There were several complaints during Tony Blair's premiership that allegations against ministers for breaking their official code of conduct were too often dealt with summarily by the Cabinet Secretary. Complaints against David Blunkett were twice cases in point and there were others. As a result an independent adviser, Sir Philip Mawer, was named as the person to whom such complaints would be referred in future.

However, it became known yesterday that a complaint against Peter Hain by a Liberal Democrat MP got no further than the present Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, before being dismissed. The matter raised was whether some of the donations obtained by Mr Hain during his campaign for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party conflicted with his duties as minister for Wales and for Pensions and Work.

Apparently Sir Gus took advice from Mr Hain's permanent secretaries at his two ministries and decided that there was no case to answer. In other words the system has not really been changed; the Cabinet Secretary, Britain's most senior civil servant, still decides whether or not a minister has breached his code of conduct. By making a decision in this way Sir Gus has ensured that if at any time in the future he passes on a complaint to Sir Philip Mawer it will immediately be widely assumed that there is a serious case to answer. Why could Sir Philip not have looked into this Hain case.


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