Downing Street Christmas Parties Investigation

– in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 9th December 2021.

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Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 10:30 am, 9th December 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the details of the investigation into Downing Street Christmas parties.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

As the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, he understands and shares the anger up and down the country, as do I, at seeing No. 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures. I join the Prime Minister in apologising unreservedly for the offence that it has caused to people who have been through what everyone in this House knows is immeasurable pain and hardship as a result of this appalling pandemic. The Prime Minister has been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no covid rules were broken. However, the Government also recognise the public anxiety about this and the public indignation—and I share that—in the sense of where it appears as though the people who have been setting the rules may not have been following the rules.

As the Prime Minister confirmed to the House yesterday, he has asked the Cabinet Secretary to investigate the facts, and I would like to update the House now, if I may, on the details of this investigation. The terms of reference for the investigation are being published, and I will lay a copy in the Library of the House later today. I can confirm to the House that the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation will establish the facts surrounding the allegations made of a gathering at No. 10 Downing Street on 27 November 2020, a gathering at the Department for Education on 10 December 2020 and allegations made of a gathering at No. 10 Downing Street on 18 December 2020.

The primary purpose of the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation will be to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time. If required, the investigation will establish whether individual disciplinary action is warranted. The work will be undertaken by officials in the Cabinet Office at the direction of the Cabinet Secretary, with support from the Government Legal Department. Those officials will have access to all relevant records and be able to speak to members of staff.

As with all internal investigations, if during the course of the work any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused. I must emphasise that the matters relating to adherence to the law are properly for the police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with the police, as appropriate. All Ministers, special advisers and civil servants will be expected to co-operate with this investigation.

Finally, I can confirm that, as I have said, the findings of the investigation will be provided to the House and made public. Following the long-standing practice of successive Administrations, any specific HR action against individuals will remain confidential.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank you, too, for granting this urgent question today. I also thank the Paymaster General for his statement and for giving more information about this investigation.

Trust is vital during a pandemic—trust in the decisions being made and, most importantly, trust in the people making those decisions and the judgment about them. My constituent Sophie wrote to me yesterday to say:

“My mother died of Covid on Christmas Day last year—she was alone and frightened in an isolation room in hospital on 18 December while the alleged party was happening. She was admitted to hospital for a non-Covid related issue and contracted the disease whilst in there. Both of us had followed the rules and it breaks my heart that I was only able to see her a handful of times last year, and couldn’t be with her in her final moments.”

She is angry; people across the country are angry.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that he has asked the Cabinet Secretary to conduct an investigation. I have asked for this urgent question as there are further urgent questions to be asked about the investigation into the parties—we do not need to call them alleged parties; they were parties—held in a Government Department or by Government Ministers elsewhere. Are there more parties that we need to hear about? Is this investigation just a way of being able to say, “We’re doing something” while pushing it into the long grass, or is it a serious investigation?

The Prime Minster said yesterday:

“I have been repeatedly assured…that there was no party and that no covid rules were broken…But I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to establish all the facts.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 372.]

Who gave these repeated assurances? If there was no party, why did Allegra Stratton feel the need to resign? Is she taking the fall instead of Government Ministers? If this investigation finds that the Prime Minister has misled the House, will he resign?

I look forward to the publication of the terms of reference for the investigation later today. Will it include all the parties—not just the three but any others that were held? Who went to these parties? Can the Minister confirm that the Cabinet Secretary and the remainder of the legal team that has just been referenced did not go to any of the parties and so are able to conduct the investigation without personal interest? If they happened, who colluded for a year in the cover-up of these parties? When is the deadline for the investigation? How will the outcomes be made public? Is there any limit on the sanctions that will be given to people found to have been in the wrong?

I welcome the assurance from the Paymaster General that the matter will be referred to the police if there is a case to answer. We on the Opposition Benches will be following what happens very closely.

Finally, will the Government just be straight with the British people?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

May I first say that my heart goes out to the hon. Lady’s constituent and the many thousands of other people who have lost loved ones as a result of this pandemic?

As I said in my opening remarks, the investigation will be conducted by the Cabinet Secretary. I know that the hon. Lady and those on the Benches behind her as well as everyone in this House has confidence in the independence and integrity of our civil service; the Cabinet Secretary heads the civil service and he is conducting this investigation. How long it lasts will be a matter for him, and the matter will, if it discloses criminality, be reported to the Metropolitan police for further investigation. In previous ministerial roles as a Law Officer—Solicitor General and Attorney General—I superintended the Government Legal Department, another organisation which of course has integrity and the confidence of all; it will be supporting the investigation. All those who are questioned by the investigation—civil servants, special advisers, Ministers—will be expected to co-operate with it. I hope that answers the hon. Lady’s questions.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

Would it be helpful if there were a greater understanding of the fact that No. 10 is not a house but a front door, behind which there is a suite of modern offices and meeting rooms across three floors? It is perfectly possible to be in the rafters above No. 11 completely isolated from what else is happening in the building.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

It is certainly true, as a matter of geography, that No. 10 Downing Street is a very large property with a multitude of offices and with many, many people working inside it. In that sense, of course—geographically—my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

On 16 December, on national television, the Prime Minister asked everyone to exercise

“the greatest possible personal responsibility.”

London also went into tier 3 restrictions, which stated:

“No person may participate in a gathering… You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party,” whether it was in an office or in somebody’s flat upstairs.

On 18 December, Dr Katherine Henderson of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine stated on the BBC:

“We are at a really dangerous point which could tip into finding it incredibly difficult to manage.”

The same day, 514 people died of covid-19. I am sure the NHS and those in care homes were already over the tipping point.

On 18 December, the Prime Minister stated:

“If you are forming a Christmas Bubble, it’s vital that from today, you minimise contact with people from outside your household.”

The evening that statement was given by the Prime Minister in Downing Street, a Christmas party was held in No. 10, where officials knocked back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a secret Santa. I wonder whether the Paymaster General agrees with me that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and it is at a Christmas party, it is usually a duck.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

No doubt, if the hon. Gentleman has any evidence, he may wish to supply it to the Cabinet Secretary or the police. He has rehearsed to the House what regulations were in place at the time, and the reality is that that is accepted. What we need to do is investigate the matter of these gatherings. I have said what the primary purpose is going to be, which is to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of any gatherings that took place, including attendance, the setting and the purpose. That is what the investigation is all about.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

There is understandable real public anger about what seems to have happened at Downing Street, and that is contributing to people’s unhappiness and discontent with renewed covid restrictions. Will the Government do everything they possibly can to lift the current restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so and ensure that Christmas is not cancelled?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, and I share the anger. The reality of the matter is that we are focusing on the pandemic as a Government and as a nation. We need to ensure that everything is done to protect the people of this country from the effects of this pandemic, and that of course is going to be the principal focus going forward, as it has been throughout. However, we will always follow the science, and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will have more to say in due course on the situation.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

First, my sympathies go out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for drawing the short straw on coming here this morning to answer the urgent question. Can he explain to me the difference between a party and a “gathering”, in his understanding of the vocabulary? I note that he did not actually confirm that the “gatherings” or parties that we now know happened in No. 10 on 13 November, 27 November, 10 December, 14 December and 18 December will be within the scope of this so-called inquiry, which many Opposition Members already see as a cover-up.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The issue of the nature of the gathering goes to the heart of the investigation. Therefore, the answer to the hon. Lady’s first question about the nature of the gathering will be established by the Cabinet Secretary, assisted by the Government Legal Department, who will inform the police if any criminality is uncovered. So those questions will be answered in due course.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I should say at the start that I think Boris—sorry, the Prime Minister—is doing a great job of running the country. I congratulate Fleur Anderson on securing the urgent question. I think the Paymaster General, my right hon. and learned Friend Michael Ellis missed one of the questions she put, so may I put the question again? It is quite right for the Prime Minister to come to this House and say that he was told by someone, accepted it and did so in good faith. I want to know who the person was who told him. Perhaps the excellent Minister—he does not need any protection—will tell us that answer.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I do not have that answer. What I will say, as I have already said, is that, if required, the investigation will establish whether individual disciplinary action is warranted. That will be one of the principal focuses of the investigation. It will be ongoing and it will be in the public domain as soon as it is ready.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

In which case, can we get an assurance that the Cabinet Secretary was not involved in giving the assurances to the Prime Minister? If that is not able to be given, then it is quite inappropriate for him to be in charge of the investigation. The question of legal advice also arises because the Prime Minister asserted that no rules were broken. Will the advice on which that assertion was made be given to the inquiry when it is held? On the question of the possibility of the investigation being passed on to the police, will people interviewed by the inquiry be interviewed under caution? The Minister, as a former Law Officer, will know that there is a risk of contamination of evidence that has been obtained in an internal inquiry unfairly, which would then prejudice prosecutions in the future.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The right hon. Gentleman is jumping ahead with his last point. Of course, whether or not there will be any police investigation is dependent on whether the investigation by the Cabinet Secretary uncovers any suggestion of criminality, which is then referred to them. If that then happens, that is entirely a matter for the police and not, of course, for the Government. I know the Cabinet Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman makes a suggestion about that. I have confidence in the integrity of the Cabinet Secretary. I also know the Prime Minister and I have confidence in the integrity of the Prime Minister. I have known the Prime Minister for many years. The Prime Minister is a man of honour and integrity, and he presented to this House his position yesterday. What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that he should wait and see what the investigation uncovers.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

If it turns out that one of these gatherings involved politicians or Ministers, it is clearly of a very different order to half a dozen members of staff bursting open a bottle of prosecco and having a drink before they departed for Christmas. [Interruption.] That does not excuse it. If it is the case that it was indeed members of staff, it begs the question what sort of supervision and management structure there is. Who was the supervisor? Who was the senior person concerned? Who should have been able to discipline this matter? Can the Minister assure me that a proper management structure is being looked at again, to make sure that this could not happen in the future?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The matter my hon. Friend raises is a matter for the inquiry to uncover, but I can assure him that the people who work in No. 10 Downing Street, including over the pandemic, are hard-working industrious people who are seeking to serve their country. They work very hard to do that. What he mentions is a matter of great concern to the people of this country, as it is to me. We all wish to know the terms of the investigation, and I have announced to this House what the terms and the scope of the investigation are. They will clearly be published and a copy of the terms will be laid in this House.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

Revelations of the 18 December gathering in No. 10 Downing Street have triggered much anguish across the country, so may I press the Minister on how exactly the Government Legal Department will support the investigation?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The Government Legal Department can provide support in a number of ways, and it will be up to the Cabinet Secretary to decide how he wishes to seek its support. One of the things he could do, for example, is ask for its advice as to the legal position on various matters. There are myriad ways that the Government Legal Department can help and give advice. It will be up to Simon Case as Cabinet Secretary, who heads the home civil service, to deal with the matter.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I am sure that the whole House will wish to pass on our congratulations to the Prime Minister and his wife on the birth of their new child today. The Paymaster General has been very careful in his words when addressing the House, but does he agree that one of the key issues is that those who are making draconian rules have to live by not only the letter of the rules, but the spirit of them?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the news that, in the past few minutes, the Prime Minister and Mrs Johnson have been safely delivered of a baby girl. I am sure that the whole House will want to send them best wishes.

My hon. Friend’s point is understood. He is right to say that the public are angered by this matter. We share that anger and the matter must be investigated. Of course, people should follow the rules and it is crucially important that they continue to do so. That goes without saying and it applies to everyone.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice)

Everyone experiences bereavement differently, but for those of us who have lost loved ones during the pandemic, there is a sentiment that increasingly unites us: anger. I am angry that while my mum lay dying in hospital, I could not hold her hand. I am angry that I had to bury my father-in-law and mother-in-law two days apart. Above all, I am angry that members of this Government could be so flippant, so callous and so arrogant as to host not one, not two, not three, but seven parties and then lie about it. Will the Minister confirm that the Cabinet Secretary will also investigate what happened on 14 December and 13 November, which he missed out? Will he also confirm that the Cabinet Secretary will have access to all documents, electronic communications, visitor logs and CCTV footage relating to the reported incidents?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I start by saying how very sorry I am to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s personal losses, and I offer my profound condolences for them. I know that there are many thousands around the country who have also had personal losses and my heart goes out to them, too.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the flippancy of a video recording that is in the public domain. It was totally unacceptable, grossly inappropriate and, frankly, inexcusable. I can say no more than that, and I will not try to go behind that. We are going to investigate. The Cabinet Secretary, of course, is non-political. He has the authority, as one would expect of the head of the civil service, to call for whatever material—whether it be documents or otherwise—that he wishes, and he will have the support and assistance of the several thousand lawyers in the Government Legal Department and of others if he needs it.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

My constituents in Kettering are very angry indeed at reports of Christmas parties in Downing Street during what was a very large second wave of covid. The behaviour was totally inappropriate and possibly criminal. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that serving the public, whether as a Member of Parliament or as a civil servant, is a privilege and that the public should be treated with respect at all times, including with behaviour inside Downing Street?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend answer a question from Fleur Anderson that I do not think he answered in his response? If the Cabinet Secretary or any members of the investigatory team were at any of these parties, will he ensure that they do not take part in the investigation?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I agree, of course, that it is a privilege and an honour for all of us to serve our constituents in this honourable House. What I can say is that my understanding is that the Cabinet Secretary has denied any attendance at any gathering that is the subject of this matter, but the reality of the matter is that he can therefore be said to be completely separate at the head of the civil service and able to conduct a thorough investigation, as one would expect from someone with his seniority. I reiterate that he has—I am told—indicated that he was not at any relevant gathering.

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Chief Whip

Over the period of the pandemic, people have been unable to have office Christmas “gatherings”, children’s birthday “gatherings” or any other type of annual “gatherings” that they would often have. I certainly hope we will not find that it is the drinks cabinet office that is investigating these matters.

Sanctions against staff have been talked about, but we need to be clear that if any wrongdoing is found, sanctions will also need to be taken against any Members, regardless of what office they may hold. Will the investigation look at whether there have been any breaches of quarantine at any of these “gatherings”?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The Prime Minister said yesterday to this House that Ministers, special advisers, civil servants and anybody else would be subject to disciplinary action if appropriate, so that applies. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The Minister said that

“Ministers, special advisers and civil servants will be expected to co-operate”.

What will happen if they do not co-operate? Will they be required to incriminate themselves? Does this also apply to other guests present, including members of the press?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

Mr Case, the Cabinet Secretary, will have to determine how he wishes to deal with that matter. One would expect him to take a robust course.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

My constituents, like those of a lot of hon. Members here today, are very angry about what has gone on at this party. They have made sacrifices throughout the year, and they think that one of the outcomes of this should be the resignation of the Prime Minister. He should take full responsibility for the incompetence that has been going on in his Government.

I think it is important to get to the point here. Surely someone yesterday must have asked the person at the rehearsal for the press conference who asked Allegra Stratton the question about the party why he asked that question. We would like to know the answer to that.

Secondly, to come back to the point made by Mr Bone, I am sure that the Minister wants to come to this House fully briefed and to respect the House for what it is. Before he came here today, did he not ask anybody at No. 10 who briefed the Prime Minister that no party took place?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I share the hon. Gentleman’s constituents’ anger. I know that they will be representative of constituents around all the parties. [Hon. Members: “Gatherings!”] The fact of the matter is that the gatherings will be investigated for what they were and for the scope thereof, and I think he knows that.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General)

A No. 10 source has told CNN that Downing Street was an island where they had to work, and lockdown was not happening in the same way there as it was happening for the rest of the country. That single sentence sums up the culture of entitlement of this Government. No man, or woman, is an island—and, of course, we must remember for whom the bell tolls. Does the Paymaster General think it is right that the Prime Minister can get away with throwing staff members under the bus, rather than reining in the culture of entitlement that he himself has created?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The right hon. Lady quotes John Donne. It is true that no man is an island entire of itself, but we know that there is no culture of entitlement, and I do not recognise that characterisation. An investigation will be launched by the Cabinet Secretary. It will uncover what needs to be uncovered and the details will be ascertained.

The right hon. Lady referred to the key workers who have had to work in myriad different ways during the pandemic and its various stages. Of course we appreciate the work that all our key workers do, in whatever capacity.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

At the beginning of the year, because I was following rules, I almost missed the birth of my son. I was told that I had to protect nurses and midwifery staff in the hospital where my wife had an extremely complicated labour. It would seem that, just five weeks earlier, Downing Street was holding soirées, or gatherings, or parties, while my wife and I—and many of my constituents, and people all over the country—were dreading and living in fear of not having their birthing partners present at the beginning of what are often very complicated processes. I think it is deeply shameful that the Paymaster General—whom I believe to be an honourable man—should stand there defending the completely and utterly indefensible behaviour of the Prime Minister, possibly other Ministers, and civil servants in thinking that they were simply above the rules that everyone else was told they had to follow.

I would like a straight answer—yes or no—from the Paymaster General. Did any Minister or Conservative MP attend any event, soirée or whatever he wants to call it that allegedly broke covid rules in Downing Street last year on 13 or 27 November or on 10, 14 or 18 December? If they did, they should be sacked and they should be investigated by the police.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman experienced the personal effect of the pandemic that he has described to the House and I am sorry that he missed out on the birth of his child. He asked about the nature of the people who attended any gathering. That is exactly what the investigation will establish—whether there was a gathering, the nature of it, the scope of it, any attendees and so on. That is exactly what it will be all about and the hon. Gentleman will hear the result in due course.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Does the Paymaster General agree that the one person who has come out of this with any shred of integrity is Allegra Stratton? I have known Allegra for many years. She is a first-class journalist, a woman of honour and a very nice person, and I am sure that she would not have agreed to the description “a gathering in the attic”. She is a woman of integrity, and I admire the fact that she had the honesty to resign yesterday.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I thank the hon. Gentleman for saying that. It was, if I may say so, characteristically generous of him. I do not personally know Ms Stratton, but I am absolutely sure that he is right. She was clearly mortified yesterday, and extremely upset by what has happened.

We all, in our day-to-day lives, seek to do the best we can to represent our constituents and serve in the public interest. I know the hon. Gentleman has done that for many years, and I thank him for it.

Photo of Anum Qaisar Anum Qaisar Scottish National Party, Airdrie and Shotts

The Christmas party debacle proves further what we all know—this Government are sneaky, manipulative and corrupt, and believe they are above the law. Even their own Back Benchers are fed up. We in the Scottish National party have repeatedly called for the Prime Minister to resign because it is the morally right thing to do, so I ask this question: are reports that the resignation of the Prime Minister is dependent on a decision by rich Tory donors true?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I do not understand the nature of the hon. Lady’s question—[Interruption.] She does not know the Prime Minister. I do know the Prime Minister and have done for many years. He is a friend of mine and I know him to be a man of honour and integrity who is working hard in the interests of the people of this country, and she should reflect on the public service that all in the Government and the Opposition do to the best of their abilities.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

From Collette in Middlesbrough:

“During lockdown, my 74-year-old mam was really lonely and depressed, but obeyed all the rules, as we all did. She sadly passed away in January 2021 alone in her flat. We were only allowed 30 people at the funeral so lots of mam’s friends and family were unable to attend. Nor were we able to have a wake to celebrate her life afterwards and comfort us. The government robbed us of that. So how dare they break the rules and hold a Christmas party. I’m crying as I’m typing this email, been crying since I watched the news yesterday. People must be held accountable and police action taken. We cannot let them get away with it.”

So instead of Allegra Stratton carrying the can, will the Prime Minister for once in his privileged, narcissistic, cheating existence do the right thing and resign?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

My condolences to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. The Prime Minister has said, as I have said from this Dispatch Box, that disciplinary action will be taken if appropriate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent can be reassured by that. As to the course of action the police choose to take, if any, that is a matter entirely independent of Her Majesty’s Government; it will be up to the police as they are operationally independent. We have said that the Cabinet Secretary will involve the police if, during the course of his investigation, he uncovers any criminality.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

The Prime Minister has repeatedly told this House that all covid rules were followed in Downing Street. Will the Minister publish the covid risk assessments undertaken prior to any parties, social events or gatherings that took place on Government premises in November and December last year?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I have noted what the hon. Lady says. That will be a matter for the Cabinet Secretary, and he will be free to seek any documents he needs during the course of his investigation.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

We have rightly heard much about the consequences of the Downing Street parties on the moral leadership of this Government at a time of crisis. The response of the Met police thus far, in refusing point blank to investigate, must also be called into question at a time when several instances of the breaking of covid regulations in December last year have been prosecuted in the courts. With important regulations being reinstated, does the Minister think that the lack of respect that many will now accord this Government and the police is a dangerous combination for public compliance?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to criticise the police. The police are entirely independent in this country, and they make their decisions based on the evidence before them. It is entirely a matter for them, and it is not appropriate for me to comment on the operational actions of the Metropolitan police or anyone else in the police service. I have great confidence in the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and in the service of the Metropolitan police to this country.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities)

I, like many in here, have met constituents who have lost loved ones, and I have seen the immense sadness that this has caused. I feel that my constituents and many others have been utterly betrayed, so can the Minister explain how the Government are planning to regain public trust, now that stricter plan B rules are being introduced once again?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

Public trust is of paramount importance and it is necessary because we want to relay to the public the need for caution in dealing with this pandemic and the necessity of getting a booster vaccination—more than 20 million people have now had a booster vaccination. It is of paramount importance that the general public continue to exercise caution in all their dealings because the effects of this pandemic are what we know them to be, and I offer my condolences to the hon. Lady’s constituents on the loss they have suffered. We need to focus on ensuring the pandemic, which has robbed this country of so many precious lives, is dealt with as effectively and as efficiently as possible. That is what the Government have done, that is what the Government are continuing to do and that is what the Government will do.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

The Government are supposed to be lawmakers, not lawbreakers. When these gatherings, parties or whatever were happening, across Coventry and Warwickshire we have had 5,000 incidents in the last 20 months in which people have been fined for breaking the law: a bar in Leamington was fined £10,000 for having a gathering; 200 Warwick University students were fined for holding various events; and another pub landlord was fined £1,000. “Party” is a synonym for “gathering.” These were not business meetings, were they?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

That is exactly what the investigation seeks to uncover. If there was a gathering, it seeks to uncover the nature of that gathering.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

The issue is not the however many gatherings. The Prime Minister has made a litany of errors, any one of which would have caused a decent Prime Minister to resign, whether it is the illegal Prorogation, the Barnard Castle incident, the comment on letting bodies “pile high in their thousands,” the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that has cost lives or the scandal surrounding Owen Paterson. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to go back to watching “Peppa Pig” and leave the grown-ups to lead the country?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

As the hon. Lady knows, the Prime Minister has been given repeated categorical assurances about the party that has been alleged. The reality of the matter is that the allegations are just that. She makes those allegations and the nature of the investigation is to discover whether any gathering was in breach of any regulations. It has been made clear that, if there was a breach of any regulations, disciplinary action will follow, but these are gatherings that occur on a regular basis.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

An event, gathering or party is

“any group of three or more persons who have assembled or gathered together for a social occasion or other activity.”

The Prime Minister has repeatedly said there was no party. The Minister now talks of a gathering. So does the Prime Minister now doubt his own version of events? Will the Cabinet Secretary also be investigating the cover-up of parties and gatherings at No. 10 Downing Street?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The hon. Gentleman should wait for the scope of the investigation, which will be made clear in a document laid in the Library of the House later today.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton

When, in early December last year, Kay Burley of Sky was busted for having a birthday party in then tier-2 London, she was contrite and accepted a six-month ban from the airwaves. In the interest of consistency, we saw a similarly distressed Allegra Stratton walk the plank yesterday. Will any male members of the Government or prominent public figures face a similar six-month ban? If not, why are women always the fall guys?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the matter. We have made it clear that there will be disciplinary action if the Cabinet Secretary uncovers any cause for such action.

Photo of Stephen Flynn Stephen Flynn Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

In December last year, my friend sat with his dad to write a list of the people who would be permitted to attend his mum’s funeral. At the same time, we now know No. 10 was hosting myriad parties that the Prime Minister claims to know nothing about, despite the fact they happened in his own house. Surely even the Minister must accept that a Prime Minister who seeks to protect partying, indeed a Prime Minister who seeks to protect himself, rather than protecting the integrity of public health messaging, is no Prime Minister at all.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The hon. Gentleman says that we “know” certain things, but we do not—they are unproven allegations. That is why we have an investigation, just as investigations take place when other allegations are made every day in police and other affairs. What we will seek to do, through the Cabinet Secretary, is investigate the allegations that the hon. Gentleman and others make.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Financial Secretary), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Now that the Paymaster General has had the opportunity to hold a gathering of his own, at least when it comes to his thoughts on this matter, will he heed the injunctions of Chris Elmore and expand the scope of this investigation to include all alleged instances of “gatherings”—or whatever we might like to call them—related to the Government on government property? Given that the Metropolitan police have, to date, shown a marked reluctance to investigate the allegations about these gatherings, will the Paymaster General confirm that he is not aware of any legal impediment that would stand in the way of the Metropolitan police investigating these matters if they so chose?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

First, I do not think that this is my gathering—if it is anyone’s, it is Mr Speaker’s. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses again to criticise the police obliquely—I have no idea why he chooses to take that approach. We are blessed in this country with a police service of integrity and independence, and I have every confidence that just as they routinely investigate matters of extreme importance, so here they can be relied upon to investigate where appropriate—I emphasise the “where appropriate”. The Cabinet Secretary has said, and we have said, under the terms of the investigation, that if necessary—if criminality is uncovered during his investigation—he will, again, engage the police.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I know the pain and sacrifice my constituents in York have experienced over the past 18 months. They are sickened by what they have seen has happened at these so-called “gatherings” at No. 10, but they are also infuriated by the obfuscation of this Government, avoiding accountability. Therefore, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman refer these matters to the police, because my constituents have no confidence in an internal investigation? The investigation must be independent, in order for us all to be able to see what really happened.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The Cabinet Secretary is independent. Cabinet Secretaries in this country serve all the political parties, dependent on who is in government, and they can be relied upon to investigate the matter fully, independently. We will await the results of his investigation.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Just today, the Tories were fined nearly £18,000 for not declaring the donation for Downing Street refurbishment. So will the Minister confirm that a gathering to look at the Prime Minister’s shiny new curtains still would breach regulations? More importantly, will the Minister confirm that even if people stick to the line, “It was a socially distanced gathering, with bring-your-own booze”, that is still a party that breached the regulations and that if the Prime Minister was armed with that information, he misled Parliament and must resign?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The nature of any gathering is, as I have repeatedly said, going to be a matter for the investigation.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Like most ordinary people, I have no idea what the difference is between a gathering and a party, and I note that the Minister has been unable to clarify that. Given the complete absence of leadership that we have witnessed, does he share my wider concern that as we enter a new wave of the pandemic, these unsavoury revelations have seriously and gravely undermined public compliance with the rules, which will cost lives? In view of that, why should anyone believe a single word the Prime Minister says?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The Prime Minister has initiated an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary and it is a matter now for the Cabinet Secretary to delve into. He will, of course, have all the authority commensurate with that office to seek to discuss the matter with individuals and to source any documents or anything else he may need. He will have that authority, so it is now a matter for him.