Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 3:01 pm ar 6 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Attorney General 3:01, 6 Chwefror 2024

I will make a bit more progress, and then I will give way.

We are talking about severance payments today. Government Members may wish to speak about red herrings and other issues, but let us talk about the abuse of the severance payments system that we have seen over the past few years, because we should take a clear-eyed look at it. We are not seeking to scrap those payments, nor should we. As Geoffrey Howe said, they were introduced so that Ministers who had given long and dedicated service to their country could adjust to the loss of that salary. I do not think anyone on the Opposition Benches has any quarrel with that. Over the 40 years that those payments have existed, there has never been any previous occasion where it has been open to question that the rules by which those payments were made were wrong. Then, however, we came to 2022-23. It was a year of chaos in our politics, unprecedented in modern times. Sadly, it was a year in which the current severance scheme had its flaws suddenly exposed and its loopholes shamelessly exploited.

Before I address what went wrong with the system in that financial year, I will do something that I find personally unusual, which is to praise some members of Conservative Cabinets. It will be hard for me, and I feel my ancestors starting to shift uneasily in their graves, but I want to give credit where credit is due, and that credit goes to a small collection of Secretaries of State who, for want of a better phrase, did the right thing when it came to severance entitlements during that year of chaos. I praise the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Steve Barclay, who was sacked as Health Secretary in September 2022, but reinstated by the current Prime Minister seven weeks later. What did he do with his severance payment? He returned it in full when he regained his old job, so he deserves praise for that.

I praise the current Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan, who resigned after two days as Education Secretary in July 2022, but turned down the £16,000-plus severance payment for which those two days had made her eligible, and she deserves praise for that. I even want to praise Sir Gavin Williamson, the former Chief Whip, the former Defence Secretary and the former Education Secretary. He claimed his £16,000-plus severance in 2019 when he was sacked for leaking top-secret information. He claimed his £16,000-plus severance again in 2021, when he was sacked for all his various school fiascos. However, he finally turned down his severance payment in 2023 after two weeks in the Cabinet Office, because he recognised that it would be inappropriate to accept it while under investigation for bullying. So let us praise him for that—if for nothing else.

What those examples show is that it is entirely possible for individuals to choose to waive their severance payments, or return them, when they feel that accepting them would not be right. Perhaps those individuals even reflected that, at the height of the cost of living crisis—which had been greatly exacerbated by the actions of their Government—it would seem inappropriate to accept thousands of pounds from the taxpayer as a reward for the contribution they had made to the chaos. Perhaps they realised how much like a smack in the face that would feel to their constituents. Either way, those individuals did do the right thing.

However, the hard fact is—numbers bear this out—that, for every one case in the last financial year where a Tory Minister decided that accepting that severance payment would be inappropriate in the circumstances, in at least six or seven other cases the opposite was unfortunately true. That is why we find ourselves here, trying to fix a system of ministerial severance that has been brought into disrepute by dozens of its most recent beneficiaries.