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Downing Street Parties: Police Investigation

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 25 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 honourable friend the Paymaster-General to an Urgent Question in another place on the investigation into Downing Street parties following the statement from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. The Statement is as follows:

“As the House will be aware, earlier today the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police confirmed that the Metropolitan Police Service will be investigating alleged breaches of Covid-19 regulations within the Government. This is a matter for the police, and the House will understand that I am not in a position to comment on the nature or content of the police investigation. I previously made it clear from this Dispatch Box that the Government recognise, and I recognise, the public anxiety and indignation that it appears as though the people who have been setting the rules may not have been following the rules, and I would like to repeat that sentiment today. This is why the Prime Minister asked for a Cabinet Office investigation to take place.

The terms of reference for that investigation, led by the Second Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Sue Gray, have been published and laid in the Library of the House. Those terms made it clear that, 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.

As the House would expect, there is ongoing contact between the Cabinet Office investigation and the Metropolitan Police Service. However, the Cabinet Office investigation will continue its work. I would urge the House to wait for the findings of that investigation and for the police to conclude their work. That is important to allow the work to take place unimpeded and to protect the rights of all those involved. I must emphasise that matters relating to adherence to the law are properly a matter for the police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with them as appropriate.

Finally, I can confirm that the findings of the investigation will be provided to this honourable House and made public. The House will understand that there is a limit to what I can say, given that this is an ongoing investigation. I also cannot comment on what is now an ongoing police investigation, and therefore I ask that Members of the House let the investigation run its course and do not pre-empt its conclusions.”

My Lords, I know the Minister to be an honourable and decent man. I just have to wonder how many more times he will be comfortable coming to the Dispatch Box to defend the indefensible to your Lordships’ House. So I thank him for being prepared to answer questions today.

I have to say that defending this Prime Minister is a tough gig, particularly now it is the Metropolitan Police asking the questions. First, if I may press the Minister on a point of clarity, this morning we were told that the Sue Gray report was not able to be published, but parts of it—I think he used the word “findings”—would be published. We are now told that the Metropolitan Police is happy for all of it to be published. There has been some confusion over the course of the day as to what will be available, when it will be published and what will happen. Can the Minister please say whether the Government will commit to the publication of the report—not just the findings—and not in any way block it from being made available to the public in its entirety?

Secondly, and I appreciate that this may be a difficult one for the Minister, can he confirm reports today that after the Prime Minister was personally informed about the police investigation, he then chaired a Cabinet meeting and chose not to inform his own Cabinet of the police investigation? The Minister will know how deeply shocking that would be and what an enormous concern that would give, if that was the case. I would be grateful if he would comment on those two points.

My Lords, on the second point, obviously, I am not a member of the Cabinet and not informed on that matter. It is not custom, as the noble Baroness knows, to comment on Cabinet discussions. On the first point, I must repeat what I said in the Statement. As the terms of reference set out, the findings will be made public. Obviously, there is an interrelation between the Cabinet Office inquiry and the police investigation, and any intimation must be left to those conducting the inquiries. As far as the Government are concerned, I repeat: the findings and the investigation will be made public.

My Lords, it is not disputed that the Prime Minister attended his own birthday party at a time when such gatherings were illegal. So he is now simply awaiting the executioner’s blow, either from the Gray report or the police investigation. In the meantime, his authority has disappeared completely. Will the Minister pass on to the Prime Minister the view of the country, and I suspect of this House, that the only positive act that he could now perform would be to resign today?

My Lords, could the Minister give us a little more precise guidance about the effect of these developments today on the timing of Sue Gray’s report? Can that report still be expected within the next few days?

Most noble Lords will understand why I am not going to speculate on the timing of the progress of either investigation. I have told the House that aspects of the Cabinet Office investigation will continue. Obviously, there is an independent police investigation. I am sure the noble Lord, with his great experience and great service to the country, will understand that those two inquiries must be allowed to run their course.

My Lords, I am not, contrary to what people might think, a cheerleader for the Prime Minister. Indeed, when I had the opportunity, I did not vote for him, for a number of reasons. However, I think we should get things in perspective. It seems to me that the great British public are not terribly concerned about—

I am not talking about Members of the House of Lords sitting opposite, I am talking about the British public. I do not think they are very concerned. I care very much whether the Prime Minister lies, as it happens, because I think Prime Ministers should have integrity. However, the instability at the top that has been caused by this furore is deeply worrying when we have geopolitical events in Ukraine. Frankly, I think most people would like to see the Government getting on with it. Perhaps the Prime Minister will eventually have to resign, but I think that what is now happening in Ukraine and elsewhere is more important.

I will not agree with every aspect of my noble friend’s remarks, but he does make a point: the business of government must continue. We all know there are very grave matters before the Government, both domestic and international. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister is fully and actively engaged in those and made a Statement on events in Ukraine in the House of Commons earlier. I believe it is important that that factor is recognised.

My Lords, Kate Josephs, who was director-general of the Covid task force and is now chief executive of Sheffield City Council, has admitted going to a drinks party for her leaving do on 17 December 2020. Subsequently, she tried to mislead the local press by denying that she had been to drinks parties. She apologised only 19 minutes before the story went public. Does the Minister believe that this is the leadership behaviour expected of a chief executive in local government?

My Lords, I am not going to comment on any particular individual at the Dispatch Box. I am sure the noble Lord is a greater expert on Sheffield than I.

My Lords, there is great concern around the country. The graphic photograph of the Queen alone at her husband’s funeral, juxtaposed with other pictures, did cause a great deal of disquiet. Will my noble friend the Minister do his best to guarantee that both reports—that of Sue Gray and if there is a report from the police—are published on a day when both Houses of Parliament are sitting?

My Lords, I can only say to my noble friend that the reports of findings will be published in due course. There are investigations under way; those investigations, with great respect, should be allowed to continue and be completed. At that point, obviously, the matter of publication becomes condign.

My Lords, we have just done the Third Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and I wondered whether the Minister would comment on the number of people who have been fined extortionate amounts of money for breaking rules and have been accused of breaking the law. Will they receive an amnesty, as a consequence of realising there was wide-scale rule-breaking?

Secondly, the Minister said the business of government will carry on—needs to carry on—but is there a danger that the Government will be distracted by this police inquiry, and hugely important matters of rebuilding society after lockdown are going to be neglected because of this preoccupation with No. 10 and parties? That is what the country is worried about.

I agree with what the noble Baroness has said, and I can certainly give her the assurance that the work of governing is continuing. I do note that people on the Benches opposite are extremely distracted by their perusal of social media. But on the first point, she will understand that I cannot comment on the judgments that are being made in the courts or any individual cases, but obviously, I hear what she is saying.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has apologised several times and has shown that he understands the public’s indignation. Does my noble friend not agree that, until the investigations are conducted, we should better concentrate on more important issues such as Ukraine and the NIP, and instead of destabilising the Government we should all work together and move forward?

My Lords, we hear the voice of those who do not want to work together or move forward. I agree with what my noble friend said. I do believe, also, that there is a great principle, in public life and private life, that no one is guilty by accusation. We should let the reports be concluded.

My Lords, I infer from the noble Lord’s statement that we can expect publication of only the findings of Sue Gray’s report and not the whole report. Am I right?

Secondly, does this sequence of events not raise serious questions about the nature of policing these lockdown regulations? It is almost impossible not to conclude that the police went from saying, “We are not investigating anything because we have no evidence”, to Sue Gray interviewing police officers and finding that they had evidence all along, and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, having seen them, saying, “I either discipline the police officers or I investigate the crimes”?

No, my Lords, nothing may be inferred of that kind. I refer the House to the very clear statements made by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner this morning, in her own words, where she set out the position. I do not think it is for me, as a Minister of the Crown, to add to or substitute the words of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.