TOAs the fallout from the Matt Hancock case continues, questions have been raised about the UK’s system of checks and balances on ministerial behavior. There are a variety of bodies inside and outside government that can scrutinize the actions of ministers, but all too often they can be bypassed by a prime minister with a comfortable majority.
While Hancock may have resigned due to his breach of the Covid rules he enacted, his romance with Gina Coladangelo raised broader questions about the shortcomings of other rules. Coladangelo was not simply an assistant, she was a non-executive director of her department. Neds, in Whitehall lingo, are people brought in from outside of government to sit on the boards of government departments and discuss how they are run. Ned is supposed to disclose any conflict of interest, but since nothing has been published, there is no record as to whether his long-standing friendship with Hancock was deemed a conflict (or the possible conflict of interest raised by his brother’s work on a company that won an NHS contract).
The ministerial code also talks about even the appearance of a conflict of interest that needs to be considered, and the importance of appropriate ministers’ relationships with department members. All of this should have given Hancock pause to think about his actions. But we still don’t know if this situation was due to a lack of controls by officials or a lack of honesty from Hancock and Coladangelo, or a combination of both.
Perhaps the most fundamental and oldest control of the system is the idea that ministers are ultimately accountable to parliament, although the tools available to parliamentarians are much more difficult to handle if the government has a comfortable majority. Without strong opposition, the court of public opinion and what it means for the government’s political calculations has played a decisive role in the Hancock case.
When embarrassing images of the Health Secretary and Coladangelo surfaced, Hancock’s first move, like the prime minister’s, was to try to draw a line on the matter. It was only when the extent of public anger became apparent, along with a rapid loss of support for Hancock among Tory MPs, that he decided to resign. But upholding standards in government shouldn’t depend solely on whether the scandals manage to “cut” the public.
Beyond their departments, an additional check against ministerial misconduct is independent counsel on the interests of ministers. The adviser, appointed by the prime minister and not so independent in reality, examines possible breaches of the ministerial code and advises ministers on the management of possible conflicts of interest.
If Hancock had not resigned, it would have been appropriate to be investigated for potentially breaking the rules, although the prime minister would have had to sanction any investigation. And even if an investigation into Hancock had been carried out, it would ultimately have been ineffective: It is up to the prime minister to decide what sanctions should come from the adviser’s findings. Last year, when Sir Alex Allan discovered that Home Secretary Priti Patel had violated the ministerial code by intimidating staff, the prime minister disagreed, Patel remained in his place and Allan resigned.
Ministers may also be summoned to the Commons to answer urgent questions, brought before select committees to explain their actions, although the powers of the committees to enforce these subpoenas are limited, or censured by parliamentarians, although this procedure is rarely used. and it has little formal effect on others than causing political embarrassment.
If a minister has misbehaved in his capacity as a deputy, then the rules committee can address it, and may recommend a number of sanctions, including expulsion from the Commons. But any sanction must be agreed to by parliamentarians, and when the government has a healthy majority, it is unlikely to happen. This does not prevent the opposition from making life difficult for the government by repeatedly drawing parliamentary – and public – attention to ministerial misdeeds, but these checks and balances depend on public reaction to have any impact.
Several other agencies work to guarantee ownership in public appointments. There is even broader control against misconduct in the form of the public life standards committee. His job is not to investigate specific infractions of the rules, but rather to advise the prime minister on ethical standards throughout government and public life in general, upholding the Nolan principles, which apply to all people in public office. But it has no formal powers to compel certain behaviors in government.
Again, the prime minister can decide how to respond to the committee’s work. In fact, the committee has recently suggested a number of changes to strengthen the way checks and balances on ministerial behavior work, but of course it will depend on the number 10 if you carry them forward.
Public opinion should be a control over the behavior of the ministers who serve us, but it should not be the decisive control. Standards exist for a reason: They improve governance and must be upheld regardless of the attention of the public, the press, or even the opposition. But the prime minister’s approach to standards has so far been lax, and the Hancock case is a reminder of the political damage this can cause.
Later this week, the Institute of Government will establish how the prime minister can review the ministerial code and the role of the independent adviser. But even a strengthened code relies on the prime minister taking government rules seriously. Checks and balances on ministerial misbehavior as they stand are often too reliant on the weight of public opinion to have an impact, but standards must always matter, regardless of whether they are seen to cut through the public or not.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism