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Volume 546: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the servicemen who have fallen since the House last met, Captain Stephen Healey and Corporal Michael Thacker of 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh and Private Gregg Stone of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. They were talented, dedicated soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of our nation. Our deepest condolences are with their families, their friends and their colleagues. We will always remember them.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.

I am sure all Members will wish to associate themselves with the Prime Minister’s tribute.

Can the Prime Minister reassure my constituents that for as long as he is the Prime Minister, there will be no policy shift at all in relation to the third runway at Heathrow, and that this Government will focus their attention on improving Heathrow’s hub status by expanding links between London airports and displacing some of the short-haul and less valuable slots elsewhere?

I know that this is not just a constituency campaign for my hon. Friend but something he feels very powerfully about. I can tell him that the coalition position has not changed, but clearly we must not be blind to two important considerations: how we expand airport capacity overall, and how we ensure that Heathrow operates better and that we welcome people to our country better than we are at the moment. A lot of progress has been made on that agenda, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the extra resources and people that have been put into doing that important job.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Stephen Healey and Corporal Michael Thacker of 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh and Private Gregg Stone of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment. They served their country with dignity and bravery, and the condolences of the whole House go to their family and friends.

Can the Prime Minister tell us why he referred Baroness Warsi to the independent adviser on ministerial interests but not the Culture Secretary?

Yes; I think there is a very significant difference between the two cases. In the case of Baroness Warsi, there has not been a judge-led inquiry, with witnesses taking evidence under oath, to get to all the factual information behind her case. That is why I have asked Sir Alex Allan to look at the case and establish some of the facts. I have to say, I am entirely happy with the explanation that I have been given by Baroness Warsi. She admits to breaking the ministerial code and has apologised for it, and I think that is a very important point.

The Prime Minister refers to the Leveson inquiry, but can he confirm that, in his appearance there, the Culture Secretary was quite properly—it is not the remit of the Leveson inquiry—not asked a single question about whether he misled this House and thereby broke the ministerial code?

The right hon. Gentleman asks specifically why I have not referred the case to Sir Alex Allan. As he knows, I have not done that, but I have asked Sir Alex Allan for his advice on future guidance on, for instance, quasi-judicial decision making, which the right hon. Gentleman discussed at the Leveson inquiry and which I will discuss tomorrow as well. Sir Alex Allan has replied to my letter. I will put a copy of both letters in the Library of the House, but the House might want to know what he said:

“I note your decision in relation to Jeremy Hunt’s adherence to the Ministerial Code which is of course a matter for you.”

He went on:

“The fact that there is an on-going judicial inquiry probing and taking evidence under oath means that I do not believe I could usefully add to the facts in this case”.

He went on to say that he remains available if circumstances should change, but those are the views of Sir Alex Allan.

The key issue is who makes the judgment on whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code. This is what Lord Leveson said on 10 May:

“I will not be making a judgment on whether there has been a breach of it, that is simply not my job”.

In other words, it is the job of Sir Alex Allan.

Let us take one of the issues that was—[Interruption.] I can see that Conservative Members have been well whipped today. They obviously got the memo from the Prime Minister’s aide, who is sending memos round. The last one began: “Comrades”—[Laughter.] I like the sound of that. “We need a protective wall of sound. Last week we rather dried up. Please show sufficient stamina for the full half hour.”

Let us take one of the issues that was not raised at the Leveson inquiry. On 25 April, the Culture Secretary told the House: “I made absolutely”—[Interruption.] There is no point in the part-time Chancellor trying to give the Prime Minister the answer before I have asked the question. The Culture Secretary told the House:

“I made absolutely no interventions”

in “a quasi-judicial” process

“that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business”,

yet we now know that he wrote a memo to the Prime Minister that said:

“If we block it our media sector will suffer for years.”

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Culture Secretary, in his answer from 25 April, was not straight with this House of Commons?

Let me first explain that, on the Government side of the House, “comrades” is a term of endearment, not an official title—[Interruption.] Liberal Democrat Members are also comrades.

The point is that it is the job of the Prime Minister to make the judgment about ministerial code. I have made that judgment. I have quoted what Sir Alex Allan has said. He was very clear that he could not

“usefully add to the facts in this case”.

I am sorry that the political strategy behind the right hon. Gentleman’s Opposition motion has collapsed, but that is the fact of the case.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the note that the Culture Secretary sent to me on 19 November, in which he specifically says that it would be completely wrong to go against the proper regulatory procedures. The truth of what has happened in recent days is that the Culture Secretary gave a very full account of his actions to the Leveson inquiry, and demonstrated that, when it came to the BSkyB bid, he took independent advice at every part of the process and followed independent advice at every stage of the process, which is a complete contrast to how the previous Government behaved.

Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister is claiming. The Culture Secretary told the House:

“I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2012; Vol. 973, c. 543.]

The Prime Minister is claiming that a memo to the Prime Minister is somehow an insignificant document in relation to a decision that the Government must make. It is the first time in political history that that is the case.

If the Prime Minister’s case is so strong, why is the Deputy Prime Minister not supporting him?

Let me read exactly what the note from the Culture Secretary from 19 November states:

“It would be totally wrong for the government to get involved in a competition issue which has to be decided at arm’s length.”

When he got responsibility for the dossier, he behaved in exactly that way.

By the way, the whole reason we are discussing this takeover is that the previous Government changed the law to allow a foreign company to own a British broadcasting licence. Labour Members conveniently forget that point.

The Leader of the Opposition asked specifically about the Deputy Prime Minister. Let me be frank: we are talking about the relationships that Conservative politicians and Labour politicians have had over the past 20 years with News Corporation, News International and all the rest of it. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they did not have that relationship. Their abstention tonight will make that point. I understand that: it is politics—[Interruption.]

I have to say that the right hon. Gentleman has reached a new state of delusion—really and truly. He just wants to talk about the past—he was the future once. The Deputy Prime Minister says that the decision should go to the independent adviser, the Conservative chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration says it should be referred and the former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life says that it should be referred—is it not the truth that the reason the Prime Minister will not refer the Culture Secretary to the independent adviser is that he is scared that the Culture Secretary will not be cleared?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The right hon. Gentleman says that we are talking about the past, but some elements of the Leveson inquiry and the relationship between politicians and the press are about the past. We had a little insight into that when the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), gave evidence. In an extraordinary moment, he said that

“the one thing I can say”—

the one thing—

“definitely is that nobody in my position would have instructed…briefing against a senior minister”.

Perhaps the victims could put their hands up. Any takers? I do not need Sir Alex Allan to adjudicate on that one.

The reality is that everyone knows that it was the Prime Minister who decided to appoint the Culture Secretary to oversee the bid and it is the Prime Minister who is clinging on to him now in the face of all the evidence. Does he not realise that it is no longer about the Culture Secretary’s judgment but about the Prime Minister’s, which is so badly flawed that even his deputy will not support him?

I hope that the England football team is better at putting the ball in the back of the net. The point is that it is for the adviser on ministerial standards to discover the facts and for the Prime Minister to make the judgment. My judgment is that we should let the Culture Secretary get on with organising the most important event, which is the Olympics. As we are on the Olympics, let us consider this: if there was an Olympic medal for double standards and rank hypocrisy, the Labour party would be well in the running.

I call Mr Nigel Adams—[Interruption.] I am really very worried about the conduct of the Education Secretary. In the average classroom, he would have been excluded by now. He must calm himself.

Q2. As we remember those who fell 30 years ago during the Falklands war, Argentina continues to dispute British sovereignty over those islands yet continues to receive loans worth billions of pounds from the World Bank, in which British taxpayers are a major shareholder. Will the Prime Minister join President Obama in instructing his officials to vote against any more such loans to Argentina? (110300)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. No British taxpayers’ money is spent on World Bank loans to Argentina, and I think that that is an important point, but what is even more important is what happened yesterday. The Falkland islanders have decided that they will hold a referendum to demonstrate that they believe in self-determination. That is important because Argentina continues to try to hide the argument and to pretend that the views of the Falkland islanders do not matter. They do matter; I hope that they will speak loudly and clearly and that Argentina will listen.

Q3. The Prime Minister just said that he believes that the Leveson inquiry dealt with all the relevant issues regarding the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but it did not deal with section 118 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which deals with market abuse and the passing of information to one party that is not available to others in a market situation. Given the hundreds of texts, e-mails and memos in this case, will he ask the Financial Services Authority to examine the evidence and see whether there has been a breach of section 118 or any part of that Act? (110301)

Clearly there are very strict rules, including the stock exchange code and the Act that the right hon. Gentleman mentions, governing all of these areas. The point I would make to him is that there is no doubt that the special adviser did behave wrongly. That is why he offered his resignation and that is why it was accepted.

Q4. I am sure that all hon. Members will congratulate the volunteers who raised £6.5 million to recognise the contribution and sacrifice by Bomber Command personnel in the second world war. The memorial will be opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 28 June, but the costs for security on the day have risen sharply. Despite necessary constraints on all Government expenditure, will my right hon. Friend consider financial support from the Government to ensure that veterans and their relations are properly looked after? (110302)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Many people served in Bomber Command during the second world war and many lost their lives, so it is right that there will be this splendid memorial, unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen. These memorials tend to be paid for by public subscription and that is what has happened in this case, but I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport does have the ability to intervene, especially when monuments and other things are done on a national basis for a national purpose. I am sure that the Culture Secretary will have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said.

Q5. Because of top-down Government health cuts, South Tees hospitals such as the Friarage and Guisborough hospitals in my constituency have had reduced services, leaving both hospitals uncertain of their future. Therefore, will the Prime Minister support his Foreign Secretary, who said to a crowd of 4,000 people that the Government NHS cuts are “unacceptable”? (110303)

I would point out that the increase in health spending for the hon. Gentleman’s primary care trust is 2.9%, a £8.2 million increase for the current year—[Interruption.] That is what is happening. The only reason more money is going into the health service in his constituency is because this coalition Government decided to invest in our NHS, against the advice that we received from the Opposition, who think that increases in health spending are “irresponsible”.