» Tuesday, November 1, 2005

David Blunkett

Asked about the current status of the Ministerial Code, and how should it now be used, and also was the situation purely a "discretion" with regards to the rules people should abide by, in the Prime Minister’s view, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Prime Minister was glad that Sir Gus O’Donnell had clarified the situation in terms of the Ministerial Code. The PMOS said that Mr. Blunkett had recognised he had made a mistake in terms of his interpretation of the Code, and he acknowledged that in his statement to the Independent on Sunday newspaper. He traced that to his interpretation, which he had accepted was wrong, of Lord Mayhew’s letter on the 15th March 2005, where Lord Mayhew had said that the Code was voluntary. Mr Blunkett accepted that his interpretation of the word "voluntary" turned out to be incorrect. In terms of the "Third Job", as it had become known, it was a result of the same mistake he made with the other two jobs.

With regards to the Code, the Prime Minister of course believed that Cabinet Ministers and ex-Cabinet Ministers should observe the Code, but as the PMOS had said earlier, there did have to be a sense of perspective about the situation, and you did have to ask whether the mistake that had been acknowledged and publicly examined and explained by Mr. Blunkett was sufficient to stop the DWP Secretary of State doing his job. The Prime Minister’s assessment was that this was not the case.

Put to the PMOS that Mr. Blunkett had given an interview to the "Sheffield Star" newspaper, in which he depicted the recent situation as "a battle between decency on the one hand and the Conservative Party analysing the media on the other", and was that a view that No10 subscribed to, as well as to the view, Mr. Blunkett expressed in his interview that he had done nothing wrong, and how was that compatible with the fact, as the PMOS had pointed out that, Mr. Blunkett had admitted he had made a mistake, the PMOS replied that with regards to the first part of the question, he was not going to get drawn into Party politics. With regards to the latter, Mr. Blunkett in his statement to the Independent on Sunday accepted that his interpretation of the Code had been wrong. He thought that he had understood it, but it turned out that he had not. Mr. Blunkett did place the jobs on the Register of Members’ Interests, and he also declared them to his Permanent Secretary. The Company concerned did not have contracts with either the CSA or DWP.

Asked if No10 had a view on the reporting that Mr. Blunkett might face a lengthy Parliamentary inquiry reporting to Sir Philip Mawer for breaching not only the Ministerial Code, but also the MPs Code as well, the PMOS said he thought that if there were Parliamentary processes underway, then they should be allowed to continue without comment from us.

Asked if the continual coverage still allowed Mr. Blunkett to do his job well, the PMOS replied that Mr. Blunkett’s main issue at the moment was to produce the Green Paper, and in terms of that, the time to make that judgment was when the Green Paper was published. That was what Mr. Blunkett would concentrate on, and that was what the Prime Minister believed was the important task that faced his department.

Asked if Mr. Blunkett had told the Prime Minister about the "Third Job" yesterday, the PMOS said that Mr. Blunkett had asked Lord Mayhew about it in his letter on 3rd March 2005, and Lord Mayhew had referred to it again on 15th March 2005. No10 did have copies of the correspondence.

Put to the PMOS that it was difficult to work out Sir Philip Mawyer’s role in a potential inquiry, the PMOS said that he always bowed to the superior knowledge of Parliamentary procedure, and to those who were more experienced in these matters that he was!

Put to the PMOS that the Committee had not really been consulted, the PMOS said that Lord Mayhew had said in his letter dated 15th March 2005 that the Committee was a voluntary scheme for Ministers. Mr. Blunkett accepted that he had misinterpreted and misunderstood that reference, but it explained his approach to all three cases. It was, in that sense, the same mistake.

Put that it could not be the same mistake, as one of the cases happened within three months of Mr. Blunkett leaving office, the PMOS replied that what Mr. Blunkett had written on 3rd March 2005 to Lord Mayhew was to apologise if he had not complied with the rules. Mr. Blunkett then received a reply from Lord Mayhew on the 15th March 2005 where Lord Mayhew discussed the scheme being voluntary. It was that which Mr. Blunkett misunderstood.

Put that there was a previous letter that had set out the rules, the PMOS said that Mr. Blunkett had written on 3rd March to apologise and to mention there had been a misunderstanding.

Put to the PMOS that even if Mr. Blunkett’s interpretation of the "voluntary" part of the rules was correct, did that fit the Government’s stated aim that Ministers should be "whiter than white", the PMOS replied that was precisely why the Prime Minister believed the clarification given by the Cabinet Secretary was so useful, as no-one could be under any misapprehension as to what the Code meant.

Asked if it would matter if any of the companies Mr. Blunkett had worked for had contracts with any other Whitehall departments, the PMOS said he was not going to get into theoretical discussions about it. In terms of allegations of conflicts of interests, these theoretical departments mentioned were the ones that were most likely where there could be a conflict of interest. The facts were, there were no contracts with the CSA or DWP.

Put to the PMOS that he had used the words "mistake, misunderstanding and misinterpretation" several times, and how did the Prime Minister feel about someone who had such a senior job making so many mistakes etc, the PMOS said the journalist suggested that this was the first time he had used such words. The reality was that Mr. Blunkett had used that language in his reply to the Independent on Sunday newspaper. Therefore, the key question was not did or did not Mr. Blunkett make a mistake, but rather, was that mistake such that it stopped him doing his job. The Prime Minister’s view was that the answer to that question was: no.

Put to the PMOS that he had talked about several mistakes, and Mr. Blunkett was "incompetent", the PMOS said: no. The PMOS was interrupted by another question asking was Mr. Blunkett "incompetent, corrupt or dishonest", the PMOS said he would address the facts and he would not be harangued. The PMOS said he had talked about one mistake, which was a misunderstanding of the third paragraph of Lord Mayhew’s letter of 15th March 2005. The mistakes over the three cases were traceable back to that one mistake. The key question, therefore, was whether that one mistake was such that it stopped Mr. Blunkett from doing his job. The Prime Minister’s answer to that was it did not.

Asked if the Prime Minister had confidence in Mr. Blunkett’s ability to do his job, with regards to a reply to Adair Turner’s pensions paper due out on 30th November 2005, the PMOS replied that the Prime Minister believed that Mr. Blunkett should be allowed to get on with his job. The PMOS said the journalist was correct in stressing the importance of Adair Turner’s report, but equally, the Green Paper on incapacity benefit was important. Mr. Blunkett should be allowed to get on and concentrate on those tasks. Mr. Blunkett had explained and set out why he misunderstood the relevant paragraph, and that could not be changed. The PMOS said again that Mr. Blunkett should now be allowed to get on with his work.

Put to the PMOS that The Guardian this morning stated as fact that one of the reasons Mr. Blunkett decided to take such paid posts was that he faced "mega bills" for paternity suits, the PMOS replied that he was not going to try and attribute motivation. What he dealt with were the facts, and they were as he had stated earlier.

Put to the PMOS that was it not the problem for the Prime Minister that this was being seen as a cumulative effect of damage done to Mr. Blunkett, and that Mr. Blunkett had lost a lot of loyalty over the recent issues, the PMOS replied that we had dealt with the issues that had led to Mr. Blunkett’s resignation at the time. We had explained that given his record as Home Secretary, and before that as Education Secretary, why the Prime Minister believed he had the skills necessary to take on the very difficult job of DWP Secretary. The Prime Minister’s belief was that those skills should be allowed to be put to good use, and he accepted that a mistake was made in this case. However, as the PMOS had said this morning, that mistake should be seen in perspective.

Asked if Mr. Blunkett had been asked at any time about the truthfulness of the allegations regarding his work for the company, the PMOS said he would refer the journalist to what Mr. Blunkett had said in the House of Commons yesterday which was that he had done no further work for them.

Asked if the Prime Minister regretted giving Mr. Blunkett his job, especially as initially, his first choice was to give Mr. Blunkett the community job, the PMOS replied that as we said at the time, that assumption was wrong and the answer to the first part of the question was:no.

Asked if there was anything more that Mr. Blunkett would declare, the PMOS said that Mr. Blunkett was anxious that people were able to ask questions, and he would answer them.
Put to the PMOS that Mr. Blunkett should have volunteered the information on the other job, the PMOS said it was in Lord Mayhew’s letter.

Asked if the Ministerial Code was going to be re-written or re-drafted, the PMOS said that Sir Gus O’Donnell had clarified it, and therefore there was no need to re-write it.

Asked if another Minister breached the Code, could they use Mr. Blunkett as an example, the PMOS replied that Sir Gus had clarified the point that Mr. Blunkett wanted clarified. Sir Gus had done this very clearly.

Asked what the "warmest" thing the PMOS could say on behalf of the Prime Minister about Mr. Blunkett, the PMOS said that he had answered the question yesterday by saying the Prime Minister had full support for Mr. Blunkett and that remained the position.

Asked if Mr. Blunkett had drawn people’s attention to the "Third Job", the PMOS said the journalist was trying to get him to discuss private conversations between the Prime Minister and Mr. Blunkett, which he would not do.

Put to the PMOS that Sir Gus O’Donnell had clarified the situation as far as the Code was concerned, but was it such that a breach of the Code was not something that the Prime Minister felt should be punished, the PMOS replied that in terms of assessment of the seriousness of the mistake, the question was: was it a mistake that arose out of confusion and misunderstanding, or was it a deliberate flaunting of the Ministerial Code. It was a mistake that arose out of misunderstanding.

Put to the PMOS that last time Mr. Blunkett resigned, the Prime Minister had said he did so with his integrity intact, and was that still the case, the PMOS said the Prime Minister believed that the way Mr. Blunkett had answered these questions had shown the integrity he expected.

Asked that as the Prime Minister was the author of the Code, was he in any doubt as to what ex-Cabinet Ministers were supposed to do, and did he accept responsibility for putting out a Code that senior members of his Government had difficulty in understanding, the PMOS replied the Prime Minister was glad that any confusion surrounding the Code had been clarified, and he believed that Ministers should observe it. As the question implied, it was the Prime Minister that introduced the Code, and therefore he should be given the credit for doing so.

Asked again if the Prime Minister took responsibility for putting out a "confusing" Code, the PMOS said that as with any law, it was by its implementation that people would test its meaning. What had happened in this instance was it had been clarified by the Cabinet Secretary, and therefore, that should help ex-Ministers observe the Code.

Asked how Mr. Blunkett processed letters and correspondence, the PMOS said he did not know.

Briefing took place at 13:00 | Search for related news

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