House of Commons
Wednesday 14 April 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The President of COP26 was asked—
Covid-19: Green Recovery
The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan sets out our blueprint for a green industrial revolution—a plan to invest in green technologies and industries, leveraging in billions of pounds of private sector investment, supporting up to a quarter of a million green jobs and levelling up across the UK. It is a clear plan to build back greener from the covid pandemic.
The UK’s credibility as COP President rests on demonstrable climate action at home. The Government have set legally binding net zero targets but they are currently off track to meet their fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which are calibrated for previous, more lenient targets. Scrapping the green homes grant two weeks ago puts us into reverse. How will the right hon. Gentleman seek to progress local, national and international progress on energy efficiency and specifically on green homes in the run-up to and during COP26?
The UK has decarbonised its economy faster than any other G20 nation since 2000. We have met carbon budgets CB1 and CB2, we are on track to meet CB3, and of course we are pursuing plans to ensure that we meet CB4 and CB5. Ahead of COP26, we will publish a comprehensive net zero strategy.
The COP President has talked confidently about British leadership, but the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan is full of big words and no real detail. The total impact, by the Government’s own admission, is that they will not meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. When we pull back the curtain, there is not much to look at, and we are running out of time. He has just said, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), that there will be a net zero strategy. We need it before the summer recess to make the Government’s word credible ahead of COP26. Does he agree with that, and if so, what is he doing about it?
As someone who was partly responsible for preparing the 10-point plan, may I suggest that the hon. Gentleman actually reads the detail of it? I have discussed the sector-specific points in it with individuals in different sectors of industry, who have found it quite compelling. Of course I agree that we need to be doing more, and that is why I have committed to publishing the comprehensive net zero strategy ahead of COP26.
What steps is my right hon. Friend taking, in his extensive discussions with leaders around the world on making progress at COP26, to develop a global standard or taxonomy of climate change impact in financial reporting and in green labelling investment products?
As my right hon. Friend will know, the UK has taken a leading role in climate-related disclosures by implementing a green taxonomy and, very importantly, by making TCFD-aligned disclosures—recommended by the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures —mandatory across the economy by 2025. In the conversations that I have with Governments around the world, I am urging other countries to follow a similar approach on financial disclosures. My right hon. Friend talks about asset owners in the financial services sector, and we are also encouraging asset owners and asset managers to make net zero commitments.
Tackling Climate Change: International Ambition
When the UK took on the role of the incoming COP26 presidency, under 30% of the global economy was covered by a net zero commitment. The good news is that that figure has now increased to 70% and of course I am pressing all countries to come forward with net zero commitments. However, as colleagues in this House have acknowledged previously, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s initial “NDC Synthesis Report”, published in February, showed that we have much more progress to make on the 2030 emissions reduction target, and I am pressing countries on that as well.
The UK is a global leader in protecting the ocean, as shown by the success of its Blue Belt and 30x30 programmes, but as my right hon. Friend will know, only 1% of international waters currently have effective protection. Will he commit the UK to taking the lead in pushing for a strong global oceans treaty at the United Nations, to establish an international framework for protecting marine biodiversity in international waters?
My hon. Friend raises a vital issue, and she will be pleased to hear that the UK is working hard to see negotiations concluded this year on a new UN convention for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdictions. That will enable the establishment of marine protected areas and help to deliver on the 30x30 target.
In a letter to all UNFCCC—United Nations framework convention on climate change—parties this week, the COP President rightly argued that we must halve global emissions by 2030 if we are to keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5° within reach, yet he will know that recent UN analysis makes it clear that current national pledges will reduce emissions by just 1% by the end of this critical decade. We need the major emitters to do much more if we are to close the gap. That means a need for deep cuts in American emissions and for Chinese emissions to peak by 2025, but it also means a need for tangible progress on the part of India. With the Prime Minister meeting President Modi later this month, will the COP President tell the House what the UK is willing to put on the table, particularly in terms of climate finance and technological support, to help to ensure that India feels able to increase its ambition markedly ahead of the summit?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman but, of course, all countries need to make much more progress when it comes to ambitious, nationally determined contributions to the 2030 near-term emission reduction targets. I have spoken with large economies around the world. As he knows, I met Prime Minister Modi a few weeks ago and, of course, we are working on a number of initiatives with the Indian Government. When the Prime Minister goes to India, I am sure there will be further announcements.
Virtual Participation in COP26
We are working very hard to ensure that we deliver an in-person COP that allows all countries to participate on an equal footing. That is incredibly important, as many parties feel strongly that negotiations must be in person. We continue to explore how technology and other innovations can make the summit more resilient, safe and inclusive.
I am grateful for that answer. Many respondents to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s survey of expert views, both academics and former COP attendees, highlighted the value of remote participation for otherwise excluded groups, and for reducing the conference’s carbon footprint. Will the COP26 President explore the possibilities of wider virtual participation at COP, in addition to physical attendance at the conference?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I have said on a number of occasions that I want this to be the most inclusive COP ever. Absolutely, we are looking at how we can expand our digital programmes to allow for more virtualisation. I hope that, at the appropriate time, I will be able to update the House further.
A diplomatic source in the British Government is reported in the papers today as saying about the conference:
“No one in Europe thinks it’s going to happen and the US is increasingly sceptical that it can happen without a delay.”
I support the COP26 President’s aim for a physical conference of national delegations but, of course, many stakeholders are politicians, business leaders, NGOs and others. When will the Cabinet Office produce a contingency plan to give clarity to stakeholders about how engagement can take place in November?
The hon. Gentleman, again, raises an important point. He will have seen the letter I wrote to UNFCCC members on the progress we want to make over the coming months. COP26 has already been postponed by one year, and the urgency of the climate crisis has not abated. I do not sense any desire among parties for a further postponement, and we are working very hard to ensure that we have an in-person, physical COP, taking into account, of course, any covid-related contingencies.
UN Sustainable Development Goals
Thank you, Mr Speaker. That is a new title. I was happy with international champion, but I am sure vice-president is acceptable, too.
The actions we are taking to tackle climate change support the delivery of a range of UN sustainable development goals. Through the Together for Our Planet campaign and Race to Zero, we are encouraging towns, cities and communities to drive climate action at a local level. This is supported by the COP26 UK mayors and regions advisory council, which includes West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Kirklees Council, and it has set itself an ambitious target of being net zero by 2038.
Will the Minister and, certainly, the COP26 President, in whom I have great confidence, support what we are doing in Huddersfield to make Huddersfield a sustainable town and a sustainable community by rigorously pursuing the sustainable development goals? We are building a network of towns across the United Kingdom. We are up to about 20, and we need to get to 50 and 500. What can the Government do to help us, because it is about grassrooting and making sure that COP26 is not cop-out 26?
It is important that we encourage and, indeed, provide the tools—and the Together for Our Planet campaign is one of those tools—to help our constituents, our towns and our cities to understand and take charge for themselves of the impact they can have in helping to meet our Paris agreement challenge. That involves everything from household choices through to changes in how we run our buses and trains. Every council and every community has a role to play.
Green Investment and Public Transport
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues about decarbonisation. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is putting a green recovery for transport at the centre of his Department’s decision making in the run-up to COP26 and beyond.
Liverpool city region is developing a project to bring 20 hydrogen-powered double-decker buses to the streets, with the potential for further green investment to scale this up and achieve our ambition of being carbon net zero by 2040. Can the Minister tell us when the £30 billion in planned capital investment as part of the green recovery stimulus will be available to support our ambition?
I will ensure that the hon. Lady’s specific point is taken up with my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary. She will know that, last month, the Transport Secretary launched a multimillion-pound scheme to enable local authorities to roll out zero-emission buses. This funding will deliver 500 zero-emission buses, supporting the Government’s wider commitment to introduce 4,000 such vehicles.
There is no joined-up thinking on any issue with this Government, but we would all have hoped for some cross-Department thinking on this issue at least. We are, as usual, disappointed, with even the green homes grant gone after just a few months—so much for building back better.
There is increasing concern voiced internationally, too, about the UK Government’s lack of progress domestically on environmental commitments. Will the right hon. Gentleman show some real leadership and commit today to start seriously lobbying his Government colleagues to join up the dots and start delivering, so that we can look forward to environmentally sound investment, renewed support for a comprehensive charging framework for electric vehicles, real investment in hydrogen technology and marine energy, support for housing improvements and so on? Will he do that, or is he happy to leave us all embarrassed to be hosting COP26 while the UK seems to be striding off in the opposite direction?
I say to the hon. Lady that the role of the COP presidency is to ensure that we are working with all 197 parties to ensure that we are making progress on keeping the 1.5° C limit within reach. The UK, like any other country, needs to see what more we can do. I hope that she will acknowledge that we are seen as a leader in the world and that, since 2010, we have decarbonised our economy faster than any other G20 nation.
Biodiversity Loss and Climate Action
Climate change and biodiversity loss are inextricably linked, which is why the UK has made nature a core priority of our COP26 presidency. We pioneered and launched the leaders’ pledge for nature in September last year, and we are also driving global action to protect and restore critical ecosystems such as forests and accelerating our transition towards sustainable agriculture while mobilising the finance to support this.
In order to tackle biodiversity loss, the convention on biological diversity, COP15, in May, will support new targets on nature. However, with the Environment Bill delayed yet again, how will the Minister ensure that the outcomes from this conference will feed into COP26 in November?
The Prime Minister and President Xi have agreed that the UK and China should work together, as respective hosts of the United Nations framework convention on climate change COP26 and the convention on biological diversity COP15, to reinforce and amplify those linkages between climate change and biodiversity loss and to achieve mutually supportive and ambitious outcomes at both summits. We are working closely with our Chinese counterparts and with the UN secretariat of the UNFCCC, the CBD and the United Nations convention to combat desertification to strengthen the links between these conventions to deliver the best outcomes for nature.
Highest-Emitting Countries: Policy Objectives
I have so far engaged with Ministers and negotiators from more than 80 countries and briefed all parties to the UN on a number of occasions. This, of course, includes discussions with representatives of countries, including China, the US, the EU and India.
In the light of Germany’s coal phase-out Act, which states that it will not end the use of coal-powered energy until 2038, how does the Minister intend to use COP26 to promote nuclear power, particularly at key UK sites such as Wylfa Newydd on Anglesey, in order to meet the UK’s net zero targets?
My hon. Friend is a consistent and strong champion of both the nuclear sector and the Wylfa site in her constituency, and I commend her zeal. As I have said to her previously, nuclear power clearly has a role to play in our clean energy mix as we work towards net zero emissions by 2050. She will know that, in the 10-point plan that the Prime Minister set out, we are backing large nuclear as well as small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors.
I have engaged with hundreds of global and UK businesses through a combination of speaking at high-profiles events and bilateral meetings, and my COP26 business leaders advisory group. Businesses have a key role to play in tackling climate change, and I encourage them all to sign up to the Race to Zero campaign.
Derbyshire County Council recently launched a £2 million green entrepreneurs fund for businesses that are interested in green energy and carbon reduction. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is an excellent example of local government and businesses working together, and will he share my praise for county council leader Barry Lewis and his visionary leadership on this issue?
Civil Society and Youth Groups: Consultation
I want COP26 to be the most inclusive ever. The voices of young people are vital to this process. That is why I have set up an international COP26 Civil Society and Youth Advisory Council, allowing for a regular dialogue with youth activists, NGOs, indigenous people and faith groups as we plan for COP26.
I have a pile of letters on my desk from children at GEMS Didcot Primary Academy and John Blandy Primary School, who have written to tell me what they have learned about climate change and what positive changes they saw in the environment during lockdown, and to give me their ideas of things they think the Government should be doing. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how children and young people will be able to feed into the preparations for COP26?
I thank my hon. Friend for championing the views of young people in his constituency. I pay tribute to the pupils of John Blandy and GEMS Didcot primary schools for their enthusiasm for climate action. I will be delighted to receive their letters and review their ideas; and, through him, I will respond in writing to his constituents.
My right hon. Friend and I both have the privilege of representing seats in Berkshire, where many young people are passionate about climate change and are active in local groups such as the West Berkshire Climate Action Network. This is their first real opportunity to see UK leadership in action. Will my right hon. Friend confirm how those young people can access the youth council that he just described and other mechanisms to feed their ideas into the COP later this year?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she does to promote climate action. I would be very happy to hear from young people and youth groups in her constituency. We will be engaging further with schools in relation to COP26 to unleash the enthusiasm and energy of young people across the UK and tackle climate change.
We all have a stake in protecting our climate, particularly young adults in my constituency, who I hope will be the pioneers of change. As part of the UK-Italy COP26 partnership, what are the plans for the “Youth4Climate: Driving Ambition 2021” event to be held in Milan in September?
From 28 to 30 September, the Youth4Climate event will bring together 400 youth delegates from across the globe to discuss topics under a range of thematic areas. The event will culminate in a declaration and discussion between the youth delegates and Ministers attending the pre-COP26 event.
If we are to protect our planet from the ravages of climate change, we must support developing countries to respond, but without adequate finance the task ahead is well nigh impossible. That is why on 31 March, the UK presidency convened around 50 developing and donor countries and multilateral institutions to consider how we can get more—and more timely—public finance flowing into climate action. I am pleased that we have secured a range of commitments from the likes of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and donor countries to move this vital work forward. It is our moral duty to protect the most vulnerable communities from a climate crisis that they have not caused.
How does supporting a new Cumbrian coalmine, giving new licences for oil and gas exploration, scrapping the green homes grant and reducing incentives for electric vehicles reflect the Government’s stated commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050—or is this more dad-dancing rhetoric by the Prime Minister, unconvincing and unco-ordinated?
The hon. Lady raises a number of points. In previous answers I have set out the ambition that the UK has and the progress that we have made. Specifically with regard to oil and gas licensing, the UK Government will introduce a new climate compatibility checkpoint before each future oil and gas licensing round to ensure that licences awarded are aligned with wider climate objectives, including net zero emissions by 2050.
The COP26 nature campaign is driving ambitious international and domestic action to protect and enhance our environment, and this will be a high priority at COP26 in November. I commend the work that Surfers Against Sewage are doing on water pollution and water quality, which I hope to see first-hand when I visit Cornwall as part of the G7 summit in June. Protecting the ocean, including through nature-based solutions, provides multiple vital climate change adaptation and resilience benefits.
Last month, the COP President wrote that the world is doing nowhere near enough to limit global warming to 1.5° C, and he is right. A green economic stimulus could make a huge difference to meeting the target, but while we have put it as the top item of the G7 agenda, the sum total of the Chancellor’s measures here in the UK promised just £12 billion of green spending over a decade, and he has already cut £1 billion from that. Our investment is 60 times smaller than President Biden’s green infrastructure plan. Is it not a very significant challenge for COP26 that when it comes to a green stimulus we are telling others to act but not doing so ourselves?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that we agree on many of these issues on tackling climate change, but when it comes to Government money, we have also ensured that we leverage in private sector money. It is not just about Government money; it is also about leveraging in private sector money. Ultimately, this is about not just cutting emissions but creating jobs for constituents across the UK.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, as COP26 host, our actions face particular scrutiny, and I think he will know that the international community is increasingly concerned, and not just on green recovery. The Government call on others to power past coal but flirt with a new coalmine; say to others, “Adopt a net zero target”, but are off track on ours; and tell countries to support the world’s poorest but slash aid spending. Rachel Kyte, former special representative of the UN Secretary-General, said this week of our record on climate:
“What the UK is doing is like dad dancing…they are very uncoordinated.”
Is it not time the Government gave up the dad dancing on climate and showed some consistent leadership?
The right hon. Gentleman himself is obviously a very good dancer and therefore unlikely to take part in dad dancing; we should try it together at some point.
Of course every country, including the UK, needs to make more progress on cutting emissions. The right hon. Gentleman makes particular reference to coal. He will know that our energy mix with regard to coal has gone from 40% in 2012 to less than 2% last year, and we have been leading the Powering Past Coal Alliance, to which a large number of countries have now signed up. So we are making progress; of course, there is more that we can do.
We are working closely at many levels with international partners on preparations for COP26 and to accelerate climate ambitions. The COP26 President-designate has met large numbers of Governments. He is already out and about visiting many countries—15 in the past few weeks—and briefing UN member states on a regular basis. I am working with the most vulnerable countries to make sure that they are supported in their ambitions to meet their resilience challenges.
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the 10-point plan, which sets out clearly the progress that we want to make on decarbonising buildings and homes, and heat pumps will of course play a part. We have also set out there our plans on the use of hydrogen for home heating.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I know colleagues across the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to our dear friend and colleague, Dame Cheryl Gillan, who sadly died last week. MP for Chesham and Amersham for 29 years, she will be remembered for being a strong voice for her constituents, for being a brilliant campaigner, including her advocacy for autistic people and their families, and for being the first female Secretary of State for Wales. I also want to pay tribute to Baroness Shirley Williams, a pioneer for women in politics and in Government, and to our former colleague Peter Ainsworth, who was passionate about his causes, especially the environment.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Dame Cheryl represented her constituents with considerable effectiveness for nearly 29 years and is already sorely missed in this place, especially by many of the newer Members, as she was so kind to us in our first months in Westminster. One of her passions was the protection of chalk streams, in particular the River Chess, which passes through my constituency of South West Hertfordshire. Many MPs are increasingly concerned about reports of partially treated sewage being released into our rivers, with knock-on health impacts for both humans and animals. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that this Government will actively protect our rivers and streams?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise the concern we fully share about sewage overflow into rivers such as the Chess. That is why we have set up the storm overflows taskforce to address the matter, working with the water industry, regulators and environmental groups. Last month, we announced plans for legislation to address that very issue.
May I join the Prime Minister in his remarks about Dame Cheryl Gillan, who I worked with on a cross-party basis and remember with fondness? Ian Gibson also passed away this week. Both commanded respect on all sides of the House and will be sadly missed.
I also pay tribute to Shirley Williams. She was a great parliamentarian, and a formidable Minister and Cabinet Minister. She loved this House, the other place and, frankly, anywhere she could debate ideas and politics. For many years, she was Labour’s loss, but today she is Britain’s loss, and my thoughts are with her family and loved ones.
Does the Prime Minister believe that the current lobbying rules are fit for purpose?
I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in what he said about Ian Gibson.
I share the widespread concern about some of the stuff we are reading at the moment, and I know that the Cabinet Secretary shares my concern as well. I do think it is a good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience of the private sector. When I look at the accounts I am reading today, it is not clear that those boundaries have been properly understood. I have asked for a proper independent review of the arrangements that we have, to be conducted by Nigel Boardman, and he will be reporting in June. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman has any representations he wishes to make on the subject, he should do so to Mr Boardman.
I know that the Prime Minister is launching an inquiry. That inquiry is not even looking at the lobbying rules; I am not sure it is looking at very much at all. Every day, there is further evidence of the sleaze that is now at the heart of this Conservative Government. [Interruption.] They can shake their heads. Let us just look at the latest scandal. A wealthy businessman, Lex Greensill, was hired as a senior adviser to David Cameron when he was Prime Minister. We have all seen the business card. After he left office, Cameron became a paid lobbyist for Lex Greensill. The next thing we know, Cameron arranged access for Greensill to Cabinet Ministers, Ministers and senior officials, and he lobbied for taxpayers’ money on behalf of Greensill Capital.
We also know that the Chancellor “pushed” officials. We know that the Health Secretary met Cameron and Greensill. We know that senior officials met Greensill Capital regularly, and now, even more unbelievably, we know that the Government’s former head of procurement, no less, became a Greensill adviser while he was still a civil servant. Does the Prime Minister accept that there is a revolving door—indeed, an open door—between his Conservative Government and paid lobbyists?
This is a Government and a party that have been consistently tough on lobbying. Indeed, we introduced legislation saying that there should be no taxpayer-funded lobbying and that quangos should not be used to get involved with lobbying. We put in a register for lobbyists. There is one party that voted to repeal the 2014 lobbying Act, and that was the Labour party in its historic 2019 election manifesto, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has yet to repudiate. It did so because it thought the Act was unfair and restricted people’s ability to make representations to politicians. I think that that is absurd. Will he now say that it is absurd to repeal the 2014 lobbying Act?
The Prime Minister talks of the lobbying Act. Who was it who introduced that legislation? David Cameron. Who was it who voted for the legislation? Half the Conservative Front Bench. We said that it would not be tough enough, and where did that legislation lead? Two years later, David Cameron camping out in a Saudi desert with Lex Greensill, having a cup of tea. I rest my case in relation to that legislation.
Let me try another very simple question. Is the Prime Minister aware of any other Government official who had commercial links with Greensill or any other lobbying role while working in Government?
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman has any such information, he should of course make it available to Mr Boardman; that is the point of his review. It is an independent review. It will be coming to me by June, and it will be laid in the Library of the House of Commons.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about lobbying. He is being advised by Lord Mandelson of Global Counsel. Perhaps in the interests of full transparency, so that we can know where he is coming from, Lord Mandelson could be encouraged to disclose his other clients.
I have not heard a defence that ridiculous since my last days in the Crown court. It is called the shoplifters’ defence—“Everyone else is nicking stuff, so why can’t I?” It never worked. I remind the Prime Minister that I not only prosecuted shoplifters; I prosecuted MPs over the MPs’ expenses scandal, so I stand on my record. That line just isn’t going to wash with me.
It was a former Prime Minister—and, I suspect, now a former lobbyist—who once said:
“This isn’t a minor issue with minor consequences… government contracts—worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake.”
Can the Prime Minister now answer the question that the Chancellor has been ducking for weeks? How was it that Greensill Capital—a company employing David Cameron—got the green light to give hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer-backed loans?
While the right hon. and learned Gentleman was prosecuting MPs, I was cutting crime in London by 23% and cutting the murder rate by 50%. He asks about lobbying on behalf of Greensill. Again, I do not wish to embarrass the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but he does not have far to look. There was one person asking for Greensill bank to be able to use the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, and that was the shadow Defence Secretary.
It really was not a good point; if you think that is a good point, you have got real problems.
The shadow Defence Secretary was speaking for his constituents and for local jobs. That is a million miles away from being a paid lobbyist texting friends in Government. The Prime Minister says there is going to be an inquiry, but the person he has appointed worked for the same law firm that lobbied to loosen lobbying laws. You could not make it up.
What we need is to overhaul the whole broken system. This afternoon, Labour’s motion calls for a proper parliamentary inquiry into the scandal. If the Prime Minister is so concerned about this, he should welcome the motion. After all, to quote David Cameron, his old school friend:
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant”.
So, will the Prime Minister vote with Labour today for a full, transparent, independent inquiry?
I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have been better off supporting the lobbying Act and the Labour party would have been better off not campaigning to get rid of it. It toughens up our laws, and I think that his own proposal is simply to have, yet again, politicians marking their own homework. What the country wants—[Interruption.] That is what it is—a Committee of MPs to look at it. It will not do a blind bit of good. That is why we are having a proper, independent review. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman has any representations or allegations to make about what has taken place, he should make them to the eminent lawyer who has been asked to do this, who will be reporting to us by June.
The Prime Minister should be voting with us, not blocking a proper inquiry. The Greensill scandal is just the tip of the iceberg—dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates. This is the return of Tory sleaze. It is now so ingrained in this Conservative Government. We do not need another Conservative party appointee marking their own homework. Actually, the more I listen to the Prime Minister, the more I think that Ted Hastings and AC-12 are needed to get to the bottom of this one.
We know the Prime Minister will not act against sleaze, but this House can, so can I urge all Members of the House to come together this afternoon to back Labour’s motion, and to start to clean up the sleaze and cronyism that are at the heart of this Conservative Government?
That is why we are putting in an independent review. That is why we have tougher laws on lobbying—a great shame that Labour opposes them. Yes, we are getting on with rooting out bent coppers. We are also appointing and hiring thousands more police officers. We are fighting crime. We are fighting crime on the streets of our cities while the Opposition oppose the police and crime Bill, which would put in tougher sentences for serious sexual and violent offenders—absolutely—and they then encouraged people who went out and demonstrated to “Kill the Bill”. We are getting on with protecting the public. That is absolutely correct. We are getting on with protecting the public of this country from crime of all kinds. We are getting on with the job of running this country, of rolling out a vaccination programme—
Yes, indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing. I thank everybody at Watford General Hospital for the support they have given throughout the pandemic, particularly the volunteers, who play a massive part in our vaccination roll-out programme. I fully support the NHS cadet scheme—part of our work to establish a volunteering legacy for young people following the pandemic.
Mòran taing, Mr Speaker. May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about Dame Cheryl Gillan and Shirley Williams?
The Scottish Government have passed landmark legislation embedding the UN convention on the rights of the child into Scots law, a real revolution in children’s rights. Every party in the Scottish Parliament supported it, even the Scots Tories; it has been welcomed everywhere except here in Westminster. Instead of supporting this new law, the UK Government are, shamefully, taking the Scottish Parliament to court in order to strike it down. Apparently, the only basis of the UK Government’s legal case is that the law constrains Westminster powers. So, Prime Minister, can you do everyone a favour by explaining how protecting children’s rights in Scotland threatens the Tory Government in London?
This is complete nonsense. The Government of the United Kingdom ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child 30 years ago. We all supported it. This is nothing to do with the rights of vulnerable children, which we all protect; this is simply an attempt by the SNP to stir up constitutional chaos and create another fictitious bone of contention between themselves and the rest of the country. If they really cared about the rights of the child, they would do much more to improve education in Scotland, where they are so lamentably failing.
The rights of the child—this is an Act passed by the Scottish Parliament and supported by every party, and yet the Prime Minister’s Government are taking our Parliament—our Government—to court. There is nothing technical about this, and the Westminster Government want to strip away the rights of children in Scotland. This is a tale of two Governments: we have an SNP Scottish Government delivering the baby box, doubling the Scottish child payment and providing free school meals to every primary school child; at the same time, this Tory Government are robbing children of their rights in Scotland. Quite simply, the SNP Scottish Government have worked, and will continue to work, to ensure that Scotland is the best place for a child to grow up. This legal challenge threatens that; it is wrong and it is morally repugnant, Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister commit to withdrawing his legal challenge today? If not, we will see you in court.
The best thing the SNP can do, as I have said, for the rights of the child in Scotland is to improve their shameful record on education and to tackle the issues that matter to the people of Scotland: to tackle the tax regime they have put in place; and to do better on fighting crime and drug addiction in Scotland. They should be looking at the issues that really matter to the people of Scotland, but instead they are going into the elections next month yet again on a campaign to break up this country. That is all they can think of: break up this country—destroy our country—and call a referendum, in a way that I think is completely irresponsible at a very difficult time when we want to bounce back stronger together.
I thank my hon. Friend. Yes, I certainly will encourage her and everybody else to shop local as we come out of lockdown, as I very much hope that we will be able to do. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary has announced that £830 million of funding from the future high streets fund has been allocated to areas, including my hon. Friend’s, to encourage that shopping that we all hope and want to see.
My hon. Friend is completely right. This has been a colossal team effort. It has been led by the NHS, with GPs very often doing the lion’s share of the work, but they have been supported by the Army, by local council officials, who have also been absolutely magnificent, and, as colleagues have said, by volunteers as well.
I thank my hon. Friend. We will look at what Sir Peter has to say. He has come up with some very interesting interim proposals, particularly about improving connectivity along the north Wales coastline—the routes into Merseyside. On the A55, I repeat what I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones): there is a great opportunity to do that if people will vote Conservative and vote for a Welsh Conservative Government on 6 May.
I have a high regard for the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, remember happy times with his colleague Adam Price. I do not remember the details of his Bill, but I think we would all concur with the basic principle that the hon. Gentleman has just enunciated.
Well, I’ll do my best. I fully support what my right hon. Friend is doing and I congratulate Kash Singh on his work. It is incredible at this time that there are people who want to split our country up, rather than bring us together. That is what the SNP want. It is an absolute tragedy that they still think like that. I think they are going to change, but I wish everybody at OBON all the very best.
Of course, when we look at and read the report in detail, the Government are not going to agree with everything, but there are some interesting observations and some interesting ways of looking at things. We will be responding in due course, but what we say is that nobody should be in any doubt as to the reality of racism and the struggle that too many people face. We will do everything we can to stamp it out, particularly to help young black people get the jobs and the education they need.
Engineers and scientists of all kinds have been crucial in the fight against covid, and this is the moment to become an engineer or work towards being an engineer. We are putting a huge £640 billion investment into the infrastructure of this country over the next few years. We will need skilled young people to go into engineering, and that is why we put in the T-levels. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative, and I will do my best to support him.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is simply wrong in what he says, particularly about my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Health Secretary; I do not believe that he should have spoken in those terms. What I will say is that there is one party in this place that brought in tough rules on lobbying, and another party that campaigned at the last election to get rid of those rules because of its relationship with the trade unions, because it wanted them to continue in the obscure, opaque way in which they were being run, and because it wanted people to be able to continue to lobby parliamentarians in the way that they always did. Look at the Labour manifesto from 2019. If the Leader of the Opposition repudiates it now, why does he not go ahead and do so?
I share my hon. Friend’s indignation about litter. I think that it is one of the things on which the whole of the country and, I hope, the whole of the House are united. That is why we are doing the Respect the Outdoors campaign to encourage people to follow the countryside code and pick up their litter. Obviously a lot of people are meeting outdoors at the moment because of the pandemic; they must obey the basic laws of respect for other people—pick up their litter. We are putting money into new litter bins and, yes, we are increasing on-the-spot fines for littering. I know there will be many libertarians in this place who think that is unfair and draconian. Personally, I think it is the right thing to do. I abhor litter, and I urge anybody who sees anybody throwing away a crisp packet to tick them off and tell them to pick it up.
NHS Pay Award (Report)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a report on any proposal to award NHS staff a pay rise for 2021/22 below 2.1%; to require the Secretary of State to move a motion in the House of Commons to approve any such report; and for connected purposes.
The last 13 months have impacted all of our lives, through illness, bereavement and financial worries, on top of learning to live with the fear of the pandemic and the limits on our freedoms. We have not all faced the same level of difficulties, but none of us have escaped without our lives in some way being changed by the experience. Some 127,000 people have tragically lost their lives—this is one of the highest death tolls in Europe —and in the past year more than 450,000 have been hospitalised due to severe covid symptoms.
For every one of those people, it has been our amazing NHS frontline staff who have cared for them, fought for them and either celebrated their recovery or held their hand as they took their last breath. Our NHS staff have kept this country going, risking their own health, isolating from their own families, working harder than ever, grieving the lives they could not save and comforting the bereaved. They are the very best of Britain and they deserve to be given the credit and the reward for everything that they have done and everything they have sacrificed to keep the rest of us safe.
Nurses and NHS staff were promised at least a 2.1% pay rise, but the Government have now retracted that and recommended 1% for all NHS staff, with the exception of junior doctors, GPs and dentists. The Government pretend that this is a rise, but they are fooling no one. With inflation forecast to reach 1.7% this year, our NHS staff, who have shown nothing but commitment this last year, are now set to receive a real-terms pay cut. Nurses’ pay has been falling in real terms since the Conservatives came to power 11 years ago, with pay awards consistently lagging behind inflation. Already that is unacceptable, but in the current situation the Government’s proposal to reduce that even further shows a complete lack of respect and gratitude.
For me, the thought of looking a nurse in the eye and telling them that they are worth less this year than they were before the pandemic is outrageously insulting. All of us across this House stood on our doorsteps and clapped for our key workers. We all took to social media to thank NHS staff and tell them what a wonderful job they were doing. We would have all been indebted to them if we had got sick and needed hospital care to help us against this undiscriminating virus, as some on these Benches indeed did. So was this just for show? Were the warm words and platitudes just a tick-box exercise? Or do the Prime Minister and his Government, hand on heart, truly believe that a rule-breaking, unapologetic aide is worth considerably more than the hundreds of thousands of NHS staff who have worked tirelessly and selflessly to battle this viral enemy and save lives?
The promise was clear: a 2.1% increase, as a minimum—it was not dependent on inflation rates or any other economic struggles. That promise has been broken, in yet another ill-judged U-turn by the Government. If the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues have now rescinded that offer and replaced it with an inferior one, they need to come to this House with the revised recommendation and put it to a vote. When Opposition Members clapped on a Thursday evening and pledged our support to the NHS heroes, we meant it, and we still mean it. Those NHS staff have held up their side of the bargain, working diligently and doing everything in their power to save lives. Now it is our turn to hold up our side by voting in favour of a fair, long-term pay deal that reflects their commitment.
A recent survey by the Royal College of Nursing concluded that more than a third of the 42,000 people who submitted responses were considering leaving the NHS because they felt undervalued. These are staff who are exhausted from their efforts over the last year—they have worked unpaid overtime, forfeited their mental wellbeing and, far too often, put our families ahead of their own. The least they expected in return was recognition and fairness, but when it comes to a Government who have consistently failed to deliver on both, it appears that they were expecting too much.
We are on a cliff edge here: we already know that we entered the pandemic with a record 100,000 vacancies across the NHS. If we do not pay the staff what they deserve, we will struggle to retain those we have—let alone fill any vacancies. Even the 2.1% in the long-term plan was a minimum, and a cautious one at that, but 1% is not a pay rise—it is an insult. Trade unions and professional bodies are calling for improved pay offers at varying levels. They know that a fair pay rise would also help to boost staff recruitment and retention.
A 1% pay rise for an experienced nurse equates to £3.50 a week. That is £3.50 for a year of unpaid overtime, unwavering commitment and personal sacrifice—£3.50 for a year of turmoil; of fighting a virus that at times seemed unbeatable; of watching patients die, despite doing everything possible to save them; and of having to keep on going when beyond exhausted.
On the Opposition side of the House, we believe that our NHS is worth so much more. Under this Bill, the Government will be required to present their recommendations for anything below the already approved minimum increase of 2.1%, and to seek agreement from the House on any new proposals. That is the least that our NHS deserves. Our NHS staff have not faltered since the start of the pandemic, and they deserve to be rewarded for that. Unions and stakeholders know it, the public know it and we on this side of the House know it.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
That Carolyn Harris, Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner, Jonathan Ashworth, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Mr Nicholas Brown, Liz Kendall, Justin Madders, Alex Norris, Jim Shannon and Jamie Stone present the Bill.
Carolyn Harris accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 284).
[19th Allotted Day]
Lobbying of Government Committee
I beg to move,
That the following Standing Order shall have effect until 31 December 2021:
Investigation into the Lobbying of Government Committee
(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Investigation into Lobbying of Government Committee, to consider:
(a) the effectiveness of existing legislation to prevent the inappropriate lobbying of Ministers and Government;
(b) the rules governing all public officials regarding conflicts of interest;
(c) the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Lex Greensill as an adviser in Government and the process by which Greensill Capital was approved for commercial arrangements with Government departments and other public sector bodies; and
(d) the role Government played in facilitating the commercial relationship between Greensill Capital and the Gupta Family Group Alliance.
(2) It shall be an instruction to the Committee that it:
(a) considers whether there are robust transparency and accountability procedures in place and whether existing rules are being adhered to;
(b) considers whether the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments’ regulatory framework and sanctioning powers are sufficient to enforce its advice;
(c) assesses the extent of undue influence that former politicians and advisers have on the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies; and
(d) that it makes a first Report to the House no later than 18th October 2021.
(3) The committee shall consist of 16 members of whom 15 shall nominated by the Committee of Selection in the same manner as those Select Committees appointed in accordance with Standing Order No. 121.
(4) The Chair of the committee shall be a backbench Member of a party represented in Her Majesty’s Government and shall be elected by the House under arrangements approved by Mr Speaker.
(5) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it until the expiration of this Order.
(6) The committee shall have power—
(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time; and
(b) to appoint specialist advisers to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference.
(7) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report to the committee from time to time.
(8) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the evidence taken before the sub-committee.
“The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”
That is how former Prime Minister David Cameron described the next big scandal to hit British politics, back in 2010. We might think that what David Cameron lacks in transparency he makes up for in fortune telling, except that he had inside information because the person exploiting the loopholes would be the very same David Cameron.
We had a Conservative Prime Minister giving Lex Greensill access to all areas of Government. He was brought in and given privileged access to the heart of Government with the title and the business card of a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s office. Then—what a stroke of luck—when he was no longer Prime Minister, and just past the required period, when he no longer needed the approval of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, David Cameron joined Greensill to lobby the Conservative Government full of his friends.
Having refused to respond to any questions at all for 40 days, David Cameron chose a period of national grief, hoping that there would be less political criticism and less scrutiny. It is cynical and it is shabby, and the statement itself was toe-curling. He is not sorry for his conduct, for the texts and the drinks, but he is sorry he got caught and he is sorry that his shares are now worthless. This is not just a question of why he did not go through the correct channels; it is question of why he was doing this at all.
Let us be really clear: David Cameron was not working in the national interest; he was working in his own personal interest, with the hope of making millions of pounds for himself through the exercise of his share options. But questions cannot just be asked of David Cameron, when it is current Conservative Ministers who have paved the way for this scandal. When it comes to lobbying, it takes two to tango. For every former Minister lobbying, there is someone in power being lobbied. That is why this scandal is not just about the conduct of David Cameron during his time as Prime Minister and in the years afterwards. This is about who he lobbied in the current Government and how they responded.
Lex Greensill was awarded a CBE and was made a Crown representative by a Conservative Government, yet his company’s spectacular collapse now means that over 50,000 jobs are at risk around the world, including thousands in the UK’s steel communities, from Hartlepool to Stocksbridge, from Rotherham to Scunthorpe and to Newport. The steel industry is crucial and the Government must make it clear that our steel industry will not pay the price for the failures at Greensill and beyond.
This Government have set up an inquiry, but just about supply chain finance and Greensill. Such a review is wholly inadequate, and deliberately so. They do not want to explore what needs to change in lobbying or who currently gets access to power, or the wider issue of how to lift standards, which have fallen so far in the 10 years of Conservative Governments. They do not want public hearings. They do not want the disinfectant of sunlight, as David Cameron once urged. They just want this to go away, which is why they have chosen Nigel Boardman to chair the inquiry.
It is a fact that Nigel Boardman is a good friend—a very good friend—of the Conservative Government. Some may suspect that the son of a former Conservative Cabinet Minister might be unlikely to make waves, but let us look at his record. Mr Boardman has been paid over £20,000 per year as a non-executive director at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—a Department with a real interest in the British Business Bank, which lent to Greensill, and the British steel industry, where so many jobs are now at risk. Mr Boardman has already whitewashed the Government’s handling of public procurement during the pandemic and I fear that he will do the same again with this inquiry.
You will remember, Mr Speaker, that I jointly chaired the inquiry into the collapse of Carillion. The fact that Mr Boardman’s law firm made £8 million advising Carillion, including £1 million on the day before the outsourcers collapsed, leaves a terrible taste in my mouth as it should in the mouths of Members on the Government Benches. To cap it all, Mr Boardman was appointed to a prestigious role at the British Museum by—oh, by David Cameron! What is being proposed by the Government is not remotely fit for purpose. It is not an inquiry. It is not independent. It is an insult to us all.
The scope of this inquiry has to be bigger than supply chain financing. It has to be about lobbying, too, and bigger than what rules were broken. If the existing lobbying rules were not breached, that is a big part of the problem, surely. Had the Conservatives backed Labour’s amendments to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill back in 2014, there would have been much more transparency, but they did not. David Cameron and his Government voted them down, and boy are they exploiting them now! We need public service in the national interest, not people viewing the state like some get-rich-quick scheme, with taxpayers treated as collateral damage.
We now learn that the Conservatives are joined in all this by the SNP, whose Rural Economy Secretary in the Scottish Government dined with Lex Greensill in one of Glasgow’s finest restaurants with no officials, no notes, no emails, no texts and no phone records about the meeting. Here in Westminster, we have witnessed the degrading of the ministerial code.
We have absolutely no quibble with what the shadow Minister has been saying, but is she trying to draw an equivalence between what David Cameron did and what Fergus Ewing did in a meeting that was recorded and has been publicly available for a long time on the Scottish Government’s website? There was nothing untoward in what Fergus Ewing did, and in trying to conflate the two, the hon. Lady does a great disservice to herself and her argument.
Well, the Scottish people can be the judge of that. If the hon. Member thinks that a Scottish Minister dining with Lex Greensill is okay, his party should put that on its leaflets in the elections in May.
Sir Alex Allan resigned as independent adviser on ministerial interests following the Prime Minister’s failure to take action on the Home Secretary’s bullying behaviour. That was five months ago. The Government have not replaced him. They have not even advertised the job. What does that say about how seriously this Government take standards?
I just point out that, when Gordon Brown appointed his Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial interests, that job was not advertised either because it is not advertised; it is a prime ministerial appointment. The motion proposes to set up a new Select Committee when there are many existing Select Committees. I am Chairman of the Liaison Committee. Why has the hon. Member not consulted any of us about this manoeuvre? I appreciate what Oppositions do, which is to try to embarrass the Government, but she is right that there are much wider issues to address. Should we not try to address those issues in a bipartisan manner?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The point about Sir Alex Allan is that it is five months later and nobody has been appointed to this role. Whether we advertise the role or not, it has been vacant for five months. [Interruption.] A Member says from a sedentary position that it will happen shortly, but five months is an awfully long time.
I will come on to the issue of the composition of the Select Committee, but like the hon. Gentleman, I had the privilege of chairing a Select Committee. When scandals happened, we looked into them, as we did with the collapse of Carillion, and I know that the hon. Gentleman did so too. The problem is that there is no overarching inquiry planned into not just what happened with Greensill but more widely around lobbying, cronyism and sleaze. I am very happy to work on a cross-party basis to take this forward, and I welcome the comments from the hon. Gentleman over the last couple of days.
As well as the lack of an adviser on ministerial interests, there has been an absence of ministerial interests being published. They are supposed to be published twice a year, but they were published only once last year, in July, and not at all since then. These things matter—they are the foundations on which the standards of government rest, and under this Government, those foundations are being consciously removed. That is why this motion does what the Government should have done but chose not to: it gives the power to this House, not the Government, with a 16-strong Select Committee with clout to investigate this whole sorry scandal. It would have powers to call witnesses and examine them in public, like an effective Select Committee would. The investigation that we propose would look at inappropriate lobbying of Government and what needs to be done to prevent it. It would have the powers needed to demand witnesses and communications. It would examine the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and whether it has sufficient powers, resources and the right remit. Put simply, this special new Select Committee would aim to tackle the problem staring us in the face, not cover it up.
I note the motion and thank the hon. Member for it. I just wondered why she thought it was appropriate that the membership of that Committee be nominated by the Committee of Selection? Why should it be filled with a load of Whips’ stooges?
I will not comment on how Select Committee Chairs are sometimes elected in this place. But as a former Select Committee Chair, I know how seriously colleagues around this House would take this responsibility, as the hon. Gentleman does. We are prepared to make a concession to Conservative Members. We will accept that this Committee can be chaired by a Back Bencher from the governing party as long as there is cross-party representation on the Committee, as with other Select Committees.
The Conservative party is at a fork in the road. If MPs vote for this motion, a proper investigation can take place, led by a team with the confidence of this House, not someone handpicked from the board of one of the Government Departments embroiled in this scandal. But if they vote against it, as the Prime Minister has told them all to do, I am sorry to say that they too will be part of the Government’s attempt to cover up Tory sleaze. All Members here today should reflect on who they are here to serve: their constituents and their country, or their narrow party interests?
The stakes are high for our democracy and our public life. It was a past Conservative Government—embroiled in sleaze in the 1990s—who eventually recognised the need for standards to rise and to create the Nolan principles. The Nolan principles of public life have to live and breathe through all those in public office serving our great country. Yesterday we learned that the Government’s former head of procurement was an adviser for Greensill while still a civil servant. Incredibly, that was approved. The defence is that it was “not uncommon”. What on earth was happening at the Cabinet Office and at the heart of Government to allow these conflicts of interest to fester? Sir John Major, who witnessed the cash for questions scandal and other Tory sleaze in the ’90s when he was Prime Minister also believes that the rules need to be changed again.
One of the Nolan principles—as you well know, Mr Speaker—is leadership. With that in mind, where is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster today? Where was the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday? What have they got to hide? There is a wider pattern of behaviour with the Conservatives here, in the present as well as in the recent past: a Conservative Government who are more interested in private drinks with the owners of private jets than meeting the families bereaved by covid; a Government who gave a 40% pay rise to Dominic Cummings, but a pay cut to nurses; Tory politicians thinking that it is one rule for them and another for everybody else; personal attention lavished on friends of Cameron, while 3 million people are excluded from Government financial support and cannot even get a meeting with the Treasury.
On the subject of leadership, the hon. Lady has touched on the Scottish Government. But the Welsh Government have of course been in place for 22 years and there is still no lobbying register, and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has recently taken the former Labour First Minister to task over an appointment to GFG. On leadership, may I draw the hon. Lady on those points?
As far as I am aware, the First Minister of Wales has not appointed a financier as his adviser, nor does he have £30 million-worth of share options that he might fancy exercising. The hon. Gentleman has today abstained in a vote to give nurses a pay rise—put that on your election leaflet at the next general election.
Some £2 billion of public contracts in the last year have gone to friends and donors of the Conservative party, which has been rolling out the red carpet with a VIP fast lane for contracts. Supposedly independent reports have been rewritten by Downing Street. There are undeclared details on who has paid what for a luxury refurbishment of the No. 10 Downing Street flat. Relationships are undisclosed, and there are increasingly frequent breaches and casual disregard of the ministerial code.
Some have asked this week, quite powerfully, “When did we stop caring about honesty and integrity?” That is what this motion is about. What happens in the vote will say so much about our great country, but also about our current Government. That is why I urge all hon. and right hon. Members to do the right thing and back this motion today. Vote for a proper investigation to close the loopholes, to rein in the lobbyists and to lift standards in this great democracy in which we all have the privilege to serve.
I welcome the chance to contribute to this Opposition day debate. I am sure that you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that it is appropriate and possible to do so virtually.
First, may I add my own tribute to those made earlier this week to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, whose commitment to the service of this country and to the highest possible standards of conduct was exemplary?
During the extraordinary challenge of covid-19, the Government have worked with people and businesses of all sorts—from private citizens to key workers, from our brilliant small and medium-sized enterprises to multi- nationals. In that monumental effort to protect the public and save lives across the country, civil servants across Government, working under incredible pressure, have achieved extraordinary things.
Even away from times of crisis, this country can be proud of the standards that we uphold. In Transparency International’s 2020 index, which ranks countries, the United Kingdom was ranked above close European neighbours such as France and Ireland in 11th place. We are the first G20 country to establish a public register of domestic company beneficial ownership and the first G7 country to undergo an IMF fiscal transparency evaluation.
This Government value such reputation and will always uphold it. As hon. Members heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister say just now, we are concerned about some of what has emerged in recent weeks. Most of what this complex motion proposes is already being done. Indeed, as the policy Minister responsible, it is perfectly sensible for me to respond today on behalf of my Department. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) has shadowed me before—10 years ago—and it is good to see her again today in her place.
The motion seeks to establish in Standing Orders a Select Committee with a remit so wide-ranging as to cut across Parliament’s existing Committees and independent bodies that have responsibilities in this area. Let us take the elements part by part. Looking at the effectiveness of existing legislation on lobbying, the Government are already doing this and I shall explain more in a second. On the Greensill affair, an independent review was announced this week, before this motion was laid, and will be effected. On transparency measures and the ACOBA framework, the Cabinet Office is already working to strengthen the former and supporting the reforms of my noble Friend Lord Pickles to bolster the latter. We are opposing the motion today because it seeks to duplicate the work that is already in the gift of Parliament and its Committees and, as I will set out now, work that is already being undertaken by the Government.
Starting with the effectiveness of existing lobbying legislation, we are currently conducting post-legislative scrutiny of part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, which we all know as the lobbying Act. It is looking precisely at the scope and effectiveness of that legislation. The hon. Lady did not mention that—not one whit. That legislation introduced a new statutory register of consultant lobbyists and a requirement that those undertaking paid lobbying on behalf of any third party must register and make clear who they are representing to Ministers and permanent secretaries.
The requirement for consultant lobbyists to declare that work complements the system of self-regulation that lobbyists also adhere to through professional codes of conduct. It makes transparent otherwise hidden lobbying. It remains an important part of the framework, filling an accountability and transparency gap that existed prior to that point. We think that it operates effectively but, as I have said, we are looking at whether further improvements can be made, as is best practice through post-legislative scrutiny. Once that work is complete, we intend to deliver a memorandum to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for further scrutiny. Would it really be constructive for these workstreams to be undertaken in parallel by separate Committees, potentially cutting across one another, sowing confusion? We think that it would not.
While the creation of Select Committees is of course a matter for the House, there are already relevant Committees in Parliament with the powers and capacity to do such work as is proposed. I note that the Chair, and indeed the prior Chair, of PACAC have already spoken today. That Committee is responsible for the examination of the quality and standards of administration across the Government. In this Parliament, it has already undertaken relevant inquiries. Indeed, it has also called the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to give evidence. It has the powers to send for persons, papers and records, and to report to the House—the powers proposed for the new Committee—so I question the necessity of an additional Committee. Indeed, that additional proposed Committee would also cost a quarter of a million pounds.
Her Majesty’s Government has a full framework in place to ensure that public money is spent efficiently, and that those who serve as stewards of those public resources act in accordance with the highest standards and in the public interest. The use of public money is overseen by the Treasury and, of course, Parliament, and the use of public position and information is overseen by the Cabinet Office and rightly held to account by Parliament and the public. Furthermore, all those who work across the public sector are expected to maintain the ethical standards embodied in the seven principles of public life, which underpin the respective codes for Ministers, for the civil service and for special advisors, as well as the code of conduct for board members of public bodies. That requirement to act with integrity means that public office holders must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work, and all holders of public office must declare and resolve any interests.
We are not complacent, neither about the scale of this challenge nor about taking action where necessary to uphold the public’s faith in what we should all stand for. Since 2010, under the coalition and then under Conservative Governments, we have significantly increased transparency on the workings of Government—which the public should rightly be able to expect—from publishing contracts and details of spending, salaries, tenders and meetings to launching that statutory register of consultant lobbyists, far more than ever published under the last Labour Government. This Government have banned the once-endemic practice of Government quangos hiring lobbyists to lobby the Government. They have ensured that taxpayer-funded Government grants are not then used to lobby the Government themselves. They have introduced greater transparency of trade unions and campaign finance controls on third parties seeking to lobby in our elections, so when the Government are being held to account—as is right—it is because a tougher regime of transparency has been in place for over a decade, and is now the norm.
We are going further still to uphold the covenant of trust with the public. I have already touched on the Government’s review of lobbying legislation. In addition, we are reviewing and improving business appointment rules, which I will return to in a moment or two. However, as the hon. Member for Leeds West dwelt upon at some length, the Cabinet Office this week has announced a review on behalf of the Prime Minister into the role in Government of Greensill Capital, the finance company that went into administration last month. The review will look at the development and use of supply chain finance associated activities in Government, and specifically the role of Greensill, including how contracts were secured and business representatives engaged with Government.
The review will be wide-ranging, and will also consider the issues raised by my noble Friend Lord Pickles regarding Mr Bill Crothers’ role at Greensill Capital. The public can be assured that Mr Nigel Boardman, the senior lawyer leading the review, who will pause his activities as a non-executive director at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for the duration, will have full access to the people who were in government at the relevant time and who made the relevant decisions. I would add that the information that has already emerged in recent weeks about Greensill Capital has done so in some part because the system in place is doing its job, and ensuring support for transparency and accountability.
I will not go into great detail further about recent events, because that inquiry will do so, but two further things can be said now about lobbying policy. First, the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists conducted an investigation into Mr David Cameron’s activities, and has confirmed that those did not require registration under the current legislative framework. For good reason, these rules apply to consultant lobbyists, who may seek to influence policy making on behalf of a third party who would otherwise be hidden. Mr Cameron was working openly in-house as an employee. To complement this law, the meetings of Ministers and permanent secretaries with external organisations are published on a quarterly basis and are made available on gov.uk. That data describes both the purpose of the meeting and the names of the organisations or individuals who are met. That is very important. Regulation must of course balance the need for transparency by lobbyists while not preventing engagement by the voluntary and private sectors.
The second thing is to engage in the politics of today’s Opposition day, although it is a great shame to do so in a period of national mourning. The hon. Member for Leeds West failed to say that Labour now wants to repeal the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. This was in its manifesto, alongside repealing the Trade Union Act 2016. Who is not to say that the Labour party would simply give favours to the union barons who bankroll it? After the EU referendum, Labour MPs called for tighter controls on third-party campaigning, but their official policy is to rip up these lobbying laws. Indeed, in 2014, at the time of making that law, the Labour party supported amendments that would have placed significant barriers on engagement and required thousands of businesses, charities, non-governmental organisations and trade bodies to pay a registration fee of £1,000 a year to write or speak to Ministers. This could have been detrimental to the public interest during the covid pandemic, when groups across civil society rightly wanted to put their case to Government.
However, I agree with the hon. Lady that transparency and probity are fundamental. I would like to cover one more area on business appointment rules. As I have mentioned, the Cabinet Office is working with Lord Pickles, who is the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—ACOBA—to improve and extend the business appointment regime. That applies lobbying bans on former Ministers and civil servants, including special advisers. The business appointment rules seek to protect the integrity of the Government while allowing for people to move on to roles outside government. Although affording ACOBA statutory powers to enforce these rules would be out of line with the general principle of UK law that Ministers and officials are subject to the same legal system and statutory framework as everybody else, ACOBA is able to enforce a range of sanctions for non-compliance. That is very important. The Government support changes being introduced by ACOBA to improve the business appointment process. A framework with a risk-based consideration of cases aims to bring greater transparency and improve the reporting of any breach of the rules, increasing the moral and reputational pressure on those leaving public office. In addition, the Cabinet Office is leading work to improve the scope, clarity and enforcement of the rules, and how consistently and proportionately they are implemented across government. In short, we are taking action on a range of fronts to ensure that we maintain the highest standards in our politics and public life.
We should all condemn the kind of lobbying that gives politics and politicians a bad name in all parts of the House, but this motion does not achieve that. Instead, it sidetracks, proliferates and duplicates. I invite Labour to settle its own view, find its own position, and agree with us that transparency and probity are vitally important. I urge all hon. and right hon. Members to join us in this work to continue to scrutinise these critically important matters through the work of existing Select Committees, through the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and through the inquiry that we have now set up—among other ongoing, unstinting efforts that are of course accountable to this House—and to vote against this unnecessary and unconstructive motion that achieves so little extra. It is incumbent on all politicians to act with integrity as elected Members, as Ministers when we hold such positions, and in accordance with the principles of public life. It is incumbent on all of us in this House to ensure that important issues are carefully and effectively scrutinised. I have explained today how the Government are playing their part in this, and I urge all hon. Members to vote against the motion.
“I believe that secret corporate lobbying…goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest. It’s an issue that...has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.”
Wise words indeed, and I wish they were mine, but they are not. They were said by David Cameron in February 2010, just a few short months before he became Prime Minister. He became Prime Minister with a promise that:
“If we win the election, we will take a lead on this issue by making sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge—gained while being paid by the public to serve the public—for their own private gain.”
Today, David Cameron, that self-styled great reformer, is up to his neck in the same cronyism, corruption and sleaze that he promised to call out, expose and eradicate while in opposition.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking, and not simply because nothing has changed. We now know that far from taking on the corrosive culture of the nod and a wink and the old boys’ club favouritism, he actually took it into government. We now know that while David Cameron was Prime Minister, Lex Greensill himself became so embedded in Downing Street that by 2012, he even had an official No. 10 business card, describing himself as a “Senior Advisor”.
Almost 10 years to the day after delivering those stirring words and making those great promises, we discover that David Cameron directly lobbied the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and senior Government officials, thereby securing 10 meetings in three months in an attempt to influence the UK Government’s covid corporate financing facility. He did it to benefit Greensill Capital, where he was then working as an adviser and lobbyist for the same Lex Greensill and where he reportedly held share options worth millions of pounds.
I invite Members to compare and contrast that level of access to the Chancellor and the powers that be at the centre of Government with that given to the millions of people and businesses left without any UK Government support during the pandemic, and in particular the group of the excluded—those 3 million self-employed people who have been left without a penny of Government support. What they would have given for just one of the opportunities that were afforded Mr Cameron, let alone the 10 that he got.
I wonder whether Mr Cameron recalled at any point while brokering those meetings his own hollow words of February 2010. He said:
“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”
Of course, now it transpires that the Greensill influence in Downing Street during the Cameron years went even further and deeper than we could ever have imagined, with the astonishing revelation that in 2015, one of Britain’s most senior civil servants was given permission to work part-time as an adviser to the board of Greensill while still serving as the UK Government’s head of procurement.
How is it possible that the Cabinet Office gave the green light for the former Government chief commercial officer at the Cabinet Office to become part of Greensill Capital in September 2015 while still working as a supposedly impartial civil servant? Who authorised such a move? Who approved this appointment? Who thought that that was okay? What questions did the people at the Cabinet Office operating the internal conflict of interest policy actually ask to reach the conclusion that it was perfectly all right for one of the UK’s most senior civil servants to twin-track and work for a private finance company whose owner at that point was swanning about Downing Street, dishing out business cards describing himself as a special adviser to the Prime Minister? It beggars belief.
This is crony capitalism at its worst. It stinks. The closer we get to it, the more it reeks, and that is why we will be supporting a full independent and transparent investigation and why we will support this motion when the House divides this afternoon.
On its own, the Greensill scandal would be bad enough. Unfortunately it is far from being an isolated event. It is just the most recent example of the rampant cronyism that is at the heart and centre of this Government, who seem to be stumbling from one scandal to another as the details emerge of a network of those who have become fabulously wealthy during this pandemic not because of their skill or business acumen but because of their political connections. In November last year, the National Audit Office revealed that companies with political connections who wanted to supply the UK with personal protective equipment were directed to a high priority channel, where their bids were 10 times more likely to be successful that those from companies that did not have links to politicians and senior Government officials.
In and of itself, the existence of this high priority channel is quite remarkable, but it becomes far more sinister when we consider that the NAO also reported that there were no written rules for how this high priority channel should operate, meaning that the companies gaining political support had access to hundreds of millions of pounds of public funds, were not subject to the usual procurement rules and could bypass the essential paperwork that in normal times would be a prerequisite for safeguarding against the misuse of public funds.
No matter how we look at this, it is not a good look. I absolutely agree with Professor Liz David-Barrett of the University of Sussex when she said:
“It’s not clear to me why MPs or peers should have any special expertise on whether a company is qualified to provide PPE.”
She is absolutely right. She went on to make the entirely reasonable point that those who can be described as being linked to politically exposed persons are usually treated as being higher risk and therefore deserving of more scrutiny rather than less.
I asked a parliamentary question about the standards being applied to people and companies on this supposed fast-track list versus others, to check that the same due diligence standards were being applied to both sides and that there was a level playing field. The answer that I got was that they were and that in this respect the playing field was level, so would the hon. Gentleman care to reconsider his point that the same processes do not apply?
What I would love to happen is for the Committee, when it meets, to examine that in detail to find out exactly whether it is true. What is inescapable is that a company is 10 times more likely to receive a Government contract through a political contact. That deserves careful scrutiny and has to be smoked out to the nth degree.
However we collectively as the body politic got into this situation, may I suggest that it is damaging public trust in elected representatives? The one good thing about this Committee, if it were seen to be put in place, would be that it could restore some of that trust and repair some of the damage to democracy in the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I think we all know from our postbags that, regardless of which side of the House we are on in this debate, we are all tainted by this. Anything that can shine a light on this —admittedly where some might not want it to be shone—would be a very good thing, and I wholeheartedly support it.
Is there not another point here, which is that whatever inquiry needs to be done must have the proper powers? For instance, it needs to be able to guarantee that anybody who gives evidence can do so without fear of prosecution, so that if there is a whistle that needs to be blown, it can be blown. It also needs to have subpoena powers, so that people who do not want to give evidence could be forced to do so. So far as I can see, those powers could be provided only by a judge-led inquiry—maybe we should go down that route, but I think it is unnecessary—or by a parliamentary inquiry.
The short answer is yes, and that is something that I will come on to in a moment. That is why this is so important.
It is not just Members of this House who are questioning the corrosive culture of cronyism at the heart of this Government; it has been attracting some fairly high-profile international attention too. At the end of last year, The New York Times decided to investigate how the UK Government managed what it described as the greatest spending spree in the post-war era. It concluded that of the 1,200 central Government contracts worth nearly $22 billion,
“$11 billion went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy.”
That is an incredible amount of money, and any hint that it has been spent at the behest of someone with close ties to Downing Street or for the benefit of companies that have political allies in Government is deeply worrying. It has to be examined—and examined fully, robustly and independently.
While people might understand and accept that things had to happen quickly in the circumstances, and perhaps that normal procurement rules were not sufficiently speedy, they will not accept that a Government have any right to rip up every rule, every standard, every safeguard and to start throwing about public money like a scramble at a wedding, particularly when it is their mates who are there waiting to pick it up.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Committee should perhaps look at other activities that this Government get up to? There are things such as the Brexit contracts—I recall that they gave a contract to a ferry company that had no ferries—and all the appointments to external bodies and regulators, which are further examples of cronyism. We need to look at this in the bigger mix as well.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that will not have escaped those on the Treasury Bench.
The Government’s inquiry, led by Nigel Boardman, simply will not work. It cannot be seen to be independent, as we have heard, because of the baggage and the back story that he has. Mr Boardman may have carte blanche to ask whatever questions he likes to whomever he likes, but they will have carte blanche not to answer those questions. If that is the case, what is the point? I have no doubt that this scandal will rumble on, and when it does, we must have a mechanism that is robust enough to see it.
Back in 2010, in his now risible speech, Mr Cameron said:
“We can’t go on like this…it’s time we shone the light…on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence.”
I wish he had meant it back in 2010. We have to mean it now, and that is why we will be supporting this motion.
We have many speakers to get in in what is a fairly short debate, so I will impose a four-minute limit to start with—that will be on the clocks in the Chamber and on the screens of those participating virtually—but it will probably have to go down to three minutes fairly quickly.
I call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, William Wragg.
May I thank the Opposition for tabling a motion to establish a Committee, but gently point out to them that one already exists; namely, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which the House has given me the honour of chairing? I trust that the motion before us is not a vote of no confidence in either me or, indeed, the very independent-minded membership of that Committee.
I can forgive that oversight—momentarily forgetting the existence of that Committee—because, in a week of national mourning, and even on the day of tributes to His late Royal Highness, I did not think it seemly to be prattling about television studios. Nor, for that matter, did I think it was at all seemly for Mr Cameron’s statement to be released at that time. But rest assured that the Committee is and will be giving these matters proper consideration.
Perhaps to labour the point made by the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s questions—no doubt it will fall similarly flat when I say it—I am more than happy to take up the role of the AC-12 of Whitehall, but the motion proposed this afternoon could be taken from the script of Sunday night’s episode. For the benefit of the tape, I have full confidence in the members of the Committee to discharge their duties and do not require a reorganisation.
The House will note the Committee’s public session tomorrow morning with Lord Pickles, who, as chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, will doubtless have a vital contribution to make in illuminating matters. We also intend to have the Cabinet Secretary before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee within the next fortnight. I ask the House to be assured that we will pursue every possible line of inquiry with our witnesses and shall conduct ourselves without fear or favour.
Without prejudicing these inquiries, I will offer a reflection on the crux of the issue. I wonder whether the attention given to the former Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, is somewhat of a red herring; it is no doubt a tasteless, slapdash and unbecoming episode for any former Prime Minister, but is it the central issue? After all, what is the key attribute of a former Minister or senior official? Surely we are all institutionalised and deskilled by public life; what possibly qualifies a former Minister or senior official? Food for thought.
There are four key areas of questioning ahead. First, the collapse of Greensill Capital has highlighted the shortcomings of the ACOBA rules and their applications. Secondly, does ACOBA’s oversight end completely two years after a former Minister or official has left their post? Thirdly, a senior official appears to have moved from a civil service position to join Greensill without application to ACOBA; is a secondment a technicality or at least a breach of the spirit, or indeed an actual breach, of the rules? Fourthly, Mr Greensill appears to have been a special adviser at 10 Downing Street; as a Spad, he would have fallen within ACOBA’s remit, and if so did he comply with the business appointment rules?
The questions my hon. Friend is posing are accommodated within the rules, but what we are talking about here is behaviour, and does he agree that this is about principles, indeed the very Nolan principles, and if everybody involved in public service viewed them as a code of practice for life we could avoid a lot of this?
I rise briefly to make the point that the 2017 Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report into the ACOBA rules recommended changes to the ministerial code and the civil service so there would be proper conversations about these conflicts of interest as they arise, which do not take place in the current atmosphere.
Of course, the Nolan principles are embodied in the code of conduct that affects all MPs, and all this does is raise the danger of bringing the whole of the House into disrepute, so I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman’s Committee will work with mine, the Committee on Standards, as we are reviewing the code of conduct to make sure that it really does work for the modern era.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
Hon. and right hon. Members should always be careful in using the privilege afforded to us in speaking in this House, but I find it odd that the leaked emails should be from the late Cabinet Secretary, which cannot be contextualised or challenged by a man who is dead. We must be mindful of scapegoating, especially when it appears too neat, but neither should we allow conspiracy theories to abound without challenge. In the debate that follows, difficult as it may be, I would ask my hon. and right hon. Friends not to unquestioningly defend the integrity of others if they have doubts or have been asked to do so. Whatever little or imperfect integrity we have ourselves—for we are all fallible—it is the only integrity we can seek to protect.
I do not intend to detain the House for very long, as I know that many of my colleagues want to speak in this very important debate, and for very good reason.
The revelations reported in the press these past weeks of private messages between the Chancellor and the former Prime Minister David Cameron, private drinks between Mr Greensill and the Health Secretary, and a private network of connections between favoured businesses and Government Ministers are an absolute disgrace and a scandal. Sadly, they are just the tip of the iceberg of the cronyism and sleaze that are rife in the Conservative party, which it has now allowed into the heart of our Government. Many small businesses in Hull have had to fight tooth and nail to access financial support during the pandemic, so it is insulting that corporations that can afford a former Prime Minister on the payroll can have cosy fireside chats with those at the very top of Government.
My constituents in east Hull expect better. They expect, whatever party is in power, that the Government should be run on the principles of honesty, decency and commitment to public service—not government by WhatsApp and billions of pounds of public money dished out to the Tory party’s friends and donors. That is why we cannot allow the Government to mark their own homework through a whitewash review whose findings we know before it has even begun. We need a full parliamentary inquiry to get to the bottom of this scandal—an inquiry with power and teeth that will give taxpayers and the many thousands of people whose livelihoods are at risk because of Greensill’s collapse the explanations and the justice that they fully deserve. Those with nothing to hide would have nothing to fear.
Government Members need to think long and hard about which way to vote today. Will they vote to sweep all this under the carpet in the hope that things will just move on, or will they do the decent thing, put standards in public life in this country before their party’s interest, and vote for transparency and fairness? I sincerely hope that we see some backbone from Government MPs when the Division bell rings.
There is widespread consensus across the House that this is a very difficult moment that is causing great concern, but widespread disagreement about how to take things forward. I was greatly struck by a point made by the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg): what is being proposed is something his Committee already has the powers to do, and he stands ready to fill in any gaps that his Committee feels might be left as a result of the announcement of an inquiry which has just been made.
In the light of those two things, I see no reason to support the motion. However, because there is such an important underlying issue and there are such important and central questions about the future of our democracy, and the probity and legitimacy of our system, there are some important points that need to be made. I hope the Minister will address them.
Today, I have put on my website my submission to the inquiry of the Committee on Standards in Public Life; the committee will make it public in due course, so I am not pre-empting anything. My submission contains a series of proposals for how we should improve things around lobbying and much else. The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution said earlier that post-legislative scrutiny work, which I have contributed to, is already going on around the lobbying Act, but I will briefly share some things that I believe could usefully be done to improve that Act. It has many strengths and does an enormous number of important things tremendously well, but it is now seven years old and it is time to review it and move it on. There are three or four things we could usefully do, and should do in any case, quite apart from the current concerns over Greensill.
First, as we have heard from several Members, disclosure of whom Ministers meet and when is tremendously important as the foundation stone of transparency. Such disclosures do not happen fast enough, they are not complete enough, and they are not mutually comprehensible, machine-readable and searchable enough. As a result, it is much, much too difficult to link up who Ministers have met, whom the lobbyists are working for and who is donating money to which political party. Those three things should be immediately understandable, immediately searchable and immediately identifiable in order for the system to work well—that is not the case at the moment. This is a sensible change and one we should introduce immediately.
The second thing we should do is capture more people in those disclosures. At the moment, they apply to Ministers, rightly, and to senior civil servants—permanent secretaries and the like. However, there are other people whose opinions matter and who will seek to be influenced by lobbyists no matter who is doing the lobbying. Such people include not only political advisers—Spads—but a slew of other civil servants below the rank of permanent secretary. Their meetings, and the topics, should all be disclosed in the same way.
People will have seen that it is proposed that everybody who is lobbying should be included on the register of consultant lobbyists, but that seems to be overkill, because if someone from Rolls-Royce comes to speak to a Minister, we all know on whose behalf they are lobbying—they are lobbying on behalf of Rolls-Royce. Simply putting them on the register of consultant lobbyists will not improve things, whereas disclosing what they talked about, why they talked about it and any conclusions that were reached would make a huge difference.
Equally, there should be disclosure in respect of foreign agents—people working on behalf of foreign powers who are not part of the diplomatic corps of that country.
My final point relates to the about-to-be-reappointed prime ministerial adviser on special interests. If they had the power to launch independent investigations as well, we would not need debates such as today’s because they would have already opined.
When David Cameron claimed in 2010 that cronyism was the
“next big scandal waiting to happen”,
I am not sure any of us thought he was quite so committed to making sure his predictions would come so true, yet the Greensill scandal emits a horrid stench, and Mr Cameron and all others involved must be held accountable. It is only a drop in the ocean in what is a tidal wave of cronyism and corruption among the upper echelons of this Conservative Government. This is not just about “dodgy Dave”, as the former Member for Bolsover rightly dubbed him; it is about the cancer of cronyism that has spread through the top level of the Conservative Government, as can be seen from the Arcuri affair, the covid-19 contracts, and now the parasitic lobbying that includes a former Tory Prime Minister. I must say this is hardly a red herring.
Over the past year, there has been a tale of two pandemics in this country, one involving the elites, which have siphoned off billions of hard-earned taxpayers’ money, and one involving the millions of others who have been shielding or working as key workers on the frontline of the pandemic, all to protect the health of this country, or who have lost their job. How did those elites get such a cosy seat at the table? Certainly not as a result of hard work and sacrifice, such as that we have seen from those key workers. The destiny of those elites was written as they walked the halls of their public schools and elite social clubs, making murky connections that propelled them into snug lobbying jobs or even safe Tory seats.
Contrast that with the position of a constituent of mine attending an underfunded local school with huge class sizes and becoming a key worker, toiling each day for an honest wage to keep the country on its feet, only to see their taxes being spent on contracts given to dodgy companies, with no competitive tendering. The very people who have been hit hardest by the pandemic—those who are being put on furlough—are expected to work twice as hard, while the avaricious public school clique see the opportunity to multiply their wealth further.
Today, hundreds of British Gas workers will lose their jobs for standing against a cruel “fire and rehire” scheme imposed by their employers, who seek to lower their wages and to worsen terms and conditions in midst of the global crisis, while those with close ties to senior members of the Conservative Government can simply pick up the phone, call a “jobs for the boys” hotline and bag a million-pound contract, despite having no qualifications so to do.
There are, quite simply, two realities being played out here in modern Britain—one for the elite and one for the rest of us. To get through this pandemic, the people of the country have pulled together and made huge sacrifices to see each other through, yet this Government are not in it together with our constituents. They are more concerned with protecting their lobbying clients’ financial interests than they are with the public health of this country. As a result, they—to put it bluntly—have a lot to answer for.
I support the motion because it is all about transparency. It is about probity, accountability, clarity, honesty, decency, integrity, fairness and equality. There are two sides to this country, and everyone must simply ask themselves, whose side are you on?
Politics and big money are never happy bedfellows. The first question any politician should ask if they are offered financial incentives or hospitality is, what do the providers want in return?
Legislation in this field has always failed to make any meaningful impact on political corruption. The most recent attempt—the 2014 transparency of lobbying Bill, during the premiership of David Cameron—attempted to provide a narrative of propriety to decontaminate the Tory brand, but in reality, he had a hidden agenda, which was to neuter the trade union movement. I pointed out at the time that those measures would not have dealt with any of the great Westminster corruption scandals of recent decades—donations for dinners, cash for honours, cash for questions, and the ministerial cab for hire of the last Labour Government.
Half a decade on, Mr Cameron is himself embroiled in the latest great Westminster corruption scandal. These revelations raise all sorts of questions, yet again, about the incestuous and damaging relationship between big money and Westminster politics. I give a guarded welcome to the British Government’s decision to launch an inquiry on this case, but I fear the Prime Minister’s true intentions are to kick the issue into the long grass beyond the forthcoming elections, and to settle a personal score against Mr Cameron.
Any serious inquiry would surely have the wider remit of looking at how Ministers have handled all covid contracts, including investigating the National Audit Office’s concerns about the VIP list of suppliers that are 10 times more likely to get a contract. In that regard, I will support the Labour motion.
If Westminster is serious about addressing its tarnished reputation, there must be deliberate moves to reduce the cost of politics. The Americanisation of British politics has resulted in an expenditure arms race. Over recent decades, political parties have had to spend more of their time raising money to compete. If we are serious about addressing corruption in politics, spending caps must be introduced for political parties, drastically reducing the cost of electioneering, with an added bonus of creating a more level playing field and a more plural politics. A wiser person than me once said:
“Nothing in life is free, you always pay in the end.”
I fully support calls to expand the statutory register of lobbyists to include those working in-house, but the UK Government must go further. The Register of Members’ Financial Interests is an important innovation, but the onus is on electors proactively to search for information that should be readily available to them. New protocols could include requirements for BBC Parliament and Parliament Live TV to list details of Members’ interests on screen when they are making contributions. If there is no impropriety, why would anyone object? With slight mischievousness, I would even go as far as to recommend that Members should be required to emblazon their private benefactors on their clothing in the same way that snooker players proudly promote their sponsors on their waistcoats. I suspect such visual exposure might encourage restraint among those who use their role in the House to harvest coin.
I have long believed that Westminster is beyond repair. The time has come for us in Wales to forge a different path, where we can create an honest political discourse based on the noble aspirations of public service as opposed to the promotion of personal enrichment.
Following the suggestion from the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) that like snooker players—I perhaps look like one right now—we should emblazon ourselves with any sponsors we might have, I am minded to say that I have absolutely nothing to declare in that regard, having never received a penny apart from my very generous MP’s salary since I have been in this place.
With the local elections coming up in May, I am concerned that we are in danger of playing party politics in this Chamber. I should not be naive; that is what this Chamber is always about. At the start of this week, this Chamber was at its very best, and, of course, that is why I am dressed as I am. We referenced the Duke of Edinburgh and warmly referenced how popular he was because he was direct, loyal and non-partisan, and here we are today talking about election leaflets and playing party politics.
Of course, there is a serious point behind this, and I want to make a point in defence of the Select Committee process. I am very fortunate to be Chair of a Select Committee, and I note, as I sit alongside the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, that we will be in very safe hands in any inquiries that are needed or for any changes that have to be recommended.
It is not very well known that Select Committees can now group together. We have done so for the COP26 scrutiny, so we have Select Committee Chairs all the way across. We have it through the Liaison Committee. We can also move members of one Committee to another, so if there is a great requirement to review across Government Departments or for Parliament to look at an issue, it can be done as the structure is in place.
The Select Committee on Transport met this morning, and it would be fair to say that for even the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who was appearing before us, it would have been impossible to tell which party each MP came from, because we all united as one in wanting a particular approach. To make a Select Committee more partisan with a sole aim would be poisonous and would diminish the role of Select Committees in scrutinising Government, which, having always been a Back Bencher, I absolutely support.
It is not very political of me— it is perhaps a bit naive—but I am also a firm believer in loyalty. I touched on this at the start of my speech. I first became an MP in 2015 under David Cameron. I found him to be an inspired leader, a genuine man and someone who really wanted the best for his country and for his party. He modernised our party. He took the country from the very desperate economic position that he had inherited in 2010 and worked across the divide with the Liberal Democrats to try to make something better. He succeeded, as we see if we look at the 1,000 jobs a day that he created. There was much he did well, and he was a genuine, sincere and very public spirited man. It may be naive of me to stand up and say this as a politician, because we tend to bury those who go before us, but sometimes in life, loyalty—remembering virtues and trying not to bury those who are no longer here—is a good thing. That would serve us much better as a House than what others seek to do.
I welcome the independent inquiry and the Government’s broader work on modernising procurement. I do not believe that anyone can say that a new Committee is needed, as proposed by the Opposition today, when an independent inquiry is under way and when many Committees, including the Committee on Standards in Public Life, serve to scrutinise the work of former officials and Ministers. The point was well made by the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), and by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg).
The Opposition’s proposition today is not about securing an independent and legally minded expert in procurement to look into the matter. We already have that, and we should hear what he has to say. It is, I am afraid, a rather cynical and desperate attempt to prejudge an inquiry that is happening and take the opportunity to make a party political attack. That is why the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) persistently mentioned the ’90s in her opening remarks, but nothing about the period between 1997 and 2009. That, of course, was when we saw a long list of allegations about the Labour party—from Ecclestone, to cash for honours and the moniker of “Tony’s cronies” when it came to public appointments. It is also why, when the hon. Lady put forward a list of supposedly crony contacts, she included a Labour party donor. When she very much wanted us to secure PPE contracts, those contacts included a football agent company, an historical clothing company and a legal practice.
The Labour party does not want to wait for the facts but will continue with what I think is a rather contemptible policy of smearing people in public life, with scant regard for the truth or their reputations afterwards. That is what the Opposition did with Kate Bingham, until it turned out that she had done an outstanding job in procuring vaccines for this country—a job that she was not paid for, I might add. I am afraid that she has received no apologies from the Labour party for its smears when it tried to label her as a crony—and, indeed, no thanks for her work on the vaccine taskforce. Labour did the same with the race report; it has yet to criticise the Labour MP who likened those educational experts and public servants, who were trying to put forward solutions to improve the inequality situation in this country, to the Ku Klux Klan. It is desperate and quite cynical.
As people have rightly said today, this is a serious matter and it is right that it is being looked into. We should use the existing channels to get to the facts.
The overriding impression that one has received from following every new revelation in the Greensill case is of people making up the rules to suit themselves. First, we had David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, who passed an anti-lobbying Bill while he was in power, which conveniently did not cover the kind of lobbying that he himself then went on to do. Now we find that the Cabinet Office did not require its chief procurement officer to declare his part-time role advising a commercial company that wanted to bid for public contracts, and then—incredibly—did not require him to consult the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments about a full-time role with the same company when he left the civil service, because he was already working there.
As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have attended a number of inquiries on the Government’s approach to the pandemic. I have heard time and again about the necessity of circumventing the rules to deliver at speed during the last 12 months. I broadly accept that principle, but again we see that the people benefiting financially from these emergency provisions are close associates of those who decided that the rules could be circumvented.
There often seems to be an aversion to setting rules in our political life: a preference for assuming that a combination of personal honour and political pressure— or “moral and reputational pressure”, to quote the Minister—is sufficient to keep people in line. There is a debate longer than my four minutes will allow to be had about whether our political culture has fundamentally changed to the extent that these principles can no longer be regarded as sufficient. But suffice it to say that the lack of a robust system of rules to which everyone is subjected and for which the penalties are more than just damage to political reputation is a major weakness of our constitution. If there are no rules, or if the rules are made and remade and applied by those in power, there are no effective checks or balances on that power. If the rules can be easily changed or subverted to suit the circumstances, they are not rules and they have no discernible function.
For my own part, I think we are seeing a slippage of standards in public life. Our current Prime Minister has been sacked from two previous jobs for lying, and a former Prime Minister has been hawking his Government connections for personal enrichment. I believe that the behaviour of our elected Ministers has impacted our appointed officials’ perception of what is acceptable.
Doubtless the Government will respond by saying that Opposition parties have indulged in the same behaviour and that everyone is as bad as everyone else—and actually, that could well be true. At the heart of the Government and parliamentary machinery are human beings, and not bad human beings for the most part. But any human being asked to define how conduct should be judged will naturally seek to define that conduct in terms that favour their own actions and judgment. So let us not argue that everyone is as bad as everyone else and that the only arbiter should be the voter—or, if we do, let us accept that we are actually making the argument for a more robust system of rules. If everyone is dishonest, how can the voters use their votes to distinguish between us? If they cannot use their votes in that way, how can they be an effective check against self-interested behaviour?
I support the Labour party’s call for a Select Committee to investigate how Greensill became embedded to the extent that it did and to consider how the rules should be strengthened. Liberal Democrats supported the moves to bring in a lobbying register and rules to register ministerial meetings when we were in government, and we have previously tried to amend companies legislation to require annual company spends on lobbying of up to £1,000 to be declared in annual accounts. We will consider any recommendations carefully and back anything that can improve the current system.
I am delighted to take part in this debate. This debate was called by the Opposition, I suppose one could say, to smear the Government by attacking a former Prime Minister. Lobbying certainly does need a proper investigation and that is why I back the Government’s plan for a full inquiry, but this afternoon I must tell the House a more disturbing true story about lobbying.
I represent a part of Somerset. In Somerset, the county council started lobbying the Government for a big change: it wanted to become a unitary council. It invested millions of pounds to run a campaign and found a receptive ear in the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. Of course, my right hon. Friend may have embarrassing experience of being lobbied, but I doubt Somerset County Council would ever stoop to taking money—it is not very good at hanging on to what it has got! One bit of lobbying led quickly to the Government’s decision to consider the idea for a Somerset unitary.
Somerset County Council reckoned it would be a shoe-in. More fool them, I am afraid, because it did not have the widespread support it claimed. The four district councils quickly devised an alternative and infinitely better plan for reform, which they submitted, quite rightly, and lobbied the Secretary of State. The next stage was meant to be a full consultation to discover if either proposal could command “A good deal of local support”. This pathetic and meaningless phrase can be interpreted by Ministers however they or anyone else chooses. The method for measuring local support was decided by my right hon. Friend. He chose an equally pathetic system of online questioning to lobby the local people. People can fill it in from anywhere in the world, with no requirement for the people who live in Somerset to have preference. You can legally respond to it from Beijing or Moscow, as probably they regularly do. I am sorry to say that this is a confidence trick.
The Secretary of State also asked the views of a very limited number of organisations in Somerset and lobbied them. The districts begged him to extend the list in order to be fair. Nothing, of course, happened. Therefore, the four district councils decided to let him know that they would arrange a referendum, with strict rules of participation to provide a meaningful addition to his consultation and lobbying. Instead of gracefully accepting this sensible suggestion, the Secretary of State has, I am afraid, thrown a wobbly. He has written to all four district council leaders rubbishing their idea and threatening them—threatening them, Madam Deputy Speaker—with the law! I have never read such a cold response. I am sorry, but it is not going to wash.
The Secretary of State has turned lobbying on its head. He appears to be using a big stick for those who have different ideas on upholding democracy and fairness. I will tell him straight and publicly right now that his actions should, must and will fail. The district councils represent all the parties we know—except, obviously, the SNP—and they are united against this. The referendum will go ahead and if he uses the law to stop it, then I am afraid lobbying has got a very much more sinister and nasty feel to it in this case. I urge anybody in Somerset to lobby to make sure that we have the voice of the people for the democracy they deserve. So, Madam Deputy Speaker, I say to the Secretary of State: see you in court, or come up and sue me some time.
After 11 years in power, this Tory Government have ended up like all Tory Governments end up—mired in sleaze. What is different about the scandal confronting us today is the sheer scale of the larceny being practised on the public purse by the donors, friends and beneficiaries of the Tory party.
The Greensill scandal, which is egregious and shocking, is only the tip of a very large iceberg. We have seen £2 billion of pandemic procurement contracts given without competition to companies that have donated money directly to the Tory party; VIP procurement lines specifically designed for Tory mates and, if you are the Health Secretary, your local pub landlord; a clutch of senior Government appointments awarded directly without competition to relatives of serving Tory Ministers; and now the announcement of an inquiry laughably described as independent into the Greensill scandal, led by a man who is the son of a former Tory Cabinet Minister and sits on the board of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for the British Business Bank—it was the British Business Bank that gave Greensill Capital access to hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
This is just not good enough. We urgently need an inquiry that has the power to call for witnesses and papers, take evidence in public and publish its findings. There are many questions we need answers to. Why was David Cameron allowed by serving Cabinet Ministers to lobby so ferociously in his own personal financial interest? Why was Greensill given such untrammelled access to senior civil servants at the height of the pandemic? How did the Chancellor push the team to be more accommodating to Greensill Capital?
Why was Greensill—an unregulated shadow bank with a toxic business model—allowed access to the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme? Was that pushed by Ministers, senior bank officials or civil servants? If so, at whose request? Did Greensill then exceed its lending authority and put even more taxpayers’ money at risk? Why was Lex Greensill allowed to roam so freely across Whitehall, pushing his financial chicanery? And why on earth was the Government’s senior procurement official, responsible for £40 billion of public contracts, allowed by the Cabinet Office to work part time for Greensill while he was still in the civil service?
The stench is growing. Only the disinfectant of a fully transparent and independent inquiry will deal with it, and that is what the motion before us would create. If Tory Members vote the motion down, as they have the power to do, they should know that they will be voting to try to brush this scandal under the carpet and treating British taxpayers with contempt.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate. After the opening speech by the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), I was tempted to go straight into a political attack and point out the failures of the Welsh Labour Government, such as not having a lobbying register after 22 years, or list the public bodies in Wales that are led by former Labour Assembly Members, former Labour MPs’ partners or former special advisers. But that will add nothing to public discourse, and it will not help this issue.
I was quite moved by what the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), said about his Select Committee. I can attest, as I am sure Members on both sides of the House can, that he will do no favours for the Whips or the Government, and that it is a robust Select Committee. As the Chairman of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), said, our Select Committees in this House are robust. The membership is beyond reproach. I jested with my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove about whether this debate was a vote of no confidence in him, but the debate really does not add anything.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) raised three pertinent questions, and there are some serious questions around this issue. I welcome the inquiry and the Minister’s tone. I do not want to disparage the many former Labour Assembly Members who chair health boards or are on the sports body. They have a lot to give to public life. Many of them are doing an excellent job. I welcome their positions after frontline politics and I support a lot of them, but in this debate, it is very tempting for people on both sides to start making churlish comments about cronyism, and we have heard other Members say, “Just because of somebody’s political affiliation.” I would of course love to see more former Conservatives appointed to public bodies in Wales. Perhaps not as many Conservatives are appointed as Labour—Labour has been governing for 22 years, so I am sure their contact books make it a lot easier to contact friends—but that does not take anything away from what they are doing in public life in Wales.
Before I sit down, I will echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove, the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, said. This should not be about looking at our Select Committee process and saying that it is not independent enough; that will do nothing for it. We should get behind this inquiry. If Members are unhappy with the inquiry, they can go through the Select Committees that are already in place and have the powers. We all have Members on those Select Committees, and there are already avenues open to the parties in this House to take up these serious concerns.
I will conclude and give the final minute back.
The scandal of the former Prime Minister lobbying the Government for his new boss has rightly captured the headlines. I must say that it is really a bit rich for some Tory MPs to attempt to ride their high horse in this debate, because the rot runs much deeper. The whole system is rigged in the interests of the super-rich, and the super-rich spend a lot of money making sure that it stays that way. In the Tory party, they have the perfect vehicle for that.
The pandemic has cast more light on some very questionable practices. While there are 37p benefit increases, wage cuts for millions of public sector workers and tax rises for millions, some, on the other hand, have had a very good pandemic indeed. Vast sums have been handed over to Serco and the like—funds that should have gone to our national health service. Companies with connections to top Tories have been 10 times more likely to get covid contracts than those without such connections. The Health Secretary’s mate, the landlord of his former local pub, won a covid test contract worth a small fortune. I could go on. Instead, I will quote the words of the former Government chief scientist, David King, who said that the process of distributing public money to private companies during this pandemic “really smells of corruption”.
But it is not just in a crisis that the Conservatives look to enrich the super-rich. There was the Housing Minister acting unlawfully over a £1 billion property deal that helped the developer to avoid tens of millions in local council charges. He got his approval from the Conservative Government and, two weeks later, donated £12,000 to the Conservative party. What about the Tory MPs raking in small fortunes on top of their salary—as if being an MP is not a full-time job—making many thousands of pounds doing private consultancy work in a second job during this pandemic? It is shameful and, frankly, it should be banned.
One in three of the UK’s billionaires have bankrolled the Conservative party since 2005, and boy, do they get their money’s worth! There have been tens of billions of pounds in corporate giveaways for the rich from the Conservative party. I will end on the words of David Cameron—himself something of an authority on these matters:
“We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”
The stench of corruption has grown ever stronger through this crisis and people across the country are quite rightly fed up to the back teeth of it. People are sick of it. It needs to be stamped out before it does untold damage to our democracy.
It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon). In talking about a serious issue with serious implications, he perhaps illustrates the problem for his party, particularly when he talks about the high horse. I, for one, find it impossible to take lectures from him or from his party. Labour Members have either served or evangelised a Labour leader who was famously a “pretty straight kinda guy”, but who exempted Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula 1 from a tobacco advertising ban after a tidy £1 million donation and has had, shall we say, some pretty profitable gigs since leaving office. Or they wanted for Prime Minister the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who was present but not involved in laying wreaths for Munich terrorists and who presided over an unlawfully antisemitic party. That is without mentioning Labour’s cronyism—union donations—and the fact that the shadow Defence Secretary lobbied for Greensill. As Ted Hastings said, “You’ve got a nerve, fella.”
On the substance of the motion, I absolutely commend the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, who detailed the action the Government are taking, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who detailed the activities of his Select Committee.
In response to serious questions on this issue, the Government are acting, and have acted quickly. They are going above and beyond, for example, the information required under the Freedom of Information Act. I also welcome their commissioning of the independent Boardman review, which will thoroughly and transparently investigate the issues around Greensill. That is in addition to the British Business Bank’s review of Greensill’s compliance with the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme. It is really regrettable that Labour Members seek to disparage and discredit that independent review. I welcome the fact that the Government have been clear that either Greensill’s requests were turned down or that no Ministers were involved in gaining access to coronavirus support loans.
The Government are answering legitimate questions and legitimate concerns and it is entirely right and proper for them to be transparent and accountable; we all want that. They are giving a serious response to serious questions and, at the same time, they are getting on with the serious job of supporting people and businesses through a global pandemic.
The Greensill debacle is, in the truest sense of the word, unbelievable. It is unbelievable that David Cameron was able to lobby with such impunity, unbelievable that Cabinet Ministers were able to engage so freely with him and unbelievable that millions upon millions of public money was bound up in contracts connected with more than one Cameron client. Most of all it is unbelievable that, at this point in time, no actual rules were broken. That speaks to a system that has lost its way, a former Prime Minister who has lost his moral compass, and a general public who have every right to lose what faith they had in this Government. From the top to the bottom, those in government are thumbing their noses at the people and the institutions that they are meant to serve, all the while enabled and protected by the rules, regulations and legislation that they brought in. Instead of accountability —the once vaunted “disinfectant of sunlight”—we have deals done over tawdry text messages in darkened bars and, bizarrely, in front of those lavish lights and fires. Due process has been damned.
I am proud to have worked for the public service and I am old enough to remember the last lot of sleaze from the Tory Government. I am a firm supporter of the Nolan principles—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. The Nolan principles apply to every public office holder and we do have thousands of decent, public-minded people across Government and the public and private sector who wish to see this country do better, and that is our task today. What we are learning goes too wide to be confined to a quick review by the Prime Minister’s nominee. For example, the issues around the NHS do require much more sunlight. Well before the pandemic, in 2018, we had the episode with Babylon. We have had a Secretary of State who clearly did not see the NHS and its public institutions as doing well enough and started to skirt the process with the appointment of Dido Harding, the totally opaque plans for Public Health England, and a new superbody—again, about which we know little—to be headed by the Prime Minister’s friend. It is time to call a halt to this.
We have also seen Mr Greensill’s company get into the NHS—to use its name and trusted reputation to allow staff who cannot wait for payday to get paid earlier. Frankly, if the Secretary of State supported the NHS and paid its staff properly, Mr Greensill would not have yet another money-making scheme on the back of those NHS staff.
I am a proud member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and I commend the comments made earlier by our Chair, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg). We are ready to serve. We have just completed three covid-19 reports, and all three reports highlight the fact that the governance arrangements have not been clear, and that senior accountability has not been clear. They are damning reports. There is a lack of clarity over the role of the Cabinet Office, covid committees, and the quad in decision making over the covid crisis. There is a lack of clarity over ministerial responsibility, particularly the role of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The scrutiny of the covid inquiry also highlighted issues with inter- governmental relations across the devolved Administrations.
On top of the dreadful loss of life, damage to our economy, and so much of our lives disrupted, people have made great sacrifices. We on the Committee are clear that any review of the Cabinet Office response to covid-19 should include examination of the governance arrangements, including Cobra, the C-19 daily meetings, and the quad and Cabinet committees. It is opaque. We on the Committee have struggled to get the appropriate Cabinet Minister in front of us, and to respond properly, but we will persevere.
As we operate in these covid times, we have an unusual setup, and we watch many Members from afar. Those of us who have dreamed of sitting on these green Benches, and the responsibility and honour that we have to live by and uphold when we sit on them, may wonder whether some of the contributions that have come from our screens today would have been made if the people making them had been in this room. It feels to me like some of the things I have witnessed on those screens while I have been sitting here have been horribly misjudged.
I think there is general agreement that some of the headlines in recent weeks have raised eyebrows, and that there is a level of concern that is shared across the House, but unfortunately, the Opposition and, in particular, the Members who I have been watching on the screens have decided to run with this in a way that is deeply unhelpful and does not help to solve any of the problems that they are highlighting. I therefore fear that this is much more about party political posturing than it is about clearing up the system, and I urge Opposition Front Benchers to consider that, and to think of ways in which we can work together to improve this system.
I listened to the tremendous contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). I thought that their speeches had an adult tone and gave something that was deeply needed, which was perspective. I commend both of them, but I commend even more my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who I thought answered the Opposition’s point rather succinctly and did the Minister’s job for her by saying that what the Opposition are calling for in this motion already exists. The concerns that have been raised are also being independently investigated, and I think that that is what the public would expect. Again, I come back to my fear that what we are debating today is merely party political posturing, and we should be doing better than that.
I would add a note of caution. We as MPs are exposed to an awful lot of voices within our constituency, and that is right: we meet many charities, many individuals and constituents, many councillors, and yes, many businesses. Those conversations help us to know more, to empathise and to understand, and that is an incredibly important part of our job. There is always a concern, when this sort of series of events comes to the surface, that the first thing we should do is stop doing that: stop meeting people, stop hearing other concerns, and stop hearing the concerns of business. That would be a very unfortunate development.
I have worked with partners across the east midlands on our freeport bid, and one of the strengths of that bid has been the fact that we have had academics, businesses, our local enterprise partnership, and our county councils and MPs working together in unison. That sort of behaviour is what is needed to effect change in areas such as the east midlands, and we should not end up in a situation in which we put up too many barriers. I agree that we should have transparency, but not barriers, and it is important that we continue to have conversations with all groups so that we can make ourselves better informed. That is even more true if we happen to be in a position that does not allow us to meet with our constituents more freely, as Ministers are.
We have heard many contributions from across this House today and, frankly, I am disappointed that what we have heard makes an absolute mockery of democracy. The general public out there will be seeing not Parliament and government at their best but a revolving door of sleaze. As we have seen time and again, the Government have been rotten in their dealings. Every few weeks, a new shady deal emerges that reeks of cronyism and corruption.
Let us be clear what we are talking about. In the past 12 months alone, we have seen what this Government truly stand for: back-channel conversations, and multibillion- pound contracts awarded, with alarming regularity, to chums in the City with little or no scrutiny.
Let us start with the Health Secretary, who handed out a £30-million contract to his former neighbour and pub landlord, Alex Bourne—a man with no prior experience of producing medical supplies and whose company, Hinpack, was at the time producing plastic cups and takeaway boxes for the catering industry. Despite that, the Health Secretary saw fit to issue a multimillion-pound contract and put our nation’s health in the hands of that company by allowing it to produce millions of vials for the NHS covid test. This did not come about through a formal tender and procurement process. I remind the House that all that was required, by the Health Secretary’s own admission, was a WhatsApp message.
Let us move on to the Housing Secretary, who last summer admitted an apparent bias in reversing a planning decision against Tory donor Richard Desmond’s proposed Westferry Printworks housing development, overruling local officials and saving the property developer an estimated £45 million. Mr Desmond later donated—surprise, surprise—£12,000 to the Conservative party, just weeks after sitting next to the Housing Secretary at a Tory fundraiser.
Then there is the Prime Minister himself, who is also up to his eyeballs in the murky world of lobbying. His former lover Jennifer Arcuri’s firm, Innotech, was awarded £26,000 of taxpayers’ money while he was Mayor of London. Unsurprisingly, that scandal was also whitewashed by this Government.
And now we have former Prime Minister David Cameron, who knew very well what he was doing when he started lobbying for Greensill Capital. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) about David Cameron’s full comments, but we must also remind ourselves that he said that exactly this type of thing was the next big scandal waiting to happen.
Despite that, Mr Cameron saw fit to conveniently forget his own advice when he stood to make £60 million after setting up a cosy drink with the Health Secretary, sending a string of private messages to the Chancellor and, in the process, helping those two Cabinet members commit at least three possible breaches of the ministerial code. It seems absolutely right that the former Member for Bolsover, who is sadly missed in this House, called David Cameron “dodgy Dave” in 2016. He was dodgy then and is dodgy now.
None of this will be taken seriously by our current Prime Minister, who just days ago revealed what he really thinks about the role of big business helping to oil the wheels of this Government, when he said: “The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed”. Government Members really are the Gordon Gekkos of the green Benches, who bleed to their very core that greed is good. As a former Conservative Minister told The Guardian:
“A little bit of money goes a long way.”
It is time for that culture to stop.
There now needs to be a Parliament-led, cross-party inquiry, with a new Select Committee formed to investigate the Greensill lobbying scandal, and it should have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence and restore what we need in this country, which is integrity to our democracy, and an end to the grip of corporate spivs and spinners once and for all.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I am not sure exactly how to follow that. I remind the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) that I served on the Benches with both the current Member for Bolsover and the previous one, and I will take the current one—my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher)—any day, as, most importantly, will the residents of Bolsover, who determined that the 50-year tenure of the previous incumbent did not deliver the change they needed or the benefits of what he could have done since 1970.
The speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover addressed some difficult issues constructively and appropriately—something that we have struggled to see from some Labour Members today. I am disappointed in that, because I have worked with Labour Members over my two terms in this place and we have had some constructive and useful discussions about such issues, particularly on the Public Accounts Committee, on which I previously served.
I very much welcome what the Government are doing. If there is an issue, a challenge or a problem here, let us uncover it, work through it and learn from it. As the Minister said at the beginning of the debate, part of the reason we are even here to talk about this matter today is that the processes have highlighted some of these points. There is a point about due process, because Labour Members stand here today on a motion that states explicitly that they seek to understand this problem and potential issues in more detail, yet every single Labour Back-Bencher who has risen in the debate so far has made a speech that bears absolutely no relation to that motion, because they have already decided. They are the judge, jury and executioner; they know better than the inquiry that they are about to vote for, which is already being covered by a lot of other things that the Government are doing and the independent process that they have set up.
On a slightly broader point, I issue a note of caution, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. As I have said, if there is an issue, let us uncover it and learn from it. But this should not be an excuse to say that all business is bad and to go on about Gordon Gekko and all that kind of nonsense, which is what we have just heard from north London. It should also not be an excuse for the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon)—I can almost set my watch by him—to come along and tell us that business cannot achieve anything.
On the Public Accounts Committee, I have seen that there is a huge amount of experience and skills that we need from the business community. We need to work together better with business. I have seen where it has not worked and where there have been challenges, but I have also seen the benefit that business brings to our country, to this place and fundamentally to our society—to address the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). Yes, let us find where the problems are, but let us not do what we have heard from the Opposition today; it is not an appropriate way of solving these issues.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley).
I welcome the announcement of the review into Greensill Capital and its links to the former Prime Minister and civil servants. It is absolutely the right way forward to address legitimate concerns about lobbying and this firm’s interaction with the Government. I also welcome the appointment of Nigel Boardman—an independent legal expert with extensive experience in investigating Government procurement—to conduct this review. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for making it clear that the review will have full access to all the necessary documentation surrounding supply chain finance and full access to key decision makers during the process. For that reason, I have to say from the outset that I find the Opposition’s proposals today both troubling and typically opportunistic.
Important issues around standards and ethics in public life should not be subject to political committees packed with Labour MPs playing sixth-form politics. It is disappointing that the Opposition seem more interested in scoring political points than ensuring that Government engagement with business, charities and other organisations is conducted in an open and transparent way. There is very little point in replicating the work of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), which already has the mechanisms available to bring this issue to light. The plans put forward by the Opposition today are yet more tawdry politicking, rather than a genuine desire to improve standards in public life; I will not be supporting the motion.
It is troubling that the Opposition seem to be pre-empting the findings of the review, particularly as they spent 13 years in government and did not once act on concerns raised about lobbying. Indeed, they even voted against the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, which required consultant lobbyists to register with a watchdog and placed restrictions on third-party campaigning groups; that is despite the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) demanding that the legislation be strengthened this morning on her tour of the studios—more positions than the “Kama Sutra”, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge what the Prime Minister said—that lessons must be learnt from this episode. In this House there are politicians from all political parties who, when they leave the House, will still want to contribute to public life; and they should be able to do so, as many of them have much to contribute, whether it is sitting on the courts of our great academic institutes, serving on boards of charities or, indeed, entering into businesses, either in an executive or non-executive capacity. The vast majority do this with the best of intentions, abiding by the rules on lobbying and engaging properly with the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
The Greensill affair is deeply disappointing, not least for those of us who admire the former Prime Minister and his work, but we should now focus on learning lessons from this, not teaching them.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate after the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson). He described elements of the debate as sixth-form politics, but I do not believe that is the case; I think this is a very serious matter. I hope that he, and all non-Government Members, will see their role in this House as extremely important in holding the Executive to account. Whether they are majority-party Members or Opposition Members, every single Member in this House plays a key role in holding the Executive to account. Our Executive are very strong and all of us must play our part in holding them to account.
The Greensill sleaze scandal and the “revolving door” influence of the former Prime Minister is the latest in a long line of questionable practices by the Government. In recent days, the former Government chief scientist Sir David King has warned that the Government are operating a chumocracy and a creeping privatisation of the national health service even as we continue in our communities to battle the covid-19 pandemic, day by painful day. There is the deeply concerning decision to hand London GP practices to the US health firm Centene: a decision that has incensed many of my constituents, who are rightly concerned about the quality of their local healthcare. Our constituents deserve better than this. Time after time, it is one rule for them, another rule for everyone else. While Tory donors and former Prime Ministers have privileged access, the Chancellor denies support for others, like my poor constituent who emailed in regarding their livelihood crumbling during lockdown and said that the Greensill sleaze affair
“is an insult to all self employed and freelancers”.
It is clear that the rules are not fit for purpose. Labour’s amendment to the 2014 lobbying Bill would have caught out David Cameron’s Greensill lobbying and would have ensured that any decisions to handle health contracts were made without the stain of cronyism hanging over financial decisions taken by Government. Ministers have been at pains to point to an inquiry into the sleaze scandal, but it only scratches the surface of what should be investigated, ignoring swathes of dealings worth billions of pounds of public money.
We desperately need to remove the stain of cronyism that hangs over the Government. Today, the Institute for Government has described the head of the Crown Commercial Service, or the head of Government buying, working for Greensill as “eyebrow raising”, and has suggested that following the Robert Jenrick affair—the property development referred to earlier in the debate—the “stench of sleaze” will take quite some cleaning up to be dispelled. We need an anti-corruption and anti-cronyism commissioner and an integrity and ethics commission to clean up, and we need urgent change.
I do not know about anyone else, but when I stood for election to this House and was fortunate enough to be elected, I took very seriously the Oath that I made when I entered here. I stood for Parliament because I wanted to serve the public and do my bit. I did so because I believed in the integrity of this place and I believed in the integrity of hon. Members. I believe that everybody in this place actually wants to do their best for this country and for the British public.
I am very concerned about what we have learned about the Greensill affair over the past week, but I am even more disappointed by the reaction of Labour Members to this, because it does not just reflect on the Conservative party; it reflects on every single one of us. Those of us who care about the political culture of this country—and we all should, given that we have all stood for election to this place and made great sacrifices to do so—should all be working together to address the very real concerns that have been raised with us. When I drove in this morning, there was a sign attached to the railings outside Westminster that said: “Self-serving liars are destroying our nation”. I do not believe that any Member of this House is a self-serving liar.
I say to Labour Members very gently that we have structures in this House to look at these matters. If they had bothered to talk to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), they would have learned that we have been reaching conclusions on these matters over the past year. We have realised that ACOBA has no teeth. We have realised that Members of this House are held to greater account for transgressions than Ministers who break the ministerial code. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has more teeth. We have been looking at exactly those matters.
Tomorrow, we are having the chairman of ACOBA before us to look at these issues. We are taking our obligations to this House very seriously, so it is very disappointing not only that the Opposition view what we are doing with no confidence, but that they clearly have no confidence in Opposition Members who are members of that Committee either.
On the issue of whether the rules are strong enough, the fact of the matter is that sunlight is the best disinfectant. We all can reach our own conclusions about the behaviour not only of David Cameron, but other former Prime Ministers. Whatever the rules are, and whatever the limits of sanction are, the one thing that David Cameron will be concerned about more than anything else is the damage to his reputation that has been done by this episode. Frankly, that will be with him for a very long time. Let us be clear: we have some of the best standards in western democracies, we can always do better and we will be doing our bit to make sure we address some of these issues.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who made some valid and genuine points, and I am grateful to her for those. I am also grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, but I am mindful of time pressures, so I will be brief.
Many people across Newport West have been in touch with me in recent days in the wake of the revelations of text messages between the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks), the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the former Prime Minister, David Cameron. Truth be told, there is a really bad smell lingering around this Government and something has to give. The Greensill scandal is just the tip of the iceberg of cronyism rife in the Conservative party now. I welcome the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) from the shadow Front Bench and I will be supporting the motion. Simply put, we can stand for nothing less than the establishment of a full, transparent, Parliament-run inquiry into the Greensill scandal.
I say to the Minister that that inquiry must be far more transparent and open than the Boardman investigation announced by the Conservatives this week—an investigation that has all the hallmarks of a cover-up. I do not think we need to dwell too much on the bullying cases associated with the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), the Home Secretary, or the Russia report, held behind closed doors and resulting in little or no action from the Prime Minister—a Prime Minister missing in action yet again.
It has been clear from the range of people across Newport West who have written to me about this issue that there is much concern in the community. It is also clear that they do not believe the Tories can be trusted to mark their own homework. My constituents are telling me that they believe all politicians are corrupt and that we all have our noses in the trough. That is what they are telling me on the doorstep and it is what they believe. I do not believe it for a moment, but there is a real danger that the poor standards of some reflect badly on all of us here in this place and that is not good. To open up the process for scrutiny, key players in this cronyism scandal, such as David Cameron, the Chancellor, the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister himself, should appear openly in front of Parliament to answer questions at the earliest opportunity. If they have nothing to hide, what is the problem?
The shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), was clear yesterday that it is important to raise, as she did, that hundreds of millions of pounds of public money was put at risk when Greensill was given access to covid loans schemes. As Greensill has collapsed, thousands of jobs in Rotherham, Hartlepool and my hometown of Newport hang in the balance. Those workers and British taxpayers deserve answers.
It is 2021. We cannot sit back and stay quiet as a Government who supposedly represent our country cut corners, send texts and ignore the Nolan principles at every stage. It is time for a change of culture in this place.
The revelations and allegations that have come to light in recent days are clearly concerning and raise a number of very serious questions. That is why I welcome the Government’s decision to initiate an independent and wide-ranging inquiry. I was deeply reassured by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) about the role that the Committee he chairs will play in these matters. It is clear that, between the two, there will be robust and comprehensive scrutiny of these events.
I believe that that lays bare the true intention behind the motion: to play politics with the issue. When the Government have already initiated a full inquiry, the Opposition want to go further and establish a Committee to duplicate the role of the very capable Committee already in place, in order to grab a few headlines. Let us not forget that in its most recent manifesto the Labour party stated that it would repeal the legislation that was put in place in 2014 to limit the role of lobbyists. That is typical of what we have come to expect from the current Labour party as it turns somersaults to create a few headlines while trashing the reputation of this place.
We should be proud that our nation’s system of government is among the most open and transparent in the world. There are strict rules in place that Ministers follow. Accountability and openness are guiding principles of the ministerial code. That does not mean that things should not be kept under review and amended as appropriate, but I object to the cynical attempts by Opposition Members to constantly trash our country, our democracy and our Parliament. They do it almost with glee—they cannot resist the opportunity to drag down the great institutions of our nation.
Our nation, this Parliament and our system of government are respected around the world. According to Transparency International’s corruption index, the UK is ranked 11th of 180 countries, on a par with countries such as Canada and Australia. We should not settle for 11th—we should aim to be No. 1—but to suggest that our system of government is corrupt to the core, as Opposition Members seek to portray it, is simply wrong and does a disservice to the people of our country. I know that it fits the world view of the far left. We were told that this Labour leadership was new and different, but time and again we see the truth: it is the same old Labour that despises our country and its institutions.
If wrongdoing has gone on in these matters, I am confident that it will be brought to light. The systems are already in place for that. We do not need another Committee. I will not support the motion today.
I agree with much of what my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) have said.
There are two facts here that may appear contradictory, but are not. This is basically an honest place and the overwhelming majority of us are deeply honest and straightforward—there are flaws in politicians, but in this country corruption is not necessarily one of them. At the same time, it is sadly true that the UK is an influence peddler’s paradise. I will explain why; it has much to do not only with the weakness around domestic lobbying laws, but with foreign lobbying.
I will not spend much time on the points raised by Opposition Members; for a “loyal Opposition”, I am not sure that they seem particularly good at being either. I know that the Prime Minister wants to do the right thing, so I will make some suggestions, partly based on a report that I wrote earlier this year with the Henry Jackson Society about looking into foreign interference in the UK and models for a UK foreign lobbying Act.
The problem is that the current lobbying rules are not fit for purpose, because there are barely any lobbying rules. In fact, it is very difficult to break the rules, because they are so limited: they are built around a very narrow definition of what it is to be a lobbyist and what a lobbyist does. Most importantly, they do not look at the lobbying done by law firms and reputation managers—the sleaze launderers and reputation launderers. If we look at some of the most corrupting elements in our system and at the relationship that BT had for 10 or 15 years with Huawei, effectively, BT, a corporate entity that had high standards—
My hon. Friend raises Huawei. Does it not demonstrate his point that there are very strict rules in this country that many companies and individuals stick to, but when it comes to foreign influence in politics, we must go much further? For the Opposition to have made no reference to that in the motion is a matter of deep regret.
I agree. I thank my hon. Friend for his point and hope to build on it. If we look at Huawei and its relationship with BT, effectively, BT became a front entity for Chinese state technology in this country. Another example is Lord Barker, a former Minister who is now in the other place—I think that is the correct expression. We found out about his extensive work for one of President Putin’s most loyal oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, by reading the US media. Why? Because we have no foreign lobbying accountability laws in our own country, in much the same way as our domestic lobbying laws are very fragile as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) was right: a lot of us rely on a clean system because we are honest people, but the problem is that it is easy to abuse a system that is still largely based on trust, and it is often difficult to understand the ways in which it is being corrupted. That is perhaps the most significant problem.
We are talking about one individual politician, David Cameron. I am sorry to hear that he has done this, because actually I quite like the guy and hope he can in some way explain himself rather better than he is doing, but we are talking about one individual politician and one or two—a small number of—civil servants. However, the systemic threat of malign covert influence is not necessarily from specific individuals who may or may not be flawed, but is from states that use covert influence to try to manipulate laws and influence public opinion in other people’s countries, and we now have a mini-industry of that in the United Kingdom.
To sum up to ensure others have the time to speak, I will send, if I may, to the Minister my report on foreign lobbying in the hope that when we produce these laws the Government will take into account some of the things the Henry Jackson Society and I have worked on, so we can try to clean up our system and these occasions become even rarer, as they should be.
This has been an interesting debate with thoughtful contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) and for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson).
Let me be clear at the outset: the Greensill affair raises serious issues that need to be scrutinised, answered and accounted for. However, what I say to the Opposition is if they want to talk about sleaze and corruption, they do not need a motion, they need a mirror. The fact is they need to go no further than the Labour-controlled Sandwell Council to find out exactly what that looks like, and what Labour in power is all about, because sleaze affects all my constituents day in, day out, such as the £300,000 spent on silencing a blogger who called out exactly the cronyism that we see the Opposition carping on about today, while we suffer from some of the highest levels of child poverty in the country.
I just say three words to the party opposite: the Wragge report. Perhaps some of them should take a read of it, because perhaps they will see then exactly what it looks like when they are in power, and the sleaze that is there. We know about the ongoing investigations and people should be in no doubt at all that some of the findings are truly shocking, including cover-ups, misuse of public funds, and reports being leaked and the use of private emails to cover-up. And those are not my words, but the words of the previous Labour leader of Sandwell Council.
So before the Opposition start carping on about sleaze, Tory sleaze or whatever else it might be, perhaps they need to look at their own ranks, and perhaps they need to come to Sandwell and see what it is like. As Julie from Tividale put it to me on the doorstep the other day, “Shaun, the only way we are going to sort this is by huffing them out.”
Returning to the points raised today, there has been a theme running through this debate: we in this place, as Members of Parliament, have the mechanisms to scrutinise issues such as this. It is as simple as that; the mechanisms are there. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) for the work he does. He has said that he is ready to serve and so is his Committee, and we know full well that he can step up in order to do that. And it is right that he does, because we are sent here to provide that scrutiny of the Executive. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) was right: Back Benchers do have that role; we are here to scrutinise and to shed light on situations such as this one.
I am conscious of time and want to keep my remarks as brief as possible without repeating too many of the comments made by other hon. and right hon. Members across this House. We have the mechanisms in the House to scrutinise and to hold such situations to account, and the inquiry is very much welcome, which is why the Opposition should perhaps first also look at their own house and why I will be voting against this motion.
I am and always have been exceedingly concerned about value for money, conflicts of interest and the correct use of public funds. I sit on the Public Accounts Committee, and over the past year we have seen the workarounds and the flexibility to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. For me, that has exposed the weaknesses in our systems in the first place. It has exposed who the winners and losers are in our system.
When there is no competition, delayed contract publication or a lack of oversight, as we have seen this year, the fragility of the rules that we have in place is clearly exposed. When there are text messages, dark corners in our democracy and what can only be described as sleaze, the need for change is clearly exposed. This saga should shame us all. We should not have a system that allows individuals to interpret their actions as fair and allowed within the rules. We need to fix those rules and change the law.
Transparency International UK estimates that in-house lobbying could be as high as 80% in the UK. Labour’s amendment to the 2014 lobbying Act would have caught out David Cameron’s Greensill lobbying. We should be united cross-party on this motion. Every one of us has a duty to uphold the offices we are elected and appointed to, and we should never be afraid to answer the questions of colleagues in Parliament on these matters. That is why I support the motion today, and that is why many will view the inquiry as sweeping the issue under the carpet and fear a cover-up.
This issue also raises questions about where decisions should be made. If they were made closer to the people that they affect, would those involved have felt they were able to act in this way? Power and money can clearly be influential to some in this place, but we should remember that we are elected to represent the people, not private interests, and that those private interests should never view public finance as an easy-access cash machine.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Before I proceed, I think I speak for the whole House when I say how nice it was to see the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), opening the debate. I am sure everybody sends her their best wishes, albeit virtually.
As my hon. Friend and so many others have said already, we all condemn the actions that are alleged to have taken place regarding Greensill and the involvement of the former Prime Minister. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth and, as so many have said far better than I could, it tarnishes us all. We need to ensure that we uphold the best possible standards in public life and that there is transparency in all interactions between companies, individuals and decision makers in Government.
However, that is not at all the aim of the motion in front of us today. The motion, if passed, would do no such thing. It is blatant, tawdry politics. It is ill-thought-through, but even worse than that is the stench of hypocrisy that remains in the air given some of the utterances from Opposition Members. I notice that the shadow Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), is opening the next debate. It was he who wrote to the Business Secretary asking him to expand Greensill’s access to Government loans. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) opened this debate, speaking about how we should go further and faster in tackling corruption in lobbying. In December—just last year—she said:
“Democracy is deeper than sporadic elections, it is about what happens in between with citizens’ voice, rights and power. That requires guarding the independence and voice of civil society and is why measures in the Lobbying Act which mutes so many, really must go.”
The Opposition want to repeal the lobbying Act. It is frankly astounding.
As I have said, we need to ensure transparency and trust in politics. We need to ensure that the way companies and individuals interact with Government and decision makers is transparent. We must maintain standards in public life. However, the motion in front of us today would do no such thing.
In 1998, I started my political career as chairman of the Uxbridge planning sub-committee in the London Borough of Hillingdon. The first requirement was to receive advice on how to deal with lobbying appropriately. An eminent member of the Labour party, Mr David Brough, at the time the council’s head of democratic services, gave the sage advice that although we cannot always manage what lobbying we will be subject to, what matters is that, in office, we act in line with the rules and in the public interest in the way we respond. Mr Brough’s advice was good then, and it is good today. The tone struck by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) was exactly right: the good governance of public affairs demands that we all pay good heed to those who want to bring matters to our attention, and that we exercise our judgment about how best to act in the light of this information.
People in office—in Government, in Parliament and in the public and private sectors—are continually lobbied on all manner of issues. Indeed, I first made the acquaintance of many current leaders of the education unions during the weekly meetings that the last Labour Government’s Ministers held with them. That access was not afforded to other key players in the education sector. So, privileged access for friends of Labour? Yes. But provided that Ministers put those union demands into context and acted in the wider public interest, that was not an abuse of process. I am happy, as a Member of this House, to extend the benefit of the doubt to those in the party opposite who lobbied for Greensill and on a huge range of other matters on behalf of other organisations, on the basis that they did so in the belief that they were genuinely acting in the public interest. The same courtesy deserves to be extended to all in public office while evidence is sought and considered.
In the spirit of the constructive suggestions set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), it might be helpful to look at the local government training as a model for us in Westminster, to provide some guidance for Members on how to deal with lobbying. In my view, however, the case has not been made by the Opposition for the motion before us today. Calling for cross-party unity on this issue has been a preamble for making unproven and unevidenced allegations against the Government, and that tells its own story. For that reason, I oppose the motion.
Five years ago, Dennis Skinner was ordered from this Chamber for calling the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, “dodgy Dave”. We already knew that David Cameron was callous: his social security and immigration policies showed that. We knew that he was incompetent: the damage that he caused to the Union showed that. And now, thanks to the Greensill scandal, we have further proof that he is indeed dodgy. There is no doubt that David Cameron behaved improperly, but we cannot let this scandal be reduced to the actions of a single disgraced politician. The Greensill scandal involves the Chancellor, the Health Secretary, two Treasury Ministers, a senior civil servant and God knows who else. It also shows just how lax the rules on lobbying are, and how this culture has infected the heart of Government. Greensill is the latest in a seemingly unending conveyor belt of cronyism scandals under this Government. In the past 16 months, we have had the Westferry development and the towns fund scandal. Government contracts have been handed to the Health Secretary’s pub landlord and to firms linked with Dominic Cummings and the Conservative party while billions have been wasted on a test and trace system run by the partner of a sitting Conservative MP. I could go on.
At the start of the pandemic, the Government promised to do everything they could. I assumed that meant everything that Ministers could do to defeat the virus, not everything they could do to make their rich mates even richer. In the Labour party, we listen to the voices of the workers and the disenfranchised. The Conservatives listen to the greed of their chums and their donors. For many of them, this pandemic was simply an opportunity. It makes me sick that the Chancellor pushed officials to help a wealthy ex-Prime Minister while ignoring the excluded. When I raised the struggles of a business in Durham, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury told me that not every single job would be protected. Did the Chancellor tell David Cameron that not every stock would be protected?
We cannot have another classic whitewash where the Government mark their own homework. It is time for a proper inquiry, not just into Greensill but into the culture of corporate lobbying that plagues politics. It is a sad fact that the public do not trust politicians, but when they see this scandal or any of the others overseen by this Government, who can blame them? We need to demonstrate a commitment to ending this lobbying culture that protects the interests of the few at the expense of many, and that starts with a proper inquiry.
I expect my protests will fall on the deaf ears of a Government who cannot hear me or the pleas of my constituents over the words of corporate lobbyists, but David Cameron’s actions have once again shown that Tory Ministers cannot be trusted, so in the absence of the Beast of Bolsover, I will still refer to our former Prime Minister as “dodgy Dave”.
I do not know how to respond to that, really. I will try to be brief, and it is much easier when we take the petty and cheap politicking out of it. What we have here is an issue, and it is right that it is addressed fully, but the best way to do that is via the light of day—through transparency and having a full and frank investigation, which has already been launched by the Prime Minister. What we do not need is a further Committee when we already have one in place. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.
What we have seen today, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) mentioned, is trial by judge, jury and executioner, with people already found guilty before an investigation has actually started, let alone concluded. I think we are now seeing the party of opposition no longer opposing, but just being the party of opportunism. Quite frankly, that is depressing. It is depressing for this place and depressing for politicians across the country, but it is also depressing for the public.
When I go out knocking on doors in the coming weeks in Radcliffe, Prestwich and Whitefield, I do not want to say that we do not trust politicians because of politicians. We do ourselves down, when actually we have done a good work over this year because of the pandemic, and we do a lot of good work because that is what we want to achieve. We want to achieve the best for our constituents and the best for our country, and we do so. However, that does not happen when politicians stop listening to the people they represent. We saw that before the last general election, and that is why we are in this position now. We are a strong Government with a large majority because we did listen to those workers and we did listen to business.
Business does need to be listened to. Business is not the enemy. Big business is not the enemy. Yes, it needs to be reined in every now and then; well, that is not a bad thing. We need to make sure that we do represent everyone, whether that is the shop floor worker in Morrisons, the care worker or, indeed, the chief executive officer of a large multinational. We are here to represent everyone, and we achieve that by working collegiately, not by calling out former Prime Ministers, former Members and former right hon. Members as being “dodgy” or guilty before we even know what they are guilty of. That does this place down.
It is a really depressing day to be having this motion. I will not support the motion, because it calls for something that is already in existence, so I support my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) in allowing his Committee to carry on the great work that it already does, and long may that continue.