Skip to main content

Ministers: Legal Costs

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of taxpayer-funded legal costs incurred by Government Ministers, following the recent libel settlement funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

My Lords, in line with established practice under multiple Administrations of all political colours, Ministers are provided with legal support and representation where matters relate to their conduct and responsibilities as a Minister. As set out in Chapter 6 of the Cabinet Manual, Ministers are

“indemnified by the Crown for any actions taken against them for things done or decisions made in the course of their ministerial duties. The indemnity will cover the cost of defending the proceedings, as well as any costs or damages awarded against the minister”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The Prime Minister put it rather differently. He said

“it is a long-standing convention stretching back many years … that the government will fund those legal disputes when it relates to government ministers doing their work”.

How can making party-political libel posts on X on Friday at midnight constitute “Ministers doing their work”? Why should this settlement come out of the public purse? Is this not a breach of the Ministerial Code, after all?

As I said, it is long-standing practice. Indeed, the Secretary of State concerned made a statement this morning at the Lords Science and Technology Committee and explained the circumstances in full, including how she was engaged in official work and got support from officials on the disputed letter.

I think the Secretary of State explained very fully. It took the course of two days to draft, clear and send the letter to UKRI’s CEO to ask for an investigation. She highlighted it on X, using the same medium as the original issue.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister about the Civil Service dimension of this? It is reported that a number of senior civil servants were working until midnight on a Friday evening on a non-emergency text message that the Secretary of State wished to send. This seems an entirely unreasonable use of civil servants’ time. Civil servants do work out of hours, but only for emergencies. If they are asked to work late into the night and over the weekend, that is an abuse by Ministers of civil servants.

The Secretary of State has explained her actions fully. I refer noble Lords to her statement. The important thing is that legal advice was taken, and subsequently there was a full and final settlement of the dispute. The Secretary of State made it clear that she should have sent the letter in confidence to UKRI and apologised for that. The basic principle is that it is very important that Ministers can seek advice on work that they carry out as part of their official duties, otherwise there would be a chilling effect on public life. This has been important to all Administrations.

My Lords, if the chilling effect were to extend to preventing Ministers posting things on social media at midnight, we might all be able to live with that. The Minister said that the indemnity covered the activities of her fellow Minister while fulfilling her duties, so can she advise the House which of her ministerial responsibilities the Secretary of State’s comments attacking two academics were fulfilling? Will she also explain why the taxpayer should foot the bill for a blatant abuse of position and power by the Secretary of State that further undermines the standing of the very UK research institution that her department is supposed to be promoting?

The Secretary of State is responsible for the non-departmental public body UK Research and Innovation. She was operating in that context. Her intentions were always to do the right thing. It is very important that Ministers can do this. Of course, insurance is available to MPs, which is provided by the House at the taxpayers’ expense, in cases where professional indemnity insurance covers defamation. The House of Lords Commission is due this week to discuss the provision of professional indemnity insurance to Peers. Of course, there is indemnity insurance in the private sector because directors have to act in good faith and in the wider interest.

My Lords, might I suggest that the protection should last only while pub hours are in place, because it is quite clear what happened in this case?

The truth is—as I know well—that as a Government Minister you do work late. Government officials often work late as well. This is a serious point about how to make sure that Ministers are properly advised on issues. That is what happened on this occasion.

My Lords, the Government seem very keen to lecture everybody else about extremism these days. Would they like to take a look closer to home at the extremism in their own ranks, in particular from very major donors?

On extremism, as the Prime Minister said in his very important speech two weeks ago, we have seen an unacceptable rise in extremist activity that seeks to divide our society and hijack our democratic institutions. It is our duty to ensure that the Government have all the tools that they need to tackle this ever-evolving threat.

My Lords, part of the role of the Science Minister is to champion the scientific community within government and to protect it from political interference. What action are the Government taking to repair the damage caused by the Secretary of State’s highly regrettable actions and the libel case that followed?

I do not see it that way. The Secretary of State gave evidence this morning to the Lords Science and Technology Committee. There was a brief discussion of this matter. They then moved on to discuss important points about science, which she and this Government are extremely supportive of and have done so much to make sure that the UK is one of the leaders in the world in science and technology matters.

My Lords, is this not another case of the Government marking their own homework? What is the Government’s ethics adviser saying about this? Have the Government taken a proper view from the ethics adviser?

Advice to the Prime Minister, including from the ethics adviser, is not something that we would comment on.

I am sympathetic to the Minister, who is prone to having hospital passes from her colleagues that do not help her at all. Does she really think that her explanation at the Dispatch Box will convince the British public, let alone the Daily Mail?

The statement the Secretary of State made this morning was full and clear. I have a great deal of respect for the Secretary of State. The action she took in the aftermath of 7 October was very understandable. We have now moved forward and resolved this. We should be caring about how we improve science and technology in this country.

The Secretary of State told the Select Committee that she is now clear that she should have sent the letter privately. Was she advised by her officials working at that time of night that it would be appropriate to send part of it on X? If she was not then she was acting with her own personal judgment on the issue, so why is the taxpayer having to pay for that error?

I have explained the circumstances about why the taxpayer gets involved in legal expenses. I note the noble Lord’s point.

I was there when the Secretary of State gave her statement to the Science and Technology Committee this morning and was remarkably unconvinced, particularly by the Permanent Secretary’s assertion that all the aspects of this case had been discussed with legal and technical advisers before the relevant tweet was made. I simply ask the Minister: does she think that was valid advice? Is this the way the Government think a senior Cabinet Minister should communicate with the body for which she has responsibility?

My understanding is that the legal expenditure was approved by the department’s accounting officer. That was made clear. I believe that the Permanent Secretary was there with the Secretary of State. I refer noble Lords to her statement, to all that she has done, and to the fact that she apologised to move this matter on.