(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the recent apparent breaches of the ministerial code and whether he intends to refer the matter to the Cabinet Office for further investigation.
On Saturday 29 February, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service received and accepted the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam as permanent secretary at the Home Office. On the same day, the Cabinet Secretary announced that Shona Dunn—then the second permanent secretary at the Home Office, responsible for borders, immigration and citizenship—would become acting permanent secretary with immediate effect.
Allegations have been made that the Home Secretary has breached the ministerial code. The Home Secretary absolutely rejects those allegations. The Prime Minister has expressed his full confidence in her, and having worked closely with the Home Secretary over a number of years, I have the highest regard for her. She is a superb Minister doing a great job.
This Government always take any complaints relating to the ministerial code seriously, and in line with the process set out in the ministerial code, the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Office to establish the facts. As is usual, the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, Sir Alex Allan, is available to provide advice to the Prime Minister.
It is long-standing Government policy not to comment on individual personnel matters, in order to protect the rights of all involved. What I can and will say is that I know that the dedicated ministerial team at the Home Office and their superb civil servants will continue their critical work on the public’s behalf, keeping our country protected from the terror threat, bearing down on criminals who seek to do our communities and our country harm, and delivering a fair, firm immigration system that works in the interests of the British people. The Home Office works tirelessly to keep our citizens safe and our country secure, and we all stand behind the team leading that vital work.
Mr Speaker, I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his reply, but my question was to the Prime Minister. Could we have an answer as to where the Prime Minister is this afternoon? When an urgent question to the Prime Minister is granted, one would expect the Prime Minister to come to this House to answer the question that has been put to him.
It is the Prime Minister’s job to oversee the ministerial code. If the serious allegations raised by the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir Philip Rutnam, about the Home Secretary’s conduct are true—including
“shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands”—
that would clearly constitute a breach of the ministerial code.
The Prime Minister himself, in his foreword to the code, said there must be
“no bullying and no harassment”.
Those are his words in his foreword to the ministerial code, so why, without a proper investigation, has the Prime Minister defended the Home Secretary, calling her “fantastic” and saying he “absolutely” has confidence in her?
It is not enough just to refer this to the Cabinet Office. The Government must now call in an external lawyer, as has quite rightly been suggested by the union of senior civil servants, the First Division Association. A Minister in breach of the ministerial code cannot remain in office and should be dismissed.
These are just the latest in a series of allegations that suggest an unacceptable pattern of behaviour. According to reports in our media, a number of the Home Office clashes have involved demands from the Home Secretary some of which were considered illegal by officials—illegal by officials. Most disturbingly, the Home Secretary reportedly asked officials to reverse a court ruling halting the deportation of 25 individuals to Jamaica last month. If that is the case, was the Home Secretary not trying to push officials into breaching a ruling by the Court of Appeal?
Is it now this Government’s policy to bully officials into flouting court rulings? Is it not the truth that this is a Government led by bullies, presided over by a part-time Prime Minister, who not only cannot be bothered to turn up, but simply will not take the vital action required when the very integrity and credibility of the Government are on the line?
I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for his questions. The Prime Minister is of course in Downing Street, leading our response to the coronavirus, implementing the people’s priorities and making sure that the manifesto promises at the general election are delivered. He is governing in the national interest, delivering for the British people. As the Minister responsible for the civil service, I am pleased to be here in order to be able to uphold the ministerial code and to underline our thanks to our superb civil service for the work it does every day, implementing the manifesto commitments on which we were elected.
The Leader of the Opposition asks if this investigation is robust and fit for purpose. Of course it is. The ministerial code is absolutely clear, and the Cabinet Secretary, who polices it alongside the Prime Minister, also has access to Sir Alex Allan to ensure that every part of the ministerial code is adhered to. One of the things that is clear about this Government is that we believe that Ministers, special advisers and civil servants need to work together with confidence, with clarity and in a co-ordinated fashion to ensure that our priorities are delivered.
The Leader of the Opposition referred to media reports. I would have thought that he of all people would be wary of believing what he reads in the newspaper. We make no apology for having strong Ministers in place to ensure the effective delivery of public priorities. There is a stark contrast between the actions that the Home Secretary and her colleagues are taking to keep this country safe, and the danger in which our country would have been placed if he had won the general election and his approach towards national security had been followed.
The final thing that many will reflect on is that it is vitally important that all of us in this House uphold the highest standards of civility and respect for others. However, many people will look at the Opposition Front Bench and reflect on the fact that Labour MPs required armed police protection at their own party conference, and that the shadow Chancellor spoke of lynching Members of this House, and they will draw the conclusion that all of us need to reflect on the importance of restoring civility to public life before we throw around allegations like that.
Order. I am expecting to run this urgent question for about 45 minutes.
I am someone who strongly supports the work that the Home Secretary is doing to make sure we are secure and to have a new borders policy. Can the Government guarantee that this will be a quick process, so that we can get to an early answer and she can get on with the job?
My right hon. Friend speaks for many in the country. The Home Secretary is doing a superb job. The new points-based immigration system is in line with what this country wants, and we want to make sure that this process is expedited in a fair way.
The circumstances surrounding the resignation at the weekend were unprecedented, although the Government seem to thrive on unprecedented circumstances. It seems that the Home Secretary may be trying to create a hostile environment inside the Home Office, as well as outside it. We in the House are all managers of staff, and every Member understands the rewards and challenges that brings. There is a world of difference between robust management and bullying, however, and only an independent investigation can establish which of the two has gone on. That is what the FDA union has called for, so why will the Government not agree to an independent investigation? What are they afraid of?
On the whereabouts of the Prime Minister, we know that in the past he was so afraid of the scrutiny of the House that he tried—unlawfully—to shut it down. Is he still afraid of the scrutiny of the House of Commons, or is he in hiding because we are about to lose another Cabinet Minister from one of the great offices of state?
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for her question, and she knows that I have enormous respect and affection for the work she does. She is right to say that, as we are all managers of staff and public servants, we must be properly robust and exacting in ensuring that we do everything we can to deliver for those who put us here. All my ministerial colleagues know that their first responsibility is to the British people, and to delivering the manifesto on which we were elected.
The hon and learned Lady rightly said that it is important that any investigation is thorough, rapid, independent, and authoritative. The Cabinet Secretary will be leading the work in accordance with the ministerial code, and with access to the independent adviser, Sir Alex Allan, and that will ensure a proper and fair inquiry. On the presence of the Prime Minister, as I said earlier, the Prime Minister is determined to ensure that across Government we fulfil our manifesto pledges, and it is right for him to lead that work. As the Minister responsible for the civil service, it is appropriate that I am here answering these questions.
How does my right hon. Friend think that Margaret Thatcher would have got on if she had been subjected to the same smears and sexism as have been used against the current iron lady in the Home Office?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are all aware that progress in the past has depended on strong Ministers, and indeed strong Prime Ministers, setting exacting terms, but it has also depended on having a brilliant and able civil service that can act with confidence and provide candid advice. Those two important pillars of our constitution are at the heart of this Government’s operation.
Sir Philip Rutnam’s statement said that he received allegations about the Home Secretary’s behaviour from other civil servants. Will the Minister say how many allegations there have been, from both within and without the Home Office, and will every one be investigated as part of this inquiry?
As the right hon. Lady will appreciate, it would be improper for me to go into individual personnel cases, but every legitimately raised complaint will, of course, be investigated.
Anyone who has watched “Yes Minister” will know that profoundly felt differences of opinion can exist between civil servants on the one hand, and Ministers on the other. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when a Minister or Secretary of State is implementing Government policy, that must prevail? Civil servants are crown servants and, as I am sure they would agree, they really do have to carry out the will of the people.
My hon. Friend is right, and as I and my ministerial colleagues know, when implementing our manifesto commitments it is important that we are robust and clear about what is required, to ensure that we deliver for the British people. It is also true that the effective delivery of Government policy depends on candid advice from civil servants, and that relationship must therefore be one in which both sides respect each other’s particular responsibilities, as I know is the case across Government.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that it has now been almost two years since the Windrush scandal. Do the allegations made in relation to the Home Secretary relate to the publication of that long-overdue report? Will this debacle, and the loss of the permanent secretary, mean that that report will now be delayed even longer?
I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman has been a formidable and effective advocate on behalf of the Windrush generation, but it is important for me to state that I have no evidence that any of the allegations that may or may not have been made relate to the report. The report is being conducted entirely independently. I understand his anxiety, and the anxiety of many across the House, to see that report published as soon as possible. I know that that is the Government’s wish as well.
Will my right hon. Friend take a small piece of advice from me and my family, who have given over 150 years’ work to the civil service of our great country? Civil servants give advice, and Ministers and Secretaries of State enact Government policy. The two should not get mixed up, so will he please give our support to our present Home Secretary?
I am very, very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a superb Minister. Of course, she is absolutely right. The ethos of public service that she characterises is at the heart of our effective constitution.
In all my many years in this House, eight of them as a Minister in the Government, I do not think I have ever seen such a resignation announcement from a permanent secretary: actively calling his Secretary of State a liar, accusing her of bullying in the most gross terms, and feeling he had no option but to do so publicly. Clearly, something here has gone extremely wrong and it surely threatens the independence of the civil service if this rot is allowed to continue. What is the Minister, who has responsibility for the civil service, going to do to protect the integrity of the civil service from these kinds of ad hominem political attacks?
The hon. Lady was herself a distinguished Minister and I know how high was the regard in which she was held by her civil servants. I completely agree with her that it is vital that all of us seek to uphold the independence of the civil service. It is absolutely vital that the civil service is able to offer candid advice to Ministers. I know myself, having worked with the Home Secretary and others, that we have benefited from that candid advice in seeking to implement Government policy. However, I think it is also important to acknowledge that Sir Philip, a distinguished public servant, has indicated that he may initiate legal proceedings against the Government, so it would be inappropriate for me to say more about the particular statements he made on Saturday.
I believe we have an excellent and dynamic Home Secretary who deserves our unwavering support. Does the Chancellor recall, just a few months ago, Labour MP after Labour MP going on the record publicly telling us about vicious bullying and antisemitism in the Labour party? Should not the Leader of the Opposition therefore remove the plank from his own eye?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. First, the Home Secretary is doing an outstanding job. Secondly, while the Labour party remains under investigation from the Equality and Human Rights Commission for some of the practices that have occurred under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), it is important that there is an appropriate sense of proportion and humility in his comments.
If what the Minister has told us today is correct, then Philip Rutnam is being either severely misleading or widely mistaken. Which of those two is it?
The first point I would make is that because Sir Philip has made a particular statement as a prequel to potential legal proceedings, it would be wrong for me to provide a commentary on his words. What I will say is that he is a distinguished public servant and I thank him for his service. It is also important for me to place on record my knowledge that the Home Secretary is an outstanding Home Secretary who deserves our support.
What plans does my right hon. Friend have to reform the civil service to promote greater accountability?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It is vital that we first acknowledge that the civil service does an outstanding job. If one looks over recent months at, for example, how the Department for Transport dealt with the collapse of Thomas Cook or the response of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency to recent flooding, we see people going above and beyond to serve the public. But all of us can do better in every area. I look forward to working with the Cabinet Secretary and other leaders of the civil service to ensure that we can support the civil service to do even better in the future.
The allegations of bullying on the part of a Cabinet Minister are incredibly serious. We all saw the breakdown of that relationship at the weekend and that requires an immediate investigation. However, the ministerial code also states that Ministers have
“a duty to give fair consideration and due weight to informed and impartial advice from civil servants”.
There are now reports of an alleged hitlist of senior civil servants whom No. 10 is seeking to replace for political reasons—a list that reportedly included Sir Philip Rutnam. That is clearly incompatible with that duty. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether such a list exists?
No such list exists. It is the case that having worked with a variety of permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants across Departments, I have personally benefited from their robust—sometimes very robust—advice, and I have always been happy to come to this House to acknowledge when I have been wrong and others have been right.
Is it not the case that this all started with briefings from unknown sources against the Home Secretary, not the other way around? My constituents want fair immigration and fairness for the taxpayer. They want 20,000 more police on our streets. Does this not have the nasty whiff of an establishment who are trying to stop these policies?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. I suspect that many people watching our debates and knowing that we are discussing home affairs and the Home Office will be asking, “Why are MPs not concentrating on improving our migration system? Why are MPs not doing more to ensure that our police are supported in the fight against organised crime? Why are MPs not making sure that we take an even stronger stance against terrorism?” It is vitally important, of course, that the ministerial code is upheld and defended, but it is also vitally important, as he points out, that the Government deliver for the people on their manifesto promises.
I gently caution the Minister against his two central arguments: first, that a strong and exacting Minister can pretty much get away with anything, and secondly, that the Home Secretary is charming, so that is all fine. The truth of the matter and the experience in this House—and my personal experience when I was a Minister—is that the way bullying normally happens is that somebody one minute is extremely charming, praises you to high heaven, and then the next day humiliates you in front of staff and colleagues or behind your back. That is the nature of bullying and I urge the Minister not to dismiss all this talk of bullying, because too many people out in the country still get bullied.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We do not dismiss any allegations or concerns about bullying. It is vitally important that Ministers, special advisers and civil servants all work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. He is right that bullying can occur in any workplace and we must be vigilant about bullying behaviour, but I also say that simply because allegations have been raised or complaints have been made, it should not automatically be the case that people then, whether through trial by media or other means, attempt to besmirch the reputation of someone who is an outstanding public servant.
The Home Secretary has been doing a fantastic job on child sexual exploitation and grooming gangs. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that Ministers will not find directions given to civil servants blocked or diverted?
My hon. Friend has done outstanding work in drawing attention to those issues, and it is the case that the work of the Home Office, its ministerial team and its superb civil servants goes on uninterrupted. One of the most important things that the Home Office can do is safeguard the most vulnerable in our society from the type of exploitation that she has so vigorously campaigned against.
Of course there is a world of difference between having a difference of opinion with somebody and being shouted down or humiliated by that person. We have a situation where impartial civil servants may feel that they cannot operate in an impartial way. How will the Minister guarantee that they can continue to do the job that they are supposed to do when they are concerned that their advice may result in bullying or abuse?
It is my experience, and the experience of my ministerial colleagues, that the civil service is clear that it can offer robust, impartial advice and provide counters from time to time to propositions that are put forward by Ministers, confident in the knowledge that we as Ministers respect the civil service for its independence and integrity. It is vitally important that anyone within public service who feels that the atmosphere in which they work is not conducive to that has the opportunity, which this Government provide, to make sure that their concerns are properly expressed and, if necessary, properly investigated.
The Leader of the Opposition mentioned some press reports, but he never touched on the fact that the policies pursued by the Home Secretary were voted for overwhelmingly in December and are extremely popular. People voted for 20,000 extra police and a managed immigration system. Her real offence is that she has upset the Opposition and the establishment. Can my right hon. Friend guarantee, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) touched on, that this inquiry will have the necessary resources to be finished quickly so that our greatly respected Home Secretary can crack on and deliver the job we were voted in to do?
My right hon. Friend, who was an outstanding Cabinet Minister, makes an important point. The comments from some—some—on the Opposition Benches suggest they are very happy when attention is shifted away from our focus on delivering our manifesto commitments, but we will not be diverted from delivering on those manifesto commitments, and the Home Secretary is committed to ensuring we do just that.
Is this not the honeymoon period for a new Government? In less than three months, the Government have lost a Chancellor and now the head of the Home Office. How does the Minister think things are going for the Government?
It is probably fair to say that different people enjoy different types of honeymoon.
Tell us about it.
No, please don’t.
A candidate for the deputy leadership of the Labour party, the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), invites me to go further than I would want to at this moment, but I shall not.
On a more serious note, the vital thing that we all recognise is that all Governments face entirely understandable and legitimate media scrutiny, but the real test of any Government is not what may preoccupy commentary at any given moment, but the delivery of the people’s priorities, the keeping of manifesto pledges and making life better for the people of this country, and that is our relentless focus.
I was a civil servant at three Departments. On the day of the Brexit referendum result, I was told at the Foreign Office by multiple senior civil servants that it was the wrong decision and that the people had got it wrong. Is it not right that sometimes, sadly, Ministers do need to be robust with civil servants to make sure the people’s priorities are always delivered?
My hon. Friend is right. Of course, we will all have different opinions about the wisdom of particular policies as individual citizens, but as a Government we are united in delivering the manifesto on which we were elected. One of the strengths of our system of government is that the civil service works energetically and determinedly to ensure that the Government of day’s agenda is fulfilled. I am grateful to the civil servants with whom I and other Ministers work for being so dedicated to ensuring that the public’s wishes are followed.
The Home Secretary herself has admitted that her
“actions fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state”
“below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated.”
Of course, that was the last time she had to resign from the Cabinet—as International Development Secretary. What has changed since then? Given the Minister’s interest in the work of the Home Office, can he say who has replaced Shona Dunn as the second permanent secretary, given that person’s important role in dealing with the immigration system?
The hon. Gentleman refers to events in the past, but it is also fair to say that since then we have had a general election at which the public endorsed our clear manifesto commitments to an additional 20,000 police officers, a points-based immigration system and a tougher line on organised crime. We need tough and determined Ministers pushing that agenda, but we also need great civil servants, which is why I am so glad that Shona Dunn, with whom I have had the pleasure of working in the past, is now leading in the Home Office.
As a general point, recruitment for several permanent secretary posts is either ongoing or imminent. What role do the Government envisage Secretaries of State playing in that recruitment process, and would that role necessitate any changes to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010?
There are well-laid-out procedures for the role of Secretaries of State in the appointment of permanent secretaries. We have a superb cadre of permanent secretaries and senior civil servants, who I know will maintain the very high standards that characterise the work of our civil service.
Is it Government policy to comply with the rulings of the courts?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that what has traditionally been referred to as robust and forceful exchanges is too often routinely referred to as bullying nowadays, and that while there is no place for bullying within Government, effective government does need robust exchanges?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let us consider Ministers who were successful in the past. No one would accuse Denis Healey, for example, of having been a shrinking violet when it came to ensuring that effect was given to the policies of the Labour Government of the day. However, it is also vital to acknowledge that in every workplace we must show respect to every individual and ensure that the people who work in the civil service are confident that their views are respected and their wellbeing safeguarded, and that is at the heart of everything that we do.
May I ask the Minister what financial settlement was offered to Sir Philip Rutnam? What was the figure?
It would be wrong for me to go into those details, given that Sir Philip—who was, as I mentioned earlier, a distinguished public servant—has indicated that he may initiate legal proceedings. I would not want to say, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would not want me to say, anything that would prejudice the appropriate conduct of those proceedings.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not the place of civil servants to choose their Secretaries of State, and that any attempt to do so is wrong?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key—[Interruption.] I see no reason why, in a debate in which we are considering the importance of civility, people should attempt to criticise my hon. Friend for asking a fair and robust question. She has made a critically important point. It is Ministers who are publicly and electorally accountable. Ministers hold office as a result of a general election, and it is important that we respect the popular will and the popular mandate of any Government in making sure that the people’s priorities are delivered.
Were any complaints received by Downing Street in respect of the conduct of the current Home Secretary when she was Secretary of State for International Development or when she was a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, and if so, were they investigated?
The inquiry that is proceeding will look at all complaints that may have been made. I cannot say more than that.
A huge number of people in North Cornwall and around the country want the Government to deliver on the people’s priorities. Is it not therefore right for Ministers to be tough and robust with their talented civil servants and officers to ensure that they can deliver on those priorities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is vital for Ministers to be energetic and determined in pursuit of the manifesto commitments on which the Government were elected.
As a former senior civil servant who served under various Ministers in both Labour and Conservative regimes, I find it hard to express how unprecedented the actions of Sir Philip Rutnam are. This is completely unheard of. Although the Minister will not comment on the specifics, will he at least accept that this is completely unprecedented? Does he also agree that there is a pattern of behaviour here, and that whether we are talking about the civil service, the BBC or the judiciary, this Government are more interested in picking fights than in doing the right thing for the country?
With respect to the hon. Lady, who was a very distinguished civil servant, I disagree. The first thing to say is that because Sir Philip Rutnam has made it clear that he wishes to pursue a particular legal route, it would be wholly inappropriate for me to provide a commentary on his remarks. As for the hon. Lady’s broader point, absolutely not: far from being pugilistic, the Government are concentrating on delivering on their manifesto commitments.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should not be distracted by fielding stones thrown from the glass house of the Opposition Front Bench, but should concentrate on delivering the points-based immigration system? Will he assure me that that will still happen, notwithstanding the issue that is before us today?
It absolutely will. The Minister for Security has been working with other ministerial colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that that vital reform to our immigration system proceeds apace.
Despite all the bluster from his Back Benchers, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that all the talk of manifesto pledges and implementation of policies is no excuse for a Secretary of State or Minister to behave how they want or to bully and intimidate people? Also, can he confirm that the Government are not beholden to Dominic Cummings’ plans to disrupt and dismantle the entire civil service?
I am not aware of any such plans. It is not bluster; it is an absolutely key democratic commitment to fulfil our manifesto pledges, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that everyone deserves to be treated with courtesy and civility in public life, and Ministers across Government are committed to just that.
It is predictable, sadly, that the Leader of the Opposition should accuse those on this side of the House of bullying when he himself is in charge of a party that is rife with it, and I find it shaming that he has made that allegation. I am a friend and colleague of the Home Secretary, and I find this leaking, innuendo and smear unacceptable, as I am sure we all do in this House. Surely there must be an internal procedure to ensure that this is done behind closed doors. If there is evidence of bullying, fine. If there is not, the matter will have been dealt with. Can we please ensure that this is done quickly?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is vital that this investigation is concluded as quickly as possible in the interests of everyone involved, so that we can concentrate on ensuring that no justice is delayed, and no justice is denied.
Has the Home Secretary ever asked officials in her Department to act in breach of court rulings?
I have absolutely no reason to believe that that is the case.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there seems to be a pattern involving the appointment of female Home Secretaries and vicious briefings against them in the media? Is it possible that some of these unelected men have a problem with taking instructions from powerful women?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are fortunate in this country to have had a succession of strong female Home Secretaries. Jacqui Smith, the former Member for Redditch; my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May); Amber Rudd, the former Member for Hastings and Rye; and now my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) have all been distinguished public servants. They all demonstrate the evidence that the job of Home Secretary is exacting, and we are lucky to have had four powerful and effective women performing that role.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that everyone has a duty to treat colleagues with respect, but that we ought not to take lectures from the Labour leadership on how to deal with bullying and harassment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The experiences of Luciana Berger and Louise Ellman remind us all that the Labour party has a job to do to ensure that bullying is removed from its own ranks in order to improve the health of our democratic life.
My right hon. Friend has acquitted himself well on the Front Bench in explaining the circumstances of this investigation. The Home Secretary has our full support in implementing our policies, but will my right hon. Friend remind the House whether there is an ongoing investigation into the leaks from the civil service about the Home Secretary?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that everyone in public life behaves with the maximum degree of civility, courtesy and consideration to others. It is also important, however, that confidentiality is respected during the robust discussions that take place between Ministers, special advisers and officials, and leaks are therefore to be deprecated.
We on this side of the House are certainly not frit of strong women. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the demanding work between Ministers and officials is vital and that we could not begin to accomplish things and deliver people’s priorities without the fantastic minds of those in the civil service?
My hon. Friend gets the balance absolutely right. Effective government, whether by Conservative or Labour Prime Ministers, has been driven by having strong Ministers who are exacting and demanding, and by having robust and professional civil servants who provide impartial advice with full integrity.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that allegations, when made, are just allegations—allegations that must be carefully investigated—and that, at all costs, we must avoid any sense of a trial by media?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When there are briefings and counter-briefings, the most important thing is to ensure that the facts are established and that we, as a Government, uphold the highest standards in public life and ensure that the public whom we serve have the manifesto pledges they want to see implemented, implemented energetically and in full.
My right hon. Friend rightly says that civil servants have the right to give good advice without fear or favour but, similarly, Ministers have the right to expect at least a modicum of competence from their civil servants in delivering on their policies. Too often, the reward for serial incompetence is an interdepartmental cha-cha to another role in another Department. If not in the ministerial code, will he assure me there are robust measures in place to hold civil servants to account more accountably?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Ministers are rightly accountable here at the Dispatch Box and, at general elections, at the ballot box. Our civil servants ensure that the policies on which we stand, and for which we stand, are delivered effectively but, as Ministers, we also need to do everything to ensure that civil servants are supported to provide the most efficient service possible. That work is ongoing, and the Cabinet Secretary and others are ensuring we do everything we can to make sure that civil servants have the support and the capacity required to be as efficient as possible.
It may be a bit of my northern bias, but I know that what the media report on here in London does not necessarily reflect what people are talking about in my constituency of Bishop Auckland and, I am sure, in many constituencies represented by my hon. and right hon. Friends.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this issue should not become a distraction from delivering on our manifesto, which was overwhelmingly supported by our communities, and delivering a points-based immigration system and more police?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course it is important that, in Whitehall and Westminster, high standards are upheld by everyone involved in delivering for the public, but our most important duty is to make sure that the people of Bishop Auckland have the policies for which they voted implemented effectively.
Does my right hon. Friend recall the stories of alleged phone throwing and shouting at officials by a former Prime Minister? Does he remember which party that former Prime Minister represented?
My hon. Friend invites me to go down memory lane, and the point he makes is a fair one. People who are dedicated to doing their best for the public have, in the past, occasionally shown a degree of exasperation. As we look back, we can learn from them and say that their commitment to public service was admirable but that we all need to make sure that we treat those with whom we work with appropriate respect.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the steps he is taking in tackling this head-on, but what does he intend to do, as part of his reforms to the civil service, to make sure that civil servants are accountable and are seen to be accountable?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, Ministers are directly accountable for the actions of their Department—that is the appropriate constitutional principle—but it is also right that we should work with the civil service to ensure that individuals of talent have an opportunity to contribute in every way. I am confident that the approach being taken by the Cabinet Secretary and others in the Cabinet Office to ensure we provide civil servants with all the support they need will ensure that the civil service is even better equipped in future to help us and, indeed, all future Governments to deliver.
Does my right hon Friend, like me, find it extraordinary that, at a time when uppermost in our constituents’ minds are an international virus that will cause chaos, our many homes that are under water and the important trade negotiations that are about to start, the priority of the Opposition is to raise the resignation of a public servant of whom most of our constituents have never heard? Having sat here for several years watching industrial-scale bullying from the Chair, through which they remained silent, they go into overdrive the minute the allegations involve a strong woman who does not curry favour with their stereotype.
My hon. Friend is clear sighted and robust in expressing his point of view, and I know that there will be many people who will thank him for being so candid.
With the general election being so recent, the clear demand from the general public is to deliver on immigration and law and order. We on the Government Benches have got it. Is my right hon. Friend certain that the civil service—they are an excellent civil service—have also listened to the general public and will deliver on their priorities?
One thing that I should say is that part of my role before the general election was to make sure that this country was prepared if we had to leave the European Union without a deal. Of course, we have secured a good deal and we have got Brexit done, but during that process I was consistently impressed by the energy and determination of civil servants in making sure that we were ready for any eventuality. Many of those same civil servants who worked tirelessly in the civil contingency secretariat at that time are also now engaged, having dealt with flooding, in work to make sure that we deal effectively with the threat of the coronavirus. We simply could not keep this country safe and its people healthy and secure without their work, and it is really important that we all remember how dedicated those individuals and their colleagues are.
We are enormously blessed to have an independent and diligent civil service, but would my right hon. Friend join me in speculating that if the Home Secretary had asked her Department to release more criminals from prison early or check fewer entrants at our border, we might not be having this conversation today?
My hon. Friend reminds us that the Home Secretary and, indeed, this whole Government were elected on the basis that we would take a tough line on law and order with a firm but fair migration policy, and making sure that that we implement those policies is absolutely critical.
Whatever the Government do in relation to this matter, may I please have some reassurances that we will not take any lessons from the Labour party? When they were faced with allegations from their staff in relation to misconduct and antisemitism, they did nothing but fill the airwaves, undermining them, questioning their credibility and doing what some might call bullying them.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is absolutely vital that we all do everything we can to ensure that we treat other people with civility. I know that in the debate over the future of the Labour party, the regrets that have been expressed about how antisemitism had been dealt with will, I am sure, be addressed by the future leadership of the Labour party to ensure that that stain is wiped away.