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Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests

Volume 822: debated on Thursday 16 June 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Her Majesty’s Paymaster-General. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I would like to start by thanking Lord Geidt for his work as Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and, indeed, for his years of public service before he took up this role. I hold him in the highest regard. He has been honoured multiple times and he is an example, of course, of excellence and service in public life. I thank all Members of this House for their work in regard to this matter, but I think all the Members of this House will recognise that Lord Geidt has demonstrated diligence and thoughtfulness in the way he has discharged the role over the past year. We have benefited hugely from this service.

The Prime Minister will be issuing a letter in relation to Lord Geidt’s announcement. Both Lord Geidt’s letter and the Prime Minister’s reply will be deposited in the House shortly. As soon as I have those letters, or my office has them, they will be placed in the Library.

The Government are of course particularly disappointed that Lord Geidt has taken this decision, because only very recently—as the House knows from the debate last week—significant changes were made to the role and status of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. As I set out to the House last week, these changes represent the most substantial strengthening of the role, office and remit of independent adviser since the post was created in 2006.

Let me set out briefly the reforms to the role that the Prime Minister has introduced. First, the independent adviser has a new ability, which Lord Geidt and his predecessors did not previously have, to initiate investigations in relation to allegations where there has been a breach of the Ministerial Code. This is a significant change. Previously, as the House knows, as an adviser, he and his predecessors were not permitted to do this. The adviser will still need the consent of the Prime Minister of the day to start an investigation but, as I made very clear last week, this consent will normally be given.

The Ministerial Code now includes new detail on proportionate sanctions for a breach of the code. Previously, there was no proportionality in those sanctions, and even the smallest of technical breaches by a Minister in place might have resulted in an enforced resignation. Now there is a proportionate range of options, and that was exactly as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

In future, the independent adviser will be consulted about the revisions to the code, as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Ministerial Code now includes more specific references to the role of the independent adviser and more specific references to the duty on Ministers to provide the independent adviser with all information reasonably necessary for the discharge of the role.

In conclusion, as Lord Geidt himself has made clear, the new arrangements are workable and he noted the increased transparency that they bring. The Government will of course now move to make new arrangements and we look forward to working within the strengthened system that I have described.”

My Lords, of course, since that Statement was made in the other place, the letters concerned have been published and laid in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. He is right: the letters have now been published, but is there not a sense of déjà vu here? The resignation letter to the Prime Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, is just excoriating in its criticism. The loss of another—yet another—ethics adviser, is further evidence, if it were required, of Mr Johnson’s approach to office. The rules are for other people, not for him. They are there as a personal whim.

May I ask questions on two areas? The press briefings today indicate that the Prime Minister is in no hurry to appoint a new adviser and is even considering abolishing the role. I hope the Minister can kick that into touch and assure us that is not the case under any circumstances. Further, can he say something about how any inquiries—we know that there are inquiries—currently in play will be taken forward as a matter of urgency?

Can the Minister also say something on what Michael Ellis said in the other place, about the new arrangements in place to strengthen the code? The comment of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, that these are not workable, is hardly a ringing endorsement.

There seems to remain a major flaw in this: the Prime Minister, who has a rather careless approach to rules, remains the final arbiter. One point made today was that it is important that, while the adviser can initiate investigations, they still need the consent of the Prime Minister. Does anybody really trust the Prime Minister with that consent?

My Lords, on the ongoing investigations, I understand that appropriate steps will be taken to ensure that any work being undertaken by the independent adviser continues and is completed. Obviously, one regrets the resignation of anybody who has given such distinguished public service as the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, but I do not agree with the noble Baroness’s interpretation of it.

On her question about what will happen now, the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, raised a number of issues about the role of the independent adviser, as indeed did PACAC in its session earlier this week. As was said this morning, it is right to consider those carefully and take time to reflect on them before moving forward. However, this role has been important in public life.

If a friend of the Minister’s approached him for advice on applying for the job of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, what advice would he give him or her?

My Lords, it would depend on who the person was and whether they were qualified to perform the important role of an independent adviser.

My Lords, the Prime Minister will find it very difficult to recruit an independent adviser unless he agrees to at least three conditions. First, the independent adviser should have a wholly unfettered right to instigate investigations. Secondly, the report should be laid before Parliament in an unredacted form unless the independent adviser has previously agreed otherwise. Lastly, if the independent adviser recommends, the matter should be debated on the Floor of the House.

My Lords, my noble friend makes interesting suggestions, as he always does. The recent changes have potentially very much strengthened the role of the independent adviser. On the role of the Prime Minister, it was made very clear again this morning by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and, as I said, in the House previously, that normally the Prime Minister would accede. The exception referred to in the House is national security, which would be in certain cases a reasonable exception.

My Lords, at a time when public trust in the integrity of the Government and public life is being deeply damaged, would it not make sense for the successor of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, to be appointed by an independent body rather than by the Prime Minister?

My Lords, the role has a particular relationship to the Prime Minister in the conduct of a unique constitutional responsibility, which is the appointment of Ministers. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that standards in public life are essential—that is always my undertaking. As the Prime Minister set out in his letter to the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, only a few weeks ago, the seven principles of public life continue to be, as the Prime Minister put it,

“the bedrock of standards in our country and in”

this Government.

My Lords, I join noble Lords in paying tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, and I welcome the changes that my noble friend referred to in his answer to my question last week. Reverting to the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and my noble friend Lord Hailsham, can my noble friend confirm that the only reason the Prime Minister would exercise a veto on a forthcoming investigation would be reasons of national security and no other reason?

My Lords, I cannot be drawn on that. I gave an example. I also stated—the Government have stated it repeatedly—that the normal expectation would be the course that the noble Lord favours. This role has been strengthened very recently and those changes were discussed with the noble Lord, Lord Geidt. They have been agreed and found to be workable and, as I said, in the light of the events and the PACAC meeting, further careful consideration of how best to proceed will be undertaken.

My Lords, we know that the Prime Minister deems the Nolan principles vital. Why has he not really responded to Sue Gray’s report, where the question of leadership was raised?

My Lords, this is straying into a political remark, but the Prime Minister has given clear leadership to this country, and he was elected to be Prime Minister of this country—in view of the way he was pointing the country—by one of the largest mandates ever given to a Prime Minister.

My Lords, I came running along the Corridor but I did not quite get into the Chamber before the noble Lord, Lord True, stood up, so perhaps I may be forgiven for asking this question.

Normally speaking, it is not a good idea for any individual to be judge in his own cause, whether because as a matter of fact it is a bad idea, or because of the public perception that it is, or may be, or may lead to an inappropriate result. Why is the situation of the Prime Minister different?

My Lords, first, the Prime Minister has set out the reasons in the specific case to which the noble and learned Lord may be alluding: the fixed-term penalty notice and why he did not think that was a breach of the Ministerial Code. That has perhaps been the focus of most of the criticism. The fundamental position is that the constitutional position in this country is that the Prime Minister is responsible for the appointment of Ministers and the holding of office, and that is where accountability of the Prime Minister lies: first, to Parliament and secondly to the people. There is accountability, my Lords.

We read in the press today that it was indeed a trade issue that finally pushed the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, over the edge rather than partygate. Indeed, it was said at one point this morning that it was to do with commercially sensitive measures that would lead to a

“purposeful breach of the Ministerial Code”.

Is the Minister able to cast any light on this?

The letter from the Prime Minister alluded to this. Noble Lords will see from the details in the letters themselves that they allude to commercially sensitive matters, so, clearly, I cannot get into further detail beyond what is set out in the letters: you have the Prime Minister’s words. But I draw your Lordships’ attention to the fact that the Prime Minister was seeking guidance on the Ministerial Code in this particular instance.

Can the Minister tell me why the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, as an ethics adviser, was asked to give advice on compliance with international law over steel tariffs, but Sir James Eadie, First Treasury Counsel, was not asked about the legality of plans for the Northern Ireland protocol?

My Lords, I have already said that I am not going into speculative comments on what may or may not have been the subject of a commercially confidential matter under consideration.

Can the Minister name one other role, in public life or any other area, where the ultimate decision as to continuing in that role is left to the person in that position?

My Lords, the decision on whether the Prime Minister continues in office will rest with the British people when the time comes.