Sue Gray Report - Statement

Part of the debate – 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.”