Ministerial code no longer working and needs overhaul, warns UK think tank

By on 08/07/2021 | Updated on 08/07/2021
UK prime minister Boris Johnson (right) with former health secretary Matt Hancock, pictured in the days before the UK’s first belated lockdown. Credit: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street/Flickr

The UK’s ministerial code, which establishes the standards that govern ministers’ behaviour, needs to be “overhauled” and underpinned by statute, according to a leading think tank. 

Multiple incidents – including revelations following the resignation of health secretary Matt Hancock – have shown that the ministerial code is “no longer working”, according to the report, published last week by London-based Institute for Government (IfG).

Indeed, the UK prime minister Boris Johnson has himself “undermined the code”, it notes. “While the prime minister will always be ultimately responsible for standards in government – or the lack of them – a strengthened code, with proper independent investigations, will help rebuild confidence that standards still matter,” the IfG adds.

Code controversies

The report references a lack of transparency in government, highlighting the way in which former prime minister David Cameron lobbied multiple ministers on behalf of Greensill Capital. 

It also points to questions surrounding then secretary of state for health Matt Hancock’s affair with Gina Coladangelo, who he appointed to a publicly funded position with responsibility for scrutinising Hancock’s own department.  Hancock resigned after a film emerged of him breaking social distancing rules with Coladangelo.

“How and why Gina Coladangelo was first appointed as an adviser and then a non-executive director in the Department of Health and Social Care, the apparent conflicts of interest even before any romantic relationship started and the wider reports of Hancock’s use of a personal email account are all controversies the ministerial code should have guarded against,” the report states. 

Indeed, the IfG says that controversies have occurred in multiple departments under the current government.  

“During this government we have seen the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests resign when Johnson disagreed with his assessment that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had breached the code in her behaviour towards civil servants,” the report notes. 

“The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, was not even investigated over his handling of planning decisions in favour of a housing development by a Conservative Party donor. And the prime minister himself has been accused of failing to live up to the code, including by being unable to explain definitively who had first paid for the refurbishment of the No.11 Downing Street flat.” 


The report recommends that the ministerial code – and its principles – be given a statutory underpinning, alongside the role of the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests, currently Lord Geidt.

The prime minister’s independent adviser should also have a more robust role, according to the IfG. This should include the ability to start investigations and publish findings without prior prime ministerial agreement and to propose changes to the ministerial code. 

It also says that the code should be updated, including making it clear that ministers must not conduct government business using personal mobile phones, clarifying the rules on ministers’ use of social media, and improving transparency on who ministers meet.

Further recommendations include explaining possible sanctions against ministers in breach. At the moment, the report notes, there is only one specific sanction in the code, which is that ministers who intentionally mislead parliament should resign. The new code should explain that a range of sanctions are available, the report says.

“Suspending ministers would be tantamount to requiring their resignation, but fines or public apologies, either in writing or to parliament, or having their breach investigated and the key findings published, would be strong deterrents,” the IfG advises.

“In any case, the model of a range of penalties is helpful, with resignation still an important sanction when a minister has committed a serious breach or lost the confidence of the prime minister,” it adds.

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