.

“I feel particularly strongly that politics is in a bad place, and that politics and politicians aren’t trusted,” Ms Abrahams added. “I think that’s dangerous for our democracy.

“I don’t think it’s just our fault, but I think we need to do things that are going to improve that position, not make it worse.”

The ministerial code currently has no legal basis and has proven difficult to enforce, with the government operating without an ethics adviser able to investigate breaches for six months.

Rishi Sunak recently appointed veteran banker and Historic England chairman Sir Laurie Magnus as his new independent adviser on ministers’ interests, but faced criticism for ignoring calls to enable him to start investigations without his permission.

Critics argue that the approach effectively undermines efforts to properly enforce the code, by leaving too much power in the prime minister’s hands.

There has been no investigation into Suella Braverman’s apparent breach of the ministerial code in October, when the home secretary sent a draft statement from her personal email to a backbench MP and Tory staffer.

Ms Braverman resigned from her post in Liz Truss’s government but was reinstated days later after Mr Sunak became prime minister.

Former ethics adviser Sir Alex Allan resigned in November 2020 after Boris Johnson kept then-home secretary Priti Patel in post despite his conclusion that she had broken the ministerial code by bullying civil servants.

His successor, Lord Christopher Geidt, quit in June after telling a parliamentary committee that Mr Johnson may have broken the ministerial code during the Partygate scandal.

He told MPs that he did not have the power to initiate an investigation into the former prime minister, because the “authority for the independent adviser flows from the prime minister in assisting the prime minister in the business of managing his own ministers”.

Mr Johnson cleared himself of breaking the ministerial code in a letter claiming that a Covid fine did not count as a criminal conviction, and he had corrected false statements to parliament on parties that violated restrictions.

The Independent has previously revealed numerous occasions where government ministers have failed to correct the record after making false statements in parliament – even though the code states that those who knowingly mislead parliament “will be expected to offer their resignation”.