Codes of conduct for ministers are amongst a range of initiatives designed to respond to perceptions of the erosion of ministerial accountability, and to preserve public trust in the institutions of cabinet government. Written guidance for British cabinet ministers began as the document Questions of Procedure for Ministers (QPM), which was a confidential document prepared by the Cabinet Office to assist ministers, and dates to at least the 1980s.
The earliest published form of the Code was when the QPM was released by the Major Government in 1992, and further editions have been adapted based on suggestions and recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The first edition to be entitled Ministerial Code was Tony Blair's 1997 set of rules. The most recent version was released in May 2010 (it being a convention for each new Prime Minister to issue their own).
The Code is currently administered by the Propriety and Ethics group within the Cabinet Office.
The Code itself is divided into ten sections, and one annex. It begins with a foreword from Gordon Brown, which stresses the necessity for open government and transparency, and explains that there are "several new mechanisms" for making available to the public information on Ministerial business.
Section 1 – Ministers of the Crown
This section is an introduction, setting out the role of ministers to the government, to Parliament, and to the people. It directs ministers to "behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety," to uphold the principle of collective responsibility, and to avoid conflicts of interest.
Section 2 – Ministers and the Government
Section 2, Ministers and the Government, sets out the precise rules of collective responsibility. It also states that ministers should relinquish all government material when ceasing to hold a role, and provides rules on access to government papers by former ministers (for example, those writing memoirs may wish to check the documents from their time in office). This set of rules are known as the "Radcliffe rules".
Section 3 – Ministers and Appointments
Setting out the rules regarding special advisers (temporary civil servants who are political agents of the minister), how many each minister may appoint, and their powers and duties. Also covered is the appointment of Parliamentary Private Secretaries (backbenchers who act as an unpaid secretary to the minister, to gain experience and credit with the party), whose appointment would require written authority from the Prime Minister. PPSs are not members of the government, but are expected to form part of the payroll vote, and support all government initiatives in the House of Commons.
Section 4 – Ministers and Their Departments
Ministers and Their Departments regards the machinery of government (the structure of government departments and how responsibilities can be transferred), and how ministers should ensure that their work is covered during any absence from London – even for constituency business.
Section 5 – Ministers and Civil Servants
This section, Ministers and Civil Servants, regards ministerial relationships with the Civil Service. It states that ministers "must uphold the political impartiality of the Civil Service, and not ask civil servants to act in any way which would conflict with the Civil Service Code."
Section 6 – Ministers' Constituency and Party Interests
Ministers' Constituency and Party Interests directs ministers to refrain from using government property and resources in their role as an MP. For example, political leaflets must not be distributed at the expense of public funds. Ministers with a conflict of interest between their government role and their constituency (for example, a transport minister may have to balance the desire of his constituents not to have a new airport built near their town, with his government duties) are simply advised to act cautiously; "ministers are advised to take particular care."
Section 7 – Ministers' Private Interests
This section requires ministers to provide their Permanent Secretary with a complete list of any financial interests they have. In March 2009, this list was released to the public for the first time. It is collated and made available by the Cabinet Office. Officials sometimes need to restrict "interested" ministers' access to certain papers, in order to ensure impartiality.
Guidelines are set out as to maintaining neutrality for ministers who are members of a trade union. No minister should accept gifts or hospitality from any person or organisation when a conflict of interest could arise. A list of gifts, and how they were dealt with on an individual basis, is published annually.
Section 8 – Ministers and the Presentation of Policy
Speeches, interviews and news releases should all be cleared with the Number 10 Press Office, to ensure synchronicity of timing, and clarity of content. Ministers should not practice "regular journalism" without the permission of the Office. No minister may publish a book about their ministerial experiences while in office. Former ministers require manuscripts to be cleared by the Cabinet Secretary, under the "Radcliffe rules".
Section 9 – Ministers and Parliament
Ministers should not make oral statements to Parliament without prior approval from the Prime Minister. Any other minister or MP to be mentioned in such a statement should be notified beforehand.
Section 10 – Travel by Ministers
Official government transport, paid for by public funds, should normally only be used on government business, except where security requires that it be used even for personal transport. All travel should be cost-effective, and any trips abroad should be kept as small as possible. All overseas delegations costing more than £500 have their details published, annually. Members of the Cabinet have the authority to order special (non-scheduled) flights, but this power should only be used when necessary. In the event of a minister being summoned home on urgent government business, the cost of the round trip will be paid for from public funds. There are also rules relating to the use of official cars, and air miles gained by official travel.
Selflessness: ministers should act entirely in the public interest.
Integrity: no financial obligations should be accepted if they could undermine the minister's position.
Objectivity: when making appointments, decisions should be based on merit.
Accountability: all public office-holders are accountable, and should co-operate with all scrutiny procedures.
Openness: all decisions should be justified, and information should be restricted only when necessary for the public interest.
Honesty: public office-holders are required, by duty, to be honest in all their dealings and business.
Leadership: the principles should be supported and upheld by leadership and example.
It has been argued that, following a series of high-profile political scandals over the Code (David Blunkett resigned for a second time over a conflict of interest; and Tessa Jowell's husband was implicated – separately – in a furore over his financial dealings), that it should be administered by a more impartial figure than the Prime Minister. However, the Prime Minister remains the ultimate judge of whether or not a minister has breached the Code.
^Fleming, Jenny; Holland, Ian (2001). "The case for ministerial ethics". In Fleming, Jenny and Ian Holland. Motivating Ministers to Morality. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. ISBN 0754622177.
^ abcWeller, Pat (2001). "Ministerial codes, cabinet rules and the power of prime ministers". In Fleming, Jenny and Ian Holland. Motivating Ministers to Morality. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. ISBN 0754622177.
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