Some have hailed the firing of former minister of the people and social development as being in keeping with the “Westminster” principles—in reference no doubt to the system of Government that we have inherited from the English. While I am not sure that the decision is related in any way to the Westminster system, I believe it is useful to look at the current English ministerial code of conduct to see what is said about the expected behaviour of ministers in certain aspects and in the performance of their functions.
This code was adopted in May 2010 following the formation of the coalition government in England, two weeks before our own 2010 elections in T&T. Apparently there was a recognition that the existing codes and principles were not comprehensive, whether because there was now a coalition Government in place or given that many of the ministers would be filling such positions for the first time.
The first tenet of the code is that Government ministers are expected to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety. The code is to be read against the background of the overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law, to uphold the administration of justice and to uphold the ideal of integrity in public life. There are seven principles of public life annexed to the code: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. So, for example, holders of public office are expected to act solely in terms of the public interest and not in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their relatives, or their friends (selflessness) and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office (accountability).
If every minister were to follow these basic tenets then there would be no problem. No one would act in a manner which amounts to a conflict of interest. No one would behave in an undignified manner and no one would complain about press intrusion in respect of matters involving his office. People would resign when they step out of line. Since we are not living in a Utopia however it was felt necessary by the English to spell out certain specific behavioural do’s and don’ts expected of a minister. While we in T&T do have a 1988 code it is in many ways wanting and not specific in some respects. It is useful therefore to note what the English say on certain matters.
When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament. In the past some persons have questioned when and why certain announcements pivotal to the functioning of the government have been made in or out of Parliament. Once Parliament is in session these types of announcements should be made there. Further (the code continues), it is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.
Party and Government
Ministers in the House (of Representatives) must keep separate their roles as minister and constituency member; ministers must not use government resources for party political purposes or constituency work. These facilities are provided to ministers at government expense to enable them to carry out their official duties and not party or constituency work. In addition ministers must uphold the political impartiality of the public service and not ask public servants to act in any way which would conflict with the civil service code. Thus public servants should never be used to promote party or constituency events or activities.
Official car and travel
An official car is just that. Ministers are permitted to use an official car for official business and for the home-to-office journey and back on the understanding that they would normally be carrying classified papers on which they would be working. Official vehicles therefore should not be used to ferry ministers or their children to private functions; certainly not to take a child to school. There is no excuse for an official car to remain parked in a minister’s home day in day out. In T&T ministers are given vehicle upkeep allowances, low interest loans and can make tax-free vehicle purchases to enable them to buy their own vehicles—and not use the State’s as if it were their own.
In respect of travel abroad the English code states that the expenses of a minister’s spouse/partner, when accompanying the minister on the latter’s official duties, may occasionally be paid from public funds provided that it is clearly in the public interest that he or she should accompany the minister. The agreement of the prime minister must be obtained on each occasion before such travel. So if a minister needs to have a relative accompany his/her on travel abroad those expenses may be met by the State when, first of all, the minister is on official duty and if it is clear that it is in the public interest that the relative should accompany the minister.
PM and cabinet
In cabinet ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached. This therefore requires that the privacy of opinions expressed in cabinet and its committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained. Furthermore, while ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves and for justifying their actions and conduct they only remain in office only so long as they retain the confidence of the prime minister.
As the code reaffirms, the PM is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.
• Dana S Seetahal is a former independent senator