4 times ministers broke the rules - and got away with it

It recently transpired that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling may have misled parliament, but this is nothing new - ministers have been breaking the rules and getting away with with for a while now. Here are 4 times ministers broke the rules and got away with it:

1. The Transport Secretary may have misled parliament about the amount of money spent on the Seaborne Ferry Contract.

Let’s start with Chris Grayling, the minister who has come under fire for possibly misleading parliament. Grayling told the the Transport Committee - a group of MPs that scrutinises the work of Grayling’s Transport department - that “no money” was spent on the disastrous Seaborne Ferry contract.

He’s being accused of misleading parliament because what he told the Transport Committee was, well, quite far from the truth. A whopping £800k of public money was given to external consultants. That’s not exactly “no money”, is it?

What rule did he break? - The Cabinet Manual states: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”

2. The Brexit Secretary misled MPs about the existence of Brexit impact reports

In 2017 then Brexit Secretary David Davis came under fire for misleading parliament about the existence and substance of the Brexit impact studies. Davis quite clearly broke the accountability rules.

What rule did he break? - The Cabinet Manual states: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”

3. Another Brexit Secretary REFUSED to give evidence to parliament

Yes, you read that right. An elected public official who has a duty to be accountable to parliament simply decided that the rules didn’t apply to him. In October 2018 then Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab refused to give evidence to parliament.

He had been asked by the EU Committee to report back after the October European Council meeting, and he even promised the committee that he would “give evidence on a regular basis” early in the year in July. October came and went, and Raab flat out refused to report back on his meeting, saying he would not only give evidence after the EU deal had been agreed.

What rule did he break? - Raab ignored the Cabinet Manual, which says that: “ministers are obliged to explain and account for the work, policy decisions and actions of their departments.” Refusing is only ok “when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.

Is the Brexit process not in the public interest?

4. The Work and Pensions Secretary lied about statistics to justify speeding up the Universal Credit rollout

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey breached the ministerial code when she misrepresented statistics in parliament. She was forced to apologise after telling MPs that a report by the National Audit Office said the rollout of Universal Credit was too slow - the report actually said the opposite: that the rollout should be paused.

What rule did she break? - The Cabinet Manual states: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”

What’s the problem?

Normally, all of these ministers would have resigned for breaking the rules.

If you lied to or misled your boss, you’d probably be fired. So why is it so easy for the people trusted with running our democracy to break the rules by misleading us - their bosses - get away with it?

It comes down to the UK’s unwritten constitution. Most rules around what ministers can and can’t do are ‘conventions’. They *should* be followed but have no legal force. The most powerful people in our democracy are restrained by what’s basically a gentleman's agreement.

So, what do we do?

We think we need a new constitution that sets down real rules the government have to follow, and makes it easier to hold them accountable when they come up short.

Sarah ClarkeComment