(Urgent Question): To ask the Paymaster General if he will make a statement on the impartiality of the civil service in the light of the proposed appointment of the second permanent secretary to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition.
I can confirm that, following a media report the previous day, Sue Gray, formerly second permanent secretary to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and to the Cabinet Office, resigned from the civil service on Thursday 2 March. This resignation was accepted with immediate effect. On Friday 3 March, a statement from the Opposition announced that the Labour party had offered Sue Gray the role of chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition.
The House will recognise that this is an exceptional situation. It is unprecedented for a serving permanent secretary to resign to seek to take up a senior position working for the Leader of the Opposition. As hon. Members will expect, the Cabinet Office is looking into the circumstances leading up to Sue Gray’s resignation in order to update the relevant civil service leadership and Ministers of the facts. Subsequent to that, I will update the House appropriately.
By way of background, to inform hon. Members, there are four pertinent sets of rules and guidance for civil servants relating to this issue. First, under the civil service code, every civil servant is expected to uphold the civil service’s core values, which include impartiality. The code states that civil servants must
“act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of ministers”.
Secondly, rules apply when very senior civil servants wish to leave the service. Permanent secretaries are subject to the business appointments process that, for most senior leavers, is administered by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. ACOBA provides advice to the Prime Minister, who is the ultimate decision maker in cases involving the most senior civil servants. Once the Prime Minister agrees the conditions and the appointment is taken up, ACOBA publishes its letter to the applicant on its website.
The business appointment rules form part of a civil servant’s contract of employment. The rules state that approval must be obtained prior to a job offer being announced. The Cabinet Office has not, as yet, been informed that the relevant notification to ACOBA has been made.
Thirdly, civil servants must follow guidance on the declaration and management of outside interests. They are required, on an ongoing basis, to declare and manage any outside interests that may give rise to an actual or perceived conflict of interest. Finally, the directory of civil service guidance states:
“Contacts between senior civil servants and leading members of the Opposition parties…should…be cleared with…Ministers.”
Having set out the relevant rules, I finish by saying that, regardless of the details of this specific situation, I understand why Members of this House and eminent outside commentators have raised concerns. The impartiality and perceived impartiality of the civil service is constitutionally vital to the conduct of government. I am certain that all senior civil servants are acutely aware of the importance of maintaining impartiality. Ministers must be able to speak to their officials from a position of absolute trust, so it is the responsibility of everyone in this House to preserve and support the impartiality of the civil service.
To echo my right hon. Friend’s comments, many of us are surprised and, frankly, deeply disappointed about the particular circumstances that have emerged. This is not about the character or quality of Sue Gray. Having had the pleasure of working with her over a number of years, I can testify, along with many others, to those qualities.
This is, as my right hon. Friend said, about the fundamental trust that has to exist between impartial civil servants up to the highest level—and here we are dealing with a permanent secretary—and the Ministers they serve. That has been the position since at least the Northcote-Trevelyan report of the mid-19th century, and it must be the position in future, particularly if the Labour party is serious about wishing to achieve power. This Government are prepared to defend that impartiality, but the activities of the Leader of the Opposition might suggest that he is not prepared to defend that impartiality.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying the position on the application to ACOBA. Will he confirm that this appointment, if it is to be taken up, cannot be taken up before it is formally approved, following advice from that committee? Secondly, is it correct that the prevailing ACOBA advice for civil servants has a potential waiting period of between three months and two years? Thirdly, will a lobbying prohibition be imposed in this case? Finally, will a restriction on the passage of official information to the Labour party be imposed in this instance?
I say again that trust and impartiality are vital if this system of government is to work. I would hope that in this case those issues will be defended.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that. I share his disappointment; whatever the merits of the individual, I stress that it is critical that we all, on both sides of the House, do all we can to support the impartiality of the civil service. He asks about three points in particular. He asks whether there is a three-month to two-year period, and he is right. ACOBA also has the ability to recommend that no such appointment would be appropriate—it can go further—but there is a standard three-month waiting period in the contracts of employment for permanent secretaries. ACOBA generally goes up to two years but it can go further.
There is a lifetime requirement on all civil servants, which I know they take hugely seriously, to respect the confidentiality of the work they do. It is right that that is in place. Lastly, ACOBA is in an advisory position. I have not been impressed by the Labour party over this saga. I trust that the Labour party would indeed follow recommendations from ACOBA—unless Labour is going to cast even more doubt on its credibility.
I call the deputy leader of the Labour party.
I would like to thank Conservative Members for asking why a senior civil servant famed for their integrity and dedication to public service decided to join the party with a real plan for Britain rather than a tired-out, washed-up, sleaze-addicted Tory Government. This is the exceptional circumstance that the Minister spoke about. We are talking about a party so self-obsessed that it is using parliamentary time to indulge in the conspiracy theories of the former Prime Minister and his gang. What will Conservative Members ask for next? Will it be a Westminster Hall debate on the moon landings, a Bill on dredging Loch Ness or a public inquiry into whether the Earth is flat?
The biggest threat to the impartiality of the civil service is the Conservative party and its decade of debasing and demeaning standards in public life. Conservative Members talk about trust. This debate says more about the delusions of the modern Conservative party than it does about anything else. After this question, I will go back to my office to help people who are struggling with the cost of living crisis, getting an NHS dentist or—[Interruption.]
Order. I do not think it was a wise idea to carry on while I am standing up.
Thank you. May I just say that I expect everybody to be heard quietly, because I want to hear what is being said? This is too important for me not to be able to hear. When Members keep chuntering on, I cannot hear. I want the same respect to be shown to everybody who wishes to speak.
Thank you. Mr Speaker. As I was saying, after this question I will go back to my office to help people who are struggling with the cost of living, with getting an NHS dentist and with paying their energy bills. All of those things are the result of 13 years of this failed Conservative Administration. While they play games, we are getting on with tackling the real issues facing the country. When will they do the same?
Having heard from the right hon. Lady, I see that she has clearly been advised that attack is the best form of defence. I quite understand why the Opposition feel in need of some more advisers and some new advisers, given her tone today.
I understand the dilemma faced by the Leader of the Opposition. Having looked inside his tent, I understand why he is reaching so far outside of it. After so many rebrands, I appreciate why the right hon. Lady and the Leader of the Opposition require someone who can do joined up. However, the Labour party talks about rules, transparency and standards in public life, and given all that constant talk it is time that it walked the walk. I ask the right hon. Lady to go away and think: why are the Opposition refusing to publish when they met with Sue Gray; why are they being evasive; and why can they not tell us what they discussed, where they met, and how often they met? Their refusal to do so prompts the question: exactly what is Labour trying to hide?
Many across the House have noticed that the Leader of the Opposition has a tendency to claim a self-righteous monopoly on morals, but there are now serious questions as to whether Labour, by acting fast and loose, undermined the rules and the impartiality of the civil service. Labour Members must ask themselves why the Leader of the Opposition covertly met a senior civil servant and why those meetings were not declared. They believe that ACOBA rules should be tightened, but why were the current ones not followed? It is incumbent on everyone across the House to uphold and preserve the integrity and the perceived impartiality of the civil service.
This is about trust, Mr Speaker, and it is the Labour party that risks damaging that trust with an offer of appointment. However, the Opposition can help restore that trust. They can do the right thing: they can publish the list of meetings between themselves and Sue Gray; they can publish who attended those meetings; and they can publish when they started speaking to Sue Gray. There is nothing in the ACOBA rules that stops them doing so today.
I call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
May I say how heartened I am to see the Chamber so well-attended for a Cabinet Office urgent question on matters of constitutional propriety? It has not always been like that in here.
On a personal note, may I say that I consider this appointment to be somewhat ill-judged? I think that those who are of reasonable mind on all sides of this argument would accept that. Does my right hon. Friend share my confidence in our noble Friend Lord Pickles and his Committee, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, to discharge their functions correctly? I wonder also whether he has any more thoughts about making ACOBA rulings underpinned in statute. Finally, given the individual at the heart of this, it is important to ask whether he shares my concern that it is wrong to impugn an entire civil service for political bias, and that it is important that he asserts that from the Dispatch Box?
On my hon. Friend’s most important point, I absolutely back him up on the standards of the civil service. We are lucky and fortunate to have good people working throughout the civil service. I know that a large number of them will be very concerned by these events, because they know the critical importance of the bond of trust between a Minister and their most senior advisors. I totally respect the work of ACOBA and all members of the committee. I know that they will consider their processes, that they will go through this thoroughly, and that, in due course, the Prime Minister will receive their advice.
On my hon. Friend’s wider point, clearly, the Government have received recommendations from his own Committee, PACAC, from Sir Nigel Boardman, and from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The process of coming up with a Government response is well advanced, and I expect to share that with the House in due course.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
I am glad to hear the Minister talking about the hard work that the civil service does and being clear, in agreeing with his colleague the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), that Ministers and Secretaries of State would be nowhere were it not for the constant hard work of impartial civil servants. It is very important that the Minister talks to his Back-Bench colleagues and ensures that, in making statements about individuals, they are not tarring the entire civil service with some of the allegations that they are bringing forward.
I have asked repeatedly about anti-corruption champions, and while we are standing here talking about issues relating to breaches or potential breaches of the ministerial code, it is important that the Government get their house in order and ensure that we have an anti-corruption champion in place. Will the Minister therefore both talk to his Back-Bench colleagues to ensure that their language is moderated when talking about civil servants, and ensure that the ministerial code is adhered to so that we can be viewed in a better light internationally?
The anti-corruption strategy is run by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security; I know he works actively on that, and an anti-corruption champion will be appointed in due course. With deference to the hon. Lady’s position, I think that is a very different scenario from what we are talking about today. For a start, we are talking about the civil service code, not the ministerial code. However, I agree that we always need to support and not undermine the impartiality and the perceived impartiality of the civil service. That applies to all of us, including the Leader of the Opposition.
Is my right hon. Friend aware whether a contract, written or unwritten, has been entered into between the parties concerned? This important question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) raises questions not only of constitutional propriety and impartiality, but of confidentiality between the persons concerned. Furthermore, I would like to know whether there is any question of any involvement of taxpayers’ money in these arrangements, as part of the Short money that will be involved in the office of the Leader of the Opposition.
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I am in no position to know whether there is a contract, either oral or written, between Sue Gray and the Labour party. Nor am I in any position to judge how her putative post, if it were to go through, would be funded. Those are both questions that can only be answered by those on the Opposition side of the House, and it would be in the interest of transparency and clarity if they were to be cleared up, along with a timeline of events on when the meetings started, who took part and where they took place.
On the question of impartiality, Sue Gray has resigned, and I can assure the Minister that she was just as resolute in seeking to protect standards in public life and the ministerial code when I was a Minister as she has tried to be under this Conservative Government. Are not her professionalism and integrity just what Britain needs after the debasement of our standards in public life over the past 13 years?
I am deliberately not getting drawn into matters related to individuals, nor should I. I am happy to be drawn on whether there is a right way of making this kind of appointment. This is a totally unprecedented offer of appointment; at a permanent secretary level this has not, as far as I am aware, ever been undertaken before. It is important in those circumstances that the rules are followed appropriately. We are checking to make certain what exactly was the run-up to her resignation.
Many people may say that Ms Gray is a splendid woman —I understand she even fed the cats in the Cabinet Office—but does it not smash to pieces the idea of an independent civil service when we know that one of the most senior civil servants in the country was conniving in secret meetings with the party of Opposition? Does that not devalue years of advice and reports that she has given, her views on devolution, which were known constantly to be soft, and her report into my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), which we now know was done by a friend of the socialists? Does this not undermine all her previous work and the idea of an independent civil service?
Order. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that, as I said, I do not want anybody creeping into the report—[Interruption.] I know you were careful, but this is just a marker. I do not want this to be a creeping feast.
I have two points to make to my right hon. Friend. First, we need to make certain that this does not damage the impartiality—or the perception of impartiality—of the civil service as a whole. I am sure he would agree that that is incredibly important, and we need to ensure that it is retained. I am deeply worried that the approach made by the Labour party may serve to threaten that and put it at risk. We must not tarnish the whole civil service due to one appointment, but the Opposition are playing fast and loose with a set of rules designed to protect the impartiality of the civil service, which we all know is so constitutionally important for our country.
Here today we have Conservatives demanding that Labour observes the recommendations of ACOBA, when previous Conservative Chancellors and Foreign Secretaries bypassed the process before taking up appointments, and we have Labour stretching the process to breaking point by operating in the shadows. Is it time that we gave ACOBA some teeth?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is considering proposals made by PACAC, the Committee on Standards in Public Life and Sir Nigel Boardman about how we could improve the business appointments process. There is a lot of sympathy with the idea that we should look at those rules, and we will report to the House about how they could be amended or improved. It is an irony, though, that the Opposition have consistently called for those rules to be tightened when they do not seem to be quite aware—or may not be fully aware—of what the rules are today.
The civil service’s response to this issue amplifies and underscores, to the comfort of all of us, the importance that it attaches to its impartiality in serving Ministers of the Crown, irrespective of the colour under which they stand for election.
I will echo the growing theme, led ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg). For ACOBA to put the recommendation to the Prime Minister always puts the Prime Minister in an invidious position, but particularly in this case. If he says no, he looks churlish. If he says yes, he makes the civil service, which is already anxious about the attack on its impartiality, still more anxious. I urge the Minister to speed up the process of response to the suggestions that have been made about formalising the committee’s recommendations.
I have said what I said about the Government considering how the procedures for business appointments could be improved. I have a lot of faith in the ACOBA process, and in Lord Pickles and his committee. We look forward to him looking through this process. Sue Gray will put through her application—if that is a confidential process, I presume that it is happening—and the committee will need to take a decision on that basis and then provide advice.
The faux outrage and wild conspiracies from the Conservative party are kidding nobody. I remind the Minister of the words of a predecessor of his as Cabinet Office Minister, the noble Lord Maude, who said that he had worked with Sue Gray for five years and never had the
“slightest reason to question either her integrity or her political impartiality”.
He added that the Leader of the Opposition is
“fortunate to have secured her services”.
He is right, isn’t he?
The hon. Gentleman obviously knows faux outrage when he sees it; he has a long experience of seeing it, in the mirror. I am grateful to him for reminding me of the words of my predecessor as Minister for the Cabinet Office and, indeed, as the Member of Parliament for Horsham. I, too, have worked with Sue Gray. I have admired her advice and have had no reason to question her integrity. That does not mean, however, that this is the way we should conduct things in these circumstances. I am very disappointed in the actions of the Labour party. I am very disappointed in how this has come through, and there are real concerns about the impact that it may have on the perception of impartiality more broadly.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that on my appointment as a Minister, I, like many Members, was advised by Sue Gray on the steps that I needed to take in order to avoid any perception of a potential conflict of interest? Does he therefore understand why her appointment has caused such anger right across the civil service, as it undermines that very principle of the perception of conflict?
I do. My right hon. Friend is right to draw on the fact that many senior civil servants are troubled by this. They know the vital importance of the bond of trust between Ministers and civil servants, and anything that might serve to undermine that is not healthy and is not good for the way we do business.
Mr Speaker, we are experienced Members of this House, and I understand that very early on in your remarks, you rumbled what was going on in terms of the number of requests for this to be debated this afternoon. Is it not a fact that this is a shabby little manoeuvre from the shabbiest Government that I have seen in 40 years—[Interruption.] Rather than this being spontaneous, let me just say that I was walking over here with a respected Back Bencher from the Government side who said, “I’m not going over. They’ve been trying to get everyone here this morning. The Whips have set a five-line Whip.” [Interruption.] They don’t like it, Mr Speaker. The suggestion that the civil service is up in arms is nonsense. This comes from the Prime Minister and this shabby Government—[Interruption.]
Order. I am not sure there was a question, in which case we will move on.
The whole situation surrounding this appointment is quite extraordinary, and many will say that it is outrageous. Does my right hon. Friend agree that appointing such a senior and high-profile civil servant to this post under such circumstances is questionable, and does he agree that what is of deep concern is the timing of this appointment and when she was approached? Where meetings were held, the details must be published.
I believe that transparency would help. It is important that processes are followed, because this is an unprecedented appointment, and in those circumstances, it is not too much to ask for the details of the meetings to be published: who met whom, when, where, and what was discussed. To return to the points that have been raised, it is absolutely right that this is gone through, and that the Labour party publishes exactly what took place.
The impartiality of senior civil servants was called into question a long time ago during the Brexit debate and the events subsequent to that, but these negotiations obviously did not take place the morning after Sue Gray resigned—they have been going on for some time. I suppose the question for the House is this: what sensitive political issues was she involved in during those negotiations, and does the Minister agree that no amount of bluster from Opposition Front Benchers will ever hide the double standard of lecturing about accountability and transparency, while at the same time not being prepared to answer a straightforward question as to when they started talking to Sue Gray?
The right hon. Gentleman puts it rather well. It would be very simple to help put minds at rest by publishing the data, setting out when the meetings took place—who met whom, when and where. That will help reassure the House; it will not reassure the House completely, but at least there will be proper transparency and some more clarity.
This is about impartiality and trust, and it saddens me to see the deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who is in such a senior position, defending this in the way that she did. If the rules have not been followed and a lengthy period of time—that is, two years—has not elapsed, Sue Gray has had access to highly confidential and very personal information that she is in a very powerful position to use, not just with anyone but with the Opposition party, and with a general election looming.
My hon. Friend is correct. Clearly, Sue Gray has access to a lot of information, but that does not mean she would put that information to ill use. The ACOBA guidelines talk about sensitive information and how someone can avoid the perception that they have been put into a difficult position in those circumstances. ACOBA obviously has a job to do.
Which bond of trust or aspect of impartiality was broken when Sue Gray was a senior civil servant—the same Sue Gray who was praised by the Government as being almost the best thing since sliced bread? What is the problem or issue now?
We are conducting analysis to find out the facts that led up to the resignation of Sue Gray and to ensure they can be set out. It would help dispel concerns, worries and problems if the Labour party could simply set out the facts itself. There is no reason why it could not do that today.
The permanent secretary at the Department for Education recently highlighted the detail of the civil service code to all her staff. She said that
“if anybody receives contact from the Leader of the Opposition or a member of the Shadow Cabinet you should tell your Permanent Secretary right away”.
Is the Minister aware of when Sue Gray informed her permanent secretary of the initial discussion she held with the Labour party before announcing her resignation?
As I have said, there is work in progress to ensure that all the facts are identified, but I am not aware that there were any such discussions prior to Thursday last week.
Not that long ago, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments found that the former Member of Parliament for Aberconwy, a former Defence Minister, committed a clear breach of the ministerial code by not asking for ACOBA advice when taking up a position. Can the Minister remind us what actions were taken against the former Member for a breach that was described at the time as totally unacceptable? What was done?
The hon. Gentleman refers to a former Member of this House, a former Minister and a former member of the Conservative party—I think he had had the Whip withdrawn at that stage. I do not know what actions ACOBA took and I am not sure what actions it has available, because it is an advisory body. However, I think it behoves all of us who wish to respect the values of impartiality within the civil service and to respect the rules, to ensure that we follow them to the letter.
I think this is an important urgent question. Something about this desired appointment does not feel right to me. To echo the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who is no longer in his place, I do not think it passes the reasonable test, but we are where we are for now, although I expect there is a lot more to come on this. The Minister confirmed that the Cabinet Office is looking at the circumstances of the job offer. Can my hon. Friend say when we might expect that to be complete? Will he be asking Sue Gray herself, who has every interest in transparency, the “Who met whom, when and where” question?
We will be trying to wrap this up as soon as we can. I do not know how long it will take—hopefully it will be done shortly. It would ease that process if the Labour party would just come clean as to exactly what meetings took place. There is no reason why that should not be made public and why we should be not fully transparent—at least, no reason of which I am aware.
I do not know Sue Gray; I know her only by virtue of her reputation. I do weigh on the words of Lord Maude, which we heard just a moment ago, that she is a person of the utmost decency. I am aware of various civil servants who have joined this place as Members of Parliament on all sides. Therefore I am surprised really at the concern from Government Members, because this is a person of the utmost integrity. Given the high esteem in which she is held, why does the Minister think that the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) never considered appointing her?
As I said earlier, I am not trying to engage in a discussion about a particular individual. I have noted what my predecessor Lord Maude said. As I say, I have personal, direct experience of working with Sue Gray, and have no reason to question her integrity in any way, but this urgent question is about the process; we need to understand it. This is an unprecedented appointment of a permanent secretary to this position. When very senior civil servants choose to leave the service, it is incredibly important that everything is done appropriately. Analysis of that is being undertaken. We need to establish the facts, and it would help if the Labour party assisted us with that.
Does the Minister agree that if the shoe was on the other foot, the Labour party would be asking exactly the same questions? All that we have seen today from those on the Opposition Benches is rank hypocrisy. Does he also agree that the line put out by the Labour party that somehow the Leader of the Opposition’s most senior adviser and chief of staff would not have a role in a general election campaign is utterly ridiculous?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have attended a number of urgent questions in this House, and I have rarely seen the Opposition Benches as empty as they are today.
Why are this Government happy to attack civil servants through this urgent question, yet unwilling to pay them properly?
To be clear, we on the Government Benches have no desire or intention whatsoever to attack civil servants. We want to protect the impartiality of the civil service, and protect it from any shift in perception of its impartiality; and we want to hold the Opposition to account, and ask them to be a bit more transparent about their dealings.
The Leader of the Opposition was best friends with the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), but dumped him as soon as the latter lost the election. The Leader of the Opposition was pro a second referendum, but when Labour lost the election, he dumped that. He made 10 pledges in order to become Leader of the Opposition, and dumped them. There has been rebrand after rebrand. The Labour party clearly has a grubby deal going on behind the scenes. The Leader of the Opposition talked about integrity, openness and honesty. Why cannot he evaluate those three things, and tell us: who, where, when and why?
I very much agree that those questions need to be answered by Opposition Members.
I do not know how familiar the Minister is with Matthew 7:3-5:
“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”.
Contrary to what the Minister says, this move is not without precedent. Lord Sassoon was a senior civil servant on the same grade as Sue Gray. He resigned in the same month that Lehman Brothers collapsed, only to join George Osborne as his economic adviser three weeks later. In time, he became a Tory Government Minister. Will the Minister confirm that, and correct the record?
I regret to tell the hon. Gentleman that I cannot recall that appointment. There are other appointments that I can think of, but none where the individual concerned had such a prominent role in Government, and was at the centre of affairs in the Cabinet Office and, in this case, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I understand why people inside this House and outside want to ensure that processes have been followed correctly.
The damage has already been done. The Minister keeps telling us about the impact this will have on the civil service, but it has already had an impact. It might also be noted that Sue Gray was chairing the infected blood inquiry; many of us in this House have written to various Minister about that inquiry, to see if we can get answers. What is the status of that very necessary inquiry?
My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. Sue Gray was actually the sponsor of that inquiry inside the Cabinet Office, and I am looking forward to meeting members of the infected and affected community tomorrow. Sue Gray had an incredibly important role in corralling that across Government, and we will need to fill that post. I have not been able to do so to date, but that is a huge priority for me. It requires a lot of work and there are very serious stakes.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Does he accept that impartiality is not just a desirable quality, but an essential quality for any investigation? Does he believe that the test for impartiality was met in this case before any news of later jobs had emerged?
I do not want to prejudge the analysis of the facts. Clearly, ACOBA has to do its work and come to a conclusion. I am sorry to repeat myself to the hon. Gentleman, but more clarity as to what happened when would really help speed up that process.
I confess to feeling a little sorry for the deputy leader of the Labour party, because she has been sent here today to defend the indefensible. We have rules for a reason, and as has been rightly observed across the House, Sue Gray had knowledge not only of some of the most sensitive policy making, but of the legitimate personal interests of Ministers. It is for those very good reasons that we should abhor this decision. Can I agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of establishing the dates on which these meetings, which undoubtedly would have taken place over weeks if not months, took place? Can I also ask whether he will consider amending senior civil service contracts as well as the civil service code to prevent future such occurrences, because this strikes at the core of the integrity of the civil service?
I thank my right hon. Friend. Work is being undertaken at the moment to look at the conclusions we will draw from the work by Sir Nigel Boardman, PACAC and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and I would not wish to pre-empt any of those discussions. I do not know—I say this in all candour to my right hon. Friend—whether that has been considered, but there will be a further opportunity in this House, when we come forward with our proposed reforms in due course, for such matters to be raised.
Is it not ironic that Sue Gray was the head of the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team, and it is she who has put the civil service under a dark shadow—a shadow that need not have existed? Is it not also the case that this was therefore bad judgment by her, but also bad judgment by the Leader of the Opposition, who, when asked 10 times this morning to give more information about when the discussions began, evaded it 10 times?
I thank my hon. Friend. I think it may well have been a miscalculation by the Leader of the Opposition. He can do his best to rescue that by being fully open about the facts.
I start by saying that I have worked with many fantastic civil servants in my time as a Minister, and those relationships are built on trust. I have also had a very good working relationship with Sue Gray in the Cabinet Office. Does the Minister agree that this appointment by the Leader of the Opposition is politically naive? It is hard enough for Ministers not knowing which of their WhatsApp messages are going to be leaked to journalists by Members on their own side, but surely this appointment now places all civil servants working with Ministers in a very difficult position in terms of trust and impartiality.
I thank my right hon. Friend. When he says he had a good working relationship with Sue Gray, I know he speaks for many Ministers, me included, and I see other right hon. Friends nodding their heads in agreement with that phrase. However, that makes it all the more shocking that fast-and-loose approaches could be taken to the rules, it appears to me, and that that could therefore bring into doubt the really important relationships of trust that exist between Ministers and civil servants. As my right hon. Friend knows, this is so important for the way we do business, and I think people should think very carefully before they risk doing anything that might call that into question or jeopardise that incredibly important relationship.
I care very deeply about this place, and we have been plunged into a constitutional crisis. Members of this House, whether they are Ministers or not, need to be able to talk to senior civil servants without fear that that information is going to be used for party political purposes. This has done immense damage to the civil service and I do not know whether it will be able to recover, but it is not about Sue Gray; it is about the Leader of the Opposition. We would not be here today if he had not asked her to become his chief of staff. Does the excellent Minister agree that the person to be criticised here today is the Leader of the Opposition?
I concur. I fear that the Leader of the Opposition, in making this appointment, perhaps blundered in his approach and did not really realise or think through the consequences of someone right at the heart of Government being invited to take up a position in the heart of the Labour party, shifting from incredibly important ongoing work to then working in a more party political guise, which obviously has implications.
This latest grubby scandal from the Labour party has cast a dark stain on democracy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Leader of the Opposition should come out of hiding, come clean and publish the details of the meetings?
That would help. I have been pondering the earlier question about the efficacy of people moving from the civil service into party political roles. Clearly that cannot be deemed an impossibility, and many of us have benefited from time in the civil service before taking on political roles. But there are ways of doing this; that is what is so important, and it would be very helpful if the Labour party could transparently set out exactly what took place.
The House and the country should know that on 7 September 2019 I witnessed Sue Gray, then permanent secretary at the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland, discuss with a special adviser to the UK Cabinet Office how to exclude solutions other than high alignment with EU law and regulation from consideration by the Government in respect of Northern Ireland and the withdrawal agreement. A month later, the Government proposed the Northern Ireland protocol, which subjected Northern Ireland to EU law and regulation. Since then, Sue Gray has been the civil servant specifically responsible for advising on Union considerations in Government. It was reported this week that Sue Gray was present at the briefing of Cabinet Ministers on the Prime Minister’s Windsor framework, which, among other things, appears to confirm and embed the application of EU law and regulation in Northern Ireland—
No, sit down.
Do you want to go out? No, right. I pulled up a Member on the other side about this, because once you go on and on there must be a question. I hope there is a question now.
Sorry, sit down. You don’t judge me. You just lost it completely.
The only saving grace for colleagues in any honest, fair and unbiased investigation is the senior civil service. In the light of the appointment by the Labour leader of a senior civil servant who has been involved in many investigations of colleagues, does my right hon. Friend agree that if the process looks like a rotting, stinking fish, smells like a rotting, stinking fish and tastes like a rotting, stinking fish, chances are it is a rotten, stinking fish?
My hon. Friend has expressed his view in his own style. He knows me and will know that my style is to say I am going to await the conclusions that come out of the factual inquiry we are going through now—but he has made his point, as ever.
When I was a Minister at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities I will have had several conversations with Sue Gray on the basis of confidentiality and impartiality, so I am slightly unnerved to feel she may have simultaneously been having discussions with the Leader of the Opposition. Is the Minister able to tell us when the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), became aware of the negotiations between Sue Gray and the Leader of the Opposition?
My hon. Friend refers to conversations he had with Sue Gray, and says that he does not know whether Sue Gray was having conversations with others at the same time. I am not aware of anybody in Government being informed of those discussions before last Thursday, but that could easily be cleared up if the Labour party were just to publish the timeline this afternoon.
I believe in the integrity, diligence and value of our most unique civil service. All civil servants, as with everybody else, have a right to a political view, and they can exercise that privately at the ballot box. I want to put on record that I rigorously defended Sue Gray as she did her work on partygate last year. But in this case what is important is the job that has been left, the time in between, and the job that has subsequently been taken up. I do not need to make the House aware that the events of last year are not just dust that has settled; they are still hanging thick in the air. I am asking, on behalf—
No, you don’t finish; you’re finished now. When I stand up, that means you sit down. I hate to say it, but we have both been here a long time, and we should know the rules of the House. Now can we just have the question without going into the areas that I asked people not to venture into?
Yes. Thank you, Mr Speaker—my apologies. I am asking a question of the Minister, from the men and women on the normal Clapham omnibus: does this smell right?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is very succinct. We do need to get the facts out and to know exactly what took place. We are doing that work, and it would help if the Labour party were to assist us in that process.
The civil service code states that officials must retain the confidence of Ministers as to their political impartiality. Now that Sue Gray, with knowledge of the most sensitive details of Ministers, has agreed to work in a political capacity for the leader of the Labour party, how can the Government ensure that other Ministers are protected from political stitch-ups?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There are rules in place. As I have already said, there is a means by which civil servants who choose to leave the world of the civil service—and even take on political roles—can do so. It is just really important that we know, and that Ministers know, that the rules will be followed in those circumstances, and that we know that they have in this case. That is why we are looking at what took place, and the Labour party could help us with that.
Madam Deputy Speaker,
“The Labour Party has offered Sue Gray the role of chief of staff to the leader of the opposition.”
That statement was issued by the Labour party on Thursday 2 March 2023. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any reasonable person would call into question the impartiality of that person, as of 1 March and any day before?
My hon. Friend raises a fair question, but it is one that we need to explore, given the questions that we are now asking about the timeline towards the resignation of Sue Gray. As I have said repeatedly in this place, why can the Labour party not just tell us when the first meeting took place, and how long the meetings have been happening? It might have been a very short period of time, or it might have been much longer, but I think we would all be reassured to know. They can tell us this afternoon.
Regarding the timing of the approach, the Leader of the Opposition failed around 10 times this morning, on LBC, to answer the actual question. Listeners will be questioning whether “Mr Rules” missed the rules. I also note that today’s Daily Telegraph contains a piece from the constitutional expert Sir Vernon Bogdanor, who says:
“The issue is important, since, if the approach was made before publication, the hope of future employment might—even if only subconsciously—have influenced its content. So it would not be possible any longer to regard Sue Gray as an impartial investigator.”
Does the Minister agree that perceptions matter?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I, too, read the article by Sir Vernon Bogdanor. He raised interesting questions. It is why we are taking this issue so seriously. It is why we are exploring and want to get to the facts.
Not only is impartiality important; honesty is important. The Leader of the Opposition seemed a little foggy about dates today. It seems as if perhaps the dates are being scribbled on the back of a fag packet as we speak. If any dates are declared to the Minister, can we trust that they are accurate?
I understand that the Leader of the Opposition may be short of a chief of staff at the moment, but I am sure he has someone who keeps an eye on his diary. I am sure there is someone who could inform this House what the dates were, when the meetings took place, where they took place, and what was discussed and with whom. It is not too much to ask and it would help to clear this up. It would save the Leader of the Opposition the embarrassment of being asked about these things on repeated occasions and not being able to be clear.
Maintaining complete political impartiality is absolutely key to maintaining credibility within the civil service, so does my right hon. Friend agree that if even one meeting or one conversation took place between Sue Gray and the Labour party and the Leader of the Opposition in advance of her resignation about the job offer for such a hugely political job, surely Sue Gray’s political impartiality in her role in the civil service has to be brought into question?
I set out the rules in response to the urgent question. They are there in Hansard and people can read through them. There are protections in the rules to try to ensure that impartiality, and perceived impartiality, is not jeopardised. We will explore exactly what happened in these circumstances.
In the debate on standards in public life in June last year, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) complained to the deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), that Sue Gray had been asked to come before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, but that the request had been refused several times. The deputy leader of the Labour party replied that she agreed with the complaint and that it showed the then Prime Minister had “no regard for transparency”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the deputy leader of the Labour party should live up to the standards she was extolling then and be transparent with all the facts?
The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne says we should follow the process, and I agree with her. It is always important to follow the correct processes. I am sure that when the Labour party reveals all the data, as I am sure it will, we will be able to see whether the processes were followed.
In his response to the Sue Gray report on 25 May last year, the Leader of the Opposition said:
“I have been clear what leadership looks like... I have not broken any rules”.—[Official Report, 25 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 298.]
If he did not consult ACOBA before announcing this appointment, has he still not broken any rules?
I will conduct the analysis first and then I will be better informed as to exactly what took place, but as I say, this could be cleared up by the Labour party quite swiftly.
A woman of integrity and a self-proclaimed Mr Rules. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in refusing to publish the timeline of the meetings, they have trashed both of those reputations?
I think that is the case, sadly. I think it is, but it could easily be changed by simple publication.
I have already been contacted by the hard-working civil servants who work in my Jobcentre Plus in Maltby and Dinnington who were horrified to hear on LBC Radio this morning the Leader of the Opposition refuse to say 10 times when he was contacted first by Sue Gray in connection with a political job. Does the Minister agree that if any contact took place between her and the Leader of the Opposition or any member of the Labour party, it calls into question not only her current work and previous work, but, unfortunately, the impartiality of the whole civil service? We need to have the dates of the meetings now.
I respect the work of those hard-working civil servants in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Right across the civil service, there is an absolute desire to retain their reputation for impartiality, which they all live in their daily work. That is how they work and they are determined to work for Ministers with a relationship of trust. That is incredibly important. We are not asking much of the Labour party—just to produce that timeline of dates so that we can start to put this matter behind us, with greater transparency.
Does the Minister share my concern that the appointment severely weakens trust in our senior civil servants? The media have now shone a light on Sue Gray and her decisions, such as her appointment of an adviser who told all his Twitter followers to join the Labour party. To the public, this looks farcical. Does he agree that, as a result, only a full disclosure of meetings and conversations will suffice in this grubby affair?
The tragedy is that a public servant’s hard work over a long period of time is called into question, given the nature of the process that appears to have taken place. That is incredibly unfortunate, but the Labour party could help to fix that by being a bit transparent, very open and saying, “This is what actually took place; these are the dates; this is who met and this is where they were.”
This is nothing to do with Sue Gray—the lady could be our first living saint, for all I care—but it is about the roles that she had in government. I could not think of a more sensitive position than head of propriety and ethics, where Ministers need trust. It is not about my party, either—seven Labour MPs have been sentenced to jail over the past 10 years. If they had been in government, I think she would have been quite busy with them, too. It is about those on both sides of the House being able to trust Ministers. I have to agree with colleagues that the trust is already broken. We cannot now have a discussion with someone in that position and be sure that they will not cross over to the other side. Is it time to look at introducing regulations to ensure that this kind of thing cannot happen in such sensitive roles?
My hon. Friend closes this urgent question by noting that it is not necessarily about Sue Gray and her actions. She is a public servant who has, for many decades, worked hard at the heart of government. It shows a miscalculation and a misstep by the Leader of the Opposition. I can only assume that it was inadvertent—I have to hope that. This matter has caused more problems, because in some people’s minds it has called into question the perceived impartiality of the civil service. That was a misstep and a mistake; the Leader of the Opposition should accept that and set out transparently what happened and when, so that we can have absolute clarity on what took place.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
You may make a point of order if it is relevant to what has just taken place.
It is relevant—it is a point of clarification that I ask for. In response to my question, the Minister strongly implied that the reason that the former Conservative Member for Aberconwy lost the Conservative Whip was that he did not consult ACOBA. That is not the case. He lost the Conservative Whip because he voted against the Government on a Brexit vote.
I assume that the hon. Gentleman would like me to rule on something. Would he like the Minister to clarify his point of order?
You read my mind, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am happy to clarify. If that was the impression that I gave the hon. Gentleman, it was not my intention. The Conservative party took no disciplinary action in respect of that matter. It was a Brexit vote, as the hon. Gentleman will recall. I thank him for the opportunity to put that on the record.