IfG think tank claims that ministerial code needs revamp
A report from think tank the Institute for Government has called for the ministerial code to be updated to include an explicit ban on ministers using personal devices and accounts to conduct government business.
The assessment comes in light of recent reports that three ministers at the Department of Health and Social Care – including former health secretary Matt Hancock – had regularly used a personal Gmail account, rather than their gov.uk email, for official matters. In light of the allegations, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said that her office would be “looking carefully at the information that has come to light”.
The IfG said that its proposals for ministers to be banned from conducting government business via personal phones also followed criticism of prime minister Boris Johnson doing so – in one example offering to “fix” tax issues for inventor and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson during the early stages of the pandemic.
Details of WhatsApp conversations published by former chief adviser Dominic Cummings last month that appeared to show Johnson describing former health secretary Hancock as “f***ing hopeless” during the early days of the pandemic also drew criticism over the use of the app in government.
The IfG said that, while it had been acknowledged by cabinet secretary Simon Case that government information held on personal mobile phones was still covered by transparency legislation, the reality was that the use of personal devices “blurred the lines” between official and private communications.
It added that the use of private devices meant officials did not have ready access to records of conversations where key decisions were made, potentially making understanding and implementing those decisions more difficult.
“To help avoid accusations of unfair treatment of particular contacts, and to help ministers and their civil service staff work more effectively, ministers should stop using their personal phones for government business,” the report said. “This change would be easy to add to the ministerial code and would help to avoid informal communication networks generating controversy in the future.”
Beyond the issue of communications channels, the think tank said a “fundamental overhaul” of the ministerial code is required, and that the document should be given a similar statutory footing to the civil service code and the code for special advisers.
The report called for a revised code should that includes a range of sanctions available to deal with breaches and more explicit guidance on relationships in government. It added that the new code should strengthen transparency of ministerial meetings and better distinguish between standards of behaviour and processes of government, to make the rules easier to understand and uphold.