Labour have demanded an investigation by the Prime Minister’s standards adviser into International Development Secretary Priti Patel’s meetings with the Israeli government, which they have said involved four “serious breaches” of the ministerial code of conduct.
Downing Street insisted that Theresa May continued to have confidence in Ms Patel after the Cabinet minister received a dressing down on Monday over her decision to conduct a series of meetings, including one with Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without informing the Foreign Office.
Meanwhile, Number 10 confirmed Ms Patel had discussed the possibility of UK aid being used to support medical assistance for refugees from the Syrian civil war arriving in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
But the PM’s official spokesman insisted that there had been no change in Government policy that the UK does not provide funding to the Israeli army.
In a letter to Mrs May, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said the PM should either call in her independent adviser on ministerial standards Sir Alex Allen or “state publicly and explain your full reasons for why Priti Patel retains your confidence despite clear breaches of the ministerial code”.
Mr Trickett said there were “strong grounds” to believe that Ms Patel had broken the code’s requirements for openness, collective responsibility, honesty and performing only those duties allocated to them by the PM.
“Given that it is reported you met Priti Patel yesterday and reminded her of her responsibilities under the ministerial code, I believe it important that either you or the Cabinet Secretary publicly set out whether you have determined that Priti Patel failed to adhere to the code and if that is the case, why she still remains a member of your Government,” wrote Mr Trickett.
Labour sought to force Ms Patel to explain herself in front of MPs by tabling an urgent question on the issue in the House of Commons.
But the Department for International Development said minister of state Alistair Burt would respond to the question from Mrs Patel’s shadow Kate Osamor.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox insisted Ms Patel did nothing “forbidden” in her secret meetings.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I find it utterly unsurprising that the International Aid Secretary would want to talk to charities while she is on holiday in a particular area about whether or not we can use the British aid budget to diminish the humanitarian problems of people in that area.”
On the issue of the meeting with Mr Netanyahu, Dr Fox said: “It’s not in any way forbidden to do that.”
But he added: “When I’m on holiday I doubt my wife would give me time off to do anything other than have a holiday.”
The Prime Minister was forced to remind Ms Patel of her obligations as a minister after it emerged that she took time out from a family holiday to meet Mr Netanyahu, other politicians, businesses and charities during a visit to Israel between August 13 and 25.
The meetings were arranged by the honorary president of the lobbying group Conservative Friends of Israel, Lord Polak, who also attended all but one.
On returning from her trip, Ms Patel commissioned Department for International Development (Dfid) work on disability and humanitarian and development partnerships between Israel and the UK.
Ms Patel only made Mrs May aware of the meetings on Friday, more than two months after they took place, when reports started to emerge of talks she held with a politician and a disability charity.
The minister has apologised and admitted a “lack of precision” for suggesting last week that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson knew about the trip, and that only two meetings had taken place when she attended 12.
Mrs May also took steps to tighten the ministerial code, asking Whitehall’s top civil servant Sir Jeremy Heywood to look at how it can be clarified.
But Mr Trickett said he was concerned that this suggested that the PM did not believe Ms Patel had breached the terms of the code in its current form.
Mr Burt said the International Development Secretary was travelling to Africa on pre-arranged Government business, adding she “did not suddenly contrive” the visit in the last 24 hours to avoid a Commons showdown.
Shadow international development secretary Kate Osamor said Ms Patel’s non-attendance was “simply unacceptable” and called for her to face a Cabinet Office investigation or do “the decent thing” and resign.
Speaker John Bercow later said he would “welcome” Ms Patel indicating that she wishes to make a statement to the Commons on November 13 about the controversy, although he told MPs: “That, I think, has to be for her to judge.”
Mr Burt faced cries of “Where is she?” from the opposition benches as he rose to respond to an urgent question over Ms Patel’s meetings in Israel which occurred when she is said to have been on a family holiday.
He said: “The Secretary of State is on a pre-arranged Government visit to Africa to focus on how we are breaking down barriers (to trade) and she is presently in the air.
“The Secretary of State realises in hindsight that these meetings were not arranged following the usual procedures and she has apologised for that.
“The Foreign Office has said that UK interests were not damaged or affected by the meetings on this visit.”
Ms Osamor said the British public were “outraged” that Ms Patel held “12 secret meetings in Israel, including with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without telling either the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister and was accompanied by a pro-Israeli lobbyist”.
She accused Ms Patel of having “misled” the public with comments she corrected on Monday.
Ms Osamor told MPs: “It is hard to think of a more black and white case of breaking the ministerial code of conduct but rather than change the minister, the Prime Minister somehow decided last night that it is the ministerial code itself that needs changing.”
Mr Burt said the Prime Minister “regards the matter as closed”, although Labour former minister Ben Bradshaw said: “It’s very difficult to know whether the Secretary of State for International Development or the Foreign Secretary (Boris Johnson) is the one who has the worst relationship with accuracy.
“If we had a Prime Minister who wasn’t so weak, both would have been sacked.”
Mr Burt faced several questions over when Ms Patel made the Foreign Office aware of her meetings, with the minister replying: “My understanding is Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials became aware of (Ms Patel’s) private visit on August 24 during the course of her visit.
“I don’t have the dates of all the meetings. I suspect it’s after the meetings took place but I believe it was (Ms Patel) who told the official abroad that she was there and she was having the visits.”