The UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was accused of violating the Ministerial Code of Conduct by bullying staff. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appointed Sir Alex Allan, the Government’s independent adviser on standards, to investigate the allegations. He found them to be true. The Prime Minister rejected the conclusion and no action was taken against Ms. Patel, although she issued an apology for the behavior. Sir Alex resigned.
Such an allegation, much less investigation, can never happen in Guyana. Ministers are free to be rude to, or to bully staff, which they know will have no consequences. Staff has no recourse and dare not complain. It is not known if the Guyana Public Service Union receives any complaints and if any representations are made. If so, the results, if any, are unknown. Since 2005 five Ministers in the UK, including Priti Patel in 2017, were forced to resign for violating the Ministerial Code.
A Ministerial Code of Conduct was first implemented in the UK during the Second World War. It was first published in 1992 as “Questions of Procedure for Ministers” and was renamed “Ministerial Code” in 1997. The document has no legal status or consequences, although if a report finds that a crime has been committed, it would be difficult for a government to ignore it. But the Government or Prime Minister is free to reject the findings.
The UK Ministerial Code was last revised in 2019. It contains a Foreword by Prime Minister Boris Johnson who, in 2020, proceeded to undermine it by rejecting the independent conclusion referred to above. It is the Prime Minister who has the responsibility to request the Cabinet Office or an independent official to investigate a complaint which must be made to him. As is seen in Priti Patel’s case, the UK Ministerial Code can be violated without consequences. It is the same situation in Trinidad and Tobago, which has an expansive Code of Conduct for Ministers and Parliamentarians but it has no legal enforcement provisions. In Jamaica, the code is very modest, unenforceable and of little consequence.
Apart from its detailed provisions, The Ministerial Code of the UK, which is 30 pages long, enshrines seven principles of public life for holders of public office who must: (a) act solely in terms of the public interest; (b) avoid obligation to organizations that may influence their work, do not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or material benefits for themselves, their family or friends, declare and resolve any interests and relationships; (c) act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias; (d) submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is necessary to ensure that they are held accountable for their decisions; (e) act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner and unless there are clear and lawful reasons for doing so, information should not be withheld from the public; (f) should be truthful; (g) should exhibit these principles, should actively and robustly support them and be willing to challenge poor behavior wherever it occurs.
Among the requirements for Ministers under the Code are for them to: (a) maintain high standards of behavior and uphold the highest standards of propriety; (b) be professional and considerate and respectful, proper and appropriate to others; harassing or bullying, or other inappropriate or discriminating behavior is not consistent with the Ministerial Code and will not be tolerated; (c) ministers must uphold the political impartiality of the civil service; (d) facilities provided at government expense to carry out official duties should not be used for party or political purposes; (e) ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between public duties and private interests, financial or otherwise; important government policy should be first made in Parliament; (f) official transport should not be used for party or political business.
Guyana is infamous for the protection of its government officials. In its 23 years in office, despite many complaints, some blatant, very few ministers or officials were held to account by the PPP. During the APNU+AFC term of office, the same situation prevailed. There was much fanfare about passing in Parliament or otherwise implementing a Code of Conduct, but apart from the Minister Raphael Trotman having allegedly produced a draft code of conduct, nothing happened.
Guyana is entering a new era about which we have little or no experience. The doors are wide open for large scale abuse, bullyism, conflict of interest, theft, bribery, corruption and other traumas that have afflicted most oil producing countries. There is nothing peculiar about Guyana which suggests that we can avoid these pitfalls. The question should not be if we need an enforceable code of conduct. It should be how fast we can get it in place. If public opinion takes this matter up, a voluntary, unenforceable, code might be attempted. This would be a waste of time. It would not be enforced. The Integrity Commission, in an expanded role, might satisfy the requirements of an investigative body.