Standards in Public Life

– in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 5th July 2022.

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Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to appear before you and the House on this important matter. We are fortunate in this country to have a sophisticated and robust system for upholding public standards. That system is multi-faceted; it is made up of interlocking and complementary elements. It is of course founded on the seven principles of public life, which have been in place for a quarter of a century and which provide the overarching qualities and standards of behaviour that are expected. I have some time to run through all the mechanisms that underpin the seven principles, but I will touch on something else first, which relates to the potential victims in any case where there are allegations of impropriety of any sort. I was a barrister in criminal practice for 17 years before being elected to this House, and I know how difficult it is for individuals to come forward. It is important that we do not prejudge any individual case. It is also right that the system that, after all, this House created relatively recently—namely the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme—is allowed to work its course.

There are additional rules and guidance to help to ensure consistency of approach—for example, in relation to public appointments, corporate governance and business appointments—when individuals move to roles outside Government, and there are independent bodies that provide a broad oversight of standards. The deputy leader of the Labour party, Angela Rayner, has asked about the mechanisms for upholding those standards, which exist as a result of the decisions of this House. There are bodies and officeholders with a role in overseeing specific aspects of public life, such as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the Civil Service Commission and the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Alongside them are regimes for the publication of Government transparency data and information on those who lobby Government.

We have a Parliament that upholds standards to cover all those in public life, but it is incumbent upon us not to prejudge these decisions. Ministers, public office holders and officials, in all their activities, must maintain the confidentiality of those who wish to make complaints across the lifetime of their involvement, but let me say that no system can replace the fundamental importance of personal responsibility. We all know this to be true. Codes, rules and oversight bodies are there to guide us, but all of us in public life must ultimately choose for ourselves how to act.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

This constant charade just will not wash. These latest disturbing allegations about ministerial misconduct are all about abuse of power. There is one common fault with the system that the Minister spoke about, and that is the power that is granted by this Prime Minister.

The Minister spoke about personal responsibility. Well, he needs to remind the Prime Minister of his personal responsibility. Last week the Prime Minister said that he knew nothing of “specific” allegations about misconduct by Christopher Pincher. Then he claimed he had only been aware of “reports and speculation”. But the truth is out today, and that defence has been completely blown apart.

Lord McDonald says the Prime Minister was informed about a complaint, which was upheld, of inappropriate behaviour against the then Minister. Does the Minister for the Cabinet Office accept that Lord McDonald is telling the truth, or is he telling us that the Prime Minister was not aware of the complaint? What happened to the complaint, and why was nothing done at the time? A Minister of State at the Foreign Office has a deeply sensitive role in national security. Was this issue even brought up in the vetting process, and was the Prime Minister informed? Why was this conduct not considered a breach of the ministerial code? Why did the Prime Minister allow him to stay in post?

This goes to the heart of wider issues, and the public have had enough. Since the resignation of yet another of the Prime Minister’s ethics advisers last month, there has been an even bigger ethical vacuum in Downing Street, with no accountability in place. How can the Minister come here today and say that this simply would not happen again?

The Prime Minister was personally informed about these allegations, yet he was either negligent or complicit. What message does that send about the standards of this Government and those they set? What message does it send to the British people facing a cost of living crisis while their Government are paralysed by scandal? When will this Minister stop defending the indefensible and say, “Enough is enough”?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

The matter of what happened with regard to Christopher Pincher is now under investigation. It is possible that a police investigation may—may—follow, so it is clear that the sub judice rule should apply to individual cases, in the interests of justice for everyone concerned, both those accused and potential victims. The sub judice rule should apply very much to these proceedings.

With regard to the appointment to the Whips Office in February that the right hon. Lady mentioned, appointments in Government are subject, of course, to advice on matters of propriety—they are not subject to veto, but they are subject to advice. In addition, the usual reshuffle procedures were followed by the Government. I ask the House to accept that, bearing in mind that the Member in question had been reappointed to Government by a previous Prime Minister in 2018 and appointed in 2019 as a Foreign Office Minister, and that then, crucially, he was appointed for a third time in February, I doubt whether anyone with knowledge of those facts could say that this Prime Minister should have acted otherwise than he did.

It is the morally fair thing to do, in any case, to assess the situation based on evidence and not unsubstantiated rumour. It is incumbent on all of us in this House, as it is in society generally, to act fairly. If there is no evidence at the time—if there is no live complaint, no ongoing investigation—surely it is not unreasonable to consider making an appointment.

In the limited time available, I have made some initial inquiries. This is subject to further assessment, but my understanding is as follows: in October 2019, officials raised concerns with the then permanent secretary about the Member in question. The permanent secretary commissioned work to establish facts, and that work was undertaken on his behalf by the Cabinet Office. That exercise reported in due course to the permanent secretary, who had agreed its terms. It established that although the Minister meant no harm, what had occurred caused a high level of discomfort. [Interruption.] That is what the exercise established. The Minister apologised, and those who raised the concern accepted the resolution. The Prime Minister was made aware of the issue in late 2019; he was told that the permanent secretary had taken the necessary action, so no issue arose about the Minister remaining a Minister.

Last week, when fresh allegations arose, the Prime Minister did not immediately recall the conversation in late 2019 about this incident. As soon as he was reminded, the No. 10 press office corrected its public lines. The position is quite clear. Further inquiries will be made, but the position is that the Prime Minister acted with probity at all times. It is not appropriate, whether in private life or in public life, to act on unsubstantiated rumour.

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Thank you, Mr Speaker. My right hon. and learned Friend mentions the sophisticated and robust systems for upholding standards in public life, but those systems are, on the whole, irrelevant if the participants have no regard to them. The Government and, I suggest, my right hon. and hon. Friends sat on the Front Bench—I notice there is a preponderance of Government Whips there, rather than other Ministers—should consider what they are being asked to say in public, which changes seemingly by the hour. I ask them to consider the common sense of decency that I know the vast majority of them have, and to ask themselves if they can any longer tolerate being part of a Government who, for better or worse, are widely regarded as having lost their sense of direction. It is for them to consider their position. This is not a question of systems; it is a question of political judgment, and that political judgment cannot be delegated.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My hon. Friend is quite wrong. The Government know their direction, and that is to serve the British people by dealing with the issues that matter to them, including the cost of living, the crisis in Ukraine and the pandemic, which this Prime Minister and this Government have dealt with in an exemplary fashion.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Here we are again, Mr Speaker. Once again, the Minister for defending the indefensible is sent out to defend his boss, but even he must realise the frequency with which we reconvene in this place to question the veracity of the Prime Minister’s version of events; it is like being on a merry-go-round that gets faster and faster. Today, it is the turn of Lord McDonald, the former senior civil servant at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to call out the Prime Minister’s claim that he was unaware of any specific allegations against Christopher Pincher when he appointed him Deputy Chief Whip. In his letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Lord McDonald is unequivocal in saying that three years ago, in 2019, the Prime Minister

“was briefed in person about the initiation and outcome of the investigation.”

Lord McDonald’s letter absolutely demolishes the Prime Minister’s claims that he did not know and, once again, raises serious concerns and questions about whether he has broken the ministerial code. How much longer will we have to endure this seemingly endless merry-go-round? Will the Secretary of State now commit to holding a full and transparent investigation into this matter, and perhaps finally allow us and the people of the United Kingdom to get off this appalling merry-go-round?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I realise that the hon. Gentleman from Scotland wishes to make political hay out of this situation, but it really does not wash. It is not indefensible to defend natural justice. Natural justice means acting on evidence, not on gossip, rumour and innuendo. It is a fact that in this place, and in SW1 generally, there are rumours, gossip and innuendo about a multitude of issues and people. The reason journalists do not report it is that they cannot stand it up with evidence. The reason why others do not act is, in many cases, because they have not got evidence. It is not indefensible to defend the principles of natural justice and not expect people to act—to defenestrate individuals—without proof. That is the difference.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Committee Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements

There is periodically much discussion in this place, and about this place, in respect of how we should address its culture, which seems to give permission for the wrong attitudes and wrong behaviours. How does it help if our political leaders, in all political parties, finish up promoting people with the wrong attitudes and the wrong behaviours? Is that not exactly what gives permission for the wrong attitudes and the wrong behaviours to persist?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My hon. Friend would be right if he were working under the assumption that those making the appointment knew that the individual in question had the wrong behaviours and the wrong attitudes. Submitting that it is a possibility, or that there are rumours, would not be sufficient; that is the crux of the difference.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

I hope one day that the Minister plays these things back and listens to himself. I do not think he will be proud of himself in later days. I know that many decent Conservative MPs feel terribly ashamed of everything that has been happening in this sordid process. Is not this the real problem? If the boss is someone who has spent all his political career trying to get away with things, and finding himself innocent in the court of his own opinion; if he boasts to everybody, laughingly, that all the sex pests support him for the leadership; if, whenever he gets into trouble, he tries to destroy the system; then all his allies will endlessly take liberties. It does not then feel like a Government who are trying to serve the British people. It just feels like a Government who are trying to help themselves.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

The hon. Gentleman takes a sanctimonious tone. When it comes to this Government, he wishes to set himself up as judge, jury and executioner, but the reality is that taking the moral high ground is not something that fits well. He should bear in mind that it is also moral to treat people fairly; that includes victims and the accused. That is what I have done, and what I seek to do.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare

The Minister rightly pointed out in his introductory remarks that the seven Nolan principles of integrity in public life underpin and run all the way through the ministerial code, but it is clear from Lord McDonald’s letter today that No. 10 has not been honest in what it has said. That is what Lord McDonald says in terms. One of the seven Nolan principles is honesty. No. 10 was previously accused, without rebuttal, of lacking leadership by Sue Gray in her report on what went on over partygate. How many more of the seven principles have to be breached before my right hon. and learned Friend stands up and says, “Enough is enough”?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I do not accept the premise of my hon. Friend’s question. As I think he will note, when, after the exercise—the investigation that I referred to a few moments ago—the former Minister in question was appointed to the Department for Levelling Up, and then to the Whips Office, I am not aware that any further objection was made by the senior civil servant in question. That is something from which my hon. Friend can draw a note.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

As many in this House know, I am a former police officer, and something that is important for every single one of us as MPs is our responsibility for safeguarding, both on the estate and in our constituency. If I received an unsubstantiated allegation, I would do my best to find out as much as I could about it, not just from curiosity, but to ensure that people were safe. What has failed here? Is it a failure of process, integrity or both?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

No. As I have articulated, there was an exercise in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the matter, which I believe went on for several weeks. I need to confirm the details, because I had insufficient time to do so this morning, but as I say, there was an exercise, and it concluded to the satisfaction of all involved. That was within the Department and, it appears to me, before the Prime Minister was made aware.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Recently, at a Brexit opportunities debate here, there were no Liberal Democrats and virtually no Labour Members. The only time they turn up here is to bash Boris. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that our constituents in Northamptonshire, which we both represent, are more concerned about an MP they have never heard about, or the biggest tax reduction in decades, which will happen tomorrow?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, as usual. As he points out, Labour Members have made frequent requests for business in this House to be about not what our constituents primarily care about, but personalities. They do not raise the issue of policies, because when they do, they lose. Instead, they focus on personalities, and that has been the drive of the past six months.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Given the character and record of this Prime Minister and of this No. 10, and given that numerous Ministers have, in recent days, been sent out to spout different versions of events—which the BBC political editor this morning described as all having become “drivel”—how can any of us, including the Minister, have confidence that the latest version of events that he has given the House is true?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

Well, in the first place, what I have set out to the House is a principle of natural justice that is true in every case. It would be true in the case of an allegation against anyone, in any circumstances. It is fair to complainants and those subject to allegations alike, and it applies all the time, so it is not a question of the individual facts that the right hon. Gentleman is alluding to. It is an overarching principle of fairness in life, which is to act on evidence, rather than gossip, innuendo and rumour. It may be that that gossip, innuendo and rumour later turn out to be true, but when persons in authority have to make decisions, they should do so properly and for good reason.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock

I have listened to my right hon. and learned Friend very carefully, and I hear what he says about natural justice, but the Government Whips Office is meant to organise us to get the Government’s business done. That involves providing a safe space for discussions about policy issues, where there are differences on them, and a safe space for welfare. Notwithstanding what he said about natural justice, the very whiff of rumour and historical incident, which Simon McDonald referred to in his letter today, should have been enough to tell the Prime Minister that that appointment was not wise, and that he could have made use of the talents of the hon. Gentleman in question in a different Department, as he had done previously.

We have a real problem here. No. 10 has addressed the issue of its knowledge of these events with varying degrees of honesty; there has been, I think, half a dozen different variations in what it has said. I am very fond of my right hon. and learned Friend, and I think he is on a really sticky wicket today, but the way we move on from this is through a complete reset of standards, and a complete reboot of the ministerial code. What does he intend to do to convey to this House that the provisions of the ministerial code are taken seriously by this Government?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I can assure my hon. Friend that the codes of conduct—the codes of practice—are adhered to firmly by this Government and supported by this Prime Minister. She will know that any Prime Minister—in fact, any Secretary of State, Cabinet Minister, any Minister of the Crown—will regularly be dealing with a vast quantity of information. It is a question not of honesty or dishonesty, but of recalling every fact years after the event. If the circumstances were such that they were not firmly crystallised in any individual’s mind at the time they were being given that information, they can easily not be recollected. It does not necessarily immediately impugn dishonesty if someone does not recall something years after the event, so I ask her to bear that in mind.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

The Minister has danced on a pinhead here, but as Wendy Chamberlain says, we are not just MPs, Ministers or Whips; we also employ staff in this place. Staff, who are often alone in our offices with us, rely on a code and a proper workplace. We do not have that here and this just undermines the support that we should be providing to the many people who work here. We have to get away from the idea of MP exceptionalism and stop dancing on a pinhead. The Minister should heed the words of Mr Wragg and say, “Enough is enough.”

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I agree with the hon. Lady in as much as she says that we need to have care for our employees here. That is something with which we would all agree. In fact, it is this Government who set up the independent complaints and grievance system for staffers from this place to do that. So I ask her to characterise it as something on which we are all on the same side. I urge anyone who has any complaints at any time to make those complaints known. That is how justice is done.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My right hon. and learned Friend says that all are innocent until proven guilty, and makes the point, which I agree with, that unsubstantiated allegations should not lead to people losing their jobs or not being appointed. What he has said is that the Prime Minister knew of the allegation in 2019. He said that discomfort was caused and he said that Christopher Pincher apologised. The letter from Lord McDonald says:

“In substance, the allegations”— at that time—

“were similar to those made about his behaviour at the Carlton Club.”

The allegations, as reported from the time at the Carlton Club, include sexual assault. Can he confirm whether the allegations made back in 2019 were of sexual assault? If they were and they were upheld and an apology was given, why were the police not involved and why was he not sacked at the time, never mind given another job?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I am unable to speak to that. But what I would say is that we must do everything we can to protect the confidentiality of those who make complaints. I am very concerned that the way in which this matter has been processed by some individuals means that it opens up a risk of a breach of confidentiality for those who have made complaints. That is paramount.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

The Minister is increasingly looking like the boy who stands on the burning deck. His problem is that the Prime Minister is going to desert him as well. The trouble is that gossip and innuendo actually become facts, which is something that the Minister does not recognise. Minister after Minister has been humiliated, going out and giving a storyline that has been given to them by No.10, which subsequently changes. And the story has changed again today from the Minister’s own mouth. We have heard from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Will Quince, and now we have the facts from Lord McDonald. The fact is that special advisers have been used to put out and peddle this misinformation. So what is going to be done to investigate them and the special advisers’ code of conduct because we cannot keep having No.10 just peddling lies?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There is absolutely no evidence of what he speaks. The reality is that, when years-old allegations resurface, inquiries have to be made. It is not an immediate exercise; those have to be got right. Every effort is being made to give accurate information. I said in my opening remarks to this honourable House that, in the limited amount of time that I have had available, that is the information that I have received, but, clearly, there will be an exercise to be done.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

Last week, my right hon. Friend Liz Saville Roberts tabled a Bill that would make it an offence for politicians to wilfully mislead the public. Will the Minister press the Leader of the House for parliamentary time for a Second Reading debate of that Bill as a step towards restoring people’s faith in democracy?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I wondered whether the Minister was able to confirm whether anyone had personally raised with him concerns about Christopher Pincher.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

That is not a matter for me. [Interruption.] I am not responsible for appointments, but there are mechanisms in place for complaints to be made.

Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Alba, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

A few short weeks ago, at Lord Geidt’s resignation, I asked the Minister what fresh scandal was coming down the tracks. He assured me that there was none, yet here we are. The principle at stake here should resonate not just in this place, but in Parliaments across the UK and beyond, because accepting personal responsibility, lawfulness and truth telling are essential conditions of honourable conduct. As President Nixon discovered, it was the cover-up and the decision to lie that delivered his undoing. Misconduct in public office is a serious charge. Following the recent revelations from Lord McDonald, can the Minister tell the House: what did the Prime Minister know and when did he know it?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I have already dealt with that matter but I will say this. I do not think that any Member of this House from any of the Opposition political parties should take the moral high ground in this matter. I do not choose to reiterate why, but none of us should come to this House expecting all the criticism for any misconduct by any Member to be levelled against any one individual. What happens is that, when wrongdoing has been found to be done, it is properly dealt with in the interests of justice, whatever the political party. But Opposition Members wish to make party political points out of a serious matter.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

Over the past few days, Downing Street and the Prime Minister’s official spokesman have said different things at different times: first, that the Prime Minister was not aware of any allegations against the former Government Deputy Chief Whip; then that they were not aware of any specific allegations; then that they were not aware of any serious specific allegations; and then that they were not aware of any allegations that were substantiated. Yet the letter from Lord McDonald to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, published today, shows that all those briefings appear to be untrue. So can the Minister tell the House whether the Cabinet Secretary is investigating these serial breaches of the special advisers’ code of conduct?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation. What she obviously does not wish to recognise is that, as days pass during a heated episode, investigation and media inquiries, pictures become more crystallised. As I said in my opening remarks, when fresh allegations arose, the Prime Minister did not immediately recall the matter that had been raised with him in late 2019. As soon as he was reminded, the No.10 press office corrected the public line. So it is not a matter of anything other than recollection and due process.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

Just two months ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box at Prime Minister’s questions and told me:

“of course sexual harassment is grounds for dismissal.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2022; Vol. 712, c. 759.]

Yet in 2019 he kept the right hon. Member for Tamworth as Minister, and this year he gave him powers over MPs’ welfare as Deputy Chief Whip, despite knowing that a formal complaint had been upheld against him. Let us be very clear: Lord McDonald’s letter says in black and white:

Mr Johnson was briefed in person about the…outcome of the investigation.”

This is not about rumour, innuendo or gossip. Does that not show that the mechanisms for upholding standards in public life are only as good as the independence and integrity of the person charged with enforcing them—and does that not show not just that we need radical systems reform, but that the Prime Minister himself just has to go?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

What the hon. Lady wishes to do is to draw politics into this matter. I would respectfully suggest to her that her drive to remove the Prime Minister will fail. The reason is that she focuses on personalities rather than on politics and policies. If she wishes to change the Prime Minister, she needs to win a general election in order to do so. This mechanism is not suitable for the party politics that she wishes to play.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I wonder if the Minister has seen his own Government’s “Enough” campaign about abuse and harassment, which literally has an image of a drunk in a pub groping someone. The line is that, “This is enough” and that people should step in and do what they can. It does not say, “Wait until a completely independent inquiry has gone on, while you’re in a pub with a gropey man— until you can try and do anything about it.” The Minister has stood in here today and sought to use the standards bodies in this House, which he was not in the meetings for—I was— and which were set up to protect people and to look after victims. Whether it is the Sue Gray report or the ICGS, there is always something that is meant to be for the standards for the public, but a Minister stands there and leans on that to try to get out of basically telling untruths to the public, allowing sycophancy rather than morality to be the reason why people are given their jobs. My question to the Minister is: if it had been me giving out those jobs, does he think the MP for Tamworth would have been able to get one?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I would expect of the hon. Lady perhaps more than she would expect of me. By that, I mean that I would expect her to act fairly. I hope that answers her question. If she was in that position of responsibility for making decisions about appointments, I would expect her to act fairly, full stop.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

It seems that the problem we have is many processes, all of which lead back to the personal discretion of the Prime Minister. Is it not the case that we need a single, unified process, without the engagement of the Prime Minister or internal party documentation or machinations, where light is shone on this, and which protects the victims and the accusers rather than the abusers? Is it not the case that we need that now, away from the Prime Minister and independent of this place and himself?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I have already adumbrated that there was an exercise within the Foreign Office at the time. The reality of the matter is that there was a process that was undertaken.

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

In response to Sue Gray’s interim report, the Prime Minister announced that he would set up an office of the Prime Minister to address what she had identified as “fragmented and complicated” leadership structures that, in turn,

“led to the blurring of lines of accountability.”

Given the variety of conflicting accounts that we have heard in the past few days, how does the Minister think that has worked out?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

If the right hon. Gentleman is asking me about machinery-of-Government processes and changes, that is not within my area of responsibility, but he knows what has been said about that. There is work going on all the time to look at machinery of Government and no doubt that will continue.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

We now seem to be in a position where No. 10 have just admitted that the Prime Minister was told about the upheld complaint, but he forgot. Has the Minister ever found himself in a position where he did not immediately recall being told of an upheld complaint of sexual harassment against a fellow Minister?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I would ask the hon. Lady to understand that a Prime Minister has myriad urgent and pressing responsibilities. He may be told literally hundreds of things in any one day. The reality of the matter is that I cannot speak exactly to somebody else’s mind, whoever that person may be. But if she says to the House that she has never forgotten anything, or asks whether I have ever forgotten or misremembered something, I do not accept that.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

There is real concern among staff and Members of Parliament about a culture within Westminster that protects abusers and does not encourage victims to come forward. We see here potentially the start of an unlocking of a type of abuse that has been common in Westminster for far too long, of men abusing other men, particularly young men. That is a scandal that will run for miles and miles, because it has been overlooked and deliberately hidden and those behind it have, in some cases, had the very highest people protecting them, through forgetting that things have happened. Will the Minister give us assurance now that he will treat a sexual abuse attack on a man in the same way as he would an attack on a woman, and make clear that there should not be a single Member of Parliament in this place, in any party, who is guilty of that?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. There is no such culture either in this legislature or in the Executive. I have already said from this Dispatch Box that any victim should come forward about any incident at any time, and make themselves known and make their complaints. All are treated equally and will be treated equally. I have prosecuted personally cases in court. He asks me about that; there are a few barristers in this House who have been in criminal practice, and I am one of those who has prosecuted individuals for sexual assault and other criminal offences. So I am very alive to the issues generally, and I ask him to accept that we all come to this House in good faith to do the best we can, for our constituents and to look after those who work for us. Where there are failings, it is incumbent upon us to do the best we can to remedy and rectify those failings. That does not mean that we expect perfection in all cases, but it means that we should act fairly and reasonably at all times and do the very best we can.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My constituents are facing a cost of living crisis made worse by underfunded, slashed public services. Does the Minister agree that, in the interests of the most efficient use of public funds and public service time, it would be best to open one commission to identify and investigate the occasions on which the Prime Minister has actually told the truth?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

The hon. Lady mentions her constituents and mine and the focus on cost of living, but I am afraid that the Labour party has requested and been granted numerous hours in this House, which I have had the honour of responding to from this Dispatch Box, not to ask about or debate cost of living, but to debate personalities. I ask her to bear in mind, if she is asking about the time of this House, what her party has been focusing on—and it is not the global cost of living crisis.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Labour, Caerphilly

The events of the past week show that the Prime Minister is sadly lacking ethics. Will the Minister confirm that it is still the Prime Minister’s intention not to appoint an independent ethics adviser?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. I do not recall at any point anyone’s saying that that would be the case. I cannot confirm something that I do not know to be the case. In fact, on the contrary, the Prime Minister is focused on ensuring that proper mechanisms are in place to uphold all standards in public life.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I give the Minister another opportunity: will there be another ethics lead appointed by this Government?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I think we have said that arrangements will be put in place. [Hon. Members: “When?”] In due course.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee

Quite frankly, this stinks. The Minister does us all a disservice today, because standards in public life do matter, despite what anyone on the Government Benches might say. People need to be sure that the people who make decisions and work in organisations that work on their behalf can be trusted, and we no longer have an independent ethics adviser since he resigned. Does the Minister not believe that it is urgent that a new ethics adviser is found and put in place, because otherwise how can anyone trust this Government to uphold standards and investigate breaches effectively?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I have already said that the matter is being given the closest attention by the Prime Minister and by Downing Street. We do focus on standards in public life, as we do, as I have adumbrated before, in the list of matters that are available to those who seek to make complaints and wish to make complaints. In the interim period, people can make complaints to their permanent secretary, or the permanent secretary of the relevant Department, and that appears to be what happened in this case in 2019.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General

The Minister has stated that the Prime Minister’s current defence in this matter is, “I was told but I forgot.” The Minister mentioned his time in practice. If a client had produced that defence, what advice would he have given him, and would he have put him in the witness box?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

If anyone should go into the witness box, it is those on the Labour Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman seeks to challenge this party, but it is this party that delivers what the people of this country want. It is this party that secured the largest majority since the 1980s at the last general election, and it is this Prime Minister who will go on to fight the next general election. It is about policies, not personalities, and the hon. Gentleman wishes to make political points out of a serious allegation.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

Around one in three women and one in seven men are survivors of sexual violence. Many of them will work on the parliamentary estate, and whether we know it or not, they may be sitting in this very Chamber right now. What assurances can the Paymaster General give those survivors here and across the country that Parliament is a safe place to work and this Government are fit to govern, given the gaslighting that we have been subjected to today from the Dispatch Box, and the fact that Cabinet Ministers, including the Justice Secretary, are happy to go on national television and obfuscate and minimise the severity of allegations of this nature for as long as the alleged perpetrators are sufficiently loyal to the Prime Minister?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

Obviously no one has, from this Dispatch Box or anywhere else, done what the hon. Lady alleges. The fact of the matter is that not everyone who disagrees with the hon. Lady is being dishonest. She needs to recognise that there is a version of events that every individual has. She wishes to make political points and claim that there is dishonesty involved. There is a difference of recollections in some cases—a difference of circumstances. That does not mean that the party that disagrees with her is dishonest.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Wales)

Over the past week, we have heard the Prime Minister talk about no allegations, no specific allegations and no serious specific allegations. The response is changing on an almost daily basis and we now know that none of those responses was true, and were ever-changing smoke and mirrors. Why do this PM and Government have such a problem with truth and honesty?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

This Government do not have the problem that the hon. Gentleman particularises. In fact, it is the Labour party that needs to look to its own soul when it takes the sanctimonious position that it has done. I am sorry to say that there are examples in the Labour party and it takes a high moral tone that I do not think is fitting.

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

The Minister may enjoy being pedantic in defending the Prime Minister, but the cover-up he is defending has resulted in reports of sexual assault. Today we are witnessing the Minister obfuscating and misusing his power. Is it not time that withholding information about misconduct, including sexual assault, results in immediate suspension of those individuals and that this misuse of power and safeguarding is brought into sharp focus and immediately handed over for independent investigation?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

Disagreeing with the hon. Lady is not dishonest. The fact of the matter is that she simply seeks to make political points, and the reality of the matter is that they will not work and they should not work, because this matter is too important for that.