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Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will provide an update on the appointment of an independent adviser on ministerial interests and enforcement of the ministerial code.

The Government welcome the opportunity to stress again the importance of the role of the independent adviser and this Government’s commitment to it. The Prime Minister has been very clear that the appointment of a new independent adviser is a priority and that the appointment process is under way. Hon. Members will understand that an appointment of this nature is significant and has to be done well. Much as hon. Members might wish me to, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on specifics of what is an ongoing appointments process. Let me assure hon. Members: the adjudication of issues of ministerial conduct does not stop because the independent adviser is not yet in post. Conduct matters and conduct issues will be dealt with quickly and appropriately, irrespective of that appointment process.

That is what hon. Members will have seen with regard to complaints made against the Deputy Prime Minister. On receipt of formal complaints by the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister requested that an independent investigation be conducted by an individual from outside Government, and Adam Tolley KC has been appointed to conduct the investigation. The terms of reference have now been published. The process is under way, and Mr Tolley will provide his report to the PM in due course. It is right that these matters are investigated fully, but it would not be right to comment further on them when that process is ongoing.

I would also like to reassure hon. Members that the process of managing the interests of Ministers continues in the absence of an independent adviser. The permanent secretary, as the policy expert on each Department’s remit, leads the process in their Department in the absence of an independent adviser. The Cabinet Office is able to provide advice in line with precedent. All relevant interests are declared by Ministers upon taking office and are kept up to date at all times. The publication of the list of Ministers’ interests is the end point of the ministerial interests process, and it takes place at regular intervals to make the public aware of the relevant interests of Ministers.

I will end by reiterating that as soon as there is an update on the process to appoint an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, the Government will update the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

How many times have I heard, “Soon; jam tomorrow; mañana, mañana”? We need the Prime Minister, who promised to appoint an independent ethics adviser as one of his first acts, to actually deal with this issue. Yet despite Ministers being accused of bullying and intimidation, or being reappointed despite security breaches, there is still no adviser. It is clear that ethics and integrity are not a priority for the Government, despite the Prime Minister’s words.

We are told that recruitment is under way, but apparently no one will accept this poisoned chalice. So can the Minister tell us how many candidates have been approached and how many have refused the job? Will the Prime Minister follow his disgraced predecessors by denying the so-called independent adviser the power to launch their own investigations? Or does he have no plan to restore standards? Will he just preserve the rotten regime that he inherited?

What on earth is the system in the meantime? Who will investigate the allegations of Islamophobia made by one serving Minister against another? The Minister mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister, who had to demand an investigation into himself because the Prime Minister was too weak to do so. How many formal complaints have now been made? The Minister mentions Adam Tolley. Why is he not allowed to proactively investigate the so-called informal complaints? Will he investigate allegations made by the former permanent secretary? And who will finally get to the bottom of the dangerous use of private emails by Ministers?

No. 10 said in reference to the Home Secretary that it could not investigate breaches under previous Administrations. But that is what is happening now with the Deputy Prime Minister, so why not? Why now is there an excuse for refusing to investigate the Home Secretary’s breach? Will the Prime Minister appoint a truly independent watchdog?

It is wonderful to hear the right hon. Lady’s interest in this matter today. As it happens, we had a debate on this very issue in Westminster Hall yesterday. The House will be shocked to hear—

Order. I am here, Minister, not over there—and I hate to say it, but there is nobody even standing on that side.

Thank you for the reminder, Mr Speaker.

The House will be shocked to hear that the right hon. Lady was not present at that Westminster Hall debate—[Interruption.] Because it was about the ministerial code, which is the subject of the urgent question. The right hon. Lady and her hon. Friends did not bother to show up, and they missed the opportunity to hear the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) speak very pertinently on this subject. Not only was the right hon. Lady not there, but her Front-Bench colleagues did not turn up to ask questions, either.

The right hon. Lady refers to rumours in the press, but let us look at the facts. The Prime Minister has been in office for 31 days.[Official Report, 12 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 5MC.] On his first day, he said he would make an appointment. He has made repeated assurances in this place and other places, as have members of the Cabinet, and that has continued in yesterday’s debate, at Prime Minister’s questions and for this urgent question.

The right hon. Lady talks about the powers of the independent adviser, but I remind her that in May this year, Lord Geidt said that we had come up with “a workable scheme”. I have to say that it is starting to sound very much like the Opposition cannot take yes for an answer. We are going to have an independent adviser who will have the powers they need. They are going to be appointed very soon.

When the Government published their policy paper on revisions to the ministerial code on 27 May, it said that there would be “an enhanced process” for the initiation of investigations under the ministerial code, that the independent adviser could initiate his or her own investigations, that there would be a more specific reference to the adviser in the ministerial code, and that there would be a duty on Ministers to provide all the information necessary to allow the adviser to discharge his or her duties. However, it turns out that the Prime Minister is not offering potential candidates any enhanced powers, meaning that advisers will not be able to launch their own investigations, and that confirms the blocking of the expansion of powers by his predecessor. So it is a simple question: why are the Government reneging on their own policy statement of May this year, making it more difficult to appoint an independent adviser?

I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. He seems terribly well informed, but he seems to have stopped short of reading Lord Geidt’s response to the changes in the terms of reference, where he said that

“this would be a workable scheme”.

I hear what the Minister says, but can he give any timescale of when the appointment will be made? In the meantime, can I ask specifically what advice is being given to Ministers and, more importantly, their special advisers on the use of private email and WhatsApp groups?

As I have said, there is a process ongoing to appoint an independent adviser as fast as possible. The Prime Minister has been in post for 31 days, and there is standing advice on the use of WhatsApp and private messaging.[Official Report, 12 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 6MC.]

Can the Minister confirm whether the fee paid to Adam Tolley KC to investigate the claims he mentioned earlier is greater than the projected annual cost of an ethics adviser?

Notwith-standing the Minister’s earlier comments, we have been waiting for five months now for an ethics adviser. Every time the Government fail to appoint one, it further undermines and corrodes this place’s reputation in the public mind. I have tabled a Bill that would give Parliament the power to appoint an ethics adviser if the Government fail to do so. Given the Government’s inability to appoint an ethics adviser, will the Minister now please support that Bill and allow us to get on with re-establishing the good reputation of this place?

The hon. Lady will have heard me point out that the Prime Minister, who has said he will appoint an independent adviser, has only been in post for 31 days and that a process is going on at speed. In answer to her other question, it is very much the view of this Government that it is the Prime Minister who appoints the independent adviser to give advice to the Prime Minister, who answers ultimately to Parliament.[Official Report, 12 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 6MC.]

Since I became an MP in 2010, we have seen seven current or former Labour MPs, two Conservatives, one Liberal Democrat and one Scottish Nationalist given custodial sentences. We have countless other cases that come before the House, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has spoken eloquently about this previously. We have a by-election tomorrow caused by a Labour MP standing down in disgrace, so there is a big issue to solve with standards in our public life, and it goes right across this House. I am therefore pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister has been able to update the House on the recruitment process that is under way. Does he agree that backing a stronger code of conduct for Members of Parliament is proof that the Government are taking the code of conduct in this place seriously?

It is very good to hear from my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. This Government take the code of conduct for Members extremely seriously.

In the absence of an ethics adviser, can the Minister inform the House of the status of the inquiry into Islamophobia that was ordered in January this year?

It is important to point out that the Prime Minister appoints his own ethics adviser. He then determines which investigations can be undertaken, and then he determines what actions are taken depending on the outcome. Is that maybe why the last two ethics advisers have resigned?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say several times, in reference to whether an independent adviser can initiate proceedings, that Lord Geidt was happy with the proposals made in May; he said that it would be a workable scheme.

This is a really serious issue that undermines confidence in the ethics of this place and the Government. Lord Geidt gave evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and resigned two days later, following our questioning. That needs to be taken seriously. We are still very concerned about this issue, the appointment process—Lord Geidt was alighted upon—and the remit. If the Minister does not want to discuss the process in public, will he commit to meeting the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in private, if there is no movement on this issue in the next couple of weeks?

I am confident that an independent adviser will be appointed very soon, so I am not sure that there will be a need for such a meeting.

Is it not in the best interests of ethics for the ethics adviser to be completely independent of the Prime Minister?

They are an independent adviser appointed by the Prime Minister because, ultimately, in our system, the Prime Minister has ultimate responsibility.

The ethics adviser is required to publish an annual report that sets out their work so the public can see it, alongside a list of ministerial interests twice per year, which sets out the relevant private interests of all Ministers. Can the Minister inform us whether we can expect a report this year and, if so, who is drafting it?

An independent adviser will be appointed in the very near future. It will be at the very top of their list, I am sure, to get the ministerial interests published.

I was at the debate secured by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) yesterday, where he rightly pointed out the difference between the Members’ code of conduct and register and what Ministers have. To reiterate what the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) said, the last printing of the ministerial register was at the end of May; today is 30 November. To be kind to the Government, that is six months today, so surely it is not unreasonable to expect that standards list to come as soon as possible.

I have to give credit to the hon. Lady, because she was at the debate yesterday, unlike many of the Labour Members present. She will have heard me say then, as I have just said again, that we will have an independent adviser very soon and they will be expected to prioritise the publication of the ministerial interests.

I thank the Minister for his responses. There are concerns that there is currently no ethics adviser to the PM. The post has been vacant for six months, so there is urgency. Can the Minister confirm that the independent adviser will be appointed and the timescale for that to happen, so that Ministers can refer to that adviser for the guidance, assistance and advice that they need?

It is always a pleasure to answer questions from the hon. Gentleman. He will have heard me say that we are in the process of appointing an independent adviser at speed, and they will be able to deal with all relevant issues once they are appointed.