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Ministerial Code

Volume 693: debated on Monday 26 April 2021

The ministerial code is the responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day. It is customarily updated and issued upon their assuming or returning to office. The code sets out the behaviour expected of all those who serve in government. It provides guidance to Ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs to uphold those standards. The code exists and should be read alongside the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life.

The current version of the code was issued by the Prime Minister in August 2019 shortly after he assumed office. While the code sets out standards and offers guidance, it is Ministers who are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in light of the code, and, of course, for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and to the public. That is as it should be in a robust democracy such as ours. Ministers are not employees of the Government, but rather office holders who hold their office for as long as they have the confidence of the Prime Minister as the Head of Government. It is always, therefore, the Prime Minister who is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of an individual Minister and of the appropriate consequences were a breach of those standards to occur.

The code also sets out a role for an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. It is an important role, the principal duty of which is to provide independent advice to Ministers on the arrangement of their private interests. The independent adviser also has a role in investigating alleged breaches of the ministerial code. As the House will be aware, Sir Alex Allan stepped down from his role towards the end of last year. Following the practice of successive Administrations, the Prime Minister will appoint a successor to Sir Alex. The House will understand that the process of identifying the right candidate for such a role can take time. However, an appointment is expected to be announced shortly. The House will be informed in the usual way as soon as that appointment is confirmed. It will clearly be an early priority for the new independent adviser to oversee the publication of an updated list of Ministers’ interests. I expect that will be published shortly after a new independent adviser is appointed.

I can, of course, reassure the House that the process of managing Ministers’ interests has continued in the absence of an independent adviser, in line with the ministerial code, which sets out that the permanent secretary in each Department and the Cabinet Office overall have a role. Ministers remain able to seek advice on their interests from their permanent secretary and from the Cabinet Office. The ministerial code has served successive Administrations well and has been an important tool in upholding standards in public life. It will continue to do so.

Let us go to the SNP spokesperson for the urgent question. I call Alison Thewliss. [Interruption.] Order. Can I just say to Members that they should be wearing a mask in the Chamber? For the two Members sat there: please, it is not my decision, but the decision of Public Health England that we should be wearing masks. If you do not wish to, please leave the Chamber.

Order. We will have to suspend the sitting if Members do not wear their masks. That is not on my order, but Public Health England’s.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

In his foreword to the “Ministerial Code”, the Prime Minister says:

“To…win back the trust of the British people, we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety…No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document—integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest—must be honoured at all times”.

Well, this UK Tory Government is failing on all counts. They are riddled with conflicts of interest and allegations of corruption. Indeed, 37% of the public think the Prime Minister is corrupt—53% think that in Scotland—and that is before getting into the latest on what the Prime Minister is alleged to have said, which is that he would rather see bodies pile up in their thousands than order a third lockdown. Despicable, cruel and callous. Comments not befitting the office of Prime Minister.

Transparency International’s “Track and Trace” report raised serious questions on 73 Government contracts worth £3.7 billion. Of those, 24 personal protective equipment contracts, worth £1.6 billion, were handed to those with known political connections, with a further £536 million on testing services. We need to know who has benefited and what their links are to Ministers, especially in the light of the VIP lane that the National Audit Office identified as a risk. People on that list were 10 times more likely to win a contract. Transparency International identified the VIP lane as potentially a

“systemic and partisan bias in the award of PPE contracts.”

Will the Minister stop hiding behind commercial confidentiality and publish in full the details of those VIP contracts, along with who recommended them? It is our money and we have a right to know. Will he also finally publish the updated register of Ministers’ interests?

From the contracts for the Health Secretary’s pub landlord to the cosy chumocracy of the Greensill Capital affair, the casual text messages between the Prime Minister and Sir James Dyson promising to “fix” tax issues, apparently in exchange for ventilators that we never even got, and now questions over the Prime Minister’s funding for feathering his Downing Street nest, does the Minister agree that there is a clear pattern of behaviour and it absolutely stinks? The UK Tory Government are about to prorogue the House to duck further scrutiny. In the absence of an independent adviser to investigate Ministers, we can no longer trust them to investigate themselves; that much is clear. Will the Minister for the Cabinet Office instead instruct a full independent public inquiry to get to the bottom of the sleekit, grubby cabal in charge of the UK?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising a number of issues. She raised the whole question of procurement of PPE. It is a well attested fact that less than 0.5% of the PPE procured did not meet the standards that we had set out. It is a fact that every single recommendation for the procurement of PPE went through an independent eight-stage process verified by independent civil servants. It is the case that the Government, operating at a time when the pandemic was raging, did everything possible—we make no apology for it—to ensure that those at the frontline got the equipment that they deserved. The techniques that we used and the processes that we followed not only stand up to scrutiny; the same techniques and the same processes were used by the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.

The hon. Lady raises the Greensill question. Of course, the truth is that all the efforts on behalf of that company in order to push the Treasury and others were rejected. She raises the issue of Sir James Dyson. She does not acknowledge the fact that Sir James spent millions of pounds of his own money to try to ensure that we had ventilators to save those on the frontline. She does not mention that the ventilator challenge was investigated by the Public Accounts Committee, which said it was a model of public procurement. She does not mention the fact that the changes to the Prime Minister’s flat were paid for by the Prime Minister himself, and she repeats a line from a newspaper but ignores the fact that the Prime Minister instituted not only a second but a third lockdown to keep us safe.

What the hon. Lady does not mention is that she and other Opposition Members criticised the appointment of a vaccine tsar as cronyism when Kate Bingham has been responsible for saving millions of lives. What she does not say is that Opposition MPs criticised Kate Bingham for spending money on public relations when that money was there to ensure that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds were able to get the vaccines they required. What she does not acknowledge is the determined effort by public servants in this Government and others to deal with a pandemic and to save lives. Instead, she tries to score political points in a way that, sadly, causes regret.

I commend a great deal of what my right hon. Friend just said, but let us face it: there is not a great deal of public confidence in propriety and ethics in politics in this country, and that is to be laid at the door of all political parties over a long period. What would begin to restore public confidence in such matters is more genuine discussion of principles and values and how conflicts of interests should be better managed, and to have rather less quibbling about whether we are inside or outside certain rules. I feel that accusations should perhaps be less blaming as well.

I commend to my right hon. Friend the letter sent by the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to the Prime Minister last week. It recommended a number of changes to the role—that the chair should be able to initiate his or her own inquiries and to publish a summary of the findings—that the

“Prime Minister should retain the right to decide on any sanction following a breach of the Code”

and that it is “disproportionate” for the Prime Minister always to require a resignation for a breach of the code. The Prime Minister should be able to use a range of sanctions to deal with breaches of the code. Will the Government accept those recommendations?

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically thoughtful series of points. As a former Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and as a current leading Select Committee Chairman in this House, the points that he makes are certainly ones that we should reflect on. It is the case that the process of holding Ministers and others to account is always an evolutionary one. We should look at thoughtful recommendations such as those made by Lord Evans and others and we should consider what more can be done. It is important to stress, however, that the Government have already introduced a series of changes in order to ensure greater transparency in public life. Of course, we always seek to do better.

Mr Speaker:

“There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking…No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”

Those words are from the Prime Minister’s foreword to the ministerial code. I do not know whether he believed them when he wrote them, but he is certainly trampling all over them today. The Prime Minister is now corrupting the standards of public life expected in high office as he dodges questions and tries to cover up payments for the luxury refurbishment of his flat, feathering his own nest and possibly breaking the law through undeclared loans.

As for leaks, we are seeing the pipes burst with the sewage of allegations. People say that a fish rots from the head down. There is a reason why there is no independent adviser on ministerial standards and why the Government will not publish the long-overdue list of Ministers’ interests. The reason is that the Prime Minister has not wanted them. This is a Prime Minister who would rather the bodies “pile high” than act on scientific advice, but they are not bodies; they are people, they are loved ones and they are deeply missed.

I ask the Minister to engage with the issues at hand. When will the Government publish that register of Ministers’ financial interests? Who paid the invoices for the Prime Minister’s flat refurbishment in the first place and when were those funds repaid? When will the review by the Cabinet Secretary of this fiasco be complete? When will the vacancy for the independent adviser on ministerial standards be filled, and will the Government give that adviser the powers to trigger independent investigations, as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) has just said and as recommended by Lord Evans?

Finally, will the Minister apologise for the stomach-churning comments that have come out today and announce an urgent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic? This is all about conduct, character and decency. Frankly, our country deserves an awful lot better than this.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. As ever, she raises a number of significant issues. On the question of the No. 10 Downing Street refurbishment, it is important to stress that previous Prime Ministers have used taxpayers’ money in order to refurbish No. 10 Downing Street. In 1998-99, in real terms, the then Prime Minister spent £73,000 of taxpayers’ money on refurbishing Downing Street; in 2000-01, £55,000; and, again, in 2007-08, £35,000—all taxpayers’ money. This Prime Minister has spent his own money on refurbishing Downing Street. That is a distinction to which the hon. Lady should pay close attention.

The hon. Lady also suggested that the Government did not act on scientific advice in dealing with the pandemic. I hope that she will reflect on those words and recognise that that is completely wrong. This Government, as I pointed out, initiated not just a second but a third lockdown in response to medical and scientific advice, and this Government, working with doctors and scientists, have ensured that we have had the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe. We have also developed many of the therapeutics and tools necessary to ensure that those who are suffering and in pain at last receive relief. Of course, the ventilators that this Government took part in procuring are now helping to save lives in India.

The hon. Lady is right to say that we should appoint an independent adviser on ministerial interests as soon as possible, but as I mentioned in my statement, that appointment is due within days and that independent adviser will have the freedom to carry out their role in exactly the way that they should. Scrutiny is always welcome, but it is also the case, as the hon. Lady should recognise, that scrutiny should extend beyond those who are our political opponents to the parties that we ourselves lead or are members of. I can only quote from The Times at the weekend, one of whose columnists wrote:

“our only proper bit of suspected corruption”

in this country

“in Labour-run Liverpool. The allegations have got everything: dubious contracts, records created retrospectively, discarded in skips or destroyed altogether.”

The hon. Lady must look at the beam in her eye before criticising the mote in others’.

May I pick up on the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Liaison Committee about the powers of the next occupant of the position of the Prime Minister’s adviser on the ministerial code and encourage my right hon. Friend to go down that road? The proposals made by the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life exactly match ones that I made to that committee about a month and a half ago. It strikes me that we have now reached the point where we must strengthen the entire system so that it commands cross-party confidence and trust, and these proposals will be very welcome and widely appreciated on all sides if this is a step that we could ultimately take.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and the work he has done to increase standards in public life has been applauded across parties and across this House, and, indeed, outside it. The Government and the new independent adviser on ministerial standards will want to reflect on Lord Evans’s recommendation and other points to make sure that we can have the maximum confidence in our system.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important urgent question. We have had PPE contracts awarded to donors and cronies without a robust tender process, NHS contracts awarded to a firm partly owned by the Health Secretary, privileged secret communications between an ex-Prime Minister and the Chancellor, and between James Dyson and the current Prime Minister—and I could add a Tory fondness for oligarchs—and the allegation of Tory donors funding the Prime Minister’s home improvements. There is no point in the Minister’s sitting there, part bombast and part Teflon Don, hoping that the stench of cronyism will simply pass. It is far too late for that. When did this Government judge that integrity, probity, transparency and the ministerial code were obstacles to be overcome rather than principles to always be adhered to?

The right hon. Gentleman is always a skilled and gifted rhetorician, but as I pointed out in response to his colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), if we look at PPE, we see that the processes by which it has been procured by this Government have been independently validated and assured by officials, with an eight-step process to ensure that contracts were awarded only to those who could provide the right equipment. There is no variance in the approach that this Government took and the approach that the Scottish Government or Welsh Government took in the procurement of PPE.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about a Tory fondness for oligarchs, and refers to text messages and so on. I can only point out that our mutual friend the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism dined with Mr Lex Greensill and Mr Gupta in one of Glasgow’s finest restaurants. If there is a particular fondness for dining with oligarchs, it is not the preserve of any one individual or party in this House.

As for suggesting that the ministerial code is something to be got round or overlooked and suggesting that propriety might need to be looked at, I would simply refer the right hon. Gentleman to the report of the independent Committee of the Scottish Parliament on the investigation into the former First Minister. If people want to see a story of obstruction, obfuscation, prevarication and a waste of taxpayers’ money, they can find it there.

Constituents are sick and tired of this endless tittle-tattle. They just want their lives to go back normal, which is what this Government are helping them to achieve. They could not care less about the Prime Minister’s cushions or his curtains. When will we have an Opposition who care about the actual priorities and not who the Downing Street decorators are?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It does seem sometimes as though the Opposition and some critics are more concerned about the world of interiors than about the real world in which the rest of us live. The really important thing is that we welcome scrutiny when it is there to ensure that we are serving the public. It is quite right that there should be scrutiny of how we respond to the pandemic; and it is quite right that we should resolve to learn lessons from everything that this Government have done; but it is also right that those in this House who have the opportunity to scrutinise the way in which taxpayers’ money is spent look effectively at the delivery of public policy, rather than necessarily seeking to make partisan points.

The Minister just said that public scrutiny is always welcome, so does he not agree that instead of all the reports relying on leaks in the newspapers and on accusations in Dominic Cummings’ blog, the best way forward would be to get all the facts straight in an independent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic? Will he urge the Prime Minister to go ahead with it without delay?

The hon. Lady makes the very fair point that we need, in due course, an independent public inquiry into dealing with the pandemic, but I also think it is important that we concentrate now on the successful vaccine roll-out and on making sure that the road map on the lifting of restrictions, to which so many people are quite rightly looking forward, is in place. There will be time for an independent public inquiry and there will be lessons to be learned; mistakes have been made. But I think it is important that we concentrate now on making sure that our economy is restored to health, that public services get back to the level that they should be, and that we deal with the virus once and for all.

There is no doubt that the allegations made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) are serious, but there is also very little doubt that we work in a profession where often claims and counterclaims are made with scant reliance on evidence. Transparency and openness are vital to retaining the trust of this House and the people who put us here. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend confirm that any donations and benefits given will be returned and made open and transparent through the regular processes?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. All of us have a responsibility to declare political donations, and there is a clear means of doing so. I know that all donations received by all politicians in this House will be declared appropriately.

Last week, the Government claimed that the Prime Minister funded the up-front costs of decorating the Downing Street flat himself. This afternoon, the Prime Minister did not deny that the up-front costs were met by Conservative party donors. This is not the first but the third time in the space of just one week that the Prime Minister has been caught out. How many more times will Ministers accept that their leader—our Prime Minister—has misled the public, the press and Parliament before they declare him unfit for office?

I have enormous respect for the right hon. Lady, a brave and courageous fighter for many causes and a very distinguished former Select Committee Chairman, but I think she may wish to reflect on the specific allegation she makes against the Prime Minister. On the broader point of substance she raises, as I pointed out earlier, the Prime Minister paid for the costs of renovation. Declarations are properly made about political donations, and indeed the Cabinet Secretary pointed out, when being questioned by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, that he is making sure that everything done was done in accordance with the rules.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this Conservative Government have taken more steps to reform and regulate lobbying and public procurement than any Labour Government did, and that at the last general election the Labour party said it intended to scrap the same lobbying law that it now wants to strengthen? Does that not show the hypocrisy of Captain Hindsight? [Interruption.]

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know why Labour Members were making a noise. It was the case that this Government banned the use of taxpayers’ money for quango lobbying. We banned taxpayers’ money being used in grants for other organisations’ lobbying. We introduced a statutory registrar of lobbyists, and we have introduced transparency measures on Government spending, Government salaries, Government contracts, Government tenders and Government meetings. He is quite right: the Labour party said that it wanted to scrap that legislation. It is for the Labour party to justify to people in Redcar and Hartlepool why it wants to scrap lobbying regulation, and it will be interesting to hear that conversation on the doorsteps.

At Prime Minister’s questions two weeks ago, the Prime Minister agreed with me that politicians “must not lie”. That is vital to the credibility of the ministerial code, but a host of recent events, including the Prime Minister’s reported comments regarding lockdowns, raise serious questions about the Government’s adherence to that code. Is the Minister confident that his answers today are sufficiently comprehensive and robust to lay these matters to rest?

I read through the ministerial code this morning; it took me longer than most Members because I am slower. I could see absolutely nothing in there to make me think that the Prime Minister has done anything wrong. Why do we not leave it to the system to investigate this matter, if there is a requirement for it, rather than dance to the tune of a media frenzy?

My right hon. Friend is an officer and a gentleman, and he puts the point very well. There are tried and tested procedures and principles in order to make sure that Ministers and others in the House behave in an appropriate way. Judgments can be made, of course, by all of us in a democracy. His reading of the ministerial code this morning may be a prelude to his being appointed as a Minister in due course, but I cannot further speculate on these matters.

Contrary to what one Minister said at the weekend, concerns about the Prime Minister and the ministerial code are not “tittle-tattle”. People care deeply about this, which is why Peter Stefanovic’s video on the Prime Minister’s relationship with the truth has been viewed nearly 13 million times on social media. If the ministerial code says that any “inadvertent error” should be corrected at the earliest opportunity, what should be done about systematic deliberate errors? If, as seems to be the case with our archaic and dysfunctional rules, it is the Prime Minister himself who decides whether the ministerial code has been broken, should we really be trusting this one to mark his own homework, or should the whole system not be urgently revised?

The hon. Lady makes a number of important points. She is absolutely right that the public have a right to expect that those who are responsible for discharging Government duties and spending taxpayers’ money do so in a way that is consistent with the public’s values. She also makes a broader point about the need always to review the mechanisms of scrutiny to which Government are subject. As was pointed out by my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), there is an opportunity, with the appointment of a new independent adviser on ministerial interests, to look again at how that role and, indeed, perhaps other roles can be strengthened if necessary.

While these matters should always be open and transparent, one can only muse at what other world leaders think of the UK Prime Minister having to pay for his own refurbishment, additional tax for the benefit in kind and the running costs of the flat that we insist he stays in. Surely my right hon. Friend agrees that the ridiculous situation here is why our Prime Minister should be paying anything at all personally, unlike other world leaders, when it is us—the taxpayer—who demand that they live above the shop.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and existing trusts are responsible for looking after Dorneywood, Chequers and, I believe, Chevening, where Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative politicians have used those facilities in order to discharge their duties. Downing Street is a working building, and it is appropriate, as has been the case in the past, as I referred to earlier, that some public money is allocated to ensure that the Prime Minister and others who work in that building can perform their duties as appropriate. Of course, when we are spending taxpayers’ money we must have a care—we must recognise that this money is entrusted to us—but when it comes to Government buildings, particularly Government buildings such as Downing Street, there is a role for public funding in making sure that they function effectively, on behalf of all of us.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Leader of the Opposition was really serious about tackling corruption, he would start by cracking down on the Labour Government in Wales, who handed out NHS contracts worth more than £650,000 to a Labour activist without any kind of competitive tendering process?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that case to my attention. I was not aware of it, but I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition and others will want to make sure that all the correct procedures have been followed.

Whether it is the Prime Minister’s luxury refurbishment of his flat or other things, day after day more sordid, sleazy details are unearthed about this incompetent Conservative Government, who are becoming an embarrassment for our nation, given the billions wasted on crony covid contracts. Tory donors have been profiteering at the British taxpayer’s expense, in the midst of widespread public misery. So will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster inform the House as to why he is delaying the public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, which would allow us all to ascertain for ourselves how many Ministers have broken the ministerial code by texting or handing out Government contracts to their Tory chums?

As I pointed out in response to some earlier questions, every PPE contract that was awarded went through an eight-stage process. It was supervised by independent civil servants, and the imputation that lies behind the hon. Gentleman’s comments is unfair to those dedicated public servants, who worked incredibly hard at a difficult time to make sure that those on the frontline received exactly what they needed. Of course, it is the case that there needs to be an inquiry in due course, but that inquiry should cover every aspect of the handling of the pandemic and we should all be suitably humble in recognising that it will necessarily make recommendations that all of us should take account of as we prepare for future health and other challenges.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all Ministers, both at the Treasury and at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, followed the ministerial code in all of their dealings with Greensill Capital?

Yes. The point that was made earlier is that when Lex Greensill and others with whom he was working were making representations to Government, those representations were dealt with in an appropriate way, and the critical thing is that the efforts that they were soliciting were rejected—that is quite clear.

Of course attached to the ministerial code are the seven principles of public life, the first of which is “selflessness”, where it states:

“Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.”

Today, we have had a number of sources state that the Prime Minister shouted in a rage that he would rather see the bodies piled high in their thousands than order a third lockdown. Does the Minister not accept that a Prime Minister who does not put public health first is no Prime Minister at all?

Let me deal with this. I was in the meeting that afternoon, with the Prime Minister and other Ministers, as we looked at what was happening with the virus and with the pandemic, and we were—[Interruption.] We were dealing with one of the most serious decisions that this Prime Minister and any Government have had to face. People have been pointing out, quite rightly, that tens of thousands of people were dying. The Prime Minister made a decision in that meeting to trigger a second lockdown. He made a subsequent decision to trigger a third lockdown. This is a Prime Minister who was in hospital himself, in intensive care. The idea that he would say any such thing, I find incredible. I was in that room. I never heard language of that kind and I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, by seeking to make the points in the way that he does, I think diverts attention from the fact that so many people who have been affected by this pandemic rely on the Government, the NHS and others to strain every sinew. These decisions are never easy, but the Government made the decision, and the Prime Minister made the decision, to have a second and third lockdown, and I think we can see the evidence of the leadership that he showed then, not just in the courage that he showed, but also in the success of the vaccination programme, from which people across this whole United Kingdom have benefited.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that people in glass houses should not throw stones? Does he also agree that there is an election next week and as the Labour party is behind in the polls, Labour Members have chosen to wheel out a mantra from 20 years ago that they thought worked then and perhaps works now? And if we are talking about wheeling out glass houses, may I mention the Member under criminal investigation for fraud, the Liverpool mayor arrested for fraud, and a past Labour Prime Minister who pocketed millions from advising big businesses and foreign Governments?

My hon. Friend makes an important point—that we all have a responsibility to learn lessons, learn from the past, do our best to make sure that we collectively maintain high standards in public life, acknowledge that there are human frailties in individuals who represent all the parties in this House and do our very best to learn from the past.

Does the Minister know the identity of the person who gave the Prime Minister the money to pay for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat? Either he does not know, in which case he should not be at the Dispatch Box saying there is no problem at all, or he does know, in which case he should just tell us what their name is. Can he do that now, please?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this UK Government are almost painfully transparent by any yardstick, and that while sessions such as this may be an inevitable part of the disinfecting oxygen of publicity, it is a bit rich for the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) to raise concerns when the SNP wants the UK to rejoin the EU, a body that has not had its audit signed off for decades?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Governments of all stripes can always do better, but I think it is fair to say that, over generations and across parties, there has been a determined effort by our Prime Ministers to do everything they can to make sure that our democracy stays healthy. Of course, Prime Ministers in the past have made mistakes, but I think it is important that we recognise that, overall, we can have confidence in institutions like this House of Commons to hold them to account.

The Minister has a specific duty to ensure transparency in Government through the Freedom of Information Act. Is he concerned that Transparency International last year identified nine unremedied breaches of the ministerial code? Why is information withheld in Government FOI responses more often than not? And is he still running his FOI clearing house to delay and filter FOI responses?

The freedom of information clearing house, sadly, is not mine. It was set up under a Labour Government, so it is a Blairite inheritance. What it exists to do is make sure that freedom of information responses are effectively co-ordinated and that we do everything we can in order to make sure that we comply with the terms of that legislation. But of course one point about the freedom of information legislation is that it needs to be a safe space for frank advice to be offered by officials to Ministers, and it is important for the good conduct of government that that safe space remains.

We need to get the system of regulation and accountability right. I echo the point made earlier by the Chair of the Liaison Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), that most of all we need a culture of values in public service to run through what Ministers, ex-Ministers and officials do. We will never write rules so perfect that people do not have to make judgments about who they see and what they do, but to shore that up, we really need a culture of transparency, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that the independent review into the Greensill affair will have full access to all the documents and all the decision makers involved?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point—two actually— about the importance of culture complementing rules, and also about the review being undertaken by Nigel Boardman, who will be given all the details he needs about any contact between individuals within Government and those acting on behalf of Greensill.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office says that he welcomes this urgent question today, and for once I believe him, because there is nothing he likes more than seeing the remaining shreds of the Prime Minister’s credibility for probity being blown into the wind. We know that he will look forward to an opportunity to finally get his own head down in that lavishly furnished apartment above No. 10 Downing Street, and that when we come to the next Conservative party leadership contest he will once again be persuaded to put his hat in the ring, but is he really saying that the way this Government have operated is acceptable and that this is really the way we should expect a Government to operate?

In the past 12 months, right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House have stood up and made sure that offers of support from local businesses have reached Ministers at the right time and in the right way, because that is how we have supported people across the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that ensuring that those offers got to the right place at the right time has been an important part of getting PPE, ventilators and vaccines to people across the United Kingdom when they needed them most?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government were operating—as all Governments were, to be fair—in difficult circumstances and with a clear demand that we do everything possible to source PPE. As has been pointed out, the overwhelming majority of the PPE was sourced in a way that was rigorous, so that the equipment was fit for purpose and those on the frontline could benefit.

I wonder, does the Secretary of State agree that a version of the ministerial code should apply to the leaders of new political parties who might possibly be receiving payments from the arms of overseas Governments who do not hold dear to their heart the best interests of the United Kingdom?

I do not want to embarrass the hon. Gentleman too much by saying that almost every time he asks a question or makes a point in the House of Commons, I think how lucky his constituents are to have him as their Member of Parliament. Even though we disagree on many issues, he puts his finger on an important point of public scrutiny at this time, as people decide how to cast their votes.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is only one party in this House that stands guilty of ignoring votes in a Parliament to which it is responsible, that withholds legal advice, that spends thousands of pounds trying to cover its back in a botched court case, and whose leader had been found guilty by a cross-party Committee of that Parliament of misleading that Parliament? It is not my party but the party of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who asked this urgent question today: the Scottish National party—the real cosy, sleekit cabal that is running Scotland today.

I could not put it better myself. The surprising thing is: where are the SNP MPs now? Some people might think that turning up, reading out a question and then leaving before the debate has concluded is the perfect definition of a cynical political stunt, but I will leave that for other people to decide.

The Minister is trying to say that there is absolutely nothing to see here over contracts for cronies, shady deals for decorating, text messages for tax breaks and peerages for donations. If that is the case, are not the public entitled to see this examined in a full, independent public inquiry? If not, what is he afraid of?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, there are a number of issues that might appropriately be the subject of a full, independent public inquiry—we can all think of appropriate issues—but I would say that, in response to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), I ran through the points about PPE and I explained why James Dyson had done so much to ensure that ventilators could be available to all. It is also the case, as I have mentioned to a number of Members, that an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is of course appropriate, but the important thing is that we should not pre-empt its findings.

In January 2020, the Government were a party to the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, which restored devolution to Northern Ireland. That agreement included a commitment to a panel of commissioners for ministerial standards. More recently, the Northern Ireland Assembly has given that role to the Assembly’s Commissioner for Standards. Why are the Government prepared to support that much more rigorous approach to ministerial standards in Stormont but not in Whitehall?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I applaud the cross-party working that Stormont has exhibited in ensuring that the Executive and Ministers work well. As I pointed out earlier, we hope that the independent adviser on ministerial standards will be appointed very shortly. There will then be an opportunity, of course—following on from a number of questions put by right hon. and hon. Members—to review what changes, if any, are needed in order to improve that role.

I have spent the last few days knocking on literally hundreds of doors across mid-Cornwall, as I am sure many Members have done in their own constituencies. The residents of St Austell and Newquay raised a number of important issues with me: the roll-out of the vaccine that is protecting them and their loved ones; the economic impact of the pandemic and what the Government are doing to ensure that we recover quickly; and the lifting of restrictions as we follow the road map that will enable them to see their loved ones again and get back to life as normal in the coming weeks. The one thing that nobody raised with me at all was the matter of the arrangements for refurbishing the Prime Minister’s flat. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Prime Minister and the Government will remain focused on the things that really matter to the people of this country, which is getting through the pandemic and getting back to life as normal as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend is spot on. Today I had meetings about the vaccine roll-out; ensuring that our justice system operates more quickly after the pandemic; ensuring that we can deal with the backlogs in the NHS as a result of elective operations having to be put aside because of the pandemic; and ensuring that the educational opportunities of our young people—again, scarred by the pandemic—are restored. I think—others may disagree—that those are all more important issues than curtains and soft furnishings, but I leave it to others to decide.

Dominic Cummings has described the Prime Minister’s plans to get Tory donors to pay for the lavish refurbishment of the Downing Street flat as “unethical, foolish and…illegal”. Either the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser is a liar and a fantasist, or the Prime Minister is not being entirely straightforward with the House or the country. Which is it?

The question today relates to the ministerial code and to Government Ministers, but has my right hon. Friend reflected on the fact that while the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) was asking her questions, a number of her own Front-Bench colleagues are under the direct employ of prominent and well-known lobbying companies? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to look at the ministerial code, we should also look at the rules governing shadow spokesmen?

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), the Minister made a virtue of the Prime Minister having paid for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. There have been several weeks of speculation about this and it was only last Friday that Downing Street confirmed that he had. Will the Minister clarify whether the Prime Minister paid the original invoices for this work, or did he reimburse the donors who allegedly donated money to this fund or to the Conservative party?

As I pointed out earlier, the Prime Minister paid for the renovation of the flat. All donations to the Prime Minister, to any other Member of Parliament, or indeed to political parties, will be declared appropriately and properly. Of course, the Cabinet Secretary also made clear in his hearing with the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs the background to this issue.

Does my right hon. Friend not find it ironic that the self-same people who are attacking the Government today for the process of procurement were attacking the Government just about a year ago for their slowness in achieving supplies of PPE and other equipment? Is it not right that the Government have moved heaven and earth and that Ministers and civil servants have worked literally through the night often to make sure that we get through this covid pandemic as safely as possible?

My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. It was the case, entirely legitimately and appropriately, that Opposition Members were criticising us for the slow procurement of PPE, and that the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) wrote to me to encourage us to go faster and made a number of suggestions about companies that we should follow up, which we did. Now the allegation is that, when political figures pressed us to procure PPE more quickly for those at the frontline, that was a mistake. Either Labour’s position last spring was wrong, or its position now is wrong; they both cannot be right.

May I conclude by wishing my hon. Friend a happy birthday? It is, I understand, a very significant date, but the Official Secrets Act forbids me from revealing how significant.

We all know that the delay in locking down the country in lockdown one, lockdown two and lockdown three led to a higher toll in both lives and livelihoods. What I do not think anyone expected was to read on the front page of the Daily Mail today that the Prime Minister had said:

“Let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”

The claim has been subsequently verified independently by other journalists. The Minister takes statements that he makes at the Dispatch Box more seriously than the Prime Minister does, so may I ask him again to be absolutely categorical that he has never heard the Prime Minister say those words, that the Prime Minister did not say those words, and that, prior to arriving in the House this afternoon, he received assurances from the Prime Minister that he did not use those words? Can he be absolutely clear, straightforward and honest about that?

Totally. As I pointed out earlier in response to the question from, I think, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), I had been in a meeting in the Cabinet Room with the Prime Minister. I would not ordinarily go into discussions that take place in Cabinet Committees, for reasons that the hon. Gentleman will well understand, but I never heard the Prime Minister say any such a thing. We were all wrestling with an incredibly difficult decision—the decision to lock down necessarily imposes costs in other ways, as we are all aware. The Prime Minister concluded at the end of our discussion, which was a sober, serious and detailed discussion, that it was necessary not only to have that second lockdown but, sadly, to have a third lockdown as well.

According to Opinium for The Observer, 53% of people in Scotland think that the Prime Minister is corrupt. Whether it is covid contracts for his cronies, peerages for his pals, or tax breaks over texts, the Prime Minister is leading a Government who are rotten to the core and fast losing public trust. Any healthy democracy must have leaders with credibility. Will the Minister do the right thing and ensure that a public inquiry happens and recognise that people in Scotland have a right to decide their own future—a future free from Tory sleaze and corruption that they did not vote for?

I think we are grateful for that party election broadcast. The most important thing to stress is that, on each of the detailed questions raised quite understandably by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), I explained the position and it is not as the SNP would wish it to be.

We have seen a growing divergence between what Ministers say in public and the true intentions that they share in private. The public deserves to know what the Prime Minister said to Manchester United’s Ed Woodward in a meeting before the European super league was announced, as it seems that the Prime Minister gave the impression that he supported the plans. Without full transparency, questions remain about the Prime Minister’s potential breach of the ministerial code and the Nolan principles. Can the Minister commit the Government to publish all details relating to that meeting?

It was clear from what the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said in the wake of the suggestion that there should be a European super league that they were wholly opposed to that venture. My understanding—I was not there at the time—is that the conversation with Ed Woodward of Manchester United related to the broader opening up of sporting events and what social distancing or other measures might be necessary to allow more of us to go back to football matches.

I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next item of business.

Sitting suspended.