Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has used an urgent question in parliament to declare that “when ministers and advisers use the public purse as a personal cashpoint, the public has a right to know”.
Addressing parliament this afternoon, the opposition frontbencher highlighted allegations around the payment for a private holiday for Boris Johnson and the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment by Tory donors.
“The ministerial code is clear there must be ‘no misuse of taxpayer money’ nor ‘actual or perceived conflicts of interest’. But time and again ministers act like rules are for other people,” Rayner told parliament today.
“People may ask why this is important, Mr Speaker. It is important because it goes to the very heart of our democracy. Who does our government answer to? The public, or private interests?”
Johnson is being investigated by the standards watchdog over a £15,000 Caribbean holiday last year, and by the Electoral Commission for a potential breach of the code of conduct in relation to the refurb of his Downing Street flat.
The Prime Minister has told parliament that he “covered the cost” of the refurb but has not denied receiving £58,000 from Tory peer and donor David Brownlow as a loan in the first place, as alleged, despite not declaring the transaction.
He took a trip to Mustique to celebrate New Year last year. According to the Daily Mail, Johnson spent ten days in a luxury villa in a stay worth £15,000 provided by Carphone Warehouse founder and Conservative donor David Ross.
The Prime Minister recorded a “benefit in kind” from the party donor on his register of interests. But Ross prompted questions when he initially denied having paid for the holiday, before saying that he had “facilitated” the trip.
Penny Mordaunt dismissed the concerns raised over public standards by the opposition today, telling the Commons that government advisers and ministers have been “working their socks off” throughout the pandemic.
“The charge she makes is that the people she names are somehow on the take,” she said. “That they have been focused not over the last 16 months on working their socks off to save lives, to get a vaccine program up and running, to do the things that the public need us to do.
“But they have unbelievably entered into politics, made sacrifices, overcome the obstacles that she will be aware of to get into this place, not to serve in public life but to do a mate, or more accurately a Tory mate, or someone that they vaguely know, or met in the lift once, or perhaps don’t know at all, a favour.”
Rayner argued earlier this month that Johnson must stop using his position “as an opportunity to fund his lavish lifestyle and enrich his mates” following the news that he is being investigated by the parliamentary commissioner for standards.
The commissioner for standards investigates allegations and complaints against MPs. Currently, nine MPs are under investigation by the watchdog. If Johnson is found to be in breach of the rules, he could be made to apologise.
In the most serious cases, the commissioner can submit a report to the parliamentary select committee on standards. The committee can impose sanctions on MPs, including suspending them from parliament for a number of days.
The decision by the commissioner to investigate follows the launch of the investigation into the flat refurbishment by the Electoral Commission as it said it had “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.
The probe by the elections authority is currently only set to examine the Conservative Party, not Johnson himself. This means that the result may be that a party official is referred by the commission to the police.
Below is the full text of Angela Rayner’s contribution to parliament today.
Mr Speaker, the ministerial code is clear there must be “no misuse of taxpayer money” nor “actual or perceived conflicts of interest. But time and again ministers act like rules are for other people. None more so than the Prime Minister himself. Last year, he declared £15,000 from a Tory donor for his sleazy jet trip to a private island. This weekend, we read that the real cost was double that and paid by someone else entirely.
People may ask why this is important, Mr Speaker. It is important because it goes to the very heart of our democracy. Who does our government answer to? The public, or private interests? We only learnt from the media that the Prime Minister has blocked publication of the independent commissioner’s report. Can she now tell us why the delay? Does she accept the rules apply to everyone, even the Prime Minister? Will she accept the Commissioner’s findings? The list of ministers’ interests is also mysteriously delayed, I assume while the Prime Minister tries to remember who paid for his flat. Will it be published by the end of this month? And does she accept that if the Prime Minister can block the Independent Adviser from investigating, he can’t in practice then be fully independent?
Because the code clearly isn’t preventing “actual or perceived conflicts of interest”, is it? When the Home Secretary lobbies on behalf of a former adviser flogging sub-standard face masks, who lands a hundred-million-pound contract, without tender and at double the going rate, who cannot perceive this as a conflict? Something we know not from the Home Secretary declaring it but because it was revealed in an admin error. Then there is the Health Secretary, who appears to have ordered an official to recommend a bid he hadn’t even read, from a former Tory MP, who pocketed another two hundred million pounds of taxpayers’ cash. Surely the independent adviser must investigate these cases with no Prime Ministerial veto?
Finally, there is the Prime Minister’s own top adviser, Lord Lister. He concealed being paid by a luxury developer, owned by yet another Tory donor, which was granted a record-breaking taxpayer-backed loan by the very public body Lister chaired. Money meant for affordable homes but given out at mate’s rates for luxury flats and private profit. Will they release the loan agreement along with all correspondence on this decision, and hand it to an independent investigation? And when will they publish their report on all officials’ second jobs? When ministers and advisers use the public purse as a personal cashpoint, the public has a right to know.