Both the Prime Minister and I came before the House in December to set out the details of the investigation being led by the Cabinet Office into the allegations of gatherings in Downing Street and the Department for Education in November and December 2020. As I did then, I again apologise unreservedly for the upset that these allegations have caused.
The Prime Minister has asked for an investigation to take place—[Hon. Members: “Where is he?”]
Order. I cannot hear what is being said. It is quite obvious that he is not the Prime Minister, so we do not need to keep asking that question. So please can I hear what the Minister has to say? He has got a tough job as it is; do not make it harder for him. Come on, Minister.
The Prime Minister has asked for an investigation to take place, and the terms of reference for the investigations that are under way have already been published and deposited in the Libraries of both Houses. The investigations are now being led by Sue Gray. She is the second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and of course a former director general of propriety and ethics. The Government have committed to publishing the findings of the investigation and providing these to Parliament in the normal way. The terms of reference set out that where there are credible allegations relating to other gatherings, it is open for those to be investigated, and I can confirm to the House that this includes the allegations relating to 15 and 20 May 2020. It will establish the facts, and if wrongdoing is established requisite disciplinary action will be taken.
As with all internal investigations, if evidence emerges of what was potentially a criminal offence the matter will be referred to the Metropolitan police, and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused. Matters relating to adherence to the law are, as ever, matters for the Metropolitan police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with them as appropriate. As I am sure Members of this House will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation, and the Government have committed to updating the House in due course.
I must again point out, as I did in December, and as I know the House will understand, that there is a long-standing practice of successive Administrations that any human resources matters concerning personnel relating to individuals does need to remain confidential. But Mr Speaker, both the Prime Minister and I came before this House in December; we set out the details of the investigation being led by the Cabinet Office into these allegations of gatherings, and those investigations are continuing. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. It is incredibly disappointing but not surprising that the Prime Minister, of whom I asked this question, is not here today despite not having any official engagements. His absence speaks volumes, as do his smirks on the media. The public have already drawn their own conclusions. He can run but he can’t hide.
I received an email this morning from a man called John. He told me that on 20 May 2020
“I found my long-time partner dead on the bathroom floor. I had been unable to get a GP visit for her and she had suffered terribly for some time before the blood clots stopped her heart.”
On that day the House heard from the Prime Minister himself that 181 NHS workers and 131 social care staff had died. Many people made huge personal sacrifices.
Frankly, the Minister hides behind the Gray investigation. There is no need for an investigation into the simple central question today: did the Prime Minister attend the event in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020? It will not wash to blame this on a few junior civil servants; the Prime Minister sets the tone.
If the Prime Minister was there, surely he knew. The invitation was sent to 100 staff, many of them his own most personal senior appointees. This was organised in advance, so did the Prime Minister know about the event beforehand, and did he give his permission for it to go ahead? If so, did he believe this event was in keeping with the restrictions and guidelines at the time, and was the chief medical officer consulted before it went ahead? What did the Chancellor know about the party given that he lives and works next door, and can the Minister confirm that no other Ministers were present? Finally, may I ask the Minister here today whether he still believes the Prime Minister to be a man of honour and integrity?
The right hon. Lady’s first point was that the Prime Minister is not here in person. She knows as well as everyone else in this House that it is not routine for the Prime Minister to answer urgent questions before the House, but that his Ministers are appointed to do so. However, he also attends this House more often than anyone else to answer questions and will be doing so tomorrow in the normal way at Prime Minister’s Question Time.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the appalling loss suffered by one of her constituents. My heart goes out to that constituent and, indeed, to all others from whom we have heard in this House—from all parts of this House—who have suffered tragic loss as a consequence of this appalling pandemic.
There is a need for investigation. The right hon. Lady said that there was not. There is a need, and that need is clear. The investigation is in progress. It is being conducted by someone in whom we have great confidence and who is, if I may put it this way, a paragon of independence and integrity in the civil service, of long standing. She is conducting that investigation.
The Prime Minister was himself affected by the consequence of covid-19 infection. He takes this matter very seriously, as does everyone in government. I will say this: the right hon. Lady asked if I have confidence in the Prime Minister’s integrity and honour, and I do.
We each of us, in this House and no doubt everywhere else, live our lives in the best way that we can. Those of us in positions of responsibility acknowledge that responsibility. That is why there is an investigation in progress, which will get to the bottom of all these matters. That is in progress.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) on obtaining this urgent question, but let us look around: where is the Prime Minister? The Prime Minister should be here to answer these serious questions. Where are the Government Front Benchers? Indeed, where are the Government Back Benchers?
This is the most serious of matters: this is a Prime Minister who has been accused of breaking a law that he himself set. It could not be more serious. I have sympathy with the Minister, the fall guy who has to answer the debate today. The harsh reality is that people around these islands watched loved ones dying and missed funerals, and the PM and his staff partied behind the walls of his private garden.
On that very day, on 20 May, there was a tweet from the Metropolitan police reminding people of their responsibilities, “You may meet only one person outside”. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the Cabinet, gave a press conference at No. 10 at 5 pm to reiterate that message. There was one rule for the rest of us and another rule for those in No. 10. The Minister seeks to hide behind the investigation, but let me ask him: was Sue Gray one of those invited to that party on 20 May, and did she attend?
This is a Prime Minister who has lost his moral authority. He does not deserve the respect and trust of the people of these islands. If he will not do the decent thing and recognise that he ought to resign, I say to the Minister and to the Conservative Back Benchers that they will have to do what the Prime Minister has failed to do—force him from office, and do it now.
I do not accept the characterisation that the right hon. Gentleman makes. In this country, it is clear that the same rules apply to everyone. That is why an investigation is in progress. I hope that he will not adopt the approach of questioning the integrity of any civil servant investigating this matter. Sue Gray is someone who has conducted previous investigations with thoroughness and vigour. We can rest assured that the result of her inquiry will be in the public domain in due course. She is a person of integrity and upstanding. I hope that he will not adopt that approach.
Sorry, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that we have a debate in this place about these issues once the final recommendations have been put forward by Sue Gray, because it is important that we look at the evidence?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. In fact, she is agreeing with the Leader of the Opposition, I think, because it was he who said:
“Let’s let the inquiry play out, let’s see what the findings are”.
Her point is a good one: we should wait to see the results of the investigation, rather than prejudging it.
It is not for me to pass judgment or pass sentence. The natural order of justice, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, is that a fair and impartial investigation takes place before there is a judge, jury and executioner. That investigation needs to take its natural course in an orderly way, rather than guilt or innocence being judged beforehand.
I of course have great confidence in the Prime Minister and the way he has been governing the country, but does the Minister agree that the House needs to have the report urgently so that we can debate it and reach a conclusion? I was slightly worried when he said that this would have to be paused if there was a Metropolitan police investigation. Is he confident that the House will have the report quickly, and if so, could he indicate when?
The Prime Minister did ask for the investigation to be conducted swiftly, and I think that is on the record. As to how long it lasts, I do not know, because we have not stipulated a time. Sue Gray is conducting the investigation independently of the Executive’s directions, as my hon. Friend and the House would expect. We hope to have a result swiftly, but that will be a matter for her.
Perhaps it would be faster if Sue Gray were to investigate the days when there were not parties—[Laughter.] I have sympathy for the Minister, because he has been sent with his “gatherings” excuse to defend the utterly indefensible. We know, do we not, that an invitation to a “bring your own booze” party was sent out for 20 May, when 268 people died in hospital that day? We know that it was illegal to meet anyone outside one’s own household, except one person overnight. So what is there to wait for? The Prime Minister should come here now, fess up and tell us what happened.
If I may say so, the hon. Lady has an excellent reputation in this House for, among other things, fairness. I know that she would want a fair investigation to take place before any comment is made. All that we are asking is for the House to wait a swift period of time for the investigation to conclude. That is in the natural order of justice and fair play.
There is absolutely no doubt that this is an important matter, but there will be a full investigation into it, and that is the most important thing to remember at this time. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, as we recover from the pandemic, this House’s time would be better spent debating how we build back better and level up? That is what my constituents are looking for.
My hon. Friend is right to mention that in the governance of this country, and in the performance of the Executive in delivering for the people of this country, both in dealing with the exigencies of the pandemic and in matters such as levelling up, this Government are performing and prioritising. She is right to focus on that. This is, of course, a matter of concern to the House—that is accepted and it is why we are before the House today—but it will be investigated and that will take place in the proper order of events.
No one is hiding. The fact is that the Prime Minister will be before the House for Prime Minister’s questions in the normal course of events, so tomorrow, at this time, he will be in this Chamber. The reality is that, at the moment, we are awaiting the outcome of an investigation that is in progress. I know that he will want to approach this matter reasonably, and that is to wait for the result of an investigation.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The reality is that we have a number of dates that have come out at different times. That will presumably have the effect of delaying matters, but we have commissioned the terms of reference of the investigation, which I told this House about on 9 December. It is laid in the Libraries of both Houses that any dates that the second permanent secretary feels are appropriate to investigate, she will. I have confirmed to the House that 15 and 20 May 2020 are now among those dates.
Does the Paymaster General agree that it would be utterly obscene if, at the same time—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Paymaster General agree that it would be utterly obscene if, at the same time that a support group for recovering alcoholics was contacting me, desperate to meet because they needed the mutual support to manage their addiction during the crushing isolation of lockdown, staff at No. 10 were not only being encouraged to gather, but being told to bring their own booze while doing so? I appreciate that the Prime Minister is not here to answer for his actions, but does the Paymaster General agree that that would be obscene?
This is not the straw that broke the camel’s back; it is a 10-tonne weight being placed directly on the poor dilapidated beast’s posterior. Surely if the Prime Minister has a smidgen of self-respect or any sense of integrity, he will be listening to this and decide himself that it is time to go—for goodness’ sake, man, go!
The Prime Minister focuses on the primary purpose of running this country, which is to deliver on the manifesto promises of this Government. The primary purpose of the investigation will be to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings that we have been hearing about, which will include attendance, the setting and the purpose. I know that the hon. Gentleman is inclined to presuppose the result, but the fair approach would be to wait until the results of the investigation, which has been commissioned for several weeks now.
It is an entirely hypothetical position. The Prime Minister is going nowhere. The right hon. Gentleman seeks to draw me into making a supposition about the result of any inquiry, but the Prime Minister retains the confidence of the people of this country, and he did so two years ago with the biggest majority in decades.
A survey by the Alzheimer’s Society shows that the health of 82% of people affected by dementia deteriorated during the first lockdown. Reduced social contact was a significant contributory factor. Does the Minister therefore agree that it would be unforgivable for the Prime Minister to prevaricate, obfuscate, seek to evade or distract, joke, take refuge in an industrial refrigerator or perhaps just lie about parties at No. 10?
More than 150,000 covid deaths, the highest toll in Europe; a cost-of-living crisis, with universal credit slashed and bills rocketing; a second jobs scandal; an attempt to let his corrupt mate off the hook; a dodgy flat donation; accusations of cash for access; and now this, a Downing Street party that was against the law and that the Prime Minister claimed did not happen but that he reportedly attended. After all this, does the Minister not feel embarrassed that the Prime Minister does not have the decency to resign?
I would say to the hon. Lady that she is fond of making unsubstantiated accusations that are devoid of evidence, and she should wait for the due course of events before doing so. She has particularised certain items that are part of her allegations, about which she has no evidence, and she should be very cautious about doing that.
The Paymaster General has been given an unenviable task this morning—he really, really has—but perhaps he could use his experience as a former Solicitor General and Attorney General to explain to the House what advice he would give to a hypothetical Prime Minister: someone who has perhaps lied to the country, someone who has perhaps lied to this House, someone who has laughed at times when people have died in their communities. What advice would the Paymaster General offer to that hypothetical Prime Minister?
The advice that I would always offer as a Law Officer, as I did as a barrister in practice, is to be fair to all sides. That includes listening to evidence, collating evidence properly and acting judiciously at all times. That is what we expect in this country, rather than prejudging matters and jumping to unwarranted and unfair conclusions. That applies to justice to all in this country.
Assaults on police officers in 2020-21 in England and Wales saw a 20% increase to over 25,000. I personally know of police officers who have been spat at, pushed, shoved and punched while doing their job, which includes enforcing the covid regulations, so I think police officers up and down the country will be appalled to hear that the Prime Minister and Downing Street staff were allegedly partying while they were doing their job during the worst of the pandemic. Given that all the evidence suggests that the party took place and that the Prime Minister was present, does the Paymaster General agree that the Prime Minister should write a letter of apology to every one of the police officers assaulted while enforcing covid regulations?
As the hon. Lady knows, this Prime Minister has always been a very strong supporter of the police. As Mayor of London, unlike the present incumbent of that office, he oversaw a reduction of crime in London. As Prime Minister, he has increased the number of police officers serving on the streets. This Prime Minister believes in law and order, and he supports the police—they know that. In fact, he visited a police station in my Northampton constituency only last week. The Prime Minister is very supportive of our police service and will continue to be.
My beloved mum died of covid in March 2020. She died alone in hospital while I sat in the car outside trying to be as close to her as I could. Even burdened with our grief, my family obeyed the rules. Just three days after the Downing Street party, we marked a solemn Eid—the first without my lovely mum.
When asked by Sky News about the parties, the Prime Minister did little but smirk and laugh. He should be here today but, as he is not, will the Minister confirm whether the Prime Minister will be apologising to bereaved families like mine for the anguish, pain and torment caused not just by hosting these parties but by continuing to lie about them?
I am appalled at the hon. Gentleman’s tragic loss, and I am so sorry to hear about his mother. My heart goes out to him and his family.
The Prime Minister knows the seriousness of covid-19 and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, he was in intensive care as a consequence of it. The Prime Minister also knows, having spoken to innumerable individuals who suffered loss themselves, that it has resulted in the death of many people in this country and around the world. He knows that, and he will never forget it.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept my assurance that the Prime Minister is someone for whom his responsibilities are writ large. He works hard in the interest of this country and he will be subject to Sue Gray’s investigation, together with her inquiry into all of these parties. I ask him to wait to see the result in, I presume, the relatively short time until we hear from Sue Gray.
A constituent of mine, who I will call Malcolm, got in touch this morning having been fined with a £100 fixed penalty notice for breaching the coronavirus regulations. He accepts his wrongdoing, but it strikes me as incredibly unfair that, at the same time as the Downing Street parties were happening and Ministers and MPs seemed to be flagrantly breaching the rules, constituents like mine should have to pay. When will Malcolm and everyone else who has been fined for breaching the regulations be getting their money back?
I presume that the hon. Lady’s constituent, together with others who have been penalised for breaching the regulations, was either duly convicted or accepted their responsibility. If I may say so, she is prejudging the matter. She should wait for the result of the investigation, just as Malcolm presumably did.
There is an expression, “the buck stops at the top,” which is usually applied by people in leadership when they take responsibility. In April last year my 58-year-old friend Ray lost his battle with covid and died. We went to his funeral online via video link. In August my father passed away and I was fortunate enough to be in the room to hold his hand as he passed away. In the intervening months, I lost count of the number of conversations I had with families and council officers who were trying to negotiate more than six or eight people at a funeral. Will the Paymaster General please explain why the Downing Street social world is more important than those lives and the law of the land?
May I start by saying that I am very sorry for the hon. Gentleman’s loss of his friend and of his father? I think it would be only fair to challenge him on his point about what Downing Street staff think. Downing Street staff work very hard for the people of this country—[Interruption.] It would not be fair to characterise all the work they have done over the course of years in the way that he does. We do not want to prejudge what occurred on that occasion. The reality is that we should take the approach that, unless proven to the contrary, most people in public life, no matter what their party political persuasion, work in the public service and do the best they can.
The Minister has come here today—pretty lonely, on his own—for the Prime Minister, to deal with the serious questions that have been raised, but no self-respecting Minister would come here without knowing the facts about what happened. The question is simply this: did the Prime Minister attend the gathering on 20 May? There is a simple yes or no answer to that. I am assuming that the Minister, in coming here to answer for him, has put the question to the Prime Minister and that he knows the answer. He is here to tell this House. Can he give the answer to that question to this House, and do so now?
Around 20 May, my life was saved by doctors, nurses and non-medical staff who came forward, often without personal protective equipment, and were prepared to take that risk because they did their duty. Does the Paymaster General honestly believe that the Prime Minister’s behaviour, as evidenced in our newspapers, would give confidence to those people who saved my life? Did they not deserve better?
Those people who have served the people of this country and the national health service deserve everything we can give them. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, of course they deserve everything we can do to support them, and they get that—[Hon. Members: “No, they don’t!”] They do get that support from this Government. The reality is that we would be wrong to prejudge and to make assumptions about what happened on any given day based on unknown sources, so I think he will wait to find out for sure what occurred.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims across all four nations gather for iftar events to break their fast. In May 2020, they did not. In the evenings during Ramadan, Muslims gather at the mosque to pray Taraweeh. In May 2020 they did not. And on Eid al-Fitr, they pray Eid Namaaz together and celebrate with family. On 24 May 2020, they did not. Yet on 20 May, just days before Eid, those who were making the rules at No. 10 were breaking them. If Muslims and people of different faiths listened to the rules and did not celebrate religious events, why were the rules different for those in No. 10 for social events?
I acknowledge that people of the Muslim faith and indeed people of the Christian and Hindu and other faiths, including the Jewish faith, have all suffered considerable interruption to their high holy days. I absolutely accept that, and for many people of strong faith that is very painful. They did so around the world, in other countries too, in the wider public interest, to support the public health of all. They were asked to do that and they did so in order to protect their fellow citizens. We respect that and admire that. We asked people to do that with a heavy heart, but we did so for the best reasons.
The unavoidable truth is that the public believe the Prime Minister is a liar who treats them with contempt. There is a crisis of public confidence. Is not the only way to restore public confidence for the Prime Minister, for once, to act in the public interest and resign now?
I have raised this matter previously with the Paymaster General, and I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question. In January last year, I almost missed the birth of my son; my wife was 9.5 cm dilated before I was allowed in. She was found in a freezing cold bath, having uncontrolled contractions. We followed the rules to protect midwifery staff. Since I raised this matter before Christmas, I have been inundated with emails from my constituency and across the UK. I and many parents—fathers, mothers, partners—would like an apology from the Prime Minister. As we followed the rules to protect NHS staff, he partied. Can the Paymaster General show some grace and be up front with this House over what he knows, because the public really have had enough?
I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman nearly missed the birth of his child, and I know that many parents will have missed the birth of their children during the course of this appalling pandemic. The purpose of the investigation is to establish the facts, and if wrongdoing is established there will be requisite action.
I thank the Paymaster General for coming to the House today, but the people of Newport West expected to see the Prime Minister. It is a shame that the Paymaster General has to cover for his boss and I really feel sorry for him because he has a rotten job today, but can he tell us why anyone in this House, or this country, should ever believe a word that the Prime Minister says again?
The Prime Minister will be here tomorrow, at Prime Minister’s questions, in the normal course of events; that is more frequent than almost any other Minister answers departmental oral questions here. I think it is only fair to point out that the Prime Minister answers these questions himself. I have the support of the entire Government in this matter, in the answers that I can give, and my answers are predicated on the fact that in the order of natural justice, we wait for the results of the inquiry and investigation that is taking place. That would be the case with anybody else—it is not special treatment—against whom an inquiry is taking place. I am sure the hon. Lady would accept that.
I will not disclose personal conversations, or otherwise. What I will say is that it is my—[Interruption.] I am answering the questions on behalf of the Government today and the reality is, the investigation will take its course and the hon. Lady will have answers then.
My good friend and constituent, Will, whose father was ill with cancer, only saw him through a window for his 50th birthday, the day after the Downing Street party. Five weeks later his father sadly passed away, and only 15 were allowed at the funeral. What do the Minister and the Prime Minister have to say to Will and his family, because quite frankly they feel that there is one rule for them and another rule for everyone else?
I offer my condolences to the hon. Lady’s friend and constituent and her friend’s father for their loss. When I speak from this Dispatch Box, I do so as an individual who understands the loss that others have suffered. We all know that; everyone in this House knows that. We all are equal under the law in this country, and as a Law Officer I recognise that first and foremost. She will no doubt also recognise that in the interests of fairness, when the inquiry or investigation is under way it should be allowed to come to its natural conclusion.
It pains me that Muslims could not celebrate Eid with their families, but what pains me more is the fact that on 20 May one of my constituents was being buried at Nab Wood cemetery. Her daughter, Maxine Elliot, told ITV today that, when Barbara Elliot was being laid to rest, she and her family were behind barricades as the coffin went past. Only 10 members of the family were allowed to attend, and they were not allowed to kiss the coffin or put a flower on it. All this was happening while 40 people, including the Prime Minister and his wife, were at a party in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street which people could attend as long as they brought their own booze. What has the Minister to say to Maxine Elliot, and will he ask the Prime Minister to apologise personally to her and her family?
I cannot begin to imagine the personal tragedy and loss of the family, friends and relatives the hon. Member described, and there is no attempt to do so on my part. All I can say is that my heart goes out to them for their loss. We have had to suffer considerable impositions in this country as a consequence of the pandemic, but those impositions have been placed on society with good reason, to protect the wider public interest.
This morning, I received a phone call from Jill McCulloch in my constituency. She was greatly angered by the overnight news and by recent reports about parties in Downing Street. Her father, who would have been 100 this year, passed away in the summer of 2020. She was not able to visit him in May 2020 because, like so many people up and down the country, she was abiding by the rules. Is it not a simple fact that this Government live by one rule for themselves and another for the rest of us?
Certainly not. If that were the case, there would be no investigation. The very fact that there is an investigation in progress—the very fact that this matter is in the public domain and is being inquired into—is a clear indication that the same rules apply to everyone.
When one of my constituents gave birth to her first child in May 2020, her husband could be there only for the final stages of labour, and had to leave two hours after the birth of his son. Mum and baby had to stay in hospital owing to complications, and they were not allowed any visitors. She was lonely and isolated, and her baby was struggling to feed. Her husband did not see the baby again until he was four days old.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) has asked the Minister if he will apologise to the parents of lockdown babies who did the right thing, at great personal cost, while No. 10 partied. Will the Minister now give that apology?
I cannot prejudge the investigation, but of course it is a source of considerable personal regret that anyone should suffer that imposition, inconvenience and distress, of which many examples have been given in the House. Of course that is a matter of personal regret. It is not appropriate to prejudge the investigation that is in progress. However, if the hon. Lady is asking me to express my regret about the tragedy that has befallen all those families who have suffered loss, and what have been grotesque invasions of their family life, I do so, unreservedly.
In Northern Ireland last week, we reached the milestone of 3,000 deaths due to covid, which means that 3,000 families who followed the rules are grieving today. Those 3,000 who died included my mother-in-law, who died alone.
Will—[Interruption.] Will the Paymaster General confirm that there will be a full and complete disclosure to enable the police service to ascertain that all was done decently and within the regulations on that date and at that time? I am sorry, Mr Speaker.
I noticed that the Minister conveniently avoided answering the question from the deputy Leader of the Opposition about the Chancellor, so I shall ask it again. The Chancellor was the next-door neighbour: did he know about the event in Downing Street on 20 May 2020 and did he attend the event himself?
Page 1, section 1.3(c) of the ministerial code says:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”.
If the Prime Minister knowingly misled Parliament about the existence of this or any other party, will he resign as the ministerial code says he should?
We have heard today some reminders of what so many people in this country were going through in May 2020. One of the things that helped to keep us all together was the belief that we were all in it together and that the Government understood and supported what we were going through. Will the Paymaster General tell us whether the Prime Minister appreciates that my constituents and, I am sure, constituents elsewhere in the country now feel let down, betrayed and treated with contempt by this Prime Minister and his Government? Will he tell us when the Prime Minister will show some respect for the House and come here and answer the questions we all have for him?
The Prime Minister will come to the House tomorrow for Prime Minister’s questions and the Leader of the Opposition, or his deputy, will have the opportunity to ask questions then. The hon. Lady asks whether we are all in it together; yes, we are all in this together. The Prime Minister knows—as Prime Minister, he sees the documents, the scientists and the medical professionals and he meets the families and visits around the country. He is in a better position than most to know the impact of this pandemic and he fully recognises it, not only because of his personal experience but because of what he has seen and witnessed on his visits, in his meetings and by everything else he has done as Prime Minister since this covid pandemic began. He does recognise that, he is on the side of the people of this country, and he is working to achieve the best results for the people of this country.
During this pandemic, many thousands of families have suffered when loved ones have been in hospital having surgery and operations without the benefit of visits from their families—nothing to do with covid but an impact of the restrictions. My family have been through that: my brother was in hospital in May 2020 and I could not visit him. He sadly died in April 2021 and we could visit him only in the last hours of his life. What my family have suffered is no different from the experience of many thousands across this country. We stuck to the rules and did what was expected. To find out through the press that the Prime Minister and Downing Street were partying at those times made me feel sick to the stomach and I felt utter contempt for their behaviour. When will the Prime Minister come to this House, confess what has happened and take responsibility for the actions under his watch in Downing Street? Sometimes, saying sorry is good but is not enough.
The Prime Minister will be here tomorrow, as I have said, in the normal course of events. He will continue to represent the Government of this country and recognises better than anyone the impact of this appalling pandemic on the people of this country.
We work within a system in which the Prime Minister appoints the independent adviser and the Prime Minister is responsible for applying the ministerial code, but this Prime Minister has demeaned his position by becoming a law unto himself. He refuses to observe the Nolan principles, so who among this Government is going to be brave enough to tell the Prime Minister that the party is finally over?
The hon. Gentleman makes those accusations; they are not supported by the evidence and he should wait to see what the result of the investigation is. The Prime Minister acknowledges the importance of the Nolan principles in public life and he adheres to them.
In December, the Prime Minister said:
“I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules, because I was also furious”.—[Official Report, 8 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 371.]
I can only imagine that his own Cabinet and Ministers must be furious, given that so few of them have showed up here today—supporting him in the same way perhaps that a rope supports a hanging man. I will tell the Minister who else was furious: my constituents—churchgoers unable to go to church at Easter; Muslims unable to go to the mosque and celebrate Eid with their families; and my local Muslim burial ground in Redbridge, at times unable to dig the graves fast enough to put the bodies in. When will the Prime Minister use his next address to the nation to apologise to each and every one of those families for his disgraceful rule breaking, which not only has left this Government devoid of any support among the British public but is harming our democracy itself?
I have already said, and I will repeat, that those who were unable to celebrate the high holy days of their religion suffered a terrible imposition, whether that was at Easter for the Christian community, Eid or Passover. One can only express sorrow that that has had to happen, but it has had to happen in countries around the world because of the exigencies of the pandemic. The Prime Minister is carrying on the business of government, as my fellow Ministers are, and will continue to do so.
I thank you for granting this important urgent question, Mr Speaker. The Minister will not think me fair and will go on about process, but I have to say, having listened to what everybody has said about what their constituents have been through, that coming here with not a single answer to a single question is the height of disrespect. Can I ask a simple question—one that will be easy for the Minister to answer and that he must know the answer to? When will this investigation be over?
I think the hon. Lady is fair—I am sure she is fair—and I think she does clearly know that no disrespect is intended, but what she does not recognise is that what is also fair is the proper administration of justice, and one of the fundamental tenets of fairness, a pillar, is to allow investigations to continue. She wishes to prejudge; she wishes to cast stones before she knows what has exactly happened. The fair thing to do would be to await the result of any investigation that has been commissioned.
If ever there was a time to be candid with this House, it is now. I am asking the Paymaster General a question, not anybody else. He did not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), so I will give him another go. Has the Paymaster General been told whether the Prime Minister attended the Downing Street party on 20 May or not? If so, what was the answer?
I know my duty to this House, and the reality of the matter is that the hon. Gentleman wishes to prejudge the matter. He is wrong to do so. It is not a matter for me—I am not conducting the inquiry—but a matter for Sue Gray. Sue Gray and her team will be investigating the matter and will come to the due conclusion. He should wait patiently for that. I think the predecessor question was about when that answer will come. I do not know the answer to that, but we have asked that it be done swiftly, and as soon as that is possible, it will be given.
I was pleased to hear the Paymaster General tell us earlier that the Prime Minister has recently visited a police station. I hope he will be visiting another one soon, this time with the benefit of his solicitor.
I want to return to the issue of fixed penalty notices that was raised by another hon. Member. Last April, the Joint Committee on Human Rights issued a report saying that the fixed penalty notices issued during the height of the crisis, which could be as much as £10,000, were “muddled, discriminatory and unfair”. The incident that is currently being investigated—I use the word advisedly—only goes to show that we were right in our concerns about unfair enforcement of the rules during the pandemic. The Paymaster General acknowledged earlier, as one would expect from a former Law Officer, that one of the most important principles to a democracy is that of equality before the law. So will the Government now commit to reviewing all the fixed penalty notices that were issued during the height of the crisis, as recommended in our report, and consider pardons for those who have been held to a higher standard than those who govern us?
Surely the hon. and learned Lady would know about the pillars of fair justice. She knows that it is necessary to wait for the result of the investigation. She would know that better than most. As for the enforcement of rules, they apply equally to everyone in this country, they have done for many generations, and they will continue to do so.
In May 2020, a constituent told me this:
“I had a little baby boy on 17th April but because of [pandemic] conditions we have been unable to have anyone round—not friends, not family. We’re completely on our own. It’s been really hard. My Dad hasn’t met his grandson and I’m feeling exceptionally isolated and alone without any support.”
How does the Minister feel—how does he himself feel—about the behaviour of the Prime Minister and Downing Street staff enjoying a drinks party while new mothers such as my constituent felt unsupported and desperately alone?
I can tell the hon. Lady how I feel about what has happened to her constituents. As a human being, I feel considerable regret and sorrow, and indeed distress, for those who have suffered loss—of course I do. We all do. We would not be human if we did not. So I say to her that I am terribly sorry for the loss of her constituents’ friends and families, and for everybody who has suffered loss, but my feelings are irrelevant; what matters is the opinion of those who have been charged with the heavy duty of investigating the propriety of gatherings that may or may not have taken place. When that person then reports back on the result of their investigations, no doubt the hon. Lady will wish to discuss the matter further.
The Paymaster General has made various references to fairness and natural justice. He has made no reference at all to the Nolan principles: the seven standards that govern us all in public life, including honesty, leadership and accountability. On that basis, why will the Prime Minister not do what Gavin Barwell, a former chief of staff in No. 10 has suggested, and come clean and say whether he attended that party or not? Why is he hiding behind Sue Gray’s investigation?
No one is hiding behind anything. The fact is that the Prime Minister will be here at PMQs tomorrow, as I have already said. The investigation is free of any fear or favour. It is taking place impartially and will produce an equitable result. When we know what that result is, we will be able to comment further, but we must not prejudge the matter. I think I did actually refer to the Nolan principles in an answer to a question from the Scottish nationalists. What I know is that the Prime Minister respects those seven principles of public life and that he adheres to them. He has served in the public realm for many years, as Mayor of London, as a Member of Parliament, as Prime Minister, and before that as Foreign Secretary. I know the Prime Minister and I know that he is a man of integrity and he wishes to conduct himself appropriately. What will happen will be that in the normal course of events the senior civil servant—and the civil service is an entity that we all respect in this country—who has been charged with an independent assessment of this matter will report in due course.
My constituent, Alison Lawther, who is a nurse in the ICU at the Whittington Hospital, left her role wanting to go to the funeral of her grandmother, but, tragically, could not get there for covid reasons. Will the Paymaster General send a message to Alison, who works day in, day out looking after covid patients—the Whittington Hospital having had one of the highest numbers of covid cases last week? What does he say to Alison and to her family given that she had to watch her grandmother’s funeral on Zoom and slaved while they over there partied with their bring-your-own-booze party? It is an absolute disgrace.
At the time of the No.10 Downing Street party, people in Swansea, Wales, could have faced fines between £60 and £1,920 for holding similar events. Does that not show the respect that the Welsh Labour Government have for the public health of their citizens in contrast to the contempt that the Prime Minister has for the public health of citizens here? Given that he must know whether he was at the party, why will he not simply say that? Why should we wait for an inquiry to find out what he already knows? Why is he hiding the truth?
My constituent Ruby Fuller was a remarkable young woman who had been head girl at the Charter School in Dulwich. She lived by her motto, “Live kindly, live loudly”, in pursuit of her passion for social justice. She had many, many friends. Ruby died aged 18 from non-Hodgkin lymphoma on 15 May, the same day that the Prime Minister sat enjoying cheese and wine in the Downing Street garden and five days before 100 staff were invited to a bring-your-own-booze party. Ruby’s friends had to say goodbye on Zoom, and her family were allowed just 10 people at her funeral. What does the Prime Minister have to say—via his Minister—to Ruby’s family, and also to her friends? These are young people in my constituency who should have confidence in their Government, but they are looking at the evidence in front of them, in plain sight, and seeing that it is one rule for the Government and another for everyone else.
What the Prime Minister will have heard, and what I have heard, is that Ruby lived by the motto “Live kindly, live loudly”. To lose such a young life at such a tragic age in such appalling circumstances is a sorrow that those who loved her will never be able to get over. There is nothing that I can say that will ameliorate that. What I can say is that both the Prime Minister and I—and the entire Government—would offer our condolences for their loss and say that, in the short life that Ruby lived, she made people around her happy and she will be remembered throughout the lives of her family and friends.
Does the Minister agree that every moment that goes by that the Government of the United Kingdom are unable to say where the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was on 20 May makes the Government more and more of a laughing stock and undermines the critical public health messages on which so many lives depend? Will he apologise to the heroes of the NHS, such as those at Newcastle hospitals trust, who spent hours and hours in full personal protective equipment, working exhausting and often traumatic shifts and yet managed to keep to lockdown rules?
The Prime Minister has personally thanked all of those who have worked to protect people during this pandemic and will continue to do so. He has visited hospitals, spoken to medical professionals—doctors, nurses, scientists—and to those directly involved and has repeatedly thanked them. He feels that thankfulness from the bottom of his heart. He himself was served at St Thomas’s Hospital by medical professionals who helped to save his life when he was admitted to intensive care. He knows this at first hand.
As of yesterday, across Clydebank, Dumbarton and the Vale of Leven, 300 men and women—my constituents—have died of covid-19. Most were intubated, the vast majority were alone, and many were without access to the burial traditions of our ancestors. I ask the Paymaster General whether they agree that if a Tory party in Downing Street took place during a global public health emergency, and if the Prime Minister participated and/or sanctioned it in any shape or form, and if senior members of the British civil service in Whitehall did the same, or were even invited and did nothing to advise against it, that is a fatal blow not only to the Prime Minister’s premiership but to the independence and impartiality of the civil service in Whitehall?
Today, I received an email from a constituent, Angela, whose mother died in a nursing home in St Helens where she was unable to hold her hand or be close to her before her death. She is outraged, as are many other people, by the actions of the Prime Minister and the people who partied in the Downing Street garden. Does the Paymaster General agree that the Prime Minister needs to take the decent action and resign?
No, I do not agree, because that would be inappropriate. The Prime Minister has devoted his time as Prime Minister to serving the people of the country in dealing with the crisis that has been the pandemic—probably the biggest crisis of any type that has befallen the country since the end of the second world war. This Prime Minister has led the way. He has delivered on vaccines, on healthcare and across the board and he has achieved the results, in very difficult circumstances, that we see in the progress of the pandemic. We are awaiting the results of an independent investigation into allegations of gatherings. When we have that information, we will be able to comment further.
Two days after the party on 20 May, the revelations came out about Dominic Cummings. Five days after the party, we had the Downing Street press conference, where he explained his activities in Barnard Castle. Some 923 people wrote to me in anger about that, many of whom were angry about not just the incident itself but the attempted cover-up. It seems that the Government are making exactly the same mistake again. The British people want honesty. I ask the Paymaster General a very simple question: completely separately from the inquiry, can he publish a list of the Prime Minister’s engagements on 20 May?
It is not a matter for me. The Prime Minister’s engagements, I believe, are a matter of public record. Those that are routinely released, are a matter of public record; those that are not, are not routinely released. That is the general practice that occurs and has occurred with Prime Ministers from the different parties of the House. I know that the hon. Lady will want to wait for the result of the investigation for a proper answer.
My constituent Frances called my office this morning, angry and upset that while she was unable to visit her brother with learning disabilities during lockdown, the Prime Minister and his staff were partying it up in the Downing Street garden. Her brother was unable to understand why his family could not visit and he believed that they had died and was in great distress as a result. What has the Paymaster General got to say to Frances and her brother?
What I say to Frances and her brother, and to the constituents of all hon. Members on both sides of the House who have suffered loss, is that my heart and sympathies go out to them. I deeply regret the personal loss, tragedy, bereavement and distress that has befallen tens of thousands of people in the country. That is what I offer; I hope that it is accepted. All I can do is say that we are all working extremely hard to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and we will continue to do that.
I, too, have constituents’ accounts from around that time. One said:
“My aunt committed suicide a few weeks ago and I could not hug my mum (who found her body) at her funeral”.
Another was not able to visit a brother with stage 4 throat cancer or visit her 87-year-old housebound mother.
With all due respect to the Paymaster General, my constituents do not know who he is. They are not interested in hearing about his regret, his distress, his sorrow; they want to hear from the Prime Minister. Unless Mr Speaker has it in his power to extend Prime Minister’s questions to 7 o’clock tomorrow, there will not be time for all of us. The Prime Minister should come before this House and every single one of us should have the opportunity to stand up and read out all our long lists of cases. The Prime Minister ought to show some empathy himself.
Given the immense sacrifices of the British people, surely the Paymaster General must understand not just their fury, but their deep hurt. My constituent Jane Nicholson emailed this morning to say that
“my mother died without us at her side in Hampton Care Home on Saturday March 28th. The home was locked down on the Monday before. I had to conduct a mobile phone call from the car park through the window to her on that Monday...she did not live to receive our next scheduled Skype call on Saturday…We followed all guidelines to protect everyone involved and are traumatised as a result, but we acted responsibly and have continued to do so. Downing Street should have done the same.”
She also says:
“No one is above the law.”
What does the Paymaster General have to say to Jane?
I say to Jane that, again, I apologise unreservedly for the upset that the allegations have caused. I say to Jane that I am very sorry for her loss. We are conducting an investigation independent of Government and we will await the results of that investigation to establish what exactly has occurred as regards the gatherings that the House has been discussing.
Some think that the Paymaster General’s performance in stonewalling at the Dispatch Box for almost an hour and a quarter now is something to be congratulated, or revered, in politics. I do not. This is not a courtroom. The Paymaster General is not representing a client to whom he owes an absolute duty to represent their best interests. That Dispatch Box is where Ministers come to tell the truth with complete candour, holding nothing back. Does the Paymaster General not realise that, regardless of the Prime Minister’s non-existent reputation, his own reputation has been shredded in the past hour and 15 minutes? Does he not realise that, as a result, not only is the Prime Minister finished, but his own position has become almost untenable?
This morning, I received an email from a constituent whose mother died from covid at the end of April 2020. The funeral was conducted via webcam in order to follow the rules. The family said that that meant they were not able to say a proper goodbye. My constituent says that the revelations have “destroyed” her. If the investigation reports that a party was held and that the Prime Minister, or other Ministers, attended, what does the Paymaster General think would be an appropriate political sanction?
That is hypothetical. It is not appropriate for me to make that judgment. It would not be appropriate no matter the result of the investigation. As a Minister in the Cabinet Office, my responsibility is to answer for Government business in the way that we have been hearing. What I am inclined to do is what I would do for anyone else, because we are all equal under the law, and that is to await the fair results of a fair independent inquiry.
I think that if someone was hosting a gathering in my back garden, I, like most people, would probably notice at some stage. I am also fairly sure I would remember whether I was there. Does the Paymaster General agree that the failure of the Prime Minister to confirm whether he knew about this gathering, or whether he was there, is the reason why his authority is draining away even faster than the number of Back Benchers prepared to stand up during this sitting to support him this afternoon?
No, I do not agree with that characterisation. The Government buildings around Downing Street are not domestic buildings in the way that the hon. Gentleman characterises them, so as a general point he is wrong to make that assumption or characterisation. I accept that these allegations have caused considerable upset and apologise unreservedly for the upset they have caused, but we will await the results of the investigation.
When someone’s alleged conduct undermines the integrity of their role, the authority of their role, and trust in their role, they are suspended. When somebody is under investigation they are suspended, so why is the Prime Minister not suspended?
The investigation is about gatherings, not about individuals necessarily. The investigation which has been in progress since around 9 December is about gatherings, and gatherings on various dates. I have already said that if those inquiries lead to other developments, remedial action will follow, and that includes civil servants. But we have expected, and continue to expect, anyone who is asked to co-operate with that investigation to do so.
We have all seen the footage on Sky News of the Prime Minister smirking, even chuckling, at the suggestion that he attended this party in his own back garden, so may I ask the Minister a straightforward question: is it not the case that the Prime Minister has not just been laughing at the public but has also been lying to them?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is nonsense to make that assumption or accusation against the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister does not take these matters lightly and never has done; he takes them incredibly seriously. He has rightly devoted a preponderance of his time as Prime Minister to this pandemic: he knows its consequences—he personally has been affected by it—and he sees the victims all the time when he visits arounds the country. The hon. Gentleman’s characterisation is unworthy and unfair.