We must be different from what has gone before us. Careful with public money. Transparent about what we do and how we do it.
(David Cameron, foreword to the Ministerial Code, May 2010)
The Ministerial Code is a set of rules for the conduct of government ministers. It lays out, in the words of the gov.uk website: “the standards of conduct expected of ministers and how they discharge their duties.” It is:
“the rule book for ministerial conduct, including the responsibilities of Ministers to Parliament.”
(HC235 2000-2001 para 15)
The code derives from the confidential Cabinet Office document, ‘Questions of Procedure for Ministers’, which was first made public in 1992 under the Major Government:
“…it had been in existence before this as a confidential internal circular since at least the second world war and was well known unofficially in the media, academic texts and in Parliament.”
(Oonah Gay, briefing, Parliament and Constitution Centre, September 2010)
The 1997 version, published by the Blair Government, was the first to be titled ‘Minsterial Code’. It has become convention for newly elected Prime Ministers to add a foreword and issue a new edition of the code.
Commenting on the 2007 edition of the code, published by the Brown Government, the Seventh Report of the Select Committee on Public Administration notes:
There is a clear public interest in transparency over the personal interests of ministers.
Honesty, transparency and openness are keynotes of the code. It states:
Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public…
Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take.
The standards of behaviour enshrined in the code apply, specifically, to “meetings” and the development of policy – as David Cameron makes clear in his 2010 foreword:
In everything we do – the policies we develop and how we implement them, the speeches we give, the meetings we hold – we must remember that we are not masters but servants.
David Cameron has put “transparency” at the forefront of his public statements about the business of government. In his official ‘Letter to government departments on opening up data‘ (31 May, 2010 – published shortly after his edition of the Ministerial Code) he states:
“Greater transparency across government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account…”
“The government must set new standards for transparency…”
This drive towards governmental transparency was noted by Sir Philip Mawer – the then Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests – in his Annual Report (December 2011). In it he notes:
Further steps towards greater transparency and accountability taken since the publication of my first report include the publication, online and on a quarterly basis, of information about Ministerial meetings with outside interest groups.
Addendum to the Minsterial Code
On 15 July 2011 the following addendum to the Ministerial Code was agreed by Prime Minister David Cameron:
“The Government will be open about its links with the media. All meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, editors and senior executives will be published quarterly regardless of the purpose of the meeting.”
This addendum is referred to by David Cameron in his witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry (4 May, 2012). In talking of “the necessary relationship between senior politicians and the media”, he warns of “the public perception that media proprietors and senior media figures in general, or specific individuals in particular, can have too loud a voice in the country’s politics”. And he suggests a solution to this problem:
“One of the best ways of dealing with this issue is to ensure transparency and openness about meetings, so that the public is aware of what is taking place and can see for themselves the interactions which occur.”
Cameron was determined to put this principle into practice:
I took the decision to make public my meetings with media proprietors, editors and senior executives with the objective of improving the transparency of the relationship between Government Ministers and the media..
As he points out, this drive towards transparency was enshrined in the above quoted addendum to the Ministerial Code:
“I also ensured this approach is followed by all Ministers across Government by amending the Ministerial Code on 15 July 2011 (published as an addendum to the Code on the Cabinet Office website)…”
In other words, the July 2011 addendum is directly tied to “the objective of improving the transparency of the relationship between Government Ministers and the media”.
Both in his written statement, and when giving evidence to the Inquiry in person, David Cameron stressed the importance of transparency and openness. In his witness statement to Leveson he said:
“The links between senior politicians and media should be open to public scrutiny and examination…”
And in his spoken evidence to the Inquiry (June 14, 2012) he highlighted the progress towards greater transparency that had been made under his government:
“I think the right way of dealing with this is to have what we’ve set out, transparency about meetings, which is far in advance of anything a government has done in the past…
Does Cameron’s addendum work?
In his memorandum submitted to the Leveson Inquiry (June 5, 2012), Profossor Ivor Gaber of London’s City University commented on the efficacy of the July 2011 addendum to the Ministerial Code:
The change in the Ministerial Code in July 2011 could make a major difference, not just to how this relationship is perceived but how it is actually conducted, for example, the revelations about the intensity of the contacts between the Government and senior members of News Corporation in 2010 and 2011, revealed as a result of the Code, enabled the public to grasp the intimacy of this relationship. It was to be hoped that this level of transparency would continue, but since the initial publication some Departments have been using this new aspect of the code to deny Freedom of Information inquiries about ministerial meetings on the basis that details will eventually be published under the Code (this is based on the direct recent experience of this author who drew a blank when he sought to use an FOI request to investigate contacts between the Secretary of State for Education and Associated Newspapers).
Breaches of the Ministerial Code
The Ministerial Code is the Prime Minister’s guidance to his Ministers on how he expects them to undertake their official duties. It is for the Prime Minister to determine the terms of the Code.
The role of investigating breaches of the Ministerial Code has gradually passed to the government’s independent ‘Ministerial Advisor’ – but the Prime Minister is considered the ultimate arbiter. The Fourth Special Report of the Select Committee on Public Administration (2007) states:
…it must be for the Prime Minister to judge whether the facts amount to a breach of the Ministerial Code and the consequences of any such breach.
…ultimately it must be for the Prime Minister to judge what the right course of action is in relation to a breach of the Code and to account for his decision to Parliament. This principle is set out in Section 1 of the new Ministerial Code. For the first time ever, the Code makes clear that if there is an alleged breach of the Code, and the Prime Minister, having consulted the Cabinet Secretary feels that it warrants further investigation, he will refer the matter to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. The Government believes that this is an important development which will help to strengthen and promote public confidence in the Ministerial Code.