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Downing Street Event

Volume 817: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Paymaster-General to an Urgent Question in another place on reports of an event held in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020. The Statement is as follows:

“Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Both the Prime Minister and I came before the House in December to set out the details of the investigation being led by the Cabinet Office into the allegations of gatherings in Downing Street and the Department for Education in November and December 2020. As I did then, I apologise again unreservedly for the upset that these allegations have caused.

The Prime Minister has asked for an investigation to take place, and the terms of reference for the investigations that are under way have already been published and deposited in the Library of this House—in fact, of both Houses. The investigations are now being led by Sue Gray. She is the Second Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and of course a former director-general of propriety and ethics. The Government have committed to publishing the findings of the investigation and providing these to Parliament in the normal way. The terms of reference set out that where there are credible allegations relating to other gatherings, it is open for these to be investigated, and I can confirm to the House that this includes the allegations relating to 15 and 20 May 2020. It will establish the facts, and if wrongdoing is established, requisite disciplinary action will be taken.

As with all internal investigations, if evidence emerges of what was potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the Metropolitan Police, and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused. Matters relating to adherence to the law are, as ever, matters for the Metropolitan Police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with it as appropriate. As I am sure Members of this House will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an ongoing investigation, and the Government have committed to updating the House in due course.

I must again point out, as I did in December, and as I know the House will understand, that there is a long-standing practice of successive Administrations that any human resources matters concerning personnel relating to individuals need to remain confidential. But both the Prime Minister and I came before this House in December; we set out the details of the investigation being led by the Cabinet Office into these allegations of gatherings, and those investigations are continuing.

My Lords, whenever I hear Ministers talk about “in due course”, the ghost of Sir Humphrey arises. But let us be clear: lockdown was tough. Throughout it, most of us stuck to the rules, despite personal sacrifices. Noble Lords will have heard some of the examples and testimonies from around the country, and some of those stories are absolutely heart-breaking.

But for those who did not stick to the rules, the full force of the law was used, leading to criminal convictions. By Christmas, in Westminster Magistrates’ Court alone, there had been more than 2,000 prosecutions for ignoring lockdown, breaking quarantine, and hosting or attending parties. Does the Minister agree that the law should equally and fairly apply to all? I suspect I know the answer to that one; I suspect he is going to say yes. So, my second question is more important: why does the Prime Minister need an investigation into whether he attended a party in his own back garden?

My Lords, adherence to the law is important, and the noble Baroness is correct to anticipate my answer on that point. As I have told the House, an investigation is already taking place into a number of events that are alleged to have occurred in Downing Street and elsewhere. The primary purpose will be to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time. That is an ongoing investigation.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, at about 6 pm on 20 May 2020, just as the Prime Minster and his staff were gathering in the garden for jovial drinks and nibbles, this House was debating the tsunami of deaths in care homes which occurred despite the great efforts and stress of the dedicated care staff in those homes? Does he understand that they were not gathering for drinks at the end of the working day because there was no end to it and they certainly were not in the mood for socialising? Does he also understand the anger of the bereaved families of the many elderly people who died at that time in such large numbers? They wanted the opportunity to hold the hand of the person they loved as they passed away. They did not get that opportunity; they gave it up because they were following the rules. They now want a straight answer from the Prime Minister: was he there or was he not? Tell us now.

My Lords, first I will address what the noble Baroness said in the opening part of her remarks, which will strike a chord with the whole House. Frankly, there is not a single Member of this House—including me, if I may say so—who will not have experienced peculiar personal sadness in the unparalleled circumstances of Covid. We should take that as a fact to which we pay due honour and respect. So far as the event to which she alludes is concerned, I can only repeat that investigations are taking place and the findings of those investigations will be made public.

My Lords, the Minister rightly acknowledges—I take him at his word—that the rule of law means one law for everyone, whether Ministers, officials or ordinary citizens. Of course, ordinary citizens do not get to appoint their ethics adviser to investigate when they are accused of criminal offences. When he thinks it appropriate, could the Minister please explain for the benefit of those outside this place what level of prima facie evidence is sufficient to justify cutting out the ethics adviser and going straight to a police investigation?

My Lords, as I said in the Statement, as with any internal investigation, if evidence emerges of what was potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police. The noble Baroness is quite right that matters relating to adherence to the law are properly for the police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with them as appropriate.

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s staff must now be scurrying around trying to find a plausible exit strategy, beyond just saying “Wait for the investigation.” Surely the real problem is one of trustworthiness. Throughout his career, the Prime Minister has shown himself to be a stranger to the truth. There is a simple question which you do not need an investigation to answer—did he or did he not attend the gathering or the party?—or will there be some sort of selective amnesia, as there was over the refurbishment of No. 10?

My Lords, it will not please the noble Lord opposite, but I repeat that a fair truth in a democracy is that it would not be appropriate to comment on or prejudge the outcome of an investigation. I agree with what was said by the leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, who stated on air that we should let the investigation play out and take its course.

My Lords, the Prime Minister himself knows whether or not he attended the party. Is not the country entitled to know whether he attended, yes or no? It would clarify matters and give him some respect, which he is lacking at the present time.

My Lords, I do not agree; I have respect for the Prime Minister. On who was at these events, as I have said, the primary purpose of the investigation will be to establish swiftly the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, and the findings will be published.

My Lords, could the Minister advise those of us on these Benches how we should respond to clergy, who took an enormous personal toll in having to deal with families who were not able to attend funerals or to be with their loved ones? They were very tempted to break the rules for strong pastoral reasons but did not, and they are now faced with this.

My Lords, I would answer in a similar tone to that in which I replied to the noble Baroness. I pay huge respect to the role of the clergy and faith leaders of all faiths and to their support for people. I understand, as does everyone, the collective pain that has been suffered, but there is also due process, and it is important that the investigation be allowed to run its course and the facts laid out. A number of people are alleged to have been involved in these incidents; let us see the outcome of the investigation.

My Lords, a few days ago there was a lot of talk on the Conservative Benches about the damage done to the rule of law by the jury verdict in the Colston trial. Many people who understand the way the law operates would support jury trials and the way that trial was conducted. Will those same Ministers and other Members reflect now on the damage done to the rule of law and what the country will make of this in relation to the rule of law as it goes forward? Would the Minister care to tell the House a little more about the consequences that might flow from the outcome of the investigation? It will go one way or another; why does he not address the consequences that we might expect as regards the action to be taken?

My Lords, I believe in the rule of law, the sanctity of respect between human beings and in due process. I repeat what I said in the Statement, that as with all investigations, it will be the case with this one that if evidence emerges of what is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police.

My Lords, at the beginning of the Statement that the noble Lord read out to us, there was an apology. What was being apologised for?

My Lords, the Statement read:

“I apologise again unreservedly for the upset that these allegations have caused.”

My Lords, no one who has read this email is in any doubt that there was a party. That means that millions of people in this country who have had the advantage of being able to read it know that it was an invitation to a party. They know that it emanated from the Prime Minister’s private office; we know that it was written in the first person plural, because it started with the word “we”; and they know what “we” refers to when an email comes out of the Prime Minister’s Office. They believe the evidence that has been swirling around—albeit that it is hearsay—that people have said that they were there and that the Prime Minister and his then partner, now wife, were there too. Why have we been treated twice now to the Prime Minister coming to the Dispatch Boxes in Parliament and telling people that they should suspend their belief until some apparently independent inquiry tells them what they already know? Why do we not just live in the real world, own up to it, and then we can move on and get on with helping to run the country?

My Lords, I believe it is a wise course in human events and in life generally to act on the basis of full facts. I have assured the House that the investigation is being conducted swiftly. It will establish the facts, and if wrongdoing is established, there will be requisite disciplinary action. However, I agree with what Sir Keir said, that the investigation should be allowed to run its course.