Hancock affair underscores need for ministerial code overhaul, report says

Institute for Government also calls for ban on ministers using personal phones for official business
Prime minister Boris Johnson Credit: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

05 Jul 2021

Prime minister Boris Johnson has been urged to make good on his pledge to update the ministerial code – and to put the revised document on a statutory footing to stop ambiguity over its interpretation, most recently demonstrated ahead of Matt Hancock’s resignation.

Think tank the Institute for Government said the revelations that cost Hancock his job as health secretary last week were just the latest examples of why the current code governing ministerial conduct was not fit for purpose. It added that Johnson had undermined the code – of which he is the final arbiter – on numerous occasions.

The IfG said a “fundamental overhaul” of the code was required, and that the document should be given a similar statutory footing to the civil service code and the code for special advisers.

Echoing a call from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the think-tank said the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial standards should be able to instigate their own investigations into conduct and publish their findings without No.10’s approval.

The IfG said the revised code should contain a range of sanctions available to deal with breaches, to avoid immediate calls for a minister’s resignation;  more explicit guidance on relationships in government; and a ban on ministers using personal phones to conduct government business.

It added that the new code should strengthen transparency of ministerial meetings and better distinguish between standards of behaviour and processes of government, to make the rules easier to understand and uphold.

The IfG said controversies about ministerial behaviour were not limited to Hancock’s appointment of longstanding-friend-turned-lover Gina Coladangelo as an adviser and then a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care, or his breaches of social-distancing guidance.

But the IfG said the fact that the PM was able to declare he “considered the matter closed” hours after details of Hancock’s behaviour first emerged on Friday last week showed the current system was not working. Hancock resigned the following day after a backlash from MPs focused on his breach of social-distancing guidance demonstrated by CCTV footage of an embrace with Coladangelo.

The IfG report said Johnson’s 2020 decision not to accept his former independent adviser’s finding that home secretary Priti Patel bullied staff at the Home Office was another example of the need for fundamental reform in the scope and application of the code.

It added that Johnson’s failure to launch an investigation into housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s handling of a multibillion-pound planning proposal backed by a Conservative Party donor was another controversial example of the way the code was currently applied. 

Lord Jonathan Evans, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, made reference to both cases  in November last year, describing them as causes for “real concern” that public trust in the government’s commitment to propriety was being eroded.

The IfG said that in addition to refusing to accept that home secretary Priti Patel had broken the ministerial code and that Hancock had questions to answer,  the prime minister had been accused himself of failing to live up to the code. It cited Johnson’s inability to “explain definitively” who had first paid for the refurbishment of his No.11 Downing Street flat as an example.

Current indpendent adviser on ministerial standards Lord Christopher Geidt concluded in May that Johnson had not broken the ministerial code in relation to the funding arrangements for the flat refurbishment.

IfG associate director Tim Durrant, a co-author of the think tank’s report, said Johnson’s April pledge to CSPL chair Evans that the ministerial code would be updated “in due course” was an opportunity for the PM to demonstrate his belief in upholding the highest ministerial standards in government.

“The prime minister claims to value high standards of behaviour in government, but under his watch the system upholding them has been severely weakened,” Durrant said.

“His decision to publish a new version of the ministerial code is an opportunity to repair some of the damage.”

Earlier this year Johnson rejected one of the IfG’s main proposals – allowing the prime minister’s independent adviser on standards to instigate their own inquiries. He said such a move would invite “vexatious complaints”.

Blurred lines of communication

The IfG said its proposals for ministers to be banned from conducting government business via personal phones followed criticism of Johnson doing so – in one example offering to “fix” tax issues for inventor and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson during the early stages of the pandemic.

Details of WhatsApp conversations published by former chief adviser Dominic Cummings last month that appeared to show Johnson describing former health secretary Hancock as “f***ing hopeless” during the early days of the pandemic also drew criticism over the use of the app in government.

The IfG said that while it had been acknowledged by cabinet secretary Simon Case that government information held on personal mobile phones was still covered by transparency legislation, the reality was that the use of personal devices “blurred the lines” between official and private communications.

It added that the use of private devices meant officials did not have ready access to records of conversations where key decisions were made, potentially making understanding and implementing those decisions more difficult.

“To help avoid accusations of unfair treatment of particular contacts, and to help ministers and their civil service staff work more effectively, ministers should stop using their personal phones for government business,” the report said.

“This change would be easy to add to the ministerial code and would help to avoid informal communication networks generating controversy in the future.”

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