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EU Referendum (Privy Council)

Volume 607: debated on Monday 14 March 2016

Before I call the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) to ask the urgent question, which I am allowing him to ask, I remind all Members of the House that, and I quote from “Erskine May”:

“Her Majesty cannot be supposed to have a private opinion, apart from that of her responsible advisers; and any attempt to use her name in debate to influence the judgment of Parliament is immediately checked and censured…A Minister is, however, permitted to make a statement of facts in which the Sovereign’s name may be concerned.”

I earnestly hope that hon. Members will spare me the embarrassment of having to stop them in their tracks if they seek to draw to the House’s attention any alleged views of the monarch on the EU or, indeed, anything else. The urgent question has been carefully drafted by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East to cover process and not substance. I hope that colleagues will frame their questions accordingly.

(Urgent Question): I seek not to embarrass you in any way, Mr Speaker, but to ask the Lord President of the Council if he will make a statement on the adherence to the rules and conventions of the Privy Council in the light of the suspension of collective responsibility in connection with the European Union referendum.

The Privy Council provides support to Her Majesty in the implementation of the functions of the Crown. The members of the Council also have access to confidential national information and documentation related to national security, and receive briefings about secrets related to these matters. They swear an oath to maintain the confidentiality of these briefings. None of that has changed because of the current circumstances.

Last Wednesday, The Sun published a front-page story relating to the EU referendum, which it said was based on two “impeccably placed” sources. The right hon. Gentleman will know that every member of the Privy Council swears a solemn and binding oath to the Queen that they will, in the words of the oath,

“keep secret all Matters committed and revealed unto you”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has written to the right hon. Gentleman asking for an investigation. Will he please confirm that that will take place? Will he also confirm that the Privy Council rules have not been suspended as a result of the referendum? Three members have categorically denied that they are the source, yet the Justice Secretary has only said:

“I don’t know how The Sun got all its information”.

That is hardly categorical.

The sovereign’s constitutional impartiality is an established principle of our democracy, and it is incumbent on those in political office to ensure that that remains the case. Such a breach would be particularly serious and significant. Had the Justice Secretary disclosed this information, he would have breached the principle of confidentiality and prayed in aid the monarch in a politically controversial manner, but he would also have undermined his role as the Minister responsible for upholding the rule of law. Does the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House therefore agree that the public have a right to know whether the Justice Secretary was a source of this story, and will he now urge his colleague to confirm or deny such allegations?

There has been a referral to the Independent Press Standards Organisation to investigate a complaint about the story, but IPSO cannot investigate whether a Privy Counsellor has broken his oath. Only the Minister or the Prime Minister can order that investigation. A cover-up will not do. Surely any member of the Privy Council who was a source of this story, or whose special adviser or ally was, stands in contempt of his Privy Council oath, and should be removed from office if he will not honourably resign himself.

As the hon. Gentleman said, last week a national newspaper published a story that was allegedly based on a conversation that had taken place at a lunch following a Privy Council meeting. However, my predecessor as Lord President, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), has said very clearly that the story is categorically untrue. As the House is aware, Buckingham Palace has referred the matter to IPSO, the new press complaints body, which is now investigating. Given all those facts, I do not believe that there is any need for further action here.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the proper way to conduct this matter is the way in which Her Majesty’s office has conducted it, and I do not see how the House can spend all its time investigating every story in the newspapers that upsets some people, to try to find out who the sources were if neither the sources nor the newspapers wish to reveal it.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As I have said, the last Lord President said very clearly that the story was categorically untrue, and therefore, by definition, it must be a matter for the body that investigates complaints about the media.

I am surprised that the Leader of the House does not want to carry out an inquiry. Let me call on him again to do so. After all, the Government were able to carry out a successful leak inquiry into the Scotland Office’s dealings before the independence referendum. Will the Leader of the House reflect on that experience?

There also seems to be a disagreement on a question of fact between the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary. Does the Leader of the House think that the Prime Minister is handling the situation well?

I can only refer to what I said a moment ago, which is that the former Lord President, who attended the said event, has said that the story is categorically untrue. It is therefore a matter for the press complaints body, and not a matter for anyone in the House or in the Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what we are witnessing is a poorly disguised example of the tendency of the Labour party to play the man and not the ball in any given circumstances? Does he also agree that the workings of the Privy Council are a matter for the Privy Council, and its rules are not the same rules that apply to Ministers who are answerable to the House of Commons?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—and it is worth pointing out that the conversation that is alleged to have taken place, and which the former Lord President said did not take place, did not take place at a Privy Council meeting.

Does the Leader of the House agree that when it comes to serial offenders, one of the most effective forms of reparation for the victim is restorative justice, whereby the offender apologises directly to the victim? Does he support the principles of restorative justice?

I support the principles of justice, and I also support the principle that people are innocent unless proven guilty.

As the Lord High Chancellor is the keeper of the Queen’s conscience, is it not inconceivable that he could misapply his conscience to Her Majesty? In the Privy Council oath, Privy Counsellors are asked to swear:

“You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance to the Queen’s Majesty; and will assist and defend all civil and temporal Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates.”

How, therefore, can members of the Privy Council go off and be European Commissioners swearing allegiance to the European Union?

That is an interesting point—some would say a fascinating point—but it is perhaps mildly tangential to the urgent question that I have selected. But we all savour the observations of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), so let us savour the reply.

Mr Speaker, I think you would agree that my hon. Friend makes his remarks in his customary way and that what he has said perhaps says it all.

The Leader of the House prayed in aid the former Deputy Prime Minister’s categorical denial that that conversation ever took place. Could not this matter be put to bed very simply and straightforwardly by the Justice Secretary, who is an honourable man, coming to the House himself and categorically denying that the conversation ever took place?

All I can repeat is what I said earlier, which is that my predecessor said that the story was categorically untrue. I therefore do not think that there is anything to answer for.

The Cabinet Office has established a referendum unit. Can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House explain what it does, when it was established, to whom it reports and how many civil servants work in it?

The short answer is no, not now. The right hon. Gentleman might be able to do that in the course of a private chat over a cup of tea with the hon. Lady, or by answering a written question if she were to table such, but today we must focus on the narrow terms of the urgent question that has been granted.

I have always considered it an honour and privilege to be a member of the Privy Council, and I take very seriously the trust that is placed in those of us who are part of it. I believe that the allegations carry a great deal of currency, and that if they are not properly investigated, they could undermine the whole of the Privy Council and everybody in it. The Prime Minister was right to say that it would be very serious if a member of the Privy Council was the source of the newspaper story in The Sun. I therefore think that it behoves the Government to ask the Member involved to come to this House and to make a statement himself, in order to lay this matter to rest.

All of us who are members of the Privy Council take that responsibility enormously seriously. It is a great honour for us to serve the Crown in that way. However, I simply repeat that my predecessor as Lord President, who is a Privy Counsellor and who also takes that responsibility very seriously, has said that the story is categorically untrue, and that there is therefore nothing to answer for.

It is quite right that Her Majesty, our sovereign, should have no views on important issues such as the EU referendum. How can it be in any way acceptable for members of Her Majesty’s Government from the Prime Minister downwards to encourage foreign Heads of State to comment on the EU referendum? Does this not demonstrate the fact that the international Bilderberg group is ganging up against the British people?

I would discourage any foreign leader from entering the debate at the moment. This is a matter for the British people and it should remain so.

What discussions, if any, has the Leader of the House had with the Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary about allegations that the Justice Secretary might have been the source of the leaked information, since such allegations were made in the media?

Since my predecessor has said that the story is categorically untrue, there is no need for me to have such conversations.

I suppose the one thing that we have learned today is that we should not believe everything we read in the newspapers. However, I am learning more about the Privy Council and things like that, because I am obviously not a member of the Privy Council and not likely to be.

Sticking narrowly to the point, do Privy Council rules extend to former colonies that might now have a President who might want to come over here and tell us how to vote in the EU referendum?

Order. I think we know the President of whom the hon. Gentleman speaks. The President is a most illustrious individual, but the last time I looked he was not a member of the Privy Council. We will leave it there as I think it was a rhetorical question.

The Leader of the House is clinging to the defence that he is using today, but it is clear that the Secretary of State for Justice wants people to believe that he was the source and that the story is true. Given that the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), whom we all respect tremendously on such matters, considers this to be treason, the Leader of the House’s rather flippant approach massively undermines the importance of this important role.

I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. Someone cannot be found guilty of an offence when none has taken place. My predecessor has said that the story is categorically untrue, so that really should be the end of the matter.

Does the Leader of the House agree that if the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) or someone else at the Privy Council meeting made a note of their recollection of a conversation with Her Majesty, perhaps for a book or diaries, which, amazingly, politicians tend to want to write at the end of their careers, perhaps the number of people who may have been privy to the information may include not only Privy Counsellors? That may be where the leak came from.

Lots of people talk to lots of others about lots of things, but the former Lord President has said that the story is categorically untrue and that the conversation did not take place.

I have never been to this palace, so I do not know what takes place there, but the most bizarre thing for me is what on earth the Queen was doing confiding in Clegg. [Laughter.]

The response to the hon. Gentleman’s comment from across the House suggests that not everyone disagrees with the view he puts forward. I hope that he gets the chance to go to the palace before he ends his illustrious career.

Will those members of the Privy Council who are also members of Her Majesty’s Government ensure that all the statistics that are usually published are published between now and 23 June?

I am sure that we will want to ensure that everyone on both sides of the debate has all the facts that they need to reach a conclusion when the vote comes in June.

The Prime Minister has described the EU referendum as a once-in-a-generation decision and

“more important than a general election”.

Does the Leader of the House agree that public confidence in the outcome of this significant vote rests largely on members of the Government on both sides of the argument behaving fairly and abiding by agreed rules and conventions?

Ministers on both sides of the argument are making their case clearly and will remain friends afterwards. I am pleased to have my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, whose view is different from mine, sitting alongside me, demonstrating that we are a united team that is doing the right thing for this country.

Without invoking the body of the sovereign, may I ask the Government when they plan to introduce a British sovereignty Bill?

We will soon be having a visitation from the Queen to this Palace for the Queen’s Speech, on 18 May, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will see on that occasion what our plans are for the legislative programme in the years ahead.

My natural generosity got the better of me; the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) is unfailingly courteous, but his question was a bit wide of the mark. Half a dozen or so people, perhaps slightly more, are still seeking to catch my eye and it would be good if everybody remained in order—led by Mr Stephen Pound.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This whole business leaves a pretty nasty stench in the nostrils. Does the Leader of the House agree that there is an unpleasant characteristic emerging, whereby people are picking up little scraps, trifles, tittle-tattle, gossip and rumour and then parlaying that into a book later on in their careers? My Sunday morning fry-up was ruined when I turned to my copy of The Mail on Sunday only to read the memoirs of Mr Laws, so does the Leader of the House agree that we should impose a self-denying ordinance and stop writing these dreadful scandalous books, seeking to expose what should be confidential? May I say that I have no intention of doing this?

I am not sure that a self-denying ordinance can be imposed. Those who have consulted their scholarly craniums advise me that that might not be possible—indeed, it might be either a contradiction in terms or a tautology. I will leave the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the matter.

We will see how robust the hon. Gentleman’s determination to stay outside the world of diary and book writing is when he concludes his illustrious career and receives a lavish offer from a publisher.

Early-day motion 1182 and interrogation at a recent Select Committee hearing raised two other possible breaches of this kind involving Her Majesty and Prince William. It was noted that the carefully crafted answer from the Justice Secretary said that he did not know where the Queen gets all her information. As we have now been told that the Justice Secretary is a “Maoist”, may we take it that this is an attempt to do what Maoists do and achieve revolution by destruction—in this case, the destruction of the monarchy?

If we are talking about revolution by destruction, I have to say that the current Leader of the Opposition and shadow Chancellor take the biscuit.

I hope you will not deem my question to be tangential, Mr Speaker. Clearly, the Government have strong views on this matter and we are witnessing varied opinions from those on their Benches, but for future reference might the Leader of the House consider drawing up a list of approved contributors to the EU debate, saying whose view is acceptable and whose is not? Such a list would be very handy for future reference for the Scottish National party.

As far as I am aware, Mr Speaker, we are having a debate where everybody’s views are being put forward, on both sides of the argument, and that is going to carry on for another three months.

I am racking my brain trying to think of a previous occasion when the Leader of the House has agreed so readily with the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg). Surely the Leader of the House must accept that the Justice Secretary’s failure unequivocally to state that he had nothing to do with this is the reason he is answering this urgent question now. Should the Justice Secretary not either make such a statement or resign?

So the hon. Gentleman is asking the Justice Secretary to say that something that did not happen did not happen—that just does not make any sense.

Millions of working people throughout this country know that when an allegation of gross misconduct comes to an employer’s attention, it is usually expected that an investigation will follow and that if the allegation is proven, dismissal is a potential outcome. Doing nothing creates a precedent that others may rely on in future if other allegations are made, so does the Leader of the House agree that the failure even to investigate this shows a lack of courage and creates an unwelcome precedent?

Normally, investigations are not launched into unsubstantiated stories. I simply say again that my predecessor, the former Lord President of the Council, said that the story is categorically untrue.

I am disappointed to hear the response of the Leader of the House, because Buckingham Palace is sufficiently concerned by this story to have made a formal complaint to the press watchdog. There are two impeccable sources involved, so why are the Government not taking the matter seriously by holding an investigation?

If I understand it correctly, Buckingham Palace is complaining about the story in the newspaper, and the proper body to investigate a complaint of that kind is the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

The Prime Minister has described the situation as “very serious”. Does the Leader of the House agree with him that it is very serious if a member of the Privy Council has breached confidential codes and been the source for The Sun story? If he does, why is he not launching his own investigation?

If I understand it correctly, the serious issue is about the story in the newspaper, which is being investigated, but my predecessor, the former Lord President of the Council, has said that the story is categorically untrue.

Yesterday, the Sunday Telegraph reported that Government sources had described the alleged leak by the Justice Secretary as a “sackable offence”. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Justice Secretary had the support of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to remain in post?