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The buck stops here - Standards in Public Life: Ministerial verse Personal responsibility?

In recent weeks we have witnessed a raft of calls for ministers to resign over instances as far ranging as watching inappropriate material on the floor of the House to claims of financial mismanagement by the Exchequer. Such calls come fast on the tail of a vote of no confidence in the PM following claims that he misled MPs on the question of whether he attended parties in Westminster during lockdown.

On May 27th the Cabinet Office published the much anticipated new version of the Ministerial Code. The Code details a set of rules and principles which outline the standards of conduct for government ministers.

The cross party Committee on Standards in Public Life had recommended a number of changes to the previous ministerial code including developing a more muscular role for the Independent Adviser on Ministers Interest…the Office that polices the Code.

The Cabinet Office claim to have adopted several of the recommendations of the Standards Committee including giving the Independent Adviser the power to initiate investigations into potential breaches of the Code. The final decision to undertake an actual investigation however remains firmly with the PM, Boris Johnson.

One question asked by many commentators is whether the retention of power to permit investigations into potential breaches of the Code by the PM coupled to having the sole right to determine what sanction might be appropriate for any breach of the code has created (or rather retained) a position whereby the PM can effectively act as judge and jury. Opposition representatives point out that the new Code has effectively replaced the ‘convention’ that ministers who breach the Code automatically resign (or get sacked) with a ‘softer’ range of alternative sanctions that include making a public apology or losing the ministerial part of a salary for a period of time.

In defense of the new Code the Cabinet Office stated that it was “‘disproportionate” for ministers to lose their job for “minor breaches” of the Code…though this goes to heart of the criticism against the new code i.e. who determines what is a minor breach? And for some the answer to this question is the man making several minor breaches.

On June 10th The Chancellor of the Exchequer came under fire for apparently failing to take action that could have saved the tax payer a reported £11 billion. Members of the opposition called for the Chancellor’s resignation though others questioned the accusation against him. In this instance it was not a question of breaching any codes of office but rather a claim of incompetence that led to the call to resign.

In 1982 Lord Carrington, the British Foreign Secretary, resigned from Office not for breaching any ministerial code but rather for not having foreseen the actions that Argentina would take with respect to challenging British rule of the Falkland Islands. He was deemed to have not seen the potential threat of war and thus needed to do the honorable thing and fall on his sword. Some said that he was made a scape goat though whatever the case he took responsibility for what many claimed was his own inaction.

Who then should determine whether a breach of code or a significant personal failing has taken place in the workplace? And who then should determine what is an appropriate sanction?

September 16th 1992 is known as Black Wednesday… the day the UK exited the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The Chancellor at the time was Norman Lamont who was accused of losing over £3 Billion of taxpayers money (£6 billion today)….and yet he remained in post.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, is accused of losing £11 billion through failing to insure funds in the Bank of England’s (BOE) reserve account against a rise in interest rates. Debt in the BOE’s reserve account incurred 0.1% interest a year ago making it cheaper than the interest applied to gilts (government Bonds). The recent and some would say predicable rise in the interest rates meant that the debt in the BOE reserve account increased by a larger amount than if the debt were converted to longer maturing government gilts…hence the calls, yet again, for Mr. Sunak’s resignation. Mr. Sunak remains in post and his office is quick to point that his efforts to stabilize and grow the money supply through quantitative easing (QE) have accrued £120 billion to the chancellery.

Determining culpability can often prove to be quite a challenging exercise. Additionally, determining who is best placed to determine it and what should be done if it is determined can be equally difficult questions to resolve. So where should the buck stop?

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