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Angela Eagle

Cameron fails to act on alleged breach of the Ministerial Code - 14th June 2012


Yesterday the Tories voted not to refer Jeremy Hunt to the Independant Advisor on Ministerial Interests to investigate an alleged breach of the Ministerial Code.

You can read my speech here.

 

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): We have had an important debate about ministerial conduct and how we protect the rights of this House in holding Ministers to account. We heard powerful speeches from my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). On the Government Benches, we heard from the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) and from the hon. Members for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), all of whom said that there are questions to answer, particularly to do with who should be allowed to initiate investigations into ministerial conduct.

 

This is a debate that Labour Members should not have had to initiate. In that regard, I have sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex. There is already a perfectly good system to make sure that Ministers abide by the rules in their conduct of Government business and in ensuring that Parliament is told the truth, and it is called the ministerial code, an updated version of which is produced at the beginning of every new Parliament. An independent adviser on the code is available to offer advice to Ministers on their interests and to investigate any alleged breaches. It is for the Prime Minister to be the guardian of the code and to refer any alleged breaches to the independent adviser for investigation.

 

It is a clear and simple process, but what has happened in this case? I have read the ministerial code carefully,

 

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and I cannot find a clause that says, “This code applies to all members of the Government but the Prime Minister’s chums.” Will the Government be bringing out a new version to reflect this reality? Writing in the foreword of the most recent edition of the code, the Prime Minister said:

 

“Our new government has a particular and historic responsibility: to rebuild confidence in our political system…People have lost faith in politics and politicians. It is our duty to restore their trust. It is not enough simply to make a difference. We must be different.”

 

The Prime Minister talks the talk but he does not walk the walk.

 

Mr Jenkin: Following the comments of the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), my Liberal Democrat colleague on the Public Administration Committee, will the hon. Lady commit her party to supporting our recommendation that the independent adviser should be able to instigate his own investigations?

 

Ms Eagle: The hon. Gentleman’s Committee has done this House a great service in publishing the report that is tagged with this debate. I think that situations have evolved since decisions were taken in the past. I certainly think that the suggestion that the independent adviser should be allowed to initiate investigations needs a fresh look in the light of the circumstances that have arisen. I, for one, have an open mind on that. He raises a very important subject that the House should debate. The Committee’s work on this is invaluable in the changing circumstances, and I look forward to its continuing.

 

The Prime Minister’s decision not to ask the independent adviser on ministerial interests to investigate the Culture Secretary totally contradicts the commitment that he gave in his own foreword to his own code. It also totally disregards clear, prima facie evidence that the code has been breached and that there are good grounds for an investigation. That prima facie case was set out very powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and hinted at in slightly shyer terms by the right hon. Member for Bath.

 

It took the Prime Minister 20 minutes from the conclusion of the Culture Secretary’s oral evidence to the Leveson inquiry to announce that there was no case to answer, but the Prime Minister was not considering the evidence, he was not interested in protecting the integrity of his Government, and he disregarded the need for Ministers to be straight with Parliament. That is a very important matter for the House. All he wanted to do was to protect his chum.

 

To their credit, the Liberal Democrats have decided that they cannot go along with the Prime Minister’s cynical charade. Good for them, but I struggle to see why they should not join us in the Lobby for the vote. They should be in the Lobby with us, upholding the integrity of the ministerial code and supporting our call for the Culture Secretary to be referred to the independent adviser. It is not too late. The right hon. Member for Bath said there were still questions for the Minister to answer, but he did not go into detail on what they were. Liberal Democrat Members have said that they believe a referral to the independent adviser is in order, and I hope that even at this late hour they will reconsider their position and decide to join us in the Division Lobby to send a powerful message to the Prime Minister that the House will not stand by and tolerate being lied to and the ministerial code being an optional extra.

 

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The integrity of the Government’s relations with Parliament is at stake. We have an independent adviser on the ministerial code who was appointed on a not inconsiderable retainer of £20,000 per annum. He has been in place since November 2011 but the Prime Minister seems extraordinarily reluctant to call on his services. The Prime Minister blocked Sir Alex’s predecessor from investigating the former Defence Secretary. He now blocks Sir Alex from investigating the Culture Secretary.

 

Ministers have recently taken to telling the country that we all need to be working harder, but we have a ministerial adviser champing at the bit to launch an investigation, and the Prime Minister keeping him locked in a cupboard. What are we paying the independent adviser for? This something-for-nothing culture needs to end. Let the independent adviser do his job. What does the Prime Minister have to fear?

 

We heard today from right hon. and hon. Members how even a perfunctory look at the facts demonstrates that the Culture Secretary has a case to answer. Paragraph 1.2c of the ministerial code requires Ministers to

 

“give accurate and truthful information to Parliament”.

 

The Secretary of State told the House on 25 April:

 

“I made absolutely no interventions seeking to influence a quasi-judicial decision that was at that time the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business”—[Official Report, 25 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 973.]

 

Yet it turns out that the Culture Secretary was firing off memos to the Prime Minister backing the bid, and wanted a meeting with the Business Secretary to lobby him. I do not know what the Culture Secretary’s definition of “intervention” is, but it is not one that would be found in any English dictionary.

 

In his parliamentary statement in April the Secretary of State told the House that

 

“the contact that I had with Fred Michel was only at official meetings that were minuted with other people present”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 961]

 

and that he had—I quote exactly—“zero” conversations with Michel. Yet it has now been revealed that he texted Michel directly when he had responsibility for overseeing the bid. In the Culture Secretary's “dictionary of convenient definitions” it appears that neither “contact” nor “conversations” mean text messages.

 

The Secretary of State assured Parliament on 3 March 2011 that he had published

 

“all the documents relating to all the meetings—all the consultation documents, all the submissions we received, all the exchanges between my Department and News Corporation.”—[Official Report, 3 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 526.]

 

He had published all the documents, all the meetings, all the contacts except the 191 phone calls with News Corporation, the 158 e-mails with News Corporation, and the 799 text messages with News Corporation. What on earth does the Culture Secretary think “all” means?

 

We know that the Secretary of State is a keen dancer. Indeed, we have one of his Cabinet colleagues to thank for telling us that he has installed a sprung floor in his home, so that he can practise his “Strictly Come Dancing” routines. However, it is dancing on the head of a pin to claim that he did not intervene, that he was not in contact and that he had published all the evidence.

 

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Parliament deserves better than this. It is crystal clear that the Secretary of State’s former special adviser effectively opened an improper back channel of direct communication with News Corporation. If the special adviser had gone rogue, one would have thought that on uncovering his activities the Culture Secretary would have fired him immediately. But no, the Culture Secretary first told his special adviser that he had done nothing wrong. The next day—I suspect after looking at the front pages—he told his special adviser,

 

“Everyone here thinks you need to go”,

 

before apparently adding that “everyone” did not necessarily include him.

 

Why has Adam Smith resigned when the Secretary of State feels that he himself has no case to answer? Is he expecting us to believe that he had no idea what his special adviser was up to in such a key area of policy, in which he had shown such prior interest? Paragraph 3.3 of the code makes it clear that Ministers must take responsibility for the actions of their special advisers. The Secretary of State must accept his responsibility.

 

We have a Cabinet Minister who told Parliament that he had not intervened when he had. We have a Cabinet Minister who told Parliament that he had had no contact with News Corporation lobbyists when he had. We have a Cabinet Minister who told Parliament that he had published all the documents when he had not. The Prime Minister knows all that, but he says that there is nothing for the adviser on the ministerial code to investigate. Who is he kidding? He cannot even persuade the Deputy Prime Minister of that fact.

 

Today, the House has an opportunity to make it clear that the ministerial code matters, that Ministers are accountable to this House and that the public can expect the highest standards from Ministers. The motion calls merely for Sir Alex Allan to investigate and for the existing system of ministerial accountability to this House to be used, rather than abused. I commend it to the House.