John’s speech on the Culture Secretary and the Ministerial Code

Yesterday John Denham spoke during the House of Commons debate on Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, and the Ministerial Code.  The Motion was:

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.

You can watch John’s speech by clicking here:

The transcript from Hansard is below:

Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). I think that his last remarks should be heard by the Secretary of State, who, at the very least, must conclude that there was a gross dereliction of duty in his failure to supervise and properly manage his special adviser on an issue that was not a minor matter for his Department but an £8 billion takeover at the centre of the media dominating our country. It is inconceivable that the Secretary of State was able, as he claims, to allow his special adviser to operate in such a way without ever knowing what was going on. That alone should be cause for him to consider his position.

Secondly, let us deal with this idea, compounded by the Prime Minister today, that Sir Alex Allan’s letter in any way vindicates the Prime Minister’s decision not to send this matter to the independent adviser. The question is not the facts, but the judgment that should be made on the facts. That can be done only by Sir Alex Allan. The case of Baroness Warsi has been referred to him, and the Prime Minister did not suggest today that there were any unknown facts in her case; he wanted the independent adviser’s view on her conduct. That is all Labour Members are asking for in this case—and not a single argument has been given for resisting it.

Many of the facts are known, but I want to concentrate on the part that briefly involved me personally in the saga. As shadow Business Secretary, I was preparing—until the previous Business Secretary was caught declaring war on Murdoch—to shadow this procedure. When the decision was taken to refer it to the Culture Secretary, I wrote to Sir Gus O’Donnell on 22 December, referring to public statements made by the Secretary of State and asking whether, in the light of those statements, Sir Gus was satisfied that the Secretary of State could rule with impartiality on this matter.

As is now well known, Sir Gus replied to me on 22 December, stating, having taken advice:

“I am satisfied that those statements do not amount to a pre-judgement of the case in question”.

That seems pretty clear, and that was the judgment made at the time. The judgment has been relied upon by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State on countless occasions since to justify the Secretary of State’s being asked to exercise that role. It is now clear, is it not, that Sir Gus O’Donnell did not have available to him or his lawyers all the evidence that he might have considered about the suitability or the impartiality of the Secretary of State? Not only that, as the Culture Secretary and the Prime Minister, who relied on Sir Gus’s advice, actively, knowingly and deliberately kept the Cabinet Secretary in the dark about what had been going on between them in respect of matters that were at the very least entirely relevant to whether this Secretary of State was a suitable person to conduct this process.

Kevin Brennan: While my right hon. Friend was making this accusation, the Culture Secretary was shaking his head. He now has an opportunity to refute the allegation by intervening. Would my right hon. Friend welcome such an intervention?

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Mr Denham: I would indeed welcome an intervention that told the House why neither the Secretary of State nor the Prime Minister thought it appropriate to tell the Cabinet Secretary of the existence of the November memo to the Prime Minister. The Culture Secretary should have gone to the Cabinet Secretary and said: “This is relevant to your decision as to whether I am a suitable person”. Why did the Secretary of State not make that available?

Mr Jeremy Hunt: Because I was not party to any of the discussions between the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary.

Mr Denham: The Secretary of State would have known on 22 December that the Cabinet Secretary had written to me saying that he was in the clear. Any honest Secretary of State would have turned around at that moment—

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. When an hon. or right hon. Member starts a sentence with “Any honest” something or other, we are getting close to the time when we need to be careful.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): That is not a point of order for the Chair. We must use temperate language throughout this debate. That would be incredibly useful for its tone. We also need to be aware that the winding-up speeches will commence at around 3.45 pm, so it would helpful if we focused on the subject matter of the debate.

Mr Denham: It must, shall we say, have occurred to the Secretary of State that the Cabinet Secretary did not know of his memo. It must certainly have occurred to the Prime Minister that the Cabinet Secretary could not possibly have had the chance to consider that memo before he wrote the letter. Thus, from 22 December onwards, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have relied essentially on a fiction—a letter from Sir Gus O’Donnell that relied on his not knowing what had been going on between them in the memos.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con) rose —

Mr Denham: I need to make some progress.

What do we now know about the conduct of the Secretary of State? On 12 November 2010, he was advised not to have any external discussions on the merger and not to write to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills about it. He was told that if he did so, it carried risks to the robustness of the decisions.

As other Members have said, there were two key parts to the memo sent to the Prime Minister. The first lets us know in no unambiguous terms of the Secretary of State’s support for the merger proceeding and his belief that if it were blocked, our media sector would suffer for years. Secondly, however, and of equal significance, it proposed a meeting between the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Business Secretary and the Culture Secretary himself

“to discuss the policy issues that are thrown up as a result.”

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In the light of the legal advice given to the Secretary of State on 12 November, he must have known not only that sending that memo was inappropriate, but that the course of action he was proposing—a cabal of Ministers at the top of Government involving the one person who was meant to be acting in a quasi-judicial manner and who should have had no discussions and no connections with anyone else—flew in the face of the advice he had been given and was clearly acting in an entirely inappropriate manner.

Damian Collins: The right hon. Gentleman has read out the last sentence of the memo. Will he read out the preceding sentence?

Mr Denham: The previous sentence referred to the procedural processes. [Interruption.] Let me acknowledge that the memo refers to the proper procedures, but I will make this point to the House. The Secretary of State seems to be under the impression that if only he litters his memos and letters with the occasional reference to proper procedure, he can behave in a way that is entirely improper and outside the procedure. The sentence about proper procedure to which the hon. Gentleman wants me to refer is totally invalidated by the following sentence, which effectively says, “Let’s do something completely improper”—have a meeting involving the Business Secretary. The Secretary of State, of all people, should have had no discussions with any Minister, the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister, because he was meant to be acting in a quasi-judicial manner.

My final point is about the relevance of the motion. I believe that the Secretary of State’s and, indeed, the Prime Minister’s actions in concealing this memo are an absolute disgrace, placing the advice that the Cabinet Secretary was able to give us in a very bad light. They failed to correct that; they failed to go to the Cabinet Secretary to say, “You should know about his memo.” What is more, and it is directly relevant to the motion, when the Culture Secretary had the opportunity to put the record straight on 25 April in response to my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell), he failed to do so. He has concealed the existence of the memo, concealed the fact that he was proposing to act in an entirely inappropriate manner and failed to disclose it to the House when he had the opportunity to so. At the very least, shall we say, might that not suggest in the mind of a reasonable person that there is a question or two for Sir Alex Allan to consider? It is the refusal even to look into these matters that makes this matter such a disgrace. That is why this motion should be carried.



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