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.
Over the past 13 months, correspondence and conversations with my constituents have shown how much damage the dodgy dealings of this Government have done to our public trust. The Greensill debacle is not the beginning or the end of the shameful behaviour of the Conservative party. From Dominic Cummings’s brazen breach of lockdown regulations to the Housing Secretary’s involvement with lobbying developers, it is hard to see what integrity this Government have when those awarded the highest positions of authority are allowed to get away with this. The Home Secretary was found in a report to have bullied her staff members, including swearing and shouting, but the Prime Minister determined that this was not an issue.
Now we are hearing that a former Prime Minister has been permitted exclusive access to some of our most senior Government Ministers to further his own financial gains. Journalism is uncovering this scandal, because the public really need to know what is going on behind the closed doors of Whitehall. Throughout the pandemic, again and again we have seen public money being handed out, through lucrative contracts, to the Health Secretary’s friends. We have seen the shambolic failure of the delivery of personal protective equipment after millions of pounds was misspent, not to mention billions spent on the failed test and trace service. Our poorest children have been going hungry because highly essential free school meal contracts were entrusted to a company that sought profits only. Now our Chancellor, the very person we have no choice but to trust with our country’s money, is implicated in these disgraceful underhand dealings.
We must have a parliamentary inquiry that covers the Greensill sleaze affair. The culture in the Conservative party that has allowed it to exploit its power again and again undermines its integrity in office. British taxpayers deserve a transparent investigation so that it is clear what those in high Government office have been doing with their money. After the farce of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, named contributors to which said that their words had been twisted to show a racism-free Britain, we will not accept another Government-fixed pseudo-review.
I am pleased to be called to speak in today’s Opposition day debate about the steps being taken by the Government to increase transparency while at the same time ensuring that businesses, charities and other campaign groups can raise their concerns with Ministers and that our Government can listen. The hypocrisy of the party opposite knows no bounds. Its own Front Benchers have continuously lobbied for companies such as Greensill at the same time as voting against measures to increase transparency and provide a proper legislative framework for lobbying.
Measures that the Government are taking include ensuring that lobbying takes place in a transparent and open way, voluntarily publishing more information than required under the Freedom of Information Act, ensuring that all consultant lobbyists are registered with an independent watchdog, and routinely publishing details of ministerial meetings and Government contracts. That is all being done while ensuring that Ministers are still actively listening to the businesses and charities that have been so badly affected by the pandemic.
I am glad that the Government, far from ducking difficult questions, are taking steps to further increase transparency following on from the 2014 lobbying Act and ensuring that the highest standards of openness and accountability are maintained at all times—steps that in 13 years of power, Labour refused to take. Indeed, in the last general election every Labour MP stood on a clear manifesto commitment to repeal the 2014 lobbying Act, yet the Leader of the Opposition is still taking advice from the former MP for Hartlepool, Peter Mandelson, who was twice forced to resign from the Labour Cabinet over cronyism. Thankfully, the people of Hartlepool will have the chance to elect a Conservative on 6 May and end the years of Labour taking that great town for granted. If we needed an example of Labour cronyism and its commitment to fairness and transparency, we need only look at the stitched- up candidate selection in Hartlepool.
I am glad that Nigel Boardman has been commissioned by the Prime Minister to investigate concerns about lobbying following the revelations of the last week. We are assured that Mr Boardman will have access to all the relevant documents and those people who were involved in decisions at the time.
Today’s debate is nothing more than yet another opportunist attack on the Government as Labour fall behind in the polls while this Government continue to support thousands of businesses across the country. The Opposition are seeking to score quick political points and generate soundbites while failing to address flagrant cronyism within their own ranks.
What a pleasure it is to come down from the north of Scotland rather than Zooming in, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We are clearly in a spot of bother on Greensill, but I would certainly draw a couple of rays of hope from the debate. I have always had faith in the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), and what I heard from him today confirms my belief that he is doing a good job. I was very much taken by the point made by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) about the fact that training might be very helpful.
My colleague and good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), made the point, if I picked it up correctly, that we are all in this together. That sentiment was echoed by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). My intervention on the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) was along the lines that, as others have said, such a besmirchment of democracy is not helpful. To see this happening and to hear people in the streets saying, “You’re all at it—you’re all letting us down” is not at all helpful, and it is dangerous to democracy, which, after all, this place is the mother of.
I am going to take a leaf out of the book of the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) and go local. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall return—mentally, at any rate—to the far north of Scotland. The damage and corrosion to faith in democracy needs to be taken with the local situation that we have up there. For whatever reason, unfortunately, in the vast area of the highlands, public appointments do not seem to reflect the far north. Local knowledge is essential to running services, as how things are done is quite delicate and detailed, and when people are appointed who are not from the area, that is counterproductive.
Finally, we have a Danish billionaire who buys estates in the far north of Scotland as you or I might buy household appliances, Madam Deputy Speaker—he just buys them one after the other. Other Members have heard me talk repeatedly about the great wish of the crofters in north Sutherland to take up the Government’s generous offer of our hosting one of Britain’s space launch sites. It went through planning nem con—unanimously—and all the crofters support it, yet this Danish billionaire who is not elected by anyone will do anything in his power to stop it. If we can get it right in this place on the Greensill front and restore public faith in us, there can be a knock-on effect that will only be good for wider democracy and people feeling that they are actually being heard.
This is a scandal that goes right to the heart of Government and reaches deep into our public services. It is appalling that the ex-Prime Minister, David “Dodgy” Cameron, went looking to make a fortune via Government contracts. This happened at the same time as a senior civil servant started working for Greensill Capital while still the head of Government procurement, essentially wearing both hats for three months with the rubber-stamped approval of the Cabinet Office. This is not just a historical issue. Those caught up in the Greensill scandal include both the Health Secretary and the current Chancellor. They must now come before Parliament to provide full transparency and publish key evidence.
From PPE contracts dished out to drinking buddies to the US health corporation takeover of GP surgeries, Tory cronyism stinks, and interference in our health service stinks. The Health Secretary must face parliamentary scrutiny over his involvement in the Cameron Greensill lobbying scandal, and it must be made public how much access to NHS data and billing Lex Greensill gained during his period of special treatment within Whitehall.
The Prime Minister has said that Nigel Boardman, a former senior partner at the law firm Slaughter and May, will lead an independent review into the Greensill-Cameron affair. This is the same Nigel Boardman who, while working for Slaughter and May in 2018, was one of a number of financial advisers employed by the Government who were found by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee to have squeezed money out of Carillion during the company’s dying days. Do we really think that Nigel Boardman is an appropriate or suitable person appointed by the Prime Minister to undertake the review of David Cameron’s behaviour in relation to Greensill? It is not acceptable to allow the Government to pick and choose who they get to lead an independent inquiry into this.
Besides the conflict of interests, the review does not have any legal powers, and it is not expected to come up with recommendations for tightening the system. It is another way for the Tories to sweep a scandal under the carpet in the hope that the British public forget. Whether it was the inquiry into the allegations of bullying against the Home Secretary, covid cronyism or institutional racism in the UK, Government inquiries have either been hidden or led to nowhere in recent times. I urge Conservative Members who wish to stop cronyism, which is rampant in their party and in Government, to vote for this motion, so that we can uncover the truth behind this scandal and put an end to this unaccountable, corrupt capitalist practice.
Systematic and structural corruption at the heart of Government. Despite being elected by the people, they govern for the billionaires and the corporate elite. In truth, I am not sure that any amount of transparency or personal integrity can change this culture of stench—I hope it can.
The Greensill scandal, with its implications for NHS privatisation, the former Prime Minister and current Ministers, is particularly shocking as it encapsulates the chumocracy of this Government, yet that scandal is just the tip of the iceberg of the cronyism that defines this Administration. This is a Government of the super-rich, by the super-rich and for the super-rich. Throughout the pandemic, the Government have given billions to private companies in shady deals that have led to accusations of corruption. A National Audit Office investigation of coronavirus procurement found that contracts worth many billions of pounds were given without scrutiny to private companies with little or no experience, and whose only qualification seemed to be a close personal relationship with a member of the Government.
My community of Leicester has been in lockdown or enhanced restrictions longer than any other area of the UK. For a full year, we have not been able to hug our loved ones or participate in anything resembling normal life. Given the immense suffering caused by the pandemic, it is absolutely appalling that some companies see the crisis as an opportunity to be exploited for financial gain. A select few with ties to the Government have profited immensely, while most people have suffered. Worse, the Government have facilitated an unscrutinised handover of public wealth to the pockets of wealthy shareholders. This is a Government who are frivolous when it comes to handing out public money to Tory donors or private companies, but penny-pinching when it comes to bailing out communities across the country.
The Greensill scandal cannot be swept under the rug. That is why it is so important that it is investigated by a full, transparent, Parliament-run inquiry. That is especially the case following recent revelations that the Government’s chief procurement officer started working for Greensill Capital while still employed at the Cabinet Office, with access to Government contracts worth billions. With the scandal likely much worse than it appears, the Government cannot be allowed to mark their own homework.
In recent weeks, we have seen the disastrous consequence of self-assessment with No. 10’s race and ethnic disparities report. Its conclusion that the UK is a world-leading bastion of racial progress was nothing short of state-sanctioned gaslighting. The Government’s investigation, in its current form, will kick the issue of corruption into the long grass. We cannot allow that to happen. The Government must be investigated and held accountable. If they do not want to support the Labour motion, I suggest we have a judge-led inquiry.
Every day, things get a little murkier. Every day, some new revelation appears that adds to the general whiff of sleaze that emanates from the Government. Rather than seeking to uphold higher standards, it seems that the Government want to underplay the importance of probity, sideline the principle of transparency, and behave as if the law does not apply to them. It starts with a friendly drink, then a cosy chat, and before we know it millions of pounds of public money is being siphoned off without any kind of open process being undertaken. Never has the phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” rung so true. Never has the path to riches been so open to a select few, and never has our democracy been so warped by an erosion of basic standards.
These revelations diminish us all in the eyes of the public. That should concern us all, regardless of political persuasion. I urge Conservative MPs who intend to vote against our motion to think about what message they are sending to their constituents. If their constituents are like mine, many will have faced massive financial hardship over the last year. I have written to Ministers about the issues affecting businesses and individuals in my constituency in relation to the covid response, but on far too many occasions I have received a disinterested generic reply six months later.
My constituents and I are disappointed when their concerns are treated with such disdain, but that disappointment turns to outrage when my constituents see that those who have the Chancellor’s mobile number have no such difficulty in getting an audience. The 3 million excluded, the health and social care staff scrabbling around for personal protective equipment, and the millions of people who have given their time to help in the fight against covid have all given so much. When they see that this crisis has been used as an opportunity by some with the right connections to line their own pockets, they are disgusted.
Ministers should remember that they are not only custodians of the public purse; they are responsible for the reputations of the Departments they oversee. One of the schemes that that special access led to was essentially payday loans for NHS employees. More thought should have been given to the implications of that. It is clear that Greensill wanted the credibility that comes from working with the NHS, in the hope that that would enhance its reputation, but what about the reputation of the NHS after being associated with such a scheme? If it is thought that pay is so low that salary advances are needed, perhaps the Government should think again about the real-terms pay cut that they propose for NHS staff.
If we are to have lobbying, we should lobby for the Prime Minister to buy a dictionary, because his definition of “independent” is very different from mine and that of most other people. There is now a pattern whereby anything tricky involving the Government sees them marking their own homework. We know what happens then: reports on bullying never see the light of day, and the breaking of the ministerial code is no longer seen as a reason for resignation. For this Prime Minister, no transgression is too big to ignore, so I say to him, show some leadership, allow independent scrutiny and clean up this rotten mess.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and his dictionary reference, because I am going to start with the “Cambridge Dictionary” definition of cronyism, which is
“the situation in which someone important gives jobs to friends rather than to independent people who have the necessary skills and experience”.
Cronyism: the modus operandi of the Conservative party—backdoor dealings, special favours and bending Whitehall to its will. The Conservatives make it more profitable to have the Chancellor or the Secretary of State for Health on WhatsApp than to have a robust, evidence-based case for economic support or a Government contract.
Over the past year, we have only scratched the surface of the Tories’ chumocracy. First, the report on bullying at the Home Office, then Westferry, where the Government rushed through a housing development to help a Tory donor to avoid a £45 million levy. Then there was the appointment of a Tory peer as head of Test and Trace, without real process. Now we have the shady, unregulated firm Greensill Capital exploiting informal channels by employing Government officials and previous Tory Prime Ministers to access taxpayers’ money.
The Government, again, put hundreds of millions of pounds of public money at risk by giving Greensill access to the covid loan scheme—and now thousands of jobs hang in the balance. No one should be able to dodge tax. The company that can deliver the best job should get the Government contract, and companies most deserving of Government support should receive it through the proper channels, but in Tory Britain, that does not seem to be the case, as we see the revolving door between the Government and paid lobbyists.
Many of us were shocked to discover that Bill Crothers was permitted to advise Greensill while in a pivotal Cabinet Office role, but also of interest is the fact that in December 2016, Bill Crothers became a subcontractor to lobbying company Francis Maude Associates—Francis Maude was, of course, a Conservative Cabinet Office Minister from 2010 to 2015. Who was joint founder of Francis Maude Associates? Simone Finn, the former Cabinet Office special adviser to Francis Maude, who is also the current Prime Minister’s deputy chief of staff.
Given that one of the revolving doors in the murky world of Tory lobbying leads directly to 10 Downing Street, will the Government ensure that Baroness Finn fully co-operates with any investigation, sharing all relevant communications? Will they ensure that the role of organisations such as Francis Maude Associates is examined in the inquiry? This Tory Government have ridden roughshod over each of the Nolan principles—the seven guiding principles for public service introduced to combat Tory sleaze in the ’90s. We need a full, transparent, Parliament-run, cross-party inquiry into the Greensill lobbying scandal.
This afternoon, we have heard a story of endemic cronyism—cronyism that has persisted for years and spread right across this Conservative Government and previous Conservative-led Governments. Parallels with the Conservative Governments of the 1990s are clear for all to see: jobs for the boys, all over again. Conservative sleaze is back. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) said, there is a difference this time—a difference in scale. This time, we are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds of public money put at risk, and thousands of jobs.
What is staggering is the complacent and cavalier attitude of those involved, as so many have said today, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby). A former Conservative Prime Minister thought there was nothing wrong with texting the sitting Chancellor and two of his junior Ministers to ask for special treatment for the financial services firm that was paying his wages. A Chancellor thought there was nothing wrong with pushing his team to see whether they could amend a Government loan scheme to give Greensill access to hundreds of millions of pounds of public money. A Treasury and a Business Department thought there was nothing wrong with Greensill being accredited as a lender under one of the Government-backed schemes, even when it had been rejected by another, and this mere months before the firm collapsed altogether. All this took place when the vast majority of public servants, civil servants and, of course, key workers were working with integrity around the clock on the covid effort.
We know that before that, David Cameron thought there was nothing wrong with setting up Lex Greensill in the heart of Government, with a desk, business cards and his own No. 10 email address, and nothing wrong with giving him access to contracts worth billions of pounds. Indeed, a contract was lined up for Greensill to provide supply chain financing across the public sector, and it was pulled only a few days ago, when this scandal started to break.
Similarly, the Health Secretary thought there was nothing wrong with meeting the former Prime Minister for a drink with Lex Greensill to discuss how their firm could get access to NHS staff pay, packaging up loans as bonds to be sold to investors and trading on the good name of our NHS.
The Government’s former head of procurement thought there was nothing wrong with becoming an adviser to Greensill Capital while he was still a civil servant. I have never before heard of someone using the revolving door before they have even left the building. Ministers cannot wash their hands of that behaviour and say, “It was the civil service; it is nothing to do with us.” As my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) and for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) made clear, successive Conservative-led Governments have set the tone and the culture that allowed the behaviour we have heard about today—an approach to public office whereby the accountability and transparency that we should all expect have been replaced by a tap on the shoulder here, a nudge and a wink there.
We need a thorough and genuinely independent investigation to get to the bottom of this, one that can take evidence, call witnesses and report publicly. Instead, as we have heard, the Conservatives propose an inquiry run by the son of a former Conservative Cabinet Minister who works for the law firm that advised the Treasury on the design of the loan scheme that David Cameron lobbied for Greensill to access.
As we know, the Chancellor continues to run scared. He has not been seen in the House since the day after Greensill collapsed. Yesterday, we called for him to come to Parliament, but the Chancellor was frit. He seems to have forgotten his enthusiastic communications about his loan schemes. Indeed, at one point he tweeted proudly about CLBILS—the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme—with the hashtag #AskRishi. We would love to ask Rishi, but we would have to find him first.
In offering excuses for his absence, the Chancellor claims that neither he nor his Department had any oversight—any role whatever—in deciding who got access to the public lending schemes he announced. He must be the first Chancellor in history to go on the record as having no idea about who was getting access to hundreds of millions of pounds of public money and how they were obtaining it. He promised to level with the public, but I did not think that meant the Chancellor telling the public he did not have a clue what was happening with their money.
As the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution said earlier—it was very good to see her via video link—the use of public money is overseen by the Treasury.
Public money is not the Chancellor’s money, and it is not the Conservatives’ money: it is public money, and it should only ever be used in the public interest. It is simply not good enough for this Government to mark their own homework and hide from scrutiny, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) has just said.
On the point about scrutiny, and following the speech made by the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), who is indeed a member of the Committee that will be scrutinising all of these matters—of which it is my privilege to be Chair—I wonder if the hon. Lady could seek not to correct the record, but to explain? If she is seeking independence of scrutiny, the motion before us and on which we will vote is deficient, because in paragraph (3) it asks that the members of that Committee be nominated by the Committee of Selection, which is entirely in the control of the party Whips.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) very ably answered that point earlier: she made very clear the basis upon which our demands are being made. I will be very open with the hon. Gentleman—for whom I have considerable respect—that as so many Members have said this afternoon, it is important for all of us that we clear this matter up and are able to call witnesses, including former Prime Ministers where necessary; that we can do so publicly; and that we can do so about the range of matters that this affair raises. I regret to say that the investigation that has been created by Government simply does not do that. That is why we are calling for the approach set out in today’s motion.
No, I will proceed with my remarks. The people of this country deserve answers, and they deserve to be treated fairly. That is a point that many of my hon. Friends have made very ably: the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders).
Last year, I was contacted by someone I will call Jessica; I am sure that Members on the Government Benches will have been contacted by many people like her. Before this crisis, Jessica had a modest income, but it was a reliable income. She worked as a self-employed tour guide and in short-term, part-time roles. When the crisis hit, she lost all her income, but she did not quality for any of the Government’s support schemes, and as an owner-occupier, she was knocked out of most support from social security as well. She was angry, upset, and worried about how she as a single parent could support her family. Obviously, as we all know as constituency MPs, Jessica was not alone. The campaign group ExcludedUK suggests that there were up to 3 million people like Jessica: people who simply could not understand why the Government refused to fix support schemes so that they could get help. People like Jessica did not have the Chancellor’s phone number. Last year, Greensill got 10 meetings with Treasury officials; the group representing the excluded got one meeting.
Most of the excluded are still waiting for help, and our country is still waiting for a strategy to support those jobs put at risk by the collapse of Greensill. Indeed, our country has lacked a strategy for steel for 10 years. Last week, I visited the Liberty Steel plant in Hartlepool. I was incredibly impressed by the world-class technology and operation there; by the dedication of the workforce; and, in particular, by the enthusiasm and commitment of the two apprentices I met. Their work is good, decent work, manufacturing materials that British businesses need. It is a world away from the kind of complicated financial structures and share options that seem to have been par for the course for Lex Greensill and David Cameron, but jobs are at risk because of Greensill’s collapse and because of that lack of any strategy for the future of UK steel, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) made clear.
To conclude, those steelworkers deserve better, and so do the British public. Government Members know that; they know that their constituents are appalled by new evidence of cronyism and the sleaze that seems to be emerging every day under the Conservatives. As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) said, Members should question why they are being asked to defend these events. They should consider the impact that this will have on their integrity. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) spoke of loyalty. Loyalty must be to the public interest, not to partisan friends, a point ably made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake). Government Members should, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) said, show some backbone. They should vote today for a full, transparent, Parliament-led inquiry to get to the bottom of this scandal once and for all.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this afternoon’s debate for their very valuable contributions and for speaking with such passion on issues that affect us all in public life. The care with which we spend taxpayers’ money matters very deeply to public confidence in Government. The respect that we demonstrate for rules and regulations is rightly a benchmark for trust. The systems and structures of governance in this country must at all times serve, and be seen to serve, those whom we are elected to represent, and not be exploited for narrow, private interest. It is right that we in Parliament probe and scrutinise any concerns raised on such matters and, to be candid, it is in the Government’s interest, as much as anyone else’s, to be able to provide robust assurances. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) said, if there is an issue, let us uncover it. It is for that reason that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution set out the existing framework for safeguarding and assuring the public interest. It should be restated that that existing framework, much of which has been brought in since 2010, has largely been very effective.
On the questions raised by the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) this afternoon about the interactions between Greensill and the Treasury, as the Chancellor set out in a letter to the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), the matter was referred by him to the relevant Treasury officials, and following proper scrutiny, Greensill’s requests were turned down. It was through transparency returns and declaration processes that meetings between Greensill and officials were highlighted. In other words, the system in that instance worked as it should, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that this existing framework has not been tested by the extreme circumstances of the pandemic and that the broader issues raised in recent days about Greensill have not posed questions that we are as keen as anyone to probe. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) highlighted that the scrutiny work has long ago begun.
Out of necessity and urgency, the Government have, over these past 12 months, interacted with thousands of individuals and organisations offering help. All claim to have had something to offer. Some do and some do not. Some have been referred by Conservative Members; others have been referred by Labour MPs, peers or those from other parties. Some are genuinely public-spirited; others only purport to be. Ministers and officials have had to take decisions that, at times, prioritise swift and decisive action over fulfilling the usual standards on timely and transparent contract publication, but we have been working extremely hard to rectify that latter shortcoming, about which I will say a bit more in a moment.
I also wish to assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we have not been waiting around for the Opposition to table a motion on these important issues before making improvements to our existing propriety and transparency regime. We are currently conducting post-legislative scrutiny of part 1 of the lobbying Act, consulting a variety of stakeholders to get their views on the scope and effectiveness of the legislation. I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and his practical proposals.
Does my hon. Friend understand that many of us want the Government to do the right thing, and are grateful to them for doing the right thing, but understand that the lobbying Act, both for domestic and foreign lobbying, needs to be much broader? We need to take in the law firms involved, the reputation managers and the PR companies. It is not just about a narrow definition of lobbying, but all this lobbying industry that we seem to have built up in this country.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is important to understand that we are putting forward a package of things. Some of the changes that need to be made are not necessarily through the lobbying Act, and we are looking at some of the issues of foreign intervention that he has rightly highlighted today.
We are already working with the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, my noble Friend Lord Pickles, to improve the business appointments regime, which applies lobbying bans to former Ministers and civil servants. The committee has been actively seeking to increase the efficacy of the system by introducing a framework for the risk-based consideration of cases, greater transparency and better reporting of breaches of the rules. Members should note that some of the issues discussed in relation to Bill Crothers stem from the transparent publication of our correspondence with ACOBA on gov.uk.
On procurement—to reassure the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake)—we have published an ambitious Green Paper with legislation to be included in the Queen’s Speech, setting out how we will provide commercial teams with much greater choice in an emergency. It needs to be understood that, at the moment, the options are a direct award, which exposes us to the kinds of claims of cronyism that have been peddled today, or full fact procurement, which takes far too long to turn around in an urgent situation. In relation to this, last autumn, we commissioned an independent expert review into Cabinet Office procurement processes led by Nigel Boardman, probing particular contracts that were raised in the NAO’s report on this subject. The subsequent Boardman report was forensic in its analysis and very hard-hitting in its recommendations, and the Cabinet Office committed to taking forward all of them in full. Meanwhile, I set out with candour in a Westminster Hall debate the challenges that the Government had to navigate at the height of the pandemic and what went well and what, undoubtedly, could have been done better during the period in question. I recommend that debate to those hon. Members who have today raised concerns about the so-called VIP lane. It might make for a more compelling Labour press release to suggest that the story of procurement during the emergency has been one of Tory corruption, but I believe that it is vital that we understand what really happened so that we do not overlook what needs to change.
Far from being a secret referrals lane, officials dealing with the thousands of PPE leads coming in set up a separate mailbox to triage them. It allowed more credible leads to be sifted and it helped manage the correspondence that was coming in from Parliamentarians of all colours who themselves were being contacted by companies and individuals offering help. The Opposition like to suggest that those going through this mailbox were 10 times more likely to secure a contract. The most important thing to note, however, as the NAO does in its report, is that all PPE offers, no matter from where they came, went through the same eight-stage assurance checks. It should also be said that of the more than 400 offers handled by the high-priority inbox, only 47 were awarded contracts, which means that 90% were not.
In relation to the activities of Greensill, Mr Boardman has been commissioned by the Prime Minister once again to apply his scrupulous and dispassionate eye to the role of Greensill Capital. I am very glad to say that the letter from Lord Pickles regarding Bill Crothers will now also be considered. It is right that I do not seek to prejudge his findings. However, I want to address two assertions that have been made: that it will be too narrow in scope and therefore requires a broader Committee-led inquiry; and that Mr Boardman himself is a Government yes man. To those criticisms, I first say that it would be wrong to view this investigation in isolation. It is one work strand of several, which we hope, when pulled together, will make for a much more robust framework. Secondly, I have seen how effective Mr Boardman’s previous Cabinet Office review has been in spurring improvements and I have no doubt that any recommendations from his work on Greensill will not only be unsparing but lead to meaningful change should it be necessary.
It is worth reminding the House that, as soon as any of us are elected to this place, we become all too familiar with the trickiness of handling tactfully uninvited requests of a varying nature from associates, constituents and others. What matters is not necessarily that those requests have been made, but that we reach a decision on them, which is compatible with the principles of public life to which we all must adhere.
There have been claims today that current lobbying laws do not go far enough and should be extended, but I would guard against overly simplistic solutions that risk going too far in clamping down on avenues for interaction between Government and wider society. That point was made very powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) and others. This is particularly true when we reflect on the current emergency during which some of the most important contributions have come from those working outside Government. Indeed, one of my worries from this past year is that publicly spirited people who want to serve their country in an emergency will look at how the integrity of someone such as Kate Bingham was questioned and think twice before coming forward. What is important always, as I have said before, is that decision makers are able to test and interrogate the credibility of external inputs mindful of their own obligations.
Finally, in relation to the ministerial code, I hope that it will be of reassurance to Members that the appointment to the post of independent adviser on ministerial interests will be announced shortly.
Let me finish by returning to the Opposition motion, which will no doubt shortly be manipulated into a social media campaign that implies that Government Members are pro-cronyism and anti-transparency in imposing their convoluted solution to the issues raised today. There is no point in pushing for the creation of yet another body with a remit to scrutinise the rules on lobbying and, additionally, to look into the Greensill affair when we already have a number of—may I say?—very unforgiving Select Committees, the Boardman review and a whole series of efforts under way to improve our existing framework.
The Government are alive to the sincerely held concerns of part of the public, charities, non-governmental organisations and others about lobbying activities. They are looking precisely at the scope and effectiveness of existing legislation.
In the same vein, it is clearly wasteful for the vital scrutiny that is customarily carried out by PACAC and others to be undertaken by a second Committee. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) has already in this debate applied his sharp and ruthlessly inquiring mind to some of the most vital questions; I thought his contribution was superb. Lord Pickles will appear before my hon. Friend’s Committee tomorrow.
We should focus, as the Government are doing, on strengthening our existing framework to satisfy ourselves and others that the mechanisms in place are sufficiently robust with respect to the conduct of public servants and the stewardship of public resources, and that we uncompromisingly make those decisions in the national interest. Although the Government do not support the motion, today’s contributions have shown the strength of feeling across the House and I thank hon. Members for them.
Beyond the political froth, I do not think that we are in different places on this. We all believe in and want the same thing: transparent government and behaviour in accordance with the seven principles of public life. The Government will continue to engage with parliamentarians of all colours as we set about raising our standards, but we do not need another Committee to do that. That would risk undermining the process and reviews that are already in place and that we should allow to conclude, so I urge the House to reject the motion.
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.