Mind your language

How can MPs live up to a code of conduct that makes no sense?

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

27 January 2018

9:00 AM

Ministers must observe the rather curious ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’ in the new Ministerial Code published this month by the Cabinet Office. I call them curious not because they echo the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord), but because they seem inconsistent with government.

The Seven Principles are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Take selflessness. Selflessness means that ‘holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest’. I can’t see what the phrase ‘in terms of’ is doing there. Isn’t it just ‘in the public interest’? But can ministers really act solely in the public interest? Can they never time an announcement to benefit the party or their careers?


Openness is more puzzling. ‘Holders of public office should… take decisions in an open and transparent manner,’ the Code declares. This contradicts a section on collective responsibility, which insists on ‘the privacy of opinions expressed in cabinet’. It adds that ‘the internal process through which a decision has been made… should not be disclosed’. So perhaps the Fifth Principle, openness, should be rewritten as: ‘Holders of public office should take decisions in a secret manner.’

A consequence of openness is: ‘Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for doing so.’ There are bound to be reasons, and one hopes they are lawful. That could be reformulated as: ‘Information may be withheld from the public unless to do so is unlawful.’ What about the hand brushing the knee, and all that? Should working relationships be improper and inappropriate? By no means. They should be ‘proper and appropriate’. Moreover ‘inappropriate or discriminating behaviour’ wherever it takes place ‘will not be tolerated’. So behaviour that is not appropriate is inappropriate.

Nor may ministers be ‘discriminating’. It doesn’t say if behaviour can be discriminatory, but I’d guess that was inapprop-riate, too. If in doubt remember: ‘Ministers only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. She is the ultimate judge.’ After all, she acts ‘solely in terms of the public interest’. — Dot Wordsworth

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