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Ministerial Code/Register of Ministers’ Interests

Volume 695: debated on Tuesday 18 May 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on enforcement of the ministerial code and the publication of the register of Ministers’ interests.

May I start by congratulating the right hon. Lady on her multiple new roles? I apologise for the fact that she has to put up with me for her debut. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is unable to be here, but I know that he is looking forward to working with her.

On 28 April, the Prime Minister appointed the right hon. Lord Geidt, former private secretary to Her Majesty the Queen, to the position of independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. In taking up the appointment, he agreed revised terms of reference for the role, which strengthen its independence. One of his core tasks is to oversee the preparation of the list of Ministers’ interests. In giving evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last Thursday, he confirmed that it was his intention to publish the updated list on Ministers’ interests by the end of this month.

The ministerial code is clear: there must be no misuse of taxpayers’ money, nor actual or perceived conflicts of interest, but time and again Ministers act like the rules are for other people—none more so than the Prime Minister himself. Last year, he declared £15,000 from a Tory donor for his sleazy jet trip to a private island. This weekend, we read that the real cost was double that, and paid by someone else entirely.

People might ask, “Why is this important?” It is important because it goes to the very heart of our democracy. Who do our Government answer to: the public, or private interests? We learned only from the media that the Prime Minister has blocked the publication of the independent commissioner’s report. Can the Minister tell us why the delay? Does she accept that the rules apply to everyone, even the Prime Minister, and will he accept—

Order. This case is with Standards, and really we ought to keep away from it until Standards has been able to deal with it.

Okay. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The list of Ministers’ interests is also mysteriously delayed, I assume while the Prime Minister tries to remember who paid for his flat, but does the Minister accept that if the Prime Minister can block the independent adviser from investigating he cannot in practice be fully independent, because the code clearly is not preventing actual or perceived conflicts of interests?

When the Home Secretary lobbies on behalf of a former adviser flogging substandard face masks, who lands a £100 million contract without tender and at double the going rate, who cannot perceive that as a conflict of interest? It is something that we know not from the Home Secretary declaring it, but because it was revealed in an admin error. Then there is the Health Secretary, who appears to have ordered an official to recommend a bid that he had not even read from a former Tory MP, who pocketed another £200 million of taxpayers’ cash. Surely the independent adviser must investigate those cases with no prime ministerial veto.

Finally, there is the Prime Minister’s own top adviser, Lord Lister. He concealed being paid by a luxury developer owned by yet another Tory donor, which was granted a record-breaking taxpayer-backed loan by the very public body that Lister chaired—money that was meant for affordable homes, but given out at mates’ rates for luxury flats and private profit. Will the Government release the loan agreement, along with the correspondence on that decision, and hand it to the independent investigator, and when will they publish their report on officials’ second jobs? When Ministers and advisers use the public purse as a personal cashpoint, the public have a right to know.

Order. Before we start, the supplementary was meant to be two minutes. I did interrupt, so I allowed some leeway. I will therefore also allow some leeway for the reply. When we mention Members of the other place, it is meant to be on a substantive motion. I know that seems strange, but these are the rules of the House, which I do not make; the House has made them and adopted them. We must stick to the rules. We do not criticise individual Members of the other House except on a substantive motion.

The right hon. Lady raises issues about the ministerial code, the arbiter of which is the Prime Minister; the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is a matter for that Committee; and the role of the independent adviser. She also touches on various reviews that are taking place and matters for the House authorities. As you pointed out, Mr Speaker, these are not things it would be appropriate for me to pontificate on, but I will try to answer the general thrust of the accusations the right hon. Lady makes today, and I shall speak frankly, because I know she appreciates that.

The charge the right hon. Lady makes is that the people she names are somehow on the take. That is the charge she is making here today on the Floor of the House: that they have not been focused over the past 16 months on working their socks off to save lives, to get a vaccination programme up and running and to do the things that the public need us to do, but that they have, unbelievably, entered into politics, made sacrifices and overcome the obstacles that she will be aware of to get into this place not to serve in public life but to do a mate—more accurately, a Tory mate—or someone they vaguely know, or met in a lift once, or perhaps do not know at all, a favour. That is the accusation that she is making today. I am afraid that that is why the Labour line of attack is not getting traction, well rehearsed though it is. It is not getting traction with the public because it is not plausible. It is based not on fact but on speculation, innuendo and smear.

Perceived conflicts of interest are not those that the right hon. Lady has made up. The public care about scrutiny—they do. They care about accountability, transparency and standards in public life. What they see through though is the performance she has given today, which is designed to smear decent colleagues and denigrate British business. I would direct the right hon. Lady to the National Audit Office report, which refutes the accusations she has made about MPs, civil servants, business and members of the public—but I am sure she already knows that. I would suggest to her that an Essex MP is perfectly entitled to forward an offer from the Essex chamber of commerce to help in a pandemic. MPs do it all the time—it is part of our job—but the right hon. Lady already knows this, too, and so does everyone else. The urgent question today has more to do with Labour’s internal politics and divisions than the conduct of Members of this House and enterprises that have been working to help the NHS and to save lives.

The right hon. Lady has made particular accusations today about colleagues, and I want to make a final point, Mr Speaker. If you were to take every single MP she has made an allegation about this afternoon, if you were to look at all the political donations they have received since the pandemic started, since January 2020, and if you were to add them all up and then double them—no, quadruple them—you would just about match what the right hon. Lady herself has received in the same time period. She should thank her lucky stars that we do not play the same games that she does.

The right hon. Lady is in a new position shadowing the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who now looks after some of the most pressing issues facing this nation: the Union of the United Kingdom, devolution, the recovery from this crisis, national security, community resilience and the British brand around the world. That is what we are focused on. I hope that, after her debut today, she will be too, and I wish her well.

The role of the independent adviser is an important one, and I personally was impressed by Lord Geidt’s evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last week. Ostensibly, the delay in the publication of the Register of Ministers’ Interests was due to the vacancy in that important position that arose after the resignation of Sir Alex Allan. What does my right hon. Friend suggest be done should such a vacancy arise again, so that the register is not delayed in the future?

My hon. Friend makes some very good points. He knows, because I have appeared before his Committee regarding this and other matters, that there have been delays to certain things, in part because of what the Government have had to deal with over the past 16 months, but those appointments are in train now. As he also knows from the evidence his Committee took, the register is due to be published very soon. I am sure that things will be on a much more stable footing as, hopefully, we come out of the pandemic.

Annex B of the ministerial code says it is

“important that when a former Minister takes up a particular appointment or employment, there should be no cause for any suspicion of impropriety.”

Given that David Cameron worked as an adviser for Greensill Capital and is reported to have share options worth tens of millions of pounds, do the 57 messages to senior officials that we are aware of regarding Greensill Capital give any cause for suspicion of impropriety? Will that be investigated by the independent adviser? One of those messages to a senior civil servant said the decision

“seems bonkers. Am now calling CX,”—

the Chancellor of the Exchequer—

“Gove, everyone.”

Is that acceptable? Does that give cause for concern about impropriety and will that be investigated? When the Minister is on her feet, can she tell us what action, when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster got the call, did he take on behalf of his old boss?

As I said in my opening response to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), these issues are being looked at—there are reviews in train—and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on those until they have reported. However, I think all Members of this House will want things looked at. They will want to ensure that we get to the bottom of these issues, and I hope, too, that we will look at the wider issues around the Gupta Family Group and the role of the SNP in those matters.

I welcome the appointment of Lord Geidt and also the modest increase in the terms of reference to increase his independence. Do my right hon. Friends accept that it is possible still for us to go a little further to increase the degree of independence of Lord Geidt and his successors, and that it is not too late to add the extra levels of independence that have been suggested by Lord Evans and, among others, me to make sure that the role has extra credibility, without necessarily giving way to some of the extraordinary allegations that seem to prejudge some of the important work being done by independent or cross-party reviews already under way in this important area?

May I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for the work he has done on these and related matters? It is very helpful when colleagues make positive suggestions. My understanding is that a response has been sent to Lord Evans, but we are keeping all things under review. We clearly want to ensure that we arrive at a situation where we can have the greatest possible transparency and ensure that we retain the trust of the public.

Accepting everything that the Minister says about the probity of her colleagues, does she not think that it would be in their interests for their names and their reputations to be cleared by a system that is wholly independent of the Prime Minister? Complaints against Ministers could be investigated, those investigations would be instigated by someone independent of Government, and thereafter their conclusions would be published. Surely that would be good for her colleagues.

I think I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is in those colleagues’ interests that there is credibility and weight to any investigations. The difficulty is that we have this peculiar and unique relationship between Ministers and the Prime Minister—they are not employees; they are in a particular category—and therefore we have a situation where the Prime Minister is the arbiter and is responsible for the ministerial code. What we are doing in all of these processes is trying to arrive at the condition that the right hon. Gentleman describes, but still stay within the boundaries of what is legal and what is correct.

Thanks to the efforts of this Government at the beginning of the pandemic, at no point did Blackpool Victoria Hospital or other local organisations such as Blackpool Council run out of PPE, despite the obvious global shortages. The public would rightly expect Ministers to do everything within their power to source PPE to keep people safe, so does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the actions taken by this Government were both proportionate and necessary, given the circumstances?

I do, and as well as thanking Members of this House who forwarded information to try to help address the PPE shortages, I should put on record our thanks for the incredible work of the procurement teams in the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care. One criticism the National Audit Office did make was that paperwork was not done on time, but I always remember one of the people who had done an incredible job during that period saying, “I would rather be criticised for late paperwork than a nurse not having gloves.” That is what enabled us to get equipment to the frontline during an incredibly difficult time for supply chains all around the world.

I am not going to comment on any of the individual issues, as that would be wholly inappropriate; I want to ask the Minister why such a long time has passed since the last register of ministerial interests was published. It is not even now an accurate list of Ministers, because so many Ministers have changed. Would it not make far more sense and be more in the interests of the public if the register were published every month, and if all the details that related to an individual Member of this House were also published in our register, so that a member of the public could simply see everything that is relevant to that individual Member?

We have seen all sorts of innovations over the last year given what technology now enables, and the hon. Gentleman makes a very sensible suggestion. It is for Lord Geidt to take these matters forward, and I am sure he will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said today.

Given that the NAO has found “no evidence” that Ministers were involved in any decisions around emergency PPE procurement, does my right hon. Friend agree that throwing unsubstantiated mud like this for party political advantage damages not just the Government but our political processes and is deeply irresponsible?

I agree with my hon. Friend—and it also damages business. Without the efforts of the private sector, whether it be pharma companies or production lines changing to produce what the country needs, we would have been in a really sorry state. Let us be frank, part of this agenda is to discredit the private sector.

If the Prime Minister does not respect the ministerial code how can he be expected to judge the behaviour of other Ministers who may have breached it?

MPs make mistakes from time to time and when that is drawn to their attention they apologise and we are severely admonished for them, but it is extraordinary that the new register of ministerial interests has not been published yet, and when Ministers start to double down and reports are not published, people start to wonder what the Government have to hide. Is the Minister saying to us today that no one has breached the ministerial code of conduct and that this is all just a misunderstanding that will be sorted out when various reports are published?

The hon. Gentleman’s question again betrays what is actually taking place this afternoon. I do not know; I do not have a crystal ball to see into the future. I am in the same position as everyone else, but what I do know is that to make unsubstantiated allegations about people is quite wrong.

Members right across the House received offers of support from businesses right around the country to make a huge contribution during a time of national crisis. Is it not the case that every Member has a responsibility to forward these offers of help and that all these offers were then judged on the same basis independently by the civil service, and to undermine this national effort is actually pretty damaging for the entire country?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. If there is one message I want to get across this afternoon, it is that if we are ever again in the situation that we found ourselves in last year, I would urge British business to step up as it did before. The public do not think the things that the Opposition say. They know that businesses in their communities did an incredible job, and we will stand up for them and thank them for their achievements last year to keep this nation safe.

I do not think anyone is criticising business, but it is quite clear that we need an inquiry into lobbying, procurement, and ministerial and civil service conflicts during the covid crisis. However, experience shows that such inquiries are not effective if requests for information are ignored, so does the Minister agree that what we really need is a judge-led inquiry with the power to order production of evidence and to take evidence on oath, and with the threat of appropriate sanctions for non-compliance and for perjury or equivocation?

In preparing for this urgent question, I had in my pack a list of the inquiries that are going on into one aspect or another, and it ran to something like one and a half pages. My personal view is that I do not think we need any more reviews. We have the Committee on Standards, we have the House authorities, we have the Boardman review; we have all these pieces of work looking at all the issues that hon. Members have raised this afternoon. What I would like to do is focus on the matters of substance that are facing this country and ensure that we take the trust of the public with us in that respect. I would also say to the hon. and learned Lady that I am afraid that part of the agenda is to question business. That is what is going on this afternoon.

The National Audit Office found no evidence that Ministers were involved in any decisions around emergency PPE procurement—or in the procurement of ear pods at £250. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Labour party had spent more time helping us fight the virus rather than banging on about wallpaper and the procurement of PPE, it could have gained back some trust from the British public?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is perfectly legitimate for any Member of this House to raise issues around how we hold people to account and how we scrutinise things, but he has characterised how this is being presented, and he will know from his constituents that the public take a dim view of it.

Paragraph 1.3.c of the ministerial code states:

“Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”.

Does that rule still apply, and does it also apply to the Prime Minister?

Of course it still stands; it is the ministerial code. I am sorry to say that this is another question that does not make any substantial allegations or provide any facts or evidence; it is smear and innuendo, and it is not the way to behave.

The National Audit Office found no issues with the PPE contracts. The Labour-led Public Accounts Committee, on which I sit, commended the Government’s vaccine programme as world-leading. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this attempt from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) has more to do with her bid for votes from the Labour membership than with any concern about public procurement?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne will reflect on what she has done this afternoon, and if she does have ambitions in the leadership department, I would ask her to reflect on whether what she has done today is the hallmark of a leader.

The ministerial code states that the register of interests must be published twice a year. The latest one is five months late, so it has been 10 or 11 months since the last one was published. At the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last week, Lord Geidt told us that he was determined that a full list of Ministers’ interests would be published

“as quickly as possible…by the end of this month.”

Can the Minister confirm that all Cabinet Ministers have resubmitted their interests and give a more precise date for when the new list will be published, given that the end of the month is during parliamentary recess?

I am sure that the right hon. Lord Geidt will publish the register before the end of this month. That is what he has said; I am sure that he will wish to do it in a way that is helpful to the House and that he will have heard what the hon. Lady has said. I do not know which Cabinet Minister has filled out which form; all I can tell the hon. Lady is that as a Minister of the Crown, I have certainly filled out mine, and I am sure that my colleagues have done so as well.

I thank my right hon. Friend and her colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care for their efforts to ensure that the Cumbria local resilience forum and our North Cumbria health trust were kept stocked with PPE at the height of the pandemic, enabling them to keep my constituents in Workington safe. I remember the pressure that Ministers were under at the time and will forever be grateful for the often late-night correspondence dealing with potential issues. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right that Government Ministers did everything that they could to get their skates on, as they were urged to by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), and pass on all offers from businesses to help to secure vital PPE at a time of national crisis?

I thank my hon. Friend for putting on record the tremendous job that was done in his local patch. He is saying that credit is due to Ministers, but actually credit is due to colleagues across the House. For many months, I took a call every morning at 10 am, sometimes from hundreds of colleagues across the House. People from every single political party put forward offers of help for PPE and all sorts of things that the health service needed. That is part of our job, and people made a huge difference to the effort by doing it.

I wrote on 25 March to the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, about the No. 10 refurbishment. I asked 24 questions on potential breaches of the ministerial code. Two months on, I have still not received an answer. Is this an admin error or do the Government have something to hide? People in Luton North and across the country deserve answers, especially when they are struggling to keep a roof over their head, never mind defending a luxury refurb. Will the Paymaster General please ask her colleague the Cabinet Secretary to respond to those questions?

I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary will respond to the hon. Lady. He takes his responsibilities very seriously. The problem is that the matter is now the subject of a review—it is a subject for someone else to look at. I think, in all honesty, that there is nothing I or the Prime Minister could say at the Dispatch Box that will satisfy people until someone independent says it. I have to say, again, that this is a sideshow. I very much encourage the hon. Lady to return to the matters of substance, which I am sure are the issues that her constituents care about.

I will just say for the record that I expect MPs’ letters to be answered. MPs on all sides have a job to do, and they can only be helped by early answers to their correspondence.

Over the past few weeks, I knocked on hundreds and hundreds of doors in my constituency during the local elections, and not a single constituent mentioned the wallpaper of the Prime Minister or his holidays. What they were concerned about was welcoming the implementation of Brexit, how the Government were handling covid and the success of the vaccination programme. Does the Paymaster General agree that unless the Labour party gets its act together and starts listening to the people and their concerns, it will remain the Opposition party?

I agree; I had a similar experience on the doorstep during the recent campaign. That is not to say that the public do not care about standards in public life and accountability. They do care about those things; they just recognise this for what it is, which is a load of flannel.

The first part of this urgent question is about enforcement of the ministerial code. I have heard a great deal about reviews and recommendations, codified guidelines and inquiries—maybe too many inquiries or the wrong inquiries. I am not besmirching anybody here and I am not alleging anything, but if somebody in the Cabinet Office has broken the ministerial code, what is there to enforce their taking the right action and resigning from their position?

Ultimately, that is one of the responsibilities of the Prime Minister. It is because of the unique status of a Minister—that they are not an employee—that that exists. That is the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.

My constituents care about scrutiny, transparency and standards in public life. Will the Minister reassure the people of Anglesey that all offers to supply PPE were assessed by independent civil servants using a rigorous eight-stage process to ensure that any contracts awarded delivered not only high-quality supplies, but value for taxpayers’ money?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There is, I think, a perception that if a business flagged their offer to a Member of Parliament or a Minister they somehow bypassed the system. They did not. They still went through those eight rigorous checks and the National Audit Office has confirmed that.

I have a high regard for the Minister, but I am afraid I struggle with her explanation on this issue. On 22 February, inadvertently or not, the Prime Minister made a misleading statement to the House regarding PPE contracts. He stated that they were all published. They were not. That is based on a High Court ruling and is irrefutable. His lack of apology and correction of the record is clearly a breach of the ministerial code. That this happens with seeming impunity—

Order. A criticism is only on the substantive motion. This cannot be used. It has already been tried earlier. The rules of the House must be obeyed. I know it is not what Members want to hear, but I am in charge of ensuring that the rules are kept to. Unfortunately, we cannot continue with that question.

We all know that Government procurement is a long, clunky and expensive process. It was therefore of clear national importance for the Government to fast-track some procurement decisions, particularly in relation to PPE, to protect people and keep people safe. Does the Minister agree that the recent elections in Teesside, where we gained a new Member of Parliament and a landslide for the Tees Valley Mayor, show that the public support our decisive decision making over the Labour party’s political point scoring?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The British public want us to focus on the issues that matter to them. They want us to recover quickly, both economically and in dealing with the backlog of issues we have in education and healthcare. They want us to get on and deliver. What they do not want is this Punch and Judy politics. They are tired of that. They want some delivery. They want some competence. That is why they are electing Conservatives across the country.

The Government face a slew of allegations over contracts for mates, lobbying, conflicts of interest and influence. Does the Minister think now is the time to exempt a new Government agency, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, with £800 million of public money from existing procurement and freedom of information rules? When faced with sleaze, surely the response is to stop the sleaze, not the scrutiny?

Sadly, again more smear. It seems that anyone who was awarded a contract for PPE or anything else is a Tory mate, even when they turn out to be a Labour party donor.

I welcome the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) to her place—or to one of her many places, I should say—but I cannot really welcome the tone of her questions. I am surprised that she is continuing with these unsubstantiated allegations. Perhaps in all the excitement of the reshuffle and the announcement of her shadow Cabinet, she has forgotten that the elections have already taken place—or perhaps she has another election on her mind. Is not the truth of the matter that since 2010 this Government have strengthened the ministerial code, strengthened the requirements around the publication of Minister’s interests, and introduced the requirement to publish all Government contracts over £25,000? The record of the Governments in the past decade has been to massively increase public scrutiny and transparency.

That is absolutely correct, and I could add to the list the things that we have also done to increase transparency and accountability at a local government level, which we know was an area that needed to be looked at.

The Minister has been deflecting from the fact that whether she likes it or not, there have been breaches of the ministerial code. Does she believe that simply trying to deny it or attacking anyone who tries to raise the issue is a satisfactory response to her earlier assertion that the public care about transparency and scrutiny?

I have said several times this afternoon that the public do care about that and they are right to do so. We should be here to answer questions about those issues. What I am not going to put up with is decent colleagues, decent businesses and members of the public being smeared by innuendo. I think that I have made my views very clear on that, and I hope that Opposition Members, including the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner)—and I do wish her well—reflect on that.

I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.