As the fallout from the Matt Hancock affair continues, questions have been raised about the UK’s system of checks and balances on ministerial behaviour. There is a range of bodies inside and outside government that can scrutinise the actions of ministers – but all too often they can be circumvented by a prime minister with a comfortable majority.
While Hancock may have resigned because of his failure to abide by the Covid rules he put into law, his affair with Gina Coladangelo raised wider questions about the inadequacies of other rules. Coladangelo was not simply an aide – she was a non-executive director in his department. Neds, in Whitehall jargon, are people brought in from outside government to sit on the boards of government departments, scrutinising how they are run. Neds are supposed to declare any conflicts of interest, but as nothing has been published, there is no record of whether her longstanding friendship with Hancock was considered a conflict (or the potential conflict of interest posed by her brother’s job at a company that has won an NHS contract).
The ministerial code likewise talks about even the appearance of a conflict of interest needing to be considered, and the importance of ministers’ relationships with those in the department being appropriate. All of this should have given Hancock pause for thought about his actions. But whether this situation stemmed from a lack of checks by civil servants or a lack of honesty by Hancock and Coladangelo – or a combination of the two – we don’t yet know.
Perhaps the most fundamental, and longstanding, check in the system is the idea that ministers are ultimately accountable to parliament, though the tools available to MPs are much harder to wield if the government has a comfortable majority. With no strong opposition, the court of public opinion and what it means for the government’s political calculations has played a deciding role in the Hancock affair.
When embarrassing images of the health secretary and Coladangelo appeared, Hancock’s first move, like the prime minister’s, was to try to draw a line under the matter. It was only when the extent of public anger became clear, along with a rapid loss of support for Hancock among Conservative MPs, that he decided to quit. But the upholding of standards in government should not just depend on whether scandals achieve “cut-through” with the public.
Beyond their departments, a further check against ministerial misbehaviour is the independent adviser on ministers’ interests. The adviser – appointed by the prime minister and not actually that independent – examines potential breaches of the ministerial code and advises ministers on managing potential conflicts of interest.
If Hancock had not resigned, it would have been appropriate for him to be investigated for potentially breaking the rules – though the prime minister would have had to sanction any inquiry. And even if an investigation into Hancock had taken place, it would ultimately have been toothless – it is up to the prime minister to decide what sanctions should come from the adviser’s findings. Last year, when Sir Alex Allan found that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had breached the ministerial code by bullying staff, the prime minister disagreed, Patel remained in place – and Allan resigned.
Ministers can also be summoned to the Commons to answer urgent questions, hauled before select committees to explain their actions – though committees’ powers to enforce these summonses are limited – or censured by MPs, though this procedure is rarely used and has little formal effect other than causing political embarrassment.
If a minister has misbehaved in their capacity as an MP, then that may be taken up by the standards committee, which can recommend a range of sanctions including expulsion from the Commons. But any sanctions have to be agreed by MPs, and when the government has a healthy majority, that is unlikely to happen. This doesn’t prevent the opposition from making the government’s life difficult, by drawing parliamentary – and public – attention repeatedly to ministerial misdeeds, but these checks and balances rely on the public’s reaction to have any impact.
A number of other bodies work to ensure propriety in public appointments. An even wider check against misbehaviour exists in the form of the committee on standards in public life. Its job is not to investigate specific breaches of the rules, but rather to advise the prime minister on ethical standards across government and broader public life, upholding the Nolan principles, which apply to all people in public office. But it has no formal powers to compel certain behaviour in government.
Again, the prime minister can decide how to respond to the work of the committee. In fact, the committee has recently suggested a number of changes to strengthen how the checks and balances on ministerial behaviour work – but, of course, it will be up to No 10 whether to take these forward.
Public opinion should be a check on the behaviour of the ministers who serve us, but it should not be the deciding check. Standards exist for a reason: they make government better and they should be upheld regardless of attention from the public, the press, or even the opposition. But the prime minister’s approach to standards has, so far, been lax, and Hancock’s case is a reminder of the political damage this can cause.
Later this week the Institute for Government will set out how the prime minister can overhaul the ministerial code and the role of the independent adviser. But even a strengthened code relies on the prime minister taking standards in government seriously. Checks and balances on ministerial bad behaviour as they stand are often too dependent on the weight of public opinion to have an impact – but standards should always matter, regardless of whether they are deemed to cut through with the public or not.