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Ministerial Code and Register of Ministers’ Interests

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 19 May 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 18 May.

“On 28 April, the Prime Minister appointed the right honourable Lord Geidt, former private secretary to Her Majesty the Queen, to the position of independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. In taking up the appointment, he agreed revised terms of reference for the role, which strengthen its independence. One of his core tasks is to oversee the preparation of the list of Ministers’ interests. In giving evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last Thursday, he confirmed that it was his intention to publish the updated list of Ministers’ interests by the end of this month.”

My Lords, when I became a magistrate, I had never speeded or gone through a red light and I had kept to the Highway Code. Similarly, when I ran organisations, I ensured that I was beyond reproach in keeping to any codes or rules of good behaviour because it is about setting an example of what one expects of others. Does the Minister agree that Minsters, especially the Prime Minister, not only have to be, but be seen to be, squeaky clean in keeping to the rules and that as leaders of this country they should set the tone of what they expect of others? Will the Minister tell us when the register of Minister’s interests will be published?

My Lords, I would never offer any reproach to the noble Baroness, for whom I have the highest respect. The only thing I would reproach her with is joining the wrong party—she would be an adornment to any party.

I am tempted to say that I could not possibly add anything to what was said by my right honourable friend the Paymaster-General, but I will say that of course standards in public life are essential and I think that every Member of your Lordships’ House and, indeed, of the Government aspire to them. I feel privileged to be a member of a Government who are led by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister who in his short premiership has led the country through Brexit and the Covid crisis with enormous distinction. On the publication of the register of Ministers’ interests, which was the substantive question the noble Baroness asked, the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, answered on this point to PACAC, but I can inform the House that he hopes that it will be published very shortly—that is, by the end of the month.

My Lords, the Government have been spending large sums of taxpayers’ money trying to stop the courts establishing whether the so-called Covid contracts were awarded incompetently or corruptly. I make no comment on the legal proceedings, but whatever the merits of the case, this attempt at a cover-up is clearly in breach of the Ministerial Code, the Nolan principles, to which it refers, and perhaps even of the Civil Service Code. I have a simple question: who authorised this expenditure? Was it Ministers or civil servants?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord does not give due weight to some of the things that were being said by spokesmen for his party last year about the need to make every effort to get those vital items of PPE for our country. Some 11,000 million items of PPE have been distributed, and the concerns that have been expressed attach to only 0.5% of the goods.

My Lords, is my noble friend as disappointed as I am with the tone of the opposition questioning, not just today but particularly yesterday in the other place? Could my noble friend offer suggestions about why the electors of the proud constituency of Hartlepool refused to listen to these opposition denunciations? Is it because they accept that the Government are getting on with the serious and extraordinarily challenging task of saving lives? Or might it just be that they have trouble accepting these charges from a Labour Party whose MP in Hartlepool had to resign and who still has both its hands deep inside the pocket of its trade union paymasters?

My Lords, we should always have glass houses in mind. The noble Baroness spoke in a measured tone and perhaps had in mind the very emphatic answer given to questions which were put yesterday exactly in the way to which my noble friend refers. It behoves all of us in politics to recognise that people in all parties strive to do their best, often in very difficult circumstances, to give public service. That is what unites us. The kind of political smear-mongering which we have seen demeans those who smear and politics as a whole. My noble friend is quite right to say that the people of Hartlepool gave it short shrift.

My Lords, the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, and some increase in his independence is welcome. Does the Minister agree that a further increase in his powers, as recommended by my noble friend Lord Evans, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which are sensible and proportionate, would help to increase the credibility of the process and uphold the highest standards of propriety? Codes are important, but they need to be adhered to and breaches need to be properly investigated.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, the Prime Minister has written to the noble Lord, Lord Evans, in respect of some of those recommendations. The noble Lord, Lord Geidt, who is universally respected by this House, has just taken up his place. As the noble Baroness said, he has been given extra opportunities, and the right thing is to let him get on with the job and then enlighten us with what he learns and what he thinks.

My Lords, I say to the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that following the unprecedented veto by the Prime Minister of Sir Alex Allan’s report on the Home Secretary and Sir Alex’s resignation, the system was totally discredited. I follow up what the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and the Minister said: now that we once again have someone with impeccable credentials, a Member of this House, appointed by the Prime Minister, why do we not give him ultimate authority to decide on breaches and how to deal with them? Would that not restore confidence in the system?

My Lords, the independent adviser has independence and authority. Indeed, the noble Lord opposite has underlined the authority that attaches to his record. In our constitution, the Prime Minister is responsible for hiring and firing Ministers. At the end of the day, that has been the case under Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers. The responsibility lies with the Prime Minister for hiring, firing and ultimately making judgments on the performance of Ministers.

My Lords, in an average year, 4,000 women are sent to prison for not paying their television licence of £159, with consequent disruption to them, their future lives and the lives of their children. Does the Minister think that not paying your television licence is a greater or lesser crime than those contained in the allegations against our Prime Minister, members of his Cabinet and many Ministers?

My Lords, I try to make it a habit never to comment on the BBC, but I take note of what the noble Baroness says about television licences. She used a very important word in her question: “allegations”. Some are allegations; I believe some are smears. Most of them have been answered, and they are also being investigated. I suggest that we see what happens.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the remarks made by the Paymaster-General in the Commons yesterday. In the Government’s response to these questions today, we have again had this harping on about getting on with saving lives and striving to do their best. This is sheer obfuscation. That is not the issue. The question before us is: should Ministers comply with the Ministerial Code? Will the Minister take the opportunity to assure us that the fact there is a pandemic has no relevance to the absolute obligation on Ministers to comply with the code? The fact that we have a pandemic and that they are doing their best is irrelevant. Should they or should they not comply with the code?

My Lords, I believe that all Ministers and all in public life should aspire to the highest standards, and I think that is the effort made. I do not agree that it is “harping on” to say that the Government are attending to the vital and urgent needs of the country in relation to Covid and recovery. A lecture of that kind comes ill from a party whose leader thinks his priority is to grab a roll of wallpaper in John Lewis. I wonder whether that has been declared.

Sitting suspended.