So, Permanent Secretary, did Jeremy Hunt tell Parliament the truth yesterday?
Top civil servant was asked 10 times if the culture secretary's statement to Commons was the truth, 10 times he refused to answer...
Thursday 26 April 2012
The most senior civil servant at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Jonathan Stephens, was questioned by MPs this morning over whether he backed Jeremy Hunt's statement to Parliament yesterday on the BSkyB takeover scandal. He refused to answer 10 times:
Margaret Hodge, committee chair: The Secretary of State [Hunt] said yesterday that the role of his special adviser was agreed by the Permanent Secretary. Did you know that Adam Smith was acting as a channel of communication between the department and Murdoch?
Permanent Secretary Jonathan Stephens: I think I just need to say Madam Chair that I have come along to answer questions about Olympic Costs. The Secretary of State made a full statement to Parliament yesterday. He has made it clear that he’s providing full written evidence and is looking forward to providing oral evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. There was a statement by the special adviser yesterday which made it clear that he accepted that the nature and content of those contacts was not authorised by the Secretary of State nor by me. I think that is the right forum for those matters to be answered.
MH: But given the extent of the public interest in the matter it seems to me extremely odd to be told that you had agreed as Permanent Secretary to enable a special adviser to act as a channel of communication between the department and the Murdoch empire. Is that true?
JS: I would just repeat what I said before: there was a very clear statement from the special adviser concerned
MH: I think we’re asking about your role not the Secretary of State’s role.
JS: If I may I am just going to explain the nature of the statement’s yesterday. There was a clear statement by the special adviser who made it clear that the nature and content of those contacts was not authorised by the Secretary of State and was not authorised by me…
MH: It was not authorised by you?
JS: …It made it clear that he accepted that as a result it fell short of the requirements established by the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary. The Secretary of State has provided a statement to Parliament. He is providing full written evidence on behalf of the Department which will be in due course published through the Leveson inquiry and he will…
MH: I understand that but the issue is your role – not the Secretary of State’s role. The Secretary of State did say in evidence yesterday that you had agreed the role. All I am trying to get on the public record – in the public interest – is whether or not that is true?
JS: And I am explaining that the position was made clear in the special advisor’s statement where he said that the nature and content of those contacts was not authorised by the Secretary of State and that the result was that it fell short of the requirement established by the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary.
MP: But did you know about it?
JS: The statement makes clear that the nature and content of those contacts was not authorised by the Secretary of State and that the result was that it fell short of the requirement established by the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary.
MH: But that doesn’t answer the question about whether you knew. The Secretary of State said to Parliament yesterday that Mr Smith was acting as the channel of communication with News Corp in relation to the department about this matter.
JS: I think the position was set out clearly in the various statements yesterday and in particular the special advisors statement in which he accepted that the nature and content of those contacts was not authorised by the Secretary of State and that the effect was that it fell short of the requirement established by the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary.
MP: Mr Stevens you don’t need to stonewall on this. Did you give guidance to Mr Smith on his crucial role?
JS: I am very sorry. These are very important matters. They are rightly the subject of interest of Parliament. That’s why the Secretary of State made a full statement yesterday and answers questions. I have come ready to speak about the Olympics. I have made clear the position set out in various statements yesterday and I think I need to stand on that without any implications being drawn whatsoever. I was not given any notice of these questions.
MH: No, but it’s pretty clear, that there was going to be public interest in this matter. It just rather takes me aback from all my experience as a minister that you would have approved a special advisor to act as a channel of communication between one party and the department when the department and Secretary of State was playing this semi-judicial role. It just seems so inappropriate. I think clearly the Secretary of State has to answer for his actions and I understand that under the ministerial code he is responsible for the contact of his special advisor but in this instance the Secretary of State chose to tell Parliament that you had specifically approved the role and that astonishes me.
JS: With the greatest respect I have made clear that those statements were made.
MP: You are not answering the question?
JS: With respect I have explained and drawn attention to the references in the statement about the nature and content of those contacts was not authorised. The effect they fell short of the of the requirements established by the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary.
MP: So you did think it was appropriate for a special adviser to play this role? You believed as a Permanent Secretary it was completely appropriate for a special adviser to take on the role as acting as a channel of communication between the Department and the Murdoch empire.
JS: I’m very sorry but I think I’ve made clear the position...I must rest on that.
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