The Ministerial Code is a set of rules and principles issued by the Prime Minister which outlines the standards of conduct for government ministers.
The code explains that it should be read alongside the ‘overarching duty’ of ministers to comply with the law and to abide by the Seven Principles of Public Life, a set of ethical standards which apply to all holders of public office.
The Ministerial Code applies to all government ministers. Sections of it also apply to special advisers and parliamentary private secretaries.
There are different codes for ministers for the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Ministerial Code covers:
- the principle of collective responsibility
- proper and transparent engagement with Parliament
- avoiding potential conflicts of interest
- the proper use of government resources.
The code details the conduct of ministers in their department and some aspects of their powers and accountability. It specifies where they should consult the Cabinet or Number 10 before action and the rules around how ministers work with the civil service. A large proportion of it covers propriety and ethics.
The Ministerial Code mirrors some of the constitutional rules and conventions set out in other documents, including the Cabinet Manual and Civil Service Code. As such, it is not legally binding, though there is increasing pressure for it to be.
A form of the code has existed since the Second World War, though it was only made public when it was published as Questions of Procedure for Ministers by the then Prime Minister John Major in 1992. It was renamed the Ministerial Code under Tony Blair in 1997.
When a breach of the Ministerial Code is alleged to have taken place, whether it is investigated is entirely at the Prime Minister’s discretion. The code explicitly says that it “is not the role of the Cabinet Secretary or other officials to enforce the code.”
Usually the Prime Minister chooses to involve the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests or requests that the Cabinet Secretary undertakes an investigation, but there is no requirement to follow any particular process. Following an investigation, the Prime Minister is the ultimate arbiter of whether there has been a breach of the code.
In cases of apparent breach, MPs now often write to the Cabinet Secretary to call for an inquiry and one former minister has called for politicians investigated under the rules to have the protections of a legal process. Some have called for the role of the Independent Adviser to be changed so that ministers can be investigated for an alleged breach of the code without the authorisation of the Prime Minister.
The most recent minister to resign over a breach of the Code was Damian Green in December 2017. The Prime Minister referred Green for investigation by the then Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, and when the ensuing investigation found that he had twice breached the honesty requirement of the Seven Principles of Public Life outlined in the Code she asked him to resign as First Secretary of State.
A new version is published at the start of each new administration, although in certain circumstances it is updated more frequently.
The most recent update was in August 2019, when Boris Johnson became prime minister. The bulk of the code is the same as the version issued by Theresa May. Prior to that, it was updated in January 2018, following misconduct allegations against former ministers Michael Fallon, Priti Patel and Damian Green. Changes were made to the section on conduct during foreign visits and to include a section about harassment and inappropriate behaviour.