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Sue Gray Report

Volume 818: debated on Monday 31 January 2022


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“First, I want to express my deepest gratitude to Sue Gray and all the people who have contributed to this report, which I have placed in the Library of this House and the Government have published in full today for everyone to read. I will address its findings in this Statement but first I want to say sorry. I am sorry for the things we simply did not get right and sorry for the way this matter has been handled. It is no use saying that this or that was within the rules. It is no use saying that people were working hard. This pandemic was hard for everyone. We asked people across this country to make the most extraordinary sacrifices—not to meet loved ones, not to visit relatives before they died—and I understand the anger that people feel.

But, Mr Speaker, it is not enough to say sorry. This is a moment when we must look at ourselves in the mirror and we must learn. And while the Metropolitan Police must yet complete its investigation—and that means there are no details of specific events in Sue Gray’s report—I, of course, accept Sue Gray’s general findings in full, and above all her recommendation that we must learn from these events and act now.

With respect to the events under police investigation, she says:

‘No conclusions should be drawn, or inferences made from this other than it is now for the police to consider the relevant material in relation to those incidents.’

But more broadly she finds that:

‘There is significant learning to be drawn from these events which must be addressed immediately across Government. This does not need to wait for the police investigations to be concluded.’

That is why we are making changes now to the way Downing Street and the Cabinet Office run so that we can get on with the job: the job that I was elected to do, and that this Government were elected to do.

First, it is time to sort out what Sue Gray rightly calls the ‘fragmented and complicated’ leadership structures of Downing Street, which she says

‘have not evolved sufficiently to meet the demands of’

the expansion of No. 10. We will do that, including by creating an Office of the Prime Minister, with a Permanent Secretary to lead No. 10.

Secondly, it is clear from Sue Gray’s report that it is time not just to review the Civil Service and special adviser codes of conduct wherever necessary to ensure they take account of Sue Gray’s recommendations but also to make sure those codes are properly enforced.

Thirdly, I will be saying more in the coming days about the steps we will take to improve the No. 10 operation and the work of the Cabinet Office, to strengthen Cabinet government and to improve the vital connection between No. 10 and Parliament.

I get it and I will fix it. And I want to say to the people of this country: I know what the issue is. It is whether this Government can be trusted to deliver. And I say yes, we can be trusted—yes, we can be trusted to deliver. We said that we would deliver Brexit, and we did. We are setting up freeports across the whole United Kingdom. I have been to one of them today which is creating tens of thousands of new jobs. We said we would get this country through Covid, and we did. We delivered the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe and the fastest booster programme of any major economy, so that we have been able to restore people’s freedoms faster than any comparable economy.

At the same time, we have been cutting crime by 14%, building 40 new hospitals and rolling out gigabit broadband, and delivering all the other promises of our 2019 agenda, so that we have the fastest economic growth in the G7. We have shown that we can do things that people thought were impossible, and that we can deliver for the British people. The reason we are coming out of Covid so fast is at least partly because we doubled the speed of the booster rollout.

I can tell the House and this country that we are going to bring the same energy and commitment to getting on with the job of delivering for the British people, and to our mission to unite and level up across this country.

I commend this Statement to the House.”

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating today’s Statement by the Prime Minister—a Statement that, for anyone who heard it for the first time around, came across ever so briefly as an apology before moving along to its primary purpose: a thinly veiled attempt to lay the blame on others and move the news agenda on; a desperate attempt that will fool nobody who has read Sue Gray’s report and who understands the serious implications of the fact that the Metropolitan Police has 12 cases of concern that it believes reach the threshold of potential criminality. These cases include evidence of serious and flagrant breaches of lockdown, including one party that Mr Johnson definitely attended and another in his Downing Street flat—he refuses to say whether he was there or not. We also now know that the police have 300 photos and over 500 documents in relation to these cases.

We are thankful for Sue Gray’s diligence and professionalism in carrying out her investigation, but the Prime Minister must keep his promise to publish the full report when it is available. I therefore ask the noble Baroness the Leader, on behalf of all in your Lordships’ House, to encourage him to do so and respond to me in writing when she has done so. We are all aware of the deep sacrifices made by many people in our country over the past two years. Anyone with a shred of decency will know what that involved; the missed time with loved ones and close friends, not being there at key moments in the calendar of life and death. Anyone who has had a conversation with friends or family in recent weeks about those missed events will know that guilt abounds among those who were not willing to take a chance during their moments of deep despair. They did not want to risk breaking or bending lockdown rules—not even in the darkest of times.

That is why the revelations of misbehaviour at No. 10 are so appalling—and with them, the Prime Minister’s attempt to distance himself from what happened on his watch, under his lockdown rules. As my right honourable friend Keir Starmer said earlier this afternoon:

“Our national story about covid is one of a people who stood up when they were tested, but that will be forever tainted by the behaviour of this Conservative Prime Minister.”

Mr Johnson has tried to take the public for fools, and even now is playing for time, trying to kick the can down the road until the police conclude their investigation. That is a protective shield, temporary or otherwise, which flies in the face of the honesty, integrity and moral authority that the office of Prime Minister expects. Is anyone really surprised by any of this? Is the Leader of the House herself surprised—or does she want to vouch for his character?

In his Statement today the Prime Minister said that

“it is clear from Sue Gray’s report that it is time not just to review the civil service and special adviser codes of conduct, wherever necessary, to … take account of Sue Gray’s recommendations, but to make sure that those codes are properly enforced”.

That is a clear attempt by Mr Johnson to try to apportion blame elsewhere. However, this is not just about codes of conduct being broken but, as the report itself makes apparent, it was also a failure of leadership—an issue not just of structures in the workplace but of the culture.

Does the Leader of the House not agree that breaking such codes is not the whole picture? It is also the failure of those in leadership positions, including the person at the top, to ensure adherence and enforcement. Perhaps the Prime Minister’s own failure to deal with the Home Secretary breaking the Ministerial Code signalled to others working at No. 10 that codes and rules are little more than an inconvenience to how they should conduct their business.

Mr Johnson’s close allies are, like him, keen to move on to other issues both at home and abroad. Yet this afternoon we heard reports that a vital telephone call with President Putin was cancelled—as the West faces its gravest threat to peace in decades. I hope that the Leader of the House can assure noble Lords that these reports are incorrect, and that the call went ahead as planned.

It will be said that Sue Gray’s report is a distraction—but let us not forget what, and who, is at the root of this. A Prime Minister who is having to make statements in Parliament on the back of an investigation into potential criminal behaviour by his staff and himself, during a pandemic whose legal restrictions they designed. That is the issue at hand, and it goes to the heart of Mr Johnson’s character and his suitability for high office.

My Lords, I suspect that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House can never have been so uncomfortable in repeating a Statement by the Prime Minister as when she read out the Statement today—because it is truly abject. It relates to 16 gatherings in Downing Street at a time when such events were not allowed for the rest of us, 12 of which are the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the police.

Although the Gray report contains no factual evidence and is, in substance, only six pages long, its conclusions are damning. They are that some of the gatherings, at least, represent

“a serous failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.”

It talks of

“failures of leadership and judgment”.

It states:

“Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”

It says:

“The excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time.”

It says that the use of the Downing Street garden was “not appropriate”.

If this were any other institution—a school, a hospital, or a professional services firm—these conclusions, coupled as they are with an ongoing police investigation, would have led to the suspension or dismissal of the head of the institution. That action would be taken because the leader of any other institution has to take responsibility for the ethos of that institution, even if they themselves did not break the rules. In this case, however, not only was the ethos wrong, but the Prime Minister appears to have broken the rules himself.

Far from resigning, however, the Prime Minister thinks that saying sorry, tinkering with the Downing Street structure and amending the Civil Service Code is enough. He says that the only issue facing him, and the country, is whether the Government can be trusted to deliver on their policy programme. But it is not. The question is whether the Prime Minister can be trusted to behave ethically and in accordance with the rules. Because if he cannot, he is not fit for office. It is as simple as that.

The report shows that, in advance of any judgment by the police, the Prime Minister has presided over multiple breaches of the rules. By breaking his own rules, he loses any capacity to persuade others—whether that be individual citizens or the President of Russia—to take his injunctions to follow the law seriously. To put it another way, he loses the capacity to govern.

The Leader of the House is an extremely invidious position, because she is having to answer questions on what is, in reality, a personal statement by the Prime Minister about his own probity—for which she can hardly be held responsible. So I shall ask her only three questions. First, as the lack of leadership shown over this affair starts at the top, in addition to the Civil Service Code will she enjoin the Prime Minister to amend the Ministerial Code, to tighten up the rules for Ministers, and not just for the officials whom they are supposed to lead?

More importantly, the noble Baroness is a member of the Cabinet. Her job is to proffer her views to the Prime Minister and then, under the rules of collective responsibility, to follow Cabinet decisions. But I think she also has an obligation to your Lordships’ House to let us know where she stands. Does she believe that the failures of leadership shown by the Prime Minister justify her resignation? I am sorry, I meant “his resignation”; I do not hold the noble Baroness responsible for the sins of the Prime Minister. Does she think those failures justify his resignation? And if not, on what basis does she believe the British people can ever trust him again?

I thank noble Lords for their comments. May I first wish the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, well, and hope she gets better soon? I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for stepping in at such short notice.

In response to both noble Lords, I say that the Prime Minister has apologised. He has made it clear that he understands people’s anger, as he should, and that he wants to get on with the job of starting to implement the immediate findings of Sue Gray’s report. He has said he takes full responsibility; he has apologised; he is committed to making changes to address these issues; and he will work tirelessly to regain people’s trust.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the publication of further material once the Met investigation has finished. Of course, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further while the investigation is ongoing, and the Prime Minister has said that at the end of the process he will ask Sue Gray to update her work in the light of what is found. He will publish that update, but he has been clear that we cannot judge an ongoing investigation, and his focus now is on addressing the general findings.

Both noble Lords referred to some of the findings in the Gray report, which are extremely uncomfortable and disappointing. We have accepted all the findings in full, including, as the noble Lord said:

“There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times.”

That is why the Prime Minister has already announced the beginnings of some work to try to address that.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the Ministerial Code. We are carefully considering the reports by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the report by Nigel Boardman and other reports from Parliament and, as laid out in correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, from December 2021, the Prime Minister will be discussing further how the independent adviser’s office can be better supported and ensuring that it has access to appropriate information when conducting its work. The Prime Minister has asked the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, to work with officials to provide advice on this issue and we have pledged to conclude this by March.

As I have said, I cannot comment on an ongoing police investigation and I will not prejudge its findings, but I certainly assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that the Prime Minister is leading international action on Ukraine. I set out in a Statement that I repeated last week all the engagement and conversations that he has had and how we are leading in various international forums. It continued to be his primary focus and I am sure that in the next couple of days your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity to discuss the Statement that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made this afternoon in the House of Commons on this very subject.

My Lords, in paragraph 14 of this update, we learn why this is a minimalist report at the request of the Metropolitan Police so as not to prejudice their investigations. In paragraph 13, we learn that Sue Gray has been instructed and has undertaken to store and safekeep all the information gathered

“until such time as it may be required further”,

and to keep it “in confidence”. In answer to a question in the other place, the Prime Minister, in avoiding giving an undertaking to publish an unredacted version of the full report, clearly referred to—although I do not have the Hansard, so I may not get the words exactly right—legal considerations about one account that had been given to Sue Gray. There were legal considerations about it that prevented him giving that undertaking was the inference to be drawn from his answer. Who has been talking to the Prime Minister about accounts that witnesses have given and how does he know that?

As I have said, I cannot comment on the ongoing Met investigation, but what I can say is that the Prime Minister has said—or the Government have now said—that at the end of the process, following the Met investigation, the Prime Minister will ask Sue Gray to update her work in the light of what is found and we will publish that update.

My Lords, I think the House will agree that if the Labour, Liberal or Conservative parties fund anyone’s work, that is a matter for them, but anyone who is funded by the taxpayer should comply with the Nolan principles—the Seven Principles of Public Life—of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. There seems to have been a distinct lack of coherence and those cultural values. Can the Minister comment on whether she feels that the balance has changed too far, with those working in No. 10 being short-term political appointments rather than longer-term civil servants with greater judgment who can exercise that discretion in very difficult circumstances?

The Prime Minister has said that he will act and make changes to the way that No. 10 and the Cabinet Office are run. I do not want to prejudge that, but he has said that in the coming days we will say more on this matter and I will be happy to update the House when that happens.

My Lords, there is a certain irony in the fact that the very seriousness of the events has prevented us from getting the report from Sue Gray that we were all expecting. Even without the detail, the general findings are utterly damning. Does the Minister recognise that this is as appalling and shocking to the vast majority of civil servants as it is to the public? Can she also say whether she agrees with those who seek to, in my view, trivialise the issues by talking about prosecco parties when we should be talking about Putin? This goes to the heart of government and whether the Government can be trusted to do the right thing and tell the truth. It is hard to think of anything more important than that.

I certainly hope that the noble Lord does not think that I am trivialising anything; I certainly am not. As I say, in his Statement and repeatedly, the Prime Minister has apologised. He understands people’s anger, quite rightly, and he wants to get on to the job of starting to implement Sue Gray’s findings, which I think is an important step now to move on while we have to wait for the ongoing investigation by the Met.

My Lords, may I reinforce what has been said already about the Civil Service? This is a failure of leadership, and of political leadership. I thought that the article yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Hannan—who is sadly not in his place at the moment—which blamed the Civil Service, and very much dismissed the efficiency of the Civil Service, was disgraceful in this context.

Can I also ask about the statement on making sure that the codes are properly enforced? In her first reply, the Leader of the House referred to reconsidering how they might be better enforced but, as we all know, the enforcement of those codes depends on the Prime Minister himself. Are we now at last going to move to what the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended, which is statutory independence for these regulators, including the Prime Minister’s independent adviser, or are we just going to go on with a situation where we have to trust that the Prime Minister will please himself and those around him when necessary?

As I answered in response to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who asked a similar question, we are carefully considering the reports by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the report by Nigel Boardman and other reports that have been published. I also said that, in correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister will be discussing further how the independent adviser’s office can be better supported and ensuring that it has access to appropriate information. The Prime Minister has asked the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, to work with officials to provide this advice, and the Government have pledged to conclude this by March.

My Lords, we should all be grateful to my noble friend for delivering this very shameful Statement with such dignity. We must also recognise that the leadership of any campaign must be from the elected House. However, would it not be reasonable to say that what this Statement from the Prime Minister amounts to is, very simply, mea culpa?

Certainly, the Prime Minister makes clear in his Statement, and says explicitly, that he is sorry for things that have been got wrong and for the way that things have bene handled and he understands people’s anger. That is why he has accepted in full the initial findings of this Gray report and wants to get on straight away with implementing changes to address them.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has attempted to answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to the best of her ability, I have no doubt. But would she agree that, when the report refers to “failures of leadership”, it is not clear from what the Prime Minister said in his Statement that he understands or accepts that his own leadership is included among those failures? It would be helpful if the noble Baroness could assure the House—again, to the best of her ability—that he does understand that. If he does, what implications follow from that? I think that is really the question that we are not yet able to answer.

The Prime Minister has said that he takes full responsibility; he has repeatedly apologised and, as this Statement shows, is committed to making changes to address these issues. Hence, as I mentioned, he is going to look at changes to the way that No. 10 and the Cabinet Office are run, creating an office of the Prime Minister with a permanent secretary and a review of various codes, as discussed. He has said that he will say more in the coming days about the steps being taken to improve the No. 10 operation and the work of the Cabinet Office, to strengthen Cabinet government and to improve the connection between No. 10 and Parliament. He has certainly said that he takes these matters extremely seriously.

My Lords, is that not where it has all gone wrong? This is not something that started with this Prime Minister—the way in which the role of Cabinet government has been eroded and the relationship with the Civil Service. I can remember being in government and, if Robin Butler—the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell—said “Jump”, you jumped, because there was respect for the Civil Service. Now we have got into a situation where we have special advisers—many of whom have never had a proper job—telling Secretaries of State what to do. We really need to go back to the principle that Secretaries of State are in charge of their departments, the Prime Minister is first among equals, and we have respect for the Civil Service and do not try to blame officials when things go wrong.

I certainly agree with my noble friend that there should be no finger-pointing. As the Prime Minister said, we need to look in the mirror and learn for ourselves. However, I would push back slightly on my noble friend’s characterisation of special advisers, not least because I am married to a former one. That is not a fair assertion across the piece. There are of course things we need to learn and ways in which we need to work better. This Statement makes that clear, and we now all need to work together and move forward to make sure we can implement the changes that are needed, in order to ensure that lessons are learned from what we have discovered.

My Lords, I do not fully recognise the picture portrayed by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, in relation to myself, but I am deeply saddened by the portrait of 10 Downing Street in Sue Gray’s report. I welcome the proposal to create a Permanent Secretary post to lead No. 10. Can the noble Baroness assure us that this will be a permanent Civil Service post with unambiguous authority over both special advisers and civil servants?

I am afraid that the noble Lord may have gone a few steps ahead of what I am able to say today. This is a commitment to create an office of the Prime Minister with a Permanent Secretary to lead No. 10. No doubt there will be a lot of discussions, including with distinguished people who have expertise in this area, such as the noble Lord himself, to make sure that we get the right structure going forward, which is something we all want to achieve.

My Lords, I am very concerned by the Prime Minister’s phrase that he will invite Sue Gray to update her findings once the police investigation has concluded. Is the Prime Minister expecting, or should I say hoping, that the Metropolitan Police will establish alternative facts to those established by Sue Gray?

No, the Prime Minister has been quite clear that, at the end of the process, he will ask Sue Gray to update her work in light of what has been found, and it will be published.

My Lords, one of my predecessors as Secretary-General of NATO was Lord Carrington. During the Falklands War, although he bore no direct responsibility for the invasion of the Falkland Islands, in honour and in dignity he took full responsibility and resigned as Foreign Secretary of this country. Does the noble Baroness not think that the Prime Minister might like to follow the example of that great Conservative?

As I say, the Prime Minister has apologised and said it is entirely right for the police to investigate these matters. We now need to wait for the results of that investigation.

My Lords, Sue Gray’s report did not extend to the question of what was said to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister in relation to these events over a number of months. Could my noble friend say when and by what means the Prime Minister is proposing to correct the record for the House, when it was inadvertently or otherwise misled?

At all times, the Prime Minister has set out his understanding of events. He has taken full responsibility and apologised. He wants to make changes to address these issues and will work tirelessly to regain people’s trust.

My Lords, the Sue Gray report, even in its redacted form, is very critical of what went on at No. 10. The Leader has repeatedly said that Boris Johnson accepts full responsibility for what took place. We are now led to believe that several heads will roll as a result, but not, it seems, that of the Prime Minister. I wonder whether the Leader could say whether that seems right.

As I have said, the Prime Minister has taken full responsibility and is working to address these issues. I cannot comment on an ongoing police investigation and am not going to prejudge its findings.

My Lords, when the sorry episode of this Government comes to be written, one of the parts of today’s Statement that will attract a great deal of interest is that which says that the Government intend to set up an office of the Prime Minister. I would like to follow the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. We are a parliamentary democracy, and a Prime Minister is primus inter pares. The development outlined in this Statement indicates that the Government are thinking of moving towards a much more presidential style, with a proper office of the Prime Minister at No. 10. In view of the long-term potential significance of this, will the Leader find time for a debate in government time in this House so we can explore the constitutional, longer-term implications of what is being proposed?

My Lords, could the noble Baroness say a little more about the setting up of a new regime in No. 10? Will Parliament be involved in any way in the selection and approval of the Permanent Secretary to head the Prime Minister’s office?

As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Butler, I am afraid that some of these questions are jumping ahead. What I can say is what I have already said: that the Prime Minister has said he will create an office of the Prime Minister, with a Permanent Secretary. He has also said that “in the coming days”, he will say more about the steps being taken

“to improve the No. 10 operation and the work of the Cabinet Office, to strengthen Cabinet Government, and to improve the … connection between No. 10 and Parliament.”

I am afraid I cannot go further than that.

My Lords, this afternoon the Prime Minister answered many questions by saying, “We will wait until the Metropolitan Police report is published”. I wonder whether we have any idea when it might be published.

The Metropolitan Police put out a statement this afternoon in which it said it was working “at pace”, but it did not give a specific timescale. I am afraid that I cannot say more than that, but it has confirmed what it is investigating. It has had a lot of evidence from the Cabinet Office and is now working at pace to continue the investigation, but I am afraid I do not have a timescale.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that 10 Downing Street and the structure of the Prime Minister’s office is the poorest accommodation of any Prime Minister of the G7, the G20—or the G140? You cannot have a Prime Minister living in a flat with 50 or 60 people running around below, day and night. Not only do we need an office of the Prime Minister, but we need a dignified working environment away from the private home of the Prime Minister which does justice to the complexity of the work and to the dignity of the Prime Minister. We cannot have the Prime Minister living in a top-floor flat with people running around having parties in the evening. Whether he likes it or not, he will be blamed for it. That needs urgent reform. I know it sounds trivial.

The noble Lord picks up some of the points made by Sue Gray—for instance, the use of the garden and No. 10 not being able to be made particularly Covid-secure. Some of the points he makes have been recognised. The report also finds that, while

“The number of staff working in No 10 Downing Street has steadily increased”

to the point that

“it is now more akin to a small Government Department… The structures that support the smooth operation … have not evolved sufficiently to meet the demands of this expansion.”

That is what we will look into trying to solve.

My Lords, I thank the Leader for all she has done so far. I spend time talking to children, and sometimes they cut to the chase. Last week, year 6 children in primary schools said to me, “Do you trust the Prime Minister? Can we trust him?” They were not interested in parties, civil servants and special advisers. It was: can we trust the Prime Minister?

As the Statement makes clear, the Prime Minister has said to the people of this country that he knows the issue is trust and that we are a Government who can be trusted to deliver. He also understands that we need to work tirelessly to prove that.

My Lords, setting aside the issue of criminality which is, of course, very important in this matter, can the noble Baroness ever imagine these types of events having occurred during the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron or Theresa May? I certainly know that, from my experience, nothing like this happened under Tony Blair. Is there not something fundamentally wrong about the culture of this Prime Minister’s leadership?

We have said that the Prime Minister has apologised. He wants to look at making changes. He has taken responsibility and we are now looking at how we can implement these findings in order to address many of the concerns that have been expressed.

My Lords, a very reasonable person on the number 82 bus in Sheffield will ask this very basic question: how does tweaking the structures of No. 10 change the way a leader at the top exercises their personal judgment and allows rule-breaking to take place on their watch?

As I have said, the Prime Minister has said that he is sorry for things that have been got wrong and for the ways that things have been handled. He understands the anger of people. What we want to do now is to address some of these issues but most importantly get on with delivering on the agenda that people voted for in 2019 and make sure that we deliver on the things on the ground that people see in their everyday lives in order to improve life for everyone in this country.