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Mon, 13 July 2020

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Robert Jenrick criticised for swerving Commons grilling on 'unlawful approval' of Tory donor development

Robert Jenrick criticised for swerving Commons grilling on 'unlawful approval' of Tory donor development

Robert Jenrick sent a junior minister to respond on his behalf (PA)

4 min read

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has been criticised for failing to turn up to the Commons and answer questions over his unlawful decision to approve the planning application of a Conservative donor.

Labour’s shadow communities minister Steve Reed has urged him to “come clean” and publish all correspondence he had in allowing the property development to go ahead.

The opposition frontbencher was granted an Urgent Question on the matter on Thursday morning, but Mr Jenrick instead sent his junior minister Chris Pincher to answer on his behalf.

Mr Reed told MPs: "The Secretary of State will not have the public confidence he needs to overhaul the planning system until we have full transparency over his unlawful decision to force through the Westferry development.”

But Mr Pincher said the Housing Secretary had acted properly and with propriety over the £1billion project in east London, submitted by media tycoon Richard Desmond.

The row began when it was revealed Mr Jenrick had controversially approved the scheme in January against the recommendation of a planning inspector.

The timing of the decision also allowed Mr Desmond's Northern and Shell firm to avoid paying between £30million and £50million extra to Tower Hamlets Council, coming a day before new infrastructure charges came into force.

It later transpired the Cabinet minister had discussed the matter with the developer when they were seated together at a Conservative party fundraising dinner.

And two weeks after the decision was made to approve the project, Mr Desmond donated £12,000 to the Tories, a sequence of events Mr Reed said "raises grave concerns about cash for favours".

Labour are urging the Conservatives to repay the donation from Mr Desmond, while acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey has urged Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to launch an investigation.

The council has since challenged the decision, forcing Mr Jenrick to admit what he did was "unlawful by reason of apparent bias”, and they have asked the High Court to order the Government to disclose all emails and memos around the deal.

Mr Reed echoed that call in the chamber, saying: "If he wants to restore trust, the Secretary of State must immediately publish all documents and all correspondence related to this decision.

"The public needs reassurance that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative Party fundraising dinners."

The Labour frontbencher added: "The ministerial code requires ministers to act with integrity, so did the Secretary of State disclose his conversation with Mr Desmond to the department before he granted permission?

"And since these circumstances clearly raise a question of bias, why did the Secretary of State not immediately recuse himself from taking this decision?"

Mr Pincher hit back, saying: "Has he acted properly and with propriety in making clear to the department all the discussions he has had with applicants? Yes he did.

"At all times he has disclosed any conversations that he has had with applicants.”

He added: "He has been very clear about his involvement with the applicant. I don't think there is any further that needs to be added.

"The applicant, I think, has paid for tickets to a Conservative Party event, that is apparently where the funds came from.

"Ministers have no knowledge of funds which are provided to political parties through donations or through payment for tickets - these are spendings made by donors which go to parties of all persuasions."

During the debate Mr Reed tweeted: “Why isn’t Robert Jenrick in the chamber to answer questions about his behaviour? 

“He’s sent a junior minister to do battle for him but apparently he’s on the estate and has been spotted in the tea room…"

The department for Housing, Communities & Local Government refused to confirm whether Mr Jenrick was on the Parliamentary estate, and defended the decision to send Mr Pincher to appear at the despatch box.

They said: “It is appropriate for the Housing Minister to respond to questions in the House on housing and planning matters."

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