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Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests

Volume 825: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, the Government welcome the opportunity to stress again the importance of the role of the independent adviser and this Government’s commitment to it. The Prime Minister has been very clear that the appointment of a new independent adviser is a priority and that the appointment process is under way. Honourable Members will understand that an appointment of this nature is significant and has to be done well. Much as honourable Members might wish me to, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the specifics of what is an ongoing appointments process. Let me assure honourable Members: the adjudication of issues of ministerial conduct does not stop because the independent adviser is not yet in post. Conduct matters and conduct issues will be dealt with quickly and appropriately, irrespective of that appointment process.

That is what honourable Members will have seen with regard to the complaints made against the Deputy Prime Minister. On receipt of formal complaints by the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister requested that an independent investigation be conducted by an individual from outside government, and Adam Tolley KC has been appointed to conduct the investigation. The terms of reference have now been published. The process is under way, and Mr Tolley will provide his report to the PM in due course. It is right that these matters are investigated fully, but it would not be right to comment further on them with that process ongoing.

I would also like to reassure honourable Members that the process of managing the interests of Ministers continues in the absence of an independent adviser. The Permanent Secretary, as the policy expert on each department’s remit, leads the process in their department in the absence of an independent adviser. The Cabinet Office is able to provide advice in line with precedent. All relevant interests are declared by Ministers upon taking office and are kept up to date at all times. The publication of the list of Ministers’ interests is the end point of the ministerial interests process, and it takes place at regular intervals to make the public aware of the relevant interests of Ministers.

I end by reiterating that as soon as there is an update on the process to appoint an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, the Government will update the House.”

My Lords, I do wonder how many times Ministers can tell us that this is such an important issue and that it is a priority without appointing anyone. There is a queue of outstanding, incomplete investigations at present, and the Government have already had to draft someone in to investigate the alleged behaviour of the Deputy Prime Minister in a separate process. What are the estimated costs of this delay? King’s Counsels will not come cheap for such an investigation. Why does the Minister think candidates are refusing even to consider taking this appointment up? I understand that several have been approached. Could there be a problem with the Government’s definition of independence, which appears different from that of the rest of us?

The noble Baroness refers to the cost of the King’s Counsel hired to help on the Raab inquiry; it is obviously the usual process that costs will be accounted for in the Cabinet Office annual report and accounts. However, I understand that in the other place my honourable friend Minister Burghart has committed to write on the issue and I will ensure that this letter is shared with the noble Baroness. Could she remind me of her second point?

It was only a couple of seconds ago. Why does she think good candidates are refusing to take up the position? Could it be to do with the Government’s definition of independence?

It is an important role, so we need to take time. The new Prime Minister has been with us for only 31 days—I hope he will be there for many years. The post needs to be filled by a person of integrity and credibility with the experience and judgment to win the confidence of Ministers, Members of Parliament and the public. I believe that this is right in order to find the right person; we are determined that the appointments process being conducted should do that. I would not want to comment on speculation or specifics—noble Lords are always trying to encourage me to do this. They should be assured that it is a priority. An independent adviser will be appointed and we are getting on with it.

My Lords, is the problem not that the title “independent adviser” is an oxymoron? It is very clear from the experience of the last two advisers that the role is that of a “dependent adviser”—dependent on the Prime Minister taking any notice of what they recommend. Does the Minister recognise that the key element of the Ministerial Code here is the chapter on relations between Ministers and civil servants, and that the current problem we have in Whitehall is partly that a large number of senior civil servants are beginning to lose confidence in the Ministers with whom they work? That is partly because the turnover is far too fast; there have been five Ministers in various posts in the last year—the Secretary of State for Education, for example. If Ministers lose the confidence of their civil servants, the quality of government will go down further. What are the Government going to do to reassure Whitehall that Ministers will continue to treat civil servants with respect, listen to reasoned arguments and evidence, and on that basis, take decisions that can carry their civil servants with them?

I have two points. First, it is right that, under the British system, the Prime Minister appoints the independent ethics adviser. He is accountable to Parliament for that appointment. If parliamentarians do not like the appointment, they can raise it in Parliament. I used to be a civil servant, as the noble Lord knows. I think the Civil Service has worked magnificently to deal with the changes of ministerial office that we have seen in recent months. Those of us who are now fortunate enough to be Ministers are working hard and respectfully with the Civil Service.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Minister may recall that 12 months ago, we issued a report, Upholding Standards in Public Life, which made a number of recommendations for improving and reinforcing the role of the independent adviser. We have not yet had a full response from the Government on that report. Does the Minister agree that it might be easier to find strong candidates if there had been agreement from the Government that the independent adviser should be able to initiate their own investigations, and that that would be reassuring to the public?

I thank the noble Lord for his work in this important area. I remind the House that in May 2022, partly as a result of this report, changes to the role of the independent adviser were announced. The current terms of reference for the independent adviser, which I am happy to share if need be, allow them to initiate an investigation following consultation with the Prime Minister. The consultation process ensures that any public interest reasons not to proceed are raised, should they occur. In such an event, the independent adviser may require the reasoning for that to be made public, unless doing so would undermine the grounds that led to the investigation not proceeding. Other points were made in May and there was also a statement in July. Noble Lords will understand that there have been changes of Government and therefore some things have gone a little slower than they perhaps might in the future.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that we really do need action, if not this day, then at least before 44 days are up from when the Prime Minister took office?

I can only repeat the point that the Prime Minister has been in office for only 31 days; he has had a hugely demanding agenda to deal with, not least on the economic side. He has made clear that he is appointing an independent adviser. That process is in hand; noble Lords need to give us some rope.

My Lords, the Minister has told the House that the delay in appointing an independent adviser has not interfered with the existing ongoing investigations. Nevertheless, do the Government not understand the damage being done to the credibility of government and the democratic process by not having an independent adviser?

My Lords, the machinery of government goes on. As I explained in my Statement, managing ministerial interests, including the management of those on the appointment of new Ministers, is continuing with the Permanent Secretaries in the Cabinet Office and with the head of the Civil Service. I do not think there is a lot more that we can do than appoint an independent adviser of the right kind. As somebody who has worked in many different parts of the British state and business, I know that it is important to take time to make appointments of this sort. We need somebody experienced and credible who wins the trust of the Prime Minister, who is ultimately responsible.

My Lords, can the Minister throw a little light on what seems to me, at any rate, a pretty opaque process? Is there a job description for this new job and is it publicly available? Was the post advertised so that people could apply for it? What is the salary or payment attached to it? All these things would be normal for making the most junior of appointments in the Civil Service or relating to the Civil Service. For this very senior post, therefore, perhaps we could be told whether people have been independently applying for the job. How many people have been considered by the Government but turned the job down? I am sure that all these points would be of great interest to us all to understand precisely how the Government go about this business.

It is a prime ministerial appointment. The postholder is required to observe the seven principles of public life and helps the Prime Minister on Ministers’ interests and on investigations of alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code. It would be unusual for the details of a confidential appointment process to be published, but I can assure the noble Lord that work is in hand and I look forward to announcing the name of the new independent adviser once appointed.

May I suggest to the Minister that her inability to answer any of the questions asked by the noble Lord does not encourage confidence in this process? More excellent candidates would be likely to come forward and confidence in the process would be enhanced if the Government would commit to accepting the advice of the independent adviser when it is given on these important matters of integrity. Will the Government do that?

The noble Lord is trying to push me into a different direction but, like my noble friend Lord Howard of Lympne, I am keeping to the same answer. That is because I completely believe that this independent ethics adviser has to be appointed by the Prime Minister and has to be accountable to Parliament. It is important that we stick to that principle. People who are going to take up this important post will understand that, but they will also want to ensure that they have the confidence and trust of our Prime Minister.