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Ministerial Code (Culture Secretary)

Volume 543: debated on Monday 30 April 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will refer the conduct of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, in respect of his dealings with News Corporation, to the independent adviser on ministerial interests.

I answered questions on this issue at Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, and the Culture Secretary made a full statement, but let me set out the position again.

I set up the Leveson inquiry last summer to investigate the culture, ethics and practices of the media, and the relations between the media and the police and the media and politicians. It is a full, judge-led inquiry, with evidence given under oath and full access to papers and records. No Government before have ever taken such comprehensive action. It is this Government who are putting these issues properly on the table and getting them dealt with.

Let me deal with the three issues raised in the question: the conduct of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the nature of the inquiry that is needed to get to the bottom of these issues, and the wider issues surrounding the relationship between politicians and the media.

First, let me deal with the issue of the Culture Secretary. As was made clear in his statement last Wednesday, in every respect with regard to the News Corporation bid, the Culture Secretary asked for independent advice and acted on it. He was not required to ask for or to follow such advice, but he did so. He acted fairly and impartially, and in line with the advice of his permanent secretary. Indeed, as he said in his statement to the House on Wednesday, he acted against the interests of News Corporation on four key decisions: on being minded to refer the bid to the Competition Commission, on refusing to accept News Corporation’s undertakings without taking advice first from the OFT and Ofcom, on extending the consultation, and on going back to Ofcom for further advice about the impact of phone hacking. I have seen no evidence to suggest that, in handling this issue, the Secretary of State acted at any stage in a way that was contrary to the ministerial code.

As for the Secretary of State’s responsibilities towards his Department, let me say this. The permanent secretary to the Department approved the approach that his department took to the quasi-judicial process, which included a small number of people acting as contact points with News Corporation, as is required and normal in such a process. The permanent secretary has stated that he was “aware” and “content” for contact to be made between the Culture Secretary’s special adviser and News Corporation. However, it is quite clear that that contact became improper and inappropriate, and went beyond the requirements set out by the Secretary of State or the permanent secretary. That is why the special adviser resigned, and he was right to do so.

There are correct procedures to follow in this regard, and they need to be followed scrupulously. That is why last week I asked the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and the head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, to write to all Departments clarifying the rigorous procedures that they should have in place for handling cases of this nature.

That leads to the second issue: the nature of the inquiry, or inquiries, best suited to getting to the bottom of this issue. I consulted the Cabinet Secretary, and decided that it was right to allow Lord Justice Leveson to conduct his inquiry and not to commission a parallel process to establish the facts. Let me repeat that what we have is a judge-led inquiry, witnesses required to give evidence under oath, full access to papers and records, and cross-examination by barristers, all live on television. There is nothing this tough or this rigorous that the civil service or the independent adviser could provide. Of course, it is not for Lord Justice Leveson to determine whether a Minister has broken the ministerial code. That is an issue for me, and I will deal with it properly. [Interruption.]

Order. Members are getting over-excited; they must not shout at the Prime Minister. They want to hear what the Prime Minister has to say, as do I, and it must be heard with courtesy.

I will not wait until the end of the Leveson inquiry to take action if action is needed. If new evidence emerges from the Leveson inquiry that the ministerial code has been broken, I will either seek the advice of Sir Alex Allan or take action directly, but the key point is this: in order to do this, it is neither necessary nor right to have a parallel investigation that could duplicate, cut across or possibly pre-empt what Lord Justice Leveson is doing. Lord Justice Leveson offered his own view on Wednesday, when he said that

“although I have seen requests for other inquiries and investigations…it seems to me that the better course is to allow this Inquiry to proceed.”

I agree with him entirely.

Let me briefly turn to the bigger picture. I am, and always will be, a fierce defender of the freedom of the press in this country—it is one of the central pillars of our democracy—but the relationship between politicians and the media has been too close for decades. The Leveson inquiry, which this Government have set up, gives Parliament and politicians of all parties the opportunity to get this right for the future. Already we have introduced transparency about the meetings we have with the media. Everyone can see which proprietors or editors I meet, whether publicly or privately.

Like other party leaders in our country for decades, I have tried to convince media outlets to support the policies of my party and, now, my Government, but let me be clear: there was not—there never has been—any grand bargain between the Conservative party and Rupert or James Murdoch. Indeed, look for one moment at the number of meetings Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had with Rupert Murdoch when they were Prime Minister: Blair seven; Brown 13; me four. The idea that there was some agreement that, in return for their support, we would somehow allow this merger to go through is simply not true. I have to say that if that was the case, while I respect him deeply, what on earth was I doing making the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable) the Business Secretary responsible for this? [Interruption.] The proprietors of News Corporation have denied under oath at the Leveson inquiry—[Interruption.]

Order. Members must calm down. There will be a good opportunity for questioning, but let’s hear the Prime Minister’s statement.

The proprietors of News Corporation have denied under oath at the Leveson inquiry any type of deal, and I will do the same.

Let me make this last point: unlike the Labour party, we were not trying to convince a centre-right proprietor of a set of newspapers with solidly centre-right views to change the position of a lifetime. We were arguing a simple proposition: that the last Government were irresponsible, exhausted, bad for our country and ought to go.

While I have said that the relationship between politicians and the media has been too close, I note that none of the Members on the Labour Benches have disclosed any of the meetings they had with News International or other newspaper executives while in office. While the country wants to hear about jobs, investment, living standards and the great challenges we face, like debt, they just play one-sided party politics. Instead of endlessly trying to use the Leveson inquiry for party political purposes, is it not time they were honest about what they did in government and faced up to the real mess they left this country in?

The reason why it was essential for the Prime Minister to come to the House today is that the Culture Secretary is in clear breach of the ministerial code—and the Prime Minister stands by and does nothing. He asks why this matters. It matters because we need a Government who stand up for families, not the rich and powerful. He is failing that test. Playing for time, he says we should wait for the Leveson inquiry, but Lord Justice Leveson could not be clearer. This is what his spokesperson said: “the simple fact is” that Lord Justice Leveson

“is not the arbiter of the ministerial code, whatever anybody else is saying. There is somebody else who has that role…Alex Allan”.

Lord Justice Leveson is doing his job; it’s time the Prime Minister did his.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that there are no fewer than three breaches of the ministerial code by the Culture Secretary? First, in the House on 3 March the Culture Secretary told the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that

“all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation”—[Official Report, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 526]

—were being published. But he has now admitted that he knew, when he gave that answer, that there were exchanges that he himself had authorised between his special adviser and News Corporation. Yet none of those exchanges was disclosed, and we have 163 pages to prove it. The Prime Minister does not need to wait for the Leveson inquiry. Will he confirm to the House that this was a breach of paragraph 1.2 c of the code, which says that Ministers must provide full and accurate information to Parliament?

Secondly, on 25 January the Culture Secretary gave a statement to the House. We now know that two days before that statement, News Corporation was given confidential inside information—and this when the Culture Secretary had a constitutional duty to act in a quasi-judicial manner. The Prime Minister does not need to wait for the Leveson inquiry; will he confirm that that breaches paragraph 1 of the code, which requires the Minister to act with the “highest standards of propriety”, and paragraph 9.1, which says that Parliament must be told first?

Finally, the Culture Secretary would have us believe that his special adviser was on a freelance mission—six months of daily e-mails, texts, leaks and the leaking of confidential information about what opposing parties were saying. On one of the biggest media bids for decades, is the Prime Minister really reduced to the News of the World defence—one rogue individual acting alone? If the Culture Secretary really was that clueless about the biggest issue facing his Department, he should be sacked anyway.

The central question that the Prime Minister must answer, in view of three clear breaches of the ministerial code, is: why will he not refer the matter to the man whose responsibility it is—Sir Alex Allan? The Prime Minister is defending the indefensible, and he knows it. He is protecting the Culture Secretary’s job while up and down the country hundreds of thousands are losing theirs. We all know why the special adviser had to go to protect the Culture Secretary; the Culture Secretary has to stay to protect the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has shown today that he is incapable of doing his duty—too close to a powerful few, and out of touch with everyone else.

Order. Members on both sides need to calm down. The Prime Minister wishes to be heard. I wish to hear him, and I hope the House does.

First of all, 15 years of secret meetings, pyjama parties, christenings and all the rest of it—and not one word of apology. Let me answer, very directly, the three points that the right hon. Gentleman made. First, he spoke about the response to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). If the right hon. Gentleman had done his research, he would have seen that the Secretary of State set out in full the proper answer to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) in September 2011. If you are going to make these accusations, get your facts right before you come here.

On the second issue, the right hon. Gentleman raised specifically the information provided to News Corporation, and was completely wrong. On that, the special adviser has said:

“While it was part of my role to keep News Corporation informed throughout the BskyB bid process the content and extent of my contact was done without authorisation from the Secretary of State.”

So the second accusation is completely wrong.

The third accusation is also about the special adviser and the ministerial code. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took responsibility. He came to the House, explained what had happened and gave a full account of himself. While we are on the subject of Ministers taking responsibility for their special advisers, can anyone remember a Minister taking responsibility for Charlie Whelan? Can we remember anyone taking responsibility for Damian McBride? What a lot of self-serving double standards we have had from the Labour party.

Let me just make two further points. The right hon. Gentleman says that this is an issue of judgment about what steps to take. Let us examine, briefly, what the judgment of the deputy leader of the Labour party was. She was asked very specifically, “You called for the Secretary of State’s resignation within 23 minutes of the evidence being provided to the Leveson inquiry. Did you read that evidence?” She said, “No, I didn’t need to.” She was asked, “Why didn’t you need to?” She said, “Because I heard the evidence of James Murdoch.” So that is it: he is Labour’s arbiter of standards and the ministerial code. What complete nonsense.

I am not belittling this issue. It is a serious issue, but it is not as serious as the eurozone, the jobs, investment and debt that we have to deal with. It is time we focused on that. Let me just say this to the right hon. Gentleman: endlessly questioning the integrity of someone when you do not have the evidence is bad judgment, rotten politics and plain wrong. We have learnt something about the Labour leader today and I think it is something he will regret.

I hope that the Prime Minister accepts that for more than 25 years every Liberal Democrat leader and colleague in both Houses has sought to break the insidious relationship between Labour and Tory Governments and the media. We therefore welcome the Leveson inquiry, which is doing an excellent job. If the Prime Minister accepts that that gives confidence to the public, will he also accept that referring this matter next month to the independent adviser will also give confidence to the public and that possibly, in the future, that should be done independently and not at the discretion of the Prime Minister of the day?

First, I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend says about the opportunity provided for the Leveson inquiry. I think we should be frank: the relationships between the media and the police, and between the media and politicians, and some of the ethics and problems in the media, have not been dealt with properly under Governments both Labour and Conservative, and this gives us an opportunity to deal with the matter. On the specific issue of the Secretary of State, what is more robust than a judge-led inquiry, with Ministers under oath—holding the Bible, speaking under oath and answering questions? That is the point on which we have heard absolutely no answer from the Labour party.

On Wednesday, the Secretary of State told this House that the permanent secretary had “agreed”, “authorised” and “approved” the role of Adam Smith. On Thursday, the permanent secretary refused 10 times to confirm to my Committee that that was the case. On Friday, he then wrote to me stating merely that he was “aware and content” with Adam Smith’s role. Either the Secretary of State failed to provide full and accurate information to Parliament or he failed to require his civil servant to provide full and accurate information to a Select Committee of Parliament. Both are breaches of the ministerial code—[Interruption.]

Order. If Members, rather than braying noisily, would allow the question to be finished, we will get on with it. The last sentence, please.

Both are breaches of the ministerial code, both ride roughshod over the rights of Parliament and surely both need to be properly investigated by the independent adviser.

I did watch some of the permanent secretary’s appearance in front of the right hon. Lady’s Committee, when he thought he was going to be discussing the Olympic Games. What he said, over and over again, was that he backed what his Secretary of State had said at this Dispatch Box. When asked to clarify it, he made it absolutely clear that he agreed the arrangements within the Department, as I said in my statement, and he was aware of and content with the role of the special adviser. I know that the right hon. Lady sometimes allows her Committee to drift into these areas, but I am afraid that she is completely wrong.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is an urgent need to restore public confidence in the process that led to decisions in this matter and that to achieve that an inquiry needs to be held, in the open, in which witnesses give evidence in public, subject to cross-examination and under oath? Will he confirm that if at the end of that process there remain questions to be answered, he will refer the matter to the ministerial adviser—or it might be appropriate that it be looked into by a Select Committee of this House?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I agree with him. Having seen some of the Leveson inquiry on television, I know that it is immensely powerful that people are questioned under oath, that all the documentation is carefully gone through and that questions on that documentation are properly followed up. As I say, that is far more robust than anything the independent adviser or the civil service could provide. As my hon. Friend says, I am not waiting for Leveson to complete his investigations. If at any stage information comes out that shows that anyone has breached the ministerial code, of course I will act. That is the right approach and I think people should respect the integrity of the fact-finding mission in which Leveson is engaged. It does not remove from me the necessity to police the ministerial code; that is my job and I will fulfil it properly.

One of the clear duties on any Secretary of State, for which they in turn are responsible to the Prime Minister and not to Lord Leveson, concerns the conduct of their special advisers. Given what the Prime Minister knows already about the palpable dereliction of duty by the Secretary of State in supervising that adviser, does he not believe that there are matters under the ministerial code that now merit investigation by the independent adviser? No one understands why he is seeking to shelter behind the smokescreen of Lord Leveson’s inquiry when the duty to have this investigation is on him.

I respect hugely the right hon. Gentleman and his experience in government and I think he would know that I consulted the Cabinet Secretary, asking the question, “What is the right process to follow to ensure we get to the truth and we deal with this issue?” The right process to follow is to allow Lord Leveson to find the facts of the case and if at any stage there is a question of the ministerial code being broken I can act. The ministerial code in respect of special advisers is absolutely clear: Ministers are responsible and they have to take responsibility, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did when he came to the House.

Given that the role of the adviser on the ministerial code is purely to advise the Prime Minister on whether a Minister’s actions are in breach of that code, and not to investigate or establish the facts of those actions, is it not sensible to allow the Leveson inquiry to establish the facts and, in the unlikely event—in my view—that it discovers that there is a prima facie case to answer, then to refer it to the independent adviser on the ministerial code?

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. It is worth examining for a second what would happen if the independent adviser was commissioned to set off down a process of factual discovery. He would have to look at all the information that is about to be provided and is being provided to the Leveson inquiry, which would literally duplicate the findings of fact and would literally be prejudging what the judge himself will be judging.

The Prime Minister has just claimed again that in relation to the BSkyB bid, the Government sought independent advice and followed it “at every stage”. Will he confirm that on 31 December 2010, Ofcom advised the Government to refer the bid to the Competition Commission and that the Government did not do that, so what he has just said to this House—they both said it last week—is simply not true?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he ought to know that we were acting in accordance with a law passed by his Government, the Enterprise Act 2002. That Act requires consideration of the company’s representations in terms of reference to the Competition Commission. If that is not taken into account, the matter could be subject to a judicial review. What I said, and what the Secretary of State said, which is that each stage he took independent advice and followed that advice, is correct.

All sensible people will welcome the Prime Minister’s approach to this very serious matter, but does he agree that it would be quite wrong to rush to judgment and that he has a duty to follow a just and exhaustive process?

I do think this is right. Perhaps we can recognise, if we go back over 10 or 20 years in politics, that it is frankly the easiest thing in the world for a Prime Minister to stand at this Dispatch Box and say to a member of the Cabinet, “Oh, it’s all getting a bit difficult—off you go.” I think it is important to get to the facts—to get to the truth. That is what I believe in doing. It is called natural justice, and we should have some more of it.

The Prime Minister is well aware that for many years now, the machinery has been in place for investigations of breaches of the codes of conduct for Ministers and for Members of the House of Commons. Why does the Prime Minister not implement that, as opposed to going to a third party?

Again, I say, “Can you think of a process that is more robust than a Minister having to provide, under oath, information to an inquiry, and answering questions under oath, knowing all the time that if anything in that information in any way breaches the ministerial code, it can trigger another judgment?” That is what is happening. That is what I agreed with the Cabinet Secretary, a civil servant of impeccable standing, and I am absolutely convinced that it is the right approach.

This morning, I checked with my office in Wellingborough to see whether there were lots of complaints about the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Mrs Bone said that there were hundreds and hundreds. They all wanted to know why Harry is not to become the England football team manager. There was not a single complaint about the Secretary of State. The message that Mrs Bone wanted to give was “Let the Prime Minister get on with running the country and solving the economic crisis.”

As ever, Mrs Bone is spot on, and I am sure that there are many like her, round the country, saying to us, “This is important—don’t belittle the issue—but there are many more important issues about jobs, living standards, and dealing with the debt that you should be getting on with.”

Does the Prime Minister not accept that all his problems spring from his original misjudgment? Having taken responsibility for the News Corp bid for BSkyB away from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills because he had expressed antipathy towards News Corporation, it was stupid of the Prime Minister to hand that responsibility over to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, who was already on record as being in favour of the bid.

I am afraid that I do not accept that at all. To be fair to my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), it was not just antipathy; he was recorded saying that he wanted to destroy the business. He could not carry on running that part of his Department. I sought advice from the Cabinet Secretary, and the Cabinet Secretary sought legal advice from the Cabinet Office. The view came back that it was appropriate to ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport to fulfil that role.

Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that we are getting maximum value for money, in these cash-strapped times, from the office of the independent adviser?

I was at the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee at which, according to the Prime Minister’s statement, the permanent secretary said that he approved the approach taken by the Department in relation to using Adam Smith as a conduit. That is not what the permanent secretary said. He said:

“The Secretary of State made a full statement to Parliament…and he has made it clear that he is providing full written evidence and looking forward to providing oral evidence to the Leveson inquiry.”

Given that the terms of reference of the Leveson inquiry make no reference at all to the accountability of Ministers to Parliament, how can Leveson deal with the concerns that have been expressed?

Let me be absolutely clear about what the permanent secretary has done and approved. He approved the approach taken by the Department to the quasi-judicial process relating to the BSkyB bid. This included a small number of people—including Adam Smith, the special adviser—acting as a contact point with News Corporation. It is normal—indeed, required—in such a process to have contacts, and the permanent secretary has made it clear that he was aware and content for Adam Smith to be one of those points of contact. You can keep digging into this area, but I am afraid that it is not getting anywhere.

Will the Prime Minister tell us whether he, like previous Prime Ministers, has ever phoned the Murdoch empire to offer his services as a godfather, or perhaps offer No. 10 for a pyjama party? If not, does he think that what we are seeing is a call for openness, or more naked opportunism than one would find on page 3?

My hon. Friend puts it well. The point is this: I am perfectly prepared to admit that the relationship between politicians and media proprietors got too close. What is interesting about the Labour party is that it has not revealed any of the meetings that it had while it was in government, whereas we have been completely transparent.

The Prime Minister has insisted on the Leveson process to decide the fate of the Secretary of State, and he will be judged by that. May I ask that he assist the inquiry by providing the Leveson team with the private texts and e-mails of Treasury special advisers to Mr Frederic Michel and Graham McWilliam of BSkyB?

The point about the Leveson inquiry is that it is a judge-led inquiry. He is able to ask for any papers or material that he wants and this Government will provide it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principles of fair play and natural justice dictate that accusations made about the Secretary of State at Leveson should be determined only after the Secretary of State has had the opportunity to give his side of the story at Leveson? Does he also agree that the motivation for this urgent question today has more to do with the failure of the Opposition to engage on the issues before the people of London and the people of Britain at the ballot box on Thursday?

The motivation is probably that the Opposition would rather do anything than get out and campaign for Ken Livingstone. I am willing to keep them here as long as they like. They must answer for their own motivation, but that is my guess.

The one fact that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State cannot get away from is the fact that James Murdoch knew precisely, word for word, what the Secretary of State was going to say before he said it, before the House knew on three occasions and before commercial operators in opposition to Murdoch knew it. Is that not a clear example of collusion between the Government and of a shabby deal between the Prime Minister and the Murdochs?

While we are on the subject of people who say things before they should, I would have thought that when the hon. Gentleman stands up in the House, he should make an apology. He stood up last week and claimed a whole series of facts about meetings that I had had with Rupert Murdoch based on privileged access that he had had—and he is not denying it—to this inquiry, and the facts turned out to be wrong. A man of honour would stand up and apologise.

The press have a proud and historic role in British politics and it is right that political parties communicate their policy to the nation, but does my right hon. Friend agree that that is in stark contrast to a political party that thinks that national politics should be directed by the highest union bidder?

Order. Most questions have focused on the terms of the urgent question. I have sadly to tell the hon. Gentleman that that was a million miles away from it and does not require an answer. It was completely out of order. We will take another Member who, I am sure, will be in order—[Interruption.] Order. I do not require any sedentary chuntering in the background.

Can my right hon. Friend provide any information about the last time a proposed takeover bid was given the same level of scrutiny and independent advice as the BSkyB bid has been given?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The scrutiny that that was given, the process, the transparency—that was a proper process. As my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has explained, on four occasions he took steps that were not welcomed by News Corporation, but in everything he did, he was open, transparent and taking independent advice.

Why is the Culture Secretary getting better employment rights than the rest of the workers in Britain? Is it possibly because the Prime Minister knows that as long as the Culture Secretary is in the firing line, it prevents the bullets from hitting him, the Prime Minister?

I welcome the open and thorough process that Lord Justice Leveson will be engaged in. I also welcome a Prime Minister who will be personally responsible for ensuring that his Government adhere to the ministerial code of conduct. Will he also make the decision that his Ministers cannot make, and require Lord Justice Leveson to report on his inquiry directly to him?

The point about the Leveson inquiry is that its report will clearly be a major political, media and regulatory event. He is effectively reporting not only to all in the Government, but to everyone in Parliament, in politics and in public life who care about this issue. I do think—I do hope—that all parties will be able to engage in this, because we have an opportunity to deal with issues of press regulation and relations between politicians and the media that have not been right in our country but that, frankly, we will only get right if we work on a cross-party basis.

As the only defence that the Secretary of State has is based on the fiction that the only way Ministers communicate with their special advisers is by e-mail, why has the Prime Minister forgotten the lesson of the David Mellor scandal, which is that a resignation delayed is a disgrace multiplied?

If the hon. Gentleman is really concerned, as I am, about making sure that all the information about this is properly looked into, what is preferable: a civil service-run process where you can look at papers and ask questions, or a judge-led inquiry with Ministers answering questions under oath where all the documents have to be revealed and the whole thing is pursued properly by a team of barristers who are expert at finding out the facts? This is why I do not really understand where the Opposition are coming from. If they want full factual disclosure before making a judgment about whether any ministerial codes were broken, this must be the most robust process.

In a previous scandal affecting Damian McBride, a very respected Member of this House, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), suggested that the then Prime Minister could not take responsibility for every single initiative or text from advisers in No. 10. Will my right hon. Friend say why he thinks the situation is any different now?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Taking responsibility for a special adviser means coming to this House and explaining what has happened. In this case the special adviser resigned immediately and gave his reasons for resigning, so on that basis I am very confident that my right hon. Friend has not broken the ministerial code.

The permanent secretary will not be giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry, so when will parliamentarians have the opportunity to question him on the role he played? This is a very important issue, and DCMS has been used to these issues before, so when will parliamentarians have the opportunity to know exactly what the permanent secretary’s advice was and when it was given, and is the Prime Minister not shocked that the key person was the special adviser?

Let me answer all those questions. First of all, it is up to Lord Justice Leveson whom he calls to his inquiry. He has full access; he can call any civil servant, any politician—anyone he wants. That is the first point. The second point is this: in this House, our Select Committee, excellently chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), is able to call, whenever it likes, whatever civil servants it likes and to ask those questions. On the issue about the way the Department ran the quasi-judicial process, yes that is why the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, has written to all Departments to make sure that rigorous processes are followed in all quasi-judicial cases.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a company that automatically sacked the director because one of his subordinates had got something wrong would never achieve anything worth while?

I have to say, on the argument made by the Labour party, that if its Ministers had resigned every time one of their special advisers had got something wrong, we would have had a new Government virtually every week.

Is it not obvious that the real reason the Prime Minister is so reluctant to refer this matter to the independent adviser on the ministerial code is that, if the Secretary of State were forced to resign as a result, the Prime Minister would find himself on the front line and having to answer for every future revelation about the covert links between the Murdoch empire and the Conservative party? In those circumstances, is it not inappropriate that the Prime Minister, who has a vested interest, should take this decision, rather than Parliament, based on a substantive motion and a vote in the House?

The right hon. Gentleman could find any sort of complicated, circuitous explanation he wants, but he could always go for the simple one, which is that, having consulted the Cabinet Secretary and listened to the views of others, the best way to find out the facts is to allow Leveson to run its course. That does not in any way excuse me from exercising my duties under the ministerial code. That is the answer. Sometimes the simple explanation is actually the right one.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, if any major business were bidding for a large UK company, it would be perfectly normal for that business to have dialogue with the Department involved?

My hon. Friend is right. It is important that that dialogue is carried out appropriately. In this case the special adviser did not act appropriately or properly, and that is why he resigned, but I do believe that it raises some wider issues, and that is why I asked Sir Jeremy Heywood to write to all Departments to make sure that in any quasi-judicial matters we get it right.

People in Wales will compare the privileged access that Mr Murdoch and his friends had to the Culture Secretary with the cavalier way in which the right hon. Gentleman treated campaigners for public sector television in Wales. That is a small matter in the grand scheme of things, but is it not just another example of his double dealing and double standards?

I do not accept that, because I think that we have done right by S4C and that broadcasting in Wales is a great success. Let me just make this point, which perhaps will get some all-party agreement. All media companies have their great causes and lobbies, and I would say, after seven years of being leader of the Conservative party, that one gets as much pressure from the BBC, from regional newspapers and from other papers about things that they are concerned about. It is worth putting that on the record.

Having had a statement less than one week ago, and with the facts having remained unchanged since then, does the Prime Minister agree that, rather than listening to flip-flopping from the Leader of the Opposition, we should remember that just a week ago he himself said, quite rightly, that we should let Leveson do its job?

That is exactly what the right hon. Gentleman said. Let me just remind him. He said:

“I think…it’s right that the Leveson Inquiry takes its course.”

That is what he said—just a week ago. The trouble is that he was bounced by the deputy leader of the Labour party, who thought that this issue would get a good headline, 23 minutes after the evidence had come out, and because he has no judgment he backed it.

Can I push the Prime Minister on something that really concerns me: the role of the special adviser? Any of us who knows about the role of the special adviser knows that they are not one of many officials, but people who work intimately and closely with their Minister. I do not believe for one moment that the Prime Minister does not know that that special adviser must have known everything that was going on, and have told his Minister on an hour-by-hour and a day-by-day basis.

All that information is going to be provided to the Leveson inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has been very clear about the role he played and the role his special adviser played. The special adviser has been very clear about the role he played and the fact that he went way beyond anything that he was authorised to do, but the difference between the process we are about to go through and a normal Cabinet Secretary or independent adviser process, is that people are going to be answering questions under oath—questioned by a barrister, in a court. That is pretty powerful.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, even if the matter should have been referred to the independent adviser, they would almost certainly be heavily guided by the Secretary of State’s evidence in front of the Leveson inquiry anyway, given that it provides for the highest level of public scrutiny possible?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We could not even guarantee that the independent adviser would be quicker, but as I tried to explain earlier there would be a danger of a duplicative fact-finding process that would cut across what Lord Justice Leveson is doing. But let me repeat again: I am not in any way denying that I am responsible for the ministerial code. If breaches occur, I must act, or ask the advice of Alex Allan in order to do so. I could not be clearer about it.

The Prime Minister told Andrew Marr yesterday that he did discuss the BSkyB bid with James Murdoch at the Rebekah Brooks dinner. I wonder why, since there is nothing to hide, the Prime Minister felt unable to admit that last July, when it was put to him eight times by Members of this House.

What I have always said is that I have not had any inappropriate conversation about this issue—and, indeed, I have not. But clearly it is very important, in the context of this inquiry, to recall everything possible, and what I recall is that, because of the frankly rather embarrassing situation that we were in, whereby a Minister had said that he was trying to “destroy” a media company, it was perfectly appropriate for me to say that that was not correct or appropriate and that these things would be dealt with properly in future. That is a thoroughly responsible and sensible thing to say.

Does my right hon. Friend share my mystification as to how the Leader of the Opposition can deduce that there has been a breach of the ministerial code without seeing the texts and e-mails that passed between the Culture Secretary and Adam Smith, which are to come out in the Leveson inquiry?

My hon. Friend absolutely puts her finger on it. The fact is that the Leader of the Opposition does not want to wait for the evidence and does not want to wait for the information; he saw a passing bandwagon and jumped on board it. That is what happened.

Is the Prime Minister seriously disputing the fact that the Culture Secretary said that he would publish

“all the documents relating to all the meetings…all the exchanges between my department and News Corporation”?—[Official Report, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 526.]

Is he disputing the fact that 163 pages of e-mails were published last week? Does he see no problem in that omission whatsoever?

The point I made is that my right hon. Friend dealt with that in the statement that he made on Wednesday, because his answer was subsequently given to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) to explain the situation, as is absolutely correct.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that a civil service-led inquiry would have absolutely no power to summon a Minister under oath and that nor would it be held in public? Does he therefore agree that at this stage following the Leveson route is the best way of giving the Secretary of State his opportunity to clear the record and to find the truth?

My hon. Friend is right. I do not want in any way to belittle what the Cabinet Secretary, a former civil servant or Sir Alex Allan are capable of in terms of proper inquiries, because this has happened in the past; it happened with my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). It so happens that the process that we are currently engaged in—the Leveson inquiry—is many times more robust in getting to the facts of the case. Once we have the facts, and if they throw up any extra information, the situation in terms of the ministerial code has not changed.

Does the Prime Minister agree that if market-sensitive information was passed to News International in advance of an announcement being made, that would not only be a breach of the code but illegal?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a very serious accusation has been made about what the special adviser did and the information that has been passed, and that does need to be properly investigated.

Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride were both special advisers to the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), and both resigned in disgrace. Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether a ministerial inquiry was held at the time or, indeed, whether the matter was looked at by a judge-led public inquiry?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There have been occasions when special advisers have misbehaved and the Minister involved, far from taking responsibility, as my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has done in coming straight to the House, has just tried to shrug it off.

Is not the core of the matter this: did the Secretary of State know what e-mails were being sent out and what was being leaked by a special adviser on this issue? If he did not know, how could it be argued that he was in control of his Department? Surely, therefore, this is a matter for the ministerial code and not for Leveson.

I agree with the first half of what the hon. Gentleman said, which is that it is important that we establish the full facts of the case. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been absolutely clear, and so has the special adviser. The difference between this case and other cases where Ministers are involved in these sorts of accusations is that this is going to be examined by a judge in a court.

As long ago as 2006, the Information Commissioner revealed that newspapers were driving an

“illegal market in personal information”,

and yet there was no judicial inquiry and the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, did not dare criticise what he called the “feral beast” of the media until days before he left office. Now that we have the Leveson inquiry, does the Prime Minister agree that Ministers in the last Government should be given the opportunity to explain why they did so little in response to that report?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Frankly, it is, yes, a point for the last Government, but it is also a point for the last Opposition. These were powerful reports by the Information Commissioner, but the problem is that our political system did not react properly to them. That is one of the reasons it is so important to have the Leveson inquiry and to try to get to a situation where we have an appropriate regulatory system, so that when problems are thrown up, as they were by Richard Thomas in those reports, they are properly dealt with.

If it is the Prime Minister’s case that Adam Smith, who was appointed by the Secretary of State, exceeded his authority in his dealings with News Corp, will he explain what benefits Smith, rather than the Secretary of State, expected to get from pleasing the Murdochs?

Adam Smith, the special adviser, has made his role absolutely clear. He said:

“While it was part of my role to keep News Corporation informed throughout the BSkyB process, the content and extent of my contact was done without authorisation from the Secretary of State.”

That is what he said and the hon. Gentleman should listen.

Does the Prime Minister recall the words of his noble predecessor, Baroness Thatcher, who said that advisers advise and Ministers decide? Does not a judicious Prime Minister consider things thoughtfully and carefully before making up his mind, and would not only a socialist Yahoo make up his mind in 23 minutes?

My hon. Friend is quite right. It is the easiest thing in the world to react to any Opposition leader or politician calling for a scalp or asking for a resignation, but one has to take the time and get the issue right. That is exactly what is being done in this case, and people will just have to be patient while the full facts are looked at.

As a former competition Minister who dealt with some quasi-judicial matters, I do not understand why a special adviser was involved in any case, since they are appointed purely to carry out political work on behalf of a Minister. Has the Prime Minister got to the bottom of whose idea it was that the special adviser should be involved? The House has still not been told.

Let me try to explain. A range of people were authorised to have contact with News Corporation. Clearly, if a company is involved in a transaction, it has to have some contact with the Department about process and the rest of it. The authorisation was given—it was agreed by the permanent secretary—so I think that the hon. Gentleman is barking up the wrong tree.

Fred Michel said:

“Throughout the bid process, I met senior teams from all political parties on a regular basis to update them, ask their advice or share views on the situation.”

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the interests of transparency, all parties should publish all correspondence between their representatives at those discussions at News Corporation?

That is very good idea. To be fair, Fred Michel even met the Liberal Democrats, so we all need to be transparent about this.

The urgent question has run for 52 minutes and I have heard 42 Back Benchers, who had the chance to question the Prime Minister and receive replies. We now have another urgent question and we must move on to that. [Interruption.] I think that that is pretty fair.