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Standards in Public Life Report

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 17 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life Standards Matter 2: Committee Findings, published on 14 June.

My Lords, we are very grateful for the work undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and his committee. It has published an interim report, and the Government will respond formally to its final recommendations when they are published in the autumn. However, in the meantime we will carefully consider its interim findings, along with those of the independent review of supply chain finance, which is due to report to the Prime Minister by the end of June.

My Lords, the committee and its seven principles of public life are the moral compass for politics and government. This report shows how far the Johnson Administration are failing to meet these standards. Even Dominic Cummings now seems to agree with this. The Ministerial Code, ministerial interests, business and public appointments and lobbying rules are all identified in this report as needing “significant reform”. Given that the public perception of excessive ministerial pressure for control, corruption and conformity is hugely damaging to our democracy, will the Minister now give the House a firm undertaking that the report’s recommendations will be acted on as a matter of extreme urgency?

My Lords, I have already indicated to the House that the Government will study very carefully the interim findings of this report. I underline what I say every time I come to this Dispatch Box: I, and indeed the whole Government, attach the highest importance to high standards of probity in public life.

My Lords, does my noble friend share my concern about the precedent created by a former special adviser making money by selectively leaking, on a subscription website, inside information obtained while he was employed by the Government and trusted by colleagues? How can good government continue if this kind of outrageous behaviour is to be tolerated?

My Lords, I think that many will pay attention to my noble friend’s words, as ever. I will not comment on individuals but, as we set out last week, we expect all current and former advisers to act in full accordance with the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers. This includes full accordance with its ACOBA provisions. Both the Cabinet Office and ACOBA are able to offer advice to current and former employees to help fulfil these requirements.

My Lords, with regard to the Ministerial Code, can the Minister assure us that in future there will be no question of the Prime Minister expressing his full confidence in a Minister at the beginning of an investigation, thereby prejudicing and undermining the process in advance, as happened with the Home Secretary?

My Lords, again, I will not comment on individuals. We have discussed this before, and I maintain the view that the Prime Minister’s constitutional role means that he or she has overall responsibility for the organisation of the Executive and the implementation of the Ministerial Code. The committee’s interim report has made some observations on the code, and obviously we will consider those carefully.

My Lords, do the Government accept the committee’s recommendation that a finding of a breach of the Ministerial Code by the independent adviser should be final? If not, should not the Prime Minister’s role in reviewing his findings be quasi-judicial, as in other areas where Ministers are required to make judgments, necessitating his personal, impartial reconsideration of the case and the giving in writing of his reasons for reversing the decision?

My Lords, again, the Ministerial Code is subject to transparency. As the noble Lord acknowledges, it is under the responsibility of the Prime Minister. The appointment of a new independent adviser on Ministers’ interests—the noble Lord, Lord Geidt —has been widely welcomed, I am sure, and his recommendations and observations will be taken seriously.

My Lords, part of the reason for this review of the various codes and standards is the Prime Minister thinking that rules are for other people and not for him. We know he likes to be first, but given that he is the first Prime Minister to ignore a finding of bullying against a Minister and do nothing, and the first Prime Minister to ignore the advice of HOLAC and appoint to your Lordships’ House somebody who it rejected as a Conservative Party donor, it feels more like a race to the bottom than a race to high standards, which we would all much prefer to see.

Specifically on the interim report we have in front us, the recommendation in the case where a Minister is in breach of the Ministerial Code is that there should not be a binary choice between resignation or sacking and remaining in office but a “range of sanctions” available to reflect the severity of any such breach. Would that not be of assistance to this Prime Minister, meaning he would be less likely to intervene in the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, outlined?

My Lords, that is a recommendation from the interim report. The question of graduated sanctions obviously reflects the position of successive Governments, to some degree. That was set out in the recent letter from the Prime Minister to the noble Lord, Lord Evans. I will not follow an ad hominem attack on the current Prime Minister. I believe we should recognise collectively in this country that standards in public life are very high. We should maintain and always examine how we can improve transparency and performance.

My Lords, when considering the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report, will my noble friend take care to ensure that there are not unintended consequences from the report’s recommendations that public appointments should be subjected to further regulation? After all, the significance of Dame Kate Bingham’s appointment to chair the Vaccine Taskforce was not just that it was clearly a triumph and transformed our country’s ability to fight the virus but that it was comprehensively attacked before it was clear that it was in fact a very good appointment. Was the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster not right in saying in his speech on Tuesday that we should not allow incidents to allow “a Berlin Wall” to be

“rebuilt between the permanent Civil Service and others who can help us to enhance the performance of government”?

My noble friend gives good and wise advice to the House. Again, I am not going to comment on individual cases, particularly where there is challenge to an appointment, though I think we would all agree that the public service of the person mentioned has been exemplary. We should be cautious and we need to look carefully at recommendations, but we should be careful not to lose some degree of flexibility, with appropriate examination, transparency and accountability. Indeed, successive Governments have used common-law powers to directly appoint individuals in advisory capacities.

My Lords, this excellent report reaffirms the importance of the seven principles of public life, which include integrity and honesty. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister ignoring the recommendation of his independent adviser regarding the Home Secretary’s bullying and the insider lobbying by David Cameron meet up to these seven principles? Will he respect the role of this House in asking questions of the Government and holding them to account by having some courage and commenting on these individual cases?

My Lords, some cases are sub judice, including one referred to earlier, while the case of Mr Cameron is subject to the current investigation—the Boardman review—so I do not take the noble Lord’s strictures about not being prepared to comment on individual cases. Where I agree with him and other noble Lords is that we need openness and accountability. At the end of the day, advisers advise and Ministers decide.