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Downing Street Christmas Parties

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 9 December 2021

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, I will now repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question made in the House of Commons:

“Mr Speaker, as the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, he understands and shares the anger up and down the country, as do I, at seeing No. 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures. I join the Prime Minister in apologising unreservedly for the offence that it has caused to people who have been through what everyone in this House knows is immeasurable pain and hardship as a result of this appalling pandemic.

The Prime Minister has been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken. However, the Government also recognise the public anxiety and indignation about this, which I share, in that it appears as though the people who have been setting the rules may not have been following the rules.

Now, as the Prime Minister confirmed to the House yesterday, he has asked the Cabinet Secretary to investigate the facts and I would like to update the House now, if I may, on the details of this investigation. The terms of reference for the investigation are being published and I will lay a copy in the Library later today. I can confirm to the House that the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation will establish the facts surrounding the following allegations: a gathering at No. 10 Downing Street on 27 November 2020; a gathering at the Department for Education on 10 December 2020; and a gathering at No. 10 Downing Street on 18 December 2020.

The primary purpose of the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation will be to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, and with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time. If required, the investigation will establish whether individual disciplinary action is warranted. The work will be undertaken by officials in the Cabinet Office at the direction of the Cabinet Secretary, with support from the Government Legal Department. Those officials will have access to all relevant records and be able to speak to members of staff.

As with all internal investigations, if during the course of the work any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused. In conclusion, I must emphasise that matters relating to adherence to the law are properly for the police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with the police as appropriate. All Ministers, special advisers and civil servants will be expected to co-operate with this investigation.

Finally, I can confirm, as I have said, that the findings of the investigation will be provided to the House and made public. Following the long-standing practice of successive Administrations, any specific HR action against individuals will remain confidential.”

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for reading out the Answer to the Question. I know him to be a decent and honourable man, so I do feel for him that he so often has to come to this Dispatch Box and defend the Prime Minister’s failings.

The picture emerging of the attitudes of staff working for the Prime Minister at No. 10 is pretty unedifying. While the Government were instructing the rest of us not to spend Christmas with loved ones and not to spend time with friends and family who were frail, sick or even dying, back at government HQ, at No. 10, it was party time. Across the country, we stuck to the rules—not just for ourselves, but to protect others. So we have a tale of two situations: the best of times for the PM and his friends, and the worst of times for everybody else. It is a total and utter disgrace.

I have two questions for the noble Lord, aside from the fact that I find it quite bizarre that we are having an investigation as to whether there was a party—just ask the people who were there. The Prime Minister has been forced to announce that the Cabinet Secretary, who himself is rumoured to have been at this party, will carry out an inquiry into those events. In the House of Commons, the Paymaster-General, as we heard in the Statement just now, said that any evidence of criminal behaviour will be passed to the Met. Given the public’s absolute lack of confidence that the Prime Minister has been telling the truth, surely it is for the Met to decide what is criminal behaviour and what is not. Can the noble Lord confirm that all information will be passed to the Met, not just that which is filtered through government? Secondly, can he confirm whether any members of the Government from your Lordships’ House were either in attendance or even invited to the parties and other social events at No. 10 last December?

My Lords, I reject the characterisation of both my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the many people who work in No. 10 Downing Street and elsewhere, whether political employees, political figures or civil servants. Whatever emerges from the findings of these alleged events, I think it is quite wrong to extrapolate from that to besmirch a whole class of people who are seeking to do their very best for this country.

So far as the facts are concerned, as I have said, the Cabinet Secretary will investigate. As the noble Baroness said, matters relating to adherence to the law are properly for the police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with them as appropriate.

I believe it is best that we should now wait for the findings of this inquiry, which the Prime Minister has directed should be produced as soon as possible.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that the morning newspapers and the other blogs that many of us have read now list a good deal more than three parties as having broken the rules at that time. Do we have a guarantee that the findings will be published in full when they come out?

I turn to what I think is the most important thing for all of us now. Public trust and public confidence in the rules to beat this pandemic have clearly been very badly damaged and need to be re-established, particularly as the new variant is sweeping through the country. How do the Government plan to ensure that public confidence and trust in the rules can be rebuilt? Are the Government providing a strategy on that? Do they think, for example, that, in the current circumstances, the Prime Minister is the best person to lead that, or that perhaps another Minister might be more capable of commanding public confidence for the next few weeks?

As a preamble, I failed to respond to the noble Baroness opposite on who might have been at any of these alleged events. I can assure her that, obviously, that is part of the investigation and report that the Cabinet Secretary will complete, but I am not in a position to make a statement on that myself.

So far as what the noble Lord has just said, I do not believe that this should damage trust. Obviously, there are several strands here. There is proper public concern and indignation, which I referred to in the Statement, about the tape that came out, and a proper wish to establish the facts on these events. We have to be candid that, separate from that and wider than that, there is a persistent political campaign against the Prime Minister to besmirch his character—

Those who participate are very vocal on the matter.

The third factor, in response to the noble Lord, is that there is a vital task—which the Prime Minister is engaged on and has been engaged on from day one—to address the challenge of this pandemic. That work goes on. I suggest respectfully to all noble Lords that mixing one of those strands with another of them also undermines public trust. We are all committed, I hope on all sides, to defeating this pandemic, and we should focus on that.

My Lords, the Minister failed to answer my noble friend Lady Smith’s second question on whether any members of the Government from your Lordships’ House were either in attendance or invited to attend these parties.

My Lords, would the Minister confirm that deliberately misleading Parliament and the House of Commons is contempt under the rules of Parliament? If it is shown that the Prime Minister deliberately misled Parliament on what he knew, he would be in contempt of the House of Commons, and he would have to resign. Will the Minister confirm that that is the position?

My Lords, the rules of the House of Commons are for the other place. As far as I am concerned, every Minister acts on his or her honour to be truthful to whichever House they are a member of.

My Lords, would the Minister confirm that anybody who works in No. 10, or elsewhere in government, who was or was not invited to that party, will not have their career prospects jeopardised by giving evidence to the courts, the police or indeed this inquiry?

My Lords, I sincerely hope that that would be the case. Obviously, the Cabinet Secretary is responsible for the conduct of the inquiry. He is the senior civil servant and will own the responsibility to which the noble Baroness referred. I should make it clear—following on from something that I did not reply to from the noble Lord—that the terms of reference, which I will lay in the Library of your Lordships’ House later today if they are not there now, will make it clear that where there are credible allegations relating to other gatherings, these may be investigated.

My Lords, I suppose that it is really not surprising that the Labour Party should try to make so much political hay out of this, as it has done this afternoon. But in this House we can take a more measured view of these events. As my noble friend the Minister has just announced in his repeated Statement, the Cabinet Secretary has been asked to make an investigation, where he will come out with the full facts. Therefore, the allegations that have been made cannot really be relied on until we have seen the results of that investigation. Would it not be a good idea for everybody, not least in this House, to wait until we have seen the results before making any more comment?

My noble friend is entirely right—he perhaps put it more elegantly than I did—that there is a political strand to this. In this country, there is an ancient presumption that people are innocent until proved guilty, and I believe that it would not be appropriate to comment on or prejudge the outcome of an ongoing investigation. I will hold to that position.

I am sorry, but the noble Baroness cannot speak from that Bench. If she would like to move to the Bench behind, she may speak from there.

The Minister referred to everybody being required to make their records available to the inquiry. Will that include their electronic records, such as their mobile phone and email system, so that those are available for the benefit of the inquiry?

My Lords, as I said, the terms of reference will be published by the Cabinet Secretary later today. If that is not clear in the terms of reference, I hope that it will be made clear. We are asking all Ministers, all special advisers and all civil servants to co-operate fully with the investigations. Any staff with information relevant to the investigations should provide it.