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House of Commons Hansard

Advisory Committee on Business Appointments/Ministerial Code

20 March 2017
Volume 623

  • Before I call the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) to ask his urgent question, let me emphasise to the House that the question relates to issues highlighted by the appointment of the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) to the editorship of the London Evening Standard for the operation of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the ministerial code. It is not, repeat not, about the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman, and I will not countenance supplementary questions which are critical of his conduct. As the House will be aware, criticisms of the conduct of right hon. and hon. Members may be made only on substantive motions.

  • To ask the Prime Minister if she will make a statement on the operation of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the ministerial code in the light of the appointment of the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) to the editorship of the London Evening Standard.

  • I am very grateful indeed to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. Let me take the opportunity to set out the Government’s position.

    The ministerial code requires that former Ministers must seek advice from the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments about any appointments or employment that they wish to take up within two years of leaving office. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) left his role in the Government in July last year. Information on advice given to him regarding previous appointments has been published on the committee’s website.

    I understand that the application for the particular role mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, at the London Evening Standard, was received by the committee on 13 March and is currently being considered. When the committee has fully considered the application, it will convey its advice directly to my right hon. Friend, and that advice will be made public on its website. Until the advice is made public, this is a confidential process between the committee and my right hon. Friend, although it is no doubt a matter of significant interest to the House.

  • Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker. I will seek to adhere to your wish for me not to refer to a particular right hon. or hon. Member, but to deal with the underlying issue.

    As we saw in the media over the weekend, this is a matter of great concern. My question was addressed to the Prime Minister, and not—with respect—to the Minister. I appreciate his commitment to ensuring that more is done in future to prevent a repeat of the most recent incident, but many Members on both sides of the House are likely to treat such comments with scepticism.

    The current rules relating to business appointments were established to counter suspicion that the decisions and statements of serving Ministers might be influenced by a hope for future rewards in the form of a job offer or other monetary gains. Disregarding those rules deeply undermines public trust in the democratic process, in the work of a Member of Parliament, and in the House itself. It does a disservice to those Members who respect the trust placed in them by their constituents, who spend every hour of their day fighting for their constituents’ interests, and who ensure that proper attention to the representative role of an MP is given, as a vocation to public service should require.

    In 2012, an inquiry into the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments suggested that it should be replaced by a new conflicts of interest and ethics commissioner, but the Government provided assurances that the current system and the ministerial code was robust enough to prevent behaviour or actions that might at worst bring this House into disrepute, or further the tragic low standing this profession is sadly held in. Yet I am forced here today to ask the Government again how they will address another case and to ask them to give assurances that the current system has not provided yet another opportunity for a conflict of interest to be exploited. To hold one outside interest is perhaps defensible, but to hold several time-consuming outside commitments that have a deep overlap with the political role of what is supposed to be a full-time commitment as a Member of this House is impossible to defend.

    Will the Minister confirm what action the Government intend to take against ex-Ministers who appear to be in breach of the ministerial code on their failure to seek advice from ACOBA before accepting an appointment? Will he reconsider his Government’s response to the 2012 review into ACOBA and provide a stronger system that is able to command the confidence of this House and the public, because it is what we deserve?

  • I have to say that I can see why the hon. Gentleman took this excuse to drag himself away from the shadow Cabinet awayday. I know he will be missing it with every cell in his body, and that is why I will give him a short answer so that he can return as quickly as possible.

    As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, much has already been done in this important area. The Prime Minister revised the ministerial code when she took office. It is a matter of high concern to her, and that is why, appended to the ministerial code for the first time, is advice to Ministers on leaving office to seek the advice and assurances, or approbation—or indeed censure—of the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, or ACOBA.

    The important thing to say about that process is that it is independent. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not mind, therefore, if I do not make any comment about this particular case, because ACOBA is considering it and it would be wrong for me to prejudice its decision by saying, one way or another, what my view or the Government’s view was—not that we have a view until we have received the independent advice from the independent committee.

    The hon. Gentleman makes a broader point about employment outside this House and about outside interests. He will know that his colleagues and Conservative Members who sit on the Committee on Standards in Public Life will be looking at this matter again. It is of ongoing concern to the public, and has been for many years, and it is something that the House will have to grapple with in the years ahead. That is why I welcome the Committee looking at it again, and no doubt this will be something that returns to the House later.

    The hon. Gentleman also makes a wider point about vocation, and I would like to address that directly, as it is very important. In my experience—I am sure in his as well—almost all Members on both sides of this House, no matter whether they are in opposition or on the Government Benches, come to this place because they believe in public service. That should inform their decisions not just about their own interests, but about the wider interests of democracy and the representative system. I am sure that all Members will, in the way they deport themselves in this discussion today, bear that in mind.

  • When I heard that this urgent question had been granted, I thought it was important to be here—although unfortunately we have missed the deadline for the Evening Standard. In my view, this Parliament is enhanced when we have people of different experience taking part in our robust debates and when people who have held senior ministerial office continue to contribute to the decisions we have to make. I will listen to what my colleagues have to say; I am interested to hear it.

  • I am not sure that there is much more that I could, or should, add to my right hon. Friend’s comments.

  • On International Happiness Day, we can see some people who are pretty happy, but it strikes me that we have heard it all when we get a Minister standing up to give a response to a perfectly reasonable, sensible question and making a joke about it, and when the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) thinks that this is merely a matter of amusement. Well, they cannot get away with treating this House and the people as a load of gowks, as we would say in Scotland. This is a disgraceful shambles, and we need to know what the Government are going to do about it.

  • This morning, as on all mornings, I had the pleasure of reading the First Minister’s column in the Daily Record, and all I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that there is a tradition in this House of contributing to newspapers—[Interruption.] And elsewhere, even in the Assembly in Holyrood. It is important to remember that, as the Speaker has said, this is not about the particulars but about the generality of whether Members should have interests or employment outside this House. That is why I am glad that the Committee is looking at this in detail, and Members across the House will no doubt wish to consider its recommendations in due course.

  • I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Minister will be aware that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which is an advisory non-departmental public body sponsored by the Cabinet Office, is within the remit of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. The Chairman and other members of the Committee are currently abroad. PACAC is conducting an inquiry into the role of ACOBA which remains open; we have not yet reported. Our inquiry will therefore take into account these new developments and we are considering what further evidence to take. Does the Minister agree that it is important for the relevant Committees of this House to be able to carry out their remit in a properly constituted fashion and make recommendations based on evidence?

  • I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. She is right to remind the House that PACAC is undertaking such an inquiry, and we will look on it with interest. The Minister for the constitution, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), has already contributed to it, and he will make further contributions, should the inquiry so wish.

  • May I return the Minister to the question of the ministerial code? Does he think that there is any need for reform of the code or for its enforcement? If so, what should be the mechanism for achieving that?

  • The ministerial code determines how Ministers should behave—that is, serving Ministers. It does not have a direct impact on ex-Ministers, for reasons that the right hon. Lady will understand. It does, however, advise ex-Ministers about their responsibilities, should they leave their position, and it has been toughened up in that respect in the past few months, before this current discussion happened. It is important that ACOBA should give its recommendations before we move on to consider broader matters of reform, because the questions that are being put at the moment are predicated on an answer that I would not like to predetermine.

  • I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In considering such matters, is it not extremely important that the House always seeks to attract the widest possible cross-section of people, including retaining the services of those who have held high office? Is it not also a matter of regret that, for the first time in my 30 years on and off in this House, there is no former Prime Minister in either of the two Houses of Parliament?

  • That is the view that this House has traditionally taken. It is not a matter for the Government; it is for this House to make a decision in the long term about the balance that it wants to have. Traditionally and to this point, this House has determined that it is right for Members of Parliament to have the opportunity of a wider hinterland. That may change—it is not for me to say—but it is important that, whatever the particularities at this juncture, the situation is judged within that context.

  • In 1523, Cardinal Wolsey become the Bishop of Durham. He never visited his diocese. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that hon. Members do not start behaving like medieval clerics instead of modern politicians?

  • Thomas Wolsey was a proud boy of Ipswich and was proud to go back as often as he could, so I have no complaints about him. I cannot speak for his parishioners, but I can say that it will be for all our constituents to judge in 2020 the means and the manner of how we have discharged our responsibilities. It is for us to go individually to the electorate at that point and to put ourselves up for re-election on that basis.

  • Is my right hon. Friend aware of whether the Cabinet Office received any representations from Her Majesty’s Opposition during the six years to July 2016 about the incompatibility of the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer with being a Member of this House, on the grounds that it was too onerous a post to combine with that of being an MP?

  • I endeavour in everything I do to be as assiduous as my predecessor in my ministerial responsibilities, but I have as yet not been able to uncover anything of the kind that my right hon. Friend suggests.

  • In the context of potential overspending in key marginal seats and concerns about the appointments of MPs with safe seats, does this situation not show the stark difference between parties’ and candidates’ approaches to marginal and safe seats? There is a real problem of representation and an issue with the first-past-the-post system.

  • That is a niche interest for the Liberal Democrats, all of whom have marginal seats. What I find extraordinary about that question is that there are Members on both sides of the House with safe seats who are incredibly assiduous in how they attend to their constituents—Opposition Members whom I am looking at now and Government Members behind me—and it is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to cast aspersions on them.

  • I commend the Minister for his judicious handling of this question. I underline the importance to us all of respecting constitutional principles. Is it not the case that ACOBA is an independent body? Its independence needs to be respected. Is it not the case that we believe in a free press and that proprietors should therefore have the right to appoint whom they believe is right to be editor, without the Executive or anyone else interfering in that decision? Is it not also the case that whoever represents a constituency should be up to its voters, not for the Opposition or anyone else to decree?

  • My right hon. Friend, as ever, is good at making clear the liberties that underpin our democracy and that we too often forgot.

  • Those of us who were here at the time remember how difficult it was to restore the reputation of this House after the expenses scandal. Is there not a wider issue here about how the public look upon what they describe as the political class and about the feeling, justified or otherwise, that we are all greedy, on the make, and so on? We have to be careful that we are not tarred with the same brush.

  • I imagine that the hon. Gentleman was in this House when Dick Crossman went to edit the New Statesman, and that was when people read the New Statesman. The hon. Gentleman will know of previous examples of when such things have happened. It is important that we judge this situation in the context of whether we think that Members of Parliament should have employment outside. There are arguments on both sides, and it is important that we do not reduce this to an ad hominem attack, which would create very bad policy.

  • I gently say to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) that it has never been suggested that, during the five or six weeks when he was in Copeland as the Labour party’s campaign organiser, he abandoned or did anything wrong by his constituents.

    Members of all parties on both sides of the House work extremely hard, especially when they have the ultimate second job as a Minister, Secretary of State, Chancellor of the Exchequer or, of course, Prime Minister. Does my right hon. Friend agree that anybody who does any other work in addition to their duties as a Member of Parliament actually brings a huge amount of experience into this Chamber, and that that makes all of us represent everyone in this country even better? Does he also agree that the ultimate judges are our constituents, who can boot us out through the ballot box if they do not like what we do?

  • My right hon. Friend is right that our constituents are the ultimate judges of our behaviour and performance. There are very strong arguments for allowing people to have outside interests, and there are also strong arguments against. Those arguments need to be reconciled with more time and thought than is possible during consideration of an urgent question. I repeat my earlier point that when we make such decisions, we all have a duty not just to our own interests but to the wider reputation of our democracy. We have that duty in everything that we do, whatever post we hold in government or in Parliament.

  • At the risk of upsetting the new editor of my city’s newspaper, there is an air of complete unreality around some of this afternoon’s exchanges. The public’s trust in both politicians and the media has never been so low, so what does it do to that trust if there is the idea that politicians can have a number of roles, including editing a newspaper? In an era of fake news, what does it do for the reputation of the media to have someone editing a newspaper who has no qualifications to do so? My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) asked about apprenticeship funding during Question Time. As a London MP, I want apprenticeship funding in London, as would the editor of my local newspaper, but what would the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) think?

  • Order. We cannot ask Ministers to speculate about what individual hon. or right hon. Members might think.

  • That is the conflict right there.

  • Order. Whatever the conflict may be, I am the determinant of what is an orderly question. I ask the hon. Gentleman graciously to accept that I am trying to do the right thing in balancing different considerations, but we must adhere to order. The Minister is a dextrous fellow, and he will answer in a way that is orderly—I know he will not answer in a way that is not.

  • The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) is incisive in how he asks his question. I agree that we all obviously have a challenge in raising the reputation of our democratic institutions and the people who serve in them. That would not be served by a Minister of the Crown coming to the Dispatch Box on a Monday, following an announcement the previous Friday, to set out a new policy just to suit the particular agenda of the day. It is for the House to have a wide consideration of whether it thinks that it is right or wrong for people to have outside interests—I think that there are arguments on both sides. In the meantime, we all need to consider our individual duties to the wider body politic in the way in which we behave.

  • The Minister has a justified reputation for his devoted and assiduous work on his ministerial duties. Has that in any way diminished his ability to serve his constituents?

  • It has not in any way at all.

  • Will the Minister please refer to the advisory committee the dilemma that exists when a former Minister is given a particular appointment on the basis of his geographical location, but subsequently secures a further appointment that flatly contradicts the interest that he was meant to serve in that previous appointment? Can the editor of the London Standard look after the northern powerhouse?

  • It is not for me to make that determination; it is for the independent advisory committee to do so, and it will make a recommendation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton. I know that the hon. Gentleman wants me to say something controversial, but it would be wrong to undermine the process in the committee that is under way and to prejudice its decision by saying one thing or another.

  • Many people in this House have second jobs, including you, Mr Speaker. Your second job is obviously being Speaker of this House, and you do it assiduously, while being able to serve your constituents. Will the Minister help me to understand which jobs would be considered acceptable by the Government or another statutory body, as many people write books, or own land or property? Should they therefore sell everything into monastic simplicity and become a political class, or should they represent the economy and the people of this country by maintaining an intact body of effort with other people?

  • I congratulate—[Interruption.]

  • Order. We must give a fair hearing to Members on both sides of the House, and to the Minister. Earlier, Members were moaning that the Minister needed to speak up a bit. That is as may be, but the Minister is immensely courteous, and just as he is courteous to the House, so the House should be courteous to him.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend on moving himself up the speaking order for the next debate.

    Many Members discharge their responsibilities to their constituents incredibly well even though they have interests outside Parliament, while some Members—albeit a very limited number—do not do much work on behalf of their constituents even though they have no outside work. This is not a binary debate but, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, it is a matter of public concern and one that this House is right to discuss. It should do so with time and with dignity, and I suggest that this is not the right place now—in an urgent question off the back of one story about one Member.

  • Is the Minister aware that roughly the same arguments are emanating from both sides of the House as we heard 40 years ago when we attempted to set up the register? This has not changed, except in that over the years there has been a desire by the majority of Members to ensure that the register and the duties of MPs are strengthened. The real question to be answered now is: how can a full-time politician be a full-time editor of a daily newspaper?

  • One of the many reasons why I admire the hon. Gentleman is that he walked out of the pit straight to this place, and gave an experience to the House of Commons and our representative democracy that few on either side of the House would able to provide. That is of enormous value to this House of Commons. I am not in a position to make the judgment that he invites me to make. I ask that the independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments provides its independent report before we judge this particular incident, and that the hon. Gentleman contributes his thoughts to the wider considerations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I believe that there are strong arguments in his favour, but there are also strong arguments on the other side, and they should be discussed in the round.

  • As my right hon. Friend says, there is a fine balance between those who have outside interests and those who do not, but I believe that this House is enriched by those outside interests. I further believe that party apparatchiks do not enhance this House. May I utter a Labour party swear word to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who talks with his faux outrage? May I just remind him of Tony Blair?

  • Those two words are more likely to anger Opposition Members than Government Members.

    It is difficult to frame this debate by looking at particular examples; we have to look at the generality. There are 650 Members of Parliament, many of whom have various outside interests: some are in the professions; some are in the charitable sector. If we start to go down this road, we will have to decide which things we judge to be more valuable than others. That is a very difficult path to travel down, and the House needs to make its consideration with time and dignity.

  • Tomorrow I have meetings in this place from 8.30 in the morning till 8.30 at night, including two involving Select Committees. Several ex-Ministers do an excellent job of chairing Select Committees. Should not the expertise that people gain in ministerial office be directed at scrutinising the work of the Executive and doing a job here in Parliament, not somewhere else?

  • I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton will continue to contribute to this House. He has shown every indication of wishing to do so in the past few weeks, and I have no doubt that he will continue to do so over the months ahead. It is right that we all contribute in our own way, and in the way that best discharges our talents. I hope that would be the case for all Members of Parliament, not just the one in question.

  • The hon. Friends of the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) have all jumped to his defence and argued that outside interests help a Member to stay in Parliament and bring experience to it. If the outside interests are so extensive, a Member quite clearly will not be contributing to the House, so that argument is ridiculous. The Minister says that Members stand for re-election by their constituents, but unfortunately under the UK political system there are safe seats in which voters do not have a choice, so will the Government look at this issue in the round?

  • The former leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party writes a column for a newspaper—[Interruption.] I am not saying whether that is right or wrong, but the reaction of Scottish National party Members suggests that they might feel a little guilty about putting that question.

    The point is that this is not an easy or binary decision to come to. When is too much? Is it one newspaper column? Is it two or five? The House should come to a decision after long and careful thought. It would be good if Opposition Members expressed themselves in those terms, rather than expressing outrage, because Members on their side have outside interests.

  • Given some of the contributions from Conservative Members, it is a shame the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) is not still able to dish out ministerial jobs, because a few of them would have deserved one. On a more serious note, public concern about this issue is widespread, and the disaffection with the political process is even more acute in the north of England. What am I to say to my constituents who feel that time and again, despite all the talk of the northern powerhouse, we give up on the north and head down to London?

  • I share the hon. Lady’s concern; she raises something that we are going to have to rebuild together. Genuinely, if we conduct politics in a way that is disrespectful just so that we get headlines the next day, we will only continue to undermine the politics that we all seek to serve. That is why we need to understand this matter calmly and dispassionately and to make sure that we come to the right decision. On the concerns about the north, we are devolving power to Manchester precisely so that we can get the kind of representation the hon. Lady is calling for. That is why Conservatives are so keen to see that devolution happen. I hope she is happy with the result when it finally comes to pass in the next few months.

  • Will the Minister seize this moment to congratulate all those colleagues from both sides of the House who serve as reservists, or who practise as doctors or dentists, or in other important trades? Does not the fact that they do so illustrate how the Opposition are sometimes more concerned about the nature of the employment than the employment itself?

  • My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), is a practising doctor, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) is a practising nurse. They bring particular expertise and skills to our Chamber that would not otherwise be here. There are good reasons and arguments in favour of that, but there are also reasons and arguments to the contrary—this are balanced. We need to have that discussion and then come to a conclusion, because whatever decision we reach will have profound implications for the way in which our democracy functions.

  • I do not own any broad rolling acres, sadly, but I do have some skin in the game as the author of a seldom-read column in Tribune entitled “Pound Notes”. Although I do not wish to attack anybody in this House, nor to be quite so clement as the former leader of my party, I do feel that the Minister should perhaps have a quiet word with one of his colleagues about, first, the ministerial code and, secondly, the actual job that Members of Parliament are doing, as some 20% of the work that comes into my office probably should not be done by an MP. Can we try to get some good out of this sorry business and have a look at first principles—or perhaps even go back to basics?

  • I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. As ever, he speaks a great deal of sense. In a former age, he would have been granted many thousands of rolling acres just for making that point. Perhaps that is one loss for all of us.

  • Let me declare an interest as a former NCTJ—National Council for the Training of Journalists—qualified journalist and a member of the National Union of Journalists, which I hope the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) will be joining in short course. Much has been made of possible political conflicts of interest, but will the Minister also address potential commercial conflicts of interest, especially given that the Treasury is one of the biggest spenders on newspaper advertising—the sum is about £2.5 million? Will he commit to publish details of that expenditure?

  • I remember the interest with which I viewed the hon. Gentleman’s contributions to “Look East”. He is right that the Government spend money on newspaper advertising, but that is arranged by civil servants through an independent process involving the Government Communication Service. One of his colleagues tabled a parliamentary question a couple of weeks ago about the nature of the spend over the past few years, and I provided the answer, which is now in the Library.

  • When the former Chancellor promised us a surplus in 2020, I do not think that any of us expected him to go about achieving it in quite this manner. However, I am concerned that the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) might be overstretching himself. Will ACOBA take account of European working time regulations and ensure that he is not damaging his health by working excessive hours?

  • I am not sure that any of us complies faithfully with the European working time directive. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton was an industrious man when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was industrious in rescuing this country’s economy, and no doubt he will continue to be industrious in whatever role he wishes to take.

  • The Minister said earlier that the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) had not actually received the advice from ACOBA. Will he confirm that right hon. and hon. Members are not in breach of the rules by announcing positions before they have received advice, and that ACOBA has absolutely no teeth to enforce rules when they have been breached?

  • It is for ACOBA to make recommendations and conditions. Indeed, it often enforces conditions. In the period leading up to 2010 and just after, only 12 of the 43 Ministers who made applications to take outside employment were allowed to do so without conditions, so ACOBA is able to provide conditions. It is for the committee to judge specifically in this case how it feels that the process has been undertaken. It will do so after taking into account all the evidence. It will publish its decision on the internet very soon, and the hon. Lady will be able to see it, as will everyone else.

  • Many people will think that parliamentarians should have sufficient life experience before they enter this place, but does the Minister believe that there should be an upper limit on the number of outside jobs that MPs are allowed to take?

  • That is something that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is considering, and it is also entirely right that the House should do so. One reason why colleagues on both sides of the House have identified this issue of politicians being held in low esteem is to do with the culture that has grown up over the past 13, 14 or 15 years of Governments giving immediate answers to stories in the press just to show that they are ahead of some media game. That is not the way to get faith in politics or trust in politicians. We need to be considerate and deliberative, and to think carefully about the problems in front of us. Members of the House should discuss this matter dispassionately, calmly and with dignity in the weeks and months ahead, and come to a conclusion, to which the Government will listen.

  • I have only one job: representing the people of City of Chester. Will the Minister confirm or comment on the notion that perhaps jobs for former Ministers should not be accepted formally or announced before ACOBA has announced the conditions on which that job depends?

  • I think ACOBA will look at this case and make its judgment on it and the process that has taken place. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind if I do not comment at this stage, because that would prejudice what ACOBA says. Let us see what ACOBA says; then, no doubt, we will return to the matter, because the House will continue to be interested in it.