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Ministerial Code: Breaches

Volume 802: debated on Monday 2 March 2020


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat, in the form of a Statement, the Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, on Saturday 29 February the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service received and accepted the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam as Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. On the same day, the Cabinet Secretary announced that Shona Dunn, then the Second Permanent Secretary at the Home Office responsible for borders, immigration and citizenship, would become Acting Permanent Secretary with immediate effect. Allegations have been made that the Home Secretary has breached the Ministerial Code. The Home Secretary absolutely rejects these allegations. The Prime Minister has expressed his full confidence in her. Having worked closely with the Home Secretary over a number of years, I also have the highest regard for her. She is a superb Minister doing a great job.

This Government always take any complaints relating to the Ministerial Code seriously. In line with the process set out in the Ministerial Code, the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Office to establish the facts. As is usual, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, is available to provide advice to the Prime Minister. It is long-standing government policy not to comment on individual personnel matters, in order to protect the rights of all involved. What I can, and will, say is that I know that the dedicated ministerial team at the Home Office, and its superb civil servants, will continue their critical work on the public’s behalf—keeping our country protected from the terror threat; bearing down on the criminals who seek to do our communities and our country harm; and delivering a fair, firm immigration system that works in the interests of the British people. The Home Office works tirelessly to keep our citizens safe and our country secure. We all stand behind the team leading that vital work.”

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement, and for his measured delivery which has given me time to catch my breath after racing to the Chamber.

The events leading to this Statement are extraordinary and unprecedented. Sir Philip Rutnam’s resignation statement, that he had been the victim of a

“vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign”

by allies of the Home Secretary, followed by reports that he was offered, but refused, a substantial pay-off—presumably to leave quietly—illustrates alarming levels of dysfunction at the very heart of government. On Thursday, the noble Lord, Lord True, told the House:

“The current Prime Minister expects the highest standards of performance and behaviour from all his colleagues.”—[Official Report, 27/2/20; col. 278.]

That is quite right. I am sure that I am not alone in thinking it quite strange that, having initiated a Cabinet Office investigation into the facts regarding the Home Secretary’s behaviour, before it even gets going the Prime Minister states his full confidence in her, even describing her as “fantastic” and

“a superb Minister doing a great job.”

Can the Minister answer just two questions? First, can he confirm that the Cabinet Office investigation is into whether the Home Secretary has breached the Ministerial Code in this department or in any other? I appreciate that he cannot give details of investigations, but straightforward confirmation that it is into breaches of the Ministerial Code would be helpful. Secondly, if that code is proven to have been broken, what sanctions are available?

My Lords, in answer to the second question, any Minister holds office at the wish of the Prime Minister and if he considers, in the case of any Minister on any subject, that that Minister is not performing, that Minister will be subject to the appropriate sanctions. As for the noble Baroness’s first question, my right honourable friend answered this in the other House. Allegations have been made that the Home Secretary breached the Ministerial Code and the Cabinet Office has been asked to look at the facts, as reported.

My Lords, I fear that this affair may have some further way to go. There are, for example, various reports in the newspapers that there was a hitlist of other Permanent Secretaries that the Government would like to get rid of. None of us, I think, wants to go down the road of Washington, where relations between members of the American Cabinet and its staff are clearly toxic in a number of ways. Do we not now need some sort of investigation that will be published to re-establish the necessary confidence between Ministers and civil servants, without which effective government is very difficult to carry on?

No, my Lords, the allegation of a hitlist is false and has been denied. All in this House would agree that good government depends on all the elements of a ministry and a Government working well together. I had the privilege of working in the Civil Service as a special adviser in the past and I know that to be the case. This Government wholly respect the role of the Civil Service; they need the Civil Service to be free to give robust advice and there needs to be proper respect between all arms of government decision-making.

My Lords, will the noble Lord clear up one point that was a little ambiguous in his answer to the Leader of the Opposition? I welcome the fact that, in line with the Ministerial Code, the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Office to establish the facts—that is clearly very important—but in answering the Leader of the Opposition, the noble Lord said that the Cabinet Office has been asked to inquire whether the Home Secretary has breached the code. However, there are also allegations that the code was breached when Ms Patel was in the Department for Employment and in DfID. Can he assure us that the inquiry will be wide-ranging and will cover that full range of complaints?

My Lords, I used the term “Home Secretary” because the person engaged is Home Secretary, but where allegations of breach of the Ministerial Code has been made against a Minister, those allegations, from wherever, will be investigated.

My Lords, the undignified whinge in front of television cameras by the former Permanent Secretary at the Home Office certainly shows that he is no Sir Humphrey Appleby. What matters is that the Home Office is arguably the most constipated department in Whitehall, but one of the most important. There is much still to be done to follow up what the noble Lord, Lord Reid, said in May 2006 about the department being “not fit for purpose”. What really matters is that we get on with the reforms and we must welcome the fact that my right honourable friend Priti Patel is a vigorous Home Secretary who is determined, among other things, to root out the deep corruption, demonstrated in Parliamentary Questions I have asked and had answered, in the immigration department of the Home Office.

My Lords, I will not follow my noble friend on all his comments. All I will say is that the Home Office has been charged with a vital job, from creating a points-based immigration system to strengthening the police and so on. I have no reason to believe that the Home Office, led by an outstanding ministerial team, will not perform to the highest levels expected of Her Majesty’s Civil Service.

My Lords, I read the statement and heard of the resignation of Sir Philip with extreme sadness and shock. Will the inquiry talk to Sir Philip about his allegations and include the First Division Association chief executive Dave Penman to establish the reality of what happened? I welcome the inquiry, and the Statement says that it is not the Government’s practice to comment on personal matters. All I can say is that an awful lot of other people seem to have commented on Sir Philip. Will the Minister distance himself from the shameful comments that have been made in the newspapers over the weekend?

My Lords, I make no comment about any individual. My job is to see that the conduct of government is carried on appropriately. The noble Lord will know from his distinguished service in the Civil Service that how the matter is conducted is not a matter for me but for the Cabinet Secretary, taking advice appropriately, as I am sure he will do. Sir Philip said in his statement that he intends to begin legal action; I am sure the House will understand that I cannot make any further comment on that matter.

My Lords, is a timetable attached to the inquiry by the Cabinet Office? My understanding is that it is the Prime Minister who decides in the end whether the ministerial code has been broken or not. Is that the case, or will he also rely on advice and input from independent sources?

My Lords, I will not speculate on how long the work, which has only just begun, will last. It is in everybody’s interest that it be performed as swiftly but also as thoroughly and fairly as possible. The findings will be presented to the Prime Minister and then it will be a matter for his judgment what might or might not follow.

My Lords, will the Minister reflect that it would be deeply unfortunate if, as with the BBC or the courts, the people’s Government versus the Civil Service overrode the duty of people to be encouraged to work sensibly on behalf of the people we seek to represent? As a former special adviser, will he reflect that, after seven months, it would have been perfectly reasonable for the Home Secretary to have approached the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary to arrange a sensible departure for the Permanent Secretary if she could not get on with him? Is it not a worry that she might not be able to get on with anybody?

My Lords, again I will not be tempted to follow a personal line, except to say that the noble Lord, when he was an outstanding Home Secretary, was never backward in coming forward with his views. It is in everyone’s interest that the heat is taken down a bit and the facts are established; once the facts are established your Lordships and the rest of the world can address their consequences.