Karin Smyth – 2022 Speech on Standards in Public Life

The speech made by Karin Smyth, the Labour MP for Bristol South, in the House of Commons on 7 June 2022.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who is absolutely right that rules matter. I agree with him, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) that it is disappointing that there are not more Government Members speaking this afternoon, because this really matters to our constituents. Last night, Ministers were quick to say in the media, “Move on; no one cares,” but that is simply not true. No Government Members are here because they also know that this matters.

I have been contacted by several constituents about standards in public life. They think that the Prime Minister has breached their trust, and many think that his actions have been beyond sickening and disgusting. I share their anger about his wilful disregard of the ministerial code and the standards that we expect from our Prime Minister, and about the erosion of public trust in this institution and politics in general.

I serve as a member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I do not think that many among the public know much about that Committee or what it actually does, but as Members know well, Select Committees of the House are important bodies. They work well and have long been charged with the scrutiny of Government. We all sit in Committees rooms, off the Committee corridor, week after week, hearing in detail from expert witnesses and, often, members of the public about what is going on in the corridors of power. It is slow, deliberate work that often does not yield headlines.

PACAC continues to run a series of inquiries on propriety and ethics in the aftermath of the Greensill scandal—remember that one? In this debate, we have all resurrected scandals and issues that some of us might have forgotten. It seems incredible that it is only a few months since we had to go through the Owen Paterson debacle. We are conducting a number of inquiries, as well as having one-off regular sessions with leaders of what we can call the post-Nolan landscape bodies.

This is a useful, timely debate in many ways, but in other ways, our Committee wishes that it had come in another few weeks, because we will hear again from the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments in the coming weeks. We will have Lord Geidt, the Cabinet Secretary and the head of propriety and ethics coming before us. We also recently heard from the former independent adviser, Sir Alex Allan, who resigned, and his predecessor. All that evidence is on the website, and all the transcripts are available. Without putting too much pressure on our Clerks and advisers, we will be reporting, as a result of those deliberations, on the general issue of propriety and ethics later in the summer.

I hope that the Government will heed our work and perhaps use the opportunity of this shameful episode in our country’s history to start working with the Committee more proactively to ensure that the highest standards are pursued. I also hope that the Government will use the great willingness of the leaders of the organisations that I mentioned, and of many Members here from across the House, to try to rescue public trust and pursue higher standards. It is now obvious that the whole edifice of what we might call the post-Nolan framework—reliance on the “good chaps” theory—collapses when the chap at the top and the chaps supporting him do not do the right thing.

We are at an extraordinary juncture of our parliamentary democracy. Lord Evans’s response to the Government agreed with Lord Geidt’s report that there was a “low level of ambition”. The report has been quoted a couple of times today, but for hon. Members who have not read it, it really is worth reading in full. Lord Geidt writes about the ministerial code and the work he was asked to do; without impugning him too much, I think he would pass the test for a “good chap” in terms of how he came into the post.

Lord Geidt describes what would be acceptable in normal circumstances, but goes on to say:

“The circumstances of the period covered by my report, however, have been far from normal. For much of the year, the conduct of the Prime Minister himself has potentially been subject to consideration against the requirements of the Code. Accordingly, and whether unfairly or not, an impression has developed that the Prime Minister may be unwilling to have his own conduct judged against the Code’s obligations.”

He describes the

“test for the credibility of these new arrangements”.

He writes:

“It may be especially difficult to inspire that trust in the Ministerial Code if any Prime Minister, whose code it is, declines to refer to it.”

He mentions the fixed penalty notice issued to the Prime Minister, requesting that the Prime Minister

“respond accordingly, setting out his case in public”

as to why he does not think that it

“might have constituted a breach of the overarching duty within the Ministerial Code”.

It is quite an extraordinary introduction to the annual report. In the circumstances of Lord Geidt’s appointment, it is really the strongest reference he could make to what he thinks is occurring.

The new introduction to the ministerial code, which hon. Members have referred to, essentially rejects the idea of anyone being held to account except by having a general election. Obviously the Opposition would welcome a general election at any point; I love elections, and we have had quite a lot of them. It is right that we are held to account by our constituents, but it matters to our constituents that the Opposition come here and hold the Government to account day by day, in Select Committees and with questions, including questions in response to ministerial statements. Constituents do not expect to have to hold the Government to account themselves every few months or, as has been the case, every couple of years when they think that the Government are not upholding the highest standards. That is why we need to rely on statements made at the Dispatch Box having the authority that the country expects. The new introduction gives us another insight, should we need one, into the mind and attitude of the Prime Minister, the Conservative party and this Government. That is why it was so disappointing, and why last night was so disappointing.

There was a lot of discussion about whether Sue Gray’s report would be independent. Let us stop a moment, stand back and think again about how some of what she reported, as a serving civil servant, was so shocking. She writes that

“events should not have been allowed to happen”

but that some of the more junior members of staff felt that what happened was okay because the

“senior leadership at the centre, both political and official”

essentially allowed it to happen. As she says, they

“must bear responsibility for this culture.”

Because of how our constitution now works and how the Government have behaved, all roads lead back to the chap at the top. The culture emanates from there, including non-attendance before Select Committees, late publication of documents and the many other examples that have been outlined today. However, my assurance to my constituents and the wider public is that the willingness we have shown in this place, in this debate and elsewhere, shows that we do love our country and our democracy. We think it can be better than it is at the moment. We will continue to work across Parliament, in Select Committees and in all our different ways to assure our constituents that the integrity, accountability and respect that need to exist in this place will exist again—with or without this Prime Minister.