The speech made by Karin Smyth, the Labour MP for Bristol South, in the House of Commons on 21 June 2022.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, of which I am one of the so-called illustrious members and very pleased to be a part.
Only two weeks ago, I spoke in another debate about the importance of standards in political life and how important they are to my constituents. At that time, the Government were trying to move us on, and that has not worked terribly well, but the issues that we are talking about today are important and do matter to our constituents. I said then, as a member of the Committee, that not many members of the public knew about our work—the long hours of deliberation, reports and inquiries, and how we had a certain Lord Geidt coming before us shortly. I ended up by saying that because of how our constitution now works and how the Government have behaved, all roads lead back to the chap at the top of the structure. The culture emanates from there, including the non-attendance before Select Committees, the late publication of documents, and the many other examples that were outlined in that debate—so here we are again.
As well as reviewing the evidence that Lord Geidt gave to the Committee last week, it is worth reviewing his post-appointment hearing evidence taken on Thursday 13 May 2021, his name at that point having been alighted on by the Prime Minister following the resignation of his predecessor. In that session, we explored the lessons from Sir Alex Allan’s resignation and the issue of independence and advice. In response to questioning led by my colleague and friend, in this regard, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price)—she is in her place—who asked about recognising that we all have a view on and understand what is good and bad behaviour and what is constitutionally appropriate, Lord Geidt said:
“As I have heard other people say recently, good behaviour is a very difficult thing to legislate for. I join those who suggest that it really needs leaders—of course, the Prime Minister, Parliament and civil servants—to set the necessary example. I hope very much that the work that I do in this role, which is described as “adviser”, will be in the service of advising the office of Prime Minister in the furtherance of that behaviour, taking the Ministerial Code as its point of reference. I agree with you that rules are absolutely not sufficient to stimulate good behaviour.”
We fast-forward to earlier this year and the warnings that Lord Geidt was then moved to give, in the strongest terms he possibly could, in the introduction to his annual report. Before our session last week, on 14 June, I was not sure which Lord Geidt would be before us. Were we to get the one who appeared before us in May 2021, believing, as a chap of the system, I think it would be fair to say, that the system had worked, that his predecessor’s resignation showed that it worked, that updates to his terms of reference gave the independence that was necessary, and that leaders, crucially from the top, set the necessary example; or were we to get the one who was the author of the annual report? Following a fairly intense session of questioning on a number of different issues in the inquiry, we clearly found out just the very next day which Lord Geidt we now had.
Our post-appointment session in May 2021 focused on the issue of wallpaper. Our last session was about a number of things, including the legal advice on the breaking of international agreements. That really is quite a leap, isn’t it, in only a year? I asked particularly about the leaking of legal advice on the breaking of the Northern Ireland protocol. We know that that advice has been leaked. We know that it is a serious breach of the code. We know that this has a profound impact on the UK’s constitution and domestic politics as well as on our international standing. We know that the legal advice is disputed. We know that the doctrine of necessity is extreme. We heard again this morning from experts on international law quite how unusual the new doctrine of necessity that we now have in the protocol is.
In a series of questions, which I am going to refer to, I asked Lord Geidt about where this advice had been leaked from—essentially, whether it was from the Prime Minister or from the Attorney General. I asked him whether he had been asked to investigate that situation. I said that
“we do have a recent leak with regard to the legal advice on the Northern Ireland protocol”,
and asked him whether that constituted “a relevant example” for him to investigate. Lord Geidt said:
“It may well do. You will recall that my new powers are squeaky new and I have not either been asked to or, indeed, pressed my own interest in giving advice in that example.”
I asked Lord Geidt if the Prime Minister
“has not asked you to investigate why that legal advice was leaked”.
Lord Geidt said, “No, he had not.” I asked if the Attorney General was asked how the advice had been leaked? He asked me, “Have I asked?” I said yes, and he said, “No, I have not.” I said:
“But your new powers do allow you to ask”
the Attorney General. Lord Geidt responded:
“I think that my new powers would allow me, unrestricted, to ask questions of the entirety of Government and others.”
“You raised the issue of the leak”—
he had done that earlier—
“The leak is clearly very serious… I would suggest it breaches the ministerial code, point 2.13. Would you agree?”
Lord Geidt said:
“I have not formed any advice and I have not brought an inquiry to bear on the situation.”
I then asked if he thought it breached the ministerial code. He said:
“Again, I would want to ensure that I could consider that fully before reaching a determination. By the way, as you know, the determination is then only advice to the Prime Minister.”
“Have you looked at reaching a determination before?”
and he said, “In this case, no.” We would seem to have been going round in circles.
Part of that emanated from some correspondence from the shadow Attorney General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). She had written to Lord Geidt to ask for advice, and he said he had responded to her, but that had not been received at the time. She has now received an answer, and again we are somewhat going round in circles. Lord Geidt responded to her finally, saying: “In the event of an allegation of unauthorised disclosure of information by persons unknown, it is open to the Government to commission an internal leak investigation where the Government in the circumstances considers it is appropriate, but that would be a matter for the Government to take forward and would not, at least in the first instance, be a matter for the independent adviser.”
We are left on a circuitous route of trying to understand where a very serious leak has occurred. It is a clear breach of the ministerial code that seems to be no one’s job to investigate or move forward. That is simply one example of the very many outstanding breaches of the code now lurking behind the doors of Downing Street. Where do we now go? Ideally, we would like to return to decency in politics. This motion provides an interim solution. As I said when I intervened earlier, it is up to other hon. Members in this place to come forward with other solutions if they do not think this solution is suitable. The Government are being given a window, should they wish to take it, to do something decent.
Our Committee, as the Chair has outlined, has a long list of current inquiries and a future work programme. We are not particularly looking for extra work, and this is clearly a matter for the Government under our constitution. However, I know that Parliament takes this seriously, and Parliament can and will step up. We will find a way through this to bring decency back into our politics. Again, at the end of these very long days, our commitment is essentially to our constituents. This is being taken seriously by a number of Members of the once great Conservative party. Our commitment remains on the Opposition Benches, and we will continue to pursue bringing back good standards of government, despite what the Prime Minister wishes to happen.