I beg to move,
That the following Standing Order be made:
“(1) Following any two month period in which the role of Independent Adviser to the Prime Minister on Ministers’ Interests remains unfilled, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee shall appoint a specialist adviser, entitled the Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, whose role shall be to advise the Committee on the effectiveness of the Ministerial Code and on any potential breaches of that Code.
(2) The Adviser may initiate consideration of a potential breach of the Ministerial Code, and shall consider any such potential breach referred to him by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
(3) When considering potential breaches of the Ministerial Code, the Adviser may advise the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on the appropriate use of its powers to send for persons, papers and records in order to secure the information needed to consider any such potential breaches.
(4) The Adviser shall submit a memorandum to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee reporting conclusions relating to a potential breach of the Ministerial Code.
(5) The Adviser shall have leave to publish any memorandum submitted to the Committee under paragraph (4) which has not been published in full and has been in the Committee’s possession for longer than 30 sitting days.”
What a pleasure it is to open this debate, especially as it is with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. I will call him my right hon. and learned Friend now because I see him more often these days than I see my friends. It is always a pleasure to stand opposite him. Hopefully, he will be able to give us some answers today, so that we can build on that friendship.
The truth is that, to lose one ethics adviser is an embarrassment, but to lose a second, just days after the Prime Minister’s anti-corruption tsar walked, too, means that it has become a pattern—a pattern of degrading the principles of our democracy; a pattern of dodging accountability; and a pattern of demeaning his office. The Prime Minister has now driven both of his own hand-picked ethics advisers to resign in despair—twice in two years. It is a badge of shame for this Government and it should be for the rogue Prime Minister, too. If he was capable of feeling any shame, Lord Geidt has described the resignation as a “last resort” that
“sends a critical signal into the public domain.”
Well, he has certainly sent that signal, Madam Deputy Speaker. In his damning resignation letter, Lord Geidt spoke of the “odious” and “impossible” position that he had been put in. He said that the Prime Minister had made a “mockery” of the “Ministerial Code” and that he would play no further part in this. It was not about steel at all; it was about this Prime Minister’s casual and constant disregard for the rules. Lord Geidt could not stomach it any longer, and I do not blame him. To this Prime Minister, ethics is a county east of London.
The truth is that the Prime Minister behaves as though it is one rule for him and another for the rest of us, because that is what he thinks. Scandal after scandal has hit him and his Government. His previous adviser on ministerial interests, the respected Sir Alex Allan, resigned when the Prime Minister chose to excuse the Home Secretary despite the fact that she had breached the ministerial code by bullying civil servants. Sir Alex could not stand by and condone bullying, and the Prime Minister was more than happy to. After losing his first independent adviser, it took five months to appoint a new one—five months during which ministerial misconduct was left unchecked, creating a huge backlog of sleaze and misconduct by Tory Ministers. Lord Geidt himself complained about this backlog.
This House should not tolerate a repeat performance. We cannot endure another five months with no accountability in Downing Street. We cannot endure another five minutes of it. Since Lord Geidt resigned, the Government have refused to confirm if or how his ongoing investigations will continue. I hope my new right hon. and learned Friend the Minister can tell us today whether the investigation into the shameful allegations of Islamophobia experienced by Ms Ghani will now be concluded. She was due to meet Lord Geidt on the day that he resigned, but the Government have been silent on the issue and have failed to say anything about what will happen when any further suspected breaches of the ministerial code occur.
Take, for example, reports that the Prime Minister, while Foreign Secretary, tried to make an inappropriate appointment to his own office. He reportedly spoke to his aides about a taxpayer-funded position—just another case of dishing out jobs to those close to him. Lord Geidt has suggested that such allegations are ripe for a new investigation, and I agree. As everyone knows, I love a letter, but who should I write the request to? There is no ethics adviser in place to hold Tory Ministers to the standards the British public expect. We all know that Ministers will not do it themselves. Under this Government, more rule-breaking is simply inevitable, unfortunately. Lord Geidt has already said that his role was “exceptionally busy”.
I happen to agree with the right hon. Lady that there should not be a long gap before the appointment of a new independent adviser, but let me put something else to her. Two weeks ago, when she opened a debate on a similar subject, she prayed in aid extensively the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I am a member, as she knows, and she did so rightly, in my view. Does she accept, though, that she cannot do that today, because her motion does not accord with what the Committee on Standards in Public Life has said? We believe that the ministerial code must remain the property of the Prime Minister because that is how it derives its authority, and it therefore makes sense that the adviser should give advice to the Prime Minister and not to any Committee of Parliament, however eminent. How is it that the Committee on Standards in Public Life was so right two weeks ago but wrong now?
I commend the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and its report, which I absolutely agree should be implemented in full, but that is not what has happened: it was cherry-picked in what the Government have done with the changes to the ministerial code. This is an emergency measure because we cannot carry on for months and months without the adviser being present, as I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees. I hope the Minister comes to the same conclusion. I have written to him and had a response today in a written answer about when the appointment will be made. I understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s position and what he is saying, but I say categorically that I absolutely agree with the report and want to see it implemented in full.
I have sympathy with the thrust of the right hon. Lady’s motion in that we do not want a long delay, and I am sure the Government have sympathy with it, too—I am sure the Prime Minister would like to appoint as soon as possible—but the rest of her motion seeks to create a new Standing Order. Traditionally in this House, the Procedure Committee would advise on Standing Orders, so would she be amenable, should the Opposition motion pass today, for the Procedure Committee to look at this as a matter of priority, given the timelines involved?
I thank the hon. Member. The thrust of what I am trying to do today, and hon. Members need to understand this, is just to have some probity, standards and ethics we can all agree on. One of the things I think is very damaging, and this has been very damaging for all hon. Members of this House, is conduct that the public out there see as inappropriate not being scrutinised and dealt with. This does not just affect the Prime Minister; it affects each and every one of us in this place, so I am happy to continue further dialogue to ensure we get to such a point. However, this is about making sure that something happens now, because we have seen conduct and standards from this Prime Minister that, quite frankly, I have never seen before from any Prime Minister of any political persuasion.
In response to the point made by Aaron Bell, I accept that the Procedure Committee does have a role—and I was a member of the Procedure Committee—but given that Brexit was supposed to be about Parliament taking back control, there is absolutely nothing at all disorderly about the motion on the Order Paper for Parliament to take control and set up its own Standing Order. The right hon. Lady is right: the problem is that the Prime Minister’s behaviour will almost certainly start to be interpreted as a plague on all our houses, and that is why Parliament must support this and must vote for this motion tonight.
This is about us trying to make sure that we do take back control, and also that we gain the respect of the public. Quite rightly, when they elect us and bring us into this place, they expect us to have the highest standards. Especially when we create the laws that they have to follow, they expect us to have the highest possible standards.
Of course, the resignation of yet another ethics adviser will do little to quieten public concerns that there is something very rotten at the heart of this Government. Next week, I will be presenting a ten-minute rule Bill that would make lying in politics illegal and give our constituents confidence that we are serious about forcing a change of culture within our political system. Does the right hon. Member agree with me that the present culture is corroding trust in politics and democracy?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Member that trust is being corroded in politics, and I do not like that. I do not like that for any of us hon. Members in this place, because I believe that the vast majority of Members who come to this place do so for great public service. Therefore, when hon. Members do not behave to the standards I think the British public expect of us, that actually makes it difficult for all of us. David Linden mentions the procedures of this place, and sometimes it is challenging for the public when they see people “inadvertently mislead” the House. The public do not always see it as “inadvertently misleading” the House, and therefore they do not understand exactly why we have such a debate on that matter.
Would my right hon. Friend accept that the debate between an independent appointment and an appointment by the Prime Minister has been cast into a different light by partygate, by the appointment of somebody’s girlfriend for £100,000, by the breach of international law with the Northern Ireland protocol and even by what has happened on steel tariffs? Therefore, there is a compelling case for independence or at least for Parliament to decide on those issues, not the Prime Minister, who people, frankly, do not trust for good reasons.
Absolutely. During Lord Geidt’s time as ethics adviser, he was swamped—swamped—with allegations of ministerial misconduct. During his session with the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, referring to the ministerial code, Lord Geidt said that
“as you look through the calendar, a great deal of the year has potentially had the Prime Minister in scope.”
It is astonishing that we are in these circumstances, but we are where we are.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson has refused to confirm when the independent adviser will be replaced, or even if the independent adviser will be replaced at all. It is pretty clear that, if the Prime Minister had his way, he would dispense with the nuisance of transparency and the annoyance of accountability altogether.
I agree with the right hon. Lady about the need to appoint a new adviser but I have looked carefully at her motion, which talks about an adviser. What would the status of that adviser to the Committee be? Would they be an employee of this House? If they were an Officer of this House, there would be an obvious conflict between their duty to Parliament and any involvement they might have in Government affairs. Does she not see that that is quite a problem that needs to be addressed by her and the motion?
I do not see the wording of the motion creating a conflict or causing problems in that way. It will allow us to have the scrutiny and probity that we need, because the Government at the moment are not forthcoming in giving us the assurances that I have tried outside this place to get on whether we are going to get a new adviser. That is the thrust of what I am trying to do today. I can see that Members are passionate about this issue, and I am happy for them to work with us to try to get there. I am sure that my friend the Paymaster General would be willing to do that as well. We all want to see standards in public life, and Ministers of the Crown in particular need to have that authority when dealing with matters of office so that the public can have confidence in them. That is what this motion is about today.
Does the right hon. Lady understand the irony of Conservative Members complaining about a conflict of interest when the Prime Minister’s own chief of staff, whom he appointed, is simultaneously an MP, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the chief of staff—a role that is traditionally undertaken by a civil servant?
This is part of the problem. We all need to have confidence that processes are being followed and that there is accountability. Nobody is above the law in this country, but the Prime Minister seems to think that he can be. It is astonishing that we are in those circumstances.
I thank my right hon. Friend for introducing this debate. I think the point she was making very well earlier in response to questions from Conservative Members who have been good lawyers in their previous life is that the thrust of what she is trying to do today is to suggest that we all in this place want to do better, and that we are willing to look at ways to do better. If the thrust of this motion does not meet that high standard, it is open to Conservative Members who have experience and expertise in this area to suggest other ways of doing this, perhaps by bringing forward amendments, and to work with the Opposition in that way. I think she is saying that that is something she welcomes.
“the most substantial strengthening of the role, office and remit of independent adviser since the post was created in 2006.”—[Official Report,
He must think I was born yesterday. Removing any reference to honesty, integrity, accountability and transparency is not strengthening standards; it is cherry-picking parts of the recommendation and watering it down before our very eyes. Within hours of the Paymaster General saying those words at the Dispatch Box, No. 10 was already refusing to repeat his commitment to that system—a system that the Prime Minister himself had put in place just weeks before.
Now the Government do not even deny the plans to abolish the role of the independent adviser entirely. Today, the Minister answered my written question about his plans to fill the post and said that the Government were “taking time” to consider the matter. Just how long does he expect us to give him? Should we expect half a year of sleaze and scandal without accountability? For more than a year, the Prime Minister used Lord Geidt as a human shield, citing his independence and integrity as the Government desperately staggered from one scandal to the next. Now the Culture Secretary takes to the airwaves to mock and belittle him. That is what they do to decent people. Conservative Members who continue to prop up this Prime Minister and keep his self-preservation society afloat would do well to note that. That is where this House must come in.
Labour’s proposal today would put this Prime Minister into special measures, where he needs to be. If he fails to appoint a new independent adviser, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will have the power to appoint one. We will give the Committee the proper powers to launch investigations, to send for papers, persons and records, to report on breaches and to make its judgments public. This Prime Minister has ridden roughshod over the rules. He will not show any regard to ethics, but this House can do that today. The motion before us is a limited, simple measure to address any refusal by the Prime Minister to enforce the ministerial code by allowing Parliament to step in.
Of course, we would like to go much further, which is why we backed the package of recommendations from the CSPL as the first step in our plan to clean up politics. We want to see full independence granted to the adviser to open his or her investigations—without that, it is left to the whim of the Prime Minister. As I said, the Prime Minister cherry-picked the CSPL recommendations and conveniently chose not to introduce this crucial one. While he maintains the power of veto over the independent adviser, there is an inherent risk that he will overrule his own adviser. Today, it is time to show the Prime Minister that he is not above the rules and for this House to draw a line in the sand. If the Prime Minister will not appoint an ethics adviser, we must do so. I commend this motion to the House.
I thank Angela Rayner for choosing today’s motion. It is a great pleasure, as always, to appear on the other side of the House from her, and I will endorse the opportunity she gave to call her a friend likewise.
The Government remain steadfast in their absolute commitment to upholding standards in public life and the critical role of the ministerial code in supporting those standards. It is on account of that commitment that the Government cannot support today’s motion, for the simple reason that it attempts, by proxy, to change the British constitution by the back door; what it does, without consultation or consideration, would be unreasonable. What would be unreasonable is for any Opposition party to say all this on what is, as they know, a national strike day, when many Members are hindered from attending this House, because Labour Members are on the picket lines for a strike caused by Labour’s union backers.
I have set out repeatedly and exhaustively in recent weeks that the Government fully recognise the importance of the ministerial code and its role in maintaining standards in public life. What we wish to do, therefore, is to protect the code. It sets out the Prime Minister’s expectations of his or her Ministers, detailing the standards of conduct in public life expected of those who serve government and the principles that underpin them. The code has performed this role for successive Prime Ministers since it was first published by the Conservative Prime Minister John Major as “Questions of Procedure for Ministers” in 1992, 30 years ago. Throughout that time, it has been an evolving document. It is customarily issued—it is customarily released or re-released—when warranted, by the Prime Minister of the day to reflect changes and to update the guidance. So this business about what is said in the foreword of the document is, frankly, a red herring. What is said in the foreword is very often a reflection of the current affairs at the time the document was released. What it is not is a reflection of the contents of the document, which are as they were before.
Since 2006, recognising the need for independent support on the application of the code, the Prime Minister of the day has appointed an Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to provide independent advice on how Ministers manage their interests and to assist with the investigation of alleged breaches of the code. But if Labour’s motion were to succeed, it could mean in the future a Labour-chaired Committee choosing one of the Prime Minister’s advisers or a Conservative-chaired Committee choosing a future Labour Prime Minister’s advisers. That would lead to dysfunction and, frankly, gridlock, and it would be entirely impractical and unconstitutional. It simply would not work.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about the fact that the code was designed under John Major in the 1990s, although John Major’s Government were not exactly without scandal and sleaze, so perhaps it is time to revisit that. Given his knowledge of history, can he think of any Prime Minister who has lost not one but two advisers on the ministerial code since the days of John Major?
There are exceptions in every case and, of course, we know that in the past 30 years Prime Ministers of all political parties have decided for themselves when Ministers have their confidence and when they do not. The Government are very grateful to all those who have served in the role of independent adviser since 2006. It is a challenging role, and increasingly so today. Let me repeat my particular thanks to Lord Geidt for his contribution to the office, but the Prime Minister has also made it clear that the resignation of Lord Geidt and the issues that he and PACAC raised last week demand a moment of reflection. They demand some consideration. Frankly, we think it is right to step back and take some time to consider what we have heard from the former independent adviser and from this House. This is a complex matter and one that touches on Executive functions and the royal prerogative in relation to the appointment of Ministers. As I have said before to this honourable House, we cannot have a situation where we expect any Prime Minister of any political party not to have confidence in a Minister that he or she has serving in their Cabinet. It is crucial that each Minister has the confidence of the serving Prime Minister.
The Paymaster General talks about exceptional times, but unfortunately this is not exceptional behaviour from this Prime Minister. This is not the first time that we have heard allegations that the Prime Minister has sought to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on his girlfriends. Just look at his time as Mayor of London. Does the Paymaster General not agree that this is a pattern of behaviour and the role of any new ethics adviser should be, for a start, to get the Prime Minister out of the gutter and find some ethics in the first place?
The Minister mentioned that the ministerial code and the guidance change with the times, but is it reasonable to delete references to integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and public interest? Obviously, these are enduring values and they cannot just be airbrushed out by a PM who chooses to break all the rules for his own self-interest.
I respectfully advise the hon. Gentleman to read the document he is quoting. First, those lines were only included in the foreword of the document since August 2019. They are still within the body of the document. What it says in the foreword is very often topical and should not be taken as inclusive of every item that follows in the substantive document.
Further to that, are not the Nolan principles set out in annex A to the ministerial code? All this nonsense about their removal is factually wrong. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend commit today to do the process of the appointment of a successor to Lord Geidt as soon as reasonably practicable?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right about the code. I think it is annex A, and it may even be 1(c), although I may be wrong. The foreword is a topical document and how and by whom Lord Geidt is replaced are being worked through in detail.
The Government have only very recently made a number of significant changes to the remit of the independent adviser and to the ministerial code, and those changes were made in response to recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as the former Attorney General, my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright, mentioned only a few moments ago. They represented the most substantial strengthening of the independent adviser’s role and office during the lifetime of that post. The role has been strengthened and increased substantially. I will not run through all the details of those changes again. In the light of last week’s events, it strikes us as reasonable to not rush in, but pause and reflect on how to do it properly.
If the changes that the Government recently brought forward are so significant and substantial, why do they feel it is necessary to have a pause for reflection again now, so soon?
Those are two different things, as the right hon. Member knows. We are talking about strengthening the role of the independent adviser, on which we had time to reflect and which we then did.
In no way do I suggest that the Government do not regard the role with the utmost importance; we do. In no way do I suggest that something of this importance will be left unaddressed; it will not. All I suggest is that we take a period of time to assess how best to perform that function. I appreciate that the motion allows a limited period of time, as it does not take effect until the independent adviser role has been unfilled for two months, but that timing presents two issues.
First, two months, with a deadline of
In a moment; I will just make some progress.
Let me move on to the detail of the motion, which is constitutionally rather important. It is predicated on a misplaced worry about the Government’s intentions, and that anxiety has created a jumble of misguided ideas. First, the creation of the new specialist adviser position stands directly at odds with the principle of separation of powers and the necessary distinction between Members and Ministers of the Crown. It would be an extraordinary shift of power from the Executive to the legislature, which would upset the long-established balance in that aspect of the United Kingdom’s constitution. It would be a reckless change that has not been thought through.
Her Majesty’s Government would not dream of appointing advisers to this House—that is for the House to do, and Mr Speaker would rightly protect the legislature’s independence—but the Opposition want the legislature to interfere with the independence of the Executive by appointing one of its own advisers. Effectively, that is a recipe for gridlock and confusion.
It is a fundamental constitutional principle that the Prime Minister of the day, as head of Her Majesty’s Government and the sovereign’s principal adviser, has sole responsibility for the overall organisation of the Executive and for recommending the appointment of Ministers. The Prime Minister, not Parliament, advises Her Majesty on the appointment of her Ministers. In turn, the Government of the day are accountable to the Commons and must command its confidence. That is our system. The ultimate responsibility for decisions on matters of ministerial conduct is therefore, quite properly, the Prime Minister’s alone, who draws his authority from the elected House of Commons. As an elected politician, those are matters for which he or she is accountable to Parliament and, ultimately, the electorate.
Flowing from those arrangements, the ministerial code is the Prime Minister’s document. It belongs to the Prime Minister and sets out the standards of behaviour that he expects from his Ministers. Likewise, the appointment of others to advise on the ministerial code is a matter for the Prime Minister. It would be similar to me appointing an adviser to the Leader of the Opposition, which would, of course, be absolute nonsense and would not be accepted by the Opposition.
As a member of PACAC, I would of course welcome being able to have further advice, but the Minister seems to have misinterpreted that issue. The motion proposes to appoint an adviser not to the Prime Minister, but to a Committee that can make independent judgments on the conduct of different areas of the Executive. The International Development Committee has an independent auditor who reports to it on the functions of the Department. Other Committees have independent people who report to them on the functions of the Executive. There is no suggestion in the motion that it would be an adviser to the Prime Minister, or that it would take away from the Prime Minister’s responsibility to do the hiring and firing. The Minister has misread the motion, has he not?
The intent of the motion, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, is to stymie the Prime Minister’s power to have his own Ministers. [Interruption.] He knows full well that that is the intention behind this reckless motion, which seeks by proxy to turn those constitutional principles on their head, and would surely be a recipe for constitutional gridlock and confrontation. Hon. Members should perhaps consider for a moment what would happen under this new regime when the Prime Minister of the day disagrees with the parliamentary adviser. If the Prime Minister were to disagree with that adviser, he would be put under pressure to not have one of his own Ministers.
Clearly, it is for that Select Committee to decide how it conducts its own affairs, but certainly as far as this motion is concerned, it would be unconstitutional. Rather than allowing the Executive to reflect on the role of the independent adviser, this motion is preoccupied—as I think the House knows—with immediate and short-term considerations seeking to capitalise on a current vacancy, which the Opposition are seeking to do for politically expedient reasons, without taking full account of the constitutional implications. The now repealed Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is a prime example of what happens if one alters critical parts of the constitution without care.
According to the motion, referring back to what Lloyd Russell-Moyle said, it would be for the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to appoint an individual to the new position of adviser on Ministers’ interests—not “adviser on the Committee’s interests”, but “adviser on Ministers’ interests”—and it would be for PACAC to refer matters that that Committee believes warrants consideration to its new adviser. With or without PACAC, that adviser would be able to instigate consideration of a matter, so the motion is an attempt to give the impression that powers have been transferred from the Executive to the legislature.
Given its novel character, perhaps it does not come as a surprise that the proposal stands in direct contradiction to the principle acknowledged in the code of conduct for MPs and the associated guide to the rules. That current document, which the House has approved, clearly states that
The guide to the rules clearly recognises that those requirements
“are not enforced by the House of Commons”.
The Opposition are seeking to reverse that agreement by the House.
The challenge to constitutional norms is not confined to the operation of the Executive. The motion also proposes to change the way in which Parliament and its Committees conduct their work.
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right when he quotes the code of conduct. However, without an ethics adviser to the Prime Minister, we as Members of this House are held to higher standards of behaviour through the code of conduct than Ministers are, including the Prime Minister. What can my right hon. and learned Friend tell us about how, going forward, the Prime Minister and the Government intend to ensure we can expect all Ministers to be held to the highest possible standards, just as we in this House are?
I can certainly say to my hon. Friend that those sorts of questions are being worked through now in detail.
As I said, the challenge to constitutional norms is not confined to the operation of the Executive. The motion specifies that
“the Adviser may advise the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on the appropriate use of its powers to send for persons, papers and records”.
The power of Select Committees to send for persons, papers and records is delegated to Select Committees from Parliament itself, and exercised by Members of this House as directly elected representatives. Although Select Committees already have the ability to appoint specialist advisers, introducing a requirement to appoint an adviser whose remit includes advising the Committee on how to use its powers would be different, unusual and undesirable. Although Select Committees may wish to draw on the advice of experts from time to time, this expertise does not ordinarily extend to advising Committees on how to use their historical powers to gather evidence.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s argument, but does he accept we are in unusual territory? The conduct and behaviour of the Prime Minister himself have been called into question, supported by the evidence. It would therefore seem inappropriate for the Prime Minister to appoint his own ethical adviser. Given that we have an independent judiciary, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not think we should investigate the possibility of an independent appointment through the judiciary to enforce ethical standards in our democracy?
I am in the business of protecting our judiciary from becoming politicised, which would be a danger with the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.
Select Committees already have a vital role to play in scrutinising and holding the Executive to account, which is why the Standing Orders provide the power to send for persons, papers and records. The creation of this new position would not augment the powers held by Parliament and its Committees but would serve to undermine the fundamental principle of the separation of powers.
As I have outlined, the House has previously acknowledged that Ministers are necessarily subject to an additional set of standards over and above that of Members. Providing a role for Parliament to initiate investigations into potential breaches of the ministerial code would be constitutionally irregular and would pre-empt the review that is currently being undertaken.
Is it not the case that a number of Select Committees already conduct pre-appointment hearings for people directly appointed by the Prime Minister? Those Select Committees can already say whether they recommend or do not recommend appointment. The Prime Minister can go against a Committee’s recommendation if he wishes, but it will be on the public record. There will be a paper trail so everyone knows what has happened, and light and fresh air will be let in to abolish the darkness of corruption. Would this proposal not do that if it were implemented?
The creation of an adviser with the power to initiate consideration of a potential breach of the ministerial code is different, and we can safely predict it would open the door to a wave of frivolous and vexatious complaints. We have to think about that and the reputation of this House because, now and across all future Administrations, there would be no downside in political opponents throwing in complaints like confetti. The Opposition of the day would not face tit-for-tat complaints, because they are not Ministers.
As we saw with the failed Standards Board for England in local government, a culture of petty complaint would undermine not strengthen confidence in democracy, which is precisely why such arrangements need to be thought through, to consider and avoid the unintended consequences that will ultimately afflict both sides of the House.
My right hon. and learned Friend is being generous in taking interventions. I agree about the importance of balance between the Executive and the legislature. May I press him on the need for a mechanism to appoint a successor to Lord Geidt? I understand that he cannot give us dates or commitments, but can I have an assurance that a successor will be appointed as soon as practicable?
What I can say to my right hon. and learned Friend is that the matter is being given very careful and full consideration. I hope that answers the point.
I am gravely concerned about what I have just heard. A number of us were given to understand, before the debate began, that the Government were willing to say that there is a strong commitment to finding a replacement for Lord Geidt in short order. I have not heard the Minister say that. Will he please make that very clear right now?
I do apologise if I have not made that clear; I thought that I had. I can confirm that that is the position.
Let me conclude by reassuring hon. Members that it is the Government’s intention to act swiftly. I emphasise that to hon. Friends around the House. We will act swiftly to undertake a review of the arrangements in place to support the ministerial code and ensure high ministerial standards. During that period, the process of managing ministerial interests will continue in line with the ministerial code, which sets out that the permanent secretary in each Department and the Cabinet Office can provide advice to Ministers and play a role in scrutinising interests. The latest list of ministerial interests was published just two weeks ago, and the Government’s publication of transparency information will of course continue unaffected.
I want to clarify what the Minister said in that last passage. His own Back Benchers seem very keen to establish on the record in Hansard that the Government have given them some sort of undertaking that they will act swiftly to appoint an adviser, but what the Minister said there was that he would act swiftly to institute a review. Which is it? Are the Government going to act swiftly to institute a review, or to appoint an adviser? I think that might affect how his Back Benchers vote this evening, so he needs to be clear.
It is very kind of the hon. and learned Lady to be interested in how the Back Benchers vote, but she ought to be concerned about her own party in that regard. The reality of the matter is that I have made my position perfectly clear: the position will be dealt with in good time. The how and when are being worked on—[Interruption.] I cannot be any clearer than that.
May I gently say to my right hon. and learned Friend that he will appreciate that, whether we like it or not, this issue of ethics is proving to be a bit of an Achilles’ heel with the Government. It is in the interests of the Government to have a replacement to Lord Geidt as quickly as possible. I have heard what he has said in response to a number of interventions, and so it may be me, but could he say once again for the record that an adviser in this important area of the mechanism of government will be appointed as swiftly as possible? A review of the terms of reference is ancillary.
Whether it be the phrase “as soon as reasonably practicable” or “as soon as possible” is somewhat immaterial, but I think I have made it clear. I am trying to emphasise that, while the how and when are to be worked out, the Government will work with every possible expedition.
On this motion, I would say it is in the Government’s interests and intentions to bring their review or the arrangements into play efficiently and in good time. As my hon. Friend says, it is in the Government’s interests, but it is also in the interests of the whole House, because the matter of ethics and standards is of relevance to all of us. Frankly, Labour’s high moral tone is perhaps not quite appropriate when its members find themselves under police investigation in Durham—
My friend intervenes from a sedentary position, but was she or was she not having an Indian meal in Durham? It is something of a korma, korma chameleon, one might say.
If we could return to the matter in hand, we are trying to establish whether the Government are swiftly moving to instigate a review, or swiftly moving to appoint. When Lord Geidt came before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in May 2021, he told us that his name had been “alighted on” by the Prime Minister. Can the Paymaster General tell us whether the Prime Minister will be alighting on a new name, reviewing the alighting on of a name, or reviewing an open application process? Can he give us a little bit more about that?
The Prime Minister intends to appoint a new ethics adviser. We will announce how that is to be done, who it is and how it works in due course, but it has to be done properly to ensure that Parliament and the public have confidence. This motion pre-empts that review process and unnecessarily seeks to hold the Government to an entirely arbitrary timetable. We firmly believe that it is better to undertake this work with proper diligence and attention than to conclude it in haste, without proper consideration of the issues raised by Lord Geidt and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. It is for those reasons that the Government would oppose the motion.
The Minister’s repeated reference to “in due course” has piqued the interest of those of us familiar with the work of Sir Humphrey Appleby. Will he go a little further and define what “in due course” means? For example, would it be before the conference recess, or the summer recess? [Interruption.] Maybe his Parliamentary Private Secretary is telling him right now.
I think that the hon. Member knows what “in due course” means, and, if he does not, he will have to work it out.
Labour chose this debate on a day when the Labour rail strike is in progress. It is utilising its valuable time in the Commons not to discuss policy—Labour Members do not discuss policy because when they do, they lose—as it would rather talk about personality, and I am surprised that it chose this debate at this time when half of its Members are apparently on the picket lines.
Well, there we have it, in the Minister’s own words, as clear as he could possibly be: it is abundantly clear that the Government have absolutely no intention whatsoever of moving speedily to replace their ethics adviser. If all the crowd on the Conservative Back Benches are prepared to be taken in by that rubbish, God help them when they have to try to consider some of the important issues of today.
We have heard from the Minister that there will be a review into the arrangements about the appointment of an ethics adviser. Why could he not have come to the Dispatch Box to state exactly and clearly what he intends to do, instead of mucking around with all of that rubbish and nonsense, skipping through God knows how many hoops and dancing on the head of so many pins? That would have been more useful to the House. We have had to listen to something like half an hour of unmitigated rubbish, and now we know that they will do nothing other than create some sort of review about how they will take the matter forward.
I do not know where to start when it comes to considering the ethics of this Prime Minister and Government. This is a Prime Minister with the ethics of Caligula and a Government with the morals of the last days of the Borgias. How the Prime Minister is still in place after all of this must go down in the history books as one of the great mysteries of early 21st-century politics. When the book is written and that feature film is eventually released, people will ask, “Did all of that seriously happen? Surely this must be a fictional account of this particular Conservative Government?”
There has never been a Prime Minister quite like it. He is a weird combination of privilege, narcissism, nastiness and naivety all wrapped up under the bumbling facade that he has carefully concocted to make his multitude of sins evaporate in front of our faces. He is about the worst Prime Minister to be in place at the worst possible time. No one has been more ill-equipped to run a community council, far less the Government of an advanced developed nation and democracy in western Europe. If there is one Prime Minister who is in need of ethical advice and the assistance of a moral compass, it is surely this Prime Minister. Far from doing away with the post—that plan is abundantly clear—the Government should be spending half of the UK’s GDP on creating an army of ethical advisers just to get on top of what is going on in the Government.
I have to say that, like the Culture Secretary, I was a little bit surprised to find out that we actually had an ethics adviser. I would not be surprised at all if the Prime Minister had an adviser for hedonism and partying hard, but ethics? He must be keeping his several successes in the course of the past few years hidden beneath a particularly big bushel. I do not know if he was a bit distracted when the Government were breaking the laws that they themselves created, distracted when they were threatening to break international law, distracted when they oversaw a culture at No. 10 that partied so hard that people were physically sick, got into fights and then abused the staff who were there to clean up, or distracted when the Government attempted to prorogue Parliament unlawfully and who continue to put their own cronies and donors in the House of Lords. But I suppose it gets to the stage where enough is enough even for the most patient, distracted and forgiving adviser, and the recognition finally dawns that this is an impossible task beyond the realms of human wit.
It comes as absolutely no surprise that the Government feel they can function quite adequately without an ethics adviser in place. They have been through two in the course of the past few years. Neither felt that they could make any real difference to the ethics and behaviour of this Prime Minister. That leads me to ask: what would an effective ethics adviser to this Prime Minister actually look like? They would need the ability to turn a blind eye and stomach some of the worst possible behaviour at the worst possible time. They must be able to take the abuse and disparaging comments from some of the Prime Minister’s friends, such as the Culture Secretary who, in her usual measured and respectful way, calls the current Lord Geidt “Lord Geddit” and says that voters do not care what he was or what he did. As part of the recruitment drive for the next ethics adviser, the Culture Secretary encouraged potential applicants for the post by saying that the public “don’t give a fig” about the job. Now, watch the great and good run forward to try to claim that particular prize.
The hon. Gentleman is making a typically measured speech himself. In talking about ethics and standards, can he confirm whether the SNP Westminster group still has a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour? A leaked recording this weekend would indicate that that is no longer the case.
Obviously, I am not going to discuss any sort of leaked information that has been passed on to the press. What I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that if he is sitting in a glass house with a big rock, it is probably best not to throw it in any direction. I remind him that I was on the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme and put together the report that is now in place; one of the most successful initiatives we have had to tackle abuse in this place. I will take great pride in the fact that that was part of the arrangements concerning that.
I will finish with the Culture Secretary. Once she has finished her tenure in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which hopefully will be short-lived, she could maybe go on to become an international diplomat or peacemaker, given her ability to say the right things at the right time on issues that require sensitivity and care, just as she has in the last few weeks.
In an attempt to save face and further discredit Lord Geidt—this is perhaps one of the most concerning pieces of spin from the past few days—the Government were able to develop a narrative that his resignation was nothing to do with the appalling behaviour of the Prime Minister but a misunderstanding about steel. Because of the Government’s remarks and the spin from the Government’s friends in the newspapers, Lord Geidt felt it necessary to write a second letter to clarify exactly why he resigned. He said that it was nothing to do with steel, and that steel was an absolute and utter distraction. He said it was instead about being asked to approve deliberate breaches of international law given the Government’s
“widely publicised openness to this”.
The Minister seemed very reluctant to confirm that a new adviser will be appointed anytime soon. Does my hon. Friend think that that is probably because the Government have it in mind to breach several international treaties in the coming months and it would be very awkward for them to have an adviser in place who would be advising them against that or possibly resigning because of their plans to do so?
My hon. and learned Friend is coming to the right conclusions about the Government’s indecision and apparently clear intention of not having an ethics adviser put in place at the earliest possible opportunity. A number of things are coming up—I will mention a couple of them—in the in-tray for any adviser to consider, some of which will greatly concern Members of this House.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would agree that further delay and dilly-dallying in the appointment of an ethics adviser does nothing whatever to restore public confidence in our Government?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely and utterly right. I do not think that, in my 20-odd years in the House, I have seen it in such a dilapidated condition, when public trust in the activities of the House, the way in which we do business and the way in which we conduct ourselves has been so badly misunderstood and misinterpreted by the public. It is incumbent on the House to start to try and put these things right.
Let us get back to our good friend Lord Geidt. I do not know what it was in his comments that he had been left in
“an impossible and odious position” and that he could not be
“party to advising on any potential law-breaking” that led to any misunderstanding about his intention to resign from his role, and the real reasons why he eventually got around to it. Perhaps he had to be got rid of because it was he who had previously investigated the controversy over how the Prime Minister had funded the refurbishment of the flat above No. 11 Downing Street.
My hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry referred to several issues that might require the attention of a future independent ethics adviser, but surely the one at the top of his inbox would be our emerging concern that the Prime Minister was seriously considering appointing his now wife to the role of special adviser in the Foreign Office. That is a matter that I think the House will have to return to in due course, and consider properly. Although Lord Geidt concluded that the Prime Minister had not broken ministerial rules in respect of the prime ministerial flat, the Conservative Party was later fined £17,800 for the improper declaration of donations.
So Lord Geidt is gone, and I have the impression that Downing Street is not particularly upset about that, but what is to be done? I have no problem with the Labour party’s motion, and I will support it; the only thing that I would say to Labour Members is that I would not give them the chance to try and find an independent adviser on the Government’s ethics. In any event, I think that it should be a matter for the House. I accept that some of these issues are relevant and pertinent to Government activity and business, but surely the House should have some sort of say, through the function of its Committees, in who does the monitoring and how that person is appointed. The present system has not worked particularly well in the case of the last few independent advisers. I think that we would need to find someone with the attributes of Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Columbo and George Washington combined to perform this role effectively.
In Scotland, of course, we have our much neater and easier way out of this midden, and that is to simply leave all of you to get on with it in your own time and in your own way. I have no idea what Scotland has done in its history to deserve governance such as this, but believe me, Madam Deputy Speaker, my colleagues and I are doing everything possible to ensure that the situation will be rectified. When it is right that we put forward the case for independence—as we will, and we will convince the Scottish people of its merits—all we need to do is to get the Scottish people to turn on the Parliament channel and observe what is happening in the House. That will increase their enthusiasm, and cause them to rush towards the cause of independence. The choice for them will be whether to be governed by these privileged Etonian spivs with their “one rule for them” approach to government, or to become a self-governing nation run by the people who care most about Scotland—the people who live and work there.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in the debate.
The motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition is deeply flattering to me—presumably—and to the Committee that I have the great pleasure of chairing. I appreciate the Opposition’s confidence in us, but would gently encourage them to have more confidence in themselves rather than deferring entirely to my Committee.
In the exposition with which he responded to the deputy Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General remarked that the motion was unconstitutional, and I have to say that perhaps it is. However, I increasingly find that the Government themselves advance all sorts of propositions that could be described as unconstitutional in the first place, not least the assertion by some members of the Cabinet that we now have a quasi-presidential system of government. That, I imagine, would be news to Her Majesty. I might ask whether the reading of choice in the Cabinet is indeed Dicey and Bagehot nowadays, or perhaps something a little lighter.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has not requested these powers, but I understand the sentiment behind them. It is the imperative to appoint a new adviser to the Prime Minister on ministerial interests, which, if I am to decipher what my right hon. and learned Friend said earlier, is something that they are keen to do.
I will, if I may, briefly reflect on what happened last week. Lord Geidt appeared before the Committee on Tuesday. He went through an astonishing transformation, it seems, over the course of that week—those who may have been a little critical of his appearance on Tuesday were regarding him as a great national folk hero by Wednesday. I am sure that he was touched by that change of heart. None the less, he certainly had a difficult time, not on the basis of him as an individual—a man of flawless reputation, I might advance, with a distinguished record of public service not least to Her Majesty—but probably because he was defending a sticky wicket. He found the need to bring clarification to the motivation behind his resignation in a letter to me on Friday. It is clear that Lord Geidt is not a political creature, but that is exactly the kind of quality that is needed in the independent adviser.
It should not go without challenge in this House when Ministers appear in the media, but some unhelpful perceptions have been created. I am afraid to say that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was wheeled out on the radio on Friday—presumably for the nation’s entertainment rather than its edification. Her appearance was quite astonishing. I agree with her on one thing though. Let me paraphrase what she said. “Never heard of him”, she said. That is quite right. I do not think that the independent adviser to the Prime Minister on ministerial interests should be heard of, because the sort of the work that they undertake should be done thoroughly, but discreetly. It should never capture the public imagination—I think that that is more of a reflection of the times in which we are living, which, largely, are of our own making.
I would further question why my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, felt the need to observe that Lord Geidt had been complaining about the amount of work that he had to do. Well, we know what could be done about that perhaps. All I would say in praise of my right hon. and learned Friend on the Treasury Bench is that he is a complete contrast to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and I welcome his sensible and considered approach to these matters and indeed the emphasis that he placed in, I think, the urgent question last week, which was that it was vitally important to have such a position filled.
On the question of whether people care, I think that, yes, they do care. The British public are, on the whole, capable of having two thoughts in their minds at once. Yes, they are able—by their own painful experience quite often—to understand the cost of living crisis. Yes, they are entirely able to have empathy and grave concern about the situation in Ukraine, but they are also able to judge the Government on whether they think that they behave—not perfectly, because that is not what people expect—with at least an adequate degree of propriety. I say to colleagues that we might gently remember the Standards Committee report from the autumn, which I thought would have shown that, for many, this was an area of interest that the public thoroughly understood.
I shall conclude briefly, the House will be relieved to know, as this matter does not really need a great deal more from me. Why do we have an independent adviser? It comes from a 2006 recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. There are practical reasons why these advisers are necessary. It is that they can give objective advice to the Prime Minister of the day. In fairness to the Prime Minister of the day, or the Prime Minister at any time, they have a difficult role in forming a judgment on close colleagues and, indeed, even friends. They need to be able to draw upon and be able to back up their decision with that advice.
I completely support the idea that the Prime Minister has ownership of the “Ministerial Code”. It is his code, and it is right that it should be so. We should not be upsetting that constitutional principle. However, we need to make sure that there is an adviser, with the Prime Minister as final arbiter, in a way that allows for that transparency in the difficult decisions that they make.
So, although personally deeply touched by the Opposition’s confidence in me, and indeed in the illustrious members of my Committee, I am afraid that I will not actively support their motion, which I know will upset them dearly. But as Angela Rayner and I go back an awfully long way, to the time when she was union representative at Stockport Council and I was a mere humble councillor for the Hazel Grove ward, I trust that she will take what I have said in the spirit that it is intended. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Wragg, the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, of which I am one of the so-called illustrious members and very pleased to be a part.
Only two weeks ago, I spoke in another debate about the importance of standards in political life and how important they are to my constituents. At that time, the Government were trying to move us on, and that has not worked terribly well, but the issues that we are talking about today are important and do matter to our constituents. I said then, as a member of the Committee, that not many members of the public knew about our work—the long hours of deliberation, reports and inquiries, and how we had a certain Lord Geidt coming before us shortly. I ended up by saying that because of how our constitution now works and how the Government have behaved, all roads lead back to the chap at the top of the structure. The culture emanates from there, including the non-attendance before Select Committees, the late publication of documents, and the many other examples that were outlined in that debate—so here we are again.
As well as reviewing the evidence that Lord Geidt gave to the Committee last week, it is worth reviewing his post-appointment hearing evidence taken on Thursday
“As I have heard other people say recently, good behaviour is a very difficult thing to legislate for. I join those who suggest that it really needs leaders—of course, the Prime Minister, Parliament and civil servants—to set the necessary example. I hope very much that the work that I do in this role, which is described as “adviser”, will be in the service of advising the office of Prime Minister in the furtherance of that behaviour, taking the Ministerial Code as its point of reference. I agree with you that rules are absolutely not sufficient to stimulate good behaviour.”
We fast-forward to earlier this year and the warnings that Lord Geidt was then moved to give, in the strongest terms he possibly could, in the introduction to his annual report. Before our session last week, on
Our post-appointment session in May 2021 focused on the issue of wallpaper. Our last session was about a number of things, including the legal advice on the breaking of international agreements. That really is quite a leap, isn’t it, in only a year? I asked particularly about the leaking of legal advice on the breaking of the Northern Ireland protocol. We know that that advice has been leaked. We know that it is a serious breach of the code. We know that this has a profound impact on the UK’s constitution and domestic politics as well as on our international standing. We know that the legal advice is disputed. We know that the doctrine of necessity is extreme. We heard again this morning from experts on international law quite how unusual the new doctrine of necessity that we now have in the protocol is.
In a series of questions, which I am going to refer to, I asked Lord Geidt about where this advice had been leaked from—essentially, whether it was from the Prime Minister or from the Attorney General. I asked him whether he had been asked to investigate that situation. I said that
“we do have a recent leak with regard to the legal advice on the Northern Ireland protocol”, and asked him whether that constituted “a relevant example” for him to investigate. Lord Geidt said:
“It may well do. You will recall that my new powers are squeaky new and I have not either been asked to or, indeed, pressed my own interest in giving advice in that example.”
I asked Lord Geidt if the Prime Minister
“has not asked you to investigate why that legal advice was leaked”.
Lord Geidt said, “No, he had not.” I asked if the Attorney General was asked how the advice had been leaked? He asked me, “Have I asked?” I said yes, and he said, “No, I have not.” I said:
“But your new powers do allow you to ask” the Attorney General. Lord Geidt responded:
“I think that my new powers would allow me, unrestricted, to ask questions of the entirety of Government and others.”
“You raised the issue of the leak”— he had done that earlier—
“The leak is clearly very serious… I would suggest it breaches the ministerial code, point 2.13. Would you agree?”
Lord Geidt said:
“I have not formed any advice and I have not brought an inquiry to bear on the situation.”
I then asked if he thought it breached the ministerial code. He said:
“Again, I would want to ensure that I could consider that fully before reaching a determination. By the way, as you know, the determination is then only advice to the Prime Minister.”
“Have you looked at reaching a determination before?” and he said, “In this case, no.” We would seem to have been going round in circles.
Part of that emanated from some correspondence from the shadow Attorney General, my right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry. She had written to Lord Geidt to ask for advice, and he said he had responded to her, but that had not been received at the time. She has now received an answer, and again we are somewhat going round in circles. Lord Geidt responded to her finally, saying: “In the event of an allegation of unauthorised disclosure of information by persons unknown, it is open to the Government to commission an internal leak investigation where the Government in the circumstances considers it is appropriate, but that would be a matter for the Government to take forward and would not, at least in the first instance, be a matter for the independent adviser.”
We are left on a circuitous route of trying to understand where a very serious leak has occurred. It is a clear breach of the ministerial code that seems to be no one’s job to investigate or move forward. That is simply one example of the very many outstanding breaches of the code now lurking behind the doors of Downing Street. Where do we now go? Ideally, we would like to return to decency in politics. This motion provides an interim solution. As I said when I intervened earlier, it is up to other hon. Members in this place to come forward with other solutions if they do not think this solution is suitable. The Government are being given a window, should they wish to take it, to do something decent.
Our Committee, as the Chair has outlined, has a long list of current inquiries and a future work programme. We are not particularly looking for extra work, and this is clearly a matter for the Government under our constitution. However, I know that Parliament takes this seriously, and Parliament can and will step up. We will find a way through this to bring decency back into our politics. Again, at the end of these very long days, our commitment is essentially to our constituents. This is being taken seriously by a number of Members of the once great Conservative party. Our commitment remains on the Opposition Benches, and we will continue to pursue bringing back good standards of government, despite what the Prime Minister wishes to happen.
At the outset, I should like to remind the House that I am a member of the Committee on Standards and of the Committee of Privileges. Accordingly, I will keep my comments short and away from any specific incident or series of incidents, or any particular personalities involved or alleged to have been involved, in any particular case or cases. My comments this afternoon relate to our constitutional arrangements and why I am unable to support the Opposition’s motion.
I have long championed enhanced standards in this place. I have been instrumental in putting forward proposals to develop our standards processes, and ensure that both complainants and those complained of are given a fair, transparent hearing, with a good appellate system. But I think the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General should be carefully listened to by all Members of the House. He rightly referred to the separation of powers, an issue that I regularly raise on the Committees on which I serve. It is useful for the House to remind ourselves of what we mean by “separation of powers”. It may be trite of me to do this, but some Members have come to me stating that they do not believe that the UK has any separation of powers, so it is important to remind the House of what we mean by separation of powers.
There are, of course, three arms to the British state—three organs of the state: this place, with the House of Lords and the sovereign in Parliament, which is the legislature, whose principal role is to make law; the judiciary, which comprises the courts and tribunals across the whole of the UK, whose principal function is to enforce the law that we make; and the Executive, who are of course a creature of this legislature, but are separate from it. They are separate from it and have their own staff, whom we call civil servants. Civil servants are loyal to the Government of the day and act impartially, but they are not neutral; they are there to further the democratic and legitimate aims of the elected Government of the day.
Part of our democratic and constitutional arrangements is that the Prime Minister of this country, the Head of Government of this country, has very limited defined powers, but one of them is patronage: choosing his or her Cabinet, choosing those who serve the Government. That includes choosing those who are operationally independent of government but part of the Government. That includes a very large number of people. This place also appoints individuals who are called “operationally independent” of the House, but who are officers of the House. Given that we are having a discussion on standards, let me say that the most obvious office holder who is a creature of the House of Commons—the office is created by this body—is of course the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Notably, the other House of the British legislature has its own Commissioners for Standards, separate from the officer of this House.
So it is imperative that in order to consider how Members might vote on this motion, we clearly understand the delineations of the separations of power. That is why the comments made by the able Minister at the Dispatch Box were absolutely correct; it would be utterly irresponsible to pass a motion that would create confusion and create the very opposite of what we want to see, which is transparency. What would happen is that the legislature would, in effect, be given authority over another arm of the state. We would not dream of appointing a House of Commons adviser on standards to the judiciary, would we? Would we impose our standards on day-to-day operations of the judiciary? That would be absurd. In fact, it would be dangerous.
I share in some of what my hon. Friend is saying, but we are talking about Ministers who are both simultaneously Members of this House and members of the Government. The fact remains that Back-Bench Members of Parliament are subject to more scrutiny through the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards than we have in the current situation with Ministers responsible to the Prime Minister through the ministerial code, unless there is some transparency through a process through an ethics adviser. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention because it allows me to clarify what I consider to be an error. Angela Rayner said that we must have a system of conduct that affects each and every one of us, but we do: all members of the Government are Members of this House or of the other place, and they must abide by a code of conduct. That code of conduct is adjudicated on by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in this place and the commissioners for standards in the other place, as well as the respective Committees on standards.
Most importantly, I should add that, under our system, the de facto sovereign body—the supreme governing body—of our country is this place, ultimately, Ministers are accountable to all hon. Members when they are at the Dispatch Box, and so is the head of Government. Under our constitution, if the head of Government loses the confidence of this House, they lose the role. That is the ultimate conduct check that our system allows for. Any moves to change that system, whatever the intentions might be—they might be noble—ought to be properly debated and consulted on, and must be cross-party in approach. It would be highly irresponsible to force through such a motion, which seeks to fundamentally alter our British constitutional arrangements vis-à-vis the Executive.
I would contend that the motion is more an issue of House business than necessarily of the constitution, but we may disagree on that. I want to go back to what the hon. Gentleman said about this place not interfering with the judicial system. Is it not the case that many Conservative Back Benchers, although perhaps not him, would be quite happy to see, for example, the Supreme Court taken out of the equation because it has become unnecessary, unyielding and not helpful to the Government? Are the Government not guilty of trying to interfere with the judicial system?
I understand why the hon. Gentleman makes that point, but the counter-argument to that is that this is the locus and the forum for having thorough debates. When the Government of the day make proposals in respect of our legal system—of course the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament are wholly in control of the Scottish legal system, which is another great legal system of the United Kingdom—our respective Parliaments are the arenas to discuss, debate, vote on, challenge and scrutinise them. This motion and this short debate do not begin to scratch the surface of the scrutiny required in those sorts of debates, so hon. Members who are thinking about voting for this motion ought to ask themselves whether this short debate is justifiable in terms of length and scrutiny before making such a change.
I re-emphasise the Minister’s point about the accountability of the individual appointed. At present, as I said, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is an officer of this House and is not accountable to the other place or to the Government; she is accountable to us—this House of Commons. It is wholly unclear in the motion whether, in appointing an adviser, that adviser would hold the same authority as an officer of this House. Would that individual also acquire the right to conduct investigations under parliamentary privilege? Would they have the power to command any witness to appear before them and demand the disclosure of evidence? Exactly what is meant by an “adviser to the Committee”?
PACAC is a distinguished Committee, and it has a distinguished Chair in my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, but exactly what sort of powers does the motion suggest should be given to that putative standards commissioner? That is what I think the motion entails: it creates another standards commissioner.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one worrying thing about the motion is that there is no end date to the adviser’s position, once established? Were the adviser to be in place and then the Prime Minister were to appoint his or her own adviser, we would have two different advisers, one advising the Committee and one advising the Prime Minister, potentially arriving at different conclusions from the same facts.
Indeed, and of course that emphasises the political motivation behind the motion, which is to create mischief and the very opposite of transparency. It would just create the opportunity to castigate the Executive of the day. I say gently to the Opposition that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. We have a mature democracy in our country, and whoever wins at election time—whichever party holds a majority in this House—becomes the Government immediately. There is no transition period. With this motion we would be seeking to fetter that Executive, and particularly the Head of Government, preventing them from undertaking their important constitutional duties.
For those reasons, and many more that would come out if we had a proper debate on the motion and proper scrutiny of it, I believe that it is deeply misguided. I encourage all Members to put aside party politics and vote it down.
We have heard a good discussion today and a good speech by Alberto Costa, although I do worry that he was dancing on the head of a pin in some of his constitutional reflections.
It is as simple as this: the public have lost trust in the Prime Minister, and 140-plus of his own Members of Parliament have lost trust in him on these matters. Add that to the number of Opposition Members, and a majority of Members do not trust him. This House therefore has a duty to act. That is the constitutional reality, and all the other academic waffle is for the birds. What is important is good behaviour—the system relies on that. The Prime Minister has not behaved as well as he should have done, and his colleagues know that.
It might well be that some actions are excusable, and that they are not all sackable—I mean breaches of the ministerial code rather than the Prime Minister’s behaviour —and that is why we need a fair and just system to make that determination. At the moment, the danger is that the public just damn us for everything. Small, vexatious issues are brought up about a Member delaying the registration of an interest here or there, and of course those administrative matters require slaps on the wrist, but they are not resigning issues. The public conflate those issues with serious misbehaviour, whether it be corruption such as trying to appoint friends or family, law breaking or sexual assault.
This place realised that marking our own homework on sexual assault was not good enough—the public will not accept that, however much we dance on the head of a pin about it as a constitutional issue. We therefore had to come up with a hybrid system. Members could have an input and act as a reality check, but the independence of the system had to be guaranteed, complaints had to be investigated and outcomes had to be public. That is what we need in this situation. More importantly, we need a commitment that independent advisers will be appointed and listened to.
The fact Lord Geidt had to clarify his resignation letter because the Government manipulated his words to try to condemn him for resigning over steel tariffs, which he said was not the case, shows the depths to which this Government will go. In that clarification letter, he agreed that
“When the Prime Minister is asking his own adviser to advise on the Prime Minister’s conduct it really doesn’t work.”
How do we, as a Parliament and as the people who fundamentally decide on the Prime Minister’s conduct, get our advice? How do we get the information we need, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister’s consideration is behind closed doors? We know about this only because Lord Geidt felt he had to resign.
The motion is probably imperfectly worded, and it could probably be improved and tweaked. Our constitution is evolving, and it can always be improved and tweaked. Not only should the Prime Minister have an adviser—I would welcome it if he appointed one—but Parliament should have an adviser and a watchdog so we can decide whether we continue to have trust in the Prime Minister and the Ministers he appoints. That is perfectly constitutional, and those who are trying to make out it is not are misguided. It might not be useful politically, it might be a distraction and it might be unnecessary if we improved the whole system—
Yes, if we had a new Prime Minister who obeyed the rules and if trust returned because people believed there is good behaviour, I could buy the political argument that Parliament having an adviser might be unnecessary, but we currently have a situation in which a Minister was sacked because of Islamophobia, a breach of the ministerial code. There is meant to be an investigation, but we are none the wiser. The Prime Minister is one of the main witnesses in that investigation, and he will determine how his own witness evidence is balanced against other witness evidence. Surely everyone can see there needs to be independence in the process.
The witness evidence should be balanced and released to the public, even if the Prime Minister still makes the final decision. Surely we can all agree that one of these stages should be made public. As much as people want to talk about the separation of powers, the separation of legislation, law enforcement and deliberation on whether the law has been broken is a fundamental principle of justice in this country.
We currently have a situation in which the Prime Minister writes the rules, the Prime Minister or his proxy starts the investigative process and the Prime Minister determines whether the rules have been broken. That is a fundamental breach of any sort of natural justice, and it is not fair on Ministers who are stitched up for technical breaches, not fundamental breaches, and are sacked for no good reason, while other Ministers who have done the same thing are not sacked because it is politically expedient. That is not fair or natural justice for Ministers, either. It does not protect them.
I am not saying the motion is a perfect solution, but there needs to be a process. Having a process in which a parliamentary Committee can make recommendations is not new. We currently have a system in which certain appointments made purely by the Prime Minister go through Select Committee appointment hearings. I sit on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is being offered the opportunity to have greater responsibility, and it already does that in a number of areas, and other Committees do it, too. Our recommendations can be ignored, but at least they are made in public. The motion would make no change to that constitutional provision, but it would make ministerial appointments and abidance by the code open and fair. The motion makes no change to that constitutional provision, but it would make ministerial appointments and abidance by the code open and fair. I do not think that it is unreasonable. I do not think that it is unreasonable to support the motion, but more fundamentally, it is not constitutional and is only necessary because the Prime Minister has acted badly.
Order. Just a gentle reminder that we still have quite a lot of speakers to get in before the wind-ups start, so below 10 minutes is best—as Lloyd Russell-Moyle did, after catching my eye.
It is a pleasure to follow such illustrious members of a series of Committees, all of which focus on this area and all of which have shown the importance and critical nature of the issue that the motion is trying to address—[Interruption.] I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will turn my phone off.
The debate also shows that there is a high degree of cross-party unanimity on the central importance of having somebody in the position of the independent adviser on the ministerial code. It is absolutely essential that everybody, from all parties, who has spoken so far has started from that fundamental principle. Everybody agrees with it. That was why I was delighted at what was said. I think we got there in the end, but I hope that when my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister winds up, with the leave of the House, he will take the opportunity to repeat his comment, which we prised out of him after a number of interventions: that he and the Government agree that a successor to Lord Geidt must be appointed, and must be appointed as promptly as possible. I think he wants a degree of flexibility about the process through which that happens and should the role be split, for example, between people so that we ended up with a panel or something like that. I think he wants the flexibility to allow those changes to be introduced, but the principle that there should be somebody or some group of people—
Let the record show that the Minister is nodding vigorously. It is essential that we get on the record the principle that the role must be pursued and continued. I think that he has said that already, but I hope that he will take the opportunity to make that clear again in his concluding remarks. It is essential that that is clarified, because a number of us were expecting it to be made clear and I hope that we have heard it and will hear it being made clear again.
An awful lot of the concerns that led the motion to be tabled in the first place would be greatly allayed by such a clarification. People are worried, as there have been briefings in the press saying a successor to Lord Geidt might not be appointed at all, and that it might not be an important position to fill in future. I think that the Minister has already said, and I hope that he will repeat, that that is not true, it is not the way that the Government are thinking and that there will be successors appointed to make sure that that crucial role is filled. It is vital that it is filled, because it is independent, and because the independent reports are made public, it provides not just the Prime Minister but everybody in this Chamber, more broadly in society as a whole and in the press with an independent set of facts on which to proceed, to say, “This happened, this did not; this is serious, that is not,” and from which we can all start our conversations, discussions and debates about essential items of probity, integrity and, ultimately, honesty from a shared base of fact.
I venture to make a suggestion to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister as he goes around trying to find the successor to Lord Geidt. A number of people have said that that might not be terribly easy at the moment and I have a couple of gentle suggestions that might make it a simpler and easier succession. It might be easier for the Prime Minister to find successors if he were to upgrade the role further than the power enhancements that have already been made. I think he should consider two further enhancements of the role. The first is that the adviser or advisers, whatever format the thing takes—[Interruption.] Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. I definitely turned my phone off, but it keeps coming on.
The problem is that at the moment, the adviser believes that they must resign if their advice is not followed. I do not think that is the right approach at all—just take the case of Chris Whitty, who was advising the Prime Minister throughout the pandemic. If he had had to resign every single time his advice was not followed, he would have been resigning every week and we would not have got anywhere. Advisers advise; Ministers decide.
I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, but the difference is that ultimately, Chris Whitty’s advice was based on policy. What we are talking about here is behaviour, and whether there are breaches of the ministerial code. That brings the whole area of ethics into much sharper focus.
I take my hon. Friend’s point. All I am saying is that it should not be axiomatic and automatic that the adviser should feel they have to resign every time their advice is not followed. Their advice is made public and is clear, and therefore it should not be automatic that they have to stand down.
Equally—this is also crucial—Lord Geidt said that he did not feel he could offer an independent set of advice on the behaviour of the Prime Minister, alone among all Ministers. Lord Geidt would have felt able to, and did, offer advice independently to the Prime Minister about other Ministers’ behaviour, but he felt he could not do so when the Prime Minister’s behaviour was in question. That is clearly wrong: there should be no free passes for any Minister, up to and including the Prime Minister, and in the same way that the adviser should not feel duty-bound to resign if their advice is not always followed, they should feel able to offer public advice on whether or not the Prime Minister has erred and strayed. If the adviser’s role is improved in those two ways, I believe that finding a successor to Lord Geidt will be a great deal easier, because the role will be a great deal clearer and more practical to fill.
I will just add one further point about the motion. It seems to me that it does not actually confer any extra powers on PACAC, and the Chairman of that Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, has already said that he is delighted and honoured to be offered these opportunities, but would politely decline them anyway. He does not want this set of powers, and is politely declining the offer that is being made. Because the motion does not offer any extra powers, it would be perfectly acceptable, constitutional, and within the rules of this House for PACAC itself to launch an inquiry into the ongoing discussions and investigations, should it wish to do so. If it felt the position was not being filled fast enough, it could fill that gap.
As I read the motion, it does not confer any fresh powers on the Committee, and therefore it would not solve the problem that the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out. There may be a broader question about whether some people can be compelled to come in front of Select Committees—not just PACAC, but others as well—but this motion does not solve that problem either and therefore, I am afraid, will not move the ball down the pitch at all.
None the less, Madam Deputy Speaker—with apologies for my phone misbehaving throughout—there is an essential point here that I think everybody agrees on. A successor to Lord Geidt must be appointed. I think we have heard that one will be appointed; I hope we will have that reconfirmed in words of one syllable, and while we can allow the Government a little bit of time to decide precisely how and in what form that successor will be appointed, it must be a proper replacement, ideally with the additional powers I have described.
When the lawyers are out in force on the Government Benches—with all the references to learned and right hon. and learned Members—you can tell that the Government find themselves in a bit of a sticky situation. I have a degree of sympathy with the Paymaster General, who, if he is not the Minister for “Newsnight”, is definitely the Minister for crisis who has to make statements and answer urgent questions in the House.
We all know that the Prime Minister likes to compare himself to Churchill. On one of his recent holidays, he posed while painting in the exact same way as Winston Churchill. People can compare this Prime Minister to a number of things, but in style of government he is probably more like Lloyd George, who was arguably one of the most centralising Prime Ministers. Many people will be familiar with the garden suburb—these days, they call it the flat suburb, but at least the flat has much nicer wallpaper!
The garden suburb aroused particular hostility, even more so than the activity of Sir William Sutherland and undercover deals with the press and trafficking of titles and honours in return for contributions to Government or party funds. It is funny how history reinvents itself. Critics have also quoted Dunning’s famous resolution against Lord North’s Government in 1780 that the power of the Prime Minister was “increasing and ought to be diminished”. That gets to the heart of the debate, which is symptomatic of a wider presidentialisation of government. To be fair to the current British Government, this is not new—Tony Blair, for example, was keen on sofa government, and there is the idea that Cabinet government started to break down.
One reason why the House feels the need to step in and take control of the situation is that the current Prime Minister is like no one we have dealt with before. Most of us would accept that he has been described by his own colleagues as a bit of a slippery pig that can get out of situations. I do not doubt that, and I would not be surprised if the Prime Minister survives and leads the Conservatives into the next election. There is a great irony, which I will come back to at the end of my remarks, about our reliance on Tory MPs to remove him. This is a Prime Minister who has not played by the rules; perhaps learning from the effects of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, he has tried to clip the wings even of the Treasury. The desire to centralise more and more power to No. 10 was the reason the right hon. Friend Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) stood down as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it is something that the House should be mindful of.
The Tories would do well to support the motion. I see this as an issue not of tinkering with the constitution but fundamentally as one of House business. The motion delegates powers and tasks to a Select Committee of the House. I know very well Mr Wragg and had the privilege of serving on a Committee with him in my first Parliament. I will have no difficulty trusting the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to fulfil these functions. In many respects, John Penrose is dancing on the head of a pin somewhat, because he knows fine well that the Minister has not given the undertaking that the Government will move—
I respect the Paymaster General enormously but it will take a lot for him to reassure me about the Government’s role on ethics.
When I asked the Paymaster General earlier to define “in due course”, he was not able to say that the appointment would take place by the summer recess or the conference recess. We might—who knows—have a general election in October. I would not be surprised if the Government ended up not appointing an adviser. As they have said before, they are tired of experts. I think they see the role of an adviser as a hindrance, particularly at a time when they will almost certainly have to break international law, albeit in a “very specific and limited way” as the Government like to do in their legislation.
I find some of the contributions I have listened to in this debate a little jarring, with people talking about accountability and respecting the importance of democracy. Let us not forget that this Government have increasingly taken recently to appointing people who are essentially failed election candidates to the House of Lords.
Look at someone such as Malcolm Offord, now Lord Offord, who is now a junior Minister in the anti-Scotland Office. He has given money to the Conservative party, he has not had to have the inconvenience of going through an election and was appointed as a junior Minister to the Scotland Office. Or there is Ian Duncan, a former Tory candidate against my hon. Friend Pete Wishart. He could not beat my hon. Friend in an election, but he got into the House of Lords anyway. Zac Goldsmith, a friend of the Prime Minister and his wife, who failed in the last election to be elected to this House is in the House of Lords as a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister. When the Tories start to talk about accountability, we should be slightly aware of the context, because it is not a particularly good one.
I have one suggestion I want to pursue. The Government seem to think that the way out of this is talking about an office of the Prime Minister. That is a half-baked suggestion. I do not disagree with having an office of the Prime Minister, but if we are going to have one, they should have something akin to what they have in New Zealand. At the moment, the office of the Prime Minister is merely a rebuttal in a press release; it will create a new office with a new permanent secretary, but who will it be accountable to?
We in this place trust that the Prime Minister is accountable every now and again to the Liaison Committee, but we all know that the Liaison Committee, with the greatest of respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire on the Front Bench and Mr Wragg, is largely an opportunity for Select Committee Chairs to grandstand. If we are going to have an office of the Prime Minister, there must be a mechanism through which we can hold it to account. That is why I think the idea is half baked.
In terms of accountability, does the hon. Gentleman agree that where an allegation of impropriety is made against a Minister and is investigated, as a matter of principle the outcome of that investigation, whatever it is, should be published?
In short, yes I do.
The final point I want to make is that, while in many respects this is a very noble motion before the House and I will happily vote for it tonight, there must be a realisation in this place that with the current holder of the office of Prime Minister, politics has changed enormously, and we as Members of the House of Commons are going to have to get used to that. This is a Prime Minister who has defied all the norms of politics, who has now outlived Trump and may go even further.
I ask Members of this House to remember who the current Prime Minister is. I know I cannot refer to him by name, but on issues of racism he wrote:
“It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies”.
In 2018, he compared Muslim women to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes” and said he would ask a person with a niqab to remove it before speaking to him. He wrote that single mothers were to blame for producing a generation of,
“ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate children”.
In 2002 he said in a book:
“If gay marriage was OK…I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog.”
The point is that this Government can have all the advisers on ethics they like, but I am fairly sure that if another one is appointed, they will have to resign again. The issue here is not necessarily the role of an adviser for ethics; the issue is that we have a Prime Minister who has no ethics.
We find ourselves in a remarkable situation where, as Lloyd Russell-Moyle just mentioned, a majority of people in this House do not have confidence in the Prime Minister. Remarkably, members of my party are told we cannot have a second referendum on independence, but for hon. Members on the Conservative Benches, the only opportunity they have to remove the Prime Minister is a second vote in a year’s time. That irony is lost on nobody.
I shall endeavour to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have quite a lot to say on this, because I am so disappointed. The ministerial code really does matter, and it says everything about the leadership and culture of our style of Government that some of the responses to Lord Geidt’s resignation from some quarters of the Government have been rather disappointing. It is really important that everyone in public service abides by the rules of the game. That is what maintains respect and honour in all our institutions.
There are a few messages that I would like to land. The end does not justify the means, and, taking back control does not mean pleasing yourself, must be clear principles. Those two principles need to be looked at in the context of Lord Geidt’s resignation, because he has been clear that he was, in effect, being asked to give the Government a bye to wilfully break their international obligations under law. That is not acceptable, and, frankly, that should not be acceptable for any self-respecting Conservative Member of Parliament, because if there is one thing that we do believe in, it is constitutional propriety. It is about upholding the law, and that is central to the ministerial code. It is really important that we sustain that.
We are the Conservative party, the party of Margaret Thatcher and Churchill, not the party of Donald Trump. That is exactly what we are talking about. If such law breaches are sanctioned—even if there are the best of motives, such as to save our steel industry—I am afraid that sets a precedent for people to use law breaches for much more malevolent intentions. It should be in the DNA of Conservative Members, for whom constitutional propriety is so important, to ensure that we play by the rules of the game, however politically inconvenient, because there is always more than one route to achieve an outcome.
This is fundamentally not British behaviour. If there is one thing in the British DNA, it is a belief in fair play and upholding the rules. Our global reputation is built on our respect for the rule of law and how we have exported that around the world. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that we uphold the most important standards.
I remind Conservative colleagues that also central to the British brand is belief in free trade, but Lord Geidt felt compelled to resign—he was being asked to turn a blind eye to waiving our obligations in respect of the WTO—on an issue that seems to be the complete antithesis of the ethos underlying why we left the European Union in the first place. The world expected us to be free traders, yet our actions fly in the face of that.
It is essential that the Government, in taking the matter forward, look at who should be the next ministerial adviser—although anybody would be taking a massive reputational risk in taking the job without being offered some very clear guarantees. Perhaps the biggest question mark facing our credibility in government right now is not about policy but about our behaviours. We have had two years of one story after another, with perhaps the most notorious being partygate, and that has led the public substantially to conclude—the jury were already out on us anyway—that we do not live in the real world and, “It is one rule for them and another for the rest of us”. We need to reboot public confidence by actually respecting our obligations under the law and maintaining that the ministerial code is important. Central to that is upholding the law.
My request to the Government is really to take stock. We have seen not just the recent resignation of Lord Geidt —actually, we have lost two advisers on ethics—but the Greensill scandal, which also raised issues about how the ministerial code applies to outgoing Ministers, who are still obliged to abide by it even though there is no sanction to deal with them. We have heard evidence in PACAC from Lord Pickles, as chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, that the volume of inquiries that he is getting is rather more than the small honorarium that his members are asked to deal with.
Essentially, we have got a regime that relies on everybody behaving appropriately. When everybody knows what represents good behaviour, and everybody is prepared to behave and to do the right thing, we can get by with a light-touch regulatory regime. The romantic in me thinks that we still can, but, day by day, that confidence is being diminished. I do not want to see any kind of statutory regulation of Ministers under the ministerial code, but if we are going to avoid that, it is incumbent on the Government to seize and recognise the difficulty that our current standards regime is in. I ask the Government in all sincerity to properly reboot this and have a proper look at the ministerial code.
By way of illustration, when I became a Minister, the ministerial code was given to me as a flimsy photocopy at the bottom of my first box. No importance was set on it, yet the code should come from the top. We expect the principles of the code to be in the DNA of all our Ministers when they are delivering their obligations and undertaking their duties. This is not just a little bit of PR to say, “Aren’t we all doing terribly well?” This is fundamental to how we should operate our Government, and we need to really articulate that message and have a proper regime for overseeing that.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will always be here, and we will still shine some light on those issues that we are not very happy about. In fact, we have probably spent more time looking at these things than we ever intended to, being rather more interested in constitutionally nerdy positions than in ferreting out scandals, but I would much prefer that we had far less material in that regard. Institutions such as PACAC and the Committee on Standards are still here. We do not need to go down the road of statutory regulation, but we do need the Prime Minister and all Government Ministers to recognise that the rule of law and upholding the law are not just optional extras; they are essential.
May I say at the outset that Lord Geidt is a personal friend of my family? I do not wish to go any further than that, other than to say that I should like, along with everyone else here, to express my thanks for all that he has done.
What is at stake here, as Jackie Doyle-Price admirably hinted, is the issue of trust, and I want to give an example of how this works in practice. My predecessor bar two was Robert Maclennan. Bob was first elected in 1966 with a majority of 64 votes. After that, as the elections went by, he increased his majority and stayed as the Member for Caithness and Sutherland and latterly for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross until he retired. What is interesting about Bob’s career is that he changed party twice. He was elected as a Labour Member in 1966. He was then a founding member of the Social Democratic party and was one of the few SDP Members to hold his seat in 1983. He subsequently joined the Liberal Democrats, and that was what he was when he retired. That is most unusual for a politician, but the reason he held his seat was that he was trusted. He was known to be a man of integrity, decency, kindness and diligence. So, trust is crucial in what we are talking about this evening.
We describe ourselves with pride as the mother of Parliaments, but when I have talked to people in my constituency in the last few weeks, they have said, “Can you trust anything that is said in that place? How do you feel about it?” That saddens me greatly, because if we are to be the mother of Parliaments, and if we are to stand up for democracy across the world, we need to know that we do things absolutely by the book and with absolute integrity. If there is any hint that we do not, that damages the reputation of this place, and I regret that massively. I find myself in agreement with Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who is no longer in his place. He also came to the nub of the issue when he said that this is about trust and about being seen to do things properly.
If I were to find myself in deep trouble and in a court of law, I would have no hesitation in hiring the services of either the Minister or Alberto Costa, because I am certain that those august gentlemen would provide me with a most eloquent defence and probably get me off. But we are being looked at by the general public, and the general public are not fools. They are more than capable of coming to conclusions about people. Is this person—he or she—telling the truth? Is this person to be trusted or not? Let me give the House one good Conservative example of somebody who I believe was trusted: John Major. He was seen to be a straight guy and a straight Prime Minister. So trust is there. What I say to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General is this: be careful. Be careful about clever arguments. Be careful about the use of words that can have all sorts of different meanings, because the British public has no time for that whatsoever.
I agree with other Members. I very much hope and expect that the Minister will clarify exactly what he means about the appointment of a new ethics adviser. That is essential. It sounds a bit apocalyptic but let me say it: I believe the nation is watching right now and at stake is the reputation of this place. If we take it seriously then it matters absolutely not just how we do things or how we are seen by our electorate or the country, but across the world. I await and I hope.
The origins of this debate are more than six months old and lie in the farce that was the investigation into the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. I call it a farce not because I want to undermine Lord Geidt—I cannot hold a candle to the Prime Minister in doing that—but because it is clear that he was led a merry dance by the Prime Minister in the first place, when the Prime Minister failed to disclose a series of crucial WhatsApp message between himself and Lord Brownlow.
The accidental omission of those messages in the “dog ate my homework” style that must have been forged in the gilded halls of Eton made sure that Lord Geidt was pretty embarrassed that he had been taken for a fool in that way. He said as much in the second letter he wrote to the Prime Minister about the investigation:
“It is plainly unsatisfactory that my earlier advice was unable to rely on the fullest possible disclosure of relevant information.”
That is a very polite way of putting it. The nub of it is when he wrote that
“this episode demonstrated insufficient regard or respect for the role of Independent Adviser.”
That was a very clear warning sign about where this was all heading. What did we get then? The Prime Minister, without a hint of irony, wrote back to Lord Geidt and said:
“I very much value your work as my Independent Adviser. The role is critical for the effective government of this country.”
That strikes me as quite a contrast to the position six months later.
It is still not entirely clear, despite what the Minister said, whether the Government believe an ethics adviser is necessary. Even worse, the Culture Secretary said this week that nobody gave “a fig” about him resigning. Well, I certainly disagree with that view most profoundly. Where I find more common ground with the Culture Secretary is when she said that Lord Geidt was always complaining that he had too much work to do. I can well believe that with this Government and this Prime Minister, anyone concerned with ethics would certainly have a heavy workload. Perhaps we need two ethics advisers in future. We find ourselves in a position where six months ago the ethics adviser effectively put the Government on notice that he was very unhappy with the way he was being treated.
Last month we had the annual report from Lord Geidt in which he states:
“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. In the case of the Fixed Penalty Notice recently issued to and paid by the Prime Minister, a legitimate question has arisen as to whether those facts alone might have constituted a breach of the overarching duty within the Ministerial Code of complying with the law.”
There is a pattern here. As with the missing WhatsApp messages, anything inconvenient is ignored in the hope that it will eventually go away. But of course the Prime Minister could not ignore such a clear signal in the report. We need not have worried, because he wrote back to Lord Geidt and said he did not think he had broken the ministerial code and how silly it was for any of us to think that actually breaking the law might also be a breach of the ministerial code. All of us can see the benefits of being judge and jury, and why robust checks and balances need to be in place.
On the resignation letter, Lord Geidt said that an intention to breach the ministerial code deliberately in advance
“would be to suspend the provisions of the code to suit a political end” and that would make a mockery of the code. I agree with him, but I think we reached the point of mockery of the code when the previous adviser resigned after his recommendations were also ignored. We cannot pretend that what Lord Geidt said there is anything other than a damning statement. For the Prime Minister’s own ethics adviser, appointed by the Prime Minister, to walk away after having his patience tested repeatedly, having warned repeatedly that trust was being eroded, is a state of affairs that should send a shiver down all our spines. Every single one of us in this place who is concerned about the probity of Government, who thinks that it is our job to uphold the law, not to break it, should see that statement as the ringing of the loudest of loud alarm bells.
The ethics adviser is not there to provide cover for the Prime Minister who wants to bend the rules. The ethics adviser is not there to be ignored when the advice proves inconvenient, and the ethics adviser is not there to be made a fool of. They are there as a safeguard for the wider responsibility, which we all have, for the way that politics is done. None of us is here for ever, but while we are here, we need to remember that we are the guardians of democracy. What we say and where we set the limits of adherence to the rules while we are here matter because they become the starting point for the next generation to work from.
If we do end up in a position where the Government of the day decide that an ethics adviser is no longer needed, or we never get to a point where one is appointed, even though, six months ago, it was said to be a critical position, where does the conversation go after that—to a further erosion of the safeguards that any mature democracy needs? Let us be clear: we do need those safeguards, because democracy is fragile and it cannot be taken for granted; it has to be cherished and defended by us as its guardians. Every watering down of the rules, every reduction in transparency, every erosion of accountability have to be fought against because many Governments want—to coin a phrase—to take back control. Most Governments, however, also have a respect for the rules, understand their place in history and know that having clear rules to which everyone is accountable is the glue that holds our democracy together.
When we have a Government with a track record like this one, it really is up to us to push back against that. Whether it be breaking the law in a specific and limited way, trying to wriggle out of treaties signed, changing the way that the standard rules operate, or excusing breaches of the “Ministerial Code”, this Government have shown, time and again, that they do not think that they need to abide by the rules. However, rules do matter. The rules about how our politics is conducted should be there long after we have all gone and they should not be jettisoned because it is convenient for the Government of the day to do so.
Parliament should be the beacon of fair play. It should be an example for others, both in this country and abroad, to look at and say that, yes, democracy is a good thing, and that it can change people’s lives for the better. Not all politicians are self-serving, but when we see a bending of the rules, the ignoring of them, or the changing of them to suit a short-term political agenda, those looking in on this place can rightly say, “Who are you to lecture us about responsibility? Who are you to tell us about showing leadership?”
Leadership is what this is all about. Those at the top need to behave with honour, to respect conventions and to recognise their wider responsibility to the body politic. That is all put at risk when those in power do not see the importance of that, and the weaknesses in our unwritten constitution become all too apparent. That is when our democracy is diluted, and with a Government who, because of the size of their majority, grow contemptuous of the need for probity and bit by bit dismantle the safeguards that we need, we enter this dystopian world where newspaper stories mysteriously disappear and the Prime Minister tells the world that no rules were broken when they clearly were.
This motion tonight will not reverse the dark path down which we are already heading, but it will slow it a little, and with persistence and, dare I say it, a little more courage from the Conservative Benches, we might begin to reverse it. We owe it to ourselves and to the democratic ideals in which we must all at one time have believed to do just that.
Two ethics advisers gone, two months gone—and all the Paymaster General can offer us is a review. No one needs an ethics adviser more than the current Prime Minister. I studied maths, philosophy and economics at university and am therefore intrigued by how many times the Prime Minister is economical with the truth. Ethics is about right and wrong. It is about truth and falsehood. We heard in partygate about a Prime Minister who made the rules and broke the rules. He said that he did not understand the rules and that he did not know how they applied. We do not know whether he was guilty, innocent or drunk.
The situation is that we simply cannot trust the Prime Minister. That is the view of the great majority of MPs. Only 211 Tories voted with confidence in him, so more than two thirds of the nation’s MPs have no confidence in the current Prime Minister for what he has done.
Talking of ethics and philosophy, Kant’s categorical imperative—I know Members will be thinking of this—states
“act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can… will that it become a universal law.”
In other words, if you are going to have a party, everyone should party, and if they should not, you should not. It is not that complicated. According to Aristotle,
“We are what we repeatedly do.”
So what does that make the Prime Minister? At virtually every Prime Minister’s Question Time, he gets up and says that there are half a million more people in jobs than there were before the pandemic—although the Office for National Statistics says that there are 512,000 fewer people in jobs—because he inadvertently forgets to include the self-employed. Was that, in fact, an inadvertent mistake, or was it a piece of choreographed rhetoric to lead people up the garden path? There is a long list of things of this kind which undermine our democracy, this place, and politics in Britain.
Of course, ethics is about outcomes as well. People say, “Haven’t we done well on covid?”, but 170,000 people are dead thanks to the policies here, which led to the highest death rate in Europe. People say that the economy is all right, although ours was the worst recovery in the G7, and about 8 million people are hungry and in food insecurity. There is not really any accountability, other than the democratic process. We have just seen the Government provoke an unnecessary rail strike by demanding cuts in wages and jobs. There are alternatives to this. Germany, for instance, is saying that it will give everyone a public transport ticket for a month for €9 to boost the economy and jobs, rather than picking fights.
We have parliamentary privilege here, which means that there are limitations on what the courts can do when we breach the rules. The dampening and watering down of the rules here is therefore problematic, as is, of course, the attack on the judiciary itself. The all-party parliamentary group for democracy and the constitution published a report commissioned by the Rowntree Foundation and prepared by the Institute for Constitutional and Democratic Research. We found that there had been a sustained attack on the courts by Ministers through the media. That is undermining and chilling even the Supreme Court, which has reversed seven of its decisions in the last two years. This was, of course, getting back at the judges, because they had made various decisions about giving us the right to vote on the Brexit deal. They made the Prime Minister return when he tried to abandon democracy.
What we are seeing is the weakening of internal laws governing the behaviour of politicians here, and, at the same time, an attack on the courts themselves. Meanwhile, there is an attack on international law. The withdrawal from the Northern Ireland protocol undermines our reputation abroad: it means that people such as the Americans do not want to have trade agreements with us. There is an attack on our democratic values and rights, such as the right to peaceful protest. There is an attack on human rights, as we are seeing in Rwanda, and an attempt to pick a fight with the European Court of Human Rights itself, a forerunner to withdrawal from the European convention on human rights—which, of course, was set up by Winston Churchill.
In the round, what we are seeing is a Prime Minister corroding and eroding the rules that govern our behaviour and our ethics, alongside an attempt to disengage from controls that may be applied and to which all countries and all people elsewhere are subject. So we cannot be trusted. “Values” of this sort feed into the hands of people such as Putin, who hate the democracy, human rights and rule of law that we are now undermining.
Lord Geidt has said that the Prime Minister has made a mockery of the ministerial code. He has said that we have broken international laws in the form of World Trade Organisation rules. We urgently need a replacement. No doubt some people will suggest that Lord Ashcroft might be the person whom we need. After all, he revealed David Cameron’s relationship with a pig, did he not, and indeed revealed the current Prime Minister’s relationship with the lover whom he offered a £100,000 job. [Laughter.] People may find these things funny, but they are of course true.
We do need to uphold higher standards here, and, in particular, the Prime Minister should and does not. It is imperative that we get a replacement, and it is imperative that in the interim, at least, we introduce some sort of system. That is what this motion aims to do, and I fully support it.
This could have been a very quick debate. The Paymaster General could have stood up at the beginning and just given us a date for when it would all happen—when the adviser would be reappointed, with a lovely timetable attached—and we would all have been happy and could have left it at that. However, I am now, to be honest, more concerned about what is going to happen than I was at the beginning of the debate.
Labour has called this very important debate today because the whole of our ministerial standards system is unravelling before our eyes. Corruption does not arrive in any country unannounced or with a big bang; it creeps and corrodes, and honour and trust, once lost, are very hard to win back. That is what is at the heart of this debate. This Labour motion would put the Government into special measures and ensure that the ethics adviser is recruited as soon as possible and the post is not ditched. We are concerned about the Paymaster General’s comments about pausing and reflecting, and about having a review instead of appointing. We want to know that a very clear decision will be made about this adviser position, because otherwise ethics and integrity will slip away.
The Prime Minister is leading the way in being unethical and breaking the rules, and that is why the person whose role it is to hold Ministers to account, to investigate breaches and to stop the rot felt that he had no choice but to resign. The motion calls for urgent action to appoint an ethics adviser because otherwise, quite simply, we do not trust the Government to appoint at speed. We do not trust what Ministers will do without this oversight. We have heard that a review will be conducted before the appointment “in due course”. That is very concerning. We know that for this Government it is one rule for them and another for us.
I thank all Members for their excellent contributions, including agreement on both sides of the House that we need this urgent appointment. My hon. Friend Karin Smyth, who is a member of PACAC, the Committee focused very much on today, outlined the evidence given to it by Lord Geidt on issues from wallpaper to the Northern Ireland protocol to leaks by Ministers under investigation, and the need to bring decency back into our politics. My hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle, also a member of PACAC, said that it is quite simple: the Prime Minister has lost the trust of the people and of his own MPs as well. He highlighted the circularity of the process by which the Prime Minister appoints the adviser, and then has to look into evidence given by himself about himself and to be the judge of it. The system does not work; it needs to change.
My hon. Friend Justin Madders talked about how difficult Lord Geidt’s position has been and the fact that he said six months ago that there had been insufficient respect for the role of the adviser. Then there were the fixed penalty notice warnings from the adviser, setting alarm bells ringing, as is still the case, that bit by bit probity is being ignored and it is a dark path we are heading down. That is the dark path we want to stop with our motion today. My hon. Friend Geraint Davies pointed out that Aristotle said:
“We are what we repeatedly do.”
He talked about the Prime Minister’s corroding of our rules and ethics, the weakening of internal laws, and the attack on international law as well.
We have a cost of living crisis. My constituents and the British public are worried about how they are going to pay the bills, feed their children and get to work. They have to know that Government Ministers are acting in the public’s best interests and not in their own interests. They have to know that Government Ministers are not acting in the interests of their families or friends, or party donors, or pub landlords, or their own wives. They have to know that they are acting with impartiality, with no fear or favour.
I realise that the position of the independent adviser will not be an easy position to recruit for, as many hon. Members have said. It will be a tough job description to put together and a tough job advert to write. Last time it took five months to appoint a replacement ethics adviser, and now Downing Street has been hinting at not reappointing one at all. That is why we have tabled the motion today. The outcome of the review could be not to appoint and that will be unacceptable.
Labour’s motion puts an essential backstop in place, so that if the Prime Minister cannot get his act together in two months’ time, the cross-party Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will appoint that adviser. That adviser will be given the powers and information that they need to investigate potential breaches of the code by Ministers, and that adviser will report to the Committee, so that there is transparency, honesty and integrity.
Without anyone in post, with the ethical vacuum that we currently have, there will be no one for Ministers to give their full list of interests to that may be thought to give rise to a conflict. There will be no one to investigate possible breaches of the ministerial code—and there could be many. There will be no one to advise the Prime Minister on the code, which is particularly worrying, given the Prime Minister’s seeming lack of literacy in the code, and no one to complete investigations that have been started, such as the allegations of Islamophobia by Ms Ghani.
“confidence in the process has been severely damaged. If the prime minister does not intend to replace Lord Geidt, then he must immediately put in place measures to ensure a civil servant can, with confidence, raise a complaint about ministerial misconduct.”
We cannot just leave a vacuum at the top—it is far too worrying.
Labour would introduce a stronger standards system. We would appoint at speed, but we would go further. We have called for the expansion of the scope of the statutory register of lobbyists, a ban on MPs taking up lobbying jobs for five years after leaving office, and the establishment of an independent integrity and ethics commission with actual powers, not in hock to the Prime Minister.
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said that voters “don’t give a fig”. They do give a fig. A recent poll showed that 74% of the public think that the Prime Minister is untrustworthy. That is up by 30% in the past two years. Another survey, conducted on the day Lord Geidt resigned, found that nearly 70% of the public believe that the Prime Minister behaves in an unethical way, with 46% thinking he behaves “very unethically”. This is unacceptable. I would counsel the Minister and his colleagues not to insult the British electorate. They do give a fig about honesty; they do give a fig about integrity.
I want to end by asking several hugely important questions that the Minister failed to answer in his opening speech, but I am sure he will come to now. First, can he confirm whether ongoing investigations launched by Lord Geidt will now be completed? Can he confirm whether there would be an interim position or role holder for the ethics adviser if the recruitment process is not completed within two months? When will the replacement be appointed? Can the Minister assure us that there will not be another five-month gap? When is “due course”? Is it September or October? Is it Christmas? Is it next year? And who is holding Ministers to account in the interim? “Wait and see” is not an acceptable answer. With no ethics adviser in place and no obvious backstop, Ministers are free to do as they please without consequence. It is a blank cheque for bad behaviour. While the cat’s away, the mice will play. This may be an attractive position for the Government, who have always found the rules to be incredibly inconvenient, but it is not attractive and not acceptable to the British public.
I commend the motion to the House.
With the leave of the House, I would like to close this debate.
As set out by Angela Rayner in her opening remarks, and for the reasons I explained to the House in my opening remarks, the Government will not be supporting the motion. The Labour party has called the debate to throw mud, but I would caution that those who throw mud often find that some of it sticks to themselves. I would also caution and place on record that the Government remain absolutely steadfast in their commitment to upholding the standards in public life that we all respect, to the critical role that the ministerial code plays in standards in public life and to supporting those standards. On account of that commitment, the Government cannot support today’s motion, which would, counterintuitively perhaps, by proxy, weaken the ministerial code. As I said earlier, it would at the same time change the British constitution by the back door, without consultation and without consideration.
On the appointment of a new adviser, can I answer with this word: yes. The Prime Minister intends to appoint a new ethics adviser and we will announce how that is to be done and who is to do it in due course. But it does have to be done properly and in a way that will ensure that Parliament and the public have confidence in it. I think that I may be asked what “in due course” or “in good time” means. It means doing it right, and getting the right people to come forward, to be interviewed and to go through the process. It means actually getting it right, not just responding to the latest headline. It means making a process that might actually work in the longer term.
I am very grateful to the Paymaster General for putting on record that the Government do intend to appoint an adviser, but can I just push him a little further and ask him to say whether that appointment will take place before, say, the conference recess?
The answer is a very simple one: the process will be done properly. It will be done in a way that will give confidence to the system; it will be done in a way that the House, Ministers and everyone concerned will be confident in. So it is not possible to give a particular date for it. After all, it is only a matter of days since this situation came about. What is meant is clear: we are still considering this carefully, and we remain fully committed to making sure that all Ministers, including the Prime Minister, whose code it is, are held to account for maintaining high standards of behaviour and behaving in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety, as the public rightly expect.
I think that what the Minister is trying to say is that what has gone wrong is either the process of appointing the last two advisers, or indeed the last two advisers—both of which seem to me to be dishonourable things to say, if I may say so—rather than the fact that both have resigned because of the behaviour, as they have admitted, of a Minister and the Prime Minister.
Order. I do not think the hon. Lady was implying that something dishonourable had been said. If she was, I would want her to withdraw that.
I think the hon. Lady misunderstands the position, which I have made perfectly clear and will repeat. This is about getting the process henceforth right—a process that will have the confidence of this House, the Prime Minister, Ministers and everyone else. It is right to consider these things carefully and take time to reflect on them before taking a decision on how best to fulfil the Prime Minister’s commitment. It is the Prime Minister who has made a commitment to ensuring rigorous oversight and close scrutiny of ministerial interests. As I have said, we are looking at the best way to carry out this function, given some of the issues raised recently and set out in our plans. But I could not be clearer when I have given the single-word answer “yes” on the Prime Minister’s intention to appoint a new ethics adviser. We will announce how that will be done and who is to do it in due course. We will make sure it is done properly to ensure that Parliament and the public have confidence.
In the meantime, the Labour party, when its rail strike is in progress, has chosen today of all days to discuss this matter. I suppose half its Members are on the picket lines at the moment, blocking hard-working people from going about their daily business. They debate this matter for the umpteenth time and the umpteenth hour—so much so that my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner says that she sees more of me than of her friends. The feeling is mutual, although I think she has far more friends than me, except on the Government Benches, where I have a lot more friends, of course, because the Prime Minister wins elections. He does not talk about personalities; he talks about policies. On policies, this party and this Government win.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way eventually. I am sure that we all share his aspiration to have a process in future that commands public confidence, but he has not yet mentioned what it was about the previous system that did not command public confidence. What was it?
I will leave that to the right hon. Gentleman’s already active imagination, but I would say that not everything is a conspiracy. He should bear in mind the responsibility that he and his party have for ensuring that this country’s railway system is working correctly and is not subject to industrial action. Why not support the people of this country in doing that? The red herring that he focuses on is symptomatic of where we are with this debate.
I have made it clear that Labour’s motion seeks to confuse the constitutional position of this country; it confuses the powers of the Executive with those of the legislature. We propose to move on and appoint an ethics adviser, as I have said. We will ensure that an announcement is made as to how it will be done and who will do it in due course, but I emphasise that it must be done properly. In the meantime, I respectfully caution the Opposition to get their Members off the picket lines and to support the people of this country, which is what this Conservative Government will continue to do.