Standards in Public Life - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 5th July 2022.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 3:20 pm, 5th July 2022

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place earlier today. The Statement is as follows:

“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 the mechanisms that underpin the seven principles, but I will touch on something else first, which is this. It is something with regard 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 very 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 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 right honourable lady the deputy leader of the Labour Party has asked about the mechanisms for upholding those standards. They exist and they 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, as you know, Mr Speaker, 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 Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) 3:22 pm, 5th July 2022

I am grateful to the Minister. His heart was not in it, was it?

I think we have one point of agreement: that it is essential that we have integrity in the process for complaints being investigated and that those who come forward have the support they need. As to the rest of the Minister’s words, it is probably an appropriate response during Wimbledon to recall John McEnroe: “You cannot be serious”. It is extraordinary that Minister after Minister is wheeled out to defend the Prime Minister about what he knew, or now appears to have forgotten he knew, about his Deputy Chief Whip when he appointed him. That story changes each time. How humiliating it is for Ministers to have received Downing Street assurances only for it to keep changing as new information comes to light, including the letter from the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, as former Permanent Secretary at the FCO.

I have two questions for the Minister. On 21 June, the Paymaster-General promised that the Government

“will act swiftly to undertake a review of the arrangements in place to support the ministerial code and ensure high ministerial standards.”—[Official Report, Commons, 21/6/22; col. 781.]

Can the Minister update the House on that swift action? Secondly, given this Prime Minister’s rather idiosyncratic, shall we say, approach to standards, can it possibly be right that not only does he have a veto over what the commissioner can investigate—that is, when we finally get another new commissioner—but is also the final arbiter and has the final say over the outcome? The Minister knows that he has a good reputation in this House. How much longer is he prepared to defend this Prime Minister?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I am certainly prepared to uphold high standards in relation to the questions the noble Baroness opposite has asked. She asked about the review going forward and the independent adviser, and she is correct that a commitment is made that the function of the independent adviser should continue. As I told the House recently, the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, raised a number of issues in relation to the role, as did PACAC in another place. It is right to consider these carefully and take time to reflect on them before making a decision on how best to fulfil the commitment to oversight and scrutiny of ministerial interests, but such oversight and scrutiny there must be.

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

My Lords, the Minister referred to the fundamental importance of personal responsibility and mentioned the Nolan principles. Can he tell us which of the seven Nolan principles the Prime Minister has not repeatedly broken? Secondly, to go back to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, can he explain how, as a constitutionalist and parliamentarian, he repeatedly brings himself to the Dispatch Box to support such a disingenuous Prime Minister?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I do not bring myself to the Dispatch Box; it is your Lordships who invite me to come. When invited by such an august body of people, it is difficult to refuse. There is a fundamental point here, which was in the Statement: we must be properly concerned about victims in these circumstances. It is therefore essential that these matters are investigated.

In relation to Mr Pincher, in 2017 a formal complaint relating to an incident in 2001 was made, and Mr Pincher was cleared following a party investigation. In 2019 a formal complaint was made in the FCDO, as noble Lords are aware. Due policy was followed, and Mr Pincher made an apology for the deeply regrettable discomfort caused. There is now a further incident, and Mr Pincher has resigned from his ministerial role as Deputy Chief Whip. A formal complaint has been made and is being investigated by the appropriate bodies. That investigation should continue.

Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop

My Lords, if standards in public life are being upheld, what could we expect to see if public ethics were being corrupted and standards were not being upheld?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I understand the tenor of the right reverend Prelate’s question. I repeat what was said in the Statement: it is for us all in public life to choose for ourselves how to respond. The context of this is not only the allegations that have been made; there is also a wider political process intended to denigrate the Prime Minister. Those are both aspects of this situation. In saying that, I do not underestimate the importance of any of the matters that people raise. They should all be properly investigated.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, does the Minister really believe that the Prime Minister forgot a meeting with the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, the head of the Foreign Office? Does he really believe that the Prime Minister forgot such an important meeting over such a crucial matter when he denied that anybody had given him notice of the alleged activities going on?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I do not know the circumstances of the alleged meeting. I saw the press release from the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, but I do not think it referred to a personal meeting he had had with the Prime Minister. If the noble Baroness is aware of that, obviously I will stand corrected. She will know from her great experience in public affairs that in the course of life in No. 10—I had the privilege of working there for four years under Prime Minister Major—events crowd in on every individual in that place. That is the reality of the matter.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, has my noble friend read the devastating letter sent today by the noble Lord, Lord McDonald? Does he not appreciate that increasing numbers of people in this country, both in and outside Parliament, believe that the continuance in office of the present Prime Minister is incompatible with the maintenance of standards in public life?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, others have their view. I have seen the press release from the noble Lord, Lord McDonald. I thought it unusual for him to release such a letter to an investigation process which will necessarily be confidential, but that was his decision. In relation to the events that took place, I quote from his press release in relation to Mr Pincher:

“An investigation upheld the complaint; Mr Pincher apologised and promised not to repeat the inappropriate behaviour. There was no repetition at the FCO before he left seven months later,” to take up another appointment. That part of the track record also has to be taken into consideration.

Photo of Lord Watts Lord Watts Labour

My Lords, is it not the case that the Prime Minister hides behind this idea that there will be an investigation? He knows quite well that the longer it goes on, the less it will be in people’s minds and the more likely there will be another scandal to deal with, so people will forget about the first one. Is it not about time that Ministers stopped protecting this Prime Minister and asked him to go before the people do?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

No, those matters are, as the noble Lord quite rightly says, for the British people, who elected this Prime Minister. So far as investigations are concerned, we have processes. We all believe we should have those processes and, when investigations are launched on accusations—a formal complaint has been made to the grievances process—due process in this country is that the investigation should take its course confidentially, with all those involved being able to give evidence for and against and the truth being established. That is the tradition in our country, in our courts and in our Parliament. It is not hiding behind the matter; it is the appropriate process to achieve justice and truth.

Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Crossbench

My Lords, the issues over standards come so thick and fast that I wonder whether the Minister accepts that they are detracting from the business of government. I have a degree of sympathy with him; he may have some difficulty in accepting that. Yesterday, he found himself in the Moses Room, having to defend the Government for coming to the Procurement Bill with more than 300 government amendments at the start of Committee. This is not the way to run government. Will he accept that the issues over standards are failing the Government and the country in the way that we are governed?

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

No, I do not accept that in the most general terms. I believe many people in this House and outside this House have very strong views about the individuals concerned in this, including my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, both for and against. The mechanisms for upholding standards in public life are important and we should allow them to run their course. I stand by the words put in the Statement earlier. However, with regard to the Procurement Bill yesterday, I did apologise. I do not think the noble Baroness was in Committee. I took what I thought was appropriate action to address the issue and I hope we have found a way to proceed to the convenience of all parties, although that is subject to proper negotiation in the usual channels.