Below is the text of the speech made by David Linden, the SNP MP for Glasgow East, in the House of Commons on 24 June 2020.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not intend to speak for more than about five or six minutes, if that is of help to the House.
The seriousness of these allegations merits a high-profile and far-reaching investigation, so I thank the Opposition for tabling this motion on the Westferry scandal. In contrast, the Government appear to just hope that it will simply disappear. I am still not entirely clear from what the Secretary of State said whether the Government will oppose the motion in the Division Lobby tonight. The motion before us certainly has the full support of the SNP, and we will vote in favour of it if the Government are daft enough to push it to a Division, which I must suggest to them would not look good.
I must confess that I do not like the all-too-frequent fixture in our politics of calling for ministerial resignations left, right and centre. However, in this case the conduct of the Secretary of State is seriously called into question when he himself has acknowledged that this decision was made unlawfully. In any other circumstance, this would already be difficult territory for the Secretary of State to try to wriggle off the hook, but the fact that this £1 billion housing development is linked to a Tory donor means it stinks—and it stinks, frankly, to high heavens.
Put simply, this is a classic Tory sleaze scandal that involves money and the Conservatives scratching one another’s backs. For a minute, let us put to one side the fact that the development’s owner is Richard Desmond, a multibillionaire and former owner of the Daily Express, and look solely at the fact that the development was originally denied by the Planning Inspectorate for failing to deliver enough affordable housing. That should not be overlooked, because the Government’s record on building affordable housing, let alone social housing, is absolutely woeful. We respect the fact that the impartial Planning Inspectorate rejected the application on reasonable grounds. Most of us can follow the logic on that.
Here is the nub of the matter, and why the Secretary of State’s position is so weak. The decision of the impartial Planning Inspectorate was overruled by the Secretary of State on 14 January, less than 24 hours before the introduction of a community infrastructure levy that would have cost the developer £40 million. Soon after the decision to approve the project was made, Richard Desmond makes a new £12,000 donation to the Conservative party. In the eyes of the public, the Secretary of State steps in and saves the developer £40 million in the community infrastructure levy, and then miraculously, the developer later makes a donation to the Conservative party. Surely no self-respecting Member of the House, not even the keenest December-intake Member, cannot see that that absolutely stinks.
Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am very happy to, if the hon. Gentleman wants to defend this one.
I do not think any self-respecting Member of this House should twist an argument like that. It did not save the developer £40 million. That money would have been taken directly off the allocation for affordable homes. Has the hon. Gentleman read the document? Has he read the inspector’s report? That is exactly what it says.
I have, but part of the issue is that so few documents are in circulation. That is the whole point of the motion before the House and that is what we are calling for. If the hon. Gentleman wants people to read documents, he will be in the Lobby with us to make sure that those documents are published.
To make matters worse, we have also learned that Mr Desmond, who is, let us not forget, a property developer, and the Secretary of State, who has a quasi-judicial role in the planning process, were sat together at a Tory fundraiser in November. This is the point that I was trying to intervene on the Secretary of State about earlier, because he glossed over that.
“What I did was I showed him the video”.
They are not my words but the words of Richard Desmond, who says that the Secretary of State watched a promotional video for the development of Westferry for three or four minutes and:
“It’s quite long, so he got the gist.”
In the course of the Secretary of State’s remarks, hon. Members were trying to intervene to ask whether he had watched the video, but I do not think that he was clear. I am happy to give way to him now if he wants to come to the Dispatch Box and put it on record that he did watch the video.
As I have said repeatedly, I confirm that I was seated next to Mr Desmond. I did not expect to be seated beside him. He raised the application, as I said the last time that I came to the House on this matter. He said that he showed me part of the video and I do not recall exactly what happened, but he did bring out his iPhone and show me some images of the development. I was very clear the last time I came to the House that I informed the developer that it was not appropriate to discuss the matter and I could not comment on it, and I believe that Mr Desmond has confirmed that.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the intervention. On that point, I give way to the shadow Secretary of State.
I want to share a direct quote from Richard Desmond given to The Sunday Times about the video. These are his words: “What I did was I showed him the video because we’ve got a video of the site. He got the gist. He thanked me”.
This is the very point. The shadow Secretary of State has hit the nail on the head, because that was wrong. The Secretary of State should have run for the hills, never touched the issue ever again and flagged the conflict of interest to his departmental officials.
I wanted to put this question to the Secretary of State, who said he did not know that he would be seated next to Mr Desmond. He said that at the Dispatch Box and I will take him at his word. Are we seriously meant to believe, however, that Mr Desmond did not know that he was going to be sat next to the Secretary of State? Having talked to people I know who worked in professional fundraising and political fundraising, the question of cash for access is crucial. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Conservative party should publish all correspondence with Mr Desmond and his associates about the booking of the table at the dinner, and Mr Desmond’s expectations as to whether he knew that he would be sat with the Secretary of State?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Many of us, for very understandable reasons because of what is in “Erskine May” and the Standing Orders of this House, are trying very hard to stick to the rules in here, but the reality is that members of the public watching this debate on TV or reading it in Hansard will find it rather strange that a Conservative party fundraiser was organised and that the Secretary of State, who has a quasi-judicial role in the planning process, happened to be sat next to Mr Desmond.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the point I made earlier? For a local councillor on a planning committee, all red lights would have gone on to say, “This looks bad. I cannot take part in a decision when I have sat next to somebody who is putting in a very big planning application.”
The hon. Lady is right. She refers to her experience in local government. It is clear that anybody in this House who has served as a councillor—I have not—would realise that this is something from which they must absolutely run for the hills and at least flag it to their departmental officials—and, presumably, their political advisers too.
At that stage, without any shadow of a doubt, the Secretary of State’s position was compromised, but he ploughed on regardless. It was, I am afraid, a clear political decision that has directly enriched a Tory party donor and is worryingly close to being a textbook example of cash for favours.
The Conservative party, however, does not appear to care. Let’s face it: why should we hold our breath? This, after all, is the party reportedly nominating Peter Cruddas, a man who resigned from the Conservatives as co-treasurer in 2012 following a cash-for-access scandal, for a peerage. The Conservatives do not seem to see anything problematic about rewarding someone who donated £50,000 to the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign and £3 million to the Tory party since 2007. Why on earth, then, would we expect them to hold the Housing Secretary to higher standards? I think, however, that Opposition Members will.
Transparency is now imperative. It is important that the papers called for in today’s motion are released without delay and without obstruction. I am afraid I do not buy the point made by the Secretary of State that some papers would be published. If the Government want to publish the papers, they will not oppose the motion at four o’clock this afternoon. Anybody who hears Conservative Members yelling “No” tonight will find that there is something seriously to be hidden on their part and I do not think that that is a good look. If the documents released do reveal a direct link between the decision that the Secretary of State made and Mr Desmond’s donation to the Conservatives, then the Secretary of State must demit office.
The Government need to accept that this scandal is not going to go away. We can all quite clearly see, without the need to take a day trip to Barnard Castle, that this episode further damages the credibility of a Government who are losing trust faster than Dominic Cummings can run out of Downing Street to escape for his Durham bolthole. A little over a decade ago, David Cameron said, “We’re all in this together”. Except we’re not, are we? Whether it is rewarding party donors with life peerages, a different set of rules for the Prime Minister’s special adviser or the Westferry Printworks scandal, time and again the Tories are proving that it is one rule for them and one rule for everybody else.