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Anne Bullen

Volume 305: debated on Wednesday 4 February 1998

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

1 pm

I am delighted to see so many Members on the Treasury Benches, which somewhat belies the spin—[Interruption.]

Order. I must have silence in the Chamber, with the exception of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin).

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The presence of so many Labour Members somewhat belies the spin that has been placed on the matter by Labour spin doctors that the issue is of no concern.

The background to the debate is the long tradition of the British public service, whereby the consistent practice has been that individuals should be appointed to their post—as the civil service management code makes clear—if they are most fitted to that office and that, if an official who is involved in an appointment is shown to have a close relationship of any sort with a potential appointee, that is declared and the official in question then resiles from the appointment.

We have on record in Hansard—there is no question of misinterpretation—a series of answers to questions that were posed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Those answers make perfectly clear a certain pattern of events.

To remind the House, on 21 May, the Foreign Secretary told the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that he intended to dismiss Ms Bullen and to appoint Ms Regan as his diary secretary. Nine days later on 30 May, he informed officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that he wished to change that pattern of events and to have an internal appointment instead.

At some point in those nine days, an official—

I am afraid that I shall not give way as I have only six minutes. [Interruption.]

At some point in that period, an official told Ms Bullen that she was to be dismissed and to be replaced by Ms Regan.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Does not the failure of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) to give way show that he has a very weak case?

That is not a matter for the occupant of the Chair. This is an Adjournment debate and the hon. Member for West Dorset has a right to refuse to give way. It appears that he is not going to give way. The House must come to order.

When Labour Members have heard the whole story, they can decide for themselves whether the case is indeed so weak.

On another day in that nine-day period, an official telephoned Ms Regan to discuss her appointment. We are also told on the record by the Foreign Secretary that, during those nine days, he never informed officials about his relationship with Ms Regan; indeed, they were not so informed until August. We are also told on the record that Ms Bullen was induced by officials to agree that

"the terms of her departure"—
[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) must be silent and behave properly.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that defence.

Ms Bullen was forced to agree that
"the terms of her departure and the circumstances giving rise to it should not be disclosed to third parties."—[Official Report, 29 January 1998; Vol. 305, c. 387.]

I will not.

The pattern that that reveals is clear. We have a Foreign Secretary, the holder of one of the great offices of state, who, for a period of at least—

This is not about that.

The Foreign Secretary, for at least nine days, intended to appoint a person closely related to himself, while deceiving officials about that through failing to declare that connection.

The position is worse than that. Some months later, when it came to light that these events had transpired, the Foreign Secretary found himself in the presence of a Foreign Minister and high officials from a foreign Government in a foreign land. He did not take the opportunity to defend himself, as was his right. He took the opportunity, like some Labour Members from a sedentary position, to abuse the diary secretary whom he had displaced. [Interruption.]

Order. Hon. Members may not like the subject of the debate, but it is a Back Bencher's right to speak during an Adjournment debate, and he must be given that opportunity.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Should not the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) begin at the starting point of the whole issue: how Ms Bullen got the appointment in the first place?

The hon. Member for West Dorset has been in good order. Other hon. Members have been in bad order. I shall soon tell the hon. Gentleman if he is out of order.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This pattern reveals three qualities on the part of the Foreign Secretary: first, a significant failure of judgment during nine important days; secondly, a tenuous grip on public ethics, to the point where—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I have some guidance? Is not the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) misinforming the House by implying that this person was a civil service appointment, rather than a political appointment?

Order. The House must come to order. The hon. Gentleman is in order. I assure the House that, if he is out of order, I shall be the first to say so.

The appointment of Ms Regan was a public service appointment, or would have been, had it occurred. In seeking to make it happen while deceiving officials, the Foreign Secretary acted in a way that would have led to the dismissal of a senior official, had he behaved in the same way.

Thirdly, in behaving as he did in Albania, the Foreign Secretary demeaned himself, his office and this country.

Order. Did the hon. Gentleman say that the Foreign Secretary was deceiving the House? [Interruption.] Order. I must hear the hon. Gentleman, and the House is not giving me that opportunity. How can I chair these proceedings if there is too much noise? Did the hon. Gentleman mention the word "deceiving"?

I did not mention the term "deceit" in the context of this House. [Interruption.]

Order. Let me chair the debate. There are too many chairmen. The hon. Member for West Dorset should not accuse another hon. Member of deception of any kind. Will he withdraw that remark?

I apologise.

The Foreign Secretary failed to disclose to officials an item that it was essential to disclose. He demeaned himself and his office and, under those circumstances, our case is straightforward. There is a great question mark over the tenability of the Foreign Secretary's position in his current office.

1.8 pm

I understand that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has the permission of the Minister and the promoter of the Adjournment debate to speak.

That is so. I make it clear from the outset, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I speak from the Back Benches in deference to your specific ruling on this point, that I do not intend to accept any interventions so that the Minister may have the maximum amount of time to respond to this important if brief debate, and that the world will draw its own conclusions from the ludicrous attempts by Labour Members to disrupt this debate, and will ask what they have to hide.

Let me make it clear at the outset—[Interruption.]

Order. The House is far too noisy. The House must come to order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is speaking from the Back Benches because of my ruling.

This is not a debate about the private life of the Foreign Secretary. The criticisms that we make are not about his private life. When the Foreign Secretary made his decision last August, apparently at the behest of the Prime Minister's press secretary, to leave his wife, I made no comment. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that he was not going to use it against him in any way, as it was a personal and private matter. When the Foreign Secretary's wife entered the lists last month with comments that gave us a remarkable insight into the Foreign Secretary's character, I again made no criticism.

What we are concerned about today is the way in which the Foreign Secretary discharges his public duties and his public responsibilities. That is properly a matter for this House. Indeed, it is the very essence of our system—

Order. I have appealed to those on the Government Benches and I do so again. Hon. Members must keep in good order.

It is the very essence of our system of parliamentary democracy that the way in which Ministers carry out their public duties and responsibilities should be subject to scrutiny in Parliament. That is what Parliament is here to do, and if Parliament neglected its obligation to protect defenceless citizens and to hold Ministers to account, it would be a dereliction of its duty to those who send us to this place.

The allegation made against the Foreign Secretary is that he sacked a civil servant, sought to replace her with his mistress, did not tell officials in the Foreign Office that she was his mistress, and left the public to pick up the bill for compensating that sacked civil servant. If true, that conduct would amount to a scandalous abuse of ministerial power. It would render the Foreign Secretary unfit for public office. Indeed, I doubt whether the seriousness of such conduct is a matter for controversy.

A week ago, the Prime Minister himself agreed that such conduct would be wrong. Last Friday, the Foreign Secretary agreed that such conduct would be wrong. He said that on 30 May he recognised that what he had spent many days—indeed, perhaps weeks—trying to do was wrong. We now know—

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is not going to give way. He made that clear at the beginning of his speech.

Order. That term should not be used in the House. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw it—please withdraw it.

We now know, after days of written answers, dragged bit by bit out of the Foreign Secretary—

As a new Member, I would welcome your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Many hon. Members would like to know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman has some form of interest to declare, because many of us on Labour Benches are incensed to hear that cheque-book journalism is afoot and that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's friends are involved in it. Have we not a right—

We now know, after written answers dragged bit by bit, day by day, out of the Foreign Secretary that in every material respect the allegation against him has been proved. It is admitted that he sacked a civil servant.

I hope that it is a proper point of order, as there have been none so far.

I believe that I have a point of order. I am a new Member too, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I seek some clarification from you. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making unsubstantiated allegations and is not willing to answer one question—

Nothing I say is unsubstantiated.

It is admitted that the Foreign Secretary caused a civil servant to be sacked. It is admitted that he sought to replace her with Mrs. Gaynor Regan. It is admitted that he did not tell officials in the Foreign Office that she was his mistress. It is admitted that the taxpayer picked up the bill for the sacked civil servant's compensation.

It is a measure of the lack of any moral sense among Labour Members that they behave as they do this afternoon. In every respect, the charge against the Foreign Secretary has been proved—[Interruption.]

Order. I must appeal again to the House to behave itself. The House is behaving very badly.

I will not weary the House with all the answers that we have had from the Foreign Secretary, interesting though they are. But there is one which perhaps more than any other—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to continue to refer to the lady in question as a public servant and civil servant, even though she was not at the time of her appointment by a previous Foreign Secretary?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is responsible for his own speech.

The lady in question was a civil servant; she was not a political appointee. Apart from special advisers, there are no political appointments in our civil service.

I will not weary the House with all the answers that we have had from the Foreign Secretary, but there is one which perhaps more than any other illustrates how remote the Foreign Secretary has become from the real world.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I really do seek clarification. I am trying to make up my own mind about this debate. Is it not the case that had the person in question been a civil servant, she would have been moved sideways? It is the fact that she was a political appointee—

There is one answer that illustrates more than any other how remote the Foreign Secretary has become from the real world and how distant he has become from any consideration of ethics or, indeed, common sense.

One of the key elements in this saga is whether the Foreign Secretary told officials in the Foreign Office the true nature of his relationship with Gaynor Regan at the time he was seeking to have her appointed as a civil servant in his private office. This is his reply:
"I do not discuss my private life with officials, nor do they seek to discuss it with me."—[Official Report, 29 January 1998; Vol. 305, c. 388.]
and this in relation to a woman whom he was seeking to appoint as a civil servant in his private office.

We have had a series of different answers on these points at different times from Labour party sources, from sources close to the Foreign Secretary and from the Foreign Secretary himself. What we have on the admissions of the Foreign Secretary himself is a scandalous abuse of ministerial power. We know from his admissions that he has done what the Prime Minister told this House last Wednesday was wrong. We know from his own admissions that he has done what he himself now admits was wrong. To answer this charge, he should have come to the House today. The fact that he has not done so is in itself disreputable, apart from being a gross discourtesy to the House. I hope that we shall have answers to that central allegation from the Minister today.

1.18 pm

I reply to the debate as the Foreign Office Minister responsible for administration matters.

Two points have struck me during the debate. First, the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) will probably be a Member of this House for a long time, but I suspect that he will not have a worse moment than he has just had. Secondly, even though the hon. Gentleman did not live up to our expectations, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) certainly did. I should have thought it impossible that someone who had held senior office in a previous Administration could be as base as the right hon. and learned Gentleman was.

I shall answer some of the detailed points, but I shall deal first with one particular question. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe asked where my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was—indeed, the question was asked by other hon. Members from a sedentary position. Today, my right hon. Friend has been making a major speech about the overseas British dependent territories—an issue sorely neglected over the past 18 years by the previous Conservative Government. He will also meet the Romanian and German Foreign Ministers to discuss European Union matters and European Union enlargement. Tonight, he will travel to the Gulf to meet the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The contrast could not be clearer between the Foreign Secretary on the world stage, successfully pursuing British interests, and a shadow Foreign Secretary consumed by trivia and irrelevance. One of the most interesting and telling points of theta debate is that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe now speaks from the Back Benches, which is where he belongs.

I shall answer the two points that have been raised.

I shall give way in a few minutes.

The first point, which I know has given rise to some concern, relates to the appointment of Anne Bullen. In 1993, Ms Bullen was appointed diary secretary to the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd. She moved from a job as personal assistant to the Earl of Limerick, a former junior Conservative Minister and a lifelong friend and contemporary at Eton college of Lord Hurd.

The appointment was unique for the Foreign Office in that it was made under schedule 2, paragraph (2)(i) of the Diplomatic Service Order in Council 1991. That chosen procedure meant that Ms Bullen's appointment had three essential characteristics: first, the usual competitive civil servant recruitment procedures were bypassed; secondly, the appointment could be for a maximum of only five years; thirdly—some of my hon. Friends made this point in their interventions—Ms Bullen was not a career civil servant.

As one might expect, the appointment caused controversy among staff at the Foreign Office, and I have no doubt that there were suggestions of personal and political influence. Feelings ran so high that the chairman of the diplomatic service trade union, Ric Girdlestone, was asked by his members to write to the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd. He said:
"We are at a loss to understand why a suitably qualified DS9"—
that is the staff rating—
"should not have been given the job. Does this mean that the Administration is not producing the right calibre of DS9s to do the work asked of them?"
The then Foreign Secretary replied:
"The Diary Secretary position in my Private Office has always been a difficult one to fill. The job requires a mix of skills, including experience as a personal assistant and considerable maturity … As you know, the Diary Secretary was initially replaced in the summer. I regret to say that, even though I selected the person I thought best qualified, the appointment did not work out."
Let me sum up: Anne Bullen's appointment was made through a special procedure for a fixed term; it did not grant her career civil service status; and it was closely and personally associated with the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd.

I shall give way in a few minutes, but I think that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe would like me to answer some of his questions first—I am very happy to do so.

As the House will know, Ms Bullen ceased to work as diary secretary on 27 June last year, for reasons that were set out in a parliamentary answer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman on 29 January. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been extremely active in his pursuit of these issues—he has tabled many questions. Nevertheless, like the hon. Member for West Dorset, he raised no new issues today, so it might be worth my telling the House the key facts about the appointment of the new diary secretary, Lynne Rossiter, and the consequences of that decision.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a few minutes.

We should remember first that, in contrast with the previous appointment, the new diary secretary was appointed through usual civil service procedures. Secondly, the post is once again occupied by a career civil servant. Thirdly, because no special procedures were used and no additional contractual expenditure was involved, there will in subsequent financial years be a saving to the taxpayer and the Exchequer.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman, showing all his base characteristics, asked about the consideration of Gaynor Regan for the post of diary secretary. There was absolutely nothing new in the points that he raised. Along with the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), he has detailed answers to his questions; they were issued on 29 January. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has got the timing of his debate and questions wrong. Each of his questions has already been answered. I suggest that he finds a good research assistant to look at the material.

My hon. Friend the Minister has heard the shadow Foreign Secretary in this debate and no doubt on the "Today" programme this morning. Does not he find it surprising that the right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to have nothing to say about the severe crisis that we face in the Gulf and the possibility of military action against Iraq?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Before replying to this debate, I took the opportunity to look at all the written questions tabled by the right hon. and learned Gentleman at a time of international crisis. Since 1 January, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has tabled no written questions on the EU presidency—an issue dear to his heart—the middle east peace process, the crisis with Iraq, the dependent territories, or China. I shall not bore the House further; I shall say only that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has tabled no question on foreign policy during the past three weeks.

One final point on the right hon. and learned Gentleman's performance is that he seems to regard the position of shadow Foreign Secretary as a sabbatical between his period in the Home Office and his rumoured high-paid job in the City.

I have been happy to answer today's debate because in it we have seen the clear difference between this Government and the Opposition. We are a Government who have been elected to do things, and we are getting on with doing things—making our schools better, improving our hospitals, tackling crime, strengthening the economy. The Opposition have no policy on any of those issues. We are a Government, a Prime Minister and a Foreign Secretary facing up to vital issues such as Iraq, Bosnia and the middle east. We have an Opposition who are playing games, obsessed with trivia, and chasing the gossip-column agenda. Their only message is: "The Tories were sleazy, so let us see that Labour is sleazy as well." But the public can tell the difference; they can tell the difference between the arms to Iraq—

Order. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who has secured the next debate, remain seated for a moment? I appeal to hon. Members to leave the Chamber quietly.