Before we commence the debate, I have to say something about orderly language. As the House knows, reflections on the conduct of Members of either House may only be made on a substantive motion; this matter has been dealt with in points of order several times in recent weeks, so those who attend the Chamber regularly will be aware of that. The motion before us today is substantive, so there is greater leeway in what may be said than would otherwise be the case, but that does not mean that no rules apply at all. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) looks disappointed.
The motion refers to concerns raised about the appropriateness of appointing Lord Lebedev to the House of Lords. Therefore, debate may cover those concerns. Members should bear in mind, however, that raising a concern is not the same as making unproven allegations about personal conduct.
In relation to the Prime Minister, his behaviour can be discussed in so far as it relates to the appointment of Lord Lebedev to the House of Lords. Again, Members should be cautious about making unproven allegations, but they can refer to concerns about the process. Even so, it is not in order to criticise the conduct of the Prime Minister in ways that do not relate to the substance of this motion.
Finally, as with all our proceedings, the precise context of what is said will influence the decision of the Chair in deciding what is orderly or not. I do sincerely hope that, as ever—and you have all heard Mr Speaker say this many times—in the words of Erskine May, “moderation and good temper” will characterise the debate we are about to have.
I know the right hon. Lady appreciates that, and I call Angela Rayner to move the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I heard you loud and clear.
I beg to move,
That, given the concerns raised about the appropriateness of, and process for, appointing Lord Lebedev as a member of the House of Lords and the role of the Prime Minister in that process, an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, no later than 28 April,
(a) any document held by the Cabinet Office or the Prime Minister’s Office containing or relating to advice from, or provided to, the House of Lords Appointments Commission concerning the appointment of Evgeny Alexandrovich Lebedev as a Member of the House of Lords; and
(b) the minutes of, submissions relevant to and electronic communications relating to, any meeting within the Cabinet Office or the Prime Minister’s Office at which the appointment of Lord Lebedev, or advice relating to that appointment, was discussed in a form which may contain redactions, but such redactions shall be solely for the purposes of national security.
May I start by noting the latest news from Ukraine? I know the whole House will be united in our outrage at the atrocities that have been reported, our deepest sympathy to the victims, and our ongoing support and our solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We will be united, too, in the message that we send to Putin. We will not waver in standing firm against his aggression, and the unity in this House reflects that in the country and among the constituents whom we represent.
It is all the more important, in that context, that we make sure that we do all we can to protect our country’s security and our people’s safety. This Government’s ultimate responsibility to this House is to keep people safe, and it is all the more important that we stand up for the fundamental values of democracy in stark contrast to authoritarian regimes and dictatorships such as that in the Kremlin today. That is why we are here today—to defend our country’s security and its democracy, and to hold our Government to the highest standards in doing the same.
Every Minister has a fundamental duty to protect the people of this country and to prioritise their safety above all else. We have tabled this motion because serious questions have been asked about whether the current Prime Minister upheld that duty to the standard that we would expect, and because those questions have not been answered with the transparency that we would expect.
We must get to the facts of the case. An investigation by The Sunday Times found that, on 17 March 2020, British intelligence warned the House of Lords Appointments Commission against granting a peerage to the Prime Minister’s close friend, now the Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia. The commission concluded it could not support his nomination. Forty-eight hours later, the Prime Minister visited Lebedev at his home in London. Details of that meeting have never been released to the public, and questions remain about whether the security services knew about this meeting, or whether their assessments show that the Kremlin was keeping tabs on these activities.
In July 2020, Lebedev’s appointment as a peer was announced, so the question is this: what changed between the security warning and the appointment? The British public have a right to know if, and how, an individual of apparent concern to our intelligence services was granted a seat at the heart of Parliament by personal order of the Prime Minister, and whether the Prime Minister was aware of that security advice, but chose to ignore it, overrule it or even demand that it be changed.
This is not the first time concerns have been raised about Lebedev by the British security services. As long as a decade ago, Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, made it clear that he did not deem Lebedev a suitable person to meet. It remains unclear if the Prime Minister—then Foreign Secretary—was made aware of these security concerns, but his deeply concerning links to Putin are well known. He has been open about them on Twitter, where he has promoted the worst conspiracy theories and defences of Vladimir Putin, and raised questions over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the Kremlin critic poisoned in a London hotel.
Lebedev’s father and business partner is a former KGB spy turned billionaire oligarch, who continues to fill his coffers with investments in occupied Crimea and in Russian munitions. We have heard worrying reports about the existence of a private back channel between our Prime Minister and President Putin, facilitated by Lebedev. Can the Minister shed light on this deeply concerning allegation and rule out the existence of such a back channel? As the bombing of Ukraine and the tragedy continue and the threat from Russia in the west intensifies, does the Minister think this appointment, in apparent opposition to the security services, was appropriate?
The Cabinet Office plays a central role in the vetting process of Lords appointments. In Lord Lebedev’s case, Cabinet Office security officials were responsible for relaying the intelligence and guidance to the House of Lords Appointments Commission that formed the basis of its objections to his appointment. However, reports by The Sunday Times and a written statement by the then chief of staff to the Prime Minister allege that he “cut a deal” to provide the appointments commission with a “sanitised” version of the advice.
Could the Minister outline how, when and why the guidance changed after communication with the Prime Minister, and could he confirm whether the Cabinet Office had sight of security advice warnings against the appointment of Lord Lebedev? This is a matter of national security, and there can be no delay in getting transparency in this case. There are also serious questions about whether the Prime Minister put his personal interests before the public interest in this case. The Prime Minister’s apparent cavalier disregard for those serious security warnings speaks to a wider culture at the heart of this Government where the rules do not apply when it comes to appointing friends and donors to public office.
If the Prime Minister himself is willing to overrule British intelligence agencies, this raises serious questions about appointments more generally, and specifically in the House of Lords. Appointments to the Lords should be made based on integrity and contribution to our country. They are not some free pass. They are not a golden ticket for Prime Ministers to grant to their mates, like a membership of some posh London boys club, or a way to say thanks to billionaire mates after years of wining and dining, and champagne receptions and holidaying, not to mention the favourable headlines. But seriously, appointment to this Parliament should be on the basis of dedication, integrity and contribution to public life in Britain.
Clearly, I represent a far-flung part of the United Kingdom, and there are good and hard-working citizens who give their entire working lives for such communities. In the past, this has been recognised by means of an honour—Order of the British Empire, British Empire Medal or whatever. Can I suggest to the right hon. Lady and to everyone in this place that the Lebedev peerage cheapens the whole system of honours and reduces its value to those people who genuinely deserve to be recognised in civil society?
Absolutely. I fully agree with the hon. Member’s contribution. During the pandemic, we saw such dedication by our key workers, with doctors and nurses putting their lives on the line to save the lives of others.
Instead, we see reports that the Prime Minister parachuted his close friend Lord Lebedev into the heart of the UK’s Parliament, a man with whom the Prime Minister has enjoyed a decade-long courtship, which included a stay at the oligarch’s castle in 2018, where he is reported to have attended a party over the course of a weekend, with all his flights and accommodation paid for by Lebedev. An investigation by The Guardian revealed that during his stay, the Prime Minister, who was then Foreign Secretary, is reported to have met Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB agent and father of Lord Lebedev. The party took place just days after the Prime Minister—then Foreign Secretary—attended a NATO meeting to discuss the response to the Salisbury poisoning, in which the nerve agent Novichok was used in an assassination attempt on the Skripals. Immediately following the meeting in which Putin’s deadly attack on British soil was discussed, the Prime Minister reportedly ditched his security protection to attend the Lebedev party, where a former KGB agent was in attendance. The Prime Minister seems more interested in attending parties with his Russian billionaire mates than listening to the concerns of the British security services.
Culture is set from the top. Appointments matter. Politicians come and go, but Lord Lebedev will be a permanent fixture of our Parliament in the other place for decades. There is a serious precedent to be set in this case about how Parliament chooses to appoint those who represent us. It also raises serious questions about the relaxed vetting process of Lords appointments, creating a security risk at the heart of our democracy. This must be taken seriously, and for that reason I ask the Minister this: will there be a review of the House of Lords appointment process?
We must ensure that a robust vetting system is in place that safeguards our democracy and ensures transparency for the public. Indeed, the Lord Speaker recently called for a more rigorous appointment process for peers. We have a Prime Minister who appears willing to jeopardise the security of the British public for the sake of a personal friendship. The culture is set from the top, and in this case it raises much wider concerns about public appointments. It is time for the Prime Minister to come clean today about whether and why he interfered with British intelligence to award a peerage to his close personal friend. The full Cabinet Office guidance about a peerage for Mr Lebedev, which was mysteriously airbrushed, must now be published in the national interest. The Prime Minister claims that that advice cannot be published because it will undermine confidence in the appointments process. Well, it is a bit late for that. This is about his actions. He has run roughshod over the integrity of the process, and put his own interests before those of Britain.
I am sorry to intervene on my right hon. Friend and I hope speak later in the debate, but I thought she should be aware that since this debate started, Lord Lebedev has been tweeting furiously, implying the inappropriateness of this House to even have this debate. That from a Member of the other place is completely unacceptable and, if I may advise Lord Lebedev, extremely unwise.
If what the right hon. Gentleman says is correct—I have no reason to doubt him although I have not seen the content of the tweets—let me say that if it was inappropriate for any debate to be occurring in this Chamber, it would not be occurring.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Woe betide anyone who tells Madam Deputy Speaker what is or is not appropriate for debate in this Chamber.
By his actions the Prime Minister has run roughshod over the integrity of the process, and put his own interests before those of Britain. The suggestion that questions of suitability are for the Prime Minister alone will not cut it. When it is a clear as day that he so flagrantly disregarded advice and intervened in this process, I suggest that it is he who has undermined that process time and again.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way and apologise for interrupting her. Is it the Labour party’s position that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should have a veto? Given that it is part of her shadow portfolio, I am keen to understand. She is talking about the Prime Minister’s role in this, but does she believe that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should have that veto?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point, but the point I am making is that security advice was given, and the commission made a recommendation. If the Prime Minister overrides that advice, surely we should have a reason and transparency about why he went against the advice of the security services and the commission. That is very important and a robust way of dealing with things.
According to allegations in The Sunday Times, the Prime Minister went to visit the now Lord Lebedev about the advice he had been given by security services, and to assure him that he wanted to give him this peerage, at a time when coronavirus was raging, businesses were being asked to close, and schools were about to be asked to shut. That was a priority for the Prime Minister when the rest of us were having to put our entire lives on hold. Does the right hon. Lady think that is an appropriate priority for the Prime Minister in the middle of a national and global crisis?
The hon. Lady makes a good point, and no, I do not think that is a good priority. I cannot get into concerns about what the Prime Minister thought was appropriate under his own lockdown rules during this debate, because it is not on the motion.
These dangerous links to Putin’s oligarchs threaten our national security, but today we can take a step to defend it. There can be no better answer to the aggression of a dictator than to show that in a democracy, our leaders answer to the country they serve. The Minister should stop hiding behind the excuses and denials that we have heard about why we cannot have this transparency. I urge the House: let us get to the facts behind this whole murky business, publish the advice, and come clean with the British people. I commend the motion to the House.
Let me first address the situation in Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky has spoken of the Prime Minister and people of the United Kingdom as being among his greatest allies, and the Kremlin has spoken of the United Kingdom as a leading opponent. I am proud of that position, and we will continue to support Ukraine—as I know will the whole House—and the courageous people of that sovereign and independent country.
The motion before the House calls on the Government to release advice provided by or to the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and relevant communications thereto. The Government regret today’s motion for any number of reasons—I will come on to those—but particularly because, for the first time in many decades there is a war in Europe, and there are many pressing domestic concerns and issues. It is somewhat surprising that the Opposition have brought forward for discussion this afternoon an ad hominem attack on a single individual.
Although Parliament has unlimited power to call for papers, persons and records, historically the House has exercised restraint in the use of that power, and for good reason. That the motion seeks not to show restraint is, in my submission, unfortunate. I accept that Parliament has a vital scrutiny role and should use its power to facilitate it, but that does not extend to making use of the procedures of this place to single out an individual by making unsavoury and ad hominem attacks of the kind we have heard and will be hearing this afternoon.
Before I give way, which I will be happy to do, may I gently point out to the Opposition that—and I say this in all candour—they ought to be careful of intolerant messaging? Not all Russians are our enemy. Many British citizens of Russian extraction came to this country with a view to an opposition to President Putin. People cancelling Tchaikovsky concerts is not appropriate, and Labour seeking to whip up anti-Russian feeling or casting all persons of Russian extraction in a negative light is wrong.
Furthermore, the disclosure of the information sought here today would undermine the very role of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Labour is asking for something that would break the appointments process in the House of Lords. It would chip away at the careful vetting procedures and the exchange of information that necessarily has to be discreet.
If I may, I will just finish this thought.
Let us not forget that the commission of which we are speaking is independent, expert, advisory, and cross-party, with Labour, Liberal and Conservative members, and it was set up by Tony Blair and the Labour party in the year 2000—more than 20 years ago.
On the Minister’s point about Labour being Russophobic, I lived and worked in Russia for three years as director of the British Council in St Petersburg, and we worked every day with ordinary Russians—good people—who want that country to be a normal country connected to the rest of the world. The people we are talking about today are not ordinary Russians. We are talking about a former KGB spy and the woman who was married to a former deputy Finance Minister who has given millions of pounds to the Conservative party. I humbly ask the Minister to withdraw the comment about Russophobia. We have no problem with the Russian people; we have a big problem with what he is talking about today.
No, I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. In fact, the noble Lord who is the subject of this debate is not a Conservative party donor and never has been, so the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong on all those fronts. The motion before the House today is what I have said it is.
Further to the point of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), I wonder whether my right hon. Friend and learned Friend could give me his thoughts on this tweet that has just come through, which contains this from the Leader of the Opposition:
“Congratulations on your elevation to the House of Lords. All best wishes, Keir”?
Is what is good for the goose good for the gander? What does the Minister think about that?
It has been mentioned that Lord Lebedev has been tweeting this afternoon, and I understand that he has tweeted in the past few minutes that the Leader of the Opposition congratulated him on his appointment as a peer. That must be rather embarrassing for the Labour party.
I sometimes think that the Minister must be the Derek Underwood of the Front Bench in that he is the nightwatchman defending the indefensible.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) just said, we are clearly talking about someone with huge influence who has worked closely with the Prime Minister and collaborated in delivering certain election victories for him as the Mayor of London.
Lord Lebedev is a British citizen of Russian extraction who, I understand, had his primary and secondary education in this country. I see no logic in the Labour party’s assessment.
In order to put this issue in its true context, it is necessary to remind hon. Members of the process for nominations for peerages. The power to confer a peerage, with the entitlement to sit in the House of Lords, is vested in Her Majesty the Queen and is exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister. It is a long-established feature of our constitutional arrangements. The Prime Minister is ultimately responsible to Parliament, as he is in all matters, and to the people of the country for any nominations he makes.
Two events have served to shape that process. First, the House of Lords Act 1999 ended the right of hereditary peers to pass membership of the other place down through their families. Secondly, the House of Lords Appointments Commission was created in May 2000—under Labour, which now wishes to break it—and it recommends individuals for appointment as non-party political life peers, such as those on the Cross Benches, and has political representation from the three parties within its members. The vetting process is at the heart of its work. The commission seeks to ensure the highest standards of propriety, and I include party political nominees within that.
It does not apply in the instant case, but it should not be a matter of opprobrium that somebody be a party political supporter. Labour has hundreds of peers in the House of Lords. The Liberal Democrats have some 83 peers despite them having barely enough Members of Parliament to fill a minicab. There is nothing wrong with having a political affiliation.
The House of Lords Appointments Commission seeks advice from a number of sources during its deliberations. Any time we ask any independent advisory body to obtain advice, and it does so discreetly and in confidence, if we seek to break that process, said body will not be able to function. Once all the evidence has been considered, the commission will either advise the Prime Minister that it has no concerns about an appointment or will draw its concerns to the Prime Minister’s attention. It is a long-standing position that it is for the Prime Minister of the day to recommend appointments to the House of Lords. For that reason, the Prime Minister continues to place great weight on the commission’s careful and considered advice before making any recommendations. That arrangement has served successive Prime Ministers of both parties but, as in other areas, they must carefully balance a range of evidence.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to a Liberal Democrat, few as we are. Nevertheless, I draw his attention to another tweet from Lord Lebedev:
“Openness and transparency are pillars of our democratic system, so I welcome the call for security advice about me…to be released. I have nothing to hide.”
The Minister is highlighting the fact that the appointment was questioned by that commission, so I do not see his argument, because it sounds like there were concerns. If Lord Lebedev has nothing to hide and the commission made its recommendation, that prompts the question: what do the Government have to hide?
I thank the hon. Lady for asking that question. This is not about any one individual. The Opposition are seeking it to be about one individual who cannot answer for himself in this House, which is wrong. The Government are seeking to protect the system, so even if Lord Lebedev has said that he does not mind, it is not, with the greatest respect, only about him; this is about protecting the system, because the House of Lords Appointments Commission would not be able to function.
The Leader of the Opposition wrote to the commission earlier this month and received a reply a week or two ago, which I believe is in the public domain, in which it outlined the process and did not highlight any problems. The reality is that the Government are seeking to protect a system that has worked well for 22 years, so I ask the House to bear that in mind.
The Minister has said that the House of Lords Appointments Commission takes a variety of information from a variety of sources and organisations. That is perfectly reasonable. Is he suggesting, however, that the opinions or information of the intelligence services should somehow be of less importance than information from another body?
No, I am not suggesting anything of the sort. In fact, I have no personal knowledge of those from whom the commission obtains its information. It is for the commission, which has Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat and independent members, to make its own judgments, and we heard from the commission in the letter I mentioned, which I think was from Lord Bew.
Quite rightly, we should be concerned about Russian money coming into our political system, but my right hon. and learned Friend at the Dispatch Box is right in what he says. We really should point out who the Prime Minister was who let the fox into the chicken coup. Who was it, for instance, in 2003 when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea football club? It was none other than the new Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
Yes, well, I will leave the House to draw its own conclusions about that.
I have to say that the individual who is the subject of this debate is a British citizen. He happens to be of Russian extraction. I understand that he has been in this country since primary school age. It is important to emphasise that this is about British people whose ancestry and heritage should not be relevant. As the owner of a regional newspaper, I understand that the London Evening Standard has raised £300,000 for its Ukraine appeal, £3 million for its AIDSfree campaign, and £13 million for its Dispossessed fund for persons in poverty in London and the Grenfell tragedy. I think that is something to be applauded.
Let us just get this right: this Lord Lebedev is educated here at primary school and senior school, he does not donate to political parties, he donates to charities and he is a good citizen. That lot over there on the Opposition Benches do not want to be involved in democracy. Is it the case that they just do not like foreign names? [Interruption.]
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In a bit of chuntering from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), she referred to this as the most xenophobic Conservative party. Can I just say to the hon. Lady that I am certainly not a xenophobe and I take real exception to that? I invite her to withdraw those comments. [Interruption.]
Let me make this absolutely clear: nobody in this Chamber is calling anybody xenophobic. If anybody has used phrases like that, stop it now. I am not having it repeated. I am taking it that these things have not been said, because it would be better if they have not. Now, let us keep this at the right level. There is no need for superlative insults to go from one side to the other.
To return to where I started, there are so many issues that affect people’s lives that we could be debating today, for example: my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s income tax cuts, the first in 16 years; the 5p cut in fuel duty; or my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary’s plans to make sure that any child who falls behind in English or maths gets the support they need to get back on track. I find it surprising, at the very least, that the Opposition have chosen this particular motion, one that, at best, would compromise the ability of an independent body, which is respected for its independence, to fulfil its mandate simply to make a short-term political point. At worst, it would be negligent of the long-term consequences to the key role of the House of Lords in scrutinising the Executive and being a revising Chamber, and the valued expertise and specialist knowledge and experience of its Members.
I think lots of my colleagues would say that we have tabled the motion because it gets to the heart of who we are as a country and a democracy. Given the Prime Minister’s long-term relationship with the Lebedev family, what does the Minister think it looks like not to have published the Intelligence and Security Committee report before the 2019 general election?
That is not relevant to this debate. I will tell the hon. Lady what this debate looks like: it looks like the Labour party is focusing on an individual because of who he is. It is doing so unfairly and improperly, and it is seeking to break a process. The reality, as we have heard, is that Labour Members have also supported this individual, socialised with him and sent him messages of support. There is nothing wrong with that. I do not criticise Labour Members if they have sent supportive text messages to Lord Lebedev. I do not criticise anyone in this House for doing so. As the owner of newspapers, no doubt he interacts with a large number of individuals, even though he is a Cross Bencher. What I criticise, and what I urge the House to exercise with considerable caution, is how it looks to attack an individual because of his heritage or because of his extraction. That is the key point.
The other key point to make here is that confidentiality in respect of the process ensures that it operates in the interests of the Labour party and the Conservative party, and that the process of appointing peers of this realm is a fair and dutiful one. The probity and the confidence of the system would be compromised if we broke it. If we said that henceforth we cannot ask people to send in confidence their opinions of individuals whom the Leader of the Opposition or the Conservative party have put forward for a peerage, anyone would know in future that if they wrote to the commission in confidence it could then be out in the public domain. They would not do it and that would damage the process. I would have thought that is rather obvious.
The Government believe that to ensure the ability of the commission to conduct robust vetting and to provide advice that is not compromised, the process should continue to be conducted confidentially, with disclosure at the discretion of the Prime Minister, who is ultimately responsible for making recommendations to Her Majesty on appointments to the Lords, or of the commission, as a body independent of Government and responsible for the vetting of nominations.
Before I sit, I would like to address, if I may, the use today of the Humble Address procedure. The House itself has recognised the need for this process to be used responsibly. The Government response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s 15th report said:
“The Government therefore agrees with PACAC that this device should not be used irresponsibly or over-used.”
The Procedure Committee observed in its May 2019 report:
“The House, by its practice, has observed limitations on the power: it does not use the power to call for papers which Ministers do not have the authority to obtain, nor does it use it to obtain papers of a personal nature.”
That is a fundamental point. Today’s motion is a breach of that process. It demonstrates why the motion is unwise and irresponsible. Motions such as the one before us today crystallise the potential tension between the use of the Humble Address procedure and the responsibility of Ministers not to release information where disclosure would not be in the public interest. We have heard it said that the particular peer himself does not mind whether that information is released, but I submit that that is irrelevant. What we seek to do is protect the process, more than the individual, and that verifies that. The responsibility of Ministers, which I take very seriously, is carefully to balance and weigh up the need for the transparency and openness that we all try to achieve against the equally important, long-standing and competing principle in respect of data protection legislation, which the motion challenges. The Government reiterated, in our response to the Procedure Committee report, the principle of restraint and caution in recognition of the importance of ensuring that the wider public interest is protected.
I thank the Minister for giving way a second time; he is being generous. I am sure we all agree how critical transparency is to our democracy. Would that in part of the process there had been any transparency in the origin or source of Lord Lebedev’s wealth, which is particularly pertinent today and has been for the past five weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Minister may refer to a message texted to Lord Lebedev 18 months ago, but that was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Were the hon. Gentleman to look into the matter, he would find that Lord Lebedev has, through his newspapers, publicly criticised the Putin invasion of Ukraine, as one would expect him to do. He has done so on the record.
The motion provides a saving in respect of national security considerations, in that it would allow for the redaction of material
“for the purposes of national security.”
For that reason, I shall not dwell on the national security considerations in depth. I remind the House that Ministers do not comment on national security issues; nevertheless, I stress that weighty public issues are in play that should not be treated lightly.
As I say, when we balance a commitment to transparency against the protection of information when disclosure is not in the public interest, national security is one consideration that the Government must weigh up. Rather than engage in insinuation and speculation—I am afraid that is what has been happening—in respect of matters of national security that must be handled with care and caution, I emphasise that it is and always will be Her Majesty’s Government’s absolute priority to protect the United Kingdom against foreign interference.
It is easy for those in the media or on the Opposition Benches to cast aspersions and invite people to draw assumptions. We cannot answer points about national security in detail, but I emphasise that we in the Government will always give absolute priority to the protection of the United Kingdom from foreign interference. As proof of that, I remind the House that, as announced in the Queen’s Speech, we will introduce new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to disrupt state threats.
In conclusion, the passing of the motion would have long-term and damaging consequences for the system of appointments to the peerage. It would breach the principles of confidentiality that underpin the process; impugn the reputation of an independent body and damage its ability to undertake its role; and impact on the right of individuals not to have their private lives splashed across the media at the whim of the Opposition Front-Bench team.
It is quite normal practice to ignore Opposition motions; they are given the careful attention they deserve. That is common practice.
The Government regret the fact that the official Opposition have sought to use the procedures of the House to call for the release of information which, if released, would have lasting consequences and undermine the established system of appointments to the peerage. That system has served successive Governments and it is vital to preserving the commission’s ability to undertake its role.
In her speech, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) articulated quite an interesting point. I tried to prise an answer out of her in my intervention, when I asked about the idea of the commission perhaps having a veto. Whether or not we disagree with that idea, does my right hon. and learned Friend not find it interesting that the Labour party will not state its definitive position on that? What is his opinion of that? Perhaps it is because Labour wants to use the existing system at some future point to benefit itself.
I have the feeling it will be a very long time before the Labour party is in a position to do that from the Government Benches.
The broader point is that the privacy rights of individuals need to be protected. The information shared to facilitate the vetting process is and must be handled carefully. It would be unwelcome for this House to set a precedent that such information is released, because, as I have said, to do so could deter individuals from putting themselves forward for such positions. I urge the House to reflect on whether the motion before us accords with the principle of restraint that Parliament has characteristically applied to the use of its powers. The passing of the motion would risk compromising the ability of an independent body to perform its role and, constitutionally, would impede the role of the Prime Minister in advising the sovereign on appointments. The process is necessarily confidential and the Government think it is unwise for the House to call for such information.
I shall heed the warning about moderation and good temper, which I am sure my SNP colleagues would say is in my DNA and runs through me like the writing in a stock of rock. Should I stray, I am sure that you would bring me back into line, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I was fascinated by the start of the Minister’s speech and I tried to intervene, but he would not take my multiple attempts to do so. When he got to his feet, he began by questioning the appropriateness of the Opposition holding such a debate on this topic. Literally minutes before he questioned how appropriate it was, Lord Lebedev said:
“There’s a war in Europe”—
hon. Members will recognise the phrase—
“Britain is facing the highest cost of living since the 1950s. And you choose to debate me based on no facts and pure innuendo.”
That was precisely the Minister’s opening gambit, which prompts the question: did he write the Minister’s speech or did the Minister write his tweet?
That assertion was absurd, because we have come to learn, often through painful experience in this place, that when this Government and this Prime Minister assure us that there is nothing to see, it is wise to keep looking. That is why we fully support the motion and why, when the House divides, we will vote for the Government to hand over all documents, all minutes of meetings and all electronic communications containing or relating to the advice that they received about the appointment of Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords.
I reiterate in the strongest possible terms that today’s debate is absolutely not about being Russophobic, as the Minister would shamefully have us believe. He said that to try to throw up a smokescreen cover for his beleaguered Prime Minister, and it does the Prime Minister and this House no service whatever to try to suggest otherwise. As has been said many, many times in this Chamber, our fight is not with the ordinary Russian citizen, but with Putin, his political leadership in the Kremlin and his friends, including the oligarch billionaires who have plundered Russia’s wealth and resources and shipped them overseas, all too often to the UK and the City of London. Once they were in the UK, those billionaire oligarchs found many people in business and politics who, in return for their slice of the cake, were only too willing to facilitate the kleptocracy by hiding the oligarchs’ plunder for them while providing them with what they desired most: a cloak of respectability.
The UK’s willingness to welcome vast amounts of Russian money with very few questions asked about the source of that wealth means that there are now many Russians with close links to Putin who are very well integrated into the UK and who simply, because of that enormous wealth, have attained significant influence among the UK’s business, social and political elites.
Since this Prime Minister came into office in 2019, £2.3 million of Russian-linked cash has been funnelled directly into the Conservative party. That has happened to such an extent that even the Intelligence and Security Committee raised serious concerns about undue influence being sought and, indeed, gained by friends of President Putin with the UK governing party.
That influence of dirty Russian money has not gone unnoticed abroad. Professor Sadiq Isah Radda, the most senior adviser to Nigeria’s President on all matters of anti-corruption, described London as
“the most notorious safe haven for looted funds in the world today”.
That is where we currently are in the world standings.
In January this year, as Putin prepared to invade Ukraine, the Centre for American Progress warned the City of London that
“uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative party, the press, and its real estate and financial industry”.
It was always going to be the case that when Putin finally did unleash his illegal war in Ukraine, the UK would be forced to look at our role and how we have facilitated his gangster regime.
My hon. Friend will have noticed that the Minister described the motion as a misuse of powers, implied that it would impede the Prime Minister in his constitutional role and argued that it is about a witch hunt against a single person. Is the truth not that the motion is about allowing us to understand whether or not the process of appointment has been corrupted? As my hon. Friend has mentioned Russian money, can he throw some light on why the Minister has doubled down on those ridiculous arguments?
Perhaps the Minister could reply for himself. I have no idea why he would double down on those ridiculous arguments.
My right hon. Friend is right that this is not about an individual. It is about a corruption of process, and that was always going to lead us to a re-examination of the Prime Minister’s decision to send Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords for philanthropy and services to the media, as he put it. As we have heard, Mr Lebedev is a Russian businessman who derives his enormous wealth from his father, Alexander Lebedev, a former London-based KGB spy turned oligarch who still has investments in illegally occupied Crimea. At the start of this month, The New York Times said of Evgeny:
“Nobody is a better example of the cozy ties between Russians and the establishment than Mr. Lebedev.”
Just how cosy that relationship is can be seen from the fact that the British Prime Minister personally campaigned for a peerage to turn plain old Evgeny into Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation, for the rest of his life.
I could go on about the absurdity of the House of Lords—the absurdity of a so-called democratic Parliament having an unelected upper Chamber into which family chieftains, high-ranking clerics of one denomination, failed and retired politicians and those with deep pockets who are prepared to bankroll a political party are thrust—but I will resist.
I make it clear that I have never met Lord Lebedev; I do not think I have ever been in the same room as him—but Dmitry Muratov has. He is editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper in Russia. The House will remember that he is also a Nobel peace laureate. He has said:
“The narrative being peddled in parts of the British media about him and his family is not only misjudged but actively dangerous. I urge you to consider who benefits from such untruths being told about a family that is known to be vocally critical of the Kremlin.”
Is the Scottish National party doing the same thing?
With the greatest respect, we most certainly are not. If this Government are so scared of shining a light that has to be shone, at this of all times, there will be accusations of a cover-up and a belief that there is something to be hidden—something that this Government do not want seen. The debate today is all about allowing transparency. That is what this House should be all about, but unfortunately the Government and Conservative Members seem to be terrified of it.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Is not the real concern that the Prime Minister seemingly ignored Security Service advice? That is the issue. We do not make criticism of appointing the person as a peer; the concern is that the Prime Minister ignored security advice and appointed him despite that advice.
The hon. Member is absolutely right. This is about why the Prime Minister chose to ignore the advice of the security services, but there is also a hugely important back story about what got us into the position where he did so, and the implications of that.
My point is a rather similar one: if there was no problem with Lebedev being appointed as a peer and if the guidance from the security services was benign, what is the problem with scrutiny of that advice, which would put to rest all the concerns that people have?
That is right. A theme appears to be emerging on this side of the House. All we want to do is see what was there. All we want is to be reassured that the advice of the security services was not ignored, and that the appointment of Lord Lebedev was above board and beyond reproach. I do not think that, in a democratic system, that is too much for the House to ask.
As Putin’s army continues to commit its war crimes in Ukraine, we have to get to the bottom of how a man with such close connections to the Kremlin was parachuted into this Parliament. We have to establish exactly what advice was given to the Prime Minister by the security and intelligence services in the summer of 2020, and whether or not he chose to overrule that advice, or sought to alter it in any way, in order to get the outcome that he required.
We know that this was not a straightforward appointment. It could not possibly have been, particularly since, almost a decade ago, the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, made it clear that he did not consider it at all appropriate for Mr Lebedev, then the owner of the Evening Standard and The Independent, to join him at MI6 headquarters for lunch. Advisers to the Prime Minister would have known for years of those security service concerns, and one would have hoped that an aspiring politician—or an aspiring Prime Minister—might be wary of becoming too close to Mr Lebedev, but that was not the case. It would appear that in return for favourable headlines in the Evening Standard, Mr Lebedev gained access to the centre of power in the Conservative party, and, particularly after 2019, the centre of the UK Government itself.
Surely Mr Lebedev’s very public utterings about the illegal annexation of Crimea should have set alarm bells ringing in the Conservative party. Did no one in the Conservative party hear or take notice of him calling on western Governments to “stop cold war rhetoric” when they condemned Russia for its aggression in Crimea? Did no one notice his justification that because Crimea had been Russian “for many years”, this was not something to get overly upset about? Did his claim in 2014 that Russia would not be making
“any further incursions into any land”
fall on deaf ears?
The clues were all there, if people chose to look for them. On Syria, Mr Lebedev said that Putin had “shown leadership” in the conflict, and urged the west to accept his offer of a coalition. He followed that up by saying, “Let us keep Assad in power”, because it would be the least worst option, and he doubled down on that by saying:
“On this point I am emphatically with Putin.”
The list is endless. Where was the condemnation of the events surrounding the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, and how in the name of the wee man did our Prime Minister end up having an off-the-record talk with Lord Lebedev—or Evgeny Lebedev, as he was then—48 hours after the Skripal poisonings?
Will the hon. Gentleman at least concede that it was the Conservative Government who led a very robust international effort to respond to the Skripal poisonings, and that the Labour party was, at that time, led by someone who refused to condemn them?
The Skripal poisonings fit into this debate beautifully, because the fact is that an off-the-record meeting was held between the Prime Minister and Mr Lebedev within 48 hours, at the time of an international crisis, and we do not know why. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I thought that Members wished to intervene, but they are just chuntering.
Mr Lebedev and the Prime Minister socialised. They are widely known to have socialised in Mr Lebedev’s castles in Italy and elsewhere, and in London regularly. Mr Lebedev was present in 2016 at the private dinner when the now Prime Minister decided he was going to back the Brexit campaign. I have no idea what Mr Lebedev’s view on Brexit is, but I do know that, in the year before, he wrote this in his newspaper:
“I have no doubt, based on conversations with senior figures in Moscow, that the Kremlin wants to make an ally rather than an enemy of Britain. And I also believe that it is in Britain’s best interest not only to work constructively with Moscow, but to be an active, engaged player on the world stage.”
I opened this speech by saying that when the Government tell us there is “nothing to see here”, we should keep looking. The danger here, however, is that there is almost too much to see to make sense of. We know that the Prime Minister has been absolutely compromised by his relationship with Lord Lebedev. The public have a right to know if the Prime Minister gave an individual a seat for life in this Parliament against the advice of the security services. Desperately not wanting that to be the case is no reason for Conservative Members to block the release of this material. If there is nothing untoward, the Government should publish the material and put the matter to bed for once and for all. Then we could let Baron Lebedev return to doing hee-haw in the other place, as he has done with aplomb since he arrived there 18 months ago.
The core part of the proposed Humble Address is a demand that we publish the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Commission in relation to Lord Lebedev. Labour Members know that, were we to do so, we would be in breach of the rules of that very commission, and they know that because the chair of the commission wrote to the leader of Labour party on 17 March this year saying that the commission’s
“formal advice to the Prime Minister is confidential.”
There is a reason for that. Labour Members also know what that reason is, because it was set out in that letter. According to the commission, the nominees consent to intrusive checks into their background, and they do so on the basis of confidentiality. As we have heard, other non-governmental contributors to that assessment process also provide their information on the basis of confidentiality. The chair of the commission says of publishing such information that it would be
“highly unfair on individuals to do so and risks undermining nominees’ confidence in the confidentiality of vetting processes.”
Labour knows this, and those views are not coming from a Conservative body. The commission has seven members, and only one is a Conservative appointee. There is a Labour member, Lord Clark of Windermere, as well as a Liberal Democrat and four independents, including the Chair. There is no suggestion from the commission that any rules have been breached. If there had been, of course there would be resignations. Lord Clark of Windermere has not resigned, and neither has the Liberal Democrat representative. So why do we have this motion, when it is clear that no rules have been breached? I think it is because Labour Members are trying to smear the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, and they are prepared to damage our institutions to achieve that goal.
I do not know Lord Lebedev. I have never met him. The Labour narrative is that he and people like him are trying to corrupt the Conservatives through Russian influence, but if that is so, it is not working very well. Look at Lord Lebedev’s voting record. He is a Cross Bencher; he is not even a Conservative supporter. I had a look at his maiden speech, in which he said:
“I was raised here for a large part of my life, went to state school and consider myself British, but I am also Russian, which means that I can never be casual about liberty, free speech or the rule of law. Freedom of expression needs its champions. In the post-war era it has rarely been as under assault as it is now. I intend to join hands with noble Lords who can see that and are determined to fight it. A democratic, liberal nation, strong, healthy and free”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 May 2021; Vol. 812, c. 63.]
How subversive! His two written questions were on food banks and food security, and we have already heard that he has made no donations to the Conservative party. So where is the evidence that requires this exceptional approach to Lord Lebedev and the commission’s assessment? There simply is none, other than smear and innuendo.
In response to the invasion of Ukraine, the Conservative Government have been at the forefront of global sanctions. They have supplied more than 10,000 anti-tank and anti-air missiles, trained more than 22,000 troops since 2015, sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals—the oligarchs with whom the Labour party is trying to smear the Government—to a value of £150 billion in the UK and sanctioned Russian banks to a value of over £500 billion in the UK. If the aim was to corrupt this Conservative Government, it is not working.
We are left with what seems to be a clever wheeze by the Labour party to smear and cause damage to the Government and the Prime Minister, but Labour Members should hesitate and look at themselves today because they are doing it at a cost to our institutions. The independent chair of the House of Lords Appointments Commission said it is
“highly unfair on individuals…and risks undermining…confidence in the…processes.”
Labour Members should not be proud of themselves.
I am puzzled by the Solicitor General’s speech, which sounded as if he had written it before the Government decided at lunchtime not to oppose the motion after a revolt by their Back-Bench Members. Perhaps he, or his fellow Minister, will be able to clarify that in their response to the debate. Madam Deputy Speaker, perhaps you or Mr Speaker will be able to clarify the consequences were the Government to refuse to comply with the demands of this motion, if it is passed.
It would have been an easy solution for the Government to get out of this mess with their own Back Benchers, and out of the mess on Russian interference altogether, if only they had published and implemented in full the recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report. They finally published the report after months of resistance by the Prime Minister and an attempt to fix the Committee by putting in a Chair who would not publish the report, but they still have not implemented its recommendations. Most importantly, the Government have not implemented the report’s central recommendation to hold a proper inquiry into Russian interference in Britain’s democracy. I do not understand why that still has not happened.
There is a pattern, because it was this Prime Minister, when I first asked him and his predecessor about this in 2016, who told the House that there was no evidence of “successful” Russian interference in our democracy and democratic processes. They have stuck very carefully to that description. Time and again I was treated as some kind of eccentric, batty person when I first starting raising this as a genuine concern. I was simply expressing the concerns I had picked up from our intelligence and security services, which we now know made those concerns very plain to the Prime Minister in relation to his intention to give a peerage to Lord Lebedev.
There is a pattern here. We saw it in the Prime Minister’s extraordinary trip, in the immediate aftermath of a NATO summit following the Skripal poisoning and chemical weapon attack in Salisbury, to the Lebedev castle in Tuscany for one of those parties—rather over-the-top parties, by the sound of it. The senior Lebedev was also present at that party, and of course it was President Putin who said, “Once a KGB officer, always a KGB officer.” And the Prime Minister sent his close-protection officers away in an absolutely extraordinary breach of normal protocol.
Alex Lebedev owns Lebedev Holdings, which owns 75% of the Evening Standard. He supported the invasion of Crimea, on which he held a number of events in 2014. We do not know whether he tried to influence the Prime Minister at that point on Ukraine’s territorial integrity; we now see that the invasion of the whole Ukraine was emboldened by that earlier invasion. The Government should release more information, because we just do not know what has happened.
Mr Lebedev’s public statements were mealy-mouthed after the invasion of Crimea and we know that Lebedev senior has ongoing business interests in illegally occupied Crimea. I would be interested to know whether the Paymaster General knows or has even bothered to try to find out whether Lebedev junior does as well or whether he benefits from those business interests. We have had years of denials and obfuscation from this Prime Minister. We know, thanks to what the intelligence services have put on the public record, that they did warn the Prime Minister against this peerage, he ignored the advice and the rest is history, which is why we are debating this motion today. So when the Paymaster General or his colleague responds to this debate, will they confirm that if the House passes this motion, they will comply with it and publish all the relevant documentation in full, including the WhatsApp messages of the Prime Minister? We have heard other reports elsewhere in recent days that WhatsApp messages have mysteriously and conveniently disappeared from the Prime Minister’s telephone. This is a completely unacceptable way of running a Government in a democracy, particularly one as precious and long standing as ours. That confirmation about all of those documents and the Government adhering to this motion will be very important.
Let us recall the credulity of the Minister at the Dispatch Box when he said, “Oh, Lebedev has been critical of Putin and of Crimea, and has done all these great charitable works.” An effective Kremlin asset in this country is not exactly going to make a reputation for themselves as being a massive supporter of the Kremlin, are they? The credulity of successive Ministers in this Conservative Government makes me feel as though something does not smell right here. They are still refusing to implement the recommendations of the Russia report and I do not see how that position is sustainable after the war in Ukraine—everything has changed. They could get away with this before that. They could get away with, as the Intelligence and Security Committee described it, the wilful ignoring of Russian interference—that is what it said happened under successive Conservative Prime Ministers and under this Government. They cannot get away with that any more. I advise the Paymaster General to go back to Downing Street and speak to the Cabinet and say, “Look, this is the way we are going to avoid this problem.” These problems are going to be repeated in the weeks and months to come, because more stories like this are going to come out about Russian interference and influence in our political system, many of which will touch the Conservative party. But this is not a party political thing, as there are Labour peers who are in equally invidious situations, but the Conservatives are in government and that makes this much more serious. This is friendly advice to the Paymaster General and his ministerial colleagues: come clean and put it all out in the open; implement the recommendations of the Russia report—stop running away from them and hiding from them; and have that inquiry into Russian interference and then everything can be out in the open and transparent. That is the only way, in the medium and long run, that we are going to be confident and satisfied in this country that our politics, democracy, political parties and individuals are not being subverted by the sort of behaviour we have seen from Putin, not just in this country, but in the United States and across the western and democratic world. I support the motion moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) and I hope the House will vote for it today, but the Government are going to have to implement it, and quickly.
This is an interesting one, as I came in with a different speech from the one I am about to give. What can I say? I must touch on the point made by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) about this not being party political. I do not know what debate he has been sitting in for the past hour and a half, but I would certainly disagree with him on that statement. Let us consider this road to Damascus that the Labour party seems to have been on in respect of Russia. When we had the Salisbury attack, Labour’s previous leader was calling for Russia to be allowed to take back samples to test. This is absolutely crazy; it is like to Saul to Paul. The disbelief with which I have sat here today is incredible.
The issue of awarding peerages had dogged this place for a long time—we all remember Lord Levy, although the Labour party does not want to remember the investigations that went on then—but it is as problem. As I said in my intervention, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) gave an articulate speech and touched on a really important point, which is about the broader process of peerages. I wish a more definitive answer had been given for how we solve this. That is the core of the debate. I appreciate that we are considering a specific motion on the release of information, but if we consider the principles behind the debate, it is very bizarre that the Labour party does not appear to offer up solutions to fix the problem for the longer term. Clearly, there is a longer-term issue and concerns about the advice given to Prime Ministers and from Prime Ministers in the appointment of peers. Would it not make sense to open up that debate?
My understanding of the role of an Opposition is that they are meant to put forward credible alternatives, not just sit here and moan. My concern is that I could not quite get a credible alternative from the Opposition in two times of asking—[Interruption.] I can hear the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) chuntering from a sedentary position, as usual, on that point.
When the Mayor of London was partying with Lord Lebedev in 2017, or when Labour Front Benchers were partying with him in 2011 and 2012, there was silence. What confuses me about this whole situation is the fact that it is one rule for them, as always, but another rule for everyone else. But that is the Labour party, Madam Deputy Speaker—
No, I do not think so. The hon. Member has articulated her position from a sedentary position for a long time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) said that the core of the debate was a process issue. We do not want to undermine the process of the commission when there are GDPR and legal consequences of the motion passing. People put themselves before the process on the basis that it is confidential and they can give the full transparent disclosure that they are required to give. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General has articulated, there is a real risk—
I thank the hon. Member for giving way on this point. Transparency is key to today’s motion. If he is all for transparency, why is his party not supporting this motion to be transparent and honest with the British public? The Minister talked about protecting processes, but this is a question about whether the process protects the British people.
I hear the hon. Member’s point about transparency and I get that—there is a broader conversation to be had about that—but as my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General stated, we cannot do that at the risk of undermining the processes that are there. What I will say to the hon. Member—perhaps she and I will agree on this—is let us change the process. How about that? There is stunned silence at a Conservative MP suggesting changing the process, but that is the point I am trying to make.
There is a fundamental flaw in today’s motion. Okay, the documentation is released, but what then? Labour seems to be clamouring for something that it skirts around in the motion but does not go forward to suggest change. It strikes me as absurd.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He says that there are no ideas forthcoming from the Opposition on how to change the process. Let me give him a bold and radical idea that my party has been championing for decades, which is that we should have a fully elected upper Chamber, not an appointed one. We would therefore not have to have this appointment process at all, and we would not have to have this discussion at all.
Just to clarify, I never said that the Liberal Democrats did not have an idea, just the Labour party. I am fully aware of the hon. Member’s party’s position.
Let me respond to the undertones of the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland pointed out, our response to Ukraine has not been hindered by this situation at all—with the 22,000 troops that have been trained, 10,000 missiles, the fact that we had the President of Ukraine appear in this Chamber and that he has thanked this Government for their intervention in Ukraine. The Ukrainian people say that this country stepped forward and they see us as their biggest ally in their fight for freedom—the undertone of the motion and the debate is disgraceful.
The motion is fundamentally flawed. I have no issue with backing a motion when it works, but this one does not even meet the procedure it tries to use. I come back to the point that we have been told that this is not party political, but I have been sitting in the debate for an hour now and I do not know how it could not be perceived as party political. Clearly, there are broader conversations to be had and I look forward to those ideas, but the motion is flawed and does not work. It is procedurally just not right and it seeks to undermine the existing processes, putting at risk the disclosure and transparency that we are trying to put across and the confidence people have to engage with the system. The motion is completely flawed, as I say, and it cannot be supported today.
This is a timely debate. In these historic and trying times, this country and our allies must be able to have trust in the Prime Minister on defence, on national security and on Russia. I am afraid to say that on all those fronts there are enormous questions for him to answer. My hon. Friends have outlined the concerns regarding the appointment of Lord Lebedev to the House of Lords. That is why this motion calling for the relevant documents to be published is so crucial. However, that is not the only cause for concern regarding the Prime Minister’s judgment on the Lebedev family.
On 16 March this year I wrote to the Security Minister regarding the now Prime Minister’s actions and his encounters with the Lebedev family in April 2018, which, as others have said, was just a month after the Salisbury poisonings. We all remember the events of 4 March 2018, when the Novichok nerve agent was used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who both became seriously ill following their contact with the deadly substance. Detective sergeant Nick Bailey, one of the first on the scene, was admitted to intensive care but thankfully survived.
On 12 March the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) came to the House of Commons and told honourable Members that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the Salisbury attack, saying,
“either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2018; Vol. 637, c.620-21.]
Crucially, she said that the Foreign Secretary, now the Prime Minister, had summoned Russia’s ambassador to the Foreign Office that afternoon to provide an explanation.
The following month, the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) attended a meeting of NATO Foreign Ministers at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. In advance of the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg outlined that Russia would be first item on the agenda, after what he said were several years of Moscow’s “pattern of dangerous behaviour”. He went on to say:
“It is also highly likely that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.”
That NATO meeting was on the 27 April 2018. I outline the timeline and context to make it crystal clear that the then Foreign Secretary, now the Prime Minister, would have fully understood how serious the situation with Russia was back in April 2018, in the middle of the Salisbury incident. It is therefore incredible that he went straight from that NATO meeting to Palazzo Terranova in Italy for a weekend-long party hosted by Evgeny Lebedev, now Lord Lebedev.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) has already said, there the then Foreign Secretary met with Evgeny Lebedev’s father Alexander Lebedev, an ex-KGB officer. That was confirmed by a spokesperson for Alexander Lebedev to The Guardian, which published the story in November 2019. When asked about the meeting, Downing Street declined to comment.
It is reported that the then Foreign Secretary attended the party with no security, and, other than a brief entry of ministerial interests on the Foreign Office website, where he declared an “overnight stay” there on 28 April—so we know it happened—there appears to be no official record of his time there, nor any details of any meetings or who else was in attendance. He left his officials and close protection officers behind, despite the Foreign Secretary’s position being deemed to require round-the-clock protection from the Metropolitan Police.
While the Foreign Secretary was off the grid, partying with Lord Lebedev and his father the ex-KGB agent, the Novichok was still waiting to be found, in a bin seven miles north of Salisbury. It was found by Charlie Rowley on 30 June. Charlie survived his exposure to the Novichok, but sadly his girlfriend Dawn did not, having sprayed it directly onto her skin, believing it to be perfume. It is nothing short of a miracle, given what we know about the Novichok and its reckless use, that more people were not seriously injured, with greater loss of life. A great deal of thanks is due to the professionals who worked tirelessly to respond to the risk and make the area safe. To leave a NATO meeting intended to co-ordinate the response of NATO members to the Salisbury poisoning, as Foreign Secretary, and fly directly to a party where a former KGB agent was in attendance, without security or officials, shows a somewhat catastrophic error of judgment. In September 2018, the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, returned to update the House of Commons to confirm that, based on a body of intelligence, the Government had concluded that the two individuals named by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service were officers from the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) Neston raised this at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions two weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), said:
“The hon. Gentleman is talking total nonsense and I do not have anything to add to what I have already said.”—[Official Report, 16 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 889.]
This is utterly, utterly unacceptable. The Deputy Prime Minister might think that this sounds unbelievable, and he would be absolutely right—it does—but I have only outlined what has already been confirmed and published and is in the public domain. As a minimum, he owes my hon. Friend an apology. But beyond that, this Government and the Prime Minister owe the country an explanation. I am still waiting for a response to my letter to my counterpart, the Minister for Security and Borders, asking for answers. It is entirely right that the documents requested in the motion are published within the same spirit of transparency on this matter.
In addition to the documents relating to Lord Lebedev’s peerage, may I also ask that an urgent explanation is made to this House regarding the Prime Minister’s movements in April 2018? For him to decide to go to that party attended by a former KGB officer, at the height of the Salisbury poisoning, on the way back from a NATO meeting on Russia, left both himself and the country horribly exposed. I put on record my thanks to the fearless journalists who have put this information in the public domain. The Deputy Prime Minister’s dismissal of the PMQ from my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston is frankly beneath him. This is incredibly serious. The general public and our allies need an explanation from the Prime Minister, and we need the documents outlined in the motion to be published without delay.
Lord Lebedev’s case raises a wider question of the huge weaknesses that exist within our political donations system. For over a decade, foreign money has flooded our democracy. The Minister may like to claim, when he winds up this debate, that his party does not raise money from Russian oligarchs, but nearly £2 million in donations from Russia has found its way into either the Tory party or constituency association coffers since the Prime Minister took office.
A further £1.6 million has been donated to the party, its MPs and local associations by Aquind or its company directors. Recent investigations have revealed that one of its directors, Mr Fedotov, benefited from $4 billion alleged fraud in Putin’s Russia. Both Mr Fedotov and Mr Temerko have undertaken a co-ordinated effort to influence the Conservative party into support for their disastrous project, which would have caused untold disruption to my constituency. Since the project began, directors have bankrolled the equivalent of one in 10 Tory MPs, including the Paymaster General. That includes a string of current and former Ministers in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and a serving member of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
We are still not completely clear where the company’s money has come from or what the company’s owners expected in return for their cash, but, like the concern expressed in the motion, it does not take much to connect the dots. In 2018, the project was magically designated a national infrastructure project by the then Business Secretary, taking the planning decision away from the local authority and giving it to central Government. Until the Paterson fiasco, it seemed a nailed-on certainty that the project would go ahead, despite the dedicated and unified opposition from my city and, specifically, the #LetsStopAquind campaign group. The Business Secretary faced a choice between the people of Portsmouth and a billionaire Tory donor facing fraud allegations. After much dither and delay, and a concerted local campaign, he narrowly made the right choice. However, my constituents continue to ask how Conservative Ministers came so close to allowing party donors facing corruption allegations to control a national infrastructure project. Can those who receive the funds from Aquind or its directors be sure that they are not indirectly benefiting from fraud? Like the motion today, the answers are uncomfortable for the Conservatives and worrying for our country.
The case of Lord Lebedev and the Aquind fiasco threaten to undermine our democracy and our national security. Now more than ever, we should be taking every possible step to insulate ourselves from the threat posed by those with links to Putin’s political power, but for every second that the Conservatives are in power, their cronyism makes our whole country more vulnerable.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is talking about party political donations. When Unite, for example, donates £1 million to the Labour party and Labour Members of Parliament, or when many other trade unions make donations, what influence does that buy those trade unions? Do they write the manifesto, for example?
The suggestion that Labour Members are somehow anti-Russian is not borne out by the facts and is just an attempt by Government Members to avoid the criticism that the motion makes of the way they handled the appointment of Lord Lebedev. In order to understand why his appointment to the House of Lords is concerning, we have to look at the history of where the family money came from.
Evgeny Lebedev’s father is a former KGB operative. He joined the KGB in the early 1980s, he was active in the KGB through perestroika and he was active in London. Although as a diplomat he had diplomatic cover, he operated as a spy out of Kensington Palace Gardens from 1988 to 1992. During perestroika, the KGB reformed itself. Rather than being an anti-capitalist organisation, it used the knowledge it had gained of capitalism, and members of the KGB became capitalists themselves. In an extraordinary way, many became extraordinarily rich in a very short space of time.
In the early ’90s, Alexander Lebedev set up his first business. By 1995, he was able to buy a bank, the National Reserve Bank. It was a bank in financial difficulties; none the less, he had enough money to buy it. Its assets grew incredibly fast, and by 2006 his fortune was estimated to be $3.5 billion. Not bad work for a member of the KGB. He was listed by “Forbes” as Russia’s 39th richest man. He also purchased newspapers along the way—something that would be repeated by the family in later years.
In 1997, the Russian prosecutor general, Yury Skuratov, opened multiple investigations into Lebedev and the NRB, accusing the bank of tax avoidance and fraud. Skuratov also investigated Yeltsin’s Government in the late 1990s, and he believed that Lebedev was spying on him to counteract the investigations into the NRB and the Kremlin. Leaks about Skuratov’s personal life went on the internet and were traced back to an organisation called Konus, a security company linked to Lebedev’s bank, the NRB. In 1999, a sex kompromat tape appeared showing a man who looked like Skuratov with two young sex workers. Kompromat is a set-up—basically, a honey trap—where people are filmed in compromising situations. Skuratov denied that it was him.
At the time that the tape was leaked, Putin was head of the FSB, the Russian spy organisation that replaced the KGB. Putin declared on national television that the man on the tape was Skuratov. Skuratov was sacked and the corruption investigations into Alexander Lebedev’s bank and the Government collapsed. Putin then entered the Kremlin, and Lebedev’s wealth increased exponentially.
Kompromats are used by secret services, especially the KGB. Our secret services have said that if someone put themselves in a compromising position, as the Prime Minister did when he went to the Palazzo Terranova, they too would have been on it, and would have tried to find evidence that the subject they were investigating had compromised themselves. That is why the security services are so alarmed by the behaviour of the Prime Minister—by the fact that he would leave behind his security detail and go to bunga bunga parties at Palazzo Terranova.
We have to understand that we are talking about a pattern of behaviour by Russian oligarchs. They have used London to launder their money—to turn dirty money into clean money—and then meticulously set about buying influence in various parts of British society. They are starting to buy political influence, social influence, football clubs, and newspapers—you name it, they are seeking to influence it. They are using strategic lawsuits against public participation against any journalist, newspaper or book writer who investigates what they are up to. Political donations are part of this; £2.2 million has been donated since the Prime Minister became leader of the Conservative party.
Then there is VTB Bank, the second largest bank in Russia, which has been sanctioned by the Government. An individual who works for it, in global fixed income trading, has given £44,000 to the Tory party in the last two years, including £3,000 to the Conservative party in Greenwich, my borough. We are fighting local elections; why should they be paid for by Russian money that comes from a bank that is associated with the Kremlin? Why should somebody who is paid by a Russian bank finance local government elections in this country? How is that justifiable?
Given what my hon. Friend says, he will be interested to hear that Lord Wharton, who was appointed to the Lords on the same day as Mr Lebedev, is a former adviser to Alexander Temerko, who has distributed money to Tory MPs and the Tees Valley Mayor. Yesterday, it was revealed that the Mayor’s close relative has been appointed to Lord Wharton’s Office for Students. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister’s dodgy actions are perpetuated throughout the Tory party?
I am grateful for that clarification, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was concerned; I was worried. I will finish off, before you criticise me for going on too long.
The motion calls for the evidence to be published—simple as that. That is why there has been a collapse in the number of Tory Back Benchers in the Chamber, and why the Government are not voting against the motion—because their Back Benchers will not vote against it; it is a perfectly reasonable motion, calling for accountability from a Prime Minister who has behaved disgracefully and could have compromised the security of this country. That is what the motion is about. It is a disgrace that the Conservatives are not voting for it and not holding the Prime Minister to account.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). He is absolutely right: the logic, or rather lack of logic, of the Government’s argument beggars belief. If the Government believe that what is in the motion is wrong, and that it should not be agreed to, they have the option of voting against it, but they will not do that because their Back Benchers will not allow them to.
Actually, what is being asked of this House is not unreasonable. We are asking for the release of the information that led to the appointment of Lord Lebedev. Ultimately, the issue of the appointment of Lord Lebedev hinges on two things—transparency and national security. The Government’s dangerous links to Putin’s oligarchs are putting Britain at risk. The British public deserve to know why the son and business partner of an ex-KGB agent was allowed to be nominated to the House of Lords. That is not and should not be a controversial thing to ask of the Government.
I hope this is also not a controversial point to raise, but could the hon. Member just confirm whether he campaigned for the former leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), to sit on the Front Bench and lead his party?
The hon. Lady knows that I have been a Member of Parliament for 17 years, and as a Labour MP, I want a Labour Government. I have to say to the hon. Lady that if we had a Labour Government right now, we would not be allowing dirty money in British politics. We have made it quite clear, year after year, that we need to clean up the financing of our political system.
I have already given way, and I will give way a bit later if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make my argument.
I would argue that this is not and should not be a controversial thing to ask of the Government, but the Conservative Government are asking us to do an extraordinary amount on their behalf. They are asking us to take their word for it that the appointment of Lord Lebedev had absolutely nothing to do with the Prime Minister’s cosy relationship with the newspaper owner. They are asking us to ignore the overnight stay the Prime Minister had with the mogul in his flashy villa in Perugia when he was Foreign Secretary. They are asking us to ignore the trips in Lebedev’s private jet and the lavish parties, as well as to ignore the staunch support of the Evening Standard for the Prime Minister when he was running for a second term as Mayor of London.
The Government are asking us to ignore the comments from the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser; to ignore reports that the House of Lords Appointments Commission advised against the appointment of Lord Lebedev, only for the Prime Minister to personally intervene and push through the appointment; and to ignore the concerns raised by the security services, and the fact that the Prime Minister reportedly got very cross when he was told that Lord Lebedev represented a security concern. They are asking us to ignore Lord Lebedev’s defence of Vladimir Putin and his illegal invasion of Crimea in 2014, to ignore Lebedev’s calls for Britain to make Vladimir Putin an ally, and to ignore his parroting of Kremlin conspiracy theories and his doubts over Putin’s links to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.
I ask colleagues: is this a fair thing for the Government to ask Members of the House of Commons to do? Does this seem like the actions of a responsible Government and Prime Minister? I know that some on the Government Benches will say that the Government’s pre-packaged response lines are almost as nonsensical as they are predictable, and on that point I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the dangers, apparently, of this Conservative Government, but I am terrified by the fact that, at the last general election, the then Leader of the Opposition was someone who had been friends with the IRA not long after the Brighton bombing and laid wreaths for Black September. Those are the scandalous things that are dangers—
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not noticed that the Labour party has changed, but certainly people in the country have, and I would say to him that I hope the Whip on the Treasury Bench is paying due attention, because he did read out some of the points on page 4 of the Conservative party brief.
The Government claim that Lord Lebedev was nominated in recognition of his contribution to the UK and his charitable ventures. If that is the case, let us see the formal information concerning the appointment of Lord Lebedev. If there is nothing untoward, there is no reason not to publish the advice.
The urgency of this request cannot be overstated. As we debate here in this Chamber, Vladimir Putin is wreaking destruction on the people of Ukraine. His forces are murdering people in their thousands, and displacing millions more. We speak with one voice in this House of Commons and this British Parliament when it comes to the disgraceful actions of Putin in Ukraine.
For over a decade, however, Putin’s money has been allowed to flood into our democracy. Nearly £2 million of Kremlin cash has found its way either to the Tory party or into constituency association coffers since this Prime Minister took office. That should be a profound mark of shame for Conservative Members. In that context, Labour Members are requesting this vital information. We, and the people we represent, need to know whether the Prime Minister puts the national security of this country ahead of personal relationships. This is about a basic prerequisite for the job.
I have no doubt that most Conservative colleagues will abstain from voting, and therefore this humble address will pass. I hope, and sincerely expect, that the Government will follow the letter of the humble address, and release the information forthwith. However, I urge colleagues to think carefully about the message that their actions send out of this place, and I urge them to do more than abstain and to vote with Labour Members. Let us send a strong message that Putin’s cronies will not be tolerated in British democracy, and that we in this House uphold the highest standards of integrity and transparency. Release the Security Service’s advice to the Prime Minister, so that we all know what he was told and the actions that followed.
I have spoken many times in this House in recent weeks about the troubling closeness of the relationship between many in this Government and Russian oligarchs, often with direct links to the Kremlin. Yet despite the clear evidence presented to the Prime Minister, much of it from our own intelligence services, the Government have repeatedly and deliberately turned a blind eye to those concerns. Even now, when presented with overwhelming facts about Evgeny Lebedev, and his father’s past in the KGB, far from acting swiftly and decisively to cut out the Kremlin’s insidious influence, Conservative Members have instead welcomed Putin’s cronies with open arms. Flush with oligarchic cash, it is little wonder that they have done little more than sanction a few prominent Russians, none of whom are Tory party donors. As bombs continue to rain down on Kharkiv and Kyiv, that is an insult to the millions of Ukrainians who are fleeing for their lives amid the ongoing bloodshed. It is an outrage.
As I have already alluded to, just a few thousand roubles is all it takes to gain access to the corridors of Whitehall. One such example was when the Conservative party accepted £30,000 from the wife of a former crony of Vladimir Putin. The donation was from Lubov Chernukhin, who is married to former Russian Deputy Finance Minister Vladimir Chernukhin. That was despite the then Defence Secretary’s own warnings, just weeks earlier, about Russian cyber-attacks, and it led to farcical scenes that included the UK Defence Secretary giving Mrs Chernukhin a private tour of the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall.
Given that influence in the Conservative party is so easily bought, major questions over Russian financial influence need to be addressed urgently. Such actions put our national security at risk and potentially corrupt the very politics and democracy that we seek to uphold. We need to root out that dark money and truly defend democracy by cleaning up the malevolent foreign influence that is a consequence of that money. The Government have done none of that, though, because their insatiable greed has blinded them and continues to see them play fast and loose with our national security.
It is important to make the point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) did earlier, that the vast majority of Russians are decent people. Not everyone is linked to Putin just in the same way that, fortunately, not everyone in the UK is linked to our corrupt Government. That is why Labour is calling for Lebedev to be stripped of his peerage not because of his Russian citizenship, but because of his links to the Kremlin.
Lebedev’s father was a member of the KGB, as exposed so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) and many other Labour colleagues. In this post-cold war era, we may well have previously been able to plant that fact firmly in the rear view mirror, but when the current President of Russia is a former KGB agent who continues to act as if he is carrying out orders directly from the Lubyanka, killing people on British soil in the process, it cannot be right that one of Putin’s close associates is sat in his robes able to influence our democracy in the opulence of the other place.
The Prime Minister cannot claim that he was not aware. His former chief of staff recently stated that he was in the room when the Prime Minister was told that intelligence officials had serious reservations about giving Lebedev the honour. That same advice was changed after the Prime Minister personally intervened and then, just months later, the first Lord of Siberia was ennobled. It is patently clear that the Prime Minister bent the rules to suit himself and put his personal interests and friendships first. Why? The truth is that he has been in hock to Lebedev for years. Lord Lebedev of Siberia quite literally helped him to secure two terms as Mayor of London, while also ensuring the Conservative party remained in Government.
As proprietor of the Evening Standard, London’s largest newspaper, Lebedev has repeatedly intervened to influence the outcome of elections. On 30 April 2012, just before the now Prime Minister was facing an election to secure a second term as Mayor, the front page of the Evening Standard, issued to almost a million Londoners, screamed:
“Boris Johnson: The right choice for London”.
Then, on 5 May 2015, just days before the general election, the front page once again instructed its readers:
“As we prepare to go to the polls in a knife-edge election, the Standard urges its readers to consider what is best for our capital… and support the Tories”.
The link is clear, present and direct.
In any functioning democracy, that level of propaganda would be called out, but sadly in the UK the press barons wield enormous influence, and one must question whether organs such as the Evening Standard are pulling the Prime Minister’s strings. Is that not the real reason why the Prime Minister is so averse to stripping Lebedev of his peerage? To do so would mean biting the hand of the puppet masters who feed him.
The Government can and must do more to help the people of Ukraine, as Opposition Members have said. As Declassified UK and openDemocracy recently revealed, British businesses recently sponsored an arms fair where sanctioned Russian weapons makers showed off munitions currently being used to attack Ukraine. It gets worse. While the Government were repeatedly spouting rhetoric in this Chamber about taking tough measures—this is scandalous—the Minister for Defence Procurement, the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), was among the guests at the world defence show in Riyadh. Other attendees included at least four Russian firms sanctioned by the UK Government as well as others whose executives have been personally sanctioned. Perhaps the Minister, in winding up, can tell us why his colleague was there, and why he was at the same murderous arms fair as Russia’s biggest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, part of the sanctioned state conglomerate Rostec, which was busy promoting tanks and drones that independent arms researchers at the Omega Research Foundation identified as weapons used by Russia in the current war in Ukraine. Earlier this month the Russian Ministry of Defence even shared videos on social media of helicopters, exhibited at that very same fair by Rosoboronexport, firing at Ukrainian forces, yet our Government were there and present. That is shameful.
No, I won’t. Our defence procurement Minister was also rubbing shoulders—[Interruption.] I will give way at the end. Hear how bad it gets. Our defence procurement Minister was also rubbing shoulders with representatives of Almaz-Antey, a Russian state-owned anti-aircraft manufacturer also sanctioned by the UK for
“providing heavy weaponry to separatists in eastern Ukraine, contributing to the destabilisation of Ukraine”
that we see today in Russia’s all-out war. He was also pressing the flesh with representatives of UralVagonZavod, another sanctioned state-owned company exhibiting at the fair that manufactures tanks.
The reality is that the Government’s empty rhetoric, weak actions and toothless sanctions are giving cover to Putin’s murderous regime and costing lives in Ukraine. It is shameful. All of us on the Labour Benches would like the Minister to show some gumption and tell us the real reason why the Prime Minister is so unwilling to so much as even entertain the possibility of stripping Lebedev of his peerage and sharing the information we have requested. The Prime Minister’s continual failure to act makes a mockery of our democracy. It highlights the cesspool of cronyism and corruption that the Government are wallowing in and is an insult to the families of the dead who have lost their lives in this ongoing conflict.
The real insult the hon. Gentleman should be thinking about is the insult to the dead people killed on the streets of Britain when the leader he supported asked the Kremlin to check whether it was their poison that had killed them or not. Does he not reflect on the fact that Britain was the first country in the world to provide military training and defensive weapons in support of the Ukrainian people, or that it was his party, under Ed Miliband, that did everything possible to stop our support for the Syrian opposition at that time? [Interruption.]
Order. First of all, the hon. Gentleman knows that he should not refer to another Member by name; he needs to refer to their constituency. Secondly, it is important that we stick to the motion in front of us. There is a bit of a tendency to wander off into different subjects that are perhaps leading us slightly astray from the matter in hand, which is the process we are discussing with regard to peerages and so on. It was said at the beginning that we should try to keep our language moderate and calm. I think we need to return to that and I am sure Mr Tarry will now do so.
Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was merely thinking about the wanderings of the defence procurement Minister, which ended up at Russian arms fairs.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, the irony is that if people had listened to the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who for years and years has been calling for sanctions and actions against Russia, then perhaps those guys on the Government Benches would not have been—[Interruption.] I was just trying to answer the question. If only they had listened to the advice of Labour Members who were saying how dangerous it was that relationships with the Russians and our Government were far too cosy.
The Prime Minister’s continual failure to act makes a mockery of our democracy, and highlights the cesspool of cronyism and corruption at the heart of this Government. I am saying that this is a moment to reflect. The unwillingness to share that information and to shine a light of truth—a light of truth—into what many people across the country are wondering, led me to reflect on something I once read. Professor Richard Sakwa said in his seminal book “Russian Politics and Society”:
“Under late communism, nepotism and patron client relations undermined the political criteria of elite recruitment in the nomenklatura system. The political elite began to degenerate into a social class, perhaps one of the most economically useless in history…the Party fostered a class that grew at its expense and began to transform itself into a traditional oligarchy.”
That is a description of the collapsing Soviet Union, yet it could be used to describe the regime of the Conservative party.
I have attended almost every debate we have had on an economic crime Bill up until this point. In my role as my party’s spokesperson on foreign affairs when the Navalny list first came out well over a year ago, I started to name some of the names, and I have since done that in a more comprehensive form. Every single time this issue has come to this place, it has generally been discussed in a cross-party spirit. If we possibly can, I really want us to elevate ourselves from where the debate has been so far. It is in everyone’s interest to root out even suggestions of corruption in our politics, in any form and undertaken by any party.
I put it to all Members that this issue is not easy for any party. Parties of all colours, of mixed colours and all the rest of it have at some point floated close to this. It is absolutely right that our free media asks questions and that this House is allowed to scrutinise. That is exactly what unpins the very thing that Putin does not want, which is democracy. I sincerely hope that in all that we are agreed.
Although on the face of it this debate is about process, I believe it to be a debate about questions and the fundamental integrity of those who take their places not just in this Chamber but in the other place. While we have a democracy—a democracy that the Intelligence and Security Committee suggests has been under the threat of Russian interference—it is right to ask questions about how someone may have reached a level at which they have influence and, indeed, the ability to vote on the law of this land.
I point out that the Liberal Democrats have long campaigned on this issue—indeed, every single Liberal Democrat Lord is signed up to losing their own job because we believe we should have an elected House of Lords. That is our proposal. Were that system in place, they would be appointed by their constituents—the voters of this country—and we would not be having these discussions, or at least not in this way. But that is not what currently happens, so let me come back to the process.
The problem with the appointment of Lord Lebedev is that our free media, with its ability to root around in these questions and shine light into the darkness, came across evidence to suggest that the Prime Minister overruled or bent—whatever it may be—the advice of the security services and the commission. The question being asked is why we are focusing on Lord Lebedev; well, because this has not happened in this way before. The advice of the commission was overruled one other time, and that was also by this Prime Minister—indeed, that was the first time—so there is form. That was the first time ever that a Prime Minister did that.
Let me put this all into context. Today, the Metropolitan police have issued fines for parties that the Prime Minister told us categorically from the Dispatch Box never happened. The problem is not the process; I argue that it seems the process is actually working. The commission makes recommendations based on what it heard from the security services. It seems that the problem might be the Prime Minister, which is why this debate is important. We have to separate the wheat from the chaff. To what extent is the process working—actually, I think it is—and to what extent have we had interference in our democracy at a number of levels, of which this is potentially one example? I say “potentially” because we just do not know. The purpose of the motion is to shed light. Let the truth be out.
I hear what the Minister said about the process somehow being denigrated. However, it sounds to me as though the process would be reinforced, because the process said that Lord Lebedev should not be given a peerage, and that therefore reinforces the need for the commission in the first place. It was just doing its job, which it did well, but it seems that the Prime Minister overruled it. He claims that he never did that, and there is a counter-claim by Dominic Cummings—let us all take that with the pinch of salt it absolutely deserves.
I think the Government should welcome the publication of this information. I have spoken to Government Members who want to see this come out. I am proudly in WhatsApp groups with Government Members who, like me, care about our democracy, who are trying to push through the economic crime legislation, who are frustrated that it took six years for part one to come and are desperate for part two, and who have spoken collectively and positively about what the Government are finally doing, for example, on SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation—and other issues. We are grasping the nettle and it will be difficult for all of us. However, the Government are somehow now standing at the Dispatch Box and twisting this into anything other than what it is, which is a cool-headed look at how our democracy has been functioning for decades and an understanding of how Russian interference has permeated, like a rot, through our economy, society and even our politics.
We all have to admit that this process is going to be difficult. I wish that the Government would admit that and say, “Yes, it will be difficult, but we are going to do this anyway because it is the right thing to do.” By looking into that Pandora’s box, they may well find things that they do not want to know about. The Government seem to be taking an ostrich mentality, and I kind of get it, except we are all here as custodians of our democracy, putting the country first. I genuinely think that any Government who chose to deal with this matter would be rewarded by the public for doing so, because they would be grateful, especially at a time of national crisis, when people and authoritarian regimes are seeking to undermine our democracy. There has never been a better time to root out of the evil of corruption, no matter where that leads.
Fundamentally, this is what needs to happen: we need not only all the information to be published, but an independent inquiry into what happened and how the Prime Minister was involved, or was not. I am genuinely sorry to say this, because it reflects on our whole country when we do not know if our Prime Minister is telling the truth or not, but we just do not know. In the same way that Sue Gray has rooted out what happened after the Prime Minister said that no parties ever took place, and they did—I am afraid that we cannot trust his word at this moment—we need an independent inquiry to verify whether or not he may have inadvertently misled the House previously. That is why this Humble Address is important: it will help, not hinder, the situation.
The other thing that I do not understand is why the Russia report recommendation to investigate and publish fully the extent of Russian interference in our democracy has not been carried out.
I will quote from the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report, because it is so important:
“Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations. It is notable that a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state—these relationships should be carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.”
I commend the speech of the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), who hit the nail on the head. It is not necessarily a question of the words of Lord Lebedev, which other hon. Members have quoted; I fundamentally disagree with him, but there were Members of this House with the same views and it could be said that those views are genuinely held. That is fine, but the point is how the Russian state and particularly the oligarchs have acquired their money. I used to sit on the Public Accounts Committee, and we had a phrase: “Follow the money.” Following the money very often leads to where the power really lies.
The issue in this case is that the money has been used to buy access and influence. We know how these oligarchs operate: they do things that, on the face of it, look great. They quite often fundraise for causes that may publicly be different from what they are being told to do. It is very sophisticated. The face of corruption looks nice—it gives people champagne, it buys them nice things, it lets them have a good time. I am not suggesting straight out that that is what Lord Lebedev has done, but it is right that we ask questions, because that is the modus operandi of the entire oligarch system.
I would argue that the Ukraine invasion by Putin’s forces has brought sharply into view the extent of the involvement of Kremlin-linked people and organisations, not just in this country—although obviously we are concerned about this country—but across the west. As we speak with one voice on Ukraine, is it now time to speak with one voice on cleaning up British politics once and for all? If not now, when?
I absolutely agree: now is the time. It is worth saying that that would not just apply to Russian oligarchs, because we know that other countries have sought to do the same thing. Investigating the extent of the interference in our democracy would set us up for a much stronger future, so I believe that this is the right motion at the right time.
I also argue that we should have rooted out the corruption years ago. In fact, it was a Conservative Prime Minister and a Conservative Chancellor who first suggested that at the Dispatch Box. I have said several times that it should not be this hard to implement a Conservative party manifesto promise. We are getting there, so, please, let us continue the cross-party spirit in how we go about rooting out corruption. That extends, I am afraid, to the dealings of Lord Lebedev as someone who is allowed to vote on this country’s laws—the one oligarch who seems to have been allowed to do that. I urge the House to back the motion.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). I would dearly love to speak at length about some of the Conservative party’s many friends and donors and those of the Prime Minister, but of course that would be out of scope, Madam Deputy Speaker, so you will be delighted to hear that I will stick to the subject of the debate: the appointment of Lord Lebedev.
“A democratic, liberal nation, strong, healthy and free: I pledge that everything I do in this House will be to defend and further these principles.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 May 2021; Vol. 812, c. 63.]
Those were the concluding words of the maiden speech of Lord Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation, to give him his full title—a title that sounds as if he may have a foot in both camps. That five-minute maiden speech is the only contribution that he has made in the other place since his appointment in July 2020, almost two years ago. “Everything I do”, he said: nice claim, but—I hate to disappoint—he does not appear to have done anything.
The problem, as I see it, is that Lord Lebedev’s elevation to the other place bears all the hallmarks of an undemocratic, illiberal nation with increasingly weak and unhealthy institutions. We are meant to have processes in place to stop what has happened in this case. As I understand it, ordinarily the House of Lords Appointments Commission vets and approves nominations for life peerages, relying on the security advice provided by the Cabinet Office and the security services. The commission’s recommendations are almost always followed. I say “almost always” because the Prime Minister, in this case, seems to have put his personal interest above the national interest, and may have overruled the advice of the security services in the commission’s recommendations in awarding Evgeny Lebedev a peerage.
Why should he? Why does he need actually to speak in the House of Lords? He has the power, the status and the influence, and, may I say, the protection that that peerage affords him, which is why we are limited in what we can say about him now. He has all the power that he wanted, all the influence he seeks, just by the very nature of that peerage. He need not say a word down the other end, and he probably will not, although we look forward to the moment when he does, and I am sure we will all be in the Chamber listening to him.
I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that those friendships and networks go right to the top of Government, all the way to No. 10 Downing Street and the Prime Minister, who has enjoyed this person’s hospitality, travelled on his jets and holidayed with him. He has that contact, that influence, at the highest point of Government.
I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. Just last week I mentioned the bunga bunga parties, which I think we should know a great deal more about. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) mentioned, in connection with another case, the videotapes and negatives that may exist. I would not be surprised if they were held somewhere else.
Let me return to the issue of the appointment through the commission. I should be interested to know how many nominations it has rejected, and I have tabled a parliamentary question to that effect.
The Prime Minister’s relationship with Lord Lebedev is extensive, intimate and long-standing, and it should be of real public and national interest. However, for far too long their alleged collaboration has been ignored. As the proprietor of both the Evening Standard and The Independent, Lord Lebedev was clearly a useful contact for the Prime Minister in his role as Mayor of London, but the professional soon turned personal. It is reported that the Prime Minister attended four parties at Lord Lebedev’s Umbrian villa during his time as London Mayor—and then there are the bunga bunga parties. According to The Times, the Prime Minister visited Lord Lebedev’s fantasy castle in Perugia every October for five consecutive years, from 2012 to 2016. Remarkably, none of that has been reported by the Evening Standard or The Independent. I should have thought that, published in the celebrity or showbiz columns, it would attract a great deal of interest. However, The Times, thankfully, reports that the Prime Minister accepted £7,150 worth of flights, cars and accommodation from Lord Lebedev between 2013 and 2015.
According to the Prime Minister’s biographer, Tom Bower, the Prime Minister was told that when attending these parties, he could behave like a “naughty schoolboy”, and we know from a former Minister that “girls” were promised by Lord Lebedev. One particular trip, reported in April 2018, occurred just weeks after the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. The Prime Minister managed to evade his close protection officers and, as has happened time and again, he refused to account for what took place. We know that Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB colonel—we say “former”, but we never know with these things—was also in attendance. What we also know is that the Prime Minister was on his way home—a very circuitous way home—from a conference of NATO Foreign Ministers. So, what was discussed with Alexander Lebedev and Lord Lebedev? Of course we do not know, but given its proximity to that meeting, it would be of real interest to find out.
The concern is not necessarily the friendship itself, although that is of course relevant, but the threat that it poses to national security. These concerns have been continually raised, going as far back as a decade. Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, reportedly made it clear that he did not deem Evgeny Lebedev a suitable person to meet, ahead of his meeting with Chris Blackhurst, the then editor of The Independent, which was soon to be bought by Lord Lebedev for a mere £1. Of course, it was not that cheap, given the sizeable debts that the newspaper carried. Since then, in 2013, Lord Lebedev has publicly questioned the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, tweeting an article casting doubt on who was behind the murder and writing:
“Was Litvinenko murdered by MI6?…Certainly more to it than the generally accepted Putin link.”
Let us follow the money. While Lord Lebedev has publicly come out against the invasion of Ukraine, his father, the ex-KGB agent with large shares in Gazprom and Aeroflot, remains silent as millions flee and thousands perish in the dreadful war in Ukraine. Lord Lebedev’s father, who has held significant investments in Crimea since Russia occupied it in 2014, also retains a significant share of the newspaper via Lebedev Holdings.
I raise the personal relationship between Lord Lebedev and the Prime Minister only to highlight the extent to which it has obviously influenced the decision to award Lord Lebedev a peerage. It has been reported that civil servants were stunned by the Prime Minister’s move to question the security services’ assessment of the appointment. The only justification I can find for the Prime Minister’s dismissal of this security advice is his personal relationship with Lord Lebedev. Personal interests over national security. Whatever happened to Sir Mark Sedwill, the former Cabinet Secretary and, as I understand it, the lead on UK intelligence?
Lord Lebedev’s case also raises wider questions about the glaring weaknesses that exist within our political donations system. A Labour party calculation based on Electoral Commission information estimates that donors who have made money from Russia or Russians have given £1.93 million to either the Tory party or constituency associations since the Prime Minister took up his position. Since 2010, the figure is £4.3 million. For example, Lubov Chernukhin, who is married to Vladimir Chernukhin, a former Finance Minister under Putin, has donated £700,000 to the Conservative party. In October, the Pandora papers revealed that Vladimir Chernukhin was allowed to leave Russia in 2004 with assets worth about $500 million and that he retains Russian business connections. In October 2020, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), now the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, posted a picture on Instagram of herself and Lubov Chernukhin at a party at the Goring hotel, with the hashtag “#cabinetandfriends”. Unfortunately, foreign money and foreign interference go hand in hand, and I am afraid that this Government are compromised by both.
In summary, the appointment of Lord Lebedev, the dismissal of security service advice in favour of personal interest, and the wide-ranging influence of dubious Russian money in our politics are deeply concerning and worrisome. A Prime Minister acting in his own self-interest, not the national interest, is extremely serious. This Humble Address will merely scratch the surface, for I fear that there are decades-worth of personal connections to unearth, financial loopholes to close and national vetting procedures to tighten before we can truly say we are a
“democratic, liberal nation, strong, healthy and free”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 May 2021; Vol. 812, c. 63.]
That is why I will be supporting our motion.
The United Kingdom has long been a defender of freedom, democracy and human rights, and our country has proudly stood firm against crime and corruption at every opportunity. It is, therefore, frankly astonishing that, at a time when Vladimir Putin is committing war crimes in Europe, a UK Government Minister has been dragged to the Dispatch Box to defend his own Prime Minister’s murky and deep links to Russian oligarchs.
It tells us all we need to know about this Government that, in his previous role as Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister chose to party with the family of an ex-KGB agent, just weeks after the attempted assassination of British citizens by Russian state agents on our own soil.
It is utterly outrageous that the Prime Minister would nominate to the House of Lords someone who has promoted some of the very worst conspiracy theories in defence of the Putin regime. We are used to the Prime Minister putting his own interests before the interests of the British people, but on this occasion he has gone further by putting his personal friendship with the son and business partner of an ex-KGB agent before the safety and security of the British people. He has put his friendship with Lebedev ahead of his primary duty to the British public: to keep our country and our people safe and secure.
That is why Labour is today calling for the Government to publish the full security guidance on Mr Lebedev’s peerage, by which we mean the version before it might have been mysteriously airbrushed or sanitised, so that the British public can really understand the severity of the Prime Minister’s miscalculations and misjudgments. This is in the national interest, and it must happen immediately.
We also know that the Prime Minister flew to Italy to attend a party hosted by the Lebedevs just two days after attending a high-level NATO summit focusing on Russia in the wake of the Salisbury poisonings, without any officials present and without his security detail. We know that he met the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev at that party. We need to know what was discussed at that party and why the Prime Minister thought it was a priority to go to that party to meet influential members of the Russian elite at that time.
This blasé attitude to national security is not just a one-off; it is part of a pattern of behaviour that dates back several years. There are countless examples of the Government playing fast and loose with our national security. Just look at the Conservative party’s ongoing reliance on donations from individuals with close links to the Kremlin. The most concerning is the £2 million of donations from Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Putin’s former deputy Finance Minister. She moved in Conservative inner circles, even playing tennis with the Prime Minister. We may never quite know just how much influence that money bought for Putin’s allies.
In connection to this, I am deeply concerned by the Conservative party’s use of lawfare to bat away the questions I have asked about potential national security threats that predate the issues we are discussing today. In February 2019, I wrote to the then chair of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), asking him to investigate donations by Ehud “Udi” Sheleg, who had been reported in the media as having strong connections to Russia and as probably not being able to afford the £1.8 million of donations that may or may not be connected to his being appointed treasurer of the Conservative party—I would not wish to speculate.
The reply I received from the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that Mr Sheleg should not need to reveal the source of his wealth. It also threatened me with libel action, with the right hon. Gentleman, who is now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, using the same tactics that Russian oligarchs have been using to silence criticism and block investigations.
Thank you, Madam Speaker. What I am trying to do is set out clearly the worrying pattern of behaviour, but I take your feedback and I will move on.
That brings us to the issue of the Russia report, the delay in publishing it and the failure to implement the vast majority of its recommendations until after Vladimir Putin clearly felt he could invade Ukraine with impunity. This is part of the challenge we face in standing up to the bullying and intimidation from authoritarian rulers around the world. The delays in implementing that report’s recommendations are deeply troubling. Why was this action delayed? We have repeatedly asked that in this House. Perhaps it was because on this Government’s watch we have seen the City of London become a laundromat for the dirty money of kleptocrats and because the Conservative party has been all too reliant on those highly questionable donations we are discussing today. We have also seen serious issues associated with the underfunding of our armed forces, which has left us with Putin being able to go on the march from Georgia to Crimea and authoritarian regimes having grown in confidence over the past decade because of the weakness of western leaders, because of the conflict of interests that undermines their authority. We are exposing that conflict of interests in this debate. It is time for us to shore up our national defences. That needs to be done through legislation such as the Bill that became the National Security and Investment Act 2021. Disappointingly, we have not seen a clear enough position on that, with the Government watering down definitions of critical national infrastructure in that Bill, which makes it harder for the Secretary of State to call in investments suspected of being a danger to our national security. Our legislation on foreign takeovers and investment is far weaker than the equivalent legislation of our allies in all the other Five Eyes countries.
Let me end my saying this: national security is the first duty of any Government, but Conservative Ministers have been putting roubles before resilience, and investment before integrity. We need to see what was in this security advice and we need to know on which date the Prime Minister received the security services’ concerns with regard to Lord Lebedev’s appointment. We also need to know why that was watered down. Appointments to the House of Lords should be on the basis of loyal public service to our country, not friendship with the Prime Minister. Yet the Prime Minister continues to dismiss vital advice time and again, even when Britain's national security is at stake, to serve his own personal interests. I therefore encourage Conservative Members to join us today in standing up for Britain’s national security.
On Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending a 2050 Climate Group young leaders event, where young leaders were being given some ideas about how they might want to influence politics. It was a great event and the young people at it truly gave me faith for our future, as they had some excellent questions. Aimee Dobie, from the parliamentary outreach service, does outreach right across Scotland and was explaining to them about influencing MPs and Lords, and about how they could get in touch with Members of the House of Lords. One young person in the room put up their hand and said, “What are the checks on the House of Lords? How does that work?” I said, “In reality, there are very little checks on the House of Lords. Members of the House of Lords are appointed and they can be there for life. Removing those Members is all but impossible.” This young person asked about the appointments to the House of Lords and about the House of Lords Appointments Commission, because he was very switched on.
That goes to the heart of why we are here today, because the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be a brake on the appointment of people to the House of Lords, yet even though we hear that security concerns were raised about Lord Lebedev, this advice was overturned by the Prime Minister. The Paymaster General was very clear earlier when he stressed that the commission would draw concerns about any issue to the attention of the Prime Minister, but that seems to me to miss the point because the Prime Minister is at the heart of this shoddy appointment. There has been a clear misjudgment on the basis of his friendship with Lord Lebedev and, of course, the Prime Minister has some form on that as well, having overruled the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a previous appointment in 2020.
The Paymaster General also stressed that Lord Lebedev is a British citizen of Russian extraction, and that is true. We do not cast aspersions on British citizens who are of Russian extraction in general, but in this case and a number of others that is exactly how the kleptocrats and oligarchs buy their way in. They buy their children the finest education at the most expensive private schools. They buy themselves a clean reputation by becoming patrons of the arts, universities and charities, buying football clubs and giving philanthropic donations, laundering their reputations. The Foreign Secretary said on television regarding the photograph of her with Lubov Chernukhin:
“I think we’ve got to be very careful to distinguish between those who are supporters of the regime, those who are propping up Vladimir Putin and those people who may have moved from Russia years ago and who are part of the British political system.”
Someof these people have bought their way in to the British political system, and that is part of the problem.
Putin’s cronies, these oligarchs, have bought their way in to the political system in many different ways. They are sealed in on a super yacht with a golden visa and they are spending their lucre via a protective web of companies and vehicles such as Scottish limited partnerships, unheeded and unimpeded until the war in Ukraine, which suddenly made things bad for business. All that money coming in did not happen overnight.
I noticed earlier that Oliver Bullough’s new book, “Butler to the World”, is available in the Commons Library. It has not yet been checked out and I recommend that Members rush along the corridor to get it, because it is instructive about the scale at which people buy influence in this country and the way in which people in this country have allowed that to happen through the lawyers, the accountants and the very expensive reputation management firms that do that. Britain has become butler to the world, and this Government are allowing it to continue.
That is all a symptom of a higher problem, which is the problem of the House of Lords. I would not impugn their lordships individually, of course, but the whole system of inherited privilege exists here with patronage and rewards for pals, cronies and donors. Unlike all the other parties in this place, the SNP does not appoint people to the House of Lords. We never have and I hope very much that we never will, because, given the reputation of that place, it is not worth it. Despite what my good friend the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) says about her colleagues signing up to abolish themselves, I am certain that if the Liberal Democrats were offered a place in the House of Lords tomorrow, they would take it up. That is how the system works, and it stinks.
Appointment to the House of Lords is, of course, for life. There is no longer a Titles Deprivation Act as there was in 2017 and despite the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) during the cash for honours scandal there is no simple way to remove people from the House of Lords. At various points Members of the House of Lords of various different parties have been up to their chebs in scandal. Transparency is not present there at all in the way that it is in this place. The Russia report points out in very clear language that the House of Lords registers are not as open to scrutiny as those in the House of Commons. It is fundamentally opaque. They are not held to the same standards as people in this place, and this place is not always held to the best of standards.
The response to the young man who asked me that question on Saturday is that there is a whole lot more that this place could do to enhance the scrutiny of the House of Lords, but my view is that it is beyond help and should be abolished altogether.
I thank all those who have spoken in this debate; we have had many excellent contributions on the importance of ascertaining with clarity the Prime Minister’s role in the appointment of Lord Lebedev. It is a matter of national security. We have heard some compelling speeches from hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, cutting to the heart of why the debate is so important to the functioning of our democracy.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who gave a detailed timeline of the events in 2018 when the Prime Minister visited Lebedev’s castle two days after the NATO meeting. She also raised an important point about thanking journalists for the role they have played in ascertaining much of this information.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), who outlined how potentially being placed in a compromising position is a security risk. My hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) made the point, among others, that the Prime Minister appears to put his personal interests above the public interest. My hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) spoke about the importance of freedom and democracy, and the worrying pattern of behaviour of playing fast and loose with national security.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) asked what Labour would do with the appointments process. Our answer is simply that there should not be an appointed upper Chamber at all. Government Members seem finally to be waking up to that: yesterday, the Policing Minister condemned what he called the “unelected partially hereditary House”, and said it was right for,
“the views of those of us who took the trouble to get elected to prevail”.—[Official Report, 28 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 629.]
The Conservatives are in government, and we look forward to any proposals that match ours for an elected, democratic upper Chamber. In the meantime, however, it is quite reasonable that we propose some level of scrutiny and transparency for the current system.
That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) asked whether the Government would review the House of Lords appointment process and called for a robust vetting system, as has the Lord Speaker recently. I hope the Minister can say whether they will consider that request from the other place, as well as from the Opposition Benches.
Today, hon. Members across the House have spoken in defence of democracy and the parliamentary sovereignty that many Government Members have spoken so passionately for, so I was particularly concerned to hear the Paymaster General’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen) that he would refuse to honour a resolution of this House simply on the grounds that it was proposed by the Opposition. I hope the Minister will retract that and confirm that, if the motion is passed, the Government will accept the will of this elected House.
As speakers have alluded to, this debate’s binding vote is about transparency and holding those in power to account for the decisions they make—an essential factor in a healthy democracy. The British public have a right to know how an individual of apparent concern to our intelligence services was granted a seat at the heart of our Parliament by the Prime Minister against security advice. Such action is a complete abdication of his responsibility as Prime Minister.
As the arbitrator of the ministerial code, the Prime Minister has a duty to oversee the standards of conduct expected of Ministers. His foreword to the code in 2019 stated that to
“win back the trust of the British people, we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety”.
This is what our Humble Address aims to do. By publishing the minutes, documents and advice relating to the appointment of Lord Lebedev, we can peel back the opaque rhetoric and rumours to find out what advice was provided to the Prime Minister and what course of action he decided to take. I am sure many will agree that 2019 feels like a lifetime ago, as we have sacrificed so much since then to tackle the spread of coronavirus and sadly lost loved ones, but those were the Prime Minister’s words then and he should fully abide by them now.
I am sure both the Prime Minister and the Minister are fully aware of the seven principles of public life—the set of principles that we expect all in public life to abide by, be they civil servant, local councillor or even Prime Minister of Great Britain: integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership. All of us in this place are accountable to those standards, and they are the bare minimum that we expect from our leaders. The first duty of any Government led by any party is to keep the British public safe. This debate is not the first time that the Prime Minister’s priorities have been brought into question. What the British public are presented with is a Prime Minister with a track record of playing fast and loose with the rules that govern institutions.
Today’s Humble Address aims to ascertain additional information on the process that led to the appointment of Lord Lebedev. If the allegations are proven to be true, they will cast doubt on whether the Prime Minister can be trusted to uphold national security. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said, the Prime Minister’s long and close friendship with Lord Lebedev appears to have clouded his judgment when considering matters of national security. Earlier this month, The Times reported that in 2013, Sir John Sawers, the then head of MI6, made it clear that he did not deem Lebedev to be a suitable person to meet. As the son of an ex-KGB agent, it was believed that Lebedev, a Russian citizen with ties to celebrities, politicians and musicians, was keen to ingratiate himself with the British establishment and glitterati. If reports are true, it seems as though the Prime Minister, in his previous roles, was willing to assist. The friendship developed and the Prime Minister accepted the litany of expensive meals that we have heard so much about today, and holidays at Lord Lebedev’s 12th-century Italian castle in Perugia. A source told The Times that after the 2019 election the Prime Minister “pathologically wanted to get” Lord Lebedev’s
“peerage over the line…it was immediate.”
The Cabinet Office plays a vital role in the vetting process of Lords’ appointments and is responsible for relaying intelligence and guidance to the House of Lords Appointments Commission. The vetting process uncovered that the security services’ assessment of Lord Lebedev allegedly remained unchanged from 2013: he still posed a national security risk, leading to reports that the House of Lords Appointments Commission advised the Prime Minister to appoint someone else. However, it took just some seven months after the 2019 election for the Prime Minister to push Lord Lebedev’s nomination through. So while the public’s priority was addressing the uncertainty around leaving the EU and the devastating pandemic that took hold in the early part of 2020, the Prime Minister’s priority was securing a peerage for an old friend.
Shockingly, reports by The Sunday Times and a written statement by the then chief of staff to the Prime Minister allege that he “cut a deal” to provide the House of Lords Appointments Commission with a “sanitised” version of the advice. If that is the case, that is an irresponsible undermining of due process. The Prime Minister has prioritised his personal friendship with the son and business partner of an ex-KGB agent ahead of his duty to ensure that the British public are safe. For the Prime Minister to nominate to the House of Lords someone who has promoted the worst conspiracy theories and defences of Vladimir Putin shows just how flawed the Prime Minister’s judgment is and shows that the Conservative Government’s dangerous links to Putin’s oligarchs are putting Britain at risk.
Appointments to the House of Lords should be on the basis of loyal public service to our country, not friendship with the Prime Minister. This issue cannot simply be brushed under the carpet. The British public deserve answers on whether the Prime Minister, with assistance from the Cabinet Office, has ridden roughshod over the Lords nomination process. The Prime Minister continues to dismiss vital advice time and again, even when Britain’s national security is at risk.
Thankfully, we are proud to live in an open democracy where transparency is a key factor of good governance, ensuring that those in power are held to account. To protect the public’s trust in our institutions and our obligations to abide by the principles of integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership, today’s Humble Address needs to pass. Questions must be answered about the Prime Minister’s role in the nomination process of Lord Lebedev. Let us uncover what has taken place and whether national security has been sidelined in the Prime Minister’s pursuit of personal interests. If Conservative Members believe in decency, honesty and standards, I urge them all to join us in voting in favour of our Humble Address.
With the leave of the House and yourself, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to close the debate.
Let me thank the House for the robust debate on this motion. As has become only too clear, it has, I am sorry to say, become something of an excuse for the Opposition to bring their usual, unfounded criticisms to the table. The insinuation that this Government are soft on Russia—which I think is what this debate is supposed to be about in the eyes of Labour—is obviously nonsense. In fact, our support for Ukraine is second to none. President Zelensky himself has spoken of the United Kingdom in glowing terms; the Russian Kremlin has spoken of this Prime Minister as its principal opponent. We are doing everything and more, and we will continue to do that, to support the people of that sovereign and independent state, so I rebut any suggestion that this Government are in anything other than an exemplary position in supporting the people of Ukraine and resisting the Putin regime’s actions.
But this is not about the people of Russia. This is not about British citizens who are of Russian extraction. To smear a British citizen of Russian extraction in order to score cheap political points against the Prime Minister, who has been Ukraine’s principal ally and is doing a superlative job, seems counterproductive when—if I can say this with the greatest possible respect—Members on the Labour Front Bench and Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, have taken hospitality from Lord Lebedev, and when the Leader of the Opposition has sent a congratulatory text message, apparently, to Lord Lebedev on his appointment. As I have said, I do not personally criticise that, but it does seem counterproductive in the light of this debate.
However, back to the topic in hand. We should not visit the sins of any father on his sons or daughters. We did away with Acts of Attainder a very long time ago, but there has been frequent reference to people’s parentage, which I do not think is appropriate. If we look at the topic at hand, we see that, as has been reiterated throughout the debate, the motion is focused on a misunderstanding of the constitutional position. The House of Lords Appointments Commission, HOLAC, is an independent body. It seeks advice from the appropriate vetting agencies. The advice it gives to the Prime Minister—which it has given to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and so on, since 2000—is confidential. However, today’s motion would breach the critical confidentiality that underpins the process, damaging the ability of that valued committee, and its independent members, to undertake its role. The motion is careless of the question of the data of private individuals and would allow private information about individuals to be disclosed whenever a political party—any political party—wished for that to happen for purely partisan purposes.
I think the hon. Member knows that the common practice is not to vote on Opposition motions—[Laughter]—and for very good reason.
This motion, as the hon. Member knows and as the House knows, is very careless of the position I have outlined. We need to ensure the ability of that committee to conduct robust vetting and to provide advice that is not compromised. The process should continue to be conducted confidentially.
Reference was made by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) earlier in the debate to the ISC’s report, which was published in July 2020. That was welcomed by the Government. The Government’s response was published on the same day as the ISC’s report, and I would say this on Russian intelligence. We expelled 23 undeclared Russian intelligence officers after Salisbury. We have attributed cyber-attacks where appropriate to Russian intelligence, we have exposed those involved in hacking, and we have exposed the military build-up on the Ukrainian border. We do what we need to do to protect the national security and national interests of this country.
That has nothing to do with this matter, as I am sure the hon. Lady well knows. I reiterate that we must ensure the ability of the House of Lords Appointments Commission to conduct robust vetting, and to provide advice that is not compromised. That process should continue. I have heard hon. Members say that certain individuals do not mind if detail of the vetting process is disclosed as far as it concerns them. Well, I reiterate that this is not about any one individual. If someone wishes to show that they have nothing to hide, that is laudable and understandable, but we need to protect the process for all. This is not about one individual; it is about protecting the integrity of the system—a system that serves this nation very well. The process should continue to be conducted confidentially, and disclosure should be at the discretion of the Prime Minister.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, given that he referred a moment or two ago to my remarks on the Russia report, and claimed that the Government welcomed its publication. I have to remind him and the House that the Prime Minister tried his darnedest to prevent the report’s publication—so much so, that he tried to put a patsy in the Intelligence and Security Committee as Chair, but failed. It was only when that failed that the Committee published the report. The Prime Minister did everything in his power to prevent the publication of the report, and has failed to implement its recommendations.
I do not recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the Prime Minister’s position. The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that no one can hold a candle to this Prime Minister in his integrity, honesty and opposition to the Putin regime. That has been proven time and again, throughout the international arena.
I have no individual knowledge on that point, but the House of Lords Appointments Commission, in the person of Lord Bew, wrote to the Leader of the Opposition, after he wrote to Lord Bew, and addressed the matter, and nothing disorderly is said to have occurred. The fact of the matter is that the processes are followed routinely, as they have been throughout. How the vetting process works in any individual case is outwith my knowledge, but the Labour party ought to exercise caution—I say it respectfully—in casting aspersions on individuals because they happen to have Russian ancestry or heritage. That is the effect of the motion, and it is unworthy and certainly inappropriate.
In conclusion, we must ensure the ability of the commission to conduct robust vetting, and to provide advice that is not compromised. This process should continue to be conducted confidentially, with disclosure being at the discretion of the Prime Minister, who is, after all, ultimately responsible for making recommendations to the sovereign on appointments to the House of Peers; and the commission, independent of Government, is responsible for vetting nominations. I urge the House to reflect on whether this motion is a responsible use of its powers.
Question put and agreed to.
That, given the concerns raised about the appropriateness of, and process for, appointing Lord Lebedev as a member of the House of Lords and the role of the Prime Minister in that process, an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty that she will be graciously be pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, no later than 28 April,
(a) any document held by the Cabinet Office or the Prime Minister’s Office containing or relating to advice from, or provided to, the House of Lords Appointments Commission concerning the appointment of Evgeny Alexandrovich Lebedev as a Member of the House of Lords; and
(b) the minutes of, submissions relevant to and electronic communications relating to, any meeting within the Cabinet Office or the Prime Minister’s Office at which the appointment of Lord Lebedev, or advice relating to that appointment, was discussed in a form which may contain redactions, but such redactions shall be solely for the purposes of national security.