Labour refers Robert Jenrick to Parliamentary standards watchdog over Westferry planning storm

26 June 2020, 11:20

Labour has written to the Parliamentary watchdog
Labour has written to the Parliamentary watchdog. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Labour has written to the Parliamentary standards watchdog asking them to investigate a potential breach of the MP's code by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick for his role in the Westferry planning storm.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary is fighting to keep his job after documents revealed the extent of the contact between himself and Tory donor Richard Desmond before the Cabinet minister signed off on the 1,500-home Westferry Printworks scheme in east London.

Now Labour has written to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards asking the watchdog to investigate any wrongdoing by the Cabinet Minister.

Labour said there were "fresh questions about the case" after the party forced the Government to publish correspondence and text messages which, Labour claims, "reveal that the Secretary of State deliberately rushed through a planning decision to save Mr Desmond tens of millions of pounds in tax due to Tower Hamlets Council."

Boris Johnson has said he is standing by the Minister, Downing Street said the PM still had "full confidence" in Mr Jenrick, but confirmed Mr Johnson had spoken to the embattled Minister in recent days.

Mr Jenrick and Mr Desmond exchanged text messages following a meeting at a Conservative Party event in November, and officials in Mr Jenrick's department described him as being "insistent" that the project be given the green light before a new levy added millions to the cost.

Mr Jenrick later had to quash his own approval, conceding that the decision was "unlawful" due to "apparent bias".

Labour claims the move to approve before Tower Hamlets Council's community infrastructure levy (CIL) came into force would have saved Mr Desmond's Northern and Shell company up to £50 million on the scheme, which was reported to be worth £1 billion.

Labour’s Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, Steve Reed MP, 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.”

Text of Letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

Kathryn Stone OBE

Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards

House of Commons

London SW1A 0AA

25th June 2020

Dear Kathryn,

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 Code 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[1] 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[2] 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.