I beg to move,
That this House
believes that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport should be referred to the Independent Adviser on Ministers’
Interests to investigate whether he breached paragraph 1.2c (giving accurate and truthful information to Parliament) and paragraph 3.3 (responsibility for his special adviser) of the Ministerial Code.
This debate takes place while the Leveson inquiry is doing its work, but I make it clear that the motion before the House is not about the issues that are the subject of the inquiry; today’s motion is about the rights of the House and the ministerial code, issues that Lord Justice Leveson made clear he is not going to consider and report on. Indeed, he cannot consider those matters, because article 9 of the Bill of Rights prevents him from so doing.
It was right to establish the Leveson inquiry. Its work is of huge importance and, after Lord Justice Leveson has reported, we will need to place great weight on his proposals and to give them deep consideration. We have, arising out of his inquiry, an historic opportunity to create a better settlement for the future, and I look forward to us all working together to achieve that, but that is not what the motion before us is about.
This debate is about protecting the rights of this House so that we can do the job we were elected to do—of holding Ministers to account and ensuring high standards in ministerial office, as set out in the ministerial code.
The ministerial code is not just a matter for the Prime Minister; it is a matter for this House. The motion before the House asks that the Secretary of State be referred to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, and nothing in Sir Alex Allan’s reply to the Prime Minister today changes that. There are two issues at stake here: misleading the House and failing to take responsibility for his special adviser.
“I do not believe that I could usefully add to the facts in the case”.
Does not that undermine the statements that the right hon. and learned Lady has just made?
The process is that where there is a prima facie case—where there are facts—it is for the independent adviser to look at those facts and to make a judgment about whether the ministerial code—
Will the hon. Gentleman just let me finish?
It is for the independent adviser to make a judgment on whether the ministerial code has been breached so that he can advise the Prime Minister on whether, in his view, there has been such a breach. That is due process. When there are facts out there that tend to indicate a breach of the code, the process is to have the independent adviser able not only to hear the argument from the person in respect of whom a breach has been alleged but to look at the facts that are out there. That is the process by which the Prime Minister can then make his decision.
It is very telling that the Prime Minister is doing everything he can to stop that process taking place. That is why—
Sir Alex Allan is described as the independent adviser. Is it not suspicious that the letter to him from the Prime Minister that the Prime Minister used to defend himself today at Prime Minister’s questions was dated
Order. Members on both sides of the House need to calm down. I always listen with great interest to the pronouncements of the Secretary of State for Education, but I say to him in all courtesy that his pronouncements from a sedentary position on matters for which he has no direct ministerial responsibility add nothing. I am not interested; I do not want to hear them. The right hon. Gentleman should sit silently and listen to the debate. If he feels unable to do that, he is welcome to depart the Chamber, and we will just about manage without him.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
In response to my hon. Friend Ian Lucas, I think that the exchange of letters from the Prime Minister is nothing more than an attempt to distract and provide a smokescreen, and we should not be distracted from the very important issues that are the subject of this motion: misleading the House and failing to take responsibility for a special adviser.
I will make a bit of progress, if I may, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
First, there is the obligation to give accurate and truthful information to the House. On
“that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
The seriousness that the House places on this is underlined by the resolution going on to say:
“Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”.
That is the wording of paragraph 1.2.c. of the ministerial code. This is not just some old-fashioned relic of House pomposity; it matters. I know that Members in all parts of the House regard—
I would think that it would be common agreement that the ministerial code is important, and I am, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, simply setting out what the ministerial code says. I cannot believe that he wants to take issue with my describing, at the outset of moving this motion, what the ministerial code says. I put it to the hon. Gentleman: does he, as a Back Bencher, believe that his rights as a Back Bencher are important and that Ministers should answer truthfully to this House?
I am grateful and flattered that the deputy leader of the Labour party should want to intervene on me while I am in a sedentary position. I would like to put to her the question about “knowingly” misleading the House. There is no suggestion whatever from any quarter that the Secretary of State ever knowingly misled this House.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to me, he would have heard me say that the ministerial code says that if there is an inadvertent error, it must be corrected at the earliest opportunity.
I will proceed, if I may.
Despite the interventions, I know that Members in all parts of the House regard the question of truth, accuracy and full disclosure to Parliament as fundamental. We cannot settle for anything less if we are to hold Ministers to account. Putting it at its very lowest, there is prima facie evidence that the Secretary of State failed to give accurate and truthful information to the House.
“all the documents relating to all the meetings—all the consultation documents, all the submissions we received, all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation.”—[Hansard, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 526.]
I have here the documents that he published on that day. Many of them, such as written ministerial statements, the European intervention notice and press releases from the European Commission, were already in the public domain.
But when the Murdochs came to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry, we discovered that all the exchanges had not been published. No: there had been literally hundreds of exchanges between the Secretary of State’s Department and News Corporation that he had not published. Over the course of many months, both when the bid was the responsibility of the Business Secretary and when it was his responsibility, there had been literally hundreds of exchanges—texts, e-mails, reports of phone calls—none of which had been disclosed to this House. So while on
There is a second occasion where there is prima facie evidence of the Secretary of State not being accurate and truthful to the House. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend Fiona O’Donnell during his statement to the House on
“made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business.”—[Hansard, 25 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 973.]
But it emerged during evidence to the Leveson inquiry that on
Order. It is up to the hon. Gentleman to show some sensitivity to the conventions of the House. He asked the right hon. and learned Lady to give way and the answer was no; he should not keep persisting at it. He can have another go later if he wants. [ Interruption. ] Order. I do not need any guidance from Anna Soubry, on the strength of her two years in the House, about correct parliamentary procedure. The hon. Lady is a very distinguished figure and a rising star, but I think I can probably just about get by without her assistance.
Asking the House to vote for a referral to the independent adviser is a serious matter. I am seeking to set out the facts on which I ask the House to make the judgment when it votes. That is why I am going through the facts.
No, I am not going to give way. I owe it to the House to set out the case that I am making, based on the facts.
It emerged during the evidence to the Leveson inquiry that on
Secondly, in relation to the Culture Secretary’s special adviser, special advisers have a political role and are appointed directly by the Secretary of State. That is why the ministerial code places responsibility for their management and conduct on the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State acknowledged this at the Leveson inquiry. It was put to him that the person responsible for Adam Smith’s discipline
“was you, not the Civil Service, wasn’t it?”
The Culture Secretary replied:
“Well, he reported to me, yes”,
and went on to say:
“I do have responsibility for what he does. I actually have responsibility for whatever everyone in my Department does, but I have more direct responsibility for the people who are my direct reports.”
Quite so. But at the very least there is prima facie evidence that the Secretary of State failed to take responsibility for the management and conduct of his special adviser—
I will not take interventions at this point, not because I am not prepared to debate, but because I need to set out to the House what the rules are and what our case is as to why those rules have been broken.
There is at the very least prima facie evidence that the Secretary of State failed to take responsibility for the management and conduct of his special adviser. Either he did not know what he was doing when his special adviser was overstepping the mark—and that was a breach of the code—or, as people think more likely, he did know what he was doing when Adam Smith was overstepping the mark, and that, too, would have been a breach of the code. Whichever way one looks at it, there has been a clear breach of the ministerial code.
All Members of the House agree on the importance of upholding the standards contained in the ministerial code. In their 2010 manifesto the Liberal Democrats made “cleaning up politics” one of their
“four steps to a fairer Britain”.
As Tim Farron said last night:
“There is clearly a case to answer and given that we are being asked to support the Prime Minister’s judgment call that there is a case to answer, we can’t in all honesty and integrity do that.”
“we must remember that we are not masters but servants. Though the British people have been disappointed in their politicians, they still expect the highest standards of conduct. We must not let them down.”
The ministerial code is important. It must be complied with. The House cannot let breaches of the code be swept under the carpet, so I strongly urge hon. Members in all parts of the House to reflect on this, support the rights of the House, reinforce the importance of the ministerial code and vote in support of the motion.
Order. The House must try to contain itself. [Interruption.] It is no good hon. Members groaning. Some Members are getting very over-excited. It is early in the day. There is a long time to go. I suggest that Members calm down.
At the heart of this debate are two allegations about the ministerial code, so let me address them straight away—first, the disgraceful allegation that I deliberately misled Parliament—[Interruption.] Do Opposition Members want to hear what I have to say about it, since they called the debate?
In response to a question on
I know that Ms Harman has found it difficult to read the volume of correspondence that I published. The content of the correspondence is what is important. If she read it, she would see that I have taken more trouble and published more information than probably any other Government have published in any previous bid. I made huge efforts to be transparent and she knows it perfectly well.
I will give way in a moment.
Paragraph 1.2.c of the ministerial code, to which the right hon. and learned Lady referred, is very clear. If Ministers make an inadvertent error, they should correct it at the earliest possible opportunity, which I did, not breaking the ministerial code, but acting in accordance with it. I have not very often had to correct things that I have said, but may I remind the right hon. and learned Lady that she had to correct the record in January 2010, May 2009, April 2009, July 2008, July 2007 and November 2003—one of many aspects of this job where she has much more experience than I do.
I have had to correct the record as well. There is no dishonour in correcting the record. However, what the Minister just referred to was his reply on
Order. [ Interruption.] Order. Let me say to the House that the substantive matter under consideration reflected in the terms of the motion is whether the House of Commons has been misled in any way. That is the thrust of the matter under debate and the Secretary of State is making a very clear defence of himself, so when Members cavil and inquire whether what we have heard is legitimate, I am guided by advice and I operate on the basis that there is a substantive motion, which is what the whole debate is about and in relation to which the Secretary of State is speaking.
In general terms, the normal principles of “Erskine May” about moderation and good humour apply, but I cannot preclude—[Interruption.] Order. I cannot preclude a Member operating in accordance with the terms of the motion. The Secretary of State—[Interruption.] Order. I require no assistance from the Immigration Minister. The Minister should sit, be calm and listen intently. If he does not want to do so, he can leave the Chamber.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not sure whether everyone heard correctly the allegation that was made by Chris Bryant. As I understood it, he accused my right hon. Friend of lying to Parliament. My understanding is that that is unparliamentary language and that it should be withdrawn. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
Members can shout as loudly or for as long as they like, but it will make no difference. I am simply saying that on the advice that I have taken, nothing disorderly has occurred. [ Interruption. ] Order, Mr Brennan. I simply ask the Secretary of State to continue with his case.
I appeal to Members to exercise restraint in the frequency—[ Interruption. ] Order. Members must exercise restraint in the frequency with which they intervene for the debate to continue in an orderly way and for there to be a reasonable opportunity for Members from both sides of the House to contribute.
The answer is no, it would not be legitimate to make such a charge against an individual Member who was not the subject of the motion under debate in the House. The hon. Member for Rhondda has said what he has said. I have explained why it may not be proper for him to say it. I know that, being as well behaved as he is, he will not persist.
With great respect to your office, Mr Speaker, I think that there is a huge difference between misleading Parliament inadvertently and lying.
Order. I appreciate the Secretary of State’s respect, but let me say to him explicitly and for the avoidance of doubt what I have just said. There is a motion. That motion is being debated. He will make his case, and I look forward to him continuing to do so. I will be the arbiter of order, and I know that he will leave that to me.
It is because I wish to make my case that I want to draw the House’s attention to the very important distinction between inadvertently misleading this House and lying. Lying implies that there is deliberate intent. Chris Bryant, who has made great play in the press of how he has suffered when inaccurate allegations about him have been bandied about in the press, would, I am sure, not want to associate himself with the comment he has made unless he has any evidence. I am happy to give way to him now if he will show me evidence of any occasion when I have misled Parliament deliberately.
This point is very pertinent, because I am here to respond to any allegations that the hon. Gentleman might make. If he is not prepared to come forward with evidence that I deliberately misled the House, I will have to assume that he does not have such evidence.
Perhaps I can give the Secretary of State the opportunity to answer one of the allegations. He told me that he had made no attempt to intervene while the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was dealing with this matter. Will he tell me, therefore, what the purpose was of his memo to the Prime Minister, if not to influence the outcome?
Good. The 2002 Act states that the responsibility for a quasi-judicial decision is that of the Business Secretary. The note that I sent to the Prime Minister made it very clear that I did not believe that it would be appropriate to make any intervention in a quasi-judicial decision, and that I would not seek to do so. That is what the note states. Members can select parts of the note and try to misrepresent them, but what I said was very clear and the Prime Minister read it out earlier at Prime Minister’s questions. I made no intervention seeking to influence the Business Secretary’s quasi-judicial decision.
I will make a little progress, then I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman.
The second allegation is over ministerial responsibility for my special adviser, as set out in paragraph 3.3 of the ministerial code. Adam Smith, my former special adviser, is someone of the highest integrity—[ Interruption. ] He is. However, he did engage in some contact with News Corporation that was inappropriate and he has resigned. Lessons will be learned about how to improve processes and to avoid that happening again. I did not know about or authorise—
If hon. Members will let me make my case, I can perhaps answer some of their questions.
I did not know about or authorise that contact, but in accordance with the ministerial code, I accepted full responsibility for it by making a statement to the House the day after the contact became apparent.
May I take the Secretary of State back to what he said a little earlier? He said that he was making no attempt to influence the quasi-judicial process because the Business Secretary was responsible for it at the time. However, his memo suggested a meeting with the Business Secretary. In what sense was that not an attempt to influence the process?
The memo, if the hon. Lady has read it, said that we should have a meeting that should not intrude on the quasi-judicial decision that the Business Secretary had to make. Something very significant, which she is forgetting about, is that no meeting happened. [ Interruption . ]
I want to address the second allegation, which relates to my responsibility for the actions of my special adviser. I took responsibility for those actions in my statement.
The question that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham has failed to answer is why it is a breach of the ministerial code when a Conservative special adviser behaves inappropriately, but not when a Labour special adviser does. Why is she calling for my resignation, when she did not call for that of the last Labour Prime Minister following the actions of Damian McBride or Charlie Whelan? Her inability to answer that question betrays her motives as being not about ministerial conduct, but about rank political opportunism. It may be that she holds Conservative Ministers to a higher standard of conduct than Labour Ministers because she believes that Conservative Ministers behave better than Labour Ministers. In that case, I would agree with her. I gently remind her that her position is not entirely consistent.
Like the Secretary of State, I was responsible for appointing a number of special advisers who worked for me. It is inconceivable to me that any one of my special advisers could have maintained contact of this volume with a major stakeholder without me, as the Secretary of State, being aware of it. How on earth can he explain his apparent case that he knew nothing about what was going on?
I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would explain why it is a breach of the code when a Conservative special adviser behaves inappropriately, but not when a Labour special adviser does, but he did not.
I want to get on to the substance of what the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham said. Parliament rightly holds Ministers to account, and I strongly defend the right of this House to do so. Since my answer to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw in September, as a result of our gathering evidence for the Leveson inquiry, more than 2,000 pages of paperwork relating to the BSkyB bid have been assembled and placed in the House Library. That shows that time after time I sought to supply the House with as much information as possible, far beyond what was required by the Enterprise Act 2002, and probably far more than for any previous deal. It shows that I not only followed legal advice but went beyond it, seeking and publishing independent and expert advice about every key decision—an approach that was confirmed by nearly six hours of testimony under oath from myself and others, including my permanent secretary, who said that I had deliberately reduced my own room to manipulate the process to vanishing point.
Indeed, the evidence shows that the real story of this bid was insistence by me at several key stages on decisions that News Corp did not consider to be in its interests—the involvement of independent regulators; the stopping of James Murdoch being chairman of the spun-off Sky News; the refusal to rush the process; the decision to consult not once but twice. This was not an easy process, nor was it ever likely to command popular support, but the decisions were taken fairly and my Department deserves enormous credit as a result.
This was clearly a very controversial issue, and I imagine that competitors of Murdoch and News International would have been watching hawk-like to see whether there was any opportunity of taking the Secretary of State to judicial review. At any point during the process, did anyone indicate that they wished to take the Secretary of State to judicial review on the procedures and process that he used?
I do believe that Adam Smith did some inappropriate things, and he has paid a heavy price for that. He used inappropriate language, but I do not believe that anything he did had any material impact on the impartiality of the decisions that I made.
I had the privilege of working alongside the Secretary of State in the same shadow ministerial team in the last Parliament, and I regard him as a man of the highest integrity and decency. I am reassured by the fact that he took independent advice at every stage of the procedure, even when he was not required to do so.
Let us be absolutely clear about what the Secretary of State seems to be saying. He is saying that he did not know what went on with the actions of his special adviser. Is he trying to tell the House that he is so incompetent that he did not know what his special adviser was doing?
No, I am saying that we knew that he had a role as one of a number of official points of contact in the process, and we knew that he was in contact with News Corporation, but we did not know about the volume and tone of that correspondence.
If I may say so, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham was brave to call an Opposition day debate on the topic of accuracy, because in the past few weeks that has not been her strong point. Let us look at a few of the things that she has said, and we will see who has been the more accurate. First, on
The right hon. and learned Lady’s next claim was that I went against Ofcom’s advice by not referring the bid to the Competition Commission. Wrong again. As she should now know, if she has read the evidence that she brandished, my first decision was to refer to the bid to the Competition Commission, but I then had a legal obligation to send News Corp a letter saying that I was minded to refer it, and then to consider undertakings offered in lieu of a referral. Had I not done that, I would have been going against legal advice. Her party wrote the Enterprise Act 2002, so she must be the first politician to call on someone to resign for following the law that her party itself wrote into statute.
Then there was the claim that I used my special adviser as a secret back channel throughout the bid. Wrong yet again. As the right hon. and learned Lady knows perfectly well, my special adviser was one of many official points of contact, which my permanent secretary was aware of and content with. Then she wanted to claim that I somehow authorised my special adviser’s behaviour when it was inappropriate. Unfortunately for her, after I released texts and e-mails between me and him, the evidence showed that she was wrong. Finally, there was the very serious claim that I misled Parliament, which I have dealt with.
Why has virtually every claim that the right hon. and learned Lady made been proved wrong? Because she did not even read the evidence before making her judgment.
No, I am going to make progress.
In fact, the right hon. and learned Lady called on me to resign just 23 minutes after the evidence was published. That was despite saying on the Marr show that she wanted to work on a cross-party basis. When it came down to it, the temptation to get a political scalp was just too strong, and brazen opportunism took the place of responsible politics. To try to dress up partisan advantage as concern for the rights of this House will disappoint many and fool none, and she should know better. Some may say that she has proved herself to be little better than the newspapers that she has so criticised.
I have spent six weeks being accountable for my actions and being proved right. The right hon. and learned Lady has spent six weeks cooking up allegations and being proved wrong. The Culture Secretary must be accountable to this House, but so too must she.
Order. I am grateful to the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] Order. Mr Campbell is an elder statesman in the House and should behave with the restraint expected of somebody who enjoys that soubriquet.
There is a lot of interest in the debate and several Members wish to be called. I hope it will be understood that there has to be a time limit. I wanted to see how much time was left before setting it. There will be an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches with immediate effect.
Justice must not only be done, but must manifestly be seen to be done—Lord Justice Hewart’s pronouncement is fundamental. It applies to our courts, and it should apply to Ministers acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. The integrity of a Minister’s decision-making process depends substantially on that process being accepted by those who observe it. That is especially so when the decision is one with a high public profile, and few processes have a higher public profile than this process has had.
Out there, people are saying to me that the Secretary of State has no credibility considering the integrity of the process that he followed. We know that he was in favour of the News International bid, and that from the outset he made proposals supporting its acquiring BSkyB. We have heard today, and he has confirmed from the Dispatch Box, that he was making representations to the Prime Minister to meet the Business Secretary. Will he intervene on me to say that he did not make such a representation? The reason he is not coming to the Dispatch Box to intervene is that he knows that he made that representation—a memo to the Prime Minister asking to meet the Business Secretary, which he should not have done. That was his evidence to the Leveson inquiry.
I will not give way at this point.
We know what the Secretary of State’s views were at the outset, and we know that the facts disclose that he is not an impartial Culture Secretary. We also know that he does not support the people who worked with him in carrying out his ministerial role. We know that he nominated Adam Smith to manage the relationship with News International. He did not, on the other hand, appoint anyone to manage the relationship with people opposed to the proposal, and the level of contact with opponents of the proposal was in no measure anywhere near that with News International.
This was a takeover, not an open share contest. There was no reason for the Secretary of State necessarily to have the same amount of regular contact through his special adviser from the person trying to make the takeover. It just does not happen that way. The hon. Gentleman should know that, as a business lawyer.
I am surprised that the hon. Lady, who is familiar with this matter, supports the fact that there was such huge contact between a special adviser appointed by the Secretary of State and the proponent of the bid. That was not appropriate and did not lead to the perception that the process was fair and impartial.
Is it not telling that the Secretary of State chose to involve a political appointment—a special adviser, who carries out a solely political function—in a quasi-judicial decision? I did a similar job in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which involved judging on competition policy. It is unthinkable that a political adviser would be called in unless there were political motives.
I, too, was a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and I have no recollection or knowledge of a special adviser behaving in that way. I suggest that the special adviser was appointed because the Secretary of State had an agenda to take forward the bid and ensure it went through. The right hon. Gentleman’s conduct after he was given the quasi-judicial role—when the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills had it taken away from him—was designed to present himself as acting fairly, but everyone knows that his agenda was to get the bid through. It is in his texts and actions. All has been revealed.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport is not seen as independent and did not act impartially in the process. He will not be trusted in future to act impartially in any decisions he makes. He therefore should not be in office. He has no credibility. If he goes away from the Chamber and thinks about what has happened in the past hour, he will recognise that. If he has any dignity, when he looks at himself in his shaving mirror he will accept that he should not be in post.
As the Leader of the Opposition said today, it is not the Secretary of State who is on trial, but the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has undermined the independent adviser on ministerial interests by his conduct. We heard a classic example of that today. Purely for partisan political purposes, the Prime Minister wrote to Sir Alex Allan, and received a response the same day—
It was orchestrated—no doubt there was communication between the independent adviser’s office and the Prime Minister’s office.
The Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box that the letter exonerated the Secretary of State, which is not true. The letter says that an investigation would take the matter no further so far as the facts were concerned, but that is not the job of the independent adviser. His job is to make a judgment based on the facts presented to him, which, the letter goes on to say, he is willing to do.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Public Administration Committee unanimously decided that Sir Alex Allan was not fit for the job after merely a pre-appointment hearing? We asked him what he would do if the Prime Minister behaved in this way, and he said he would relinquish his post. Has he not proved that he is a poodle, and not the rottweiler that should be doing that job?
I was aware of that—indeed, I was coming to the Committee’s report, which questions the independence of Sir Alex Allan. I have had no previous dealings with him, but the partisan use of his office by the Prime Minister—this morning and at the Dispatch Box as a shield at Question Time—undermines him.
The Prime Minister used Sir Alex Allan at the Dispatch Box for political advantage. He has used Baroness Warsi for political advantage by referring her to the independent adviser. He is using his colleagues to defend his position. We saw his behaviour again today, when he insulted my hon. Friend Steve Rotheram. It is a disgrace that Conservative Members support such contemptible behaviour by the Prime Minister—[ Interruption. ]
Order. The hon. Gentleman has made a number of references to the Prime Minister, which I took to be in passing, but the conduct of the Prime Minister is not the subject of debate—[ Interruption .] Order. There is not a substantive motion on that matter, so I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman will re-orientate his remarks to matters that fall within the terms of the motion.
The subject of the debate is the conduct of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. He knows he does not have the confidence of the country or the Chamber. He cannot carry out his important role. He is not impartial, he is not perceived to be impartial, and he should go.
It is not that long since I spoke in the Chamber on the subject of individuals misleading Parliament, so I am in no doubt about the seriousness of that charge. I do not question the right of the Opposition to table the motion, but I have listened carefully to the Secretary of State and commend him for the way in which he has responded to each individual accusation and for his conduct over the past few months, which cannot have been easy.
Some have suggested that the Secretary of State should not have had a view about the bid by News Corp to acquire all of BSkyB, but one of his first responsibilities is to be the sponsoring Minister for the media industry of this country. It would have been utterly extraordinary if he did not have a view. BSkyB is one of the most important media companies in the country and plays a vital part in the future of the media: of course he would have a view about it.
Not only was the Secretary of State entitled to have a view, but I believe he held the correct view. Had the bid gone through, it would have had good implications for the survival of newspapers in this country. He was not responsible for that matter at the time; it was a quasi-judicial matter for the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.
I understand the argument the hon. Gentleman makes. The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport should have a view, but was he not put in a difficult position by the Prime Minister when the problem with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills occurred? Was he not an inappropriate and wrong person to put in charge of that process?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport was put in a difficult position because he was given responsibility after expressing a view, but I do not agree that he was the wrong person to be given that responsibility. This was such an important matter that almost anybody given the responsibility would have had a view. The important thing is that, having been given the responsibility, he put aside his view and judged the matter clearly and solely on the advice he received. That was precisely what he did.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has been made clear that the decision to pass responsibility to my right hon. Friend was made after he had indicated that he was on record expressing a view on the merits of the bid before he was given that responsibility.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something for me? When the Cabinet Secretary took the view on the suitability of the Secretary of State, had the Cabinet Secretary been made aware of the memo from the Secretary of State to the Prime Minister proposing a joint meeting with the Business Secretary on this matter? It would be surprising if he had not been told that by either the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Once responsibility was passed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he followed the advice that was given at every stage. Had the bid gone through as a result of his following the advice he was given, BSkyB would now have been subject to stronger safeguards against political interference than it is thanks to the fact that the bid did not go through.
I shall be disappointed if our coalition partners do not support the Government on this occasion. I hope that having heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State they might still do so later.
I want to make one or two comments about possible lessons from this affair that we should perhaps consider in the future, the first of which concerns the role of special advisers. I, too, was once a special adviser in the Department of Trade and Industry at a time of Conservative government in the late ’80s. I was a political adviser and I did not participate in discussions about competition policy as it was felt that political advisers were there to provide political input and it could not be clear what political input would be legitimate in a competition case. The role of special advisers has changed over the past 10 or 15 years and I must say to Ms Harman that it was the previous Labour Government who changed the role of special advisers and gave them far more influence and power than they previously had. We need to reconsider that.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that three former special advisers to this Government gave evidence to a Select Committee of this House yesterday. They were asked whether it would have been possible for them to communicate with lobbyists in a Minister’s office. They all treated with derision the suggestion that a special adviser could communicate 500 times with an outside body without the knowledge of the Minister.
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I am not sure that political advisers to the previous Government are likely to have given the most objective evidence commenting on the performance of the Secretary of State.
I believe that there is a serious concern about the role that special advisers undertake, and perhaps that could be considered further. The other matter that perhaps deserves some consideration is the fact that the Secretary of State has advanced an interesting argument that in order to take issues such as News Corp’s BSkyB bid out of the political arena, they should be given to Ofcom and the Competition Commission to consider without the involvement of politicians. There are pros and cons, but I certainly understand the argument. Perhaps the same applies in this instance. I do not think the debate is assisting the process, and the question of whether a Minister’s conduct is in breach of the ministerial code and merits investigation should perhaps be a matter for the adviser to decide. Perhaps there is a case for the independent adviser to be given that power, but I hope that will be considered further. I know that the Public Administration Committee is also considering the matter. Perhaps that should be one of the matters to come out of this debate for the future.
Finally, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham wrote to me a few weeks ago to ask whether the Select Committee would look into this matter. It has been very thoroughly considered by Lord Justice Leveson, who was able to obtain information and question witnesses under oath using a QC, which the independent adviser certainly would not have been able to do and the Select Committee might not have been able to do. However, if questions remain at the end of this I hope that the Secretary of State will appear before the Select Committee, as he does every year to answer and account for his performance as Secretary of State responsible for his Department. I have no doubt that my colleagues from both the Opposition Benches and the Government Benches will take the opportunity, if they have questions, to ask him them at that time. That is an appropriate mechanism by which Parliament holds not just this Secretary of State but all Ministers to account.
It is not just one Minister who is being accused here, and not just the Government. The whole of politics is on trial. When the Prime Minister came to office, he came in with fine words about how the Government intended to be
“Transparent about what we do and how we do it. Determined to act in the national interest, above improper influence. Mindful of our duty. Above all, grateful for our chance to change our country.”
He has changed the country, but not for the better.
The ministerial code was introduced in its current form in 2007. There was one case serious enough to demand investigation, involving Shahid Malik, and that investigation took place. I remember no call for an investigation into the case that has been cited involving a number of e-mails that were certainly improper. There was no investigation into the case of the former Defence Secretary. That matter was of enormous seriousness, because he had a man who was paid by groups in other countries and he was not investigated.
The hon. Gentleman talks about “enormous seriousness”. I do not know what the public make of this, but we are voting on a matter to do with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is extremely honourable. This House has never voted on the insane levels of immigration or the death of our troops in Afghanistan. This is bonkers; it is student politics.
I will decide what is in order and what is not. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his advice and I am sure that Paul Flynn is developing his points in order to come on to that subject.
The point is the ministerial code and how it has been degraded by this Government and this Prime Minister. In the last Parliament and in this Parliament, the Public Administration Committee has thought that there should be an independent adviser who has the right to decide what he wants to investigate. If the Prime Minister is alleged to have broken the ministerial code, who will advise the independent adviser to investigate him? That advice is a function of the Public Administration Committee. There was no investigation of a far less serious complaint about the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who failed to register an interest when he had a meal provided by a lobbyist on the excuse that that day he was eating with his private stomach, not his ministerial stomach. That was a matter for the ministerial code as it was a clear breach. The matter before us is the third breach that has taken place.
We should consider our position. We have just escaped from the screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal. Our standing in the country is no higher than it was two years ago and if the Prime Minister continues to ignore a major reform—which the ministerial code was—and use it to defend his own political position, we will sink further into the perception of sleaze as seen by the country.
The noxious stink of hypocrisy holds sway in this debate. It is unbelievable that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues can compare an honest, genuine lapse of judgment by the special adviser to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State with the systematic, malicious and vindictive character assassination by Damian McBride on the family of the
I challenge anyone on the Government Benches to cite any example of anyone claiming that that incident should have been referred under the ministerial code. I have been interested in these matters for a good decade and there was no such claim. There was a case, and it was investigated. The ministerial code was used by the previous Labour Government. It has been abused three times by this Government when strong cases have come up.
We have another reform that has not been implemented by the Government. The Prime Minister made an impassioned plea on lobbying, saying that he was going to have a new lobbying code—because, as a former lobbyist, he understood it. We do not yet have a code. The one that has been put forward is lame and weak, and it would actually weaken the system. The Government have failed in their prime task—and the prime task of all us—which is to escape from the shame of the last two years, for which all of us were responsible. Many Members left the House, with their careers in ruins, and some suffered greatly, including many who were not guilty—collateral damage. I have just concluded a biography of one former Member who lost his life because of the effect of that scandal on his health.
The shame still lies on this House. The perception outside is that politics is debased and that we do not tell the truth or obey a moral code. I appeal to all Members not to see this as one of the usual tribal votes when we go into the Lobbies—[ Interruption. ] I cite the contributions that I made on the Public Administration Committee in this Parliament and the last, when I was as severe a critic of my own Government as I am of the excesses of this Government. This is a matter of honour for hon. Members here today.
I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their position. This is not a question of winning a vote tonight—that does not matter. But it matters whether we stand up for the House of Commons reforms and whether we respect the reforms that have taken place. The ministerial code has been abused. Sir Alex Allan was put in place. The Committee examined him and questioned him, and unanimously—with a Conservative majority on the Committee—said that this man is not fit for this office. We communicated that to the Government and nothing was done. Elizabeth Filkin was regarded as a strong Rottweiler, and she was replaced by Sir Philip Mawer, who was regarded as not so strong, but he resigned because he was not called in to investigate what took place with Adam Werritty, which was a matter of great importance. Adam Werritty called himself an adviser, but he was paid by people outside and attended a ministerial meeting. What happened was absolution by resignation. He was allowed to resign before the country knew the full facts of what went on. What possibly happened was that his advice—his seat at the table—might have brought us closer to a war with Iran. I appeal to all hon. Members to treat this matter seriously—[ Interruption. ] If Members are not aware of this, it is because the investigation was carried out by Gus O’Donnell to get it over in a few days rather than having a full, legitimate investigation. That investigation was itself a breach of the ministerial code.
If we are to increase respect for ourselves in society, we have to subject every Minister to examination by someone who is genuinely independent. If the Prime Minister breaks the ministerial code, we need an independent investigator to decide, of his own volition, whether to investigate. Now we have a poodle who has been instructed by the Prime Minister—
It was not a named Member, but we should be careful with language because we are in danger of reheating the Chamber, and that is what we do not wish to do—because we all want to hear each other’s speeches.
I apologise to the harmless and beautiful dogs to which I referred for any offence caused by their association with the people involved.
Yesterday, three former special advisers to Conservative Ministers were asked whether it would have been possible, in their posts as special advisers, to communicate 500 times with anybody without their Minister knowing. They laughed. The Secretary of State’s excuse is implausible and no one can believe that what went on happened without the Minister’s consent or knowledge. This is where he falls. The Conservatives have forgotten the lesson of the Mellor scandal: a resignation delayed is a disgrace multiplied. The Minister will regret the fact that he did not resign and that he did not submit his own case to the independent adviser for examination. Hanging on in this way will not help his career. He has erred and he should go.
Several months ago, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made it absolutely clear, for reasons of transparency and public confidence, that if—following the appearance at Leveson by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport—questions remained to be answered, those questions should be thoroughly and adequately investigated. We believe that questions do remain to be thoroughly investigated, but let me be very clear about those questions.
The Liberal Democrats are clear that the way in which the Secretary of State handled the BSkyB bid, notwithstanding his known support for News Corporation and News International, was done absolutely by the book. Throughout, the Secretary of State, notwithstanding his own views on the matter, sought independent advice when he did not have to do so from Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading, and he followed that advice. The one thing that has rarely been mentioned in this Chamber and outside is what decision the Secretary of State ultimately took. That decision was not in the interests of News Corporation because it denied it the level of involvement in Sky News that it then had and actually reduced its plurality position in news and current affairs. We therefore have no questions about how the Secretary of State handled that matter.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to elaborate, I shall answer that very question.
Nevertheless, as I said a few seconds ago, I believe, and the Deputy Prime Minister believes, that there are questions, in particular about the ministerial code, that deserve thorough, independent investigation. We believe, as does the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, that there is an urgent need to review the current procedure. It is probably inappropriate for the Prime Minister alone to be the sole judge of whether an independent investigation should take place. We believe it ought to be possible either for the special adviser to make the decision himself, or for it to be made on the advice of a senior civil servant or the Public Administration Committee. However, this decision was taken under the current rules by the Prime Minister against the advice offered by the Deputy Prime Minister and without consultation with him. It is therefore one that neither the Deputy Prime Minister nor the Liberal Democrats can endorse.
Considering that the so-called independent adviser on ministerial interests was actually a wheeze set up by a previous Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to get out of a pickle, will my right hon. Friend ask the Labour Front-Bench team whether they would reform the system, which clearly is not fit for purpose?
The right hon. Gentleman earlier praised the process that the Secretary of State adopted in taking forward the bid. Has he read the memo that the Culture Secretary sent to the Prime Minister before he was in charge of the bid which makes it absolutely clear that what he intended and hoped to achieve was, surprisingly, exactly the same as what he actually achieved—in other words, the best possible outcome, in law, for Sky?
Order. Mr Bryant, you hope to catch my eye, and I was thinking of calling you next. I am sure that you will want to share all your information with the House then, rather than wasting it on interventions.
We and the Deputy Prime Minister are clear that questions need to be answered. It would have been better had the matter been addressed by the independent adviser, but that is not the system we currently have, which is the system that we would like to change. I want to make it clear, however, that this is not, as some have suggested, an issue of collective responsibility. There was not a collective decision on this. It is not part of the coalition agreement but was a decision taken solely by the Prime Minister, and in no way will our vote, or absence of votes tonight, preclude us from continuing to work with our coalition partners on the issues agreed in the coalition agreement and in sorting out the economic mess in which the previous Government have left us.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that if the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills had not acted irresponsibly and unprofessionally in the first place, thus losing the right to make this important decision, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, who was previously unprepared to take such a decision, would not have been put in this difficult position?
I also want to make it absolutely clear why the Liberal Democrats are not prepared to go into the Lobby with the Labour party today. The House is well aware that this is not a decision for the House; it is a decision for the Prime Minister, and he has made his decision. This is, therefore, a political ruse by the Labour party, whose behaviour on these issues is frankly appalling. For example, paragraph 9.3 of the ministerial code states:
“Every effort should be made to avoid leaving significant announcements to the last day before a recess.”
The Secretary of State is a nice man. He is courteous; he is polite; that is not in doubt—but that is not the matter in hand today. It is also perfectly understandable that on certain occasions the House is misled. It is not uncommon for a Minister to say something in the honest belief that what he is saying is true, and for it to turn out not to be true—a distinction that he himself made. That is why there is a means of correcting the record. I did that myself quite recently. I believe that the House sees no dishonour in correcting the record—indeed, quite the reverse: it enhances somebody’s reputation.
The issue, therefore, is the deliberate misleading of Parliament and the requirement, in the words of the code,
“that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
Evidence of not complying with the code can be drawn from the fact that the misinformation provided was emphatic rather than tentative, was repeated, was not corrected when fuller information was available or was calculated to deceive for political advantage. I believe that there is prima facie evidence that all these things apply to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport.
Some facts are not in dispute. First, the Secretary of State was a strong supporter of Sky in general and the bid in particular. Indeed, he wrote to tell the Prime Minister so, he texted James Murdoch so on the very day he was given control of the bid, and he told me so in September 2010. Secondly, James Murdoch knew what the Secretary of State was going to say before Parliament did. Thirdly, Fred Michel is not a clairvoyant; he was given privileged information directly by Adam Smith, the special adviser to the Secretary of State, quite possibly breaking the law. This was not just on one occasion; it was repeated time and again—hundreds of texts, dozens of e-mails and who knows how many phone calls of which we have not yet been informed.
Fourthly, the Secretary of State doubts that
“there’s a minister who worked more closely with a special adviser than I worked with Adam Smith”— closer than DEFRA special adviser Osborne worked with Douglas Hogg and closer than Treasury special adviser Cameron worked with Norman Lamont. Yet the Secretary of State expects us to believe that he had no idea what his special adviser was up to; no idea that he was colluding with Sky in a way that would have led to an expensive judicial review, which the taxpayer would have had to pay for if the bid had not been scuppered by the phone-hacking revelations. He has been hanging out with News International so much that he even expects us to accept the “one rogue reporter” defence that News International deployed, long after it knew that it was a lie in relation to hacking.
Let me just correct the hon. Gentleman. It is standard practice for my Department, and indeed other Departments, to let companies know if there is a statement being made in Parliament about them in advance of that statement being made, and that is exactly what Adam Smith was doing, and it was proper that he should do so—I believe in every situation, but we are still looking through the evidence very carefully. Secondly, if, as the hon. Gentleman says, I had a plan—some grand scheme—that was going to deliver BSkyB to News Corp, why would I say that I was going to ask for the opinion of independent regulators, whose advice I have absolutely no control over, and that I was going to publish it at the same time as I published my decision? The reason I did that was because I was setting aside the views I had prior to the bid taking place, and that has been vindicated by every single page of the evidence.
I am sorry, but I simply do not believe the Secretary of State, because I believe that he secured precisely the outcome that he wanted to achieve—or that he wanted the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to achieve—and that is exactly what he put in the memo to the Prime Minister before he took over the bid. Secondly, in relation to providing information, what is key about—
Order. Let us get back to a sensible debate and let us have a little more courtesy from the Front Benches on both sides.
I will give way again to the Secretary of State in a moment, but I just want to answer the point about providing information to Sky before it was available to this House. Yes, there are certain circumstances where that option is available to a Secretary of State, but not normally before the markets have opened, not when it can be used for commercial advantage for that organisation and not when people on the other side of the bid have been treated in a completely different way. That is why I think the Financial Services Authority may still want to investigate.
I just want to understand: is the hon. Gentleman actually saying that the independent advice that I received from Ofcom and the OFT was not, in fact, independent? If I ask for independent advice, what that means is that I do not know what it is going to say. Unless I have very good reason, I am likely to follow that advice. That could not possibly be the actions of someone who was trying to achieve a specific outcome.
I am afraid that the issue is the way in which the back channel was organised through the Secretary of State’s special adviser, Adam Smith, of whom the right hon. Gentleman has said there has never been a closer working relationship between a Minister and a special adviser—and we are meant to believe that the information this person was providing to Sky was not material—and the process whereby all the e-mails that were provided made it absolutely clear what was in the Secretary of State’s mind and how he was trying to secure that outcome.
That brings me to the central charges: first, that the Secretary of State deliberately misled Parliament. He told Parliament in March 2011 that he had published
“all the documents relating to all the meetings—all the consultation documents, all the submissions we received, all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation.”—[Hansard, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 526.]
That was a very, very emphatic statement, which clearly had not been verified, because then, on
“A search for correspondence from officials, press officers and special advisers to and from all the individuals listed would incur disproportionate cost to collect.”—[Hansard, 7 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 616.]
He did not choose to correct the previous statement. He chose not to reveal that he had texted James Murdoch himself and had sent a memo to the Prime Minister. Far from exonerating the Secretary of State, the answer he provided on
On that point, is it not a further requirement of the ministerial code that the Secretary of State should be as open as possible with Parliament? His conduct in this matter, and in the instance that my hon. Friend has mentioned, is clearly an example of his not being as open as possible with Parliament.
This House has regularly excoriated Ministers when they have resorted too swiftly to the argument that it is too expensive to provide the full information, but to be honest, I cannot see how it could have been too expensive to have found the memo that the Secretary of State wrote to the Prime Minister—or, for that matter, the text messages that the Secretary of State sent to the people concerned.
There are some other facts to be dealt with. The deliberate nature of the misinformation is also evidenced by the Secretary of State’s response, following his statement in April this year, to questions from two Back Benchers—both doubtless inspired directly by the Whips, as was the question posed earlier by Alun Cairns. When one Back Bencher—helped, I am sure—asked him how many conversations he had had, meaning how many with News International and News Corporation, the Secretary of State said, quite categorically and emphatically, “zero”. When another Back Bencher—a Conservative Member; this did not come out of the blue—asked whether the Secretary of State recognised the conversations attributed to him by Fred Michel, he said:
“I do not. Throughout the bid process, when I got responsibility for it, the contact that I had with Fred Michel was only at official meetings that were minuted with other people present. The fact is that there is a whole pile of e-mails—54 in total—in which he talks about having contact with me, but that simply did not happen.”—[Hansard, 25 April 2012; Vol. 961, c. 543.]
Neither response was unpremeditated; they were deliberately placed on the record. Both are deliberate obfuscations and lies.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to mislead the House, so let me just tell him that in both cases the question I was asked—one was from my hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi and the other was from my hon. Friend Richard Graham—referred to the 54 e-mails that Fred Michel wrote in which he talked about conversations with “JH”. In both cases I confirmed that no such conversations with me had happened.
The proof that those claims were untrue is that there was un-minuted contact when the Secretary of State had control of the bid—twice on
The Secretary of State has always protested that, once in charge of the bid, he operated impartially. Yet despite being directly advised on
“Just been called by James M. His lawyers are meeting now and saying it calls into question legitimacy of whole process from beginning.”
It is absolutely clear that the Secretary of State had a conversation that he had been advised he should not have, precisely and in terms. He was colluding with News Corporation, and to deny it again today is yet another way of misleading the House.
It has often been said by the Prime Minister that all these issues have been dealt with by Leveson, but the Leveson inquiry, because of article IX of the Bill of Rights, has absolutely no power; indeed, it is legally barred from questioning or impeaching any proceeding in Parliament. That is why not a single question was posed about any of these matters to the Secretary of State and why there has to be a reference to the independent adviser.
I end with these few words:
“this is a shabby, shabby business”.
The first thing I would say to the House about this debate is that it represents a failure of government and a failure of our politics. The exchanges that have just taken place between Chris Bryant and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is showing extraordinary forbearance under immense pressure, demonstrate that this is not the forum, the place or the way to resolve these issues. It should never be necessary for such a motion to be tabled.
Earlier this year, the Public Administration Committee, which I chair, again made the recommendation that would render motions such as this redundant. Our report, entitled “The Prime Minister’s adviser on Ministers’ interests: independent or not?”, was published on
Our principal recommendation, as has already been advertised by Paul Flynn, is that the independent adviser should be empowered to instigate his own investigations. There is nothing radical about that. Our predecessor Committee made the same recommendation in the last Parliament, and I would say to my Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Newport West, that although he might be tribal, and although he might be excoriating about this Government, he is completely consistent, because he was just as excoriating about the previous Government. Our predecessor Committee, on which he served, made the same recommendation.
That is exactly how other regulators work, and it is how our own Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards operates. He would command little public confidence if he could not instigate his own investigations. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended the same thing for the Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial interests, on more than one occasion. The mystery is why these recommendations have not been implemented, and why the previous Labour Government did not accept them. The Opposition are now proposing this motion precisely because their Government refused to implement them.
I am pleased to serve under my hon. Friend’s chairmanship on the Public Administration Committee. Does he agree that this would be a great opportunity for all three party leaders to commit to fulfilling our Committee’s recommendations, and to agreeing that the independent adviser—who is not currently independent—should clearly be able to instigate his own investigations? Does my hon. Friend believe that we could get such a commitment from all three party leaders today?
I would very much like that. This is not a difficult recommendation for the Government to accept. No legislation is required. The Prime Minister could simply accept it and implement it.
We are still waiting for the Government’s response to our report. The previous Government declined to take up the recommendation, explaining that
“it must ultimately be for the Prime Minister to account to Parliament for his decisions and actions in relation to the appointment of his Ministers”.
So the Opposition have no one but themselves to blame for the fact that they have had to table this motion today.
Why would it be desirable for the independent adviser to decide what to investigate without waiting for a referral from the Prime Minister? The expectation that that should be the case is generated by the official job title. It is hard to see how any adviser on Ministers’ interests can be deemed to be independent if he is unable to investigate prima facie breaches of the ministerial code without the permission of the Prime Minister. It is only his independence from Government that can provide the necessary assurance that Ministers, including the Prime Minister, will be held objectively and impartially to the standards of the ministerial code. If we deprive him of his independence by depriving him of his initiative, we remove the assurance that we want the public to have.
Above all, it is surely beneficial for Prime Ministers to be absolved of the invidious duty of deciding whether or not to refer potential breaches to the independent adviser. With that responsibility comes a great deal of controversy and public opprobrium. A Prime Minister is damned if he does and damned if he does not. Either he condemns his colleague by referring him, placing him under immediate pressure to resign, or he condemns himself, because it looks as though he is protecting someone from proper scrutiny. I wonder whether, if the Prime Minister had referred this matter to the independent adviser immediately, the Secretary of State would already have been investigated for any breach of the ministerial code by now, and exonerated. This situation places the Secretary of State in an invidious position.
I am following my hon. Friend’s argument carefully. Does he agree that the Opposition cannot have it both ways? They cannot spend weeks running around saying that Sir Alex Allan should investigate this matter, and then, when he says that he cannot add any more, say that he is not really independent and should not investigate the matter anyway.
I will come to that point. It is ironic that the hon. Member for Newport West describes Sir Alex Allan as a poodle. That is not what we said in our report, incidentally. We were concerned about the manner of his appointment, and about whether it was appropriate for a recently retired civil servant to take that role, because he would not be seen as independent. We did not say that he was not fit to fulfil the role.
May I recommend that the hon. Gentleman re-read the report, and especially the minority report that I wrote, which I commend to him for its literary qualities alone? The report that was agreed by the majority of the Committee stated that Sir Alex Allan
“was unsuited to this role because he did not convince us that he would be able to demonstrate the independence the post requires.”
In more vigorous language, that means that he is not a rottweiler but a poodle.
Those are the hon. Gentleman’s words, but the Committee went on to say:
“In fairness, it is unlikely that many retiring civil servants will have had the opportunity to demonstrate the necessary independence from Government in their career to date.”
I think that that places the right emphasis on the matter. If the role is to be seen to be independent, the manner of the appointment needs to be different and it would help to have someone who had demonstrated independence in their career to date.
That would be a matter for the independent adviser, not the Prime Minister, to decide.
At the start of the present Parliament, the Committee resolved not to inquire into individual cases. Accordingly, we have made no judgment of any of the evidence on the conduct of the Secretary of State, which others in the House seem to have done. It is therefore not for me to say whether the Prime Minister should refer the Secretary of State to the independent adviser. It is highly unlikely that there are many right hon. or hon. Members who take a disinterested view of the evidence. Indeed, some of those named on the motion have already called for the Secretary of State’s resignation; they have already made up their minds. I put it to the House that this is effectively a vote of confidence in the Minister, rather than a decision of the House whether or not to refer.
That is precisely why it should be for the independent adviser himself to decide whether to investigate. That would take the decision out of the political arena and place it firmly in the hands of a person who is impartial in these matters. That is the basis of everything I have said on this matter. I have never made a judgment about the merits or otherwise of the case in question.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not.
Now that Sir Alex Allan himself has said that the Leveson inquiry’s probing and taking evidence under oath means that he does not believe that he could usefully add to the facts in this case, I personally wonder why the Opposition are persisting with the motion.
This does not absolve the Government from addressing many awkward questions. I have too many remarks for the time available, but they concern matters that the Government might not want to hear about, including the role and function of special advisers. I am happy to inform my hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale that the Public Administration Committee had already embarked on an inquiry into this subject before the resignation of Adam Smith, which served only to intensify the debate about numbers of special advisers, about what they are really there for, about whether the new code of conduct for special advisers is effective, and about how special advisers should be held accountable for what they do, and to whom. Under the Blair Administration, the role of special advisers was changed. Happily, it has now changed back, but this has done something to change the terms of trade for special advisers in government, and Whitehall is still adapting to that change. Our inquiry is exploring that matter.
There are further questions to which we still need answers. Whom did Adam Smith really believe he was serving in his role as go-between? Was it his Secretary of State, who is nominally responsible for the conduct of special advisers under the ministerial code? Or was it “the government as a whole”? That is a phrase I use advisedly, because the code was changed under the new Government, and all special advisers now serve “the government as a whole”. Has that phrase subtly changed the accountability of SpAds so that they are now no longer clear about to whom they are ultimately accountable?
What is the role of the permanent secretary in the supervision of the conduct of a special adviser, who is, after all, still a civil servant? I would even go so far as to ask—perhaps controversially—whether the top of the civil service has lost some of the self-confidence and authority that in yesteryear might have seen a permanent secretary act more decisively in such a situation. I hope that we will never again see a special adviser fired from his job for doing what he believed to be the right thing, simply because he had been left in ignorance of the boundaries of conduct that he should have observed.
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, Mr Jenkin. I think that his last remarks should be heard by the Secretary of State, who, at the very least, must conclude that there was a gross dereliction of duty in his failure to supervise and properly manage his special adviser on an issue that was not a minor matter for his Department but an £8 billion takeover at the centre of the media dominating our country. It is inconceivable that the Secretary of State was able, as he claims, to allow his special adviser to operate in such a way without ever knowing what was going on. That alone should be cause for him to consider his position.
Secondly, let us deal with this idea, compounded by the Prime Minister today, that Sir Alex Allan’s letter in any way vindicates the Prime Minister’s decision not to send this matter to the independent adviser. The question is not the facts, but the judgment that should be made on the facts. That can be done only by Sir Alex Allan. The case of Baroness Warsi has been referred to him, and the Prime Minister did not suggest today that there were any unknown facts in her case; he wanted the independent adviser’s view on her conduct. That is all Labour Members are asking for in this case—and not a single argument has been given for resisting it.
Many of the facts are known, but I want to concentrate on the part that briefly involved me personally in the saga. As shadow Business Secretary, I was preparing—until the previous Business Secretary was caught declaring war on Murdoch—to shadow this procedure. When the decision was taken to refer it to the Culture Secretary, I wrote to Sir Gus O’Donnell on
As is now well known, Sir Gus replied to me on
“I am satisfied that those statements do not amount to a pre-judgement of the case in question”.
That seems pretty clear, and that was the judgment made at the time. The judgment has been relied upon by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State on countless occasions since to justify the Secretary of State’s being asked to exercise that role. It is now clear, is it not, that Sir Gus O’Donnell did not have available to him or his lawyers all the evidence that he might have considered about the suitability or the impartiality of the Secretary of State? Not only that, as the Culture Secretary and the Prime Minister, who relied on Sir Gus’s advice, actively, knowingly and deliberately kept the Cabinet Secretary in the dark about what had been going on between them in respect of matters that were at the very least entirely relevant to whether this Secretary of State was a suitable person to conduct this process.
I would indeed welcome an intervention that told the House why neither the Secretary of State nor the Prime Minister thought it appropriate to tell the Cabinet Secretary of the existence of the November memo to the Prime Minister. The Culture Secretary should have gone to the Cabinet Secretary and said: “This is relevant to your decision as to whether I am a suitable person”. Why did the Secretary of State not make that available?
That is not a point of order for the Chair. We must use temperate language throughout this debate. That would be incredibly useful for its tone. We also need to be aware that the winding-up speeches will commence at around 3.45 pm, so it would helpful if we focused on the subject matter of the debate.
It must, shall we say, have occurred to the Secretary of State that the Cabinet Secretary did not know of his memo. It must certainly have occurred to the Prime Minister that the Cabinet Secretary could not possibly have had the chance to consider that memo before he wrote the letter. Thus, from
I need to make some progress.
What do we now know about the conduct of the Secretary of State? On
As other Members have said, there were two key parts to the memo sent to the Prime Minister. The first lets us know in no unambiguous terms of the Secretary of State’s support for the merger proceeding and his belief that if it were blocked, our media sector would suffer for years. Secondly, however, and of equal significance, it proposed a meeting between the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Business Secretary and the Culture Secretary himself
“to discuss the policy issues that are thrown up as a result.”
In the light of the legal advice given to the Secretary of State on
The previous sentence referred to the procedural processes. [Interruption.] Let me acknowledge that the memo refers to the proper procedures, but I will make this point to the House. The Secretary of State seems to be under the impression that if only he litters his memos and letters with the occasional reference to proper procedure, he can behave in a way that is entirely improper and outside the procedure. The sentence about proper procedure to which the hon. Gentleman wants me to refer is totally invalidated by the following sentence, which effectively says, “Let’s do something completely improper”—have a meeting involving the Business Secretary. The Secretary of State, of all people, should have had no discussions with any Minister, the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister, because he was meant to be acting in a quasi-judicial manner.
My final point is about the relevance of the motion. I believe that the Secretary of State’s and, indeed, the Prime Minister’s actions in concealing this memo are an absolute disgrace, placing the advice that the Cabinet Secretary was able to give us in a very bad light. They failed to correct that; they failed to go to the Cabinet Secretary to say, “You should know about his memo.” What is more, and it is directly relevant to the motion, when the Culture Secretary had the opportunity to put the record straight on
I am greatly saddened by the motion. I think that it is a terrible shame that it reflects the naked political opportunism that we are seeing on the Opposition Benches.
I have the greatest respect for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I believe that ever since he was given responsibility for this process he has done exactly the right thing, and I am not aware that any evidence has been presented—although opinions, beliefs and smears have been presented today—suggesting that he did anything otherwise. I believe that engaging in this heated debate in the terms that have been expressed will do nothing but continue to drag politics into the mud, and that is something that should worry us all—an opinion that I share with Paul Flynn, who is no longer present, although I rarely share his opinions.
I have listened carefully to the arguments advanced on both sides. Let us cut through all the political point-scoring, spin and hype. The crucial question, to which the hon. Lady has referred, is whether, during the period in which the Secretary of State had responsibility and a quasi-judicial role, he acted in a proper way in carrying out his duty. Unless there is hard evidence to the contrary, that should determine how we vote this afternoon.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, and given what he has said, I hope that he will join us in the Lobby and oppose this shameful motion.
All sorts of claims have been thrown out about improper behaviour, but for the public outside, the reality is that News Corp still has only a 39% shareholding in BSkyB. If, as Opposition Members have suggested, there was collusion and an agenda, surely the process would have been completed some time ago. The reality is very different: the reality is that the Enterprise Act 2002 was followed properly, and representations were made in line with the law. Opposition Members may talk about perceptions, but the law must be followed. I am absolutely confident that by taking independent advice and, indeed, going further than he needed to, my right hon. Friend showed that he was setting aside his own view that this could be the right thing for our media. He set that view aside when he took on his responsibility, and nothing has been said today that suggests anything to the contrary.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend has ever heard the expression “Don’t let the facts spoil a good story”, but I think that it is about as appropriate a phrase that there could possibly be to describe what is happening today. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are entering the deepest realms of conspiracy theory?
I agree with my hon. Friend. This has been an extraordinary time. While I understand the politics of the Opposition, I wish that they would focus on the real issues that are affecting the country today, such as the economy and foreign affairs in, for instance, Syria. The Leader of the Opposition made no reference to those matters earlier.
There might be rather more positive feeling in the Chamber if the last Government had acted in any way that suggested that the ministerial code was being followed. Let me clarify that. I am not criticising the last Prime Minister for not referring himself to the ministerial adviser or resigning on matters affecting his own advisers which led to their being sacked or having to resign, and I think that the Opposition should extend the same courtesy to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He trusted his special adviser strongly and has the highest regard for him—I have no reason to doubt that—but, again, things did not go well. The gentleman resigned, and my right hon. Friend acted honourably in accepting the resignation and making it clear that that behaviour was not appropriate.
Although I have taken two interventions, I do not wish to extend my speech unnecessarily, because I know that many other Members wish to speak. I will be voting against the motion because of its naked political opportunism, and because no evidence has been presented suggesting that my right hon. Friend acted in any way against the law, or the spirit of the law. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and BSkyB is still independent of News Corp’s ownership. Many frustrations were experienced along the way, which led to some of the excessive lobbying that we have seen. I encourage every Member to reject the motion out of hand.
We are having this debate because it presents the only opportunity that the Opposition will have to try to get to the bottom of this matter. It is no good Government Members’ saying that it was wrong for us to table the motion. I agree with the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, Mr Jenkin. Perhaps when we were in government we should have taken the opportunity to do exactly what he suggested and appoint an independent adviser, someone who could have helped the Secretary of State in his present predicament—for it is a predicament. As my right hon. Friend Mr Denham pointed out, the debate is clearly divisive in terms of the issues that we want to raise with each other, but we have not had an opportunity to question the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary in the Department about some of those issues.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the Secretary of State has given a very good account of himself twice in this place, and that on both occasions there were ample opportunities to question him? Moreover, he appeared before the Leveson inquiry for more than six hours under oath and was forensically examined, and not a shred of further contrary evidence emerged as a result. As a lawyer with some 23 years’ experience who has been listening carefully to the debate today, I fail to see what will be gained from the launching of a third inquiry, apart from blatant party political opportunism on the part of some of those in the Chamber.
I do not accept that. I am not a lawyer, but I have had 18 years’ experience in the House of Commons, and I recall similar situations in which, unfortunately—and I mean unfortunately—Ministers have been put in the stressful position of having to defend themselves. Again unfortunately, on occasion over the years they have not been able to defend themselves, and have gone.
What was necessary on this occasion was the opportunity for an independent adviser to examine the Secretary of State’s actions. I understood from his responses that he firmly believes that he has done nothing wrong, and he is entitled to that belief, but questions are being asked by colleagues on all sides. Indeed, Mr Foster has said that the coalition partners feel that there are questions to be answered.
Surely the Secretary of State must understand the depth of feeling among Opposition Members about some of the processes that took place. Certainly I, as a former Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, could not believe that the special adviser had been given so much power to act in the way that he did. During our time in government, we dealt with the sale of the Tote and with the issue of the “crown jewels” —the question of what should and should not be televised. We received clear briefings from the permanent secretary about what our legal responsibilities were and about what we could not do.
When the Secretary of State made his statement some months ago, I asked him why the political adviser had been given the role of backstop or contact with News International. As I said earlier to Mr Whittingdale, the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, given all the furore surrounding the issue and, in particular, the actions of the Business Secretary, the Secretary of State put himself in a terrible position—or was put in that position by the Prime Minister—in relation to the Department’s roles.
When we asked why the permanent secretary supported this action, the Secretary of State said that the permanent secretary had been “content”. The meaning of the word “content” is open to question. When the permanent secretary went to the Public Accounts Committee, he refused to answer questions on the issue. He has gone before the Leveson inquiry, but I can tell Mrs Grant that none of the pertinent questions relating to this issue were asked at the inquiry. Where can parliamentarians get the opportunity to ask the questions that needed to be asked?
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I know that he has considerable ministerial experience. He has made the point, properly, that when quasi-judicial procedures are adopted, Ministers must act very carefully within guidelines. Where is the hard evidence that this Secretary of State did not act in accordance with the careful strictures of the quasi-judicial procedure? It is all very well talking about feelings, but where is the evidence?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen raised that point in his questions to the Secretary of State. He also raised the issue of the relationship between the Secretary of State and the special adviser. I am beginning to support the ideas of the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee. If an independent adviser had had an opportunity to see that there was a problem—because it was a problem raised by Members in all parts of the House—that person could have investigated further. That was not the situation. I ask Members of all parties to consider how the public see this matter in relation to the wider issues. The press have taken a view, but how do the public get to find out what has taken place?
I have been a strong supporter of this House over many years, and believe we should be able to inquire about things through our Select Committee processes and so forth. As a Minister, I was happy to appear before Select Committees. There is an untold story here, however, and until it is told, with the opportunity for questioning, we will never know what happened. That is a terrible position for the Secretary of State to be in. I respect him and have had good dealings with him over many years, but I think he has been left in a vulnerable position by the Prime Minister, because an independent person has not at least had an opportunity to ascertain the facts, after which the Prime Minister can make a decision.
The Secretary of State was not asked any pertinent questions at the Leveson inquiry about the issues we are raising today.
On the subject of Leveson, we will have to wait and see the conclusions, but we all hope it makes recommendations that we can all support. The cost of that inquiry is also in the public mind, however. The Prime Minister put it across that Leveson would deal with this issue, but Leveson himself has said he could not deal with it for the reasons we heard earlier. I think it would have been cleaner and more appropriate for the ministerial code to have been employed. We have all argued for that code over the years, and having a story unfold under that code can be a protection for Ministers, not just a means to hold them to account. That has not happened, however. Questions remain unanswered, and as long as that remains the case the Secretary of State will continue to be in a difficult situation.
I agree with Mr Sutcliffe that this is an important issue that should be debated, and the Opposition should have an opportunity to raise it on the Floor of the House, but we have heard nothing new today—nothing that has not been covered many times before. With respect, I say to my right hon. Friend Mr Foster that I did not hear what the pertinent extra questions that the Secretary of State must answer were; I did not learn what outstanding issues have not yet been covered. We have gone around in circles on all the old issues. That is why it was right for Sir Alex Allan to say there was nothing more he could add because what more was there to say after the six hours of evidence at the Leveson inquiry and all the previous opportunities for questioning on the Floor of the House?
A lot has been made of the memo that the Secretary of State sent to the Prime Minister. It was sent at a time when the Secretary of State had no idea that he would be asked to be involved in this process. The memo rightly deals with media policy and a recommendation about that any decision not to allow the bid to go forward should be taken on grounds of media plurality and not as a result of lobbying from outside organisations which may be open to judicial review. That was a perfectly proper point of view, and perfectly reasonable advice of the sort that a Culture Secretary might give to a Prime Minister.
Earlier, I asked Mr Denham to read out the sentence in which the Secretary of State says:
“It would be totally wrong for the Government to get involved in a competition issue which has to be decided at arm’s length.”
Could the Secretary of State have been any clearer about his views on the process and how it should be followed by members of the Government? We should see his final sentence—his request for a meeting—in the context of that remark. There may well be some broader issues about media policy that it would be perfectly appropriate for the Culture Secretary and the Business Secretary to discuss with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister—issues that were not at all specific to the merger deal that was on the table. The significance of this memo has been blown out of all proportion.
Let us turn to the guidance that the Secretary of State received. I have not heard any Member question the method by which he sought outside independent advice during the course of his deliberations on this matter, or challenge whether he asked for more information than he needed or ask questions about publishing all the advice on the record so everyone could see it—something no Secretary of State had done before in a similar situation. No one has questioned that, so I challenge the notion that Ian Lucas touched on at the beginning of the debate: that this process was always flawed and the Secretary of State was always prejudiced in his view, because there is absolutely no evidence of that at all. There is no evidence that the Secretary of State did anything other than follow the independent advice and undertake his legal obligations as Secretary of State through the process. No Member today has challenged him on the substance of what he did.
Let us consider what the Leader of the Opposition said at the Leveson inquiry yesterday. He was asked what his view was on how this process may be changed for the future—about what we can learn from what has happened. He said he thought politicians should remain involved. When this matter was debated last summer, that was not the view of the shadow Secretary of State, who said politicians should be taken out of the process entirely. The Labour party now believe politicians should be involved in taking these decisions. Where the Secretary of State moves away from independent advice, that should be published, and it can be reviewed and appealed. Under the Leader of the Opposition’s view of how things should work in future, the result would have been exactly the same. Nothing would have been different, because the Secretary of State followed all the advice, so there would have been no need for a referral or appeal. There can be no proper questions about whether something wrong was done.
Opposition Members claim there was some massive conspiracy to favour News Corporation, but they have absolutely evidence of that. It is a bit like someone complaining that an assailant has picked their pocket even though they remain in possession of the wallet they claim has been stolen. The Secretary of State did not abuse his power. He was not open to influence and external lobbying from News Corporation that in any way could have affected his judgment, because there is no evidence of any such action by him.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I believe there are no grounds for further inquiries; we have covered all these points. This is still an important issue, however, and it is perfectly valid for the House to debate it. The Secretary of State has now had a chance to come to the House and set the record straight on many of the important outstanding questions, but some Opposition Members will never be satisfied. The genesis of this debate came a few weeks ago when the shadow Secretary of State called for the resignation of the Secretary of State without having read the evidence submitted to the Leveson inquiry. The call came only 23 minutes after a great volume of paper had been produced. I cannot presume that the shadow Secretary of State read all of that in the 23 minutes it took to make the decision. She has dug a hole and kept on digging, and not been able to produce any new evidence—nothing of significance at all.
Why are we even in this position, why are we even having this debate and why do we know so much about what the Secretary of State said? At Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said the only reason why the News Corporation bid could have come in was that the last Government changed the rules on allowing foreign companies to own UK broadcasters. We would all be fascinated to see the chain of e-mails, text messages and correspondence between Ministers in the last Government on that matter, but we will never do so. We only know about this issue because the Prime Minister decided there should be a full public inquiry and all the information has been made public. Ministers have been questioned on the record about it.
We also know from the Leveson inquiry the reasons why Tony Blair did not feel the last Government should have had an inquiry in 2006-07, after the Information Commissioner’s report looking at illegal use of information in news stories had been published and after concerns had been raised. He did not do it because he did not want the fight with the press. The last Prime Minister, Mr Brown, ducked that issue as well, despite the revelations in The Guardian about phone hacking and despite the work of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the last Parliament producing more concerns and more evidence. He did not dare take on the media and have this row.
This Government have done that. In the handling of the News Corporation-BSkyB merger, there can never have been a more transparent process in respect of understanding the thinking and working of a Secretary of State in making his decision. It is clear that the Secretary of State always followed independent advice, and no Member today has advanced any argument that questions that in any way.
May I begin by saying that I shall heed the advice that is often given by Mr Speaker about how we behave in the Chamber and, indeed, about our actions? Today has been a perfect example of point scoring—that is exactly what has been going on.
Let me begin in a non-partisan way. Since being elected as an executive member of the parliamentary Labour party, I have often objected to the association of Ministers, Prime Ministers and others with News International and other news outlets. After being elected to the PLP committee eight years ago, I raised that issue with the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. I found it obscene that he travelled halfway around the world to court Rupert Murdoch and gain his support. I do not think that that should be allowed in any democracy, and I voiced concerns in the PLP on behalf of a number of people whom I represented who felt the same way.
My very good friend Mr Brown was perhaps not as exercised as Tony Blair about going around the world and courting Rupert Murdoch’s support, but he had an opportunity when he was in office to introduce legislation that could have stopped at a stroke some of News International’s behaviour. From that point of view, I feel that I am exonerated, given the opinions that I expressed at the time. I genuinely believe that people outside are angry—people who do not have access to all the stuff about what he or she said and when and how they said it, and so on. They want to know that their politicians have the highest integrity and are not intimidated, bullied or bought by support. That is what they want to know, and that is the important thing about today.
The Secretary of State has an ally in the Scottish First Minister, who is dancing around the smoke signals in Scotland and is being equally evasive about his relationship with Rupert Murdoch. Hopefully, that will come out in the inquiry today, but we will have to see how it pans out. The Secretary of State has attended a number of meetings of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, of which I am a member, and I have the highest respect for him. However, because this whole thing has blown up, in future I would have difficulty taking seriously his judgment or his integrity. Conservative Back Benchers can speak for themselves, but I suggest that Labour members of the Committee would feel the same way.
We have heard recorded evidence or non-evidence about what happened, but we have not heard—perhaps my party is as guilty as anyone else—about the cosy dinners and meetings that take place at taxpayer-funded residences and are not recorded. We do not know what happened, what was said or what was agreed. That has got to stop too, because it does not help the public to understand exactly how the system works. Before the Conservatives came to power, their manifesto said that the party would clean up the image of politics and politicians. Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us what the coalition, or the Conservative Government, have done to clean up that image. Certainly in correspondence that I receive people say that nothing has changed, or in fact that things have got worse.
No, I will not bother.
May I draw another parallel with the situation that the Secretary of State is in? There is concern about the perception of the Olympics in this country. As things stand, transport workers in London are threatening to take industrial action and thereby divert attention away from what we hope will be a successful Olympics. By contrast, the Secretary of State is now a toxic Secretary of State with no credibility or integrity. People out there in the court of public opinion say that they do not want him as the leading light on the Olympics. He should do the honourable thing and go.
People have said that the Secretary of State came here with the utmost honesty and integrity, but I have to pay the utmost attention to the people who are responsible for bringing this whole thing out, my hon. Friend Mr Watson, my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, who is no longer in his place, and my hon. Friend Paul Farrelly, who were terrific in how they analysed the information available to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and managed to get it out of the Secretary of State and other senior politicians in the Conservative Government. I think that the Secretary of State should do the honourable thing and resign in order to give someone a clear opportunity to take us into the Olympics and ensure that they are a success.
If the Opposition could push home an issue of confidence in an individual Minister, they would lay a motion to cut his salary, but they cannot and have not done so. We have heard three points from the Opposition. First, there is a memo—they have not actually quoted from it—in which the Secretary of State said that it would be totally wrong to get involved in a competition issue which must be decided at arm’s length. Secondly, they go on about the special adviser and argue that the Secretary of State has to take responsibility for him, including discipline, according to the ministerial code. Once the Secretary of State found out about the tone and volume of the special adviser’s communications, he required him to resign. Thirdly, we are left with some sort of generalised accusation that the Secretary of State was a bit too friendly with the lobbyist Frédéric Michel and had informal contact with him that he should not have had—an accusation made without taking into account the fact that the Secretary of State and Frédéric Michel were in the same hospital while their wives were giving birth in adjoining rooms.
I will focus the rest of my remarks—[ Interruption. ] Well, that is all there is from the Opposition. I will focus the rest of my remarks on a constitutional issue. It is the Prime Minister who determines confidence in his Ministers. He has confidence in his excellent Secretary of State, who has acted with integrity throughout the process. What the Opposition are trying to do with this abnegatory motion is suggest that, rather than the Prime Minister or this House being responsible, some independent adviser should take charge. The Opposition refer to the ministerial code as if it is a written constitution, and to Sir Alex Allan as if he is the Supreme Court. The previous Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler, said of the ministerial code:
“Ministers are accountable to Parliament, not a piece of paper.”
It is very important to look at least briefly at how the ministerial code has developed, because since it was published in 1992 it has been given a great significance, as if it is somehow more than a guideline. It was published in 1992 because the then Cabinet Secretary, Lord Butler, as he admitted in 1995, agitated for its publication, and it has been used since as if somehow it should supplant the Prime Minister’s or Parliament’s responsibility. Paul Flynn suggests that somehow Sir Alex Allan should look at this matter as if the Prime Minister had done something wrong and decide whether he should stay, which is a preposterous suggestion. The Prime Minister is responsible to this House and we are responsible to our electorate.
There is a rather wonderful history of the genesis of the ministerial code and how it developed—it is the only such book I am aware of—by a lady called Amy Baker. I will quote one small section to Members. Prime Minister Attlee took responsibility for every part of the code himself; all the drafts and changes were done specifically by him. Once he ceased to be Prime Minister, however, the Cabinet Secretary took charge of the document, and the reason for that, according to this history of the code, is that
“it would have defeated the original object of the document, if every Prime Minister had been allowed to ‘hijack’ the rulebook for there own purposes… Hankey,” the first Cabinet Secretary,
“had drafted the very first guidelines in order to establish some continuity of procedure which would enable the Cabinet Office to organise business without being disrupted too much on a change of government.”
I disagree with that. It is for the Government to decide. The civil service are using these issues as a naked power grab. With Adam Werritty they used it to say that somehow Ministers have to be regulated by the civil service in taking external advice. Now they use this to suggest that somehow all special advisers should report to Sir Jeremy Heywood. No, it is Ministers who are in charge, not the civil service.
I am really disappointed by the way in which the Opposition have treated this debate. They seem to subscribe to the doctrine that if they say something often enough people will start to believe it, but that undermines the whole integrity of Parliament and, certainly, makes people question their integrity, purpose and motivation.
We heard from Ms Harman, who is not in her place but opened the debate, a dismal litany of allegation after allegation, yet her fox has quite obviously been shot by the letter from Sir Alex Allan, who clearly states:
“I do not believe that I could usefully add to the facts in this case”.
Later in the debate, we heard from Ian Lucas, who on the one hand argued that the case should be referred to Sir Alex Allan, on the other said that Sir Alex was a poodle and not wholly independent—and then started misquoting the Public Administration Committee. So let us be frank: even if the case was referred to Sir Alex Allan, the Opposition would not like the outcome, because he says that he could not add to any of the evidence that has been presented.
I will in a moment.
That judgment came directly from testimony by James Murdoch and Frédéric Michel, the quality of whose evidence on other occasions the right hon. and learned Lady had herself questioned. So it took her 23 minutes to make that judgment—on someone whom she had doubted in the first place.
Well, it took the Prime Minister 15 minutes to decide that the Secretary of State was innocent. Let me turn to Alun Cairns, however, because he read out the Whips’ question earlier about Sir Alex Allan, but he is a member of the very Committee that stated:
“We felt, however, that he”—
Sir Alex Allan—
“was unsuited to this role because he did not convince us that he would be able to demonstrate the independence the post requires.”
Now, I know that the hon. Gentleman hardly ever turns up to the Committee, but that was his Committee’s conclusion.
We have already heard from the hon. Gentleman and from his hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham selective misquotations of the Public Administration Committee’s report, but, whatever Opposition Members say, time and again we can point to Sir Alex Allan’s letter, in which he states that
“I do not believe that I could usefully add to the facts in this case”.
Sir Alex is fully aware of what has been said at the Leveson inquiry, what has been said here in the Chamber and what has been said at the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, so Opposition Members are calling for—
I am sorry, but because of the limit I do not have time to give way to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has shown a strong interest in the matter.
The key question is, was the issue handled properly? I say, absolutely yes and the Secretary of State has demonstrated the highest integrity, because at each and every stage he followed independent advice, which often went against the Murdoch interest. We have also heard that, because the Secretary of State followed that independent advice, James Murdoch was absolutely furious, so if there was a conspiracy it was pretty poorly planned.
Much has also been made of the letter from the Secretary of State to the Prime Minister, but, in view of the lobbying from the anti-Murdoch campaign leading up to that letter, and in view of the communications that I as a mere new Back Bencher had, I would be surprised if there was any Member who did not have a personal view on the issue. It would be almost impossible to pick out any Member, and certainly any Minister, who did not have an initial view on the matter. That is why the Secretary of State acted with the utmost integrity by taking advice and following it at each and every stage, and he did so because, as the letter shows, he was aware of the risk of a judicial review from the Murdochs and from the other side. He had no option other than to follow independent advice at every stage, and I am very glad he did.
I am extremely disappointed by the dismal litany that we heard from the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham. She and other Labour Members should be judged by their own standards, and I would point to their former Prime Ministers and their special advisers.
We have had an important debate about ministerial conduct and how we protect the rights of this House in holding Ministers to account. We heard powerful speeches from my right hon. Friend Mr Denham and my hon. Friend Chris Bryant. On the Government Benches, we heard from Mr Foster and from the hon. Members for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), all of whom said that there are questions to answer, particularly to do with who should be allowed to initiate investigations into ministerial conduct.
This is a debate that Labour Members should not have had to initiate. In that regard, I have sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex. There is already a perfectly good system to make sure that Ministers abide by the rules in their conduct of Government business and in ensuring that Parliament is told the truth, and it is called the ministerial code, an updated version of which is produced at the beginning of every new Parliament. An independent adviser on the code is available to offer advice to Ministers on their interests and to investigate any alleged breaches. It is for the Prime Minister to be the guardian of the code and to refer any alleged breaches to the independent adviser for investigation.
It is a clear and simple process, but what has happened in this case? I have read the ministerial code carefully, and I cannot find a clause that says, “This code applies to all members of the Government but the Prime Minister’s chums.” Will the Government be bringing out a new version to reflect this reality? Writing in the foreword of the most recent edition of the code, the Prime Minister said:
“Our new government has a particular and historic responsibility: to rebuild confidence in our political system…People have lost faith in politics and politicians. It is our duty to restore their trust. It is not enough simply to make a difference. We must be different.”
The Prime Minister talks the talk but he does not walk the walk.
The hon. Gentleman’s Committee has done this House a great service in publishing the report that is tagged with this debate. I think that situations have evolved since decisions were taken in the past. I certainly think that the suggestion that the independent adviser should be allowed to initiate investigations needs a fresh look in the light of the circumstances that have arisen. I, for one, have an open mind on that. He raises a very important subject that the House should debate. The Committee’s work on this is invaluable in the changing circumstances, and I look forward to its continuing.
The Prime Minister’s decision not to ask the independent adviser on ministerial interests to investigate the Culture Secretary totally contradicts the commitment that he gave in his own foreword to his own code. It also totally disregards clear, prima facie evidence that the code has been breached and that there are good grounds for an investigation. That prima facie case was set out very powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and hinted at in slightly shyer terms by the right hon. Member for Bath.
It took the Prime Minister 20 minutes from the conclusion of the Culture Secretary’s oral evidence to the Leveson inquiry to announce that there was no case to answer, but the Prime Minister was not considering the evidence, he was not interested in protecting the integrity of his Government, and he disregarded the need for Ministers to be straight with Parliament. That is a very important matter for the House. All he wanted to do was to protect his chum.
To their credit, the Liberal Democrats have decided that they cannot go along with the Prime Minister’s cynical charade. Good for them, but I struggle to see why they should not join us in the Lobby for the vote. They should be in the Lobby with us, upholding the integrity of the ministerial code and supporting our call for the Culture Secretary to be referred to the independent adviser. It is not too late. The right hon. Member for Bath said there were still questions for the Minister to answer, but he did not go into detail on what they were. Liberal Democrat Members have said that they believe a referral to the independent adviser is in order, and I hope that even at this late hour they will reconsider their position and decide to join us in the Division Lobby to send a powerful message to the Prime Minister that the House will not stand by and tolerate being lied to and the ministerial code being an optional extra.
The integrity of the Government’s relations with Parliament is at stake. We have an independent adviser on the ministerial code who was appointed on a not inconsiderable retainer of £20,000 per annum. He has been in place since November 2011 but the Prime Minister seems extraordinarily reluctant to call on his services. The Prime Minister blocked Sir Alex’s predecessor from investigating the former Defence Secretary. He now blocks Sir Alex from investigating the Culture Secretary.
Ministers have recently taken to telling the country that we all need to be working harder, but we have a ministerial adviser champing at the bit to launch an investigation, and the Prime Minister keeping him locked in a cupboard. What are we paying the independent adviser for? This something-for-nothing culture needs to end. Let the independent adviser do his job. What does the Prime Minister have to fear?
We heard today from right hon. and hon. Members how even a perfunctory look at the facts demonstrates that the Culture Secretary has a case to answer. Paragraph 1.2c of the ministerial code requires Ministers to
“give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”.
The Secretary of State told the House on
“I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business”—[Hansard, 25 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 973.]
Yet it turns out that the Culture Secretary was firing off memos to the Prime Minister backing the bid, and wanted a meeting with the Business Secretary to lobby him. I do not know what the Culture Secretary’s definition of “intervention” is, but it is not one that would be found in any English dictionary.
In his parliamentary statement in April the Secretary of State told the House that
“the contact that I had with Fred Michel was only at official meetings that were minuted with other people present”.—[Hansard, 25 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 961]
and that he had—I quote exactly—“zero” conversations with Michel. Yet it has now been revealed that he texted Michel directly when he had responsibility for overseeing the bid. In the Culture Secretary's “dictionary of convenient definitions” it appears that neither “contact” nor “conversations” mean text messages.
“all the documents relating to all the meetings—all the consultation documents, all the submissions we received, all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation.”—[Hansard, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 526.]
He had published all the documents, all the meetings, all the contacts except the 191 phone calls with News Corporation, the 158 e-mails with News Corporation, and the 799 text messages with News Corporation. What on earth does the Culture Secretary think “all” means?
We know that the Secretary of State is a keen dancer. Indeed, we have one of his Cabinet colleagues to thank for telling us that he has installed a sprung floor in his home, so that he can practise his “Strictly Come Dancing” routines. However, it is dancing on the head of a pin to claim that he did not intervene, that he was not in contact and that he had published all the evidence.
Parliament deserves better than this. It is crystal clear that the Secretary of State’s former special adviser effectively opened an improper back channel of direct communication with News Corporation. If the special adviser had gone rogue, one would have thought that on uncovering his activities the Culture Secretary would have fired him immediately. But no, the Culture Secretary first told his special adviser that he had done nothing wrong. The next day—I suspect after looking at the front pages—he told his special adviser,
“Everyone here thinks you need to go”,
before apparently adding that “everyone” did not necessarily include him.
Why has Adam Smith resigned when the Secretary of State feels that he himself has no case to answer? Is he expecting us to believe that he had no idea what his special adviser was up to in such a key area of policy, in which he had shown such prior interest? Paragraph 3.3 of the code makes it clear that Ministers must take responsibility for the actions of their special advisers. The Secretary of State must accept his responsibility.
We have a Cabinet Minister who told Parliament that he had not intervened when he had. We have a Cabinet Minister who told Parliament that he had had no contact with News Corporation lobbyists when he had. We have a Cabinet Minister who told Parliament that he had published all the documents when he had not. The Prime Minister knows all that, but he says that there is nothing for the adviser on the ministerial code to investigate. Who is he kidding? He cannot even persuade the Deputy Prime Minister of that fact.
Today, the House has an opportunity to make it clear that the ministerial code matters, that Ministers are accountable to this House and that the public can expect the highest standards from Ministers. The motion calls merely for Sir Alex Allan to investigate and for the existing system of ministerial accountability to this House to be used, rather than abused. I commend it to the House.
Although I wish that I could say that this has been a good debate, and despite some good contributions to it, it has not been. At business questions, I am asked by Members on both sides of the House for serious debates about matters of interest to our constituents. I contrast that with the miserable, opportunistic debate that we have had today. This has been a wasted opportunity, when we could have been debating issues of real interest to our constituents, such as Syria or the eurozone. Instead, we have been diverted on to this matter.
Let me deal with some of the contributions. Ian Lucas made no distinction at all between the actions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before he assumed responsibility for the bid and those that he took afterwards. That was seized on by my hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, who said that it would have been astonishing if the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport had had no views on the issue before he took responsibility for it, but that he subsequently made it absolutely clear that he was acting properly and in accordance with the law in dealing with that responsibility.
My hon. Friend also made the interesting point that it was the last Labour Government who changed and expanded the role of special advisers—a matter that has now been referred to Alex Allan. Along with other hon. Members, my hon. Friend referred to the Public Administration Committee report, to which the Government will respond in due course.
I will make just a little more progress.
Paul Flynn made an uncharacteristically partisan speech. He focused on the performance of this Government, but conveniently overlooked all the failures of ministerial performance in the previous one. There was a gap in the account that he related to the House.
My right hon. Friend Mr Foster made it absolutely clear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State handled the bid by the book, to use his words, and had at several points taken decisions against the interests of News International. He said that one or two issues remained, although as my hon. Friend Damian Collins said, they were not defined. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bath implied that the failure to consult was behind the Liberal Democrats’ decision as much as anything else.
I am not one of those who has disputed the Secretary of State’s honesty, but there is the question of responsibility for special advisers. The ministerial code states that responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including, but not only, discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment. How did the Secretary of State effect that responsibility for the management and conduct of his special adviser?
No, I will make a little more progress.
I very much regret the intervention that Chris Bryant made about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Despite Mr Speaker’s ruling, I believe that it did nothing to enhance Parliament’s reputation. I very much hope that at some point the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing what he said.
My hon. Friend Mr Jenkin referred to the thoughtful report that his Committee had just produced—before the recent controversy, as he pointed out. He rehearsed the argument for the role of the adviser on ministerial interests being self-starting rather than his having to wait for a referral. The Government will of course respond to that report in due course. He also touched on broader issues to do with the civil service and special advisers.
The best speech from the Labour Benches, if I may say so, came from Mr Denham, but he missed the point by not distinguishing between what my right hon. Friend did before and after he assumed responsibility. He produced no evidence at all of my right hon. Friend’s decisions being in any way contaminated by what had happened before he assumed responsibility.
Surely the issue for today’s debate is not the Secretary of State’s conduct on the merger but how he acted in relation to the provision of information to the House. My contribution did not deal one way or the other with his conduct on the merger, it was about his failure to disclose to the Cabinet Secretary his attempts to influence the decision before it was his responsibility.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State dealt with that point substantially in his contribution.
My hon. Friend Dr Coffey contrasted the actions of the previous Government with Labour Members’ criticism of the coalition Government, implying that they expect higher standards of us than they expected of themselves.
Mr Sutcliffe said that today’s debate was the only opportunity for the House to deal with the matter, ignoring the role of Select Committees, the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made and the urgent question answered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend Mark Reckless made a robust defence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and rightly made the point that the ultimate decision rests with the Prime Minister. My hon. Friend Alun Cairns said that the Opposition’s fox had been shot by the exchange of letters published today.
On the matter at hand, the controversy surrounding the Culture Secretary’s handling of the BSkyB bid first arose on
When the right hon. and learned Lady was questioned on the BBC on whether she had read the evidence before calling for the resignation of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, she said:
“I already had formed the view that Jeremy Hunt had acted totally inappropriately even before those emails were published because when I saw James Murdoch’s evidence to Leveson, it was quite clear the Culture Secretary had given James Murdoch to understand that he was not impartial in the bid, that he was on his side”.
The right hon. and learned Lady is a former Leader of the House and I have respect for her, but is that not an extraordinarily ill-judged intervention for a qualified solicitor, a former Solicitor-General and an honorary Queen’s counsel? In what kind of banana republic would a lawyer convict somebody without a shred of evidence and before having had the opportunity to cross-examine a witness? If she is so quick to trust the word of a Murdoch at face value, will she today back Rupert Murdoch’s version of his telephone conversation with the former Prime Minister?
The truth is that the only people who made up their minds before looking at any of the facts were the right hon. and learned Lady and the Leader of the Opposition, not the Prime Minister. She has at least climbed down from the initial demand for resignation. She is now asking for a referral to the independent adviser—[ Interruption. ] That is the motion on the Order Paper. She has engaged in a humiliating climbdown.
Let us look at the case for referral. The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has already been referred to, and attended, a forum that is, in a sense, far more rigorous than any process that Sir Alex Allan could follow. What could be more rigorous than eight hours of questioning by an experienced barrister, in public, on TV, under oath, in front of a judge-led inquiry?
I am not going to withdraw anything; I will repeat the accusation. The Secretary of State deliberately misled this House. Why, when the Prime Minister spoke to the House and the Secretary of State answered a written question on
Not only has the hon. Gentleman made an accusation, he did not substantiate it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State answered in his initial remarks all the hon. Gentleman’s points.
A number of Opposition Members referred to the Public Administration Committee report on the role of the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. The Prime Minister has simply followed the precedent established by the previous Prime Minister. When the Committee recommended in the previous Parliament that the independent adviser be allowed to initiate his own inquiries—precisely the recommendation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex—the outgoing Labour Government responded:
“it must ultimately be for the Prime Minister to account to Parliament for his decisions and actions in relation to the appointment of his Ministers.”
The Opposition’s charges against my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary have been answered at length by my right hon. Friend and by the Prime Minister. On the question of misleading Parliament, the Culture Secretary has today responded in detail to each and every one of the Opposition’s allegations and he has swatted them away with relish. On the matter of special advisers, which is specifically referred to in the motion, it is unfortunate for Labour that that subject has been brought up in the same week as the former Prime Minister, Mr Brown, sat before the Leveson inquiry and denied, as only he could, any knowledge that his political team briefed against his fellow Ministers and unleashed hell on his Chancellor. Indeed, it was lucky that we could see the former Prime Minister on our TV screens at all given that the air was thick with the smell of cordite from the smoking guns pointing in his direction.
Let me remind the House what the former Prime Minister said on Monday when asked whether his special advisers briefed against ministerial colleagues:
“I would hope not. I have no evidence of that.”
Let us see what the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday to the same inquiry:
As the shadow Justice Secretary said this morning on the BBC, they cannot both be right. It ill behoves the Opposition to lecture this Government on Ministers taking responsibility for their special advisers when the former Prime Minister took no responsibility for what his advisers got up to.
The issues we have been debating today will not divert the coalition from its core task of dealing with the huge deficit we inherited and rebalancing the economy. The Opposition are one party united in their opportunism; we are two parties coming together to sort out the mess they left behind. I urge the House to reject the motion.