Sue Gray Report - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 9:06 pm on 25th May 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 9:06 pm, 25th May 2022

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, I will make a Statement, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to Sue Gray for her report today, and I want to thank her for the work that she has done. I also thank the Metropolitan Police for completing its investigation.

I want to begin today by renewing my apology to the House and to the whole country for the short lunchtime gathering on 19 June 2020 in the Cabinet Room, during which I stood at my place at the Cabinet table and for which I received a fixed penalty notice. I also want to say, above all, that I take full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch. Sue Gray’s report has emphasised that it is up to the political leadership in No. 10 to take ultimate responsibility, and, of course, I do. But since these investigations have now come to an end, this is my first opportunity to set out some of the context, and to explain both my understanding of what happened and what I have previously said to the House.

It is important to set out that over a period of about 600 days, gatherings on a total of eight dates have been found to be in breach of the regulations in a building that is 5,300 metres square across five floors, excluding the flats. Hundreds of staff are entitled to work there, and the Cabinet Office, which has thousands of officials, is now the biggest that it has been at any point in its 100-year history. That is, in itself, one of the reasons why the Government are now looking for change and reform.

Those staff working in Downing Street were permitted to continue attending their office for the purpose of work, and the exemption under the regulations applied to their work because of the nature of their jobs, reporting directly to the Prime Minister. These people were working extremely long hours, doing their best to give this country the ability to fight the pandemic. The exemption under which those staff were present in Downing Street includes circumstances where officials and advisers were leaving the Government, and it was appropriate to recognise them and to thank them for the work that they have done. I briefly attended such gatherings to thank them for their service—which I believe is one of the essential duties of leadership, and is particularly important when people need to feel that their contributions have been appreciated—and to keep morale as high as possible.

It is clear from what Sue Gray has had to say that some of these gatherings then went on far longer than was necessary. They were clearly in breach of the rules, and they fell foul of the rules. I have to tell the House, because the House will need to know this—again, this is not to mitigate or to extenuate—that I had no knowledge of subsequent proceedings, because I simply was not there, and I have been as surprised and disappointed as anyone else in this House as the revelations have unfolded. Frankly, I have been appalled by some of the behaviour, particularly in the treatment of the security and the cleaning staff, and I would like to apologise to those members of staff, and I expect anyone who behaved in that way to apologise to them as well.

I am happy to set on the record now that when I came to this House and said in all sincerity that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times, it was what I believed to be true. It was certainly the case when I was present at gatherings to wish staff farewell—the House will note that my attendance at these moments, brief as it was, has not been found to be outside the rules—but clearly this was not the case for some of those gatherings after I had left, and at other gatherings when I was not even in the building. So I would like to correct the record—to take this opportunity, not in any sense to absolve myself of responsibility, which I take and have always taken, but simply to explain why I spoke as I did in this House.

In response to her interim report, Sue Gray acknowledges that very significant changes have already been enacted. She writes—and I quote:

‘I am pleased progress is being made in addressing the issues I raised.’

She adds:

‘Since my update there have been changes to the organisation and management of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office with the aim of creating clearer lines of leadership and accountability and now these need the chance and time to bed in.’

No. 10 now has its own Permanent Secretary, charged with applying the highest standards of governance. There are now easier ways for staff to voice any worries, and Sue Gray welcomes the fact that

‘steps have since been taken to introduce more easily accessible means by which to raise concerns electronically, in person or online, including directly with the Permanent Secretary’.

The entire senior management has changed. There is a new chief of staff—an elected Member of this House who commands the status of a Cabinet Minister. There is a new director of communications, a new Principal Private Secretary and a number of other key appointments in my office. I am confident that, with the changes and new structures that are now in place, we are humbled by the experience and we have learned our lesson.

I want to conclude by saying that I am humbled and I have learned lessons. Whatever the failings of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office throughout this very difficult period, for which I take full responsibility, I continue to believe that the civil servants and advisers in question—hundreds of them, thousands of them, some of whom are the very people who have received fines—are good, hard-working people, motivated by the highest calling to do the very best for our country. I will always be proud of what they achieved, including procuring essential life-saving personal protective equipment, creating the biggest testing programme in Europe and helping to enable the development and distribution of the vaccine that got this country through the worst pandemic of a century.

Now we must get our country through the aftershocks of Covid with every ounce of ingenuity, compassion and hard work. I hope that today, as well as learning the lessons from Sue Gray’s report, which I am glad I commissioned—I am grateful to her—we will be able to move on and focus on the priorities of the British people: standing firm against Russian aggression; easing the hardship caused by the rising costs that people are facing; and fulfilling our pledges to generate a high-wage, high-skill, high-employment economy that will unite and level up across the whole of our United Kingdom. That is my mission, that is our mission, that is the mission of the whole Government, and we will work night and day to deliver it. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 9:12 pm, 25th May 2022

I thank the Leader for repeating the Statement. I am rather disappointed that we are taking it so late in the day with so few Members present.

As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake—a former head of the Civil Service—wrote in the Guardian this afternoon:

“Sue Gray’s report is written in the measured and balanced way that you would expect from a longstanding civil servant … Event after event is juxtaposed against the prevailing rules at the time to devastating effect.”

What also jumps out from this report is: why did it take Boris Johnson six months to acknowledge what was going on? Instead of owning up and taking responsibility, we had to see a costly police investigation, which concluded that he was the first Prime Minister in our country’s history to have broken the law in office. Then we had to wait for the Sue Gray report.

During this time, we have seen Civil Service morale severely damaged and reputations trashed, including outrageous attacks on Sue Gray herself. I cannot improve on the Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire’s description of the report in brief:

“Vomiting. Excessive boozing. Fisticuffs. Partying until 4.35 am (before Prince Philip’s funeral). Broken swing. Secret Santa. Cleaners & security staff bullied. Red wine on walls. Karaoke. Sitting on laps.”

There is also, of course:

“‘We seem to have got away with it’—Martin Reynolds”.

Lots of questions remain about the Prime Minister and others who believed that lockdown rules did not apply to them. That was driven in part by the idea that those working long hours, dealing with Covid-related issues had a pass-out to behave as they did and, in essence, to carry on regardless. That they would have condemned and clamped down on such behaviour if it had happened in the NHS, schools, local authorities and other public-serving workplaces is not in doubt.

When the dust settles and the anger—strongly felt by many of our communities—subsides, this report will stand as a monument to the arrogance of a Government who believed it was one rule for them and another for everyone else. It is pretty clear that the Prime Minister knew exactly what was happening in No. 10 throughout the lockdown period and that it was wrong, both legally and morally. Five months ago, he told the House of Commons that all guidance was followed completely in No. 10. I am sure many noble Lords opposite, if they were here, feel uncomfortable. I know that many of those who are not here feel uncomfortable, at the very least. I know that many feel far worse, especially those who served under previous, more honourable Prime Ministers.

In her response, I hope the Minister will comment further on how cleaners and security guards at No. 10 were able quickly to ascertain that those events were clear breaches of the lockdown rules and call them out. They were faced with what can be described only as entitled abuse, while the Prime Minister told Parliament that he was unsure what the rules were. In the light of Sue Gray’s conclusion, does the Minister agree that the promised apology to those hard-working custodians and cleaners in Downing Street should be formal and in writing? They have been subject to rudeness and disrespect from officials and advisers while they were simply trying to do their job.

Sue Gray’s report shows systematic law-breaking, with photographic evidence that the Prime Minister himself broke the rules on multiple occasions. Allegra Stratton is the only one to have resigned, despite this industrial-scale breaking of the rules. Does the Minister think this is right? When the Prime Minister said that he was taking personal responsibility, what did that mean, beyond those words? What action will he take? Allegra Stratton did take personal responsibility. As Keir Starmer said:

“No. 10 symbolises the principles of public life in this country—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.”

Nobody, but nobody, reading this report can honestly believe that the Prime Minister has upheld them.

Our constitution relies on Members of Parliament and the custodians of No. 10 behaving responsibly, honestly and in the interests of the British people. When our leaders fall short of these standards, Parliament has a duty to act. Without these standards, not only is our democracy weakened but our global reputation is impacted. The trust and confidence that this nation has built is severely weakened if the man who represents us is not believed by other global leaders.

I address these remarks to the noble Lords opposite. They must now use their influence on colleagues in the other place to stop this out-of-touch, out-of-control Prime Minister from driving Britain towards disaster. The values symbolised by the door of No. 10 must be restored. Only then can we restore the dignity of that great office and the democracy it represents.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, finally we have the Gray report. The country owes Sue Gray a tremendous debt of gratitude for undertaking her task fearlessly and thoroughly. It was typically dishonourable of the Prime Minister to try and persuade her at the 11th hour not to publish it at all, and typically courageous of her to do so. Will the Government at least release the minutes of her meeting with the Prime Minister, so that we can be clear exactly what took place?

On one level, today’s report does not tell us anything new. We already knew that there have been multiple parties in Downing Street, and that the culture was the opposite of that which the Government were enjoining on the rest of the population. We already knew that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, far from instilling a culture in tune with both their messaging and the legislation, were encouraging what was going on. And we already knew that, by denying what had happened, the Prime Minister was misleading both Parliament and the country. What the report does is provide the gory details—and gory they are.

The Prime Minister’s defence today is that Downing Street is a large, busy building; that it was appropriate to have farewell parties, that he did not stay long at the parties, and that he had no idea what happened after he had left. If this were any other large organisation, in either the public or private sector, these risibly feeble excuses would have meant that heads at the top would roll. That they have not is a major indictment of the Prime Minister, his Government and the Conservative Party.

By refusing to resign, the Prime Minister has weakened his own standing, that of his party, that of the country, and that of politics and politicians more generally. It is clearly of huge importance that this loss of reputation and standing be reversed. In the first instance, this can only happen if the Prime Minister is replaced, and this can only happen if he is ejected by his Commons colleagues or the electorate. As far as his Commons colleagues are concerned, it seems that there is in reality virtually nothing which the Prime Minister could do which would impel them to act. This is most strange, as the only reason the Prime Minister became leader of his party was that many people who knew him to be a charlatan and a liar held their noses, because they thought he was an election winner.

If they have been out on the doorstep recently, they will have found that this situation no longer obtains. Yet, with one or two notable exceptions, they sit on their hands. They are therefore all complicit in the duplicities of this Government. If his MPs do not act, the Prime Minister will be removed only by the electorate. Recent elections have shown what voters already think of him, and with every electoral contest, whether by-election, local elections or the next election itself, there will now be a reckoning for the Conservative Party. The sadness is that, until the general election comes, we will be stuck with this morally bankrupt and rudderless Government.

But if the Prime Minister comes badly out of this saga, so too, I fear, do the Metropolitan Police. They turned a blind eye to the parties when they first happened. Under intense public pressure, they initiated an investigation, but the fines which they imposed, concentrated as they were on junior and female staff who co-operated fully with them, compared to other more senior people who clearly did not, look arbitrary and incomplete.

They failed to explain themselves, so they cannot rebut the inevitable suspicion, widely felt across the country, that the policy on fines was driven not by a strict interpretation of the law but by a political impulse to let the Prime Minister off lightly. They are now facing legal challenges into the way they behaved. They should pre-empt these now by coming clean on the rationale for their partygate policies.

The Prime Minister, understandably, wishes to draw a line under this sorry saga and in his mind he has probably already done so. But the public have not, and there will be a reckoning.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I will attempt to address some of the points raised by the noble Lords. It is absolutely right, of course, that the Prime Minister has made a full and unreserved apology for what happened in No. 10. As noble Lords will have heard in his Statement, he repeatedly said that he takes full responsibility for everything that took place. He has acknowledged people’s hurt and anger, which I think we have heard from the comments, totally fairly, from the two noble Lords, and which I think a lot of us feel having also seen the report. He has offered a full and unreserved apology, and he has accepted that more time should have been taken to establish the full facts at the very beginning.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the meeting with Sue Gray that has been reported. The Prime Minister had a procedural update on timings and publication arrangements, prompted by No. 10 following a discussion at an official-level meeting, but the findings and content of the report were not discussed and the report has been published in full in exactly the form it was received.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly mentioned the references to the security staff and the cleaning staff, and the Prime Minister has strongly condemned that behaviour. He said during Questions in the other place that he was going to apologise personally to those affected—I think at that point he had not had the names; I am sure he will. I believe that some of those conversations have already happened. Everyone is unhappy at and horrified by what they read. He said quite strongly that he was going to take action himself, but that he also expected those who were involved in these situations to do so as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked what has happened since. The Prime Minister has taken steps since the publication of the report to address some of the specific shortcomings identified, and a number of them were mentioned in the report. For instance, there is a new Permanent Secretary charged with applying the high standards of government, and there are now easier ways for staff to raise concerns. Things are being done, and that was one of the things that Sue Gray has acknowledged and welcomed. She has said that change needs to be embedded now, so that these things can really take hold.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 9:28 pm, 25th May 2022

My Lords, I admire and sympathise with my noble friend the Leader of the House. I am very sorry this has been taken so late and that I am the sole voice from the Government Benches to be able to comment. To me, and I hope my noble friend would agree, this report teaches us all to admire and respect the quiet dignity and the impeccable integrity of Theresa May. We should look to her for a real example of how a Prime Minister should behave.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My noble friend is absolutely right, and I had the privilege to serve under Theresa May when she was Prime Minister.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement, which cannot have been a very pleasant thing to do. The House knows that the Committee on Standards in another place will in due course reach a view on whether the Prime Minister misled the House. I would only ask the noble Baroness whether she thinks that noble Lords on the Government Benches can be proud of the Government in this matter and the behaviour of the Prime Minister.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I think I have made it clear that none of us is proud of what happened and what has been outlined in the report, and that is why the Prime Minister has made a full and unreserved apology.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Chair, Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Adult Social Care Committee, Chair, Adult Social Care Committee

My Lords, one of the reasons I regret that the House is empty this evening is that noble Lords were not able to hear the speeches of my noble friend on the Front Bench and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, because they were both forensic and demonstrated the values we would expect in public service. One of the questions my noble friend asked was about what the Prime Minister understands by “full responsibility”. Does he accept that it means taking responsibility for the culture and behaviour of the entire management of what he is responsible for in the Cabinet Office?

What I heard this afternoon was not a full apology or the taking of full responsibility but a series of excuses. One of the most egregious was that, at the time, it was legitimate for Downing Street as a whole to have those parties to say goodbye to civil servants—when nurses, doctors and people throughout the health and care service simply would never have contemplated doing that, no matter how many of their colleagues left, as people became ill or were threatened by Covid. Can the noble Baroness explain to this House what she understands the nature of “full responsibility” for a Prime Minister, as leader of the Government, to mean?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I have said, the Prime Minister has taken responsibility. He has apologised and committed to making changes to address many of the issues raised and, as I mentioned in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, a number of those have been set out in the Statement. I reiterate again that Sue Gray recognises that and has said she is pleased that progress is being made in addressing the issues. That is not to say that there is not further work to do, but action has been taken, and it has been taken speedily.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, the seven Nolan principles of public office have been raised already this evening, but it is worth going through them: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. Would the Leader of the House claim that the Prime Minister, today and in the behaviour outlined in Sue Gray’s report, has lived up to those seven principles?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

All Ministers of the Crown are expected to maintain high standards of behaviour and to behave in a way that upholds the highest standards of propriety. The Prime Minister has accepted that his behaviour, on occasion, did not meet those standards, and for that he has wholeheartedly apologised.

Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated

My Lords, the public were clearly very angry when they first heard about what had been going on in Whitehall. But now we have had the Sue Gray report—I commend her diligence—a full apology from the Prime Minister and the Metropolitan Police report, and we have seen changes in Downing Street. Outside this place and perhaps some elements of the media, I think many elements of the public—probably the majority now—really do want to draw a line under all this so that we can get on with the issues that are really affecting the country. But does the noble Baroness agree with me that there will be some people who will never give up criticising the Prime Minister because they do not like the fact that he took us out of the European Union, and that this still underpins a huge amount, particularly in some elements of the media? We all think what happened in Downing Street was shocking, but the apology has happened—let us move on.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I say, the Prime Minister himself has acknowledged that there is a lot of anger and upset among the population about what happened in No. 10. He has accepted that, which is why he has apologised wholeheartedly. The noble Baroness may be right that there are still divisions over Brexit, but I think we are all trying to move on now and come together. She is absolutely right: we now need to address the real issues facing people every day, particularly the cost of living—of which noble Lords will hear more very shortly.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I am sorry to come back to this point about what taking responsibility means, but I do not think we have quite heard an adequate description of what the noble Baroness thinks the Prime Minister has actually done to take responsibility. It is one thing to say, “I take full responsibility”, but another thing to have taken full responsibility through what you do.

This may sound rather trivial, but when you are dealing with small children, as some of us in this House have at various times in our lives, they have to learn that saying sorry is not enough. If you know that what you did was wrong, saying sorry is not enough. Little children really struggle to understand that, but by the time we grow into adulthood we have to understand that saying sorry is not enough and that if we cannot put right the wrong that we have done, or that we have caused to other people, we have to take ourselves out of the picture. I am not saying that the answer is therefore that the Prime Minister has to resign—I might think that; I might not—but it is important that we understand what the Prime Minister has actually done and what he intends to do to put right the damage not only to the reputation of many people who have served him but to his Government and to the country.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I repeat again that he has taken responsibility. The Statement says that he himself has learned lessons. I have pointed out some of the practical things that have already happened on the back of the interim Sue Gray report on some of the issues she identified around leadership and other elements and structures in No. 10. That is in place. As I mentioned, there are now more ways for staff to raise concerns. There are practical things that have been done in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office to help address what has been said. He has taken and is taking steps. There may well be more to come, but tangible action has already been taken as a result of the interim Sue Gray report.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

The Prime Minister today told the other place that it was “appropriate” to hold gatherings to thank Downing Street staff for their service. I go to a tweet from Adil Ray OBE, the actor and writer, who, with understandable and rightful anger, noted that at exactly the same time you were told to

“go straight home on your own or watch on zoom when your loved ones were leaving this Earth.”

Does the Leader of the House really believe that at that point in time it was appropriate to hold those Downing Street gatherings?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

Like everyone, I feel incredibly sorry for everyone who was touched in such a horrific way by Covid. We all have immense sympathy but, as I have said and can only repeat, the Prime Minister has made a full and unreserved apology for what happened in No. 10 and taken steps to start to tackle some of the issues involved.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether the changes the Prime Minister has made in No. 10, and in other aspects of the way the Government work, include changes to himself?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am not the Prime Minister. He has said what he has said. I am sorry if the noble Baroness does not accept that, but he has offered an apology. He has said that he has learned lessons, and I believe that.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

Can the noble Baroness advise me? Around the time of some of the earlier parties, I developed some condition and had to go and see a doctor. That doctor wept in front of me. I did not know him. He was wearing PPE and a mask, and he was exhausted and at the end of his tether. When he asks me whether the sort of exhaustion and isolation he was facing and the things he was experiencing, seeing people dying of Covid, are equivalent to the sort of hard work that the Prime Minister this afternoon seemed to imply slightly justified people having parties, can the Leader of the House advise me on how I should rationalise those two sorts of hard work for the benefit of the doctor, whom I will no doubt see again at some stage?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I would certainly thank the doctor that you saw for the incredible work and service he provided and all the hard work that people across the NHS provided. The Prime Minister and civil servants within No. 10 and the Cabinet Office, and indeed across government, were also working very hard, obviously doing completely different things but helping to ensure that we had help for the homeless, to help provide shielding packages and to ensure that the doctor you saw had the PPE that he needed. But that is absolutely not to say that the doctor you met —and I am sure many other people around the country—faced similar circumstances, and the Prime Minister has acknowledged the anger that someone like that doctor might well feel.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

To return to the previous question I put to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, I will simplify this down. The Prime Minister said today that it was appropriate to hold these gatherings to thank Downing Street staff for their service. Does the noble Baroness the Leader agree that it was appropriate to hold those gatherings?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Chair, Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Adult Social Care Committee, Chair, Adult Social Care Committee

I am going to ask the noble Baroness something else my noble friend asked her, about the fact that the cleaners and security staff at No. 10 seemed to know the rules governing behaviour over Covid. As she said, one of the most impressive things about Sue Gray’s excellent, measured and professional report is that, before she describes each of the events, she sets out, quoting verbatim, what the rules actually were at the time of each of the different stages of Covid. The Prime Minister was on television practically every week reading out those regulations, telling people what they involved and what they could and could not do. Yet he has systematically said that he did not quite understand them himself in terms of what his own staff were doing and what he and they were allowed to do. But the cleaners and the security staff seemed to understand. What was it that the Prime Minister did not understand?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I can only repeat what was said in the Statement. The Prime Minister said that he understood that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times. That is what he believed was true, but he accepts now, in the light of the report, that his understanding of the situations that were happening, some of which carried on and happened without his knowledge, was wrong. He has corrected the record in that regard and once again apologised.

House adjourned at 9.42 pm.