Opposition Day Debate: Ministerial Code (Culture Secretary)
House of Commons
13 June 2012
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport should be referred to the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to investigate whether he breached paragraph 1.2c (giving accurate and truthful information to Parliament) and paragraph 3.3 (responsibility for his special adviser) of the Ministerial Code.
What the debate is not about
This debate takes place while the Leveson Inquiry is doing its work, but I make it clear that the motion before the House is not about the issues that are the subject of the Inquiry; today’s motion is about the rights of the House and the ministerial code, issues that Lord Justice Leveson made clear he is not going to consider and report on. Indeed, he cannot consider those matters, because article 9 of the Bill of Rights prevents him from so doing.
It was right to establish the Leveson Inquiry. Its work is of huge importance and, after Lord Justice Leveson has reported, we will need to place great weight on his proposals and to give them deep consideration. We have, arising out of his Inquiry, an historic opportunity to create a better settlement for the future, and I look forward to us all working together to achieve that, but that is not what the motion before us is about.
What the debate is about
This debate is about protecting the rights of this House so that we can do the job we were elected to do — of holding Ministers to account and ensuring high standards in ministerial office, as set out in the Ministerial Code.
The Ministerial Code is not just a matter for the Prime Minister; it is a matter for this House. The motion before the House asks that the Secretary of State be referred to the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, and nothing in Sir Alex Allan’s reply to the Prime Minister today changes that. There are two issues at stake here:
- misleading the House; and
- failing to take responsibility for his special adviser.
Misleading the House
First, there is the obligation to give accurate and truthful information to the House. On 19 March 1997, this House resolved that one of the principles that the House sees as being of paramount importance is
“that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
The seriousness that the House places on this is underlined by the resolution going on to say:
“Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”.
That is the wording of paragraph 1.2.c. of the Ministerial Code. This is not just some old-fashioned relic of House pomposity; it matters.
I know that Members in all parts of the House regard the question of truth, accuracy and full disclosure to Parliament as fundamental. We cannot settle for anything less if we are to hold Ministers to account. Putting it at its very lowest, there is prima facie evidence that the Secretary of State failed to give accurate and truthful information to the House.
On 3 March 2011, in reply to the honourable Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), the Secretary of State told the House that in respect of his handling of the Murdoch bid for BSkyB 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.”
I have here the documents that he published on that day. Many of them, such as written ministerial statements, the European intervention notice and press releases from the European Commission, were already in the public domain.
But when the Murdochs came to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, we discovered that all the exchanges had not been published. No: there had been literally hundreds of exchanges between the Secretary of State’s Department and News Corporation that he had not published.
Over the course of many months, both when the bid was the responsibility of the Business Secretary and when it was his responsibility, there had been literally hundreds of exchanges—texts, e-mails, reports of phone calls—none of which had been disclosed to this House.
So while on 3 March 2011 we were told that the pile was only this big [holds up to the House], a full year later, on 24 April, and thanks only to the Leveson Inquiry, we discovered that it was this big [holds up to the House].
Even though the Secretary of State says that he did not know of the volume and content of the exchanges between his special adviser and News Corporation, he did know of their existence, because, as he told the House on 25 April, he had authorised those exchanges.
There is a second occasion where there is prima facie evidence of the Secretary of State not being accurate and truthful to the House. In answer to a question from my honourable Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell) during his statement to the House on 25 April, he said that he
“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.”
But it emerged during the evidence to the Leveson Inquiry that on 19 November 2010, when it was the Business Secretary’s responsibility, the Culture Secretary sent a memo to the Prime Minister about the News Corporation bid for BSkyB, setting out his views and asking for a meeting. In anyone’s book, a memo setting out his views and asking for a meeting is an intervention.
Secondly, in relation to the Culture Secretary’s special adviser, special advisers have a political role and are appointed directly by the Secretary of State. That is why the Ministerial Code places responsibility for their management and conduct on the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State acknowledged this at the Leveson Inquiry. It was put to him that the person responsible for Adam Smith’s discipline
“was you, not the Civil Service, wasn’t it?”
The Culture Secretary replied:
“Well, he reported to me, yes”,
and went on to say:
“I do have responsibility for what he does. I actually have responsibility for whatever everyone in my Department does, but I have more direct responsibility for the people who are my direct reports.”
But there is, at the very least, prima facie evidence that the Secretary of State failed to take responsibility for the management and conduct of his special adviser.
Either he did not know what he was doing when his special adviser was overstepping the mark—and that was a breach of the code—or, as people think more likely, he did know what he was doing when Adam Smith was overstepping the mark, and that, too, would have been a breach of the code.
Whichever way one looks at it, there has been a clear breach of the Ministerial Code.
All Members of the House agree on the importance of upholding the standards contained in the Ministerial Code. In their 2010 manifesto the Liberal Democrats made 'cleaning up politics' one of their 'four steps to a fairer Britain'.
As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said last night:
“There is clearly a case to answer and given that we are being asked to support the Prime Minister’s judgment call that there is a case to answer, we can’t in all honesty and integrity do that.”
The Prime Minister, when he was in opposition, promised to strengthen the Ministerial Code, and when he came into Government he said in his foreword to the Ministerial Code in 2010:
“we must remember that we are not masters but servants. Though the British people have been disappointed in their politicians, they still expect the highest standards of conduct. We must not let them down.”
He was right then, and that is why he should refer the Secretary of State. He cannot apply the rules to Baroness Warsi but not to his Culture Secretary.
The Ministerial Code is important. It must be complied with.
The House cannot let breaches of the code be swept under the carpet, so I strongly urge honourable Members in all parts of the House to:
- reflect on this
- support the rights of the House
- reinforce the importance of the ministerial code and
- vote in support of the motion.