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Home Secretary: Resignation and Reappointment

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2022

I was disappointed, on leaving my previous Department last night, that I would no longer be seeing the right hon. Lady across the Dispatch Box, and I am so glad that she has put that right for me today. She has a good memory, and I know she will recall that last week the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office—my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith)—said, in responding to a question that she had tabled, that questions relating to

“breaches of the ministerial code”

or related issues

“are a matter for the Cabinet Office, not the Home Office”.—[Official Report, 22 October 2022; Vol. 720, c. 834.]

That is why I, not the Home Secretary, am here answering the question today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw set out the circumstances regarding the departure of the Home Secretary last week. The Home Secretary made an error of judgment. She recognised her mistake, and she took responsibility for her actions. The ministerial code allows for a range of sanctions when mistakes have been made. The Home Secretary recognised her mistake, raised the matter and stepped down. Her resignation was accepted by the then Prime Minister.

The right hon. Lady will be aware that ministerial appointments are a matter solely for the Prime Minister, as the sovereign’s principal adviser on the appointment, dismissal and acceptance of resignations of Ministers. The Prime Minister was very clear in his speech to the nation yesterday when he said:

“This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”

He has said that he will work “day in, day out” to earn the trust of the country and live up to the demands and expectations that the public rightly have of their Prime Minister. The Prime Minister expects all Ministers to uphold the values and standards set by the ministerial code, as the public would rightly expect.

As I have said, the Home Secretary made an error of judgment. She recognised her mistake, and she took accountability for her actions in stepping down. After consideration, the Prime Minister has decided, given the apology issued by the Home Secretary, to reappoint her to the Government. They are now focused, together, on working to make our streets safer and to control our borders. However, while we should learn from mistakes, we should also look to the future, and the Prime Minister has appointed a team of Ministers to lead the country through the issues that it faces.

All Ministers are bound by the ministerial code, and the Prime Minister expects his Ministers to uphold the code and hold the highest standards. As I have noted, the code allows for a range of sanctions for breaches, and on the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the code was updated in May to make that clear. On an ongoing basis, we will need—every Minister—through our actions and in how we conduct ourselves, to demonstrate that we can continue to command this Prime Minister’s confidence as we tackle the huge challenges that are to come for the country.

My questions are about security breaches and the protection of our national security. They are questions to the Home Secretary, who was here just five minutes ago and who then left.

Yesterday the Prime Minister promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability”, yet the Government have discarded the ministerial code and reappointed someone who breached core professional standards and has now run away from basic accountability to this House. It is the same old Tory chaos, and it is letting the country down.

I have questions for the Home Secretary that the Government need to answer. The Home Secretary accepted that she had sent an official document via her personal email to someone who was not authorised to see it. Is that the only time she has done that? Has she shared other documents, or other sensitive information? The Home Secretary is responsible for national security, so has the Home Office, the Cabinet Office or the Security Service now undertaken an investigation of her security breaches to establish how many others there have been? If not, may I urge the Minister to ensure that that happens as a matter of urgency?

What security clearance has the Home Secretary been given? Does she still have access to the most sensitive documents and information, and did the Cabinet Secretary warn against her reappointment? She has been Attorney General, she has been a Minister on and off for four years, so she knows the rules about Government documents, yet she sent one to her own private email, to someone outside the Government, and also copied it by accident to someone else entirely. How is anyone supposed to believe that she is such a novice that she did not know exactly what she was doing, and if she really is that much of a novice, why on earth are the rest of us supposed to trust her with our national security? It has been reported that she sent this as an error of judgment because she was tired after going on an early-morning raid. Is the Home Office just supposed to block her phone and email if she has been up half the night because she might do stupid things while she is tired? There are suggestions that the Home Secretary while she was Attorney General was investigated for a leak of information relating to the Security Service; is that true?

The Minister is a former policing Minister; does he think that if police officers breached their code of ethics and were sacked or forced to resign, they should then be reappointed to their jobs six days later because they said sorry, or is it just one rule for the Cabinet and another for everyone else? Everyone knows this was a grubby deal to get a coronation, to put party before country, but national security is too important for this.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that this Government will act with professionalism, integrity and accountability; that is exactly what this Government will be doing. As the right hon. Lady will be aware, I cannot comment on what the Cabinet Secretary may or may not do; that is a matter for the Cabinet Secretary. On the speculation the right hon. Lady raised—I am not going to comment on speculation either; the right hon. Lady would not expect me to do so.

At the end of the day, it is very simple: the Home Secretary made a mistake, and has acknowledged that she made a mistake, but she offered her resignation and stood down. The Prime Minister has looked again, and has decided, as is his right, that she can return to Government. I believe in redemption; I hope the right hon. Lady can as well. The Home Secretary is busy today, doing the job of the Home Secretary: keeping our borders secure and helping the police do their job—and I am sure that the right hon. Lady welcomes, as I do, the fact that we now have over 15,000 additional police officers, delivering day in, day out for the country. That is what this Government can be relied upon to do.

May I remind my hon. Friend that I recall that Tony Blair had to remove one of his very senior and most trusted Ministers for a breach of the ministerial code and later reappointed him to the Government? The public will respect the fact that we have a system that holds Ministers accountable for breaches of the code, but there is learning from mistakes and not just blame. I can vouch for the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has the highest integrity. I do not blame the Opposition for one minute for doing their job and probing this matter, because matters of national security are extremely important, but the Government have my confidence in that they have acted proportionately in this matter.

I thank my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that there were circumstances in other Administrations—in which the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) played a prominent part—of members of the Government making mistakes and then being brought back into the same Administration. If people have made a mistake, have accepted that they made a mistake and have stepped down as a result of that mistake, that enables them at a future point to be re-employed if they have a good job to do—and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has an important job to do.

New Prime Minister, same old Tories—a Government just like their predecessors who clearly do not think the ministerial code is worth the paper it is written on. This appointment is an absolute disgrace. So many questions simply have not been answered. How many so-called errors of judgment have there been? Do Ministers behave like this all the time, as one source close to the Home Secretary apparently said? Did the Cabinet Office raise concerns prior to this particular breach? Who first alerted officials to the breach? Who is undertaking an inquiry? Will there finally be an independent ethics adviser? Is it not shocking that there is not one just now?

However, as the Minister has acknowledged, the real question here is for the Prime Minister, because there are a million other reasons why the Home Secretary is unfit for office, from her trashing the Office of the Attorney General to her refugee-bashing policies; from her trash talk of “Benefits Street” to her advocating our withdrawal from the European convention on human rights; and from her anti-migration, anti-growth policies to her being the last defender of tax cuts for the rich. And then there is her Rwanda “dream”. How can the Prime Minister ever talk again about integrity and compassion in politics after blatantly making an appointment in his own interest that is completely against everybody else’s interests? Actions speak louder than words.

I reiterate that my right hon. and learned Friend made a mistake, she acknowledged that and she stepped down. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the independent adviser, and I am glad that he has done so. He will be reassured that it is the absolutely the Prime Minister’s intention to appoint an independent adviser. That is the right thing to do, and I know that it is absolutely his intention.

Last week, the Home Secretary’s sharing of a draft parliamentary answer barely got a mention. They were all over it because this was a damaging policy row with the Prime Minister’s subordinate. She lost her Home Secretary. Why does my hon. Friend think that has changed?

The former Prime Minister lost her Home Secretary because the Home Secretary recognised that she had made a mistake. She accepted that mistake, she offered to resign and that resignation was accepted. I do not think that means that a mistake should hang over someone for the rest of their career. There is an opportunity for redemption and the Prime Minister has decided that this would be an appropriate appointment. I know that he is working hard with the Home Secretary on the immense challenges we face.

It is notable how much support the Home Secretary has on the Government Benches. She did immense damage, in her previous brief tenure in the job, to our relations with India through her comments about Indian visitors overstaying their visas. The consequence is that the British people are now the only people in Europe who do not have access to e-visas to visit India. That is doing great damage to our tourism sector and jeopardising the travel plans of thousands of British families. Will the hon. Gentleman please use his good offices in the Cabinet Office to bang heads together in the Government, get this sorted out and try to repair the damage that the Home Secretary did when she was in the job last time?

Our relationship with India is clearly important. I know that the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to go into detail about that. I note from the Annunciator ticker that we have an urgent question on India following this one, and I am sure he will use that opportunity to make his point.

Given the reappointment of the Home Secretary, and given what the Prime Minister has said about 50,000 more police officers, will my hon. Friend work with the Home Secretary to ensure that we get more of those police officers on the beat in Harlow, which is what our residents want?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I am not the policing Minister. Had I been the policing Minister, I am sure that I would have talked about the operational independence of the police, but I am proud to say on behalf of the Government that there are well over 15,000 new police officers—additional police officers—and that is a tremendous step forward. With those extra resources, the police can make use of them operationally as they wish, and I am sure they will have heard my right hon. Friend.

It seems to me that the ministerial code has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance in this last period of multiple Governments and the clown show that we have seen operating on the Government Benches. The Minister says that the new Prime Minister is going to appoint an independent adviser on the ministerial code. Can he give this House an assurance that when that appointment is made—we expect it to be soon—there will be a proper investigation into the behaviour of the Home Secretary in her last iteration, before she had her six days off?

I reaffirm the point I made that the Prime Minister is keen to appoint an independent adviser, but I have to say that events in the last Administration would not be properly part of the remit of the new independent adviser. That matter was dealt with under the previous Administration. We have a new Administration and the Home Secretary has been appointed to her post.

The appointment by this Prime Minister of a Home Secretary is not something relating to the previous Administration. If the Minister is correct in his assertion that there is nothing improper or inappropriate about this appointment, surely it will be in the interests of this Prime Minister and his Government to have the independent adviser on the ministerial code run the rule over it once he or she is appointed.

I do not think there is any mystery here. The fact is that a mistake was made. The Home Secretary accepted that she made a mistake, she informed the relevant parties and her resignation was accepted. I do not see the grounds under which there would be any utility in the independent adviser going over past ground.

I am unable to comment on any security matters. The right hon. Gentleman knows me well, and he knows that I would not say anything publicly in this House that I did not know. I do not know the security clearance of the Home Secretary, but I know she is in the Home Office doing her job, acting as Home Secretary, and doing the right things to keep our borders secure. That includes all aspects of counter-terrorism and the full remit of her role as Home Secretary.

I congratulate the Home Secretary on her appointment and wish her well in a very difficult job. The fact that she made a mistake, confessed to having made it, said she was sorry and then took the honourable decision to step down before being reappointed is not unique. There is not a party in this House that has not reappointed somebody to ministerial office in such circumstances, or even worse. The real judgment we will make of the Home Secretary is whether she tackles crime on our streets, deals with the protesters who are defacing artworks and disrupting our streets, and takes on the criminal gangs that are ruthlessly exploiting the desperate immigrants who are trying to get into our country.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his characteristically fresh approach. Members will remember that many people appointed by their respective parties have made mistakes, have accepted those mistakes and then made a fresh start. I thank him for his openness in saying that and for reminding us that this is the case across the House. I agree that the real challenges are those facing this country in the years ahead, and the Home Secretary is hard at work getting on with it.

The Minister has talked a lot about accountability today, and the Home Affairs Committee has an important role in scrutinising and questioning the Home Secretary on her policies. We have not been able to do that since 2 February. When it comes to accountability and making this place work properly, we need Home Secretaries and Ministers to come before the Home Affairs Committee. Can the Minister confirm that the Home Secretary, as she now is again, will appear before the Home Affairs Committee, as will all her Ministers? This morning we heard some very disturbing evidence about the current chaos within this country’s immigration system.

Clearly, I cannot make commitments on behalf of my fellow Ministers, but it is a long-established practice of this House that Ministers make themselves available. I have no doubt that my ministerial colleagues are very aware of that.

The Minister’s defence of the Home Secretary reminds me of the old saying:

“The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.”

The Prime Minister said a few moments ago that the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Gavin Williamson) had been reappointed to the Cabinet, despite his leaking confidential data. Of course, that was four years ago, and now we are talking about something that happened six days ago, so what is the minimum period of punishment or rehabilitation for breaching the ministerial code?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands that where a person has made a mistake, and accepted that they have made a mistake, the Prime Minister is entitled to re-evaluate the circumstances and decide whether it is appropriate for them to serve in office. That may be the case after a few days, a few months or a few years. The answer depends on the circumstances of the case, and in the Home Secretary’s case the Prime Minister has chosen to invite her back into Government.

Is there a published tariff for offending Cabinet Ministers—possibly with a period of restorative justice, remission for good behaviour and perhaps even probation options—or is it just a matter of political convenience?

It depends on the circumstances. If someone says that they have made a mistake, it is important that their mistake is looked at in the context of the ministerial code, which has a range of sanctions. We all serve and do our utmost, and admitting a mistake, having it recognised and being sanctioned is in itself a serious matter, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree.

We all know that mistakes happen, but the Minister talks as if it were a junior member of staff who had made an inadvertent clerical error. This is a Home Secretary who released secret information through a personal email address. This suggests a pattern of behaviour, and that she thinks it is okay to snap on her phone at 4 o’clock in the morning and make this atrocious mistake. This is much more serious than the Minister is trying to paint it. I had the privilege of serving in the Home Office, and it would never have happened under previous Governments. Will the Minister not demean himself any further and honestly recognise to the House that this is of a different scale than he is trying to present it?

I am not trying to present it in any way other than the known facts, as contained in the Home Secretary’s resignation letter, which set out that she had made a mistake and she apologised for it. The Prime Minister has clearly taken a view and the Home Secretary has returned to Government, and she has a task ahead of her.

Will the Minister confirm that under this Prime Minister—who knows how long he will be in office?—the ministerial code will be updated to say, “As long as you acknowledge and recognise your mistake, you can be reappointed immediately”?

The ministerial code was last updated in May, so I very much doubt that a further update is likely. The ministerial code makes it clear, after a recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, that it is not the case that every single breach should result in resignation or dismissal, but that appropriate measures need to be put in place, depending on the circumstances of each case.

A risk assessment is carried out in other workplaces when somebody returns to work following a data breach, inadvertent or otherwise. What risk assessment is the Home Office carrying out to ensure these things do not happen again? Indeed, what assurances has the Home Secretary given that she will not engage in this behaviour again?

The Home Secretary is clearly very aware that she has made a mistake and very aware that it can never be repeated. It is a salutary lesson not only for her but for everyone else who is privileged to serve in Government that we need to be extraordinarily careful on these matters. I think we should leave it there. The Home Secretary knows what she needs to do in future, and she knows that she has to ensure there is no repetition. She will focus on her proper role, which is to ensure the safety of this country and the future of the police.

The role of Home Secretary has major security implications for our country. Does the Minister accept that a Home Secretary who does not have full security clearance cannot do the job?

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has got the concept of people not having full security clearance—I do not understand where that would come from. As I have said, the Home Secretary is doing the job of the Home Secretary, with all that that entails. I hope that that reassures him.

Is anyone in Government, including the members of the Cabinet, using personal email accounts to conduct Government business?

By and large, we use Government communications to conduct Government business, but, as I understand it, there is not a total ban on this; there may be certain circumstances, when things are nugatory, where other forms of communication are used. We all live in a digital age, where we need to have rapid communications. As the hon. Lady will be aware, a range of communications are legitimately entered into by Ministers, including in relation to their constituency or to political issues, that cannot and should not be conducted on Government mechanisms.

Last week, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), who is in his place, said clearly to me, in response to a question, and to other Members that there had been a significant security breach by the Home Secretary and that this had led to her resignation. Yet the Home Secretary had implied that the real reason for her dismissal was a blazing row between her and the then Prime Minister. That was clearly not the case and not the reason for her departing Government. What does this say about the Home Secretary and the new Prime Minister?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I look, as to the rationale for my right hon. and learned Friend’s departure, at the text of her resignation letter, where she made it absolutely clear that she had made a mistake, she was sorry she had made a mistake and she felt it was appropriate in those circumstances to tender her resignation.

May I ask again: is a simple apology now enough for anybody who breaches the ministerial code and gets reinstated after six days without any inquiry?

It really does depend on the circumstances, what has happened and what other methods can be used to sanction the member of the Government concerned. There may well be circumstances, as is stated in the ministerial code, where some sanction other than resignation or dismissal is appropriate.

I have listened to the Minister this morning outline that the Home Secretary has apologised and been reappointed. We have a situation where six police authorities are in special measures and where in some parts of the country trust and confidence in the police is at an all-time low, yet we want these same officers to go out and arrest criminals and uphold the law. Does the Minister not recognise that a Home Secretary who has broken the law—something so serious—might not command trust and confidence among those same police officers?

I think the hon. Lady will accept that there is no suggestion here of a breach of the law. There was a mistake made by the Home Secretary, which she has accepted and apologised for. I am sorry that there is very little to add to that. She is determined, as we all are, to give the police the powers and resources they need to go after the criminals, which the hon. Lady referred to. I think she will welcome, as I do, the fact that we have now got 15,000 additional police officers.

I thank the Minister very much for his responses to the questions. Rather than focusing on political point scoring, can we instead focus on political solutions? Will he give an indication of when the Government will outline fresh plans as to how they will address the issue of illegal channel crossings, which put lives in danger each day and week—our services are at breaking point—to help those migrants who seek a better future?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding us of the real issues that underpin this Administration and are affecting our country. I am not going to set out a timetable for him, as that is for others to do, but I absolutely recognise the pith of his comments. There are really important challenges that we need to get after and the one he mentions is right there among them, and I have absolute confidence that the Home Secretary and the immigration Minister are working on that night and day to get us the results we need.