– in the House of Commons at 12:34 pm on 23rd May 2023.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on the criteria for launching an investigation into a potential breach of the ministerial code.
The ministerial code sets out the standards of conduct expected of Ministers in how they discharge their duties. The code is the Prime Minister’s document, but Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the code and for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and the public. The Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and of the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards. Ministers remain in office only for so long as they can retain the confidence of the Prime Minister.
The Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is appointed by the Prime Minister to advise on matters relating to the ministerial code and, as hon. Members will be aware, that may include considering matters of ministerial conduct. The independent adviser has published terms of reference, which state that if
“there is an allegation about a breach of the Code, and the Prime Minister, having consulted the Cabinet Secretary, feels that it warrants further investigation, the Prime Minister may ask the Cabinet Office to investigate the facts of the case and/or refer the matter to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests.”
With regard to the matter concerning the Home Secretary, which has been the subject of recent coverage, the Prime Minister made it clear to the House yesterday that he is receiving information on the issues raised. Since returning from the G7, the Prime Minister has met both the independent adviser and the Home Secretary and asked for further information. It is right that the Prime Minister, as the head of the Executive and the arbiter of the ministerial code, be allowed time to receive relevant information on this matter. Hon. Members will be updated on this in due course.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. This is an urgent matter, because our constituents expect those who make the rules to follow the rules, especially the Minister responsible for upholding the law. There are serious questions to answer following reports that the Home Secretary asked civil servants to organise a private speeding course. Will the Minister start by confirming whether the Home Secretary did or did not ask civil servants for help in this matter?
After days of dither and delay, and as the Minister just pointed out again, the Prime Minister still has not decided whether his ethics adviser should investigate. When can we expect to know what the Prime Minister is thinking on this matter? Was the Prime Minister made aware of the issue when he appointed the Home Secretary?
The ministerial code is clear that Ministers must not use their position for personal gain or ask civil servants to help them in a private matter. Does the Minister condone attempts to use the civil service for personal matters, or does he think that any potential breach of that principle should result in an investigation? Reports suggest that officials raised concerns about the Home Secretary’s conduct in emails sent to the Cabinet Office, with the full awareness of the permanent secretary. Officials are said to have been instructed to disregard the request. Was that the case, and if so, on what basis? Furthermore, if the Home Secretary did authorise her special adviser to tell journalists that there was no speeding penalty, that would surely be classified as a Minister asking officials to breach the civil service code. Does the Minister agree that that amounts to the breach of the ministerial code?
As the Minister knows, the Home Secretary already admitted to breaching the code by using personal emails to share sensitive Government information. How many strikes before she is out?
The right hon. Lady has made a number of contentions there, and I will not get into speculation about the events in question. She will have heard the Prime Minister being clear yesterday that he was informed of the issue while on the service of the country at the G7 in Japan. He has returned from the G7 and is gathering information, but what we know of the Prime Minister is that he will deal with these issues properly and professionally. The first part of that is to gather the information required on which he can take a view, and that is what he is doing.
My right hon. Friend will recall that the Committee on Standards in Public Life, when I was a member of it, recommended that the independent adviser should be able to initiate their own inquiries into breaches of the ministerial code and determine whether there was a breach, leaving sanctions properly for the Prime Minister to determine. That has several advantages. It gives the benefit of a decision being taken at arm’s length from Government and, if I may say so to my right hon. Friend, it also means we will have fewer occasions such as this and he will have to answer fewer such urgent questions. [Interruption.]
What Stephen Kinnock says is true: it is always a pleasure to be before the House in any circumstances. To respond to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright, I would not wish to detract from the fact that the ministerial code is the Prime Minister’s document. It is a code as to how the Prime Minister expects his or her Ministers to behave in a set of circumstances. The Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the ministerial code. I believe the first independent adviser was appointed in 2006 to have a role supporting the Prime Minister in that function, but we must remind ourselves that the ministerial code is the Prime Minister’s document, and he needs to be able to take decisions on the back of it regarding his ministerial team.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.
This is a descent into absolute farce. Instead of the professionalism, accountability and integrity that the Prime Minister promised when he came into office, we are faced with calamity, chaos and corruption. The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) continues to be investigated, Nadhim Zahawi had to leave Cabinet in disgrace, and we are seeing revelation after revelation about the misdeeds and wrongdoings of the Home Secretary. First there was the request to organise a personal speed awareness course, and today we have the revelation that the Home Secretary did not disclose her extensive work with the Africa Justice Foundation, 19 alumni of which are now in senior positions in the Rwandan Government.
How can the Prime Minister continue to pretend that he is presiding over a Government with anything other than their own personal interests at heart? Is it not the case that the people of Scotland and all the people of these isles would be better served by politicians who understand and stick to the principles of public life in the ministerial code? Will the Prime Minister ensure that an investigation is undertaken into all the alleged ministerial code breaches? What is the point in having a ministerial code if Ministers simply ignore it?
As I said earlier, there is information being gathered, and that will be the first point to determine the next steps. It is always interesting to hear from the SNP about farcical situations with ethics. The one advantage of a campervan, I suppose, is that it does not go very fast.
I have no first-hand knowledge of this particular case, but does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that there is and should always be a difference between asking a civil servant to do something that may or may not be wrong and asking a civil servant for advice on whether doing something is or is not likely to be wrong?
I of course agree that there is a difference there, but I would not wish to speculate about this particular circumstance, as my right hon. Friend will understand.
If the Prime Minister is gathering the evidence and asking for more information, what is so wrong with just launching an investigation properly through the correct channels?
There is nothing incorrect with the process, which is being conducted properly and professionally. The Prime Minister will gather the information and then decide the next steps. It is very simple.
I have an admission to make: the Home Secretary is not on my Christmas card list, and I am certainly not on hers. I hope this is a question and not a statement: I find it hard to get my head around the fact that the BBC sent its political editor halfway across the world, to a G7 summit where energy security, Ukraine and defence were being discussed, to ask our Prime Minister a question about a speed awareness course. This is the question: why?
As my hon. Friend is well aware, the BBC is editorially completely independent, but I absolutely hear what he says.
When the Home Secretary was the Attorney General, she tweeted her support for Dominic Cummings driving to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. When she was Home Secretary under Elizabeth Truss, she was sacked for sending sensitive Government information from a personal email address. As Home Secretary under
An investigation will be dependent on the information gathered. The Prime Minister will gather that information, and he will take a decision on the back of the information that he has received.
In recent weeks, the Home Secretary has publicly supported the majority view that immigration levels are too high in this country, and she has led the debate on how we can reduce the overall migration numbers. Given that 6,000 people are convicted of speeding every day and that, like the majority of people, the Home Secretary has paid the fine and taken the points, does my right hon. Friend agree with me that this leak is a clear attempt to play the woman, not the ball, and that it is an attempt that undermines our democracy and distracts from the important job of delivering on ordinary people’s priorities?
The Home Secretary has an incredibly important job to do, and I totally agree with my hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I know she is deeply committed, whatever the noise, to get on and deliver on that job for the British people. Obviously, information will be gathered, but I know that the Home Secretary is deeply committed to that task and will continue to do it.
The appointment of the ethics adviser is at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister, the inquiries that are carried out are at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister and the actions taken on the outcome of any report are at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister. Does the Minister think maybe there is a problem with this process?
I am certain the hon. Gentleman is aware that an independent adviser can recommend to the Prime Minister that a particular course of action is taken, although ultimately—the hon. Gentleman is right—the ministerial code is a matter for the Prime Minister. It is his code, and he has to determine the standards expected of Ministers in his Government.
What is wrong with this country? We used to have proper scandals about sex or money, or about Prime Ministers invading Iraq on dodgy evidence where hundreds of thousands of people died. Apparently this is a scandal, but all this moral outrage about a Minister who asked her private office about something and took their advice is ludicrous. What has happened to the Osmotherly rules? We all know what this is all about: the Opposition are attacking a good Home Secretary, who is trying to attack the real scandal of mass immigration to this country. Give her support!
I thank my right hon. Friend for the question, and I understand what he is saying. “Is this all a storm in a teacup?” is the question being asked by my right hon. Friend. The information will be gathered by the Prime Minister. As I said to my hon. Friend Miriam Cates, whatever that process, I know that the Home Secretary is deeply committed to continuing to deliver on her incredibly important work of delivering for the British people.
The Prime Minister promised integrity, professionalism and accountability. I think we can all agree that the first two were shot long ago, even before this latest incident. As for accountability, he has now taken personal responsibility for this, but I am sure the Minister would agree that the real accountability is now down to the British people at the next general election, which needs to come sooner rather than later.
The British people will know that the Prime Minister will act in a professional and proper manner. He always does, and he is doing so in these circumstances. I believe that it is not totally unknown for the Labour party to have issues of a disciplinary nature that it needs to look at, and I dare say that it has processes. We too have processes, and the Prime Minister will make certain, having gathered the information, that he does next what he feels is right.
My hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker makes the right point about the BBC’s political editor, but here we have 50 or so Opposition Members choosing to spend their time debating this question. Does my right hon. Friend think—[Interruption.] We are here because we have been called out in defence of the Government. Does the Minister think that their constituents will be proud of the way their representatives are using their time?
I have a long memory, and I recall a little while ago an urgent question being asked by a Member of the House, and Angela Rayner coming here to defend the Labour party’s actions on, among other things, the matter of Sue Gray and an appointment. I remember her saying what a complete waste of time it was for this Parliament that we were spending time and wasting our time on these issues. My hon. Friend raises a pertinent point.
In the time that the Prime Minister is taking to decide what to do about the Home Secretary’s actions, any of us could have taken a speed awareness test 17 times, and counting. Does the Minister agree that to the public that looks like weak leadership, and it leaves the Prime Minister’s commitment to integrity, accountability and professionalism as just an empty promise?
The Prime Minister does things properly and professionally, and it is right that he gets the information and bases his decision on that. He does that as Prime Minister on the whole remit of Government policy, and it is right that he should do it in these circumstances.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that once this nonsense has been dealt with, we should ask why, when and how this was leaked, because there is also a civil service code to be adhered to?
Right now the focus is on gathering the information that the Prime Minister needs to take a decision on this. I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is always a matter of concern when information gets out in unauthorised ways and circumstances, but the focus now is just on gathering this information.
This is not just about a speeding fine; this is about the integrity of the Home Secretary and how she behaved to officials when she received that fine. Did the Cabinet Office inform the Prime Minister about the emails sent to the propriety and ethics team regarding the request for a private speeding course?
The Prime Minister is now asking for information that is pertinent to this, and he will take decisions on the basis of the information that he receives.
The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are more interested in how the Home Secretary will empty the hotels that are being used right now for economic migrants and asylum seekers, undermining £56 million of levelling up funding. They are interested in how to use the 330 brand new police officers that have been recruited to tackle crime and fly-tipping in places such as Cobridge, Tunstall and Smallthorne. They are interested in ensuring that we use the £2 million of Safer Streets funding that we secured to put in new alley gates and additional CCTV. That is what they want to see, not this witch hunt from the Labour party. The Home Secretary has already taken accountability—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Gullis, when I stand up, you sit down. Once we get that message, we will understand each other. We want to get through, and I think the Minister absolutely got the question.
My hon. Friend raises a valuable point. His constituents are worried about the conduct of our policy on a range of issues, including personal security, migration—a whole list. The Home Office has an incredibly important job to do, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is determined to produce those answers for the British people.
They say that confession is good for the soul, and recently I took a speed awareness course. It was well taught, available at an early hour so that it did not interfere with my work, and available to all equally. Why did the Home Secretary not avail herself of that equal opportunity?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am better informed about speed awareness courses, but I am not going to comment on the specifics of this circumstance. The Prime Minister is gathering the information, and he will take a decision on the back of that.
Can the Minister confirm that civil servants contacted the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team about the Home Secretary’s request? If so, why does he think the Prime Minister does not have that same integrity to ask his ethics adviser formally to investigate what happened?
The Prime Minister is gathering information to ascertain the facts. He will take a decision on the next steps from there.
Within the last hour, it has been reported by The Independent that the Home Secretary stands accused of fresh ministerial code breaches over undisclosed links to the Rwandan Government. As Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I have been in correspondence with the Home Secretary about well evidenced human rights concerns in Rwanda, and our Committee’s concern about plans to send asylum seekers there. The Home Secretary, it is fair to say, seems to take a rather rosy-eyed view of Rwanda’s human rights record. Does the Minister think that that has anything to do with her undisclosed links to the Rwandan Government, and will he include that potential breach of the ministerial code in any inquiry?
The hon. and learned Lady knows more than me about this subject, because she has read the full article and I just saw the tweet. I cannot really comment on that. I understand it was something that the Home Secretary did with Cherie Blair and others some considerable time ago, a charitable endeavour before she entered Parliament—that is just what I got from the tweet. I cannot comment any more than that, as the hon. and learned Lady will understand.
I received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Dehenna Davison, to whom I have given reference that I would raise this matter today, in response to concerns I raised about the activities at Teesworks. She advised me that nothing untoward was at play, although I was not provided—[Interruption.]
Order. I think that might be better asked as a point of order, rather than in the middle of where we are now. Is this about the ministerial code and this particular Minister?
Exactly, Mr Speaker, because importantly the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was the recipient of a properly declared four-figure donation from a party directly connected to those dealings. Surely she should have recused herself, and in failing to do so was in direct contravention of the ministerial code at paragraph 7.1 and onwards. Does the Minister agree?
You will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that I am not in any position to comment on the kind of allegations that the hon. Gentleman is making. I am not in a position to make any comment on that whatsoever. That is for another occasion.
Will the Minister update the House on the status of the special advisers’ code, given that the Home Secretary’s special adviser apparently lied repeatedly to journalists, in clear breach of the special advisers’ code, yet the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary have done absolutely nothing—[Interruption.]
Order. If hon. Members want a conversation, they should please take it outside and not across the Chamber.
The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the contents of the special advisers’ code, which sets out how special advisers should act in these circumstances. I am not in a position to talk about the specifics of this case in these circumstances. These are early days. The Prime Minister is gathering information regarding the overall picture and will take decisions in due course.
Does the Minister believe that the Home Secretary acted entirely within the ministerial code while in office?
I think that is for the Home Secretary—[Interruption.] As I said right at the start of my statement, the ministerial code is a matter for the Prime Minister. He is the ultimate arbiter on all questions regarding the ministerial code, and it is for individual Ministers to make certain that they adhere to it. Those are the facts of the case.
Why is the Prime Minister so weak and indecisive that he cannot even refer his Home Secretary to his independent ethics adviser? Weak, weak, weak.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had a chance to be in his place yesterday for the Prime Minister’s statement on the G7. What he would not have found was any suggestion of weakness. We saw a Prime Minister who had just come back from the G7, where he was focused on delivering for the British people. He went through the litany of achievements that we made at that summit. That is a country standing up for itself on the world stage, and that is a Prime Minister who is able to deliver for the people of this country. That is the main event.
I wonder whether the Minister for the Cabinet Office is just a wee bit teed off with the Home Secretary. He came here to defend her and, lo and behold, here is another scandal, as mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry. How many inquiries should the PM’s ethics adviser be asked to conduct, or should the Home Secretary just resign and save us all the bother?
Whether this is a matter for the independent adviser will be a matter for the Prime Minister to determine. He is going to gather that information, and he will then take the decision on it.
The Home Secretary has apologised for the speeding and has fully and willingly complied with the police in paying the fine. Lessons have been learned and punishment given. In the midst of the storm created, hopefully lessons can be learned. Does the Minister agree that we can all learn from the biblical quotation that he or she who is without sin can throw the first stone?
If that is my last question, Mr Speaker, I thank the hon. Gentleman, as he makes a good point on which to end.