|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is confusing two separate recommendations. There was a recommendation to establish an adviser on interests, which is not a sensible suggestion, as I hope I have a chance to explain later. There was also a recommendation to establish an independent investigator of complaints, which is a sensible suggestion. Unfortunately, however, the Opposition have pursued the silly proposition and ignored the sensible one.
Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is right that there are two recommendations and I intend to deal with both of them. Our motion is designed to put in place an independent adviser on ministerial interests, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my explanation of why that is the first step. I believe that both recommendations are desirable, but in tabling the motion I hoped that the Government would accept the first one, although I fear that I will be disappointed.
The Government did not agree with all the committee's recommendations on the ministerial code. They did not like all the proposals for an independent adviser and they wanted to leave permanent secretaries as the focal point for discussions about the code. However, as the Minister will know, they accepted that it would be sensible to have an independent adviser from whom additional advice could be sought by both Ministers and permanent secretaries. At the very least, that would provide a second opinion for Ministers in difficult situations. Nothing, however, has happened. The chairman of the Committee, Sir Alistair Graham, has expressed anger about that and went public with criticisms of the Government this summer. I asked him if his Committee would make recommendations about the role of prime ministerial spouses, the rules that apply to them and the support provided for them after public
15 Nov 2005 : Column 906
concerns were expressed about the commercial activities of the Prime Minister's wife. Sir Alistair gave me a direct response. He stated:
"The Ministerial Code, as revised and published on the day before the Recess, makes it clear that proper consideration of Ministers' private interests include the private interests of a spouse or partner (paras 5.15.3]. In its Ninth Report . . .the Committee made a detailed proposal . . . for the creation of an Adviser on Ministerial Interests whose advice and guidance might have been useful in the circumstances you drew our attention to. Unfortunately, while the Government in its Response (Cm 5964, September 2003) accepted the case for appointing an independent adviser (Ibid, pp. 23) no action has been taken."
That was not the only time during the summer that Sir Alistair had cause to criticise the Government. In July, he expressed great unhappiness at the way in which the Government had dealt with the issue of the code of conduct for special advisers. He expressed
What is the point of an independent committee to monitor standards in public life if the Government of the day do not listen to what it says? Is it not the height of arrogance for Ministers who railed about public standards when they were in opposition to act as though the independent mechanisms that they demanded then do not have to be listened to now that they are in office themselves?
The other central issue in the debate tonight is the role of the Prime Minister as ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code. That surely cannot satisfactorily remain in place in the future. We have seen in the past few weeks issues about the ministerial code raised over the activities of one of his closest friends and allies in the Cabinet. There is no doubt that the loss of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside was a major blow to the Prime Minister at a time when things are just a little heated within his party, yet it fell to the Prime Minister to be the judge of the rights and wrongs of the situation.
In the past few months legitimate questions have also been raised about the commercial activities of the Prime Minister's wife and how they relate to the ministerial code. In these two cases, involving a close colleague of the Prime Minister who can provide advice to him, and the Prime Minister's wife, which raises questions about who she turns to for advice, how can the Prime Minister possibly fulfil the role of ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code?
When the issue of the Government's support for the businessman Lakshmi Mittal arose, criticisms were directed at the Prime Minister and questions were asked about his conduct. Yet on questions about the Prime Minister's action and guidance to the Prime Minister, the ultimate referee was the Prime Minister himself. That cannot be the proper way of handling standards issues in a modern democracy.
15 Nov 2005 : Column 907
The question has also been raised about the ability of any Prime Minister to serve as overseer or arbiter of the code, given all the other pressures on him or her. During the last few hours in office of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside, the Prime Minister at one point openly admitted that, owing to pressure of work, he was not fully up to date with what was going on. Of course he cannot be. The Prime Minister of the day cannot be expected to fulfil that role and to have the time to study everything that is going on.
That is why I hope the Minister will give an indication tonight that the Government will consider the creation of the other element of the recommendations to which the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) referred a moment agonot simply an independent adviser, but an independent investigatory process for people who are alleged to have transgressed in relation to the ministerial code, and where there are doubts whether the ministerial code has been fulfilled.
(c) Should the Prime Minister consider an investigation into an allegation of a breach of the Ministerial Code appropriate, the Prime Minister would invite one of these individuals to conduct that investigation.
(d) The individual selected to carry out an investigation should investigate the facts and report his or her findings to the Prime Minister, who would decide on the consequences for a Minister. The report should be published."
Dr. Wright: For the sake of accuracy, perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman a little further. The problem is that the sixth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life stated with great authority that there should not be any independent investigator. Three years later, the ninth report stated that there should be. Ultimately, we cannot call in aid such external bodies. We have to decide for ourselves about these things.
Chris Grayling: Perhaps the Committee was taken in by the protestations of purity that the Government articulated when they first took office, found itself disappointed some years later and realised that it needed tougher action after all. At the very least, the House must surely agree that it is odd that Members of Parliament can be referred to our own Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards or the Committee on Standards and Privileges, but that there is no point of reference for potential breaches of the ministerial code. Does the Minister consider the situation satisfactory?
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab):
If the hon. Gentleman's proposition is successful, will he urge the independent adviser to take on board a report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which pointed out that for Opposition spokesmen there was "no specific requirement" that they divest themselves of financial interests along the lines of the ministerial code? However, Lord Neill of Bladen went on to say that they are able to exercise influence over parliamentary matters and over the wider political debate in their capacity as spokesmen and women, and that that warrants investigation. Will the hon.
15 Nov 2005 : Column 908
Gentleman urge his independent adviser to take on board the comments of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, in order that we can avoid any sense of impropriety when Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen and women receive funds from companies and organisations which cover their sphere of influence on the Opposition Front Bench?
Chris Grayling: I know that you will not allow me to stray too far from the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I look forward to having the chance as a Minister after the next general election to conform closely to the terms of the ministerial code.
It is not often that Opposition Members quote from the diary of Piers Morgan, the former editor of the Daily Mirror, but let me tell the House about the entry for Thursday 27 March 1997, a month before the general election that brought the Government to power. It mentions an interview with Tony Blair.
after accepting a multimillion pound donation and then changing his policy to help the donor. He defended the former Minister for Europe before he resigned, saying he thought he had done nothing wrong. He defended Peter Mandelson before he resigned, and resigned again, saying he did not think he had done anything wrong. Two weeks ago he defended the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside before he resigned, and then said that he left office without a stain on his character.
Surely the Government must realise that it is not tenable for the Prime Minister to be the ultimate arbiter of ministerial standards, and that the time has come to bring an independent element into the process of monitoring and advising on the way in which Ministers treat the code. There is no point in having an independent committee to advise on standards in public life if we do not listen to what it says. The Prime Minister and his colleagues argued for it when they were in opposition, when they were challenging the Conservative party over issues of standards. Now that they are in government, they find it much less convenient to pay attention, and much less convenient to do what is right. In my book, that is not upholding standardsit is nothing less than double standards, and it is not good enough.
Let me conclude by taking Labour Members back to the days when their party was in opposition, and in particular to the words of the Prime Minister on the night that the Commons debated the first report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan. That night the then Government did not agree with everything Lord Nolan wanted and they faced an onslaught from an outraged Opposition, led by the current Prime Minister, who demanded of the then Prime Minister:
"If now, in weakness, the Prime Minister goes back on his word to implement the report that he commissioned, it will leave a stain on his prime ministership and on his Government that will not be removed until this rotten Administration is swept from office."[Official Report, 2 November 1995;Vol. 265, c. 387]
A decade on from that night, that same Leader of the Opposition is now the Prime Minister and he has performed a complete about-turn. Now he does not want to implement a report on standards that he commissioned. Tonight, my question to him and to the Minister is the same question as he once asked: just what do he and his party have to hide?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|