[Derek Twigg in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Seven Principles of Public Life.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Twigg. I thank parliamentary colleagues who offered support in securing this important debate and those participating in it. Sadly, it does not seem to be very important to those on the Government Benches. I also thank staff at the House of Commons Library, who seldom get the thanks they deserve, for preparing an excellent briefing for today’s debate.
With a new Prime Minister being installed only yesterday, our politics and political system stand at a crossroads. We should use this moment to move beyond the controversy of the last premiership, to genuinely learn the lessons of the past couple of years, to truly understand the public’s anger, to collectively strive to be better and do better, to reaffirm our commitment to the Nolan principles, and to demonstrate that they mean something in the way we go about our business. However, I have little faith that this place—the so-called mother of all Parliaments—will achieve better. Far too much power is invested in the executive branch in an overly centralised system of governance—a centralisation of power that is incomparable to our counterparts—so I fear that the very nature of our democracy will inevitably see us lurch from scandal to scandal.
This place is full of good people with noble pursuits—those who do not need to understand any newly proposed descriptor of the Nolan principles to practise them in everything they do. Although I will not allow the new Prime Minister’s predecessor off the hook, our problems did not start with the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) and nor did they end with him, even though I believe with every fibre of my being that no one has eroded public trust in our institutions more than he has. He is a product of the changing face of the governing party: a Conservative party that is uninterested in conserving but is willing to trash and stretch constitutional norms to their limits in order to safeguard its self-preservation, in practice of its fundamental belief in its divine right to govern.
Louise Thompson, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, summed it up nicely by stating that we cannot separate the personnel from the system and that the two can complement each other in the wrong ways. She said in The Week:
“His two and half years in Downing Street have exposed some of the vulnerabilities of British constitutional norms, demonstrating how the combination of a strong parliamentary majority, ambiguous ministerial and parliamentary rules and a national crisis can give prime ministers a seemingly free hand to dominate political life and avoid scrutiny.”
Lest we forget, it was under the Major Government that Lord Nolan, then chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, devised the seven principles of public life in 1995. The CSPL was established with the following terms of reference:
“To examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life.”
That was written in 1995. It is astonishing that such words could easily have been put together for the context in which we are operating as we gather here in 2022.
What is the context for today’s debate, and why is the debate necessary? In a democracy, governance requires consent and the popular support of the people we represent, but support for politics and politicians is at a record low. That was highlighted in an Institute for Public Policy Research report published late last year, which found that trust in politicians is at an all-time low and that the sharp decline in political trust is undermining liberal democracy. It found that almost two in three people now see politicians as being “merely out for themselves”. The study showed a “significant and disturbing” decline in satisfaction with democracy, and in trust in key democratic institutions.
The sleaze scandal around Owen Paterson at the time was just the tip of the iceberg of declining political trust. Heaven knows how much worse those numbers would have been if the research had been conducted following partygate and the numerous allegations of sexual abuse. In the mind of the public, there have been one too many rotten apples in the past few decades and the entire barrel is spoiled. In answer to my original question, that is why this debate matters. That is the context in which it takes place. To do nothing and say nothing is to be complicit.
The Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership are, of course, not law. They are not directly enforced. However, they form part of many codes of conduct. For example, the ministerial code says that Ministers are expected to observe the seven principles of public life. The House of Commons code of conduct says that MPs are expected to follow the principles in the carrying out of their parliamentary duties.
There has been a flurry of activity in relatively recent times in this area. In November 2021, the House of Commons Committee on Standards—not to be confused with the CSPL—proposed bespoke descriptors of the seven principles for MPs, which were designed to more closely reflect how the principles apply to the role of an MP. In April 2022, the Committee took evidence from the then Leader of the House and the then Minister for the Cabinet Office on the Nolan principles.
Indeed, the deputy Leader of the Opposition called an urgent question on the mechanisms for upholding standards in public life in July 2022. I hope that we will hear a more suitable, bold response from the Minister today, rather than something echoing the evasive non-answer the then Paymaster General gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) back in July. On that day, the Paymaster General repeatedly mentioned the “sophisticated and robust” systems for upholding standards in public life. I am sorry, but what utter guff. I agree with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who responded that,
“those systems are, on the whole, irrelevant if the participants have no regard to them.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2022; Vol. 717, c. 733.]
I believe our systems can be summed up in one word: irrelevant.
No such sophisticated, robust system exists in this place for upholding standards in public life. Acknowledgement of that basic fact by the Minister today would be, at the very least, a start. That is in stark contrast to other professions where the Nolan principles apply, such as healthcare and journalism. [Interruption.] The Minister may laugh, but it is a fact that in healthcare, the professional duty of candour requires that all healthcare professionals are open and honest with patients when something goes wrong. In the media, the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s editors’ code puts significant emphasis on not publishing inaccurate or misleading information or images. Where that does happen, it must be corrected promptly and with due prominence and, where appropriate, an apology must be published. Fundamentally, such differences in the practice of standards can only feed into the impression the public have that there is one rule for the people and another for us in this place.
I thank the organisation Full Fact for providing such examples ahead of this debate. It believes that to ensure a true commitment to honesty in public life, the honesty descriptor should include, in addition to the imperative to simply be truthful, an obligation or requirement to seek out, share and present information accurately and, crucially, to correct the record when necessary. I agree that that should be the case.
That leads me on to “Standards Matter 2”, a review conducted by the CSPL. I want to highlight some of the responses to the public consultation, which were consistently detailed and outcome-focused, and provided genuine suggestions on the enforcement of standards. I personally conclude that that is the only terrain on which this debate should be conducted—not empty platitudes about personal responsibility and self-regulation, which have been shown to get us nowhere.
For instance, the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex said in its response:
“UK standards in public life are in decline and at risk of declining further, with numerous recent breaches of integrity at the heart of politics and public life”.
“Dependence on established norms and personal integrity is no longer tenable when these are regularly undermined… The UK may need to move in some areas from principles to rules, backed up by enforceable sanctions”.
It went on to provide a raft of suggestions on sanctions, oversight and accountability. It suggested independent bodies, such as an anti-corruption agency free from political interference, in line with other mature democracies. That suggestion was also made by the likes of Transparency International UK, which highlighted the cronyism and nepotism at the heart of our system. I believe that public consultation document should be a starting point for cleaning up our democracy, and I implore everyone to read it.
To conclude, our system of governing standards is built on self-regulation, and the belief that we in this place know better—that we will always do the right thing. That arrogance has recently been reinforced by the new Prime Minister, who has stated that she may not need to appoint a new ethics adviser. She always acts with integrity. Who says that? The new Prime Minister herself. The Nolan principles are as relevant today as they were when they were devised, all those years ago. The next big question for this place is whether we are serious about those principles, in both word and deed. If we are, we can no longer hold on to the belief that we—the politicians—are best placed to regulate our adherence to them. Leadership starts at the top, starting with the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this important debate. It could not be more fitting that we gather to debate the subject of standards in public life in the same week that a Prime Minister for whom the words integrity and honesty are alien was at last forced from office.
Optimists may hope that a change in leadership will bring with it a renewed respect for those most basic of principles that govern conduct in public life. However, anyone who has spent any time at all observing how the Conservative party acts in office would be far more sceptical. Indeed, the new resident of No.10 was more than willing to stand by her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), as he tore up the rules, lied to the public and trampled over democratic norms. That proved to be no impediment in her assent to the highest office in the land. In fact, it undoubtedly helped her along the way.
While ordinary people have been confronted by the worst cost of living crisis in memory, Parliament has been consumed by a tawdry litany of scandals that have served to undermine public confidence in this place like never before. If the new Prime Minister is to convince a public who have had no say in choosing her that she truly does intend to work with them, she must make restoring faith in Government and Parliament a top priority. That must mean enshrining the Nolan principles at the heart of everything we do. Those seven principles are foundational in guaranteeing that public bodies work in the interests of those they are supposed to serve. However, the principles mean little without the appropriate mechanisms to ensure they are properly enforced.
We can talk about honesty all we want, but it means nothing when our Prime Minister can lie to Parliament and the wider public for months with total impunity.
You cannot say that either.
I withdraw it then, reluctantly.
Talk of accountability is equally hollow while efforts are still under way to frustrate the ongoing work of the Privileges Committee. We often talk about the need for culture change in Parliament, and rightly so, but if we are to begin the task of rebuilding faith in public life in earnest, we must accept that broader structural reform is also needed.
When it comes to standards in public life, the Government have for far too long been allowed to mark their own homework. We saw with the case of the former Member for North Shropshire that when the rules have become inconvenient, Members have been free to try and change them as they please. That can no longer stand. The time has come to accept that ministerial and parliamentary standards need more rigorous and, most importantly, independent enforcement. That is why my party is calling for the Prime Minister to be stripped of her sole authority for enforcing the ministerial code and for an independent integrity and ethics commission to be established to ensure that the very highest standards are followed in public office. That is why the independent ethics adviser, of whom the Prime Minister has said she has no need, must be made truly independent. Finally, that is why we need to give serious consideration to the growing calls to make misleading Parliament a criminal offence.
The process of restoring confidence in our Government will be long and difficult. It will mean accepting that the way things have always been can no longer continue, but if our constituents are to have any faith in the Government’s ability to work in their interests in the difficult times ahead, that is essential.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing this important debate on a subject that is extremely close to my heart.
In the 2019 general election, there was a 67% turnout, which means that a third of people did not vote. Even more worryingly, there was only a 19% turnout of 18 to 24-year-olds. We have a clear problem with political engagement—or, rather, political disengagement and disillusion—and we have to ask ourselves why.
I have given a great deal of thought and time to standards in public life recently, both before and after my election last year. For reasons that hon. Members will understand, I am particularly concerned about the consequences for us all, both inside and outside the House, when our failure to meet decent standards of behaviour leads to a loss of faith in the democratic process. People staying at home on polling day is one thing, but the more sinister side of having a political system that people do not feel inclined to engage with or do not trust or believe in is the risk that they will be drawn to the extremes, leading to polarisation and division, fractured communities and, in the worst cases, political violence. With abuse, threats and intimidation of people in public life now commonplace, and after two serving MPs, including my sister, have been murdered in recent years, surely we all have a responsibility to do all that we can to remove the cancer of hatred, abuse and intimidation from public life before it spreads any further.
In my view, that starts with respecting the seven principles of public life, set out so well by Lord Nolan. We should set an example in this place by airing our disagreements without treating with contempt those with whom we disagree. Those principles—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—should be uncontroversial. The fact that some in high office have been unable to put those principles into practice in recent times should concern all of us, regardless of our political colours. Our first loyalty should always be to uphold the standards the public expect us to uphold. In public office, we should always be ready to look at things from the public’s perspective.
I know that for many of my constituents in Batley and Spen—and, indeed, for me, as a relative newcomer to this place—this job is not just about what it takes to be an effective politician; it is about the kind of behaviour that makes someone a good human being and a decent person. It should be second nature, but since my arrival at Westminster I have been surprised—shocked is a better word—by how some people come to this place and seem to forget how to behave. Some of the behaviour we see would not be tolerated in any other place of work, or indeed in the school playground. We all get angry and frustrated, but we have a professional duty to channel those powerful emotions responsibly. Of course, in this job it is totally unrealistic to expect everyone to like or agree with us, but we should be able to demonstrate that we will treat others with respect, and we will hopefully be treated with respect in return.
I first became engaged in the debate on the Nolan principles through the work of the Jo Cox Foundation. Civility in public life is an important strand of its work, and rightly so. Jo believed passionately in freedom of expression and in healthy, vigorous political debate, but she also believed that we should be able to conduct that debate without resorting to personal abuse or insults or seeking to provoke hatred and division in society. The ambition of the Jo Cox Foundation, working alongside the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others, is to move political discourse in this country back within the bounds of respectful debate and away from any form of intimidation, abuse or threat of violence.
If we get this wrong, it impacts not just individuals, but our democracy itself. There are implications for our ability to foster strong and integrated societies, drive out extremism and encourage political participation at all levels. Our politics has always been conducted in primary colours, and nobody is arguing for it to become beige and bland, but I believe it is perfectly possible—indeed, essential—for us to continue to conduct our debates robustly and vigorously, while still upholding these seven important principles.
As we get closer to the next general election, the political temperature will inevitably rise, the stakes will get higher and all of our competitive instincts will come to the fore. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but as that happens, we must continue to uphold the standards of conduct we have committed to. It is up to us all in this place to show leadership on this issue. Indeed, I believe that our future as an open, tolerant, inclusive democracy, which people can believe in and want to engage with, depends on it.
I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate, Mr Twigg. As you know, I am Chair of the Committee on Standards. I have always thought that was a bit of an irony—I am certainly no saint, and I have never pretended to be. I was awarded the civility in public life award recently, and when I came back to the House that evening, some Conservative Members, including the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), said to me, “That is completely and utterly ironic. You are the most acerbic Member we have.” I said, “You’re mistaken—it is not the servility in public life award that I got.”
I want to talk about three things today: first, the independent adviser on the ministerial code; secondly, openness, which is just one of the seven principles of public life; and thirdly, the new code of conduct recommended by the Committee on Standards, which I chair.
I have always thought that the independent adviser on the ministerial code should be a statutory post. I think, as Lord Geidt himself suggested, that the independent adviser should be able to launch an investigation into any potential breach of the ministerial code without reference to the Prime Minister, and that should include, potentially, launching an investigation into a breach of the code of conduct by the Prime Minister. I note that most constitutions around the world, including South Africa’s, have a process for investigating the Prime Minister. We have sometimes helped to draft those constitutions, although not South Africa’s—that was done by the African National Congress. However, we have absolutely no process whatever, unless the House manages to launch something, which can be started only if the governing party supports it.
I think it is important that we have a fully independent adviser on the ministerial code, but I note that the now Prime Minister said during the leadership contest that she was not going to appoint another one, because she did not need one to know
“the difference between right and wrong”.
Let us leave whether she knows the difference between right and wrong to one side for a moment; she will need an independent adviser, and will legally have to have one, unless she is going to completely rewrite the ministerial code itself, because it says that potential breaches of the code will be addressed by the independent adviser on the ministerial code. Unless she is going to tear up the ministerial code and have no ministerial code at all, she is going to have to have an adviser—not least because the adviser not only does that bit, but also draws up the list of ministerial financial interests. That is the only thing that prevents corruption in ministerial office in the United Kingdom—the only thing.
Bizarrely, that list is published only occasionally. It is meant to be published every six months but, quite often in recent years, because we have not had a ministerial adviser, it has not been published for a year, 18 months or two years. That means that normally—not just occasionally—the list of ministerial interests is not even a correct list of Ministers. It is not a correct list of Ministers today, and it was not a correct list last week, the week before or for much of this year, last year or the year before. That is not transparency, so I think we need radical reform to improve the system. The list of ministerial interests should be published the moment a Minister has made a declaration to their permanent secretary; that should be in real time. It should be co-ordinated with what we publish in the House, so that any member of the public, at any time, can see in a single place all the financial and other interests that any Member of the House has.
That takes me to my second point, which is about openness in Government. As all Members will know, we are required, as Members of Parliament, to register any financial interests we have under a variety of different headings: ownership of land, payments we have received for work we have done, gifts we have received, hospitality, overseas trips and so on. There are various thresholds—£300 or £1,500, depending on whether it is an Electoral Commission-relevant gift. We have do that within 28 days.
Breaching that requirement is a breach of the code of conduct. I know that—I said I am no saint—because I managed to get this completely wrong. I completely forgot to register that I had gone to Poland with the British Council. I remembered to do so three years later, and I completely owned up without anyone ringing the Daily Mail. We have a proper rectification process when individual Members just get it wrong in an honest way. Roughly 25 Members end up going through that process every year, and that is perfectly sensible.
However, we have a clause in the code of conduct that says that some must register these things unless they have received them in their ministerial capacity. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), and the former Foreign Secretary, now the Prime Minister, went to the premiere of the most recent James Bond film. They did not register that in the House, which they would have to have done within 28 days, and they said that that was because they went in a ministerial capacity. In the Standards Committee earlier this year, I asked a couple of other Ministers, who have now moved on, why someone would register going to a Bond premiere in their ministerial capacity. One of them said, “Well, that’s because James Bond exercises Executive functions.” Then one of them tried, “Well, actually James Bond works for MI5,” and I said, “It’s actually MI6, but don’t let that bother you.”
This is a nonsense, and it is a bigger nonsense than we think. The Government are theoretically committed to publish details of four different things every three months: travel, gifts, hospitality and meetings. There is not one Government publication, and each Department does that separately, but they are nearly always late. The worst offender is normally the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and the Cabinet Office is often the best performer. At the moment, if we add up all the days that Departments are late publishing this material, it is to the tune of 1,200 days. That means that if somebody went to an event last November, we would probably not know about it until next March or June, which could be after a general election or long after the moment when it would have helped the public to know what financial interests potentially influenced a Minister.
To check all these documents every year, we would have to look up 362 separate documents on the internet. On top of that, according to the last set of details provided by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which came out in July and referred to October to December last year, two Foreign Office Ministers apparently never went on any overseas visits whatever. I simply do not believe that. Apparently, the then Foreign Secretary, now the Prime Minister, had only one meeting in the whole three months. I simply do not believe that, bearing in mind that the Business Secretary at the time had 154 meetings in the same period.
So I do not think that the transparency system is working. It is bunch of made-up material, it is completely incomprehensible to the ordinary member of the public and it is a complete failure of the Nolan principle of openness. That is why the Standards Committee has said that we should abolish the exemption allowing Ministers simply to record things through the ministerial route. We think that all Members of Parliament should be treated equally under the rules of the House. If someone has a financial interest it should be known within 28 days, with the same details provided by all Members of Parliament, and no exemptions for Ministers. It could be argued that it is even more important to know who is wining and dining Ministers, because they are the people making executive decisions. We should know that in real time.
Finally, the Standards Committee, which I chair, has produced a new code of conduct for the House. There are many areas where we just want to make the rules simpler, so that people do not make inadvertent errors. Of course, we should have high standards, but we do not want to have impossible standards that nobody would be expected to meet in any other line of work. We have tried to simplify the rules in many different ways. I urge Members to read our full report. We have some outstanding differences with the Government, but those should be resolved on the Floor of the House.
We have also said that we should restrict second jobs for Members. For instance, someone with a second job should have a contract that says what that person can and cannot do, so that they cannot engage in paid lobbying, as Owen Paterson did. We also said that a Member should not have a job where they sell their knowledge as an MP on the open market to businesses around the country, effectively as a political consultant. That is not on. The Government seem reluctant to bring that forward to the House. I gather there will be a debate next Wednesday, and I hope that we can resolve all of this swiftly and bring in rules for all Members of the House that are more stringent in some areas and simpler in others, so that all Members are treated equally.
It would be a massive mistake for the new Administration to start off with a row about standards. That is what brought down the previous Administration. I really hope the new Prime Minister will not go down that route again, and I know that many Conservative Members feel similarly. I hear that the Government intend to bring forward only the new provisions on introducing a right of appeal over standards issues. I think that would be a big mistake.
Finally—you will tell me that I have already said “finally”, Mr Twigg, but I used to do it in my sermons, and I do not see why I should stop now—when the motion to appoint the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Mr Daniel Greenberg, is brought forward, I am confident that the House will be enthusiastically supportive. Those who know him through several Committees he already works with in the House will know that he is absolutely cracking. He is clear, incisive, witty, intelligent and clever. He knows the law inside out and how Parliament and politics work. He will be a magnificent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I hope the Government will bring forward that measure very soon.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate after so many brilliant contributions from my Labour colleagues. I hope the wide-angled camera that the parliamentary authorities use to broadcast this meeting will show that not a single Conservative Back-Bench MP has bothered to turn up. That is a shame. The Minister and her Parliamentary Private Secretary are rightly in their places, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. Standards in public life should not be optional. Every one of us, regardless of party, should seek to uphold, celebrate and share them, and we should tell the story of why they matter, but someone needs to turn up to do that. I hope that people can see the empty chairs in this room and that they will ask why only Labour Back-Bench MPs were speaking in this debate. This issue does matter.
The standards spoken about so brilliantly by my hon. Friends, the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) are important. We could restrict those standards to selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. We could include others, as many people who have applied the principles of public life to their own organisations have done, such as duty and a requirement to uphold the law—that should be a given but, sadly, we have seen that that is not always so. Other principles are respect, equality and the importance of treating everyone equally, no matter who they are, who they fall in love with, where they come from, the colour of their skin or their religion. The principles, when taken together, are about how to be decent.
I sometimes get things wrong; I sometimes make mistakes. The system should be broad and confident enough to allow us—if we make an honest mistake, because of innovation or because we get something wrong—to put our hands up, apologise and learn that lesson. That is an informed, sensible and confident system. What we have at the moment is a broken system. It is important that we deal with it. It is not broken because of neglect. It is broken because of deliberate decisions to break it. That is dangerous, because it puts us on a path to a place where standards do not matter and are not upheld. It suggests that we are all the same, and that every Member of Parliament—regardless of their party—is somehow in the mud, somehow on the take and somehow unfairly representing their constituents. There are brilliant MPs in every party; there are a lot of good, decent Conservative MPs who would probably want to be here. We need to make sure that this debate is conducted against those high principles and in a language that reflects the political body we are seeking to create. That is the spirit of what I want to say.
The context in which this debate is being held is important, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree set it out really well. We are here because the last Administration sought to break many of those standards, sought to evade scrutiny and sought to excuse and protect those who had broken the standards, the system and the principles that we seek to uphold. That gives us a choice, because people care about those standards.
If we were to do a taste test on the streets of Plymouth or in any other constituency and to ask people to name the seven principles of public life, I am not certain that every member of the public would be able to name them all, but they would all give it a good go, and the words we would get back would reflect the overall sentiment of the principles. That is what we should be aiming at, because what we have seen over the past year should scare each and every one of us—no matter whether we are in government or in opposition, aspiring to be in government. This issue matters.
Yesterday, I hosted a group of young care leavers from Plymouth at an event with Barnardo’s. They talked about their experience of being in care, and I am enormously proud of them for the way they travelled from Plymouth—many of them leaving it for the first time—to come to Parliament. One of them asked me, “Why would anyone take notice of us? Why does it matter?” I explained the job of Members of Parliament, and they said, “Aren’t they all corrupt?” That is not an unreasonable question for a young person who has been confronted by years and years of the news coverage that we have had. I am so proud of those young people for telling their story about being in care, but we need to make sure that our day-to-day business here speaks to a place that every young person can look at and aspire to be in and whose principles they can aspire to follow.
That means changing the rules that we have. I do not see a reason why MPs have second jobs. The declarations of who has a second job includes many of the MPs in the south-west near to me. When I at how many hours or days a week they spend doing a second job, I think that is one or two days a week that they are not doing the job that they were elected to do and that they are paid very handsomely to do. What are we getting? Are taxpayers getting a rebate? Are they getting a refund? What influence, decisions and information is being shared? There should be no second jobs, except for those who are keeping up a medical licence or the ability to write a book.
I understand why some people do not want to be in Parliament, because I do not think it is a safe place to work. I say that because I worked in professional workplaces until my election, and I did not doubt that any of those private sector workplaces were safe. People were able to come to work and be safe. I do not always believe that Parliament is a safe place to work, especially for many of our staff. Young people, often not paid very much, are in an atmosphere full of alcohol, where power has a currency all by itself. When we talk about standards in public life, they are not amorphous, blobby things. They are not foggy things that we are trying to catch. They are lived experience for people. We must make this place a safe place for everybody to work. There is a big distinction between the Parliament that I turned up to as a young researcher in 2000 with brown hair and the Parliament that I turned up to with grey hair when I got elected.
It was brown—I have picture evidence.
None the less, progress has been made in those 20 years. We should not dismiss the fact that MPs of both parties have sought to make change to make this place a better one. However, it is not yet a safe enough place for everyone to work, and it needs to be. That is the reason why the seven principles of public life should not exist on a dusty bookshelf; we should live and breathe them. More than that, they should be visible to everyone in this place. Far from being points of shame, or a tick-list to see what someone has got wrong, they should be a source of pride and strength for us all in this place. We should display them around the building. The refurbished parliamentary building should welcome Members and guests with a celebration of those principles, built into the fabric of the building, just as today’s Parliament highlights the many old dudes in wigs who once ruled Britain hundreds of years ago. We should make them visible to everyone.
Making them modern must also make them personal. If I am lucky enough to be returned as the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport after the next election, one of the changes that I would like to see is that when we come to swear in, we should not just swear an Oath to the Queen—to God, if we have one—or affirm; I think we should also swear to uphold the principles of public life. If each and every one of us, in our own voice, says those words, lists the seven principles of public life and affirms or swears to uphold them when we are in office, then they are not just a tick box or a document that we have been given as part of the corporate brochure—the new starter’s handbook. They are something that each and every one of us has said and made personal. That matters because if it is personal, it is more likely to be upheld by every individual.
I think we are at a crossroads in our democracy. At a crossroads, taking the right turn is not inevitable. Many places can take the wrong turn, and as we are seeing around the world, where rights are under attack, where democracy is being eroded, where misinformation is sometimes more believed than accurate information, it is not inevitable that we win this fight, that standards win. That only happens when we make the case for it, when people are persuaded by it and when there is no other option but to uphold those standards.
So I hope the Minister will take the Opposition’s suggestions seriously, and make actual changes to the way this place functions—changes not designed to catch people out, but to celebrate those standards and make them something that each and every one of us aspires to make sure we uphold through our activities. When we go into schools and talk about our role as Members of Parliament, I think people see an MP who is proud of their job. They see an MP wanting to share the hope of changing the community for the better. Talking about their politics, their values, every single MP would probably make a case for good practice—for best practice and for hope. Why are we so different when we leave those schools and come to this place, that we find it so easy to qualify and avoid those standards? Why do we find it so easy to protect the people who break those rules? If every Member of Parliament decides today to stop protecting the people who make this place unsafe, to stop protecting the people who break the rules, we will get a Parliament that is better and we will have something that those young kids can be proud of.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for securing the debate, and I thank my other colleagues for all the excellent speeches from them so far.
The seven principles of public life—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—were brought in after the Nolan inquiry, following scandals in public life. They have been embedded in my brain since they were adopted. They permeated our understanding as councillors; they were the principles by which we worked and made decisions. We sign up to them when we are elected as MPs or councillors, or assume a variety of roles, but so do a large number of public servants when they are appointed or employed. They are integral to our public life. However, what happens in Parliament, and by Government, matters throughout our public life. That spreads beyond this place.
I said that it was embedded in my brain but, as a Quaker, truth and integrity is also embedded in my core. For those colleagues who go into Prayers, every day they pray that Members may never
“lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of”
—apologies for the language—
I believe, as others have said, that the vast majority of MPs do comply with the seven principles in all they do, and actively and willingly sign them and follow them. However, sadly, we have seen too many examples of where that has not been the case. Too often, in the last few years, that has come from the very top of Government, and from, as of yesterday, the previous Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). My constituent, Peter Oborne, identified 50 lies made by that Prime Minister in this House between the general election in 2019 and January of this year—when he stopped counting, but there have been many examples since. Honesty is one of the seven principles.
Peter Oborne said, I thought quite helpfully, that
“we…had an area of public discourse which belonged to everybody, a common ground where rival parties could coexist”.
He goes on to say:
“Political lying is a form of theft. It takes away people’s democratic rights. Voters cannot make fair judgements on the basis of falsehoods.”
That is just addressing just one of the seven principles.
Over the past three years, we have seen a bonfire of ethics and integrity. We have seen the Government try to overrule the Standards Committee; we have seen stories about Conservative MPs being threatened by Government Whips; and we have seen the very basic standards around public life degraded in front of us. The new Prime Minister stood by and supported the previous Government, who took a blowtorch to the basic ethics of public life.
I was particularly concerned to see, last week, that the Government have spent £130,000 commissioning a legal opinion on the Privileges Committee investigation into the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. I am not sure why the Cabinet Office felt it was a good use of public money to get an opinion on a matter that was for this House, and this House alone.
Under that Prime Minister, we saw the Government—I would say, disgracefully—undermine the basic structures that uphold standards and integrity in politics. Not only did they try to overrule the Standards Committee, but the Prime Minister refused to sack his own Ministers when they were found to have breached the ministerial code. What is the point of having a ministerial code if it is not enforced? Conservative Ministers have even gone as far as giving the finger to those protesting outside Downing Street.
Surely the fundamental problem we have is that, over the past three years, Ministers have felt able to act with impunity. A Minister unlawfully overruled a planning decision to help a Conservative property developer and party donor he had met at a dinner. We have seen a Cabinet Minister rebuked for bullying civil servants but not sacked. We have seen crony contracts worth millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money awarded to friends and allies of Ministers without due diligence. If that had happened in local government when I was a councillor, we would have been sacked, and probably the Government inspectors would have been in and taken over from the powers of the councillors. Yet, when they were asked to provide evidence in court, they magically claimed their phones had been wiped.
We have seen more. We have seen a Government who suspend Parliament when they fear they will not succeed in what they want to do; who expel Conservative Members from the party, breaking the rules that they had passed; and who refuse to adopt their own code of conduct. Those are all symptoms of a failure to live the values of the seven principles. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, they should not just be on a dusty shelf; all of us should live and breathe them every day. Perhaps they should be up in gold leaf around the walls of Westminster Hall, the Chamber or Members’ Lobby, so that they are always there in front of us.
This matters to people’s faith in democracy. It matters if we want people to vote and have faith that their vote matters, and have faith in what it is they are voting for this time and next time—in all elections, not just to Parliament. They must have faith in their other elected representatives. It matters to the reputation of this country. We could have a debate on every single one of the Nolan principles—but that would take up the 90 minutes that we have been allowed for this debate today.
If we are not to undermine Parliament, our democracy and the reputation of this country, we must take action. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has made three serious, genuine proposals. Given his deep experience of the history of Parliament and his role in our Parliament now, we should listen and take action. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, we have to do better by being better.
In a debate about the seven principles of public life, it is fair to preface my remarks by saying that the recent history of the Government has been at best tempestuous. That is the context within which this debate takes place. I will try to summarise what has brought us here today.
We know about the crony covid contracts and the illegal Prorogation of Parliament, but what probably touched the public far more deeply were the lockdown parties that the former Prime Minister knew nothing about. He then admitted he knew about them but did not attend. Then he admitted he attended but did not realise they were parties. This was a saga that pushed the credulity of the public beyond comprehension, and was beneath the dignity of the office of the Prime Minister.
Some Tory Members think we should all move on—it is in the past; let us forget about it. But there is no denying that people across the House of Commons and people across the UK, regardless of their political persuasion, felt by turns very angry, let down, betrayed and even mocked by the behaviour of a Prime Minister who told us we could not be with our loved ones. We were told to help prevent the spread of covid and to support the NHS. People, by and large, followed that advice—even when their loved ones were dying alone and even when loved ones were suffering with terrible loneliness. They followed that advice even when it was very difficult and distressing to do so, because they believed it was the right thing to do. To find that their Prime Minister so casually and so blatantly did not follow that advice—his advice—was very hard for many to bear.
I understand that we face a crisis in energy prices, a cost of living crisis, and deeply worrying levels of inflation, but truth and honesty when Prime Ministers take to the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons really matters. If leaders look people in the eye and say things to them that are not true, or if people feel that they simply cannot trust what the Prime Minister tells them, how much harder is it to govern and effectively lead through times of dark crisis? Now more than ever, people across the UK need leaders they can believe in. The legacy of partygate is that the office of the Prime Minister has been badly tarnished, and that is ultimately a threat to democracy itself. It seems to me that perhaps that is why we are even holding this debate.
There can be no doubt that the previous Prime Minister’s tenure showed just how important the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty truly are. Those principles underpin the survival of democracy itself. Standards in public life, the ministerial code and trust all matter.
This is not just about the impact of partygate. We have also witnessed attempts to rewrite the ministerial code, and declarations saying it would be “disproportionate” to require Ministers who breach the code to step down, and that it would be more in keeping to ask them to take a pay cut or make a public apology. Yet Lord Evans was clear in his report recommending reforms following a review of the ministerial code by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which said:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament.”
That is self-evidently true and should not be considered remotely controversial in any state that believes itself to be a democracy. And yet, chillingly, breaking international law was removed from the code in 2015. The section that read,
“the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”
was changed in 2015 to,
“the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life.”
There can be only one reason why the commitment to comply with “international law” and “treaty obligations” was removed. Presumably the intention is, and was, to pick and choose what international law would be complied with. And what do we find? The then Northern Ireland Secretary, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), admitted to the House of Commons in a debate on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill that it broke
“international law in a very specific and limited way.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 509.]
That allows Ministers to make regulations inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under the withdrawal agreement, laying the groundwork for more extensive breaches of international law and, importantly, seeking to insulate Ministers from judicial scrutiny at home.
Most extraordinarily, the provisions on international law and those on domestic law in the same Bill could have legal effect notwithstanding their incompatibility with
“any rule of international or domestic law whatsoever”.
This appears to be an attempt to oust the jurisdiction of the courts to review the legality of ministerial decisions under these powers at all.
We have a new Prime Minister and she must get a grip on the moral decay at the heart of Government. Lord Geidt left because he was put in the impossible position of having to arbitrate over flagrant law breaking. Of the four ethics advisers there have ever been, two have resigned under the tenure of the former Prime Minister—the same Prime Minister whose final honours list appears to be full of presents for cronies and pals, putting them into positions of lifetime peerages, unaccountable to the public while they scrutinise legislation.
How can we recover from this damaged trust and decay? It will not be easy but I believe it can be done. The new Prime Minister could do what her predecessor failed to do. Her predecessor refused to give the then Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, Lord Geidt, the power to launch his own investigations, as requested by a number of ethics bodies, but the new Prime Minister could provide such power to independent standards advisers. At the moment, as we have heard, an independent investigation into whether the ministerial code has been breached can take place only if the Prime Minister approves it, and even then, the findings can be completely disregarded. That cannot be right.
But the fear that many of us have, as we have heard today, is that matters will not improve. The new Prime Minister has said that she may not appoint an ethics adviser, but that would be a terrible mistake. I understand that her reasoning is that it is not necessary as she has “always acted with integrity”, but even if we believe that and accept that argument, in politics perception matters. Sometimes in politics, perception is the only thing that matters. The perception will inevitably be that her stubborn refusal to appoint an ethics adviser, given recent history, means that it will be business as usual and it will do nothing to restore confidence in the idea that the principles of public life really matter to this Government. It will be a squandered opportunity for the new Prime Minister, who was at the heart of her predecessor’s Government, if she fails to take a new broom and sweep away some of the dubious ethics of the previous leadership. Otherwise, as we all know, trust in politics and the business of government will continue to erode. That damages the very fabric of our society and the cohesiveness of our communities, and ultimately threatens democracy itself. That helps no one, benefits no one but harms everyone.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Mr Twigg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) on securing it.
What an important debate this is to have on the first day of a new premiership. The timing could not be more appropriate. I share the disappointment of other Members that there are no Conservative Members here, except the Minister—I am glad to see her in her place—for this very fundamental debate. Shockwaves have just gone through our political system. The premiership has changed because of an erosion of standards, yet the Chamber is not absolutely packed. Conservative Members should be looking at themselves and the system, and making changes.
I hope the new Prime Minister and her team are watching and that this debate serves as a reminder that this House cares deeply about ethics and standards. Members have made some really fantastic speeches. I encourage anyone reading this in Hansard to go back and read the earlier speeches.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree spoke about the erosion of trust in politicians caused by the scandals and sleaziness under the previous Prime Minister, and about the need for a new system to restore integrity. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said that the new Prime Minister must make restoring trust and confidence in politicians a priority of her premiership—I agree.
My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) spoke about the link between standards in public life and the loss of faith in the political system, and about the seriousness of this debate and the need for respect for each other in this House. We must set an example here by upholding the highest standards, which will then be followed throughout the rest of the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) highlighted Ministers’ persistent failure to register interests on time and the opaqueness of the system, which goes against the principle of openness. Who is paying for freebies? Who is meeting Ministers? He spoke about the need for the Committee on Standards’ new code of conduct to be taken up, and I hope it will be next week.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) spoke about the importance of standards. I met the young people who came from Plymouth yesterday, and I was really struck by their integrity, openness, transparency and leadership, but I was disappointed to hear of their loss of faith in politicians, which is reflected across the country.
I have no idea how MPs are able to have a second job. Today is the 1,000th day since I was elected, and it has been really tough. Every day, I have been delighted to be a Member representing my constituency and standing up in public life, but I do not know how I would fit anything else in. On the issue of Members’ safety, people feel this is not a safe place to work and that causes them to count themselves out of standing to come to this place, and we lose an immense wealth of talent because of that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) highlighted the cronyism, the suspension of Parliament and a list of things that have happened to bring us to this debate. The failure to uphold standards and their undermining have meant that the system has lost public trust. This is a crisis.
When it comes to ethics and standards, and to trust, the Government need to be placed in special measures, and I hope to hear from the Minister about what special measures will be taken to bring us out of this system. Instead of the seven Nolan principles, we have seen scandals, bullying, back-covering and cronyism. We have seen poor behaviour by MPs acting with impunity. We have seen what is said in the House, and what happens in Downing Street, bringing us to this place. It breaks my heart when I stand on doorsteps every weekend and people say, “You’re all the same.” The undermining of the seven principles by some Members undermines us all and all the work done by decent MPs, and it allows improper influence to undermine our very democracy.
Because of all that has happened, it is no wonder that the former ethics adviser felt overworked. Government Members—not in Westminster Hall today, but elsewhere— will be quick to assert that the Prime Minister will turn over a new leaf and that we have a new moment and a break from the past, so that we can start afresh. Deep down, however, they know this is a fiction, because the Prime Minister propped up her disgraced predecessor as he misled the British public and corrupted Downing Street. The actions of the former Prime Minister cast a long shadow and, whether she likes it or not, the new Prime Minister is darkened by it. That is why action on standards, and explaining that action to make it transparent what changes are being made, is so important.
It is already clear that the Johnsonian tradition of believing that the rules do not apply to those at the top will be kept alive and well under the incoming Administration unless there are changes. Instead of pledging to restore standards in public life after years of Tory sleaze and scandal, the Prime Minister is threatening to trample all over them. During the leadership campaign, she was asked multiple times to commit to replacing the ethics adviser. At Prime Minister’s questions earlier, her answer to one of the questions was a simple yes. That is what was needed for the question of whether she will appoint an ethics adviser. Her response should have been yes, but she did not commit to appointing an ethics adviser, which is extremely worrying. The Prime Minister has already appointed a whole new senior leadership team and political advisers, but an independent adviser on ministerial interests was conspicuously absent from the list. Like her predecessor, she seems to think she does not need one. To use her own words, that is a disgrace. If only the Prime Minister cared as much about standards in public life as she so evidently does about pork markets and cheese.
The incoming Prime Minister would do well to remember that it is because of her predecessor’s disregard for the seven principles that she now finds herself with moving vans outside No. 10. She should know, and I am sure she does know, that getting rid of the ethics adviser is a blank cheque for corruption. Corruption is a big word, but it does not arrive in any country or place of work with a big bang, saying, “Hello, I’m corruption.” It creeps in unannounced, it corrodes and infects politics. It is about small decisions, larger ones and things that are done behind closed doors that are not known about. It is often small and unseen. It is insidious, and it infects slowly. That is why a line must be drawn and the system must be changed, because it is not working.
Senior civil servants are also worried, which matters for the whole delivery of Government. When the last ethics adviser resigned, Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA—the senior civil servants union—said that
“confidence in the process has been severely damaged. If the prime minister does not intend to replace Lord Geidt, then he must immediately put in place measures to ensure a civil servant can, with confidence, raise a complaint about ministerial misconduct.”
We cannot just leave a vacuum at the top. As pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, the position of ethics adviser is not an optional extra. The ethics adviser performs a key administrative function that enables openness, honesty and transparency. With the post vacant, there is no one to whom new Members can give their full list of interests that may be thought to give rise to a conflict with a Minister’s public duties. With whom will they register that? There is no one to investigate possible breaches of the ministerial code. There is no one to advise the Prime Minister on the code, which is a substantial and highly important document for upholding the seven principles, and there is no one to take up existing investigations.
Labour believes in the seven principles. When we are in Government, we will clean up politics by establishing an independent ethics and integrity commission to ensure the transparency and accountability that have been woefully lacking under the Conservatives. We would make appointments at speed, but we would go further. We have called for an expansion of the scope of the statutory register of lobbyists and a ban on MPs taking up lobbying jobs for five years after leaving office.
Not only does Labour believe in the Nolan principles, the public does, too. The former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), said that voters don’t “give a fig” about the ethics adviser. I hope that no new Ministers share that view because voters do give a fig. This is unacceptable. I would counsel the new Prime Minister and her Cabinet not to insult the British electorate by being complacent about standards. They do give a fig about honesty and integrity.
I will end by asking the Minister several important questions, which I have asked several times in different places but have never had a straight answer for. First, can she confirm whether ongoing investigations launched by the previous ethics adviser will now be completed? Can she confirm whether there will be an interim position or a role holder for the ethics adviser? Labour’s motion to the House in June called for this replacement to be put in place within two months. It has been well over two months now, but no interim position or ethics adviser has been put in place. Has the Minister spoken with the new Prime Minister about what she plans to do with the role? I am sure the Prime Minister has been very busy, but this is a high priority. Is she aware of the key accountability functions not being performed because there is no adviser, and how outdated is the record of ministerial interests now? Who is holding Ministers to account in the interim?
With no ethics adviser and no obvious backstop in place, Ministers are free to do as they please without consequence. It is a blank cheque for bad behaviour. It is a bad start for the new Administration. It may be an attractive position for the Government, who have always found the rules to be incredibly inconvenient, but it is not attractive or acceptable to the British public. The seven principles of public life have been the cornerstone of our democracy for 25 years. There was a time when they were treated as sacrosanct by all Prime Ministers, Ministers and Governments—whether Labour or Conservative—because those seven principles are British principles.
The public do not ask for much from us—well, not all the time. They do not ask for perfection in their politicians, but they rightly expect that we act in the public’s interests at all times and never in our personal interests. It is that simple. Labour understands this. This is a time for a reset on public standards. I hope to hear from the Minister about—that word—delivery. The Government must deliver not only an effective system that stops power corrupting, but one that inspires and sets the best example to the country of action in public life.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important and timely topic. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) for requesting the debate and express my gratitude to the hon. and right hon. Members present for their active participation.
The standards to which public servants in the United Kingdom, including those who serve in political life, are appropriately held are highly regarded across the world. The bedrock of those standards is formed, as we have heard many hon. Members say, by the seven principles of public life established by Lord Nolan in 1995. The principles— selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—are woven into the codes of conduct for Members of the House and those in the other place. They are also central to the ministerial code, which sets the standards of behaviour expected of those who serve in Her Majesty’s Government. The seven principles, as we have heard, apply much more widely, such as to civil servants, those in local government and across public life.
Today’s contributions have made clear the importance of the seven principles to all of us. They form a touchstone to which we return and a benchmark against which we judge our actions. When we make those judgments, there will, of course, be times when we fall short. We cannot be complacent about that. Applying and upholding the principles is not a passive undertaking. It requires collective vigilance, self-assessment and willingness to learn and be held to account. That can be uncomfortable, but it is essential.
I shall try to answer as many of the points and questions raised in the debate as I can. The Government have been considering the “Standards Matter 2” report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life alongside Nigel Boardman’s report on the use of supply chain finance in Government. As set out in the written statement on 15 July 2022, a number of changes have been made in response to those reports. For example, in June 2022, new guidance was issued on the declaration and management of outside interests in the civil service. The Government have also implemented Nigel Boardman’s recommendations on Government contracts and the use of supply chain finance in Government. In May 2022, reforms were made to the role and remit of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests in response to recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
The Government are also taking action to improve the enforcement of the business appointment rules. Mechanisms are now in place for breaches of the rules to be taken into account in the award of honours. Agreement on a similar approach is also being sought with the independent House of Lords Appointment Commission. The Government are now considering how to implement the same approach in relation to public appointments. Alongside this, the Government are considering consequences for prospective employers, including through the procurement process. Work on further reforms continues and will be informed by the new Prime Minister.
Please be in no doubt that the Government remain fully committed to ensuring that all Ministers, including the Prime Minister, are held to account for maintaining high standards of behaviour and behaving in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety, as the public rightly expect. The ministerial code lays that out. In the absence of an independent adviser, permanent secretaries carry out the process of reviewing Ministers’ interests, advised by the Cabinet Office. Correcting the points from the right hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), it is actually the duty of the permanent secretary to carry out that work in the absence of the independent adviser.
The Prime Minister is currently dealing with a number of pressing issues, as Members might imagine, and has not been in post long enough to turn her attention to this matter yet. However, it is important and she will do so as quickly as she is able. We have heard many Members quoting the Prime Minister, from the hustings and so on, as saying that she is not appointing an independent adviser.
One of the difficulties of it all being done by the permanent secretary is that if—let us say, for the sake of argument—a Secretary of State was accused by a permanent secretary of bullying them, how then could the Government Minister simply turn to the permanent secretary for advice on adherence or otherwise to the ministerial code? That is why we need an independent adviser on the ministerial code. It cannot simply be reporting to permanent secretaries. Under the system the Minister has just outlined, there is no means for any of this becoming public. Permanent secretaries cannot publish it. The only person who can publish it is the independent adviser on the ministerial code.
The head of the civil service can take the role of looking after issues like that when there is a clash between a senior Government Minister and their permanent secretary. The Prime Minister said that she was “not necessarily saying” that she would not appoint an independent adviser, but that
“the leadership needs to take responsibility. You cannot outsource ethics to an adviser. We need ethics running through the Government. The culture of organisations starts at the top and that’s what’s important to me.”
In response to the right hon. Member for Rhondda, again, the appointment of the next independent adviser and the terms of their appointment are matters for the new Prime Minister. In the light of the resignation of the former independent adviser and the comments made by Lord Geidt and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee at the time, the Government felt it was right to reflect and consider the way in which that independent adviser’s role was delivered, particularly given the increased scrutiny of the role. The independent adviser is a personal adviser to the Prime Minister, and it is an appointment on a five-year term. It is therefore right that the appointment is made by the new Prime Minister, and that some time is allowed for the Prime Minister to consider next steps in this key role. It is for the Prime Minister to confirm how this function will be undertaken and to consider the available options.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see. The handling of interests in the interim—the process of managing interests—continues in line with the ministerial code. The code sets out that the permanent secretary in each Department can provide advice to Ministers, and plays a role in scrutinising interests. The Cabinet Office also provides that advice, and the Government’s publication of transparency information also continues unaffected. Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned 362 pieces of transparency; in fact, there have been 4,568 transparency releases on the gov.uk platform since the pandemic was declared—more than 10 times the number the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Thank you for that insightful comment. As the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth mentioned councils and corruption, I suggest that she look at Sandwell Council and the process of awarding contracts as an example of a lack of transparency and process.
I am not saying that every council is perfect; I am saying that a process is used in local government. I do not know the details of the Sandwell example, but such things are the exception to the vast majority of local governments and councillors in the UK. I know how the mechanisms work from my 25 years of experience as a councillor, although some of that was before the Nolan principles came in, and I know that there is little leeway for elected councillors.
I suggest that the hon. Lady look at the Sandwell case.
As for gatherings and investigations, the Government asked the country to make extraordinary sacrifices, and as the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) said, he has taken personal responsibility, acknowledging people’s anger and hurt and offering a full and unreserved apology for the mistakes made, and he has left office. Any investigations that were not completed by Lord Geidt prior to his resignation will remain outstanding. Members will appreciate that the Prime Minister has just been appointed, so decisions on matters relating to the independent adviser will be taken in due course.
I will finish in order to leave time for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree. The Government continue to hold public standards in the highest importance, and places the seven principles of public life at the foundation of ethical conduct and integrity. The Prime Minister is fully committed to ensuring all Ministers are held to account to maintain high standards of behaviour, and to behaving in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety, as the public rightly expect. As part of this commitment, we continue to carefully consider the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others, and we will be updating the House on this work in due course.
I thank the Minister for allowing me time to sum up, and all colleagues for their excellent speeches. We have heard lots of information today, and I want to touch on a couple of issues. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), the shadow Minister, that the public do care about the Nolan principles. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that our system is broken, not because of neglect but because of deliberate decisions to break it. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about the importance of an independent adviser, and how that should be a statutory post.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) talked about how perception matters in politics. I say to the Minister that perception does matter; the Nolan principles do matter. I would be grateful to the Minister if she could report back to the Prime Minister the disappointment from this side of the Chamber that no Conservative Back Benchers spoke in this debate, because it is incredibly important. Could she also convey to the Prime Minister that perception does matter and the Nolan principles matter?
It does not matter that the Prime Minister says that she will uphold them, and that she has integrity; she must demonstrate that by appointing an independent adviser. I am not saying that the Prime Minister is not going to uphold the principles. My point is that we had, in the former Prime Minister, someone who did not observe those principles. Quite frankly, that is not good enough for the public that we all seek to serve.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Seven Principles of Public Life.