Gus O'DonnellThe Conservatives have demanded an urgent enquiry by Sir Gus O’Donnell, Head of the Home Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary, into allegations that David Blunkett has broken the Ministerial Code by failing to seek the approval of an independent committee before becoming a non-executive director of a DNA testing firm.

Whatever the merits of this particular case, we should kill off the idea that it is the job of civil servants to investigate the behaviour of ministers.

Sir Robin Butler set a ill-judged precedent in 1994 by agreeing to investigate allegations against Jonathan Aitken.  In the absence of any powers to carry out any sort of investigation, he took Aitken’s word that he had done nothing wrong, and cleared him of improper behaviour. Later in the same year he did the same by clearing Neil Hamilton of receiving bribes from Mohammed Al Fayed.  In both cases, he was subsequently proven wrong.  That he was unable to discover the truth is not entirely Lord Butler’s fault; but he should never have accepted the task in the first place.

It is not civil servants’ job to hold Ministers to account.  The job of civil servants is to serve the elected government, not to police it.  Ministers are accountable to Parliament, and through Parliament to the public.

The current version of the Ministerial Code says this about enforcement: 

Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the Code and for justifying their actions and conduct in Parliament. The Code is not a rulebook, and it is not the role of the Secretary of the Cabinet or other officials to enforce it or to investigate Ministers although they may provide Ministers with private advice on matters which it covers.

So the Ministerial Code explicitly excludes the Secretary of the Cabinet from having to try to enforce the Ministerial Code, and rightly so.  If Parliament wishes to ask an independent person to investigate the conduct of a Minister, it should appoint somebody to carry out this task. Neither the Conservative Party, Parliament nor the Prime Minister should ask civil servants, who owe their loyalty to Ministers, to investigate them. 

Update 31 October: According to the BBC, the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Secretary to see if Mr Blunkett’s shares, held in trust for his sons, breached the ministerial code.  As quoted above, the Ministerial Code is absolutely clear that it is NOT the role of the Secretary of the Cabinet to enforce the code, and if Gus has any sense he will refuse.


Owen Barder

Owen is CEO of Precision Agriculture for Development. He has worked in the office of the UK Prime Minister, the British Treasury, the Department for International Development; and at the Center for Global Development.


dearieme · October 30, 2005 at 8:44 pm

a DNA testing firm; what’s this all about? There was something in the papers the other day about Mrs Blair complaining that somebody was collecting Mr Blair’s toe-nail cuttings. Hm.

The Sharpener » Five Fallacies about Civil Servants and the Government · November 21, 2005 at 7:11 pm

[…] I have commented elsewhere on the strange and recent idea that it is the job of the Cabinet Secretary, or any other Civil Servant, to judge whether the Code of Conduct for Ministers has been breached. Civil servants have neither the mandate nor the resources to hold Ministers accountable for their actions. That is the job of Parliament and, ultimately, the electorate. It distorts the entire relationship to have civil servants sitting in judgement on Ministers. […]

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