Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be unfortunate if the Short money

3 Jul 2000 : Column 83

issue distracted us from the debate, but we shall get distracted only if the hon. Gentleman does not gives the assurance for which he has been asked. At least we know who the special advisers are, what they are paid and so on. Short money is designed to be used for the parliamentary activities of the Opposition parties. Is it being used only for such activities? Can he give us that categorical assurance?

Mr. Lansley: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should make that point. I have made it clear that the Leader of the House has set out the way in which the Short money is to be accounted for. It will be accounted for in precisely that way. There will be no difficulty about that.

The condemnation that is now falling on the Government for their spin machine is something for which they have only themselves to blame. We told them it was wrong. The Neill committee took evidence and made recommendations. Even six months ago, changes could have been made in response to those recommendations, and the corrosive influence of Labour's spin machine would have been rolled back.

Labour's reaction to criticism illustrates the problem--there is no contrition or humility, only an arrogant denial of what everyone knows to be true. We are asked now to believe that every one of the stories from "sources", rubbishing Labour Ministers, is an invention of the press. All critics are dismissed and their motives questioned. They are described as "self-indulgent"--meaning they will not stay on message and have the effrontery to say what they think and what they know to be true.

The Prime Minister said two years ago, that Labour had to be very careful

The Prime Minister has failed and it is his personal responsibility. It is no good the Prime Minister delegating responsibility to the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office; it is the Prime Minister's power that is being used to ill effect and it is his abdication of responsibility which has brought this condemnation on his Government.

Not least, it was the Prime Minister's responsibility to uphold the highest standards in public life by following the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and he has not done so.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): The House will notice tonight that the Minister for the Cabinet Office is not in her place to reply to the debate. Does my hon. Friend think that that is because she has consistently been badly briefed against by senior Labour spin doctors; that she does not accept the feeble line put out by Labour that it was all made up by the press; and that she has wisely stayed away because she does not want to lie to the House?

Mr. Lansley: My right hon. Friend will be interested to know that the Minister for the Cabinet Office is attending a meeting in Paris to discuss drugs policy. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office is here. The Leader of the House was replying in detail to media questions yesterday. I am surprised that as the Minister

3 Jul 2000 : Column 84

for the Cabinet Office could not attend this debate, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, and the Leader of the House have not. The Government have searched carefully for Ministers who have neither sinned in this respect nor been sinned against. They had to look very far down what the Leader of the House described in an interesting aside--it gives away what they think about this matter--as the feeding chain.

On the ministerial code of conduct, the Prime Minister sold the pass in the first instance by failing to adopt in particular the formulation proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life:

However, the code, published in July 1997 read:

In the light of the evidence, the Neill committee has now proposed that this be replaced by a text, the final sentence of which reads:

There is a critical issue at stake. It has always been true that a Minister who loses the confidence of the Prime Minister, or that of this House, cannot continue in office. We did not need a code to establish that. The purpose of the code is to set ministerial conduct within an ethical framework, with a mechanism for accountability. The present formulation makes compliance with the code a matter essentially for the Minister concerned. The Minister becomes judge and jury in his or her own case.

The Prime Minister can avoid--and, in practice, has avoided--becoming the arbiter and defender of the code. The authority of the office of the Prime Minister has not been harnessed to compliance with the code. Yet that is precisely what the Prime Minister implied in July 1997, when he wrote a foreword to the code and said that he expected

One important case will serve to illustrate the problem. The Deputy Prime Minister has had the benefit of a flat leased to him by the RMT on the basis of a statutory secure controlled tenancy. This tenancy continued after the RMT's sponsorship of the right hon. Gentleman ended. Questions relating to the registration of this as a benefit and a conflict of interest in relation to parliamentary proceedings were examined by the Standards and Privileges Committee. I make no comment about that. However, it is important to be aware that the Committee was concerned only with the right hon. Gentleman's position as a Member of Parliament, not his position as a Minister.

Separately, my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) wrote to the Prime Minister about the conflict with the ministerial code. The code is specific. Paragraph 113 states that while Ministers can be trade union members,

It adds that Ministers

3 Jul 2000 : Column 85

After its inquiry, the Standards and Privileges Committee invited the Deputy Prime Minister to enter his tenancy of the union flat in the Register of Members' Interests as a registrable benefit, so the breach of the code could not be clearer. In the view of the Committee, the Deputy Prime Minister receives a benefit from the tenancy and should register it.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): The hon. Gentleman's recollection of the decision of the Committee might be inaccurate. It did not decide that the tenancy was registrable, but that it would be better to register it. That is a different matter.

Mr. Lansley: And how many angels will fit on the head of a pin?

So what did the Prime Minister do about the case? To start with, he replied to a written question on 4 April by saying that the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells had been passed to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister for reply. A further letter from my hon. Friend was referred to a Minister in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for reply. The absurdity of that should be obvious even to Labour Members--that one of the Deputy Prime Minister's junior colleagues should be asked to pass judgment on his boss.

After two further letters, eventually my hon. Friend got a prime ministerial reply. The Prime Minister used two arguments. First, he said that the Standards and Privileges Committee report had--in his view--vindicated the Deputy Prime Minister. Secondly, he said that the Deputy Prime Minister continued to have his confidence and that no actual conflict of interest had occurred. It is clear that the Prime Minister is willing to blur the issue of the position of Member of Parliament and Minister, and to use a test of confidence, not compliance with the code. There is no evidence in the Prime Minister's reply to my hon. Friend of an understanding of the requirements of the code, no evidence of an investigation and no explanation of how he has applied the code.

It should not be acceptable to this House that the Prime Minister will not secure scrutiny of the code or any investigation of substantive complaints, nor provide an impartial account of the findings of such complaints. The power of the Executive in our constitution is so little fettered that the highest ethical standards must be maintained, and be seen to be upheld.

Tony Wright: I know that the Conservatives have decided to elevate amnesia to an ideology, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the first Nolan report, in 1995, that made the recommendation about the role of the Prime Minister in relation to the code. That recommendation was explicitly rejected by the previous Government.

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Gentleman is an expert on such matters and he will know that the point at which the code of conduct is customarily reissued is when a new Administration are formed. There was not a new Administration until 1997--two years after the 1995 recommendations. A Labour Prime Minister then had responsibility for reissuing the code. Therefore, it falls to the present Prime Minister to explain himself. I will take no criticism of my right hon. Friend the Member for

3 Jul 2000 : Column 86

Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who established the Nolan committee in the first place and has an honourable record in the matter.

The Prime Minister has ignored both the letter and spirit of the code. It is another case of a Prime Minister who will say whatever he thinks will garner him support, but do whatever he finds expedient in his personal and party interest. The pursuit of party interest rather than the public interest is the hallmark of this Government. It is true also in the way in which Labour has packed Government with its political placemen.

Next Section

IndexHome Page