Before we start the first debate, I remind the House again of the importance of good temper and moderation in our proceedings, as set out in “Erskine May”. “Erskine May” also makes it clear that it is not in order to accuse another Member of lying, unless the business under consideration is a distinct motion about the conduct of that Member. That is not the case today and any such accusations will not be tolerated.
I beg to move,
That this House
recognises the importance of the Ministerial Code for maintaining high standards in public life;
endorses the Committee on Standards in Public Life report entitled Upholding Standards in Public Life, Final report of the Standards Matter 2 review;
calls on the Government to implement all of the report’s recommendations as a matter of urgency;
and further calls on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to make a statement to the House on the progress made in implementing the recommendations by
It is always a pleasure to stand opposite the Paymaster General. In this House, we are proud of the constituents we represent, and I am no different: from Droylsden school to St Peter’s and St Mary’s, from our town team to Tameside markets, Ashton-under-Lyne did our country proud this weekend. I am proud of our British values and the community that I come from—we all are—but the conduct of this Prime Minister undermines those values: rigging the rules that he himself is under investigation for breaching, downgrading standards and debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes.
There is nothing decent about the way the Prime Minister has acted. What example does he set? This Prime Minister’s example of leadership is illegally proroguing Parliament, breeding a Downing Street culture in which his staff and he himself felt able to break lockdown rules, and putting the very standards that underpin our democracy into the shredder.
The Prime Minister promised a new ministerial code in April of last year. It has taken him 13 months—13 months of sleaze, shame and scandal—and what has he come up with? In the very week that the Sue Gray report laid bare the rotten culture at the heart of Downing Street, the rule breaking on an industrial scale and the demeaning of the pillars of our great democracy, the Prime Minister made his choice—and what did he decide? Not to strengthen standards, but to lower the bar.
The right hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that, when faced with a rogue Prime Minister, a mere adviser on the ministerial code is dangerously inadequate? We must have an independent enforcer. So long as this unfit PM retains the ability to override his own adviser on the finding of a breach, the adviser—in the words of the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—is left “critically undermined”.
The hon. Lady makes a crucial point that shows why the Opposition tabled the motion today.
The bar has been lowered. Honesty, integrity, accountability, transparency, leadership in the public interest: these are the values that once cloaked the ministerial code, but to this Prime Minister they are just words. Not only that, but they are disposable words that the Prime Minister has now dispensed with, deleting them from his own contribution and airbrushing them from history—and that is just the foreword. More horrors lurk beyond.
Actions speak louder than words, and my hon. Friend hits on the point that the actions of this Prime Minister have debased the rules, have brought shame on Parliament and on the office of the Prime Minister, which is an absolute privilege, and have lost the trust of much of the public. The Prime Minister boasts about his victory in 2019, but he has now squandered all that good will with his behaviour. While people were locked down and unable to see their loved ones, cleaners were having to clean sick off the floor and wine off the walls as others were partying on down in Downing Street.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Has she had the same experience that I had this weekend when I was out meeting constituents celebrating the jubilee? They were absolutely disgusted—particularly those who are not traditional Labour supporters—by the behaviour of the Prime Minister. They feel that he is not only letting them down, but letting our country and its reputation down.
I absolutely agree. I have heard Ministers talking in the media in the past 24 hours about how we must draw a line and we must move on, but many people in this country cannot draw a line and cannot move on while this Prime Minister is in office, because it triggers what they experienced and the trauma that their families faced during the crisis.
I absolutely agree. There is an important point here, because I have heard Ministers in the media saying that we have to move on and that there are important issues that we have to face. But while the Labour party has been putting forward proposals for dealing with the cost of living crisis, bringing down NHS waiting lists, as Labour did in government, and looking at the transport chaos in which this Government have left us, the Government have not been dealing with the issues that matter to the people. They have been running around the Prime Minister trying save his neck and justify an unjustifiable example of lawbreaking.
The right hon. Lady has just suggested—and Janet Daby made the same point—that the Prime Minister has weakened the ministerial code. Is she aware of last week’s report from the Institute for Government, which said that the code had not been weakened, that “confected” accusations had been made to that effect, and that Opposition Members should therefore correct the record? Will she do that?
I am glad that the hon. Member has mentioned this. I shall say more about it later. What the Prime Minister chose to do—as the Institute for Government has recognised—was cherry-pick parts of the recommendations rather than taking them in their entirety. The chair of the committee said that it was important for the recommendations to be taken as a whole and not cherry-picked, so I respectfully disagree with the hon. Member. I do not think that this strengthened the ministerial code, and I think that what the Prime Minister did constitutes a missed opportunity. What he has tried to do is get away with weakening the ministerial code so that he can say, “I have given an apology, and I think that that is the right way to go about it.”
I congratulate the right hon. Lady and her colleagues on securing the debate. She has mentioned the unlawful Prorogation of Parliament. This Parliament failed to hold the Prime Minister to account after that unlawful Prorogation, which meant that he was able to continue his cavalier attitude to the law and, now, the ministerial code. Does she agree that it is vital for Parliament to find a way to get rid of the Prime Minister, as his party is clearly unable to do so expeditiously?
I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Lady. It is important to note that this Prime Minister has a long history and a long-standing pattern of behaviour that render him unfit for prime ministerial office. Since he had the privilege of becoming Prime Minister, all he has demonstrated is that he was not worthy of that office, and he will never change his behaviour. Conservative Members need to understand that, because he is dragging the Conservative party down. It has been suggested to me many times by the media that that may be a good thing for the Labour party. Well, it is not a good thing for the Labour party, and it is not a good thing for the country to have a Prime Minister who acts in a reckless way and does not believe that the law applies to him.
My right hon. Friend has hit on an important point about the status and importance of the Prime Minister’s office. During the time that I have been interested in politics, there have been four Conservative Prime Ministers—Mrs Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron, and Mrs May—all of whom I disagreed with politically, but none of whom remotely besmirched the position of Prime Minister and denigrated our politics in the way that this one has.
That too is an important point. The opposition to the Prime Minister comes from many different walks of political life—from his own Back Benchers, from some of his predecessors, and, obviously, from Members on these Benches. This is not really a political issue; it is more about the question of what our democracy stands for. If we do not draw a line in relation to these standards and ensure that we hold to them, the public will have a mistrust of politicians, and that is damaging for everyone, not just Conservative Members.
My right hon. Friend has talked about the ministerial code, but let us also consider just three of the Nolan principles: honesty, integrity and openness. We know that there are people in much lower offices in public service who adhere to those principles without question and without problems. Does my right hon. Friend find it regrettable that the Prime Minister does not?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not only does the Prime Minister not adhere to those principles; he deleted them from his own foreword to the ministerial code, which is pretty unbelievable.
One way of moving on would be a public inquiry. Many commitments have been made to such an inquiry, but we have yet to be given a date. Is it not important for everyone who has lost loved ones—the 160,000 people who have died in the United Kingdom, including 4,000 who have died in Northern Ireland—to have an input, to ask questions and receive answers, so that they can move on?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I vividly remember the contributions he made as part of that debate and the way in which he passionately put forward what the public have been through and how they felt about that. That is why I say that the public are not ready to move on. While the Prime Minister remains in office, I do not think the public will ever move on from what they have been through, because it was a very traumatic time. There is not a family in the UK that was not affected by the pandemic, and every time a Minister tells the public to move on, all it does is make them more upset and angry. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman.
Coming back to the ministerial code, this is not just about the foreword. Far from adopting the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in a report that the Prime Minister did not even have the decency to respond to, the truth is that he cherry-picked the recommendations that suited him and discarded those he found inconvenient. Lord Evans, the chair of the committee, has said that the recommendations, which form the basis of this Opposition day debate today, were “designed as a package”. By casting aside cross-party proposals, the Prime Minister is trying to rig the rules and downgrade standards.
Let us take the introduction of tiered sanctions. That proposal is meaningful only if independence is granted to the adviser to open investigations. Without that, it is left to the whim of the Prime Minister. Lord Evans described these two changes as
“part of a mutually dependent package of reforms, designed to be taken together”.
As the Institute for Government says, the Prime Minister’s changes do not increase the adviser’s independence at all. In fact, the net effect of the changes is to weaken standards and concentrate power in his own hands. While the adviser on standards may have been granted a swanky new website and an office, he still fundamentally requires the Prime Minister’s permission to launch any investigation, making the Prime Minister the judge and jury in his very own personal courtroom. It is no wonder his own standards adviser has criticised him for his low ambition on standards.
The adviser was joined last week by Lord Evans, the chair of the committee, who outlined the dangers of cherry-picking changes to the ministerial code. While the Prime Minister maintains the power of veto over the independent adviser, there is an inherent risk that he will overrule his own adviser or tell him, “There’s nothing to see here. Now be a good chap and move on.” Well, we are not moving on when he is dragging our democracy into the gutter. Without having independence baked into the standards system, this new code flatters to deceive.
It is extraordinary not only that the Prime Minister can refuse permission for an investigation to be undertaken but that there is no obligation on him to explain why. I am sure the right hon. Lady will agree that, in the circumstances, it is no surprise that more and more people are losing faith in the parliamentary system per se, and that we in Wales are therefore truly questioning whether we cannot do this better for ourselves.
The hon. Member makes her point, but I think we are better together. The actions of the Prime Minister do not represent the United Kingdom, which is why I am bringing this motion before the House today.
The new code is also utterly silent on the question of what amounts to a major breach of the rules, so what happens to a Minister who engages in bribery, who perpetuates sexual assault or who bullies their staff? It is the Prime Minister who continues to appoint himself as the judge and jury on ministerial misconduct, including his own. It is he who decides the degree of wrongdoing or rule breaking. You could not make it up, but that is exactly what he is proposing to do. This is the same Prime Minister who became the first in history to have broken the law in office. Now, what is to stop him saying that some sort of an apology is enough?
I wonder if my right hon. Friend has had an opportunity to read Lord Geidt’s most recent report on the ministerial code, in which he says:
“I have attempted to avoid the Independent Adviser”— that is Lord Geidt himself—
“offering advice to a Prime Minister about a Prime Minister’s obligations under his own Ministerial Code. If a Prime Minister’s judgement is that there is nothing to investigate or no case to answer, he would be bound to reject any such advice, thus forcing the resignation of the Independent Adviser”— rather than that of the Prime Minister, obviously.
“Such a circular process could only risk placing the Ministerial Code in a place of ridicule.”
Is that not basically where we are—a place of ridicule?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We need look no further than the Prime Minister’s response when it was revealed that the Home Secretary has been bullying her staff. He threw a protective ring around her, pardoning bullying in the workplace and forcing the resignation of his widely respected independent adviser.
Another protective ring was assembled for the former Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who unlawfully tried to save a Tory donor from a £40 million tax bill on a huge property deal. The former Health Secretary’s sister was handed lucrative NHS contracts while a protective ring was denied to care homes up and down this country, leaving residents and staff locked down and terrified as covid swept through the country. It is one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.
In fact, the only specified sanction in the new ministerial code is for deliberately misleading Parliament. It is right that the sanction for misleading Parliament remains resignation, which is a long-established principle, yet the Prime Minister is still in his place. He remains in his position, clinging on to office and degrading that principle a little more each day. This Prime Minister should be long gone but, despite the majority of his Back Benchers telling him to get on his bike, he cannot take the hint.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life made numerous recommendations, including a proposal to end the revolving door that allowed the Greensill scandal to occur, but they have all been ignored by the Prime Minister. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments was already a toothless watchdog, but under this Government it has been muzzled and neutered. Forget the revolving door, we have a system in which the door is held wide open for former Ministers who want to line their pockets as soon as they leave office.
ACOBA used to have the power to issue lobbying bans of up to five years for rule breaking, but as the Committee on Standards in Public Life said,
“The lack of any meaningful sanctions for a breach of the rules is no longer sustainable.”
ACOBA should be given meaningful powers, making its decisions directly binding rather than mere recommendations. We must put a stop to the current provision in the governance code for Ministers that enables them to go ahead and appoint candidates who have been deemed inappropriate by an assessment panel.
Urgent reform is required to the process of making appointments in public life, with a stronger guarantee of independence. A number of direct ministerial appointments are entirely unregulated, which must change. Labour supports the proposal of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to create an obligation in primary legislation for the Prime Minister to publish the ministerial code and to grant it a more appropriate constitutional status. I hope the Minister will take note. There is a precedent, as the codes of conduct for the civil service, for special advisers and for the diplomatic service are all on a statutory footing to ensure serious offences are properly investigated. I am sure he would agree it is only right that holders of public office are held to the same standard.
In the early days of Nolan, I was an independent assessor of public appointments, which was a role I took very seriously. Has my right hon. Friend noticed the trend in many public appointments to pack the panel with people with a particular political direction? In one case, a sacked special adviser with limited experience was on a panel for an important role.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She does tremendous work on the Public Accounts Committee, deep diving into some of these issues.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life concluded that the current system of transparency on lobbying is not fit for purpose. There is cross-party agreement that change is needed to update our system and strengthen standards in public life. Those standards are being chipped away day by day. It is time to rebuild, repair and restore public trust in our politics.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life has a pre-written, some might say “oven ready,” package of solutions, so let us get it done. After a decade of inaction by this Government, Britain is lagging behind the curve compared with our allies when it comes to ethical standards in government. President Biden has committed to setting up a commission on federal ethics, a single Government agency with the power to oversee and enforce federal anti-corruption laws. The Australian Labour party, which is now in government, has plans for a Commonwealth integrity commission that will have powers to investigate public corruption. In Canada, the ethics commissioner enforces breaches of the law covering public office holders.
Far from keeping up with our global partners, this Government have allowed standards in Britain to wither on the vine. The Government greeted the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life with complete silence back in November. When the Prime Minister finally got around to updating the ministerial code 10 days ago, he cherry-picked the bits he liked from the report, completely undermining its aim.
Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the refusal of the Prime Minister and other Ministers to allow senior civil servants to come to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee? We have now asked Sue Gray three times to attend our Greensill inquiry, and she has been blocked by the Prime Minister and other Ministers, as have other senior civil servants. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is another form of preventing Parliament from holding the Executive up to scrutiny?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It says a lot about the Prime Minister, as I have outlined in my speech, that he has no regard for transparency. When Labour was last in government, we legislated to clean up politics with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission, the Freedom of Information Act and the ministerial code. The last Labour Government did not hesitate to act decisively to clean up Britain’s public life, and Labour’s independent integrity and ethics commission will bring the current farce to an end and clean up politics.
Three decades ago, a Labour Opposition exposed the sleaze engulfing and decaying a Tory Government, and we legislated for it. Over the past 12 years of this Tory Government, the strong standards we set have been chipped away. Our unwritten constitution is dependent on so-called “good chaps”. We trust our political leaders to do the right thing, but that theory has been ripped to shreds under this Government. No amount of convention or legislation appears capable of stopping this Prime Minister riding roughshod over our democracy.
The next Labour Government will act to stamp out the corruption that has run rife under this Prime Minister. Labour’s ethics commission will bring the existing committees and bodies that oversee standards in government into a single independent body that is removed from politicians. It will have powers to launch investigations without ministerial approval, to collect evidence and to decide sanctions.
Honesty matters, integrity matters and decency matters. We should be ambitious for high standards, and we should all be accountable: no more Ministers breaking the rules and getting away with it; no more revolving door between ministerial office and lobbying jobs; no more corruption and waste of taxpayers’ money; and no more Members of Parliament paid to lobby their own Government.
Labour has a plan to restore standards in public life and to clean up politics, but we have to start somewhere. We have to stop the rot. Labour’s motion would see the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life adopted in full right now, which is a crucial first step. The committee was established by Sir John Major nearly three decades ago to advise the Prime Minister on ethical standards in public life, and it has promoted the seven principles of public life—the Nolan principles.
The mission of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has never been more important than it is today. It is genuinely independent and genuinely cross-party, and it has done all the work. The plans are in place, ready to go. On the Opposition Benches, we back the Committee on Standards in Public Life. All we need now is a nod from the Minister and the Government, which they could do today by passing this motion. I hope the Minister gives in this time.
Another Committee—the Committee on Standards, which is also cross-party—has produced a report. It has suggested that because one of the important principles is openness, the rule for Ministers on when and how they register hospitality should not be separate from that for the rest of Members. Will the Labour party be supporting those changes, to make sure that everybody in the House is treated equally when they are brought forward to the House?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: what the Labour party is promoting and what we want to see is transparency. We did that and demonstrated that under the last Labour Government, and we will continue to do that. Under this Government, we have seen time and again an erosion of that transparency, that right to freedom of information and that conduct in terms of how we report how donations are made and so on, with them trying to get around the rules. That is why we have proposed the independent ethics commission, because we think it is an important step in cleaning up some of the problems we face today.
This Prime Minister has tested our unwritten constitution to its limit, but today all Members of this House have their own choice to make. As Sir John Major said of the Committee in his foreword to this latest report,
“The Committee will never be redundant. A minority will evade or misinterpret the rules of proper behaviour. The rules will always need regular updating to meet changing expectations in many areas”.
“will not restore public trust in ethical standards at the heart of government. Instead, suspicion about the way in which the Ministerial Code is administered will linger”.
Conservative Members must now ask themselves the question: will they back the package of recommendations proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life or will they turn their backs to save the skin of a rogue Prime Minister—one who is already haemorrhaging support from his own side? Those who reject these cross- party proposals will be complicit. They will be propping up a Prime Minister intent on dragging everyone and everything down with him. Today, all of us have a choice—we have a chance to draw the line in the sand and say, “Enough is enough!”
We urge Members to vote to defend the principles of public life, to back high standards and to clean up politics. It is time to stop the rot, and I commend this motion to the House.
I thank Angela Rayner for choosing today’s motion. We have been on opposite sides one or two times in the past few months, and it is always a pleasure, but I have no hesitation in supporting the motion on the Order Paper today.
The Government fully recognise the importance of the ministerial code and its role in maintaining standards in public life—that is not questioned. It was, of course, a Conservative Prime Minister who created the code, which sets out the Prime Minister’s expectations for his or her Ministers, detailing the standards of conduct expected of those who serve Government and the principles that underpin those standards. The code has performed that role for successive Prime Ministers since, as I say, it was first published by Sir John Major as “Questions of Procedure for Ministers” 30 years ago, in 1992.
Throughout that time, the code has been an evolving document. It is customarily issued, as the House will know, where warranted and then reissued by the Prime Minister of the day to reflect changes, and to update the guidance and principles that apply to Ministers. It is because of the importance of the ministerial code that the Prime Minister has recently revised and strengthened it. It is, frankly, fake news to say, as some have, that it has been weakened—the exact opposite: it has been strengthened, and I will explain why.
In doing this, the Prime Minister has unambiguously drawn on the advice of both the independent adviser on ministerial interests and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the independent adviser for all his work advising the Prime Minister since he was appointed a little over a year ago. I would, of course, also like to thank the Committee on Standards in Public Life, not just for its “Upholding Standards in Public Life” report of last November, but for fulfilling the important role that it has done for over 25 years: advising the Prime Minister of the day on the arrangements in place to uphold standards in public life.
I would like to talk about the changes that have been made; to clarify some of the confusion and misinformation that has been circulating in relation to them; and to set out to right hon. and hon. Members why decisions about how the ministerial code evolves are, rightly and constitutionally, ones for the Prime Minister of the day.
I will make a little progress, but I will be giving way later. Let me start by saying that the changes made to the ministerial code in this iteration and to the role of the independent adviser, published on
In all those ways and in more, the role has been strengthened. [Interruption.] It is not just a new website; it is the control of staff, the control of correspondence, the right to be consulted about future revisions, the creation of proportionate standards and the specific references to Ministers. It is much stronger than it was before.
I am interested in what the Minister said in his opening remarks about supporting the terms of the motion. It
“calls on the Government to implement all of the report’s recommendations” in the “Standards Matter 2” review
“as a matter of urgency”.
Notwithstanding what the Minister just said, is he now confirming to the House that the Government will implement all of those recommendations, as the motion calls for?
The hon. Gentleman should be patient and wait to see. What is important is that, collectively, these revisions represent a substantial and significant evolution. Importantly, as I have said, they reflect the thinking, over time, of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is not as though this has been magicked up somewhere else; this is reflective of what the committee has asked for—and the independent adviser. The Government are alert to those recommendations made by those in the standards landscape. We regard those recommendations as important and worthy of careful consideration.
I am speaking as a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life but not on behalf of that committee, as that is the job of the chair only. I simply observe to the Minister that there is a fatal flaw in the observations he has just made about the greater degree of freedom to be given to the independent adviser, because everything still depends, fundamentally, on the decision of the Prime Minister in office.
As it should, constitutionally. The reality is, as I think the right hon. Lady will confirm, that this does strengthen the position—certainly it does not weaken it. The Committee on Standards in Public Life first made recommendations on the ministerial code and the role of the independent adviser on
That is not unreasonable. It is perfectly reasonable to have a proportionate availability—a range of options—for someone who has been found to be in breach of the code, just as this House has when Members of Parliament are found to be in breach of the standards expected of this House and just as a military court martial or court of law would have. Currently, the ministerial code does not allow for that range of options, so punishments can be disproportionate.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman always comes to the Dispatch Box and eruditely dances on a pinhead to justify his paymaster. Fundamentally, the difference is that when my party was in government, Ministers were sacked for lesser things than have been done recently, because the Prime Ministers of the day had regard to the standards in public life and had no truck with anyone who crossed the line. That is surely the difference in respect of what we all want to see—and, actually, given what we can see on the Government Benches, what a lot of the Minister’s party would like to see.
I understand the hon. Lady’s wish to paint her party’s former leaders as paragons of virtue, but the important thing—the test—is whether a Minister retains the confidence of the Prime Minister of the day, whether that be a Labour or Conservative Prime Minister.
The Government acted on the recommendations last year. In a letter to Lord Evans on
The committee then made further recommendations on the ministerial code and the independent adviser in its report of November last year. The Government considered those recommendations and consulted the noble Lord Geidt, before publishing their policy statement on the ministerial code and the adviser on
The Minister’s response a few moments ago was incredibly telling. For all the talk about independence and standards, did he not hit the nail on the head when he said it depends on whether the Prime Minister retains confidence in a Minister? This is not any kind of independent process; it is simply about who the Prime Minister favours and who he does not.
Not at all. There is a constitutional imperative that the Prime Minister of the day, no matter what party he or she is from, must have the right to select their Ministers and must have confidence in their Ministers. That is a constitutional imperative and it is not inconsistent with the code and the independent adviser’s wishes.
Let me rest for a moment on the change that has been made in respect of sanctions, because it exemplifies the point about the Government’s considering and responding to the recommendations of others. It has always been the case, under successive Administrations, that a range of potential outcomes are available when it is determined that an aspect of the code has been broken. Some examples have been cited from previous Administrations. Members need only cast their minds back to the case of Baroness Scotland in 2009, who apologised for unknowingly employing an illegal worker and paid the associated civil penalty of £5,000, but when then Prime Minister Gordon Brown concluded that no further action was necessary, he made that determination of his own volition.
In the interests of fairness, I could equally well mention the 2012 investigation into Baroness Sayeeda Warsi under the coalition Government, or the current independent adviser’s finding that my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock made a technical breach of the code in failing to declare that his sister’s company had become an approved supplier to the NHS.
The test of whether a Minister remains in office has always been the continued confidence of the Prime Minister, so I am not going to criticise previous Labour Prime Ministers for making that determination, and nor would I criticise anyone in that position. They have a difficult office to fulfil and they must make a determination. If a breach of the code is extremely minor in the eyes of most but the Prime Minister has lost confidence in the Minister in question, that will be it for that Minister. That is the way it has to work.
That is the test of whether a Minister remains, yet over time a false impression has grown that any breach, large or small, across a wide-ranging, detailed document of 26 pages, must result in resignation. Correcting that false impression has been a concern not just for the Government but for those who advise on ethics in government. In its “Upholding Standards in Public Life” report, the Committee on Standards in Public Life noted:
“No other area of public life has such a binary system of sanctions, and in both Parliament and the Civil Service there are a range of sanctions available according to the seriousness of the offence. There is no reason why this should not be the case for ministers.”
The ministerial code says:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
I am sure the Minister agrees with that—“paramount importance”. The Prime Minister has now said nine times in the House that the level of unemployment is lower now than it was before the pandemic. That is untrue. The Prime Minister accepts it is untrue: he was asked about it by one of the members of the Liaison Committee and said, “Yes, but I have corrected the record.” Unfortunately, he has not corrected the record, and he has not even corrected the record about not having corrected the record yet. Does that not mean the code should say:
“Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”— unless it is the Prime Minister?
If I may say so, that is a rather poor example to cite, because what the Prime Minister is doing is emphasising the fact that unemployment in this country is lower now than it has been for generations. [Interruption.]
Until—[Interruption.] Can I carry on? Until now, the code has been silent on the specific consequences for breaches, apart from in some defined instances. The code sets out that knowingly misleading this House is a breach of the code for which resignation is expected. The code still says that—it is stated in paragraph 1.3.c, not one word of which has changed—but now it also includes more detail on other possible sanctions. In particular, it makes mention of a public apology, remedial action or the removal of ministerial salary for a period—again, something that this House can also sanction in certain circumstances. I do not know whether Members are arguing to the contrary.
To what degree does the Minister agree that truth matters, regardless of the sanctions? We have been talking about a lot of the details, but Plaid Cymru and I have brought forward legislation to make lying in politics illegal, because that would fundamentally show to this place that the truth matters. Does the Minister agree with me in that respect?
Of course I agree that the truth is an important and paramount object in public life. That goes without saying. Sanctions are another matter. This is a question of fact and degree in each individual case. The right hon. Lady is pursuing this line that somehow truth has been removed from this iteration of the ministerial code. It has not—it is still there at paragraph 1.3.c—so she is pursuing an imaginary problem.
Let me turn to the letter on the application of the ministerial code to the Prime Minister. Before I talk about the detail of the letter, it is important that I touch on the recent communication between the Prime Minister and the independent adviser in relation to the fixed penalty notice received by the Prime Minister and the application of the ministerial code.
I am not going to get into individual examples; it would not be appropriate for me to do so. On
I will give way in a moment. I must get through my remarks.
Let me return to the reforms that have been introduced. It is the role of the independent adviser to provide the Prime Minister with independent advice on whether a Minister’s conduct has met the standards set out in the code, as well as providing independent, impartial advice to Ministers on the management of their interests. The role is an advisory one. In the event that an allegation of a breach of the code is referred to the independent adviser, his task is to investigate and, following that investigation, to give his independent advice to the Prime Minister in order that the Prime Minister may then reach a decision. Those decisions are taken by the Prime Minister—constitutionally it is essential that they are taken by the Prime Minister—in line with his democratic accountability for such decisions. The Prime Minister has the democratic accountability—the elected authority—and advisers and officials do not.
May I take my right hon. and learned Friend back to the Prime Minister’s response to the independent adviser—the letter that he mentioned that was published on
I respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend for the simple reason that there is the issue of inadvertence. That is a relevant factor. As someone who has been involved in the law for many years, I think that one should take the approach of accepting that there is a difference between inadvertence and deliberate conduct.
The initiation of investigations by the independent adviser has been subject to much comment. I assure hon. Members that the Government have considered the range of views on this carefully. The revised terms of reference set out an enhanced process to allow for the independent adviser now to independently initiate an investigation, having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent—[Interruption.] That is an improvement on what was the case before. It is also stated in the new iteration that the Prime Minister would normally provide that consent. I note here that Lord Evans has made it clear that the introduction of a range of graduated sanctions means that the independent adviser should be given the full authority to independently initiate investigations, and that these recommendations were part of the package. The Government have considered that carefully. While they take this view seriously, please allow me to lay out why we consider it critical that the Prime Minister retains a role in the initiation of investigations. [Interruption.] Because this is a constitutional imperative. The Prime Minister is head of Her Majesty’s Government and is accountable for the conduct of the Executive. That authority and that accountability derives from the Prime Minister’s ability to command the confidence of this House, and that derives from the Members of this House, including those who hold office —all of us—at the behest of the electorate. This Government are committed to maintaining that constitutional position and the accountability of the Prime Minister, including in decisions. If we usurp that and hand that authority to someone who does not have electoral accountability, that would be a constitutional irregularity. To hand such decisions to another appointed individual without a check or a balance would be to undermine that position fundamentally.
Has not the Minister just got to the heart of the problem? It is precisely because the Prime Minister is the ultimate arbiter of the code that the holder of the position of Prime Minister has a particular obligation to act with integrity. The problem that we have here is that there is a growing lack of confidence in the Prime Minister’s integrity—we saw that last night—and the longer he clings on, the more he undermines the office that he holds and, indeed, undermines our democracy.
I respectfully disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister enhances the role of his office. [Interruption.] The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Conservative party had, proportionately, the largest electoral victory since 1979—it speaks for itself. The Prime Minister has secured the electoral support of the largest number of people in this country for many years.
The ministerial code makes it clear that the Prime Minister will normally agree to an investigation, and that, in the unlikely scenario that the Prime Minister does not agree to an investigation, the independent adviser can then request that the reasons for not doing so are published. There is, therefore, a check on the Prime Minister’s power to refuse consent for an investigation. The reasons would have to be published and they would have to be clear. Those are important improvements in independence and transparency.
Lord Geidt is clear that this is a “workable scheme”. The Government are also clear that this is a scheme that upholds the constitutional position. I would add that Lord Evans, in writing to Lord True in response to the Government policy statement, stated that the new process for initiating investigations
“represents an improvement in the process for regulating the Code, which we welcome.”
The Minister seeks to justify the Government’s position by tying it back to the principle of parliamentary privilege, as if that is somehow an absolute and inviolable principle. But it is a principle that we in recent years have watered down in relation to the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and now the Independent Complaints and Grievance Service. This is not any more the trump card that it used to be. If this House is to be subject to independent investigation as Members, why should the Prime Minister and his Ministers be treated differently?
There is the Executive, the judiciary and the legislature, and there are different arrangements for the three branches. One would not expect anything contrary to that.
Let me touch on the relationship. The Government greatly value the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but as the careful balancing of the powers around the initiation of investigation demonstrates, we consider it right that the Government assess recommendations on their individual merits. This work takes time and involves testing the strengths and weakness of proposals and options to develop a workable response. This is as true for the recommendations made in relation to the ministerial code as it is for the other areas covered in the extensive report issued by the CSPL just over six months ago. We have said that the Government are carefully considering those and other recommendations, and that is precisely the work that is taking place. The report was extensive, and the work to consider it is as extensive. I assure the House that the Government will respond to the Committee’s other recommendations in due course. The Government are happy to update the House via an appropriate statement when doing so.
Let me go back to the fact that the Prime Minister can say no to the initiation of an independent investigation. What happens if the independent investigator asks the Prime Minister to publish his reasons? Is the Prime Minister compelled to do that? Similarly, given that the Prime Minister has said all along that no rules were broken, what is to stop him breaking rules in the future and saying, “No, we don’t need an investigation because I can assure you that no rules have been broken.”? Where are the checks and balances there?
The check and balance is that the Prime Minister would have to say in writing, I think, that he will find that—[Interruption.] I have answered that point. There would have to be some indication in writing of why he has advised the independent adviser not to proceed.
Moving on, the motion calls for the Government
“to make a statement to the House on the progress made in implementing the recommendations” of the CSPL on
I will give way before I finish, but I want to highlight again that the changes to the ministerial code, and the terms of reference for the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, are a positive step forward. They signal a greater and more clearly defined role for the independent adviser, alongside a proportionate approach to breaches of the code. They are made in response to the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others, and following consultation with the independent adviser, for whom, I must add, I and Her Majesty’s Government generally have the greatest respect. We are very conscious of the work he does, and are honoured to have him as a public servant. I particularly emphasise that point.
The Minister very frequently defends the indefensible in this Chamber when many of his colleagues come to the conclusion that they cannot. He talked about a binary choice, but the binary choice is between what is right and what is wrong. My four-year-old daughter gets that; why do the Minister and the Prime Minister not?
The Prime Minister understands full well when wrong has been done, and he has apologised repeatedly. The quality of mercy is also an important one.
The Paymaster General has been here on many occasions defending the Prime Minister’s position on issues relating to, for want of a better term, partygate. He has repeated the lines of the Prime Minister and the Government on what happened and did not happen on those occasions. Is he satisfied with the information he is being supplied with, and that he has not been led to inadvertently mislead Parliament with his statements defending the Government’s position?
It goes without saying that I would not appear at this Dispatch Box if I were otherwise than satisfied—more than satisfied—that the information I am given is correct.
The House will agree that we all wish to apply the highest standards in our role. We are none of us perfect, but we come here with a view to serving our constituents and the general public. The Prime Minister does that; we all do that, on both sides of the House, and we do our best, but we are not immune to mistakes and occasional errors. What is most important is how we deal with them afterwards. There, the Prime Minister has shown leadership, as he has on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on delivering on the promise to get Brexit done, and on delivering on the urgent promises required by the exigencies of the pandemic.
For all the reasons I have iterated, the motion is one on which the Government can abstain. While we greatly value the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and of others who advise on the critical matter of how best to support the highest standards in public life, we do not support the suggestion that the recommendations of one particular report be adopted, without due consideration, as a single block. The report that we are debating was published a little over six months ago. It is extensive and wide-ranging, with 34 substantial recommendations, all of which demand careful consideration. That work is taking place, and in due course the Government will update the House, after careful thought, on our conclusions, which may be in parts. An essential part of that work will be considering the recommendations on their merits, and testing their application and their intentions. It is for those reasons that it is not possible for the Government to sign up to the motion today.
High standards are of paramount importance to this Government. We will update the House in due course, after further consideration of the many aspects of the committee’s report.
I pass my sincere thanks to Angela Rayner for bringing to the House this very important motion on the need to implement, quickly and in full, the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which found four areas of particular concern that required significant reform.
Given the time constraints, I will limit my remarks to what I consider to be the most pressing issue: the ministerial code, which, under this Government, has hardly been worth the paper it was written on, and the role of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests. I can assure the House that if it divides this afternoon, the SNP will support the motion; if anything, the issue has been given even greater urgency as a result of the hurried, self-preserving changes that the Prime Minister made to the ministerial code in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the Sue Gray report.
Of course, the Government have tried to spin the changes that they introduced as being in line with what was recommended in the report, but we all know that the changes made to the ministerial code last week were made to protect the Prime Minister’s personal position, and to change the rules governing behaviour ahead of the upcoming inquiry by the Privileges Committee. He appears to have viewed the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life as a smörgåsbord of suggested reforms, from which he could choose those that suited him and leave out those he did not much fancy.
Surely if this was a genuine attempt at a fresh start, if the Prime Minister wanted us to believe that he had truly been “humbled” by the Sue Gray report, and if he wanted the public to believe that he had changed, he would have accepted the committee’s recommendations in full, particularly this recommendation:
“The Independent Adviser should be able to initiate investigations, determine findings of breaches, and a summary of their findings should be published in a timely manner.”
Rather, the Prime Minister has decreed that his independent ethics adviser will not be given any such powers, and will instead have to seek the Prime Minister’s permission before launching an investigation into possible ministerial misconduct.
In picking and choosing those bits of the report that suit him, the Prime Minister has, understandably and rightly, been accused of rigging the system and moving the goalposts, simply to get himself off the inconvenient hook on which he has been caught. Those on the Government Benches need to understand that the optics of this are absolutely dreadful—but then again, when has that ever been a concern to this Prime Minister of an increasingly authoritarian Government, who have repeatedly shown themselves to be allergic to scrutiny, on issues ranging from Prorogation to the awarding of PPE contracts?
“I apologised when the revelations emerged, and I continue to apologise. I repeat that I am humbled by what has happened”—[Official Report,
His humility and contrition, if they were ever there at all, lasted all of 48 hours, because the ink was hardly dry on Hansard’s report of the Prime Minister’s grovelling mea culpa before he was brazenly changing the ministerial code, not to strengthen parliamentary standards, to increase transparency and accountability or to rebuild the shattered public trust in this Parliament—not a bit of it—but in a way that would afford him greater protection from this Parliament and from scrutiny, and entrench even greater powers in his hands. With the Prime Minister having been publicly humiliated in the Sue Gray report and forced to pay a fixed penalty notice for breaking his own laws, and with an investigation by the Privileges Committee hanging over him, one would have thought, or hoped, that a period of self-reflection and humility would have been in order, but sadly not. Once again, his instinct for self-preservation came to the fore, and he watered down the ministerial code to save his own skin.
Had anyone else done that, we would have been shocked, aghast and disbelieving at such a lack of good faith—but were any of us really that shocked? Apart from the 211 unfortunate, gullible souls on the Conservative Benches, were any of us that surprised at what he did? Probably not, because we, and increasingly the public, know the character of this man, and they can see that there is no one and nothing that he will not bring down in his desperation to cling on to power. From the day he assumed office, we have seen the Prime Minister dismantle, degrade, debase and demean standards in public life.
This crisis has been long in the making, because the bigger problem is that there are no real rules. There is only the expectation that those in power will adhere to a code of behaviour based on personal integrity and common decency, and the whole system is all hung on a vague concept of individual honour. Of course, that all falls apart when a powerful individual decides that they will not behave with decency and honour, and matters are made considerably worse when it turns out that the person at the very top lacks integrity, is devoid of a sense of shame, and completely lacks a moral compass. What then happens, as we are discovering, is that the system of ensuring standards of behaviour in public life falls apart, and there is very little anyone can do about it. The sad truth is that if someone at the very top of Government is so thick-skinned that they do not see being fined by the police or publicly eviscerated in a report about their personal behaviour as a resignation issue, and decides to tough it out until the news cycle inevitably moves on, then it appears that there is almost nothing we can do about it.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that if the Prime Minister —any Prime Minister—can always simply bail out a ministerial colleague, even if they have been shown to have clearly broken the ministerial code, that undermines not only the code and the role of the independent adviser, but the role of all of us? We are all besmirched by the same sense that we cannot get our own house in order, and that is damaging to democracy and to the parliamentary and political system.
I absolutely agree. The system has to change, and that change has to start with us in this House. When the problem is staring us in the face, and when we know that what we see is wrong, then unless we act, we become complicit—we become part of the problem. I believe that history will judge us on whether we opposed or facilitated this dismantling of democracy.
Of course, in Scotland we know all about the dismantling of democracy. Despite the Tories not winning an election in Scotland since 1955, yet another Tory Government are imposing policies on us that we rejected. They are led by a Prime Minister whose unpopularity is plumbing such new depths that they will have to find new ways of measuring them. Interestingly, there are signs in Scotland that even his side is turning on him; most Scottish Tories are now struggling to defend his behaviour. As former MSP Adam Tomkins wrote recently,
“When a government asserts that the laws do not apply to it—that assertion offends not only the law itself, but our very idea of constitutional government.”
Even the former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, the noble Baroness Davidson of Lundin Links, told Channel 4 a few weeks ago that it was clear that the Prime Minister had lied to Parliament, and his position was therefore untenable. With characteristic steely determination, even the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, decided that the Prime Minister had to go—or maybe he did not have to go; or perhaps he should go, but maybe not right now; or maybe at some unspecified point in the future, he might have to think about resigning. Safe to say, it was not a ringing endorsement from the hon. Member for Moray; but then again, maybe it was—who knows? After all, we are talking about a man with more flip-flops than a seaside shoe shop.
But regardless of the hon. Member for Moray’s many different deeply considered and principled positions on the future of the Prime Minister, this whole sorry episode has made it clearer than ever that Scotland’s future lies far away from this place and its never-ending merry-go-round of scandal where standards in public life are shredded and burned by a rogue Prime Minister. Scotland deserves a better democracy than the charade that is currently being foisted on us by Westminster, and the offer to change it once and for all will, I believe, prove irresistible when we have our independence referendum.
Let me begin by welcoming this motion, and particularly welcoming the response by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister when he said that he basically supports the principle behind the motion, even though I think that we on the Government Benches intend to abstain on it. The principle behind the motion is important because standards in public life matter and the Nolan principles matter. If any of us, in any part of this House, start to think that they are technical, passing fancies or things that come and go, then we are fundamentally misunderstanding our role here, misunderstanding the importance of the integrity that the Nolan principles enshrine, and putting in danger the way that our democracy is being perceived among constituents—the people who voted to send us here in the first place.
The crucial thing is that many of us will often face the situation where people say, “Oh, those MPs up in Westminster, they’re all the same—apart from my local MP.” That is great if you are the local MP they are referring to, because you know that they know you and hold you in high regard, but just think about what it says for democracy in general if they say that, as a class, MPs are held in such low regard and democracy is so mistrusted and distrusted. It cannot be good for this place as an institution and it cannot be good for our democracy. Therefore, it is essential that none of us underplays or forgets the central and enduring importance of the Nolan principles and of standards in public life. I was therefore delighted to hear that there is, broadly speaking, cross-party agreement on the principles of this. That is absolutely great. It bears repetition—constant repetition—and I am glad to see it.
I support much of the motion, particularly regarding an awful lot of the 34 recommendations in the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life—but not quite all. There are many things that are extremely admirable and that I have called for myself. I would disagree with what the committee has said on a couple of things, despite the fact that overall its report is excellent. I want to add one or two things that it has become clear over the past few days need to be done to further strengthen the role of the independent adviser on the ministerial code. Many parts of the report have already been introduced. I will not repeat what my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister outlined and go through those things again, but they are welcome and they are necessary. I supported them as they were introduced and I still support them today.
However, a great number of the recommendations in the CSPL report have not yet been introduced, and I devoutly hope that they will be. Incidentally, a parallel report, the Boardman report—No. 3; he has done several—was issued in the middle of last year, and a Government response remains outstanding. I hope that I can press the Minister to explain to us in his closing remarks—or any Member on the Front Bench to explain to us—when and whether the response to the Boardman report will be put out. Logically, the Government should respond to that report at the same time as they respond to the CSPL report. The two go together; they have mutually complementary recommendations, and they should be responded to at the same time.
For example, both the Boardman report and that from the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommend proposals for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—that is, on what we as Members of Parliament can all do after we have left this place, such as the jobs we can take outside, and on whether we should be bound by that committee’s recommendations. There is a really simple, clear and sensible recommendation in the Boardman report, which I think is duplicated in the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to require Ministers to sign a legal deed to say, “I will abide by the decisions of ACOBA.” Those decisions would therefore become legally binding on the Minister concerned, even if they ceased to be a Minister.
There are a series of very sensible proposals in the report by the CSPL and in the Boardman report that need to be implemented. They need to be introduced, and quickly, because as we have heard today the noise of public drumming of fingers and tapping of feet while we wait to say that this is not good enough and that we need to raise our standards and our game as a democracy is getting ever louder. We cannot afford to wait.
Those proposals need to be introduced, and ditto the proposals on lobbying, incidentally. The CSPL makes a series of recommendations on lobbying—recommendations 26 to 30 for anybody who is interested—that complement the recommendations that have been either discussed or recommended by the Select Committee on Standards. I forget their precise status, and I suspect the Chair of that Committee is about to put me right.
We have already made our recommendation and produced our report, and I hope that the Government will allow time before the summer recess for us to adopt a new code of conduct for the House.
I thank the Chair for that clarification, and he is absolutely right. If we put those recommendations alongside the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s proposals on lobbying, they make a suite of proposals that will make our democracy much more robust, much cleaner, much more transparent and, in general, much better. We should do those things immediately, and I encourage the Minister to put his foot down on the accelerator as hard as he possibly can to get them out, agreed and announced as quickly as possible.
There is much to agree with in the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I would, however, venture to agree with the Minister when he says that there is one major concern—one, but it is important—about the notion of putting some of the recommendations on a statutory footing rather than adhering to the traditional constitutional principle that it has to be the Prime Minister who appoints and can dismiss his or her Cabinet. That is absolutely fundamental for any Prime Minister. It does not matter if they are a Labour Prime Minister, a coalition Prime Minister or a Conservative Prime Minister, it is absolutely fundamental. On that one important point I would respectfully depart from the recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
I will not trouble the House very much longer, but I said at the start of my speech that I wanted to add a couple of points about the role of the independent adviser on the ministerial code that I believe have been revealed in the past couple of days. We heard earlier in an intervention from the Chair of the Standards Committee that the independent adviser feels that it is impossible for him to make a recommendation because if his advice were not followed, he would feel that he had to resign. In this particular case, when the question is whether the Prime Minister’s conduct has followed the ministerial code, which has never happened before, that has led to the adviser not issuing any recommendations or findings of fact, as he would with any other Minister. That is not good enough. It cannot be allowed to continue and is not strong enough as a way in which the independent adviser should work.
I will propose to further changes, which I hope the Minister will listen to and follow. The first is that we should be very clear that it should not be a resigning matter for the independent adviser if his or her advice is not followed by the Prime Minister of the day. They should issue independent advice. In the same way, Sir Chris Whitty issued advice to the Prime Minister during the pandemic on the medical and scientific options available to him. Sometimes the Prime Minister took that advice, sometimes he did not, but Sir Chris Whitty did not have to resign every time he did not. It would have been plainly bonkers if he had done so and I believe that the same principle should apply to the independent adviser. They should offer advice and it is then up to the Prime Minister to accept it or not and to justify his or her decision to Parliament as a result.
The corollary of that is that, although it is too late now, in this case the independent adviser should have been able and expected, had we introduced such a change, to issue a report on whether the Prime Minister had followed the ministerial code. The independent adviser had the Sue Gray report in front of him and could therefore have said, “This means that the Prime Minister followed the ministerial code here, and did not follow it there. This one is a serious breach, that is a minor breach and that is not a breach at all.” At that point, we as a House would have had something to get our teeth into, and that would have clarified the situation and stripped out an awful lot of inevitable party political posturing as we would all have had a common shared base of facts. Without that, the subsequent debate has been a great deal less targeted, a great deal less clear and a great deal less effective.
I completely agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has just said about the supposedly independent adviser on the ministerial code. I wonder whether his interpretation of what Lord Geidt wrote is the same as mine. My reading of it was that he basically felt that the Prime Minister had breached the ministerial code but he did not feel he could say so.
I did not reach that conclusion, which is why I waited until I saw the Prime Minister’s reply justifying his view of his approach to the ministerial code, which he published last week and on which I intervened on the Minister earlier. That was what then led me, very sadly and with great regret, to resign my post yesterday. None the less, I am pleased to note that the hon. Gentleman agrees with my broader point about the way in which the independent adviser’s powers should be further amended. I am afraid that that has only just become apparent in the course of the past week or so, but it is a further important omission. Without those changes, the entire process remains toothless if in future we have a question over whether the Prime Minister him or herself has adhered to the ministerial code.
I have been thinking about what the hon. Gentleman said earlier, when he said that he differed from the views of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Perhaps I did not follow exactly the terms of his observations, so I would be grateful if he would correct me, but I got the impression that he was saying that he could not go all the way with the committee because he thought that we were giving the power to the independent adviser to decide whether a Minister came and went. That is not the case. In the committee’s recommendations, the independent adviser is to advise on whether there has been a breach, but it is for the Prime Minister to make the decision.
I can reassure the right hon. Lady that I meant what she just said. My point about departing from the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life is about whether to make some of these bodies statutory and to allow court oversight, which is a constitutional point rather than the one she is making. I was entirely content with the point made by the committee that she has just clarified.
My final point about the role of the independent adviser on the ministerial code is that if we make the two changes that I have just described, we will make sure that the process has teeth, but one further change will still be required. If the Prime Minister is found by the independent adviser to have made a material breach of the ministerial code, it will then be necessary for this Parliament to sit in judgment on that report, because no one else can do it. The Prime Minister certainly cannot because he or she would be judge and jury in their own case, which is fundamentally never going to work. We will have to do that in a democratic way—we are ultimately the high court of Parliament; that is what we are here to do. At the moment, I do not think that our Standing Orders allow us to address that point—not about the Government, which I remain strongly in favour of and I support, but about the Prime Minister as an individual. The provision to censure or introduce other motions is, I believe, insufficiently clear and easy in that one specific and important case. Without it, the process will not have the necessary teeth and claws. We hope that they will never have to be used, but they have to be there just in case they are needed. With that, I will leave the debate to go on.
Order. If everybody can resume their seats, I want to give some advice. First, please remember that everybody taking part in the debate should come back for the wind-ups. We hope that they will start at about 3.40 pm, but it could be sooner than that. If a Division takes place, it will be at about 4 pm. We cannot be absolutely certain, but that is the guidance. I am trying to do this without a time limit, so looking at the number of people who want to speak, if everybody speaks for around eight minutes—perhaps a bit more; let us see how it goes—we will fit in with the schedule that I have in front of me. Clearly, if people speak for longer, those towards the end will have less time.
I welcome the initiative of my right hon. and hon. Friends in calling this debate, and I welcome the terms of the motion, which calls on the House to implement the report and to follow up that implementation, which is often as important as the initial decision. I declare an interest as I have been a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life since November 2013. I should say at once, as I said earlier, that I am not speaking on behalf of the committee—I never do, as innumerable journalists can testify. Our independent chair, and only he, speaks for the committee as a whole.
I am grateful to the Minister, and I think other committee members will be too, for the terms in which he spoke of the committee members. For my part, I have great sympathy with our heroic independent members—there are three political members and only four independent members; at the moment, as he will know, we have a vacancy—who face a very heavy workload. They carry out the taxing and time-consuming work of analysing and studying things to give strength to the committee’s reports. One of our independent members said the other day that the committee and its members are committed on a cross-party basis to protecting and promoting standards, and that our focus is always on the impartial interpretation of evidence and the long-term measures necessary to protect standards.
I also say briefly to the Minister that, if he looks on his desk, or somebody else’s desk, he may find some observations from the committee suggesting that the decision made, as I recall, under David Cameron’s premiership to reduce the committee’s size—its numbers and the resources available to it—should be reconsidered. Those independent members carry a heavy burden and he spoke sympathetically about their work.
Our chair, very properly, regretted the Prime Minister’s decision to adopt one—only one—of the committee’s recommendations. Speaking for myself, as I said, I thought that was outrageous, particularly because the Prime Minister, and the Minister, used the committee’s report to justify the decision to weaken the penalties for breaching the ministerial code.
I am not speaking on the committee’s behalf, but the statement that it issued following the Prime Minister’s decision about the ministerial code said:
“There still needs to be greater independence in the regulation of the Ministerial Code, notwithstanding”—
I say this because the Minister emphasised, and I wholly understand why he did and I have some sympathy with his circumstances, how much the Government were following the terms of the committee’s recommendations —“the changes announced” to the terms of reference of the role of the independent adviser. It went on:
“The new process for initiating investigations does not create the degree of independence we called for. Whereas previously the Adviser could only conduct an investigation into an alleged breach of the Code at the Prime Minister’s request, the Adviser can now initiate their own investigations ‘having consulted the Prime Minister and obtained his consent’. So no longer a direct commission by the Prime Minister, but still dependent on the Prime Minister’s permission. This is a step forward, it is an improvement”— the Minister quoted the chair of the committee saying that—
“in process but it does not fundamentally change the powers of the Independent Adviser.”
I think the Minister, wholly understandably, sought to create the impression that perhaps it did.
I want to set the discussion about the ministerial code in a wider context and look at events elsewhere. I often read these days about events in the United States where many people are concerned about whether the former President is likely to be re-elected. There is much talk about the work of the Republican party in discouraging voter involvement and participation. I am afraid that, when I look at the legislative record of this Government, I see similar steps being taken here, although without much fanfare.
In my childhood, children played a game called grandma’s footsteps. The main player is in position and those behind try to draw close and touch them while the main player looks over their shoulder and hopes to catch somebody moving. The whole idea is that, if they do not catch them moving, they can continue. Of course, the effect of the game is that gradually, stealthily, inexorably the players draw closer to their main target. Stealthily, there is movement, and that seems to be exactly what is happening in our public life and to our democracy.
This morning, Lord Hague was reported as saying that nothing
“matters more than the health of our democracy.”
I strongly agree. Unnecessary bureaucratic regulation of exactly how people are allowed to vote is a good example of something that everyone knows will effectively discourage those who the Conservatives perhaps assume are less likely to vote for them.
That is part of an attack on one after another of the institutions of public life, whose principal characteristic is, or has been, their independence. The Electoral Commission will now be guided by a Government Minister, which should be quite unnecessary for any independent body. I have referred to the practice that occurs, as I understand it, in the United States, but I am conscious of more recent examples in Hungary and, indeed, in Russia. People in this country often express surprise at the degree to which it appears that the public in those countries accept, virtually uncritically, the version of events retailed to them by their Governments. To that surprise, the response here is often that independent voices in their media were first undermined and then, in effect, silenced.
Again, what has the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced? There are cuts, pressure and threats to the independence of the BBC, and the privatisation of Channel 4. The independence of the independent, sometimes critical media—I assure the Minister that they are critical not solely of Conservative Administrations—is being undermined under this Government.
What about public appointments, which were mentioned earlier? Concern was expressed in the committee when, under David Cameron’s premiership, a greater role and greater power for political input to appointments was allowed, but it was still assumed—perhaps the correct word would be “hoped”—that no Minister would abuse such a role. The whole atmosphere of such appointments has now changed dramatically. The more important and influential the appointment to be made, the more likely it is to be preceded by heavy briefing from No. 10 as to who exactly the Prime Minister would prefer to see appointed. So even those considering applying for such an appointment would be discouraged before the process even starts. Now we know that blatant political interference may follow. At least twice in fairly recent times an independent process of appointment has been halted and replaced by a Prime Minister who seems to be indifferent to somebody’s capacity to actually carry out the job for which they are seeking appointment as long as he thinks they are on his side. It is right in this debate to stress that that is exactly the purpose the appointments process is intended to frustrate. It is intended to ensure both that people are up to doing the job they are applying for, and that they are independently appointed and will not display a political bias.
I can see why there has been so little response to our report, with its 34 recommendations, because of course, from the Government’s point of view, it has one critical, fundamental flaw. At its heart is the belief that in independent scrutiny lies a process that conveys high standards, and that is precisely what this Government appear not to believe. It has always seemed to me that one of our strengths as a country has been that we have an unwritten constitution, because that gives us a degree of flexibility that others may lack. One of the things I deplore about the present handling of standards matters is that it strengthens the case for a written constitution, although I have to admit not sufficiently to make me accept it.
I hear my hon. Friend’s representations on that point, but I simply say to him that what perhaps the American experience may have demonstrated is that a rogue Prime Minister, like a rogue President, can ignore a written constitution as easily as they can an unwritten constitution, so I remain unconvinced. But what I also remain is absolutely clear that we need greater emphasis on the need for high standards in public life and that that emphasis can be sustained only through a process that is rooted in independence and ensures greater scrutiny of all those who exercise responsibility on behalf of our electorate.
I am honoured to be called so early in this debate—among my many colleagues keen to get in. [Laughter.] No, it is a great honour.
I want to start by echoing the remarks made by my hon. Friend John Penrose on the importance of the motion and of the report by the committee. It is also an honour to follow Margaret Beckett, and I pay tribute to her work, her personal integrity and her commitment to the principles of standards in public life.
Of course, I disagree with the right hon. Lady on her judgment of the changes that the Government are making to the code. They are very important changes, but I do not think they are as exciting as she suggests. Of course, the Government are not going as far as Labour would like, but the fact is, as the Minister made clear, the code is now stronger than it was before—it is stronger than ever—and the Government are following the requests of the committee.
On the crucial point about whether the ministerial adviser is able to initiate investigations, the ministerial adviser is able to initiate investigations independently of the Government in a way that he was not able to do before. It is right and appropriate that the Prime Minister gives the green light for an investigation to proceed—there may be issues, particularly around national security, where the Prime Minister has to step in—but it would be absolutely outrageous, and it would bring down the wrath of this House and of the country, if the Prime Minister abused that power. It is right that he or she has it, and independent scrutiny, which the right hon. Lady mentioned, remains at the core of the code.
I am afraid that the criticisms that are made miss the mark. The fact is that, for all the Prime Minister’s difficulties in recent weeks, the changes that are being proposed in the code would not have helped him in this episode at all. He is just as accountable as he ever was —in fact, more so.
I want to repeat the point I made to the deputy leader of the Labour party, Angela Rayner, in my intervention. The Institute for Government has made a very important intervention. It has said that the charges that are being made against these changes to the code by Opposition Members are “confected.” The Institute for Government has called on Opposition Members to correct the record when they say that the ministerial code is being weakened by these changes. I invite them to do so in the interests of honesty and of the standards in public life that they claim to uphold.
The Institute for Government has praised the changes that are being made, particularly the introduction of a range of sanctions. Indeed, the Committee on Standards in Public Life has said that the changes represent a “step forward” and an “improvement in the process”. The right hon. Member for Derby South talked about grandmother’s footsteps, but the committee she sits on has talked about a step forward, and that is perhaps what she meant. We are taking steps towards a better system. It is not a perfect system—we will never have a system so perfect that nobody needs to be good—but this is getting better.
I want to finish by talking about Labour’s suggestion or its idea of a perfect system, which is a call for a single ethics commissioner. I think this is a very dangerous proposal. There is much talk of democracy, including from Brendan O’Hara on the SNP Front Bench, but the proposal here is to set up an unelected individual charged with this god-like power to judge the morals of Ministers. The right hon. Member for Derby South talked about Russia, and this is an echo of the political commissars who sit alongside politicians judging them on their conformity to moral standards or to ideology. This is not the British way.
Ultimately, this House is self-regulating. We are accountable to the law, we are accountable to our consciences and, ultimately, we are accountable to the people. I appreciate that Labour Members do not like the fact that they are in a minority in this House. They do not like not getting their way, particularly on a question of public morals, and I sympathise with them. They do not like the Prime Minister, and I sympathise—[Interruption]—while I disagree. The fact is that the Government this Prime Minister leads retain the support of the majority of Members of this House. [Hon. Members: “No, he doesn’t!”] The Government have the confidence of this House—that is the ultimate accountability that any Minister needs—and I am sorry that Labour Members do not like the democracy they are part of.
It is a pleasure to follow Danny Kruger. He did a fine job of trying to defend the indefensible, but the thing that undermines his argument is the timing of the changes to the code: the coincidence that, just as the Prime Minister is to be investigated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, he has decided he wants to move the goalposts. That is obvious, and it is not lost on members of the public that he has changed the rules. The reason why he has done so is that he fears what is going to come in the future—the not too distant future.
We are here having this debate today really because we have seen this conduct on an industrial scale at No. 10. The PM has been fined, the Chancellor has been fined and so have numerous members of staff. What those charged with upholding standards in the future have to look at is what has been said to this House and what rules were in place at the time the events took place that have led to the Prime Minister rushing to make these changes.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, when the wine and cheese party took place in the garden of No. 10, people were allowed only to meet one other person from outside their household, as long as it was in a public place and 2 metre social distancing was maintained. Friends and family were not allowed to go to one another’s homes or gardens. Later in that year, after the rules had changed, the rules prohibited indoor gatherings of two or more people. An exception was allowed for work if it was reasonably necessary for work purposes, and in those circumstances the necessary participants could physically attend such meetings and social distancing had to be applied. Those charged with upholding the rules and code must satisfy themselves that what was said in this House, and the rules that applied, are consistent. We have seen photographs of the garden party, and a photograph of the Prime Minister inside No.10 at a party on
Again, going back to the code that we are debating, we must be satisfied and demand answers to ensure that the code has been adhered to. This is what was said on
“What I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that all guidance was followed completely in No. 10.”—[Official Report,
The following week—
Order. I want to give a little caution about any comments made about anything that is before the privileges committee. Please be very careful. We are talking about conduct in public life generally and about the ministerial code of conduct, but without going into detail on things that are being adjudicated and that will come before the House in time.
I am grateful for that guidance, but I thought I would be in order because I am quoting the public record—I am reading from Hansard—on what was said in relation to these events. I am doing that because we have a debate about the code of conduct, and we must be satisfied that when the response comes back, these questions are answered.
“May I begin by saying that I understand and share the anger up and down the country at seeing No. 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures? I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that the people who have been setting the rules have not been following the rules, because I was also furious to see that clip.”—[Official Report,
I think it inconceivable that people were not advised that questions may be raised about the party that took place in No.10 Downing Street, and I would like that to be measured against the code we are talking about today. The Prime Minister has given repeated assurances that clearly need to be investigated further. His repeated assertions to this House were that no rules were broken and there were no parties, and we must have an answer to that question.
With due respect, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am not making the conclusion that he has done so; I am just raising questions that I expect to be answered.
My next point is about how the code has been applied in the past, because Ministers have resigned when they have inadvertently misled the House. The most recent example I think of is that of the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, who inadvertently misled the House about immigration figures, and as a consequence of the information that was supplied to her, resigned from her post. It is not true that the ministerial code requires only a slap on the wrist for senior members of the Government—far from it. There are numerous examples of Ministers who have gone because they have inadvertently—not deliberately or maliciously—misled this House. Should the conclusion to the investigation be that people have misled the House, inadvertently or otherwise, resignations should follow. The public expect nothing less. Last night’s vote was an opportunity to draw a line under the sorry situation in which we find ourselves, because it is undermining our democracy and undermining this House, and it is time that it was drawn to a conclusion. Last night Conservative MPs missed that opportunity, but I do not think the public will when their time comes.
It is a crying shame that we do not have more speakers on the Government Back Benches today, because the contributions we heard from the hon. Members for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) have been good and thoughtful. I found more to recommend in the contribution from the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, but when listening to them both I was left thinking that surely, with a bit of good faith on both sides, this is a debate that we as Parliament could have that would put our politics into a better position. I regret very much that I do not see that political good faith coming from the Treasury Bench, and in the absence of that we must look for it among Government Back Benchers—[Interruption.] Obviously I have been too generous in my praise, as the hon. Member for Devizes is about to leave the Chamber, so I will not pursue the point any further than that.
There is one point in the Government’s position with which I have some sympathy, because there are other important issues that the House ought to be discussing. The cost of living crisis is unparalleled in my adult life—I cannot remember anything like this since my childhood years in the 1970s—and the strategic challenges of a ground war in mainland Europe are something I thought I would never see in my life. Those substantial issues demand and require the attention of Parliament.
However, I part company with the Government on two points. First, the position in which the Government have put themselves cannot be just wished away, and they will not move on to those important issues unless and until they address the position in which the Prime Minister has put them. Secondly, if those big and pressing issues are to be dealt with, that requires the Government to be led by a Prime Minister who has the political and moral authority to deal with them. It is apparent from the outcome of the vote of confidence last night among Conservative Members, that the Prime Minister has lost that moral and political authority, and it is difficult to see how he can regain it, certainly while he continues to behave in the way he does. The Government’s position on the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and the ministerial code as a consequence, tells me that this Government are bothered not about improving things, but rather about protecting their own position, and especially that of the Prime Minister.
We have heard some remarkable mea culpas from the Prime Minister in recent weeks and months, but the actions that followed those mea culpas have been somewhat pedestrian, shall we say? They certainly do not match the rhetoric of the mea culpa. To suggest that, somehow or other, the problems within 10 Downing Street and the Government as a whole can be addressed simply by shifting the desks around and taking a few people here, a Spad there and a principal private secretary elsewhere out of a job underestimates and genuinely lacks an understanding of the scale of the crisis that faces our democracy.
Having said that, the mea culpas that we have heard from the Prime Minister have also been fundamentally undermined if it is true, as it has been reported, that last night, in the 1922 committee, he said, “I’d do it again.” If that is correct, it is difficult to see how the apologies given to the House and to the public are in any way sincere. Essentially, the position is that we require a practice, a code of conduct, that reflects the expected standards of behaviour. We should start with those standards of behaviour, and measure behaviour by them. Instead, we are getting a code that looks at the standard of behaviour prevalent in Downing Street and seeks to match that. It is, if I may say so, the very opposite of levelling up.
The report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life should be taken as a whole. It is not something to cherry-pick, unless of course there is some overwhelming, pressing reason as to why that should not be the case. On that point, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare did produce some genuinely good and valid points. Again, it takes me back to the position that the House found itself in with Owen Paterson and lobbying last year, when the Government sought to proceed in a way for which they had not first built the political consensus. It would be quite easily possible to build a political consensus, but that requires the Government to take a lead—one that we have not seen from them.
It is also well past the time when the ministerial code of conduct should have been underpinned by statute. I say that with some measure of regret because, as I said in my intervention on the Minister, here is an instance where the Government are seeking to rely on the adoption of parliamentary privilege, but the House has already reduced the scope of that parliamentary privilege. We have handed the investigation of complaints of inappropriate behaviour to the Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme and handed the regulation of our expenses and other allied issues to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.
These issues were all debated in 2009 when IPSA was set up, and the question of privilege was taken very seriously at that point. That was one of the few votes— I think there were four—that the Labour party lost in 13 years in government, but it was necessary at the time because the public outrage at the expenses scandal, when people learned about what MPs had claimed for and been paid for, was such that significant change was necessary. It was necessary to modify the doctrine of parliamentary privilege to maintain the standing of Parliament itself, and we are back in that position here and now.
This is what we need to do. We need to get the parties together to build a consensus and have the discussion to ensure that we can have a ministerial code of conduct that can command the confidence of the public and of all parties in the House and not be seen to be the creature of any individual party. The position of the independent adviser on the ministerial code is now long past remedy. Given everything that we have seen in recent weeks and months, it is no longer tenable to say that, yes, he or she can initiate investigations, but only with the consent of the Prime Minister of the day. It is that requirement for consent that fundamentally undermines the office.
Trust has been breached. It is for the House to demonstrate that we understand the scale of the damage done and to repair it. The Government should have done that, but they clearly have no intention of doing so, so we in this House must.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the deputy Leader of the Opposition for getting the debate and for her powerful and informative contribution in leading the debate. Standards in public life matter—they mattered in the past, they will matter in the future, and they matter now. The Nolan principles were established in 1995 to set the expected standards, with seven principles to help a public office holder provide good governance to the people they serve. The Government and their leader have forsaken those principles.
I respect the 148 Members on the Conservative Benches who put the country first yesterday, yet I do wonder why the Cabinet continues to support a Prime Minister who has fallen foul of the ministerial code. Which of the seven principles are they displaying in continuing to support the first law-breaking Prime Minister in office? Selflessness? Integrity? Objectivity? Openness? Honesty? Leadership? I am not sure whether it is any of them. I ask them to consider what they have done.
All Members are elected to serve the people, not a law-breaking Prime Minister. Our system of government gives a sitting Prime Minister immense power. The Prime Minister is the person responsible for setting out and enforcing the ministerial code. It was not anticipated that a Prime Minister would be the one under scrutiny. It was not anticipated that a Prime Minister would attempt to water down the code to cover his own potential breaking of it. That is why the motion matters.
The standards expected of those in public office need to be strengthened, not weakened. If there is one lesson to learn from the partygate saga, that should be it. The duty of putting the country first falls on all Members of this House. We are the ultimate arbiters of strengthening standards in public life. No Prime Minister is worth forsaking one’s own principles, and they should not be sacrificed for this Prime Minister.
The argument that now is not the right time to strengthen the standards expected and to remove the Prime Minister due to the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and the Northern Ireland protocol does not wash. They are the very reason why that must be done. With issues of such grave importance, public trust and confidence matter more than ever.
I want our country to continue to support Ukraine until it is victorious, I want the Government to do more to help people through the cost of living crisis and I want a sensible solution to the Northern Ireland protocol. A majority of the House wants all of that. The only risk to those causes is having a Prime Minister and Government who do not enjoy the public’s support. That is why the standards expected of those in public office must be strengthened. It is time to clean up politics.
I would like to begin by echoing the comments made by Mr Carmichael and saying how disappointing I find it that there are not more contributors from the Government Benches. Indeed, the Government Benches resemble more the decks on the Marie Celeste than a Parliament on a day when we are debating something of such import, notwithstanding the excellent contributions, in their own way, made by the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger).
I also enjoyed very much the contribution made by Margaret Beckett. Her scepticism towards a written constitution disappointed me but did not surprise me. There are many big ticket constitutional items that this place could benefit from, such as seeing us elected here under a proportional voting system, and having a written constitution, a bill of rights and an independent constitutional court beyond the scope of ministerial interference. Those are just the standard trappings of modern liberal democracies, but I have long since given up any hope of them coming into effect in this place, which is one of the reasons why I think it would be better for Scotland, where I believe a consensus for such measures exists, to make a fresh start.
Even with those big ticket reforms, we still need codes, standards, norms and conventions for how individuals and groups operate within that framework. In her opening remarks, Angela Rayner referenced Professor Peter Hennessy and his “good chap” theory of government. In putting that forward, he emphasised the courtesies, conventions and orthodoxies that are taken for granted and which mean that the situation Lord Hailsham described many years ago—of government being like an elected dictatorship—never actually comes to pass, and that the individual excesses of Ministers, Prime Ministers or over-mighty and overreaching Executives can be curbed and corrected, rather than having anyone or anything slithering in between the gaps that exist and exhausting all reserves of trust and good will when they are no longer deserving of either.
In those spaces, standards matter; any perception to the contrary that is allowed to build up damages politics in general and damages us all. It diminishes the legitimacy of the decisions we take and deters good people from getting involved in public life. Most damaging of all, it pushes people away from having the chance to express their views democratically by participating at the ballot box.
We have heard in several contributions so far the continuing reverberations of partygate. Certainly, in a debate on standards, that provides a target-rich environment. But even prior to that, there were no shortages of areas of concern. To pick an example, notoriously, when the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser found that the Home Secretary had breached the ministerial code governing Minister’s behaviour, the only consequence that flowed from that was that the Prime Minister’s adviser ended up having to resign while the Home Secretary remained in office. Although a court found that the Prime Minister had not misapplied the ministerial code—whatever people might think about it, legally it was a sound decision—it was a sound decision simply because of the nature of how the code works at the moment: the Prime Minister retains complete control over all references, including any references in the code relating to himself.
A standards system can operate only with as much integrity as those charged with implementing it have themselves. We have a Prime Minister who is not only the gatekeeper to that process, but also effectively the judge, the jury and, if need be, the executioner, and he remains so despite his manifest unsuitability, in my view, to carry out that role and despite the very clear recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life referenced in the motion before us today.
I accept that there has been a fresh iteration, as the Paymaster General, Michael Ellis says, of the ministerial code and how it applies. At a time when the public focus on standards has never been higher, it is very disappointing that the Prime Minister and the Government have once again decided to pick and choose what suits them and what does not. It is telling that the seven Nolan principles were removed from the introduction to the Government’s guidance, effectively disassociating the Prime Minister personally in word from that which he had already quite spectacularly disassociated himself in deed during his time in office.
If the problems are clear, so too are the solutions—or at least some of them. It was illustrated graphically in stark terms yesterday that the Prime Minister has lost a considerable amount of authority within his party, an authority he had already lost in the electorate at large a long time ago. I am bound to observe that in Scotland the Prime Minister can now rely on the support of only two of its 59 Members of Parliament—although we are a day on from yesterday and who knows what positions Douglas Ross has contorted himself into since then? Sadly, the Prime Minister is not about to be run out of office in the next two hours, but whether it is in the next two days, two weeks, two months, two years, most assuredly the Prime Minister will be gone, meriting his own rather inglorious set of footnotes in history.
This issue, therefore, is about the standards framework we have going forward. We should not twist it or distort it to suit the present incumbent, but we should be mindful of examples of his own behaviour in order to make the code and its operation as watertight as it ever can be. I challenged the Paymaster General, when he was good enough to take my intervention, on whether the Government would implement all the recommendations, as he indicated when he said he was supportive of the principles. I have to say that I remain baffled about how the Government can support the principles of the motion while recommending that Members abstain and still saying that they will not support the implementation of all the measures in full.
In closing my remarks, I do not think there is anything that can be done to restore the reputation of this Prime Minister or the Administration he leads, but what is needed urgently is to rebuild trust by reaffirming immediately and without qualification the seven principles of public life—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—and by implementing, without repetition, deviation or hesitation, each and every one of the recommendations in the report, as the motion before us calls for.
Over the last few days, I am afraid to say that I have heard far too many people seeking to excuse the inexcusable and defend the indefensible from the Prime Minister on the basis that he got the big calls right, or that he is an election winner. Well, I would certainly take issue with the former, and on the latter I simply say that past performance is no guarantee of future success. I do not want to talk about the merits or otherwise of this Government or this Prime Minister, because that misses the point of today’s debate, and misses an important part of our function here. Those factors should never be used to excuse rule-breaking anyway. We are not here just to deliver x or y policy for our constituents; we also have a wider responsibility on the way that politics is done. That is why tolerating the chipping away of our standards because the ends justify the means should never be an acceptable response from the Government. We are custodians of democracy. How we act, what we say and where we set the limits of adherence to the rules all matter. because they form the baseline for the next generation to work from. If we are not careful, bit by bit, the standards and behaviours that we take for granted will be lost.
Our liberal democracy is fragile, and it cannot be taken for granted. It has to be cherished, nurtured and supported by us as its guardians every single day. Every watering down of the rules, every reduction in transparency, every snub to accountability has to be challenged, because many Governments want to maximise control and minimise risk. Many Governments also have a respect for the rules and understand their place in history, but when we have a Government with a track record like this one, it really is up to us to push back. Be it by shutting down Parliament, green-lighting breaking the law in a specific and limited way, trying to wriggle out of treaties they have just signed, changing the way standards rules operate retrospectively or excusing breaches of the ministerial code, this Government have a wretched track record of ignoring the rules when it suits them. But rules matter, and how our politics is conducted should be bigger than any individual Government. This place should be a force for good, for change and for the benefit of all. When the rules are bent, ignored or changed to suit a short-term political agenda, we all pay a long-term price.
This is all about the tone set from the top. It is about leadership. When the Government are led, as they are, by a Prime Minister who behaves as though the rules never apply to him, and who has used every trick in the book to wriggle out of responsibility, we risk slipping into an authoritarian style of Government that we will not easily shake off. Our electoral system and unwritten constitution mean that it is quite possible to have a Government, as we do, who can push through whatever they want and a Prime Minister who believes that he can get away with whatever he wishes to.
Our parliamentary system has relied on people behaving with honour and respecting conventions. However, when people do not live up to those ideals, and are at best agnostic on, or at worst hostile to, standards, the weaknesses in our system become all too apparent. Democracy is then damaged, and it dies not with a bang, but with a whimper over a period of years, with a tweaking of the rules here and a ditching of a convention there. We have a Government who have become arrogant because of the size of their majority and contemptuous about the need for probity.
If people see continual abuse of the rules and ever-shifting sands of accountability, they end up saying that we are all as bad as one another, that no politicians can be trusted, and that evasiveness and avarice are baked into the body politic, and if they vote at all, they do so holding their nose. There is no shortage of people out there who are only too willing to believe that that is true of every one of us here. They are only too willing to call us out for being motivated solely by personal gain, and for lacking any kind of responsibility for what we do in office. We do not need to give them any fuel for the fire. We need to show them that it is possible to govern selflessly in the public interest, that standards in public life matter, and that, when it comes to protecting democracy, we can lead, not just follow.
We have heard how the new code will, in effect, make the Prime Minister judge and jury of whatever process or complaint is put before him. That really grates for a lot of my constituents, who would question whether they have ever had that degree of discretion or latitude in their dealings with Departments, and whether they have had the opportunity to appeal decisions made against on benefit overpayment, child maintenance and the loan charge. People feel that the rules have not been applied fairly to them, and they then see the Government changing the rules as they see fit.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about rules. St Thomas More—a former occupant of your Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker—said that this land is planted with rules, and that those rules, like trees, are there to protect us when the wind turns. This issue is about not just this Administration or this Parliament, but Administrations and Parliaments to come. That is why this debate is so important.
I totally agree, which is why what we are arguing for today is so important. These rules will change over time, but it is up to us to ensure that the principles of democracy and accountability stand the test of time. I am afraid that they are under severe attack.
When I was a local councillor, a long time ago, we had something called the standards board, which was independent, well respected and robust. There was never any question about whether councillors could go on that and determine their fate or decide whether matters would be investigated. The system upheld the seven Nolan principles and was firm but fair. The Prime Minister does not believe that those kinds of principles can apply to how he judges complaints, but how is it possible that when I was a local councillor, we had a far more robust system? That simply does not stack up.
At the end of the day, the rules should be followed by everyone and should not be changed or watered down in the short term for political convenience. If the Government can avoid the rules whenever they have an inconvenient outcome, how can we tell the public that they have to follow the rules that the Government set? If another lockdown was needed, the incumbent of Downing Street would find it difficult to tell people authoritatively to obey the rules, given what they now know.
Standards should not be seen as something to be avoided or ignored when the going gets tough. Those values have to be central to how we conduct our business. The ministerial code should not be routinely ignored, as it is, nor should it be altered to suit the Prime Minister of the day. We have to be better than that. We have to be an exemplar—a beacon of excellence. We should remember that what we say and do here matters, not just now, but for the future, as my hon. Friend Mike Kane said, because democracy is only as strong as those who are prepared to defend it. Having seen the empty Government Benches, I do not think that there are enough Government Members who are prepared to do that.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Justin Madders, who is absolutely right that rules matter. I agree with him, Mr Carmichael and Richard Thomson that it is disappointing that there are not more Government Members speaking this afternoon, because this really matters to our constituents. Last night, Ministers were quick to say in the media, “Move on; no one cares,” but that is simply not true. No Government Members are here because they also know that this matters.
I have been contacted by several constituents about standards in public life. They think that the Prime Minister has breached their trust, and many think that his actions have been beyond sickening and disgusting. I share their anger about his wilful disregard of the ministerial code and the standards that we expect from our Prime Minister, and about the erosion of public trust in this institution and politics in general.
I serve as a member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I do not think that many among the public know much about that Committee or what it actually does, but as Members know well, Select Committees of the House are important bodies. They work well and have long been charged with the scrutiny of Government. We all sit in Committees rooms, off the Committee corridor, week after week, hearing in detail from expert witnesses and, often, members of the public about what is going on in the corridors of power. It is slow, deliberate work that often does not yield headlines.
PACAC continues to run a series of inquiries on propriety and ethics in the aftermath of the Greensill scandal—remember that one? In this debate, we have all resurrected scandals and issues that some of us might have forgotten. It seems incredible that it is only a few months since we had to go through the Owen Paterson debacle. We are conducting a number of inquiries, as well as having one-off regular sessions with leaders of what we can call the post-Nolan landscape bodies.
This is a useful, timely debate in many ways, but in other ways, our Committee wishes that it had come in another few weeks, because we will hear again from the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments in the coming weeks. We will have Lord Geidt, the Cabinet Secretary and the head of propriety and ethics coming before us. We also recently heard from the former independent adviser, Sir Alex Allan, who resigned, and his predecessor. All that evidence is on the website, and all the transcripts are available. Without putting too much pressure on our Clerks and advisers, we will be reporting, as a result of those deliberations, on the general issue of propriety and ethics later in the summer.
I hope that the Government will heed our work and perhaps use the opportunity of this shameful episode in our country’s history to start working with the Committee more proactively to ensure that the highest standards are pursued. I also hope that the Government will use the great willingness of the leaders of the organisations that I mentioned, and of many Members here from across the House, to try to rescue public trust and pursue higher standards. It is now obvious that the whole edifice of what we might call the post-Nolan framework—reliance on the “good chaps” theory—collapses when the chap at the top and the chaps supporting him do not do the right thing.
We are at an extraordinary juncture of our parliamentary democracy. Lord Evans’s response to the Government agreed with Lord Geidt’s report that there was a “low level of ambition”. The report has been quoted a couple of times today, but for hon. Members who have not read it, it really is worth reading in full. Lord Geidt writes about the ministerial code and the work he was asked to do; without impugning him too much, I think he would pass the test for a “good chap” in terms of how he came into the post.
Lord Geidt describes what would be acceptable in normal circumstances, but goes on to say:
“The circumstances of the period covered by my report, however, have been far from normal. For much of the year, the conduct of the Prime Minister himself has potentially been subject to consideration against the requirements of the Code. Accordingly, and whether unfairly or not, an impression has developed that the Prime Minister may be unwilling to have his own conduct judged against the Code’s obligations.”
He describes the
“test for the credibility of these new arrangements”.
“It may be especially difficult to inspire that trust in the Ministerial Code if any Prime Minister, whose code it is, declines to refer to it.”
He mentions the fixed penalty notice issued to the Prime Minister, requesting that the Prime Minister
“respond accordingly, setting out his case in public” as to why he does not think that it
“might have constituted a breach of the overarching duty within the Ministerial Code”.
It is quite an extraordinary introduction to the annual report. In the circumstances of Lord Geidt’s appointment, it is really the strongest reference he could make to what he thinks is occurring.
The new introduction to the ministerial code, which hon. Members have referred to, essentially rejects the idea of anyone being held to account except by having a general election. Obviously the Opposition would welcome a general election at any point; I love elections, and we have had quite a lot of them. It is right that we are held to account by our constituents, but it matters to our constituents that the Opposition come here and hold the Government to account day by day, in Select Committees and with questions, including questions in response to ministerial statements. Constituents do not expect to have to hold the Government to account themselves every few months or, as has been the case, every couple of years when they think that the Government are not upholding the highest standards. That is why we need to rely on statements made at the Dispatch Box having the authority that the country expects. The new introduction gives us another insight, should we need one, into the mind and attitude of the Prime Minister, the Conservative party and this Government. That is why it was so disappointing, and why last night was so disappointing.
There was a lot of discussion about whether Sue Gray’s report would be independent. Let us stop a moment, stand back and think again about how some of what she reported, as a serving civil servant, was so shocking. She writes that
“events should not have been allowed to happen” but that some of the more junior members of staff felt that what happened was okay because the
“senior leadership at the centre, both political and official” essentially allowed it to happen. As she says, they
“must bear responsibility for this culture.”
Because of how our constitution now works and how the Government have behaved, all roads lead back to the chap at the top. The culture emanates from there, including non-attendance before Select Committees, late publication of documents and the many other examples that have been outlined today. However, my assurance to my constituents and the wider public is that the willingness we have shown in this place, in this debate and elsewhere, shows that we do love our country and our democracy. We think it can be better than it is at the moment. We will continue to work across Parliament, in Select Committees and in all our different ways to assure our constituents that the integrity, accountability and respect that need to exist in this place will exist again—with or without this Prime Minister.
I congratulate Angela Rayner on a great speech and on bringing the motion to the House.
We have had cash for honours, cash for contracts and even cash for curtains. This is a Government drenched in dirty money and dodgy deals, and when the truth is laid bare for all to see, they resort to amending the ministerial code, changing the rules to save their skin. The changes made to the ministerial code are transparent and stand in stark contrast to what we have heard from the Minister today. Our constituents can see that the Prime Minister has blatantly amended the code to suit himself and has simply selected the elements of the Sue Gray report that fit his ever-concerning rhetoric. If, as the Minister suggested, all the recommendations had been taken on board, there would have been no need for the motion or for this debate.
The truth is that we deserve better from our elected leaders, and when they do not live up to our expectations, checks and balances should come into effect. They should prevent this very situation. They should maintain faith in our democracy. They should prevent a liar from ever residing in 10 Downing Street. But the system is broken, the scale is askew and only a strengthened ministerial code could set the House to rights.
Where will this end? A lawbreaker is now being allowed to remain as Prime Minister because his own MPs say so. Partying, lying, amending the ministerial code, voter suppression, watering down human rights—
Partying, amending the ministerial code, voter suppression, watering down human rights: that is a worrying path for any Government to go down, but particularly this Government, given people’s lack of confidence in them. “Honour” and “decency” are words of the past instead of the present; they are no longer soundbites that could even be used to describe this UK Government.
This Government have made a mockery of this place, a mockery of the rules that we all lived by and a mockery of us all. Amending the ministerial code to keep in a job is corrupt to the core. I certainly support the motion.
Once again, the Labour party has to use one of our precious Opposition days to debate not the cost of living, NHS waiting times, court delays, falling apprenticeship numbers or any of the other manifest ways in which the Government are failing, but the standards and conduct of the Prime Minister. I do not say that critically—I am pleased that we have chosen to use today’s debate for that purpose—but it shows once again why the Prime Minister is not able to get on with it as a result of yesterday’s vote: in fact, he is the distraction that prevents this House from moving on. It shows why the 148 of his Members of Parliament who voted yesterday that they had no confidence in him were right.
British parliamentarians have often been asked to go overseas to nations considered to be less developed and provide them with advice about what a functioning democracy looks like. It is not an exaggeration to say that if we arrived as parliamentarians in another country to find that it had a leader whose response to being convicted of breaking the law was not to set about changing his behaviour, but to lower the standards to which members of his Government could be held, we would take a very dim view of that sort of democracy—but that is precisely what is happening here in the United Kingdom.
I have never had any regard for the political priorities of the Conservative party. I do not expect Tory Governments to be good for my constituency or to share my values. But I have respected the fact that, regardless of the difference in approach to matters such as public services and the economy, when it came to the basic rule of law there were things that united parliamentarians of all parties. Under this Prime Minister, I fear that that is no longer the case. That is why it is so important that Conservative Members are willing to be brave enough to stand up and speak out, because some of these matters are more important than narrow party political advantage, and so it is with today’s debate; and that is why I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newton Abbott, who resigned yesterday as the Prime Minister’s anti-corruption tsar. I think that his letter was of real significance. He wrote to the Prime Minister:
“The only fair conclusion to draw from the Sue Gray report is that you have breached a fundamental principle of the ministerial code – a clear resigning matter.
Butt your letter to your independent adviser on the ministerial code ignores this absolutely central, non-negotiable issue completely. And, if it had addressed it, it is hard to see how it could have reached any other conclusion than that you had broken the code.”
I think those words are incredibly significant, I think they are brave, and I think the hon. Gentleman should be commended for having written them.
The Prime Minister’s own briefing to Conservative Members, which featured widely on Twitter yesterday, suggests that they must tolerate his behaviour because no one else is capable of leading them. I am afraid that too many people are missing the point here. Danny Kruger said earlier that we were raising this issue because we did not like the Prime Minister, and he advocated a system of self-regulation. I think that if Conservative Members look daily at the Prime Minister and think, “There is no one in our whole parliamentary party with 360-odd members who could possibly perform in this way”, they must have a pretty low opinion of themselves, and I think that they may be wrong. I also think that the question of standards is not about whether or not one likes a person, but about whether the behaviour that that person has exhibited is tolerable in a functioning democracy, and I am afraid that, in the case of this Prime Minister, it is absolutely not.
One way to cheat is to change the rules. We have seen the rules in the ministerial code being changed, and we are seeing a general levelling down of standards in public life. The idea that the Government can carry on marking their own homework is absurd. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need an independent commission on ethics and standards in public life, so that there is some accountability?
I certainly do. That is why I am happy to support the motion today, and why I was happy to support the committee’s recommendations.
I agree with Lord Evans that a graduated sanctions approach must go hand in hand with increasing the independence of the adviser. Recommendation 6 states:
The Paymaster General spoke about that more graduated approach, and I agree with that, but I also agree with Lord Evans that it must go hand in hand with recommendation 8, which states:
“ The Independent Adviser should be able to initiate investigations into breaches of the Ministerial Code”
—the Government propose not to heed that—and with recommendation 9, which states:
“The Independent Adviser should have the authority to determine breaches of the Ministerial Code.”
That seems to be the point: that the independent adviser determines whether the code has been breached, and it is for the Prime Minister then to decide what sanctions should be applied. What we have now, however, as we heard from the Paymaster General, is an approach whereby if the Prime Minister believes that he still has confidence in people—and I suspect that he will have confidence in the Culture Secretary almost regardless of what she says, because of her slavish support—that is good enough, and no standards are relevant.
As we heard from my hon. Friend Justin Madders, all of us in this place suffer from the allegation that “they are all the same.” Despair is the most corrosive emotion possible when it comes to politics, because it leads people to disengage and to decide that there is no point in engaging in politics in any way. Mr Carmichael spoke of a cross-party consensus, but how is that possible if the Prime Minister is willing, for political reasons, to overlook breaches of any kind if he thinks that it is in his political interests to do so?
A politically motivated standards regime that allows rules to be rewritten if they become inconvenient, and places the future of Ministers in the hands of the Prime Minister to vanquish or rescue as he sees fit, is not itself fit for the 21st century in a supposedly developed democracy. How can it be that the ministerial code, detailing the way in which those at the very top of the political tree operate, actually lags behind that which applies to MPs, peers and civil servants?
I also support the committee’s recommendation for reform of the powers of the commissioner for public appointments to provide a better guarantee of the independence of assessment panels.
Our politics is suffering from a crisis of public confidence, which is particularly dangerous at a time of national economic difficulty such as the one that we are currently experiencing. Only by increasing the independence and clarity of the rules and the rule arbiters can we have a hope of restoring public confidence in our politics, and it is for that reason that I support the motion.
I welcome the debate because it is important. Like so many of my colleagues, I want to see the full package of recommendations in the committee’s report accepted in their entirety. We must collectively restore transparency and integrity, and improve the accountability of all our institutions. That is why an incoming Labour Government would clean up politics and restore standards in public life, starting by introducing an ethics and integrity commission—a single, independent body, removed from politicians, that would roll at least three existing bodies into one.
Standards in public life should concern us all, as Members elected to public office. It is the highest honour, and the public rightly expect us to exercise the highest of public standards. When one of us breaches those standards, we all lose. One parliamentary scandal reflects poorly not just on the governing party of the time, but on our institutions, our democracy and our willingness to govern in the interests of the British people. That is why the Opposition have tabled a motion asking Members on both sides of the House to back the full package of the committee’s recommendations. We have done so because the ministerial code has been cracked by this Prime Minister and his Government. Until now, the code included the “overarching duty” of Ministers to comply with the law and to abide by the seven principles of public life: the Nolan principles, a set of ethical standards which apply to all holders of public office, with the general principle that
“Ministers of the Crown are expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety.”
The ministerial code should be important in providing an essential backstop to prevent the degrading of public standards, as indeed it once did. When viewed alongside the Nolan principles—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—the code provides a key cornerstone for standards in our public life. What is most damaging is that, at a time when the Prime Minister’s lawbreaking and industrial-scale rule breaking at the heart of Government have finally been exposed, and at a time when he should have been tendering his resignation, he has instead rewritten the code. I am afraid that the Prime Minister is debasing the principles of public life before our very eyes. He is doing so through careful and calculated manipulation of the rules, bending them to suit his own interests. Now, following the publication of the Sue Gray report, in which she concluded that there were
he has concentrated even greater power in his own hands, while weakening standards in public life.
Far from “resetting the culture” of No. 10, the Prime Minister promised following the report’s publication, perhaps most self-servingly of all, to end the long-standing principle that those who breach the ministerial code should have to resign automatically. That might save not only him, but all those who would be complicit in these acts. Let us recall that, back in November 2020, the then adviser Sir Alex Allan resigned his post after the Prime Minister disagreed with the finding that the Home Secretary had broken the code. We now have an absurd situation in which the person who breached the ministerial code carries on with impunity, while those who are victims of the breaches feel that their only way out is to resign. The Prime Minister has also failed to outline the concrete sanctions for major breaches of the code. Here again we have the ridiculous situation of the more major the breach, the less clear the sanction. On this side of the House, we support graduated sanctions for minor breaches of the code, but the cherry-picking of sanctions to suit the Prime Minister is plain politicking with standards in public life.
By failing to guarantee the independence of the adviser or allow them to open investigations independently, the Prime Minister has gained a stranglehold over the whole process. He continues to retain the power to veto investigations, stripping the so-called independent adviser of any meaningful power. This is utterly wrong. In the Prime Minister’s latest diluted version, integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency and honesty have all disappeared from the face of the code. These changes, and the lack of changes, have hollowed out the ministerial code and created a centralised, authoritarian Government.
I find it telling that, in one of the letters of no confidence published yesterday, the Prime Minister was accused of importing
“elements of a presidential system of government that is entirely foreign to our constitution and law.”
One of the consequences of a centralised presidential system is seemingly the power to do away with accountability, scrutiny and criticism. It is just a shame that more MPs from the Conservative side could not see that last night. If the ministerial code now no longer has the teeth it needs to hold Ministers to account, Labour’s call for an independent integrity and ethics commission becomes all the more powerful. Labour has shown before how committed we are to improving standards in public life and we will show it again. Back in 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair widened the terms of reference of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to cover the funding of political parties, and more recently my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) and my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner agreed to do the decent thing and resign if they were found to have breached the covid rules. That is probity, decency and trustworthiness.
It is a sad day for high standards in public life when we have to resort to taking this out of politicians’ hands because the current governing party manipulates the process to suit its leader’s interests. A failure to act now will see a continuing erosion and degradation of standards in our public life. From Paterson to partygate to allegations of sexual assault, now is the time for Conservative Members to vote for this motion. They could restore public trust in our politics, which would be in all our interests and strengthen the foundations of our democratic institutions.
If the House divides at the end of this debate, I shall be voting with the Opposition. Standards in public life are a foundation of our democracy. We must be able to have trust in those in public life, and we need Ministers, and especially a Prime Minister, to adhere to the ministerial code. Breaches of the Nolan principles and the ministerial code affect us all. It is fundamental that those in positions of power are honest and truthful; otherwise, we lose the trust of the public who elect us.
Independence is a word I am extremely fond of—indeed, I am wedded to it for Scotland’s sake—but we also need independence because we need a brake on this Prime Minister. He must not be judge and jury on the ministerial code, and I shall lay out my reasoning on this using the Nolan principles. Selflessness—denying yourself what you want for the greater good—is not what our current Prime Minister is noted for. My constituents showed selflessness during the pandemic for the common weal—the greater good. Our current Prime Minister did not. He carried on regardless, and permitted an ethos in Downing Street in which those working for him believed, as he did, that the rules did not and should not apply to them. They allowed guardians and security staff who knew wrongdoing was afoot to be belittled. Nae selflessness, then.
Again, the rules do not apply to the PM. His ethos was, “I want my flat refurbished, but I don’t want to pay for it myself.” But donations and loans were not registered with the Electoral Commission during the statutory time limit. Nae integrity there. This Government acted illegally, as judged by the High Court, by having a covid VIP lane to give money to individuals and companies run by friends and donors to the Tory party. Nae objectivity. Then there was the Owen Paterson debacle, where the Prime Minister tried to condone egregious lobbying and contracts awarded to Tory donors—a running theme. This Prime Minister and his Government believe they can do what they like, and there is nae accountability.
The Prime Minister knew he had attended parties at No. 10, but he used weasel words to try to deny it. He breached the ministerial code by using “terminological inexactitude”. For my constituents’ benefit: that is sometimes known by you as lying.
Order. We are not having the word “lying”. That was stressed by the Speaker at the beginning of the debate, so please will you withdraw the word “lying”?
I will withdraw the word “lying”, and thank you for your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I think my constituents struggle a bit with “terminological inexactitude”.
How does this Prime Minister deal with breaches of the ministerial code? Simple. You change it, or ignore it. So, nae openness. Partygate damaged our democracy, according to the Health Secretary, and since St Andrew’s day last year—189 days ago—we have heard nothing but, “We must move on. The Prime Minister saved us all during covid and he will save Ukraine. Nothing to see here, move along.” No acceptance of wrongdoing apart from set-piece apologies that were allegedly recanted at private meetings of the 1922 Committee. So nae honesty, either. To be a good—or even middling-to-good—leader, you need to have a moral compass. This Prime Minister has a well-hidden moral compass—
Sorry. Yes, of course.
Forty-one per cent. of the Prime Minister’s own MPs want him gone, a majority of his Back Benchers want him gone and even the Scottish Tories want him gone. It is worth repeating that former Tory MSP Adam Tomkins, a professor at the University of Glasgow, said:
“When a government asserts that the laws do not apply to it…such an assertion offends not only the law itself but our very idea of constitutional government.”
The former head of the Scottish Tories, Baroness Davidson, said the Prime Minister’s position is “untenable.” The Tory party knew what it was getting when it elected this Prime Minister as party leader, as he has a track record.
The current Tory leader in Scotland, Douglas Ross, has been doing the hokey-cokey on the Prime Minister: in, out, in, out. He has not been able to make up his mind, but apparently he knows now that the Prime Minister should not be in office because he has not exhibited the correct leadership.
We in Scotland have not voted for a Conservative Government for 60 years, but we keep getting them, and this one is the worst so far. The only way forward is independence. We need to break free of this corrupt Government and their leader, who does not think truth matters and who thinks the rules do not apply to him.
I never expected to be a Member of Parliament, but I have been honoured to be returned three times. During that time, I have seen for myself how the public have lost faith in politicians. We need strong, enforceable standards for those in public life, and we need stronger, more enforceable standards for Ministers, and especially the Prime Minister. We need to build back trust in politics. In Scotland we will do that best by achieving independence; and here we will do it best by supporting this motion.
It is somewhat ironic that we are debating standards in public life, given the Prime Minister appears to have no standards and no moral compass whatsoever. It is now blindingly apparent to our constituents that, after many months of rule-breaking, the Prime Minister is fundamentally dishonest, or has at least given the appearance of being dishonest. He is constantly mired in scandal and feels so entitled that he believes his own rules do not apply to him. That is not just Opposition rhetoric or a mere one-off; it is a pattern of behaviour that has emerged not recently but over the past two decades.
A perception of dishonesty, if not actual dishonesty, has been repeated time and again in this House, and it is bringing our democracy into disrepute. My constituents are pretty angry about this. My constituent Dani is angry and contacted me to communicate her disgust at this behaviour. She described her young daughter, who was very unwell during lockdown and who suffers from a rare condition called listeria monocytogenes meningitis and severe mental trauma from her ordeal. She told me:
“I can’t express my anger and disappointment that Mr Johnson thinks it’s acceptable to make up excuses the way he…has done. I no longer have faith… Please pass my story on to whoever that would want to hear it. As I also am raising awareness about listeria meningitis because it’s a strand that is not known much about… Let’s get a Prime Minister in that would treat us as equals. And not feel the need to lie to us. I watch everything, and it doesn’t sit well when we all know his apologies are worth nothing.”
Another constituent, Anuja, wrote:
“At a time when I was forced to go into labour…with my son on my own without a birthing partner, Boris Johnson and his colleagues thought it was an appropriate time to host a party going against all rules they had set themselves. A few days after I gave birth, my closest Uncle passed away and not only were we unable to attend his funeral, his immediate family were not allowed to see him one last time and had to part ways with him all on their own with not a single shoulder to cry on.”
How much more needs to happen before Conservative Members, specifically the 211 who voted to keep the Prime Minister in office, decide to take action and oust him? He has the support of less than a third of the House of Commons. In 1979, before my time, Prime Minister Callaghan, with the support of 310 MPs, called a general election on that basis. Our current Prime Minister has less support than any Prime Minister in living memory.
This situation goes far deeper than partygate. The Prime Minister recently abused the ministerial code by redrafting it to reduce the potential sanctions for Ministers who break rules, and he was castigated by the former local government ombudsman, who served on the Committee on Standards in Public Life for five years until last December. Jane Martin went on to say that Mr Johnson had wrongly used a report by her committee as a spur to weaken the code.
I remind the Minister of the comments made by previous speakers about ACOBA. The Government are yet to respond to Lord Pickles’s letters, sent in July and September, about Dominic Cummings’s breaches of business appointment rules. That is exactly why today’s motion to back the full package of recommendations by the CSPL would strengthen transparency and integrity, and improve accountability in our democratic institutions. It is only by making those necessary changes, in particular, with the independent integrity and ethics commission, that we can safeguard our democracy and look our constituents in the eye. This would, I hope, mean that debacles such as the Owen Paterson scandal could be avoided in future. The Prime Minister not only defended Mr Paterson’s clear and egregious breach of lobbying rules, but, disgracefully, attempted to remove the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for doing her job. That is behaviour we would expect to see in an authoritarian state, not in one of the oldest and proudest democracies on earth. So it is no surprise that the Prime Minister’s own anti-corruption tsar resigned yesterday for those repeated failings.
Just last weekend, the Prime Minister was making obscene hand gestures to shocked members of the public who had taken it upon themselves in the Morito restaurant, Hackney to question his actions. That is the latest in a long line of well-documented offences. What we have seen in the past couple of years is something that, I am afraid to say, has been part of the Prime Minister’s character for nearly two decades. In 1990, he was secretly recorded, in a previous job, agreeing to provide the address of the News of the World reporter Stuart Collier to his friend Darius Guppy, who wanted to arrange for the journalist to have his ribs cracked as revenge for investigating his activities. That is the true mark of the man behind the door of Downing Street.
Then we come to the Prime Minister’s record in public office. In perhaps one of the most scathing assessments of his time as Foreign Secretary, a London Conservative mayoral candidate, Steve Norris, pointed to ill-informed comments of the now Prime Minister that undoubtedly led to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe facing many years in incarceration. Mr Norris’ telling comments were that, in addition to being “lousy on detail” during his time as London Mayor, his consistent failure to “read the paperwork” was exactly the sort of behaviour that led to his sloppy and inaccurate comments about Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. He is not a jovial character, as many of us have been led to believe; this behaviour has affected people’s lives for decades, most angering, recently, those hundreds of constituents who did abide by the rules and were not able to be with their loved ones, attend weddings or attend funerals in times of need over the past few months and years.
The Prime Minister has said that it will take a tank division to drag him out of Downing Street, which means that, even after last night’s vote, he still is not going to leave of his own accord. So I urge colleagues, on both sides of this House, to continue to explore all options to force this position—to make a change—so that democracy and integrity can be restored, and so that this House can rightfully be restored to its place as a pre-eminent symbol of democracy around the globe. If there is an appearance of dishonesty in our Prime Minister, at a time when the country needs to be navigated through the most economically uncertain years ahead that we potentially face, with misery already being caused to millions, surely that trust has to be restored in one way or another. We cannot have someone with their hand on the tiller steering this country who has no trust, from not only this House, but from the vast majority of people in this country.
I thank all Members who have contributed to this important debate and to the underlining of the importance of standards, which so many have mentioned. Last night, 148 MPs stood up for standards in public life and it is disappointing not to see more of them in their place today. Each one of us is elected to this place based on trust: the trust of everyone who voted for us; the trust of the British people that we would act with selflessness and integrity in every decision we make; the trust that when the country has to rise to a challenge we in this place would set the highest standards; and the trust that if we were found to be failing to live up to those standards, we would take action, decisively and urgently, with transparency, to rectify that.
The standards system now is broken, so it is up to Labour to bring this motion to push forward the action needed to live up to that trust. The Opposition have tabled this motion now because integrity and trust in politics has never been more under threat. While families up and down the country face the cost of living crisis, they deserve to know who is making the decisions and in whose interests Ministers are acting. These measures are urgently needed to stop the Tory slide into sleaze; to stop the culture of wasting taxpayers’ cash to give a mate a lucrative Government contract; to stop the politicisation of appointments from institutions that have never been political before; to regain our pride as a country that stands up for integrity and decency in public life; and to stop rules being made by convention, which can all too easily become a mate’s rates version of standards. The wink and a nod; the “He’s all right”; the turning of a blind eye; the “Help yourself,” “I’ve earned it,” or “Other people do it”—it is all a short journey from bending the rules to breaking them to bringing all MPs and our democracy into disrepute.
The report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life is the focus of the motion. As the committee says:
“Erosion of standards does affect public trust in the democratic process”.
The polling and focus group research conducted for the committee found:
“The public have a firm belief that ethical standards are integral to democracy itself, and that politicians have a fundamental duty to the public to abide by ethical codes and rules. However, the public lack confidence that MPs and ministers abide by such standards, and see some politicians as possessing neither the core values expected from leaders in public life, nor matching up to the higher ethical standards displayed by other respected public sector leaders, such as judges, doctors and teachers.”
What a state we are in and what action we need to take.
We have heard in the debate excellent speeches laying out the significance of standards. My right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett talked articulately and movingly about grandmother’s footsteps and the stealthy movement to undermine the health of our democracy, and about ministerial standards, control of the media and public appointments.
My hon. Friends the Members for Eltham (Clive Efford), for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) and for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) all underlined the importance of standards and the Nolan principles; the slow death of democracy by the degrading of those standards; the damage done by partygate; and the lack of action up till now.
Today, Labour asks all Members to support the motion—not to abstain, to support it—to recognise the importance of the ministerial code, which has been damaged by the Prime Minister’s rewrite last month. The publication of a new ministerial code was the opportunity to include many of the 34 recommendations in the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life; instead, we got a watered-down code.
In the week when the Prime Minister’s misleading denials to Parliament about industrial-scale rule breaking at the heart of Government were finally exposed by the long-awaited Sue Gray report, the Prime Minister should have been tendering his resignation, but instead he was rewriting the rules. He moved to introduce a range of sanctions for minor breaches of the code, a new website and an office for the adviser, but he made no move to make the adviser more independent from the Prime Minister, which was the report’s core recommendation.
“That’s a resigning matter for me, and it should be for the PM too.”
The second focus of the motion is the endorsing of the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and its 34 recommendations. Back in September 2020, the committee’s review opened with the publication of terms of reference. The starting point was that the existing systems were not fit for purpose and were being increasingly scrutinised and criticised. They were not fit for purpose then and they still are not.
During 2021 there were expert evidence sessions; there was a public consultation; there was an academic roundtable; there was a public sector survey; and there was polling and focus group research. In November 2021, the committee published the report based on all the feedback and all its deliberations. This was not just a small group in a room somewhere, coming up with its own ideas; it was a considered, deliberate report. But we had to wait for seven months for any action at all, and that was the reviewing of the ministerial code. It was seven months of more sleaze and misconduct, including the Owen Paterson scandal, the vote to keep Rob Roberts in Parliament and the failure to act against the former Member for Wakefield. We need to clean up this culture of sleaze and cover-up.
The 34 recommendations include: greater independence in the regulation of the ministerial code, which has been talked about in this debate; strengthening the independent appointment and remit of the independent adviser; expansion of the business appointment rules to employment by companies with indirect as well as direct relationships with Government; the introduction of meaningful sanctions such as the five-year lobbying ban, because there are just too many loopholes in the current system; and stopping Ministers from overriding public appointments without having to account for why—side-stepping assessment panels means that things can go unrecorded and unnoticed.
We need to know what is happening behind closed doors. The recommendations also include bringing in greater transparency when it comes to who is lobbying whom. We need a central register; a wider definition of who is a lobbyist; and monthly, instead of quarterly, reporting of all lobbying meetings that includes all methods of lobbying, including those on Zoom and WhatsApp.
Those recommendations came out seven months ago. There has been no word on any action for most of them. Earlier, the Minister told us that he would reflect the thinking of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the rewrite of the ministerial code, but he should not just be reflecting the thinking of the CSPL; he should be including the actual recommendations. If those recommendations are not in the ministerial code, where should they be? When will we see these changes?
This motion today is just the necessary first step. Once the Committee’s recommendations are implemented in full, the Government should then do more. Labour would go much further. It would introduce an independent integrity and ethics commission—not a convention, not an adviser, and not another Tory MP. And it would not be in the gift of the Prime Minister to decide whether an investigation is carried out.
This independent commission would bring the existing Committees and bodies that oversee standards in Government under a single, independent body. It would have powers to launch investigations without ministerial approval, to collect evidence and to decide on sanctions. The current system is just too disjointed, too convoluted and too little understood, as the report showed in its polling and evidence sessions. It does not have the transparency or the teeth needed to ensure that high standards are met by everyone all the time, and it is too entirely dependent on the integrity of the Prime Minister—the chap at the top.
I hope that all Members will vote for this motion today. I do not see how they could not unless they are against the ministerial code and against the recommendations on standards in public life. The truth is that standards have not just been diluted under this present Government; they have evaporated. A vote for this motion is a vote to endorse honesty, integrity, and decency. Let us mark an end to the current system right now. This is the line that we should be drawing underneath things. We want an end to the slide away from the highest standards; an end to rule-breaking by Ministers; an end to the revolving door between ministerial office and lobbying jobs; an end to corruption and waste of taxpayers’ money; and an end to Members of Parliament being paid to lobby their own Government. Let us clean up politics. Let us win back the trust of the British people and do what we came here to do: to serve the British people without fear or favour and never, ever to compromise on the highest standards of public life. I commend this motion to the House.
With the leave of the House and yourself, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish to close this debate.
Today has been a useful debate in which valuable points were raised about the importance of high standards in public life—something that, as I have set out, the Government take seriously. The recently published statement on standards in public life set out reforms that provide a measured approach to make certain that the highest standards are maintained, while ensuring democratic accountability of elected representatives to the British people via the ballot box.
As I set out in my opening remarks, the Government will not be able to support this motion. I have heard Opposition Members repeatedly say the same thing. They have said, “We need a break from the Prime Minister”, “We need to change the Prime Minister”, and “We need to change the leadership of this country.” I respectfully suggest that the way to do that is by winning a general election. I have been in this Chamber for many hours over months now, and the Opposition parties have hardly said anything about policies. That is because if they talk about policies, they lose, so they talk about personalities.
Labour’s proposal is for an unelected, all-powerful overlord to choose who a Prime Minister’s Ministers should be. In theory, therefore, if a Labour Prime Minister—if ever there is a Labour Prime Minister in the future—were to say that they had lost faith in their Minister for the Cabinet Office, that would be one thing; but if they were to say that they had faith in their Minister for the Cabinet Office, but the new overlord were to say that he or she did not, under Labour’s plan that person would get to choose who that Minister was. With the greatest respect, I do not think that would make sense.
Looking at the constitutional framework of this country, as the policy statement published by the Government sets out, the constitutional status and framework are a key consideration when we look to make changes such as this. To explain the Government’s position here, the Prime Minister’s role as head of the Executive means that he has sole responsibility for the organisation of Her Majesty’s Government. That includes the recommendation of the appointment of, the dismissal of and the acceptance of any resignation by any of his Ministers. Ministers hold office for as long as they hold the confidence of the Prime Minister.
I gave examples earlier where Labour Prime Ministers retained confidence in a Minister who had been in breach of a ministerial code. The same applies both ways round. The Prime Minister, then, is accountable to both Parliament and the general public for the use of his powers as head of the Executive. As the ministerial code sets out, all Ministers, including the Prime Minister, are in the same way accountable to Parliament and the public for their actions and conduct.
Parliament has an established scrutiny role to play through mechanisms such as Select Committees, oral and written questions and statements. In addition to those arrangements, in our parliamentary democracy the conduct of the Government is ultimately judged by the electorate at the ballot box. I have to say this clearly: the ministerial code is the Prime Minister’s document. It sets out his guidance to all Ministers, including him, on how they should act and arrange their affairs in order to uphold the principles and standards of conduct set out in the code. The management of the Executive is wholly separate from the legislature.
I was struck by the Minister’s reference there to an unelected, all-powerful, unaccountable individual; it reminded me that Dominic Cummings was the subject of correspondence in July and September last year between the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and the Cabinet Office, with regard to his activities post leaving Downing Street. ACOBA has never had a response to that correspondence. When will it get one?
I am afraid I do not know the answer to that question, but I will certainly look into the matter for the right hon. Gentleman.
In line with the Prime Minister’s constitutional role as head of the Government, the Prime Minister is responsible for matters relating to the Executive. That point has been raised by several Opposition Members concerning the justiciability of the ministerial code. The ministerial code and its application are a matter for the Executive, and the Government do not consider that it would be appropriate to legislate for the ministerial code or for the office of the independent adviser. As soon as one legislates in that way, one opens the matter up to judicial review and judicial intervention.
Codifying aspects of the constitution in that way would inevitably constrain our ability as a country to flex and evolve our constitution over time. It would also increase the risk, which as a former Attorney General and Solicitor General is one of my principal concerns, of the judiciary’s being drawn into political matters that are not suitable for judicial review. They would be reviewing the fact that a Prime Minister has said, “I have confidence in X”, and a judge would, by necessity, be being asked to say that the Prime Minister should have confidence in X or they should not have confidence in X—the judge would be substituting his or her view for that of the Prime Minister. We want to protect the judiciary from being politicised in that way, which is another key flaw in Labour’s proposals.
I have listened to the Minister’s arguments. He is essentially saying that all power remains with the Prime Minister—the chap at the top. Given the vote yesterday evening by Members on his own Benches, who are not here to defend him today, what then are we to say to our constituents about the state of play with regard to public trust when the chap at the top has not behaved as honourably as he should?
The hon. Member and several others keep referring to chaps at the top. It is the Conservative party that has had two female Prime Ministers.
On the hon. Lady’s point about the Prime Minister’s power, that is certainly not unchecked. The Prime Minister of this country has very considerable checks and balances, given our extremely free and open press and also a House that has an extremely wide array of powers. His powers are not unchecked, by any stretch of the imagination, as I think is obviously clear.
I want to come back to the motion itself, which, as I say, appears to have been built on a misunderstanding of the intentions of the revision to the ministerial code as opposed to the substance of it. As I have set out, the Government are mindful of the constitutional position of the Prime Minister as head of the Executive and his role as having sole responsibility for the organisation of Her Majesty’s Government. That means that Ministers must have the confidence of the Prime Minister to continue in their role, and the ministerial code duly sets out the Prime Minister’s expectations. The Government are highly mindful of the accountability of Ministers and the Prime Minister within this, both to Parliament and ultimately to the public at the ballot box.
The updates to the ministerial code strengthen it. It is simply wrong to say that they weaken it—that is the opposite of the case. They are intended, in the first place, to enhance the role of the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, for whom we have considerable respect. They are also to provide what could only be described as a reasonable range of sanctions so that the Prime Minister can discharge an appropriate and proportionate sanction for what might be in certain cases a minor breach, and to include a new foreword reflecting the current priorities of the Government.
These changes follow consideration of the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its “Upholding Standards in Public Life” report. We are following those recommendations, alongside consultation between the Prime Minister and Lord Geidt, the independent adviser, and others. As Members can imagine, the Government have carefully considered these and wider recommendations in coming to these conclusions.
I finish by reiterating that the aim of the changes is to even better enable the Government to uphold the highest standards in public life, reflecting the constitutional role of the Prime Minister. Let me once again place on the record my thanks to all those who have taken part in today’s debate.
The House divided: Ayes 215, Noes 0.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House recognises the importance of the Ministerial Code for maintaining high standards in public life; endorses the Committee on Standards in Public Life report entitled Upholding Standards in Public Life, Final report of the Standards Matter 2 review; calls on the Government to implement all of the report’s recommendations as a matter of urgency; and further calls on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to make a statement to the House on the progress made in implementing the recommendations by