Labour reports Robert Jenrick to parliamentary watchdog

Minister accused of rushing planning decision to help Tory donor Richard Desmond

Labour has reported the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, to parliament’s watchdog for appearing to have acted “on direct instruction” from the Conservative donor Richard Desmond.

Following the release of a cache of correspondence showing numerous interactions between the two over a £1bn property development in east London, the minister has been accused of deliberately rushing through a planning decision to save the billionaire tens of millions of pounds due in tax.

Boris Johnson declined to ask the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, to investigate the allegations, so Labour has asked Kathryn Stone, the commissioner for standards, to investigate whether Jenrick’s behaviour constitutes a breach of the MPs’ code.

The code states that members should act on all occasions in accordance with the public trust placed in them and 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 they take.

Labour says the documents show Jenrick appeared to be acting on direct instruction from Desmond, which it says was a serious abuse of powers he is supposed to exercise impartially.

Steve Reed, the shadow communities and local government secretary, said: “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.”

Jenrick is fighting to keep his job after the documents revealed the extent of the contact between himself and Desmond before the minister signed off on the 1,500-home Westferry Printworks scheme.

Richard Desmond.
Richard Desmond. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Jenrick originally gave the development the go-ahead in January 2020, overruling Tower Hamlets council and a planning inspector.

He subsequently reversed the ruling following legal action by the council, admitting that what he had done was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”.

The documents, released on Wednesday night to the communities select committee after Labour threatened to force a vote on the issue, revealed that Jenrick gave Desmond his phone number after the pair sat next to each other at a Tory fundraising dinner in November.

Desmond also met Johnson at the event. The prime minister denies discussing the development with him.

Desmond then lobbied Jenrick, telling him a decision was urgent because “we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!”

Emails from officials suggest Jenrick did seek to expedite the approval of the scheme, with one message saying: “On timing, my understanding is that SoS [the secretary of state, Jenrick] is/was insistent that decision issued this week ie tomorrow – as next week the viability of the scheme is impacted by a change in the London CIL [community infrastructure levy] regime.”

Jenrick is also facing questions over his links to wealthy Conservative donors after it emerged that he met an Israeli businessman with an interest in the future of a multibillion-pound project that the minister was overseeing.

The Guardian obtained information about his ties to Idan Ofer, a London-based shipping and mining heir whose father, Sammy, was once Israel’s richest man.

A spokesperson for Jenrick said he recused himself from decisions related to Ofer and disclosed his ministerial interests on appointment in the usual way. A spokesman for Ofer said they discussed the business environment in the UK, particularly post-Brexit.

At a Westminster briefing, a Downing Street spokesperson did not respond to questions asking how many times Johnson met Desmond in the months before the scheme was approved or if Desmond sent Johnson text messages about the development.

Referring to a letter from Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to Reed earlier in the week which said that the prime minister considered the matter closed, the spokesperson said: “The housing secretary has set out his position, his account, in public. We have been clear that no-one in Number 10 discussed this planning application or appeal with Mr Desmond, or his representatives.”

A spokesperson for Jenrick said Labour’s complaint is “unfounded, spurious and vexatious”.

“The secretary of state has publicly set out a full account of his rationale for approving the planning appeal, and published all of the relevant documents for complete transparency. He has been clear that his decision was made with an open and fair mind.”


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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