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Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests Resignation

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 16 June 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the resignation of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests.

Let me start by thanking Lord Geidt for his work as Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and, indeed, for his years of public service before he took up that role. I hold him in the highest regard. He has been honoured multiple times and is, of course, an example of excellence and service in public life. I thank all Members for their work in respect of this matter, but I think all Members of this House will recognise that Lord Geidt has demonstrated diligence and thoughtfulness in the way he has discharged his role over the past year. We have benefited hugely from his service.

The Prime Minister will be issuing a letter in relation to Lord Geidt’s announcement. Both Lord Geidt’s letter and the Prime Minister’s reply will be deposited in the House shortly—as soon as my office has those letters, Mr Speaker, they will be placed in the Library. The Government are of course particularly disappointed that Lord Geidt has taken this decision, because only very recently—as the House knows from the debate last week—significant changes were made to the role and status of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. As I set out to the House last week, the changes represent the most substantial strengthening of the role, office and remit of independent adviser since the post was created in 2006.

Let me set out briefly the reforms to the role that the Prime Minister has introduced. First, the independent adviser has a new ability, which Lord Geidt and his predecessors did not previously have, to initiate investigations in relation to allegations where there has been a breach of the “Ministerial Code”. This is a significant change. Previously, as the House knows, as an adviser, he and his predecessors were not permitted to do this. The adviser will still need the consent of the Prime Minister of the day to start an investigation, but, as I made it very clear last week, this consent will normally be given.

The “Ministerial Code” now includes new detail on proportionate sanctions for a breach of the code. Previously, there was no proportionality in those sanctions, and even the smallest of technical breaches by a Minister in place might have resulted in an enforced resignation. Now there is a proportionate range of options, and that was exactly as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

In future, the independent adviser will be consulted about the revisions to the code, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The “Ministerial Code” now includes more specific references to the role of the independent adviser and more specific references to the duty on Ministers to provide the independent adviser with all information reasonably necessary for the discharge of the role.

In conclusion, as Lord Geidt himself has made clear, the new arrangements are workable, and he noted the increased transparency that they bring. The Government will of course now move to make new arrangements and we look forward to working within the strengthened system that I have described.

I say to the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect, that he knows that his answer should have been three minutes. I am sure that the team here could have managed to get that speech down to three minutes. I say to Members on both sides of the House, please, do not take advantage, as there is a lot of other business to follow.

I welcome the fact that this letter will be published. It has taken my asking an urgent question to get that, so I am very glad that I was able to do so. Clearly, the new arrangements for the independent adviser are not workable, which is why Lord Geidt has had to resign.

To lose one ethics adviser is an embarrassment, but to lose two in two years, just days after the Prime Minister’s own anti-corruption Tsar walked out on him, means that it is becoming a bit of a pattern—a pattern of degrading the principles of our democracy. The Prime Minister has now driven both of his hand-picked ethics advisers to resign in despair in two years. It is a badge of shame for this Government.

In an unprecedented move, the Cabinet Office had failed to publish Lord Geidt’s resignation letter and it has taken this urgent question to get it. Lord Geidt described resignation as a “last resort” to send a critical signal to the public domain. Can the Minister confirm whether ongoing investigations launched by Lord Geidt will now be completed? Will that be in the Prime Minister’s letter? For example, how will the shameful allegations of Islamophobia experienced by the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) now be investigated?

Yesterday, No. 10 stated that Lord Geidt had been asked to give advice on a commercially sensitive matter in the national interest. What is that? Can the Minister confirm whether that relates to a direct or an indirect financial interest of the Prime Minister, a family member, a friend or a donor? When will a replacement be appointed? Can the Minister assure us that there will not be another five-month gap? I know that it will be hard to recruit somebody for this position, because it has clearly been shown to be unworkable. Lord Geidt’s predecessor walked out following the publication of his findings on the Home Secretary’s bullying, which was excused by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has ridden roughshod over the rules.

In conclusion, what comes next? This vacancy must be filled urgently, but the role must be reformed, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life has concluded. Honesty matters. Integrity matters. Decency matters. I hope the Minister will do the right thing and come clean about this resignation.

Let me briefly answer the hon. Lady. I cannot speak to other investigations that may or may not have been in progress, but we will find about them in due course. That speaks for itself. As for other sensitive matters, it is obviously not appropriate to dwell on those. What is clear though is that the letters will speak for themselves. I think the hon. Lady will wish to wait for those.

We now come to the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, William Wragg.

I will channel my rare inner Lady Bracknell and say that for the Prime Minister to lose one adviser on Ministers’ interests may be regarded as misfortune, but to lose two looks like carelessness—I hope my right hon. and learned Friend will take that in the spirit it is meant. I thank Lord Geidt for appearing before our Committee on Tuesday, where I think he did his best—with what he would work with, I think was one thing he said, but he did his best none the less. I am very sad that he felt the need to resign, and I look forward to reading his letter and the reply from the Prime Minister. Can the Minister give the House some reassurance on this particular point? There was a five-month vacancy in the role upon the resignation of the previous independent adviser. How much more quickly will that be filled this time?

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree with me that it is important to ensure that whoever holds that role is not under constant political pressure to attack the Prime Minister for party political reasons and that, if they do not do so, they are not accused of being a lackey or a patsy. That is not something our independent advisers on Ministers’ interests deserve. We want the best public servants in our public life. We have had one in Lord Geidt, and we will work further in due course, but I know my hon. Friend will agree that it is in the public interest that party politics is not allowed to put pressure where it does not belong.

Another day, another scandal, another humiliation for the Prime Minister as another sleaze adviser quits. Let us not forget that when Lord Geidt took this job on 16 months ago he was the personal appointment of the Prime Minister, and we were assured that his credentials were absolutely impeccable. Lord Geidt said that if he were to resign it would be a last resort, and that he would use that resignation to send a critical signal into the public domain. We need to know what critical signal he was sending out last night. As yet, we do not have details of his resignation letter. We could speculate—could it be lawbreaking? PPE contracts? Breach of international law? I am pleased that the Minister is publishing the correspondence in full, but will he define “shortly”, as opposed to immediately, and will he confirm that all the correspondence will be published in full when it is published?

Lord Geidt’s credentials are impeccable and remain impeccable. He is an example to people like me and to all people in public life for the service he has given to Queen and country over the course of decades. The hon. Gentleman seeks to criticise people who hold those public roles and make political points if they do not support his position, and I suggest that is not the right approach.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have a job to do, and that our time is best spent getting on with the job and delivering on the promises we made to the British people and voters in 2019?

This is the second of the Prime Minister’s hand-picked ethics advisers to resign, alongside his anti-corruption champion. I have met children from two primary schools in my constituency this week. Children as young as seven can see what is plain as day—that this Government are rotten from the top. Does the Minister have any concerns about the impact that this shocking mess is having on trust and confidence in Government and in our democracy?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on securing this urgent question, but it is a bit of a shame that it is not on something our constituents care about. I do not know who Lord Geidt is—I bet half of the Opposition do not know who Lord Geidt is. If you want to get rid of the Prime Minister, you lot sitting there, move—[Interruption.] Not you, Mr Speaker; I know you do not want to get rid of the Prime Minister. I would never suggest that.

Sorry, Mr Speaker. I got carried away. Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition know that if things are as bad as they say they are, the way to get rid of the Prime Minister and this Government is to have a vote of no confidence in the Government. The loyal Opposition have not been willing to do that. I think my constituents will draw their own conclusions about that.

May I gently say to the Opposition parties that if they wish for a change of Prime Minister, they should do something different from attacking personalities? They should attack policies, but of course if they were to attack policies, they would find that they would lose.

Government is accountable to Parliament. The independent adviser on Ministers’ interests is a crucial role that is appointed by the Prime Minister. Does the Minister accept that the only way to begin the process of restoring trust in standards of public life—standards undermined by the Prime Minister—is to give Parliament a role in the appointment of the new adviser? At minimum, we should be looking at a scrutiny session by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and a confirmatory vote in this House.

Any Prime Minister of any political party appoints their own advisers. That is historically what has taken place, and that is no doubt what will take place in the future.

Lord Geidt is a public servant of superb, unequalled reputation and the utmost integrity, and his departure is greatly to be regretted. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with me more generally that those placed in a position of judgment over others must not have a previously stated position on the matter in question?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, and it of course is an age-old principle of natural justice that no person should be a judge in their own cause. Where an individual has given a view on the guilt or innocence of any person, they ought not then to sit in judgment on that person. I know the point that he is referring to, and I have no doubt that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) will consider that.

I always feel sorry for the Minister when he has to come and defend the indefensible, but what we have heard this morning is a real disservice to the House, in that we have not seen these letters. They should have been available, but can I also say this to him? It is not only disgusting and disgraceful, but it is shambolic. This is the Government. We are talking about the responsibility of the Prime Minister, but the responsibility is not his alone: it is for the honour and integrity of every Member of Parliament on the Government Benches that they should do something about this shocking scandal that undermines our parliamentary democracy.

It is the job of all Members of Parliament of all political parties to maintain the honour and integrity of this House, and that is what the Prime Minister continues to do. The fact is that Prime Ministers of all political parties have had Ministers who have been in breach of the ministerial code. Last week I cited some on the Labour side.

They have not always done so, and I gave examples last week in the Opposition day debate of cases where Labour Prime Ministers did not take resignations from Ministers who were found in breach of the ministerial code. I would rather not refer to those names again—they are on the record—but that is an example of a Prime Minister being able to say whether they continue to have confidence in their Ministers. That is a constitutional imperative. They must be able, whether a Labour Prime Minister such as Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, or a Conservative Prime Minister, to have confidence in their own Ministers. They cannot absolve themselves of that responsibility by farming it out to somebody else, however honourable that person is.

I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for confirming to the House that the letter of resignation does exist, because the Deputy Prime Minister, who is also, I understand, a leading lawyer, said on the “Today” programme this morning that he did not know whether the letter exists, and then he went on to say that he had not read it. We are extremely grateful to the Minister for confirming that. Why is the letter not available to us now? He knew he was responding to this urgent question. We could have then discussed its contents. We have heard about Lady Bracknell; what we have before us this morning is Uriah Heep.

I think we can do without the literary references, but what I will say is that the letter does exist. I can confirm that, and it will be released very soon. By the way, it has only been about two working hours since this matter was dealt with, so the Government are acting very expeditiously.

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend a practical question? We understand that the Prime Minister asked his special adviser Lord Geidt to give him advice on a particular issue. That advice has not yet been given and the person who was asked for that advice has now resigned without even giving any notice or extending his terms so that he could answer that question. Who will answer the burning question that was put to Lord Geidt by the Prime Minister a few days ago?

I am afraid that we will have to wait and see.

May I take this opportunity to refer to an earlier question? I think I may have mischaracterised what the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) said. If I did, I would like to apologise if that was not his intention.

What is it about the current Prime Minister that causes him to have such rotten luck in retaining ethics and anti-corruption advisers?

It is kind of the right hon. Lady to ask that question. I think the Prime Minister has a lot of good luck in winning elections. He won elections in London, he won a general election in this country, and he will win more.

When questioned at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday, the now former ethics adviser described himself as

“an asset of the Prime Minister…rather than a free-orbiting adviser”.

Does the Minister not agree that it is time for the ethics adviser’s appointment to be truly independent of the Prime Minister and of politics, and for them to be appointed by the civil service board?

I think all our independent advisers since 2006 have been independent of politics. They have been people of the highest integrity and probity, as is Lord Geidt. It is a position that is increasingly put under considerable pressure, but we must have regard for that and ensure that the standards are maintained.

The integrity and ability of Lord Geidt is not in question. The question that we are all asking is, what on earth was it that encouraged him to tender his resignation? What scandal should we expect to come down the tracks?

The hon. Gentleman may well be disappointed; he will find that looking for scandal under every stone is disappointing.

May I make a point to the Minister and to the House? To do effective work, an ethics adviser is required to be above day-to-day political feuds and not the focus of them. In the last few weeks and months, however, the position of the ethics adviser to the Prime Minister has been at the centre of political feuds on both sides of the House—not confined to the Opposition or to the Conservatives. What actions will the Minister take to ensure that the new appointee is protected from being the target of political attacks from whichever side?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I alluded to before. We must be careful to ensure that future independent arrangements are made so that individuals or entities are not put under political pressure to either do something or be accused of being some sort of patsy. The right thing to do is what is important.

I cannot believe that the Minister has come here without the letter being published. Is the Downing Street photocopier broken or is it more game playing? I suspect the latter. I want to ask him about the commercially sensitive matter that Lord Geidt was asked to investigate, which I noticed he did not deny when responding to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). He did not answer her question as to whether it relates to a direct or indirect financial interest for the Prime Minister or any of his friends, families or business associates. He could answer that question now. He does not need to give any details that would be commercially sensitive; he could just confirm who it relates to. If he does not answer that, it does not look like carelessness; it looks like a cover-up.

Today, the Minister for defending the indefensible has been sent out to account for the resignation of Lord Geidt, who was no longer willing to do the same. My constituents see Westminster Ministers breaking the rules with no consequences, no sanctions and no ethics. Is it any wonder that they now have no faith in this broken Westminster system?

After many years working in both the public and private sectors in many countries around the world, I cannot think of a single instance where the behaviour of someone in a leadership position obliged a person responsible for giving ethical or standards advice to resign twice in succession and yet the person in the leadership position remained in place. Does the Minister agree that my constituents will conclude that the Prime Minister finds it hard to maintain a working relationship with ethical advice, and how many resignations of ethical advisers will it take before the Prime Minister does resign?

I venture to suggest that the hon. Lady’s constituents will find it surprising that in the past six months Labour has focused constantly on personalities and not on policies. The reason has to be that when it comes to policy, Labour loses.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that principles and standards in public life must be upheld. Can he confirm from the Dispatch Box that the Government have no plans whatsoever to abolish the role of the independent adviser on ministerial interests?

Just a few of the political casualties of the Prime Minister’s premiership so far have been Allegra Stratton, who did not attend Downing Street parties; Lord Wolfson, on the principle that the PM should not breaks the laws he makes; the PM’s anti-corruption tsar; and now Lord Geidt, presumably—who knows, because the send button has not been used on the email—for being unable to hold the Prime Minister accountable for breaches of the ministerial code. When will someone actually responsible for the degeneration of standards in government be the one to go—namely, the Prime Minister?

I think the House will forgive me if I do not take lectures on moral probity from the Scottish nationalists. One needs only to google the SNP to have whole list of those incidents.

What is it that is so unethical about this law-breaking, rule-breaking Prime Minister? Is it not about time he resigned?

I realise that it is challenging, but if Labour Members wish a change of Prime Minister, they ought to try to win a general election; they are not going to be able to do it.

Of course, the Prime Minister maintains the highest standards in public life and will continue to do so. Despite all the scurrilous suggestions otherwise, the hon. Lady has given no evidence to indicate in what way she is referring to a lack of ethics.

On TV this morning, the Secretary of State for Justice indicated that the resignation could be for confidential reasons, could be for security-related reasons that therefore cannot be disclosed, or indeed could be for other reasons. When will the appointment of Lord Geidt’s successor be made? How can the House be assured that the person who is appointed will have a permanent position and will stay the course?

I think the position may become a bit clearer when the letters are published very shortly, but on the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the future arrangements, they will be under very careful consideration.