Westferry Printworks Development

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:27 pm on 24th June 2020.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 2:27 pm, 24th June 2020

The Secretary of State is obviously going to respond to the letter I sent to him from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. We may well come back to some of the issues, depending on what he says to the Committee in that regard. I said previously in the House that these matters are dealt with best when we have the facts in front of us, rather than supposition and conjecture, because that leads us into very difficult territory. I have also said that I am not accusing the Secretary of State or anybody of wrongdoing. I want to see the facts and look at the situation, along with the Committee, and then come back to any further questions we may have.

In the absence of the documentation—even if it has been sent to the Committee by now, I have not had a chance to read it before the debate—I say to the Secretary of State that there will probably be some questions about the precise nature of conversations at the dinner. Whether someone sees a video or not, I would have thought, would have been fairly well stuck in the Secretary of State’s mind. However, when he had been to the dinner, did he immediately inform his officials that he had been present at the dinner, that he had sat next to Mr Desmond, that the matter of the application had been raised with him and that he had refused to discuss it? If so, when was that confirmed with officials? Did he put that in writing to officials, and, if so, did they then advise him whether it was appropriate for him to carry on considering the application and making a judgment about it? If so, was that put in writing to him? If officials had reservations, was that put in writing to him as well?

Did officials and the Secretary of State at any point, therefore, consider whether in the light of the conversations at the dinner and a pretty well documented and considered attempt by the applicant to influence the Secretary of State at the dinner, it might have been appropriate for him to withdraw from the decision made at that time? When the case was going to court and the Secretary of State decided to withdraw his decision, because of the appearance of bias with regard to the financial liability on the developer that would be removed, was any part of his decision to withdraw also based on the possibility of an appearance of bias in relation to the events at the dinner that he or officials concluded might be an issue that came up in court at the time?

In planning, perception can be just as important as the facts. Even if the Secretary of State refused to discuss the matter at the dinner—I completely accept his word on that—should not the fact that the developer with an interest had sat next to him at the dinner and raised the matter with him have alerted him to the possibility of an appearance of bias and of accusations following if he made the decision in favour of the developer? Again, appearances are really important.