Protest over new conduct code for ministers

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Political Correspondent

Ministers could be delayed for up two years from taking up outside appointments on leaving office under the Government's response to Nolan committee recommendations yesterday.

But Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs reacted angrily to a proposed new ministerial code of conduct which they said would give a free hand to cover up sensitive issues.

The protests came as Roger Freeman, the public service minister, announced the Government's acceptance of the broad thrust of the Nolan recommendations. The Government will advertise for a new Commissioner for Public Appointments to help oversee the staffing of quangos, he told MPs, while the Civil Service code would be re-drawn, including limited protection for "whistle- blowers", for the first time.

Mr Freeman insisted that the response would "show the House, and the country as a whole, our determination to take practical steps which will uphold and sustain the highest standards of propriety, while ensuring that men and women of talent and experience continue to enrich our public life".

Promising an extension of the use of advisory panels, including an independent element, to advise on appointments to executive public bodies and the National Health Service, he said: "All departments will introduce their own arrangements as soon as practical to allow the new commissioner to influence the procedures introduced."

Lord Nolan, chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said he was delighted with the speed at which the Government had tackled the problems highlighted by his report.

Speaking on his first appearance as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mr Freeman said the Government accepted the committee's recommendation that ministers should be brought within the scope of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which scrutinises appointments taken up by former civil servants. Ministers would also consult on an extension of business appointment rules to ministers' special advisers.

MPs have not, however, yet had the opportunity of examining planned rules setting out specific criteria on the circumstances in which ministers should be advised to delay an appointment, or make its acceptance subject to conditions. These will be drawn up for debate in the autumn spillover session after the summer recess.

In the meantime, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were swift to spotlight a phrase in the proposed code for ministers, which directs that they must not "knowingly" mislead Parliament.

Ann Taylor, shadow leader of the House, said the phrase would cause concern "when we all know that sometimes ministers choose not to know."

MPs attacked another phrase sanctioning ministers "withholding information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest".