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Updating the ministerial code

The ministerial code is not working, is being undermined by the prime minister and requires urgent reform.

Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson

The ministerial code is not working, is being undermined by the prime minister and requires urgent reform.

This report argues that Boris Johnson should fundamentally overhaul the rules which govern the standards of behaviour to which ministers are expected to adhere.

Recent revelations about a lack of transparency in government, particularly around meetings with Greensill Capital, and the questions of accountability prompted by the Hancock affair make clear that more than just piecemeal updates are need. The prime minister must take this opportunity to demonstrate that he believes in upholding the highest ministerial standards in government.

While Johnson says that he values high standards in government, his actions reveal otherwise. By rejecting his independent adviser’s conclusions when the home secretary was accused of bullying civil servants, and by saying he ‘considered the matter closed’ when the news of Hancock’s breach of Covid rules broke, Boris Johnson has undermined the code. While the prime minister will always be ultimately responsible for standards in government – or the lack of them – a strengthened code, with proper independent investigations, will help rebuild confidence that standards still matter.

The report recommends that:

  • The existence of the ministerial code, like the codes governing the behaviour of civil servants and special advisers, be given a statutory underpinning.
  • The prime minister’s independent adviser be allowed to start investigations and publish findings without prior prime ministerial agreement.

New concerns should be reflected in the code:

  • Accusations of conflicts of interests in Hancock’s appointment of Gina Coladangelo as an adviser and then a non-executive director at the Department for Health mean more explicit guidance may be needed on relationships in government.
  • Criticisms of Boris Johnson discussing government business via messages on his personal phone should be taken seriously, with the new code banning ministers from using personal phones to conduct government business.

To strengthen the ministerial code, the report also recommends that:

  • The new code explain that a range of sanctions are available for breaches, to avoid immediate calls for resignation.
  • Ministers publicly commit to abiding by the code.
  • The new code update rules on accountability for special advisers, and strengthens transparency of ministerial meetings.
  • The new code should better distinguish between standards of behaviour and processes of government, to make the code easier to understand and uphold.
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

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