Labour has asked the parliamentary commissioner for standards to investigate Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick for breaching the MPs’ code of conduct in the ‘cash-for-favours’ planning scandal.
In a letter to the commissioner Kathryn Stone OBE, Labour’s Steve Reed set out his concerns about Jenrick’s handling of the Westferry planning application in east London and “apparent breaches” of the code of conduct.
Labour has warned that the government must “publish all the remaining secret documents” in the case, to prove to the public that “this is not the start of a new era of Tory sleaze”.
Commenting on the case, Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Reed said: “The Prime Minister can’t just sweep this issue under the carpet. There are still so many unanswered questions about Robert Jenrick’s unlawful attempt to help Richard Desmond dodge £150m in tax days before he made a generous donation to the Conservative Party.
“The Prime Minister has yet again shown woefully poor judgment by not referring clear breaches of the ministerial code to the Cabinet Secretary and he must now come clean himself about his own involvement in this case.
“The government must publish all the remaining secret documents in this case to show the public what Mr Jenrick and the Prime Minister were really up to and prove that this is not the start of a new era of Tory sleaze.”
This latest intervention by the opposition comes after the publication of documents relating to the decision by Jenrick to overturn his own planning approval of the Tory donor’s application after admitting “apparent bias”.
Jenrick has admitted that he published his decision in time for the developer to avoid a new charge – known as a community infrastructure levy – which would have cost the developer additional £30m to £50m.
Labour has highlighted that as well as approving the decision the day before the new charge was introduced, Jenrick had overruled his advisors to reduce the amount of affordable housing in the development – saving Desmond a further £106m.
129-pages of documents relating to the case were released earlier this week, showing emails and letters between Jenrick and his officials and representatives of the developer.
Labour also wrote to the Housing Secretary on Thursday, calling for the minister to explain the discrepancies between the account he gave to parliament and the published documents.
Below is the full text of the letter sent to the commissioner by Reed.
I am writing to you about the decision of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government in the Westferry planning case, his subsequent appearances in the House of Commons on 15 and 24 June 2020, and the documents released about the case to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, also on 24 June 2020.
The coded of conduct for members of the House of Commons states that members should act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in them. They should always behave with probity and integrity, including in their use of public resources.
It also states that holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
I am concerned that the Secretary of State has not lived up to these principles in his actions in the Westferry case. I would like to bring the following apparent breaches to your attention:
- The documents released by the Secretary of State to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee on the 24 June 2020 make clear that he did not immediately declare his meeting with the applicant, Richard Desmond, to officials at his Department, but instead delayed notification for a month.
- There are significant discrepancies between Mr Jenrick’s notification of only briefly viewing a promotional video about the scheme on Mr Desmond’s phone, and reports made by Mr Desmond who claims the Secretary of State viewed the video for three or four minutes and thanked him for showing it to him. If Mr Desmond’s claim is accurate, then the Secretary of State has failed to make the necessary declaration.
- The Secretary of State and Mr Desmond exchanged phone numbers at the Conservative Party fundraising dinner on 18 November. The following day the Secretary of State initiated an exchange of messages with Mr Desmond by both email and text. At this time the Secretary of State had not declared the meeting to officials but he nevertheless asked a member of his staff to set up a further meeting and a possible site visit.
- When the Secretary of State sought to end the exchange he had initiated and cancelled his planned site visit, he gave as his reason what he called the ‘appearance’ of bias. The nature and tone of the exchange, and the use of the term ‘appearance’ imply that the Secretary of State wanted to do favours for Mr Desmond without being seen to do so. I would be grateful for your view.
- The Secretary of State made clear to officials that he wanted the development to be approved before Tower Hamlets’ new Community Infrastructure Levy came into force on 15 January 2020 claiming the additional costs would make the scheme financially unviable. No evidence has been released showing that this was the view of officials in his Department, nor has any evidence been provided to back up the Secretary of State’s assertion on viability. Since the emails make clear that officials were unaware of the significance of the date or any impact the CIL might have on viability, it seems likely this information came from Mr Desmond and the Secretary of State was therefore acting on the instruction of the applicant in a way that makes his decision biased and is a potential breach of the code of conduct for members.
I would be grateful if you would conduct a full investigation and advise me whether the Secretary of State is in breach of any code governing his behaviour.