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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 applies to all government ministers. In addition, sections apply to parliamentary private secretaries and special advisers. An unofficial form of guidance for ministers has been in existence since at least the second world war. In May 1992, an official guidance note for ministers, Questions of Procedure for Ministers, was published for the first time.

The code covers a range of issues, including: the principle of collective responsibility; proper and transparent engagement with Parliament; avoiding potential conflicts of interest; propriety and ethics; and how ministers work with the civil service. The code is regularly updated, with the most recent update being in August 2019. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, stated in the foreword of the August 2019 code that:

There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document—integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest—must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.

Section 1.4 of the code outlines the process where a breach of code is alleged. In this circumstance the prime minister, having consulted the cabinet secretary, decides whether an investigation should be called. If an investigation is called “he may ask the Cabinet Office to investigate the facts of the case and/or refer the matter to the independent adviser on ministers’ interests”. Following any investigation, the prime minister will decide whether a breach of the code has occurred.

In a recent urgent question on specific allegations of “apparent breaches of the ministerial code” the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, stated “it is not enough to just refer this to the Cabinet Office”. Instead he called for an independent investigation led by an external lawyer, as requested by the FDA civil service union. The Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, argued that the Cabinet Office investigation would be “thorough, rapid, independent and authoritative”.

This House of Lords Library Briefing contains a selection of material relevant to the forthcoming question for short debate on 12 March 2020 to “ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking (1) to review, and (2) to strengthen, the Ministerial Code”.


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