House of Commons
Tuesday 9 March 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Self-isolation: Financial Barriers
People who are instructed to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace and are on a qualifying means-tested benefit, unable to work from home and losing income as a result may be entitled to a payment of £500 from their local authority.
We need people to self-isolate to control transmission and ease restrictions, yet many are continuing to work as they cannot survive on £95.85 statutory sick pay per week. The Chancellor has been asked about this on numerous occasions, and it was disappointing that nothing new was announced in his Budget. Does the Minister agree that those who do not have access to occupational sick pay and cannot work from home should be eligible for the Test and Trace support payments?
The hon. Lady is right that many people —indeed, the majority of workers—will have support from employers above statutory sick pay, but it is for the reason she outlines that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor also announced that there will be a payment of £500 for those not qualifying for the means-tested benefit, paid through the discretionary scheme that was funded at the Budget and to be administered by local authorities.
Bradford Council has the highest demand for self-isolation payments in the country, reflecting the fact that most people in our city are unable to work from home. The standard scheme for people in receipt of certain benefits is fully funded, but the discretionary scheme, which the council must use for everyone else, is not. In fact, the funding for Bradford falls far short of demand, so will the Minister urgently look into this so that councils with a high demand can support all workers who need to self-isolate?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point, which is that there was a pressure on the scheme for local authorities. It is for exactly that reason that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget that there will be an increase to £20 million per month for the discretionary scheme. He also listened to representations from the hon. Lady and others about widening the scope of eligibility under that scheme.
The Government have now made available £20 million a month in discretionary self-isolation funding for local authorities, despite only making £15 million available for four months when the scheme first started, and because of this, hundreds of people in Blackburn have been denied support to self-isolate. Does the Minister now accept that initial allocations fell well below what was needed and contributed to the rise in cases, and does he think that that is fair on my constituents?
It is right that there was support in place, but it is also right that my right hon Friend the Chancellor has listened to points made by Members across the House, which is why the discretionary support has been increased and also why it has been extended to cover parents who are unable to work because they are caring for a child who is self-isolating and a number of other factors. I think that shows once again the willingness of this Government to respond to the path of the virus and to adapt our schemes to what is needed with, in particular, the extensive support that is now being offered and has throughout the pandemic been offered to local authorities.
In November, a constituent of mine was told to isolate via the NHS covid-19 app. She would have been eligible for the isolation payment, but as she was told to isolate via the app, she was never given an NHS Test and Trace account ID, and therefore her application could go no further. My constituent was affected financially as she could not work, and she has been going round in circles, even with my help, trying to access the payment. Can the Minister advise if my constituent can still access this payment retrospectively?
It is always difficult to comment without seeing the full facts of an individual case, and I know the hon. Lady is always an incredibly assiduous constituency Member and will ensure that the case is looked at. On the specifics, I would also point to the fact that there is a wider package of support as well. For example, in addition to the self-isolation payments, there is often eligibility for self-employed workers through the self-employed income support scheme. There is a wide range of measures, but obviously it will depend on the individual case.
Test and Trace has now been allocated £37 billion, but its head, Baroness Dido Harding, has told both the Public Accounts Committee and the Science and Technology Committee that the big struggle is to get people to isolate. So, although the Government have provided support for people to self-isolate, surely the Chief Secretary can go back and look again to ensure that what the Treasury is providing enables test, trace and isolate to be truly effective, or we are really not going to beat this pandemic?
The hon. Lady is right about the importance of Test and Trace; it is key to our unlocking the economy and to addressing the much more substantive costs in terms of the non-pharmaceutical interventions. As she will know as Chair of the PAC, while I as Chief Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will always look at the cost of Test and Trace, the bigger prize is getting our economy opened. On the substantive point the hon. Lady raises on the self-isolation payments, again I point to the fact that at the Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor increased the funding for discretionary support; that sits alongside the £500 itself, and is in addition to the wider support that the majority of employers provide.
The Government’s road map out lockdown says that self-isolation is critically important to halting the spread of disease, yet Baroness Harding has recently admitted that financial difficulties prevent people from self-isolating and a year ago the Health Secretary admitted he could not live on statutory sick pay of £94.25 a week. It is now £95.85 a week, so can the Minister explain why the Chancellor refuses simply to guarantee that anyone who has to rely on statutory sick pay or is unable to access even that should be eligible for the £500 payment?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman has actually read the Budget announcement made last week, because the discretionary element of the Test and Trace support payments applies even if people are not in receipt of means-tested benefits. So it does recognise the point raised by Members that it is important that there is an incentive for people to be tested; that is what the £500 payment through the Test and Trace system addresses. But in addition Members raised cases which were just outside the means-tested element of Test and Trace; that is the issue that the discretionary fund addresses, and it was dealt with in the Budget last week.
Covid-19: Support for Charity Sector
The Government have provided an unprecedented multibillion- pound package of support for Britain’s charities, including £750 million of dedicated funding that has helped more than 15,000 organisations across the country respond to the impacts of covid-19 and relieve the pressure on our NHS.
As we all know, yesterday marked International Women’s Day, a day when we celebrate and recognise the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. However, this pandemic has also shone a light on domestic abuse and the struggles of many women across the country, so will my right hon. Friend set out what steps he is taking to support charities in this field so we can ensure that victims and their children can access the support they need?
I join my hon. Friend in marking International Women’s Day yesterday, and he raises a very important issue. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the Budget last week committed a further £90 million of funding; that, of course, builds on the £125 million announced at the spending review and indeed the earlier £25 million that had also been provided, recognising the 65% increase in calls to the national domestic abuse hotline and the renewed focus within Government on this important issue.
Charities across these islands have done amazing work through the pandemic, so with the Finance Bill coming up will the Treasury reward the efforts of these charities and encourage the public to donate by temporarily increasing the rate of gift aid from 20% to 25% and expanding the small donations scheme to make gift aid much easier to claim?
I join the hon. Lady in recognising the huge contribution that charities have made. In respect of specific tax measures, obviously they were dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget last week, but I remind the hon. Lady of the £750 million of dedicated funding that has been provided to date in recognition of that important work.
Regional Equity of Infrastructure Investment
Once in every Parliament, the National Infrastructure Commission publishes a national infrastructure assessment. The first assessment was launched in July 2018, and the commission operates UK-wide.
Wales has 5% of the population but it has had only 2% of the railway enhancement investment over decades, and it has the lowest household income. Given that HS2 will not pass through Wales, will the Minister and the Treasury look very carefully at providing a high-speed rail link between Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea and beyond—over 3 million people live there—in line with the Burns review, to help the agenda for levelling up and connecting the Union, and to give us our fair share of rail investment based on need?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. Of course, he will be aware that the benefits of HS2 are not, by any means, just restricted to the cities that are on its route; it is a national project of significance. More widely, Wales has done very well in the last Budget, if I might remind him more generally, with accelerated funding for the Swansea bay, north Wales and mid-Wales city growth deals, money for the hydrogen hub and, of course, £30 million towards the global centre of rail excellence in Neath Port Talbot. What I would say, though, is that of course we do now have a UK infrastructure bank, which will be looking at issues of infrastructure across the country, including in the devolved Administrations.
Covid-19: Support for Business
The Government are providing over £407 billion-worth of support for the UK economy over this year and next. Contained within that is considerable support for business, through discounted loans, cash grants, VAT reductions and tax deferrals, all designed to help business get through this crisis and protect as many jobs as possible.
I very much welcome the £25 million that Ipswich will be getting through a town deal, and the creation of Freeport East. Some 6,000 of my constituents are employed, directly or indirectly, through the port of Felixstowe. The town deal will create a new tech campus and a maritime skills academy to feed jobs—high-skilled jobs—in the area. Therefore, does the Chancellor agree that both the town deal money and the new freeport, together, will be vital to the creation of new local skills in Ipswich and therefore crucial to supporting local business at this difficult time?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I congratulate him; he has long campaigned on the importance of a town deal for his local community and, indeed, a freeport. I am delighted that this Budget could deliver both of those for his constituents and I agree with him that it will deliver growth, jobs and prosperity to his local area.
I thank the Chancellor for his earlier response. The measures in the Budget provided a lifeline to high streets in my constituency, from Westerham to Swanley. In particular, the restart grants are much anticipated. Can the Chancellor confirm when local authorities will be able to begin distributing these vital grants?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must get support to businesses as quickly as possible. I am pleased to confirm to her that guidance will be published, hopefully by the end of this week, for local authorities, and that the restart grants, which are designed to take the place of our grant scheme that runs out at the end of April, will be distributed to local authorities in the first full week—the week commencing 5 April. I hope that is a reassurance to her and her businesses, and that local authorities can get the cash to them at this vital time.
The scale of support for businesses has been truly outstanding, but may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the coach industry? Pre-pandemic, it already found itself heavily indebted because of requirements that the state put on it, such as the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000 and Euro 6 requirements, so will he look again at how the coach industry can be supported, given the level of debt it is already in?
I thank my hon. Friend for shining a spotlight on this important industry; he is right to do so. I know that he will be talking to the Department for Transport about regulations for the industry, but I can tell him that we will be providing local authorities with discretionary funding of around £425 million to sit alongside the restart grants. That money, at the discretion of local areas, can be used to support businesses such as coach businesses in their areas.
I just want to take this opportunity to thank the Chancellor for the way in which he has engaged with me and other Members representing coastal communities throughout the lifetime of the pandemic. I know the extensive measures he has put in place, particularly for the hospitality sector, will make a huge difference to those businesses surviving. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to monitor and work with me to ensure that local businesses get all the support they need for their continued recovery?
My hon. Friend has been instrumental in providing on-the-ground information to me and my team about the particular situation facing hospitality businesses in coastal communities like his. He is an absolute champion for them and rightly so. They are an important part of his local economy and I am glad that this Budget supported them. He has my assurance that we will continue to work with him and them to get them the support that they deserve.
The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that £27 billion-worth of loans made under coronavirus loan schemes will never be repaid. Why is the Chancellor insisting that banks pursue that as conventional business debt, when the circumstances that gave rise to those loans are anything but conventional? Would lifting the debt burden on businesses and turning it into a contingent tax liability not help to fire up the economy, set business free and really get Britain moving again?
What we have done is provide a scheme called Pay as You Grow to give businesses incredible flexibility and generosity in how they repay bounce back loans. Those loans at an instant can be turned automatically into 10-year loans, which reduces the monthly cash payment by almost 50%. Beyond that, there are opportunities for interest-only periods and payment holidays, all of which will support the cash flow of businesses. We also have to get a balance with the taxpayer in all of this, which is why we have taken the approach we have. I am sad that the right hon. Gentleman did not also welcome the £25 million of investment in his local community through a town deal in this Budget, which will help local businesses there as well.
The Save our Salons campaign presented to the gaps in support all-party group this morning. It remains hugely frustrated that the hair, beauty and holistic service industry has had no sector-specific support from the Chancellor, despite contributing £9.2 billion to the economy. Can the Chancellor explain why he has decided to ignore the calls from this largely female industry to chop VAT to 5%?
With regard to VAT, I am sure the hon. Lady knows that the majority of businesses in the personal care sector are below the VAT threshold, so they do not actually pay any VAT. What we did do is include that sector in the more generous restart grants, so, depending on their rateable value, businesses in that sector, like those in hospitality, will be able to receive grants of up to £18,000.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement in the Budget of the super deduction, which will definitely have a very positive impact on investment. Of course, it will primarily do that by pulling forward what would have been future investment into a more recent time period. What measures is my right hon. Friend looking to, to ensure that that increase in corporate investment in the shorter term is continued into the medium and longer term?
I am glad my right hon. Friend recognises the importance of the super deduction. He is right that it will bring forward investment, but I believe it will also increase the amount of investment as well, given the attractiveness of doing so. What I would point him to are a couple of other announcements in the Budget. One is a consultation to reform our research and development tax credits regime, which we hope to conduct over the course of this year to make sure of support for investment in R&D in a way that reflects current R&D practices. Secondly, our freeports agenda contains enhanced capital allowances, and structures and building allowances, which last well beyond the period of the super deduction and will serve as an incentive for capital investment in those areas for years to come.
Covid-19: Support for Job Retention
In July last year, the OBR forecast unemployment to peak at around just under 12%. Now, because of policy development, it has forecast a much lower peak of 6.5%. That means 1.8 million fewer people who are expected to lose their jobs. Whether it is through interventions such as the furlough scheme, we remain committed to protecting, supporting and creating jobs.
The furlough scheme has helped to protect 11.2 million jobs across the UK, including nearly 6,000 jobs in my Birmingham, Northfield constituency, so I take this opportunity to thank the Chancellor for the extension until September. Does he agree that this will give businesses the vital breathing space needed to be able to plan as we go along the Prime Minister’s road map?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of protecting jobs. The extension of the furlough scheme on generous terms beyond the end of the road map is designed to give his local businesses and others the reassurance that they need to reopen safely and confidently. I know he will be keen to protect as many of those jobs as possible in his local area and I am delighted that this Government can support him in doing so.
A SAGE—Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies —adviser is reported to have said:
“I thought the chancellor was in charge. He was the main person who was responsible for the second wave.”
Does the Chancellor accept that his refusal to follow the science by pitting public health against the economy led to worse outcomes for both?
I urge the hon. Lady to be a little bit careful about what she reads in the newspaper. At all steps in this crisis, we have indeed taken the advice of our scientific advisers. Let us go back to September, which I think is what she is referring to. At that time—as she knows from the SAGE minutes herself, which are published, rather than unsourced quotes in newspapers—the evidence was finely balanced and there were many things for Ministers to consider. The consideration at that point was that the tiered system was working and deserved to be given a chance.
UK Fiscal Policy: Living Standards (Scotland)
I have frequent discussions with the Scottish Government Finance Secretary and spoke to her ahead of the Budget last week.
Despite furlough, high streets face devastation—first shops and now pubs, an even harder space to fill. Was the Budget not an opportunity to support what are community assets in urban as well as rural areas and where alcohol consumption is supervised and not unchecked? With supermarkets having made huge profits during lockdown, much of that through alcohol sales, is it not time to support the Social Market Foundation’s call to increase alcohol duty on off-trade to sustain the on-trade in our communities?
Many businesses across Scotland argued for the alcohol freeze, not least the Scottish whisky industry. They also argued for the fuel freeze, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor delivered. I am also surprised, when the hon. Gentleman talks of community, that he does not even recognise the extra capacity funding that his community received in the Budget. With all these things that impact the community, clearly, the additional £1.2 billion of funding received by the Scottish Government through Barnett consequentials at the Budget will again enable the Scottish Government to work with the UK Government to deliver better services in his community.
The poverty Chancellor has refused to make permanent the £20 universal credit increase and apply it to legacy benefits, with 75% of those affected being disabled. If he refuses to change course, 60,000 Scots, including 20,000 children, will be left in poverty and forced to decide between heating and eating. If the Minister was in their position, what would he choose: heating or eating?
First, as was set out in analysis published with the Budget, the measures that the Government have taken have supported the poorest working households the most. Secondly, the hon. Lady also failed to mention the additional capacity funding for her community that was announced at the Budget. Thirdly, the Scottish Government requested specific powers in respect of benefits and tax, and, of course, they have the option to use those powers that they said that they wanted.
As the Minister will be aware, the £20 uplift to universal credit has been a lifeline during the pandemic. Many families in my constituency are devastated that the uplift is set to end in September. With the Scottish Government committed to tackling child poverty, including through the game-changer Scottish child payment, the UK Government-imposed cliff edge could pose a significant setback. Does the Minister agree that plunging children and families into poverty, whether it is now or in September, is a callous act, and will he commit to a permanent uplift to universal credit?
We have managed to get a hat trick, because the hon. Lady also received capacity funding for her own area at the Budget but chose not to mention that funding, which will help the families she referred to. It is also slightly odd for her to talk about plunging into something when the Chancellor has announced an extension. Coupled with that, and the UK-wide measures that were set out at the Budget—including measures such as freezing fuel duty, which will help many families in her own constituency—there was an additional £1.2 billion of funding for the Scottish Government and the powers to which I referred in my previous answer. Therefore, many families have been helped, including 480,000 existing claimants in Scotland as well as new claimants, and the families helped through the £500 one- off payment that was announced at the Budget. There was a strong package of support for Scotland, none of which she chose to mention in her question.
Improving transport connectivity across the UK is central to the Government’s levelling up agenda, and local residents across the UK will benefit from upgrades to infrastructure that improve everyday life as a result of the launch of the £4.8 billion levelling up fund. The Government have also maintained their commitment to already announced transport investment through the transforming cities fund and the roads investment strategy, and Budget 2021 confirmed capacity funding allocations for the £4.2 billion of intra-city transport settlements, so that the city regions receiving settlements can develop investment-ready transport plans to deliver on local priorities.
Politicians of all parties have been promising to build the Mottram bypass for more than 50 years. I am really pleased that Highways England and Balfour Beatty recently signed a contract to build the bypass, and a formal consultation has now been carried out on the detailed proposals, meaning that we are closer than we have ever been before to finally getting it built. Can the Minister assure me that the Government remain committed to building the bypass as soon as possible? The people of Glossop and Hadfield have waited long enough.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has been a vociferous supporter of this scheme and I can happily confirm that the Government remain committed to upgrading the A57 so as to improve connectivity between Manchester and Sheffield. The development consent order is on track to be submitted shortly and construction is expected to start in early 2023.
Investing in improved transport infrastructure is well recognised by this Government as a necessity for turbocharging our economy and levelling up. Beautiful Hastings and Rye has some of the most antiquated road and rail infrastructure in the country, which discourages new businesses from locating there and inhibits economic growth. Network Rail is currently finalising a strategic business case for HS1. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that funding will be available to finance such a vital project?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the strategic outline business case for the Kent and East Sussex coastal connectivity scheme includes proposals to extend HS1 services from Ashford International to Hastings and Rye. It is currently being taken forward by Network Rail and is due to be submitted to the Department for Transport in April 2021. It will then be reviewed by the Department and by stakeholders in Kent and East Sussex County Councils.
Improving road and rail connections across all four nations of the UK will improve the quality of life for our communities and I am really looking forward to seeing the Hendy review this summer. However, there is no doubt that it will take the aviation sector longer than most to recover from the crisis. Taxes, including air passenger duty, need urgent reform to help the industry to get back on its feet. What plans does the Treasury have to remove the double charging of domestic air passenger duty, a call backed by regional airports including Exeter in my constituency and Newquay, which particularly rely on domestic flights to all corners of the United Kingdom?
The Treasury is committed to consulting on aviation tax reform. As part of that, we will consider the APD treatment of domestic flights. Unfortunately, the consultation has been delayed in recognition of the rather challenging circumstances that the aviation industry is currently facing, but we will update the House on this in due course.
Car ownership in Maltby in Rother Valley is lower than the national average and buses provide a vital lifeline. However, our services are severely lacking. You cannot get a direct bus between Maltby, my largest town, and Dinnington, my second largest town and, if you do take public transport, that five-mile journey takes almost an hour. What fiscal steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that communities in Rother Valley are linked up, so that those without cars have the same opportunities to be economically active, to get to and from jobs and even to go shopping as those with cars?
It is no secret that bus services are close to the Prime Minister’s heart. The Government have committed to improving bus services and since the start of the pandemic have supported operators with more than £1 billion of funding, as well as with £120 million at the spending review for the delivery of new zero emission buses. The national bus strategy is due to be published soon and will start to set out this wider ambition. I am also pleased to note that Budget 2020 allocated £166 million to the Sheffield city region from the transforming cities fund to support local transport investment, including bus infrastructure.
To deliver transport connectivity in every part of the United Kingdom, we need long-term investment in infrastructure but, staggeringly, the OBR analysis reveals that the Chancellor has cut capital investment plans by half a billion pounds since last March. The Budget also made no mention of Northern Powerhouse Rail and slashed the Transport for the North budget by 40%. Can the Minister explain why the reality of the Budget on infrastructure investment is so far from this Government’s rhetoric?
I do not recognise the figures the hon. Lady has used at all. The facts are that this Government published the “National Infrastructure Strategy” in November, which set out plans for £300 billion-worth of public investment over the next few years, as well as supporting £300 billion of private investment. Since then, the Chancellor has announced the new UK infrastructure bank, which will further support the development of infrastructure and levelling up, and the development of our green infrastructure across the UK.
Covid-19: Debt Owed by Developing Countries
The Chancellor regularly engages with his international partners in the G7, G20 and the Paris Club on debt issues, including private sector participation in debt restructurings, and Treasury officials are also engaging with the private sector on this issue.
As the Government slash international aid, covid-19 could push up to 150 million people globally into extreme poverty, yet many banks and asset managers operating in the UK, including HSBC, BlackRock and J.P. Morgan, continue to demand debt repayments from developing countries, leaving them with less money to respond to covid-19. Will the Government urgently introduce new legislation to prevent developing countries from being sued in UK courts by banks, asset managers and vulture funds if they are unable to pay their debts as a result of the pandemic?
I note the hon. Lady’s long-standing interest in this subject, but I want to state clearly that the Government support the role of the low-income developing countries to be supported by the UK’s G7 presidency. We have made clear our expectation that the private sector and the firms she mentioned will offer debt treatment on at least as favourable terms as the official sector, under the common framework, as agreed by the G20 last November.
Covid-19: Ineligibility for Income Support Schemes
In order to support people through the next stages of the pandemic, the Government have extended both the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme through to September, which will help millions of people up and down the country.
I thank the Chancellor for his answer. The Welsh Labour Government this week announced a further £30 million to support hospitality and tourism, and freelancers working in our creative sectors are going to get a further round of support worth £8.9 million—this is targeting support to fill gaps left by the Chancellor. I accept that many people have had welcome support, but huge numbers of people are coming up to a year of little or no support because they have been excluded from UK Government support over the past year. What will the Chancellor do for all those excluded, left out and left behind the curve over the past year?
I am glad the Welsh Government will receive more than £740 million in Barnett consequentials as a result of this Budget, which works for the whole United Kingdom. With regard to the self-employment scheme, what I can say is that we are now able to bring in those people who filed tax returns for the first time in the tax year 2019-20. That was something that many colleagues asked for. I am pleased that we were able to deliver that now that the tax deadline has passed, and it means that more than 600,000 more people will be able to benefit from this world-leading support for the self-employed.
Covid-19: Support for the Self-Employed
The Government have announced that the self-employment income support scheme will continue until September, with a fourth and a fifth grant. This provides certainty to business as the economy reopens and it means that the self-employment income support scheme continues to be one of the most generous covid-19 support schemes for self-employment income around the world.
That is welcome for those who qualify for it, but a year ago it was the Chancellor who said that he would do “whatever it takes” to protect people. There are still millions of self-employed people without any support since this crisis started and they will not forget that either. It is untenable. Why will Ministers not finally act and do whatever it takes to ensure that this important sector of the economy also has the chance to succeed post the pandemic?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of course, we have put in place £407 billion-worth of support across the whole of the pandemic, which is an astonishing level of support for a very wide range of businesses and people across the country. In relation to the self-employed, he may not be aware, but I have bent over backwards to engage with different groups of the self-employed. Repeatedly, across different meetings, we have looked with the greatest care at the proposals that they have put forward to bring in people who may not be able to qualify at the moment. As the Chancellor mentioned, 600,000 people previously ineligible may now be eligible, including those newly self-employed in 2019-20.
The Government may well throw these figures about, but we know that 3.8 million self-employed people have had no financial support throughout this whole pandemic. Freelancers, small companies and other people across Bolton and this country want the Chancellor to recognise the fact that his continued silence is just not good enough.
In mentioning Bolton, the hon. Lady somehow neglected to mention the £22.9 million-worth of towns funding that Bolton has recently received. I thought that she might kick off with that. The answer that I gave was perfectly clear about the matter: we are bending over backwards to support people. We have leant into this issue as hard as we can and we will continue to do so.
National Living Wage
As the Chancellor reaffirmed at the Budget, the Government are increasing the national living wage by 2.2% from £8.72 to £8.91, an above-inflation pay rise. The Government remain committed to their ambitious target for the national living wage to reach two thirds of median earnings by 2024 provided that economic conditions allow. The Treasury will continue to work closely with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that we reach this target.
In welcoming the Government’s generous economic support packages and the increase in the national living wage, may I just ask the Minister to consider further increasing it ahead of inflation in the years ahead to help achieve our one nation agenda and ensure that work pays? I suggest that, combined with an effective and controlled immigration policy, that will also encourage businesses to invest in their workforce and in research and development generally, which will help to improve productivity.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He should know that the Government remain committed to ensuring that work pays and to helping to end low pay. As he knows, investment to raise productivity is vital for long-term sustainable growth in wages. I am sure that his request is one that we will consider, as always, in future Budgets. Taxes and minimum wages are always under review, but this Government are absolutely focused on levelling up. We have set out our plan to build back better, which will drive economic growth that levels up the whole of the UK through significant investment in infrastructure as well as skills and innovation.
Taking into account all the measures announced since last March, this Government are providing more than £400 billion of direct fiscal support to the economy over this year and next. That will rank as one of the most comprehensive and generous responses of any country anywhere in the world.
[Inaudible]—and the further support announced for businesses. The extension of the VAT and the business rates holiday, alongside the restart grants, are particularly welcome for businesses in my constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, especially on our high streets. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these steps will support our short-term economic recovery, and ensure that businesses have the breathing space to protect jobs as they begin to bounce back?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our priority economically is to protect, support and create as many jobs as possible, and the support that we have provided to businesses will help to do that. My hon. Friend talks about breathing space; he is right to say that measures to improve businesses’ cash flow in the short term will help give them the breathing space they need to drive our recovery as they begin to reopen in the coming months.
Last week I presented to the House a Budget to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people, confirming more than £400 billion of support over this year and next, ranking as one of the most comprehensive responses of any country anywhere in the world. We also set out a fair and honest plan to begin fixing our public finances while also starting the work of building our future economy.
I cannot comment on ongoing negotiations; we remain committed to a constructive dialogue with our European partners regarding the memorandum of understanding, and I can confirm that those discussions are under way. With regard to financial services, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman saw the announcement of our listings review. I thank Jonathan Hill for his excellent work. We will take forward those reforms together with the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that the UK remains one of the most attractive places anywhere in the world for companies to raise the finance they need to empower their future growth.
My right hon. Friend has raised this industry with me multiple times, and he is right to do so. Although some food and drink wholesalers have been significantly impacted, others—for example, those that predominately serve the public sector—have not been, so I do not think it would be fair to provide blanket support. He talked about a postcode lottery. The other side of that coin is empowering local government and local decision making, and I believe that is the right approach. We have announced £425 million of additional discretionary support to local authorities, but I am sure that his raising the issue in the House in this way will give his local council and others the steer they need to direct support to this important industry.
In 2017 the Chancellor asked a Member of this House whether Labour’s proposed increase in corporation tax
“would make it more or less likely that international investors would want to invest here in the UK?”—[Official Report, 12 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 218WH.]
What’s the answer, Chancellor?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady is raising the topic of corporation tax at this Budget. I feel that we have had various different versions of the Labour party policy on this topic over the past couple of weeks. What I can say is that we are honest with the British people about the challenges facing our public finances, and we have set out a fair and honest way to address those challenges. This will remain one of the most internationally competitive places anywhere in the world to invest, to grow a business and to create jobs, and this Government will always deliver on that promise.
Last week, the Chancellor said he wanted to “level with” the public. He mentioned a moment ago that he wanted to take an honest approach. Well, the head of the NHS just confirmed that he budgeted for the 2.1% pay rise that nurses expected, so we need a straight answer now from the Chancellor: why do the Conservatives believe that our nurses are worth less now than they were before the pandemic?
I pay tribute to all those working on the frontline of our NHS and other public services. They are doing a fantastic job, and that is why this Government have supported the NHS with tens of billions of pounds of extra funding through this pandemic and will continue to do so. With regard to public sector pay, we set out a policy in November, but, given the situation, we were taking a more targeted approach to public sector pay to balance fairness and to protect as many jobs as possible. The hon. Lady will know that the NHS was exempted from that policy and NHS workers will receive a pay rise next year.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this important issue, as he has done with me several times on behalf of his local businesses. He is right that we are reviewing business rates. We are in the midst of that process. The next stage will be to publish all the consultation responses that we have received, which will happen shortly, and we will take forward the policy process over the course of this year. We outlined many options for potential reforms in the paper. I look forward to receiving from him some ideas on what the reforms might be. In the short term, we are providing a £6 billion tax cut in business rates, delivering a 75% discount on business rates for the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses as they emerge from this pandemic.
This Government are committed to record amounts of investment in infrastructure, both road and rail, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary earlier. The Budget announced upgrades for several stations in and around the midlands after representations that we heard from the fantastic Mayor, Andy Street, about the needs of his area. We remain committed to publishing the integrated rail plan in due course.
What a fantastically niche question from my hon. Friend, and how delighted I am to be able to answer it. He will know that scoring is a matter for the OBR. As the Budget policy costings in the Budget 2021 document set out, the costing for corporation tax has been adjusted to reflect behavioural responses to an increase in the rate of corporation tax. It is important to be clear that dynamic scoring can include a number of potential behavioural responses, such as adjustments to reflect the impact on the incentive to incorporate, on profit shifting, and on investment. If he is so minded, he can find further detail on page 196 of the OBR’s “Economic and fiscal outlook”.
I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and discuss that matter in more detail. As he will recognise, one of the features of the Budget was the number of UK-wide measures, but at the same time he is quite right to point to the additional £2.4 billion of Barnett consequential funding that was allocated to the devolved Administrations, which has enabled them to apply further support as a result of the fiscal strength that is offered by the UK Treasury. I am of course happy to discuss the specific point with him in more detail.
The Foreign Secretary is continuing to look very carefully at the legislative requirements and will set out further detail in due course on how the Government intend to proceed.
The hon. Gentleman will know we are carrying out an alcohol duty review that will look at all these decisions in the round, and I am very happy to speak to him in more detail specifically about any particular schemes or requests that he has.
The Government are supporting these businesses through new restart grants—a one-off cash grant of up to £6,000 per business premises for non-essential retailers in England—and up to £18,000 for hospitality and leisure businesses. They will also benefit from a five-month extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme, a further 12 months’ relief from business rates and a new UK-wide recovery loan scheme. Tony’s Deli, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and other businesses serving hot food can also enjoy a 12-month VAT cut at 5% until the end of September, and at 12.5% until the end of March.
A majority of those working in the public sector will see an increase in their pay this forthcoming year as a result of our pay policy. Importantly, those earning less than the median UK salary will receive a £250 increase in their pay, because we want to protect those on the lowest incomes. Even at a difficult time, that is what this Government are committed to doing.
We are committed to improving skills in the economy and levelling up productivity across England. That will be achieved through our lifetime skills guarantee and further reforms, which will create jobs and opportunity across the country, supporting us to build back better from the coronavirus pandemic. We will provide further detail and a full conclusion to the review of post-18 education and funding at the next comprehensive spending review. I thank my hon. Friend and the Open University for their engagement on this so far.
With respect, the hon. Lady is simply wrong on the facts with her question. Under the Agenda for Change three-year award, the average increase this year was 2.5%, not the figure she alluded to. But of course, the Government have asked the pay review body to consider a number of factors and, as is normal practice, the Department of Health and Social Care has set out what is affordable within its budgets.
Freeports will be national hubs for international trade, innovation and commerce and they will regenerate communities across the UK. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government led a fair, open and transparent selection process to determine successful freeport locations in England. Unfortunately, as with any competitive process, there will always be those that are unsuccessful, and I am afraid there are no plans to designate other freeports in England. Freeports are part of a wider package of UK Government support, which invests in skills, infrastructure and innovation at local, regional and national levels. As part of that package, Blyth was awarded £11 million through the future high streets fund in December and is also one of 101 towns eligible for up to £25 million funding from the towns fund.
The Government are committed to encouraging business investment in Doncaster and its surrounding area, and at the Budget we confirmed £23 million funding for Goldthorpe’s town deal—just due west of the town—and that will boost economic growth and encourage business investment in the area. MHCLG is currently assessing the remaining 49 towns fund bids, including those from Doncaster and Stainforth; we will make further announcements on those in due course.
Covid-19: Government’s Publication of Contracts
Although I am not the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I hope the hon. Lady will none the less allow me to respond to her urgent question.
The first duty of any Government in a crisis is protecting their citizens, so our work to provide personal protective equipment was a critical part of our response. It was a herculean effort that involved setting up a new logistics network from scratch and expanding our PPE supply chain from 226 NHS trusts in England to more than 58,000 different settings. Our team has been working night and day on this vital national effort, and I can update the House that we have now delivered more than 8.8 billion items of PPE to those who need it. That work was taking place at a time when global demand was greater than ever before and rapid action was required, so we had to work at an unprecedented pace to get supplies to our frontline and the public.
Two weeks ago, in response to an urgent question from the hon. Lady, I updated the House on the initial High Court ruling. I will not set out that judgment at length once again, save to say that the case looked not at the awarding of the contracts, but rather at the delays in publishing the details of them as we responded to one of the greatest threats to public health that this country has ever seen. The hon. Lady’s question refers to a short declaratory judgment handed down subsequent to the original judgment in this matter, which makes a formal order as to the Government’s compliance with the relevant regulatory rules.
As before, I reiterate that we of course take the judgment of the Court very seriously and respect it. We have always been clear that transparency is vital, and the Court itself has found that there was no deliberate policy to delay publication. The fight against covid-19 is ongoing. As would be expected, we are agreeing new contracts as part of that fight all the time, and we will keep publishing details of them as we move forward.
I care passionately about transparency, and so does everyone in my Department. We will of course continue to look at how we can improve our response while we tackle one of the greatest threats to our public health that this nation has ever seen.
This question and the answers to it really matter because our frontline workers were not adequately protected with the high-quality PPE that they needed during the pandemic. They matter because it is essential that taxpayers’ money is spent effectively and fairly, not handed out to those who happen to have close links with the party of government.
The Government ran down the PPE stockpile ahead of the pandemic, and that came back to haunt us when we needed it most. Contracts were handed out—many to friends of and donors linked to the Conservative party —without any transparency. The Good Law Project took the Government to court, and on 19 February the High Court ruled that the Government had acted unlawfully, saying:
“The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the…contracts were awarded.”
Three days later, in this House, the Prime Minister said that
“the contracts are there on the record for everybody to see”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 638.]
But they are not. A judge confirmed through a court order last Friday that 100 contracts are still to be published. Will the Minister now take this opportunity to apologise for that statement and to put the record straight? Will the Government now finally agree to publish all 100 outstanding contracts by the end of this week?
For contracts that have failed, will the Minister tell us how much money has been and will be clawed back for taxpayers? Can he tell us which businesses were in the VIP fast lane for getting Government contracts and how they got there? Finally, can he honestly tell our brilliant NHS nurses, now facing a pay cut, that the Government have not wasted a single penny of their money on this curious incident of the missing contracts?
It is a pleasure to be opposite the hon. Lady once again at the Dispatch Box—two weeks after we were last here. I will do my best to answer the questions she raised, not just for my own Department, but more broadly across Government.
The hon. Lady raised a number of points. She is absolutely right to say that transparency matters, because transparency of procurement and transparency in Government is one of the foundations of the trust that is so vital to our democracy. That is why we are working flat out to ensure that, as new contracts are awarded, the contract award notices and other relevant pieces of information are published in line with the requirements of regulations.
What is most important, though, is to recognise the situation that we faced last year, with rising infection rates, rising hospitalisation rates and the need to do everything we could—to “strain every sinew”, to quote one of the hon. Lady’s letters to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at the time—to make sure we got those working flat out on the frontline what they needed to keep them safe. I pay tribute to the officials in my Department, who did exactly that: they focused on getting what was needed in bulk in an incredibly challenging global market, to make sure that PPE did not run out.
The hon. Lady quite rightly quoted the judgment, and I will quote paragraph 149 of the judgment—the original judgment, not the supplementary judgment. The judge, Mr Justice Chamberlain, stated that
“the overall picture shows the Secretary of State moving close to complete compliance. The evidence as a whole suggests that the backlog arose largely in the first few months of the pandemic and that officials began to bear down on it during the autumn of 2020.”
I think that recognises the efforts that have been put in place to ensure that we meet our transparency requirements. One hundred per cent. of the Department’s CANs—contract aware notices—have been published.
The hon. Member asked a particular question in referring to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s comments on 22 February—I hope I am correct in surmising that. My right hon. Friend was responding to a question around the failure to publish the details of specific contracts that are subject to judicial reviews. I am advised that, at the time of his statement, the details for all the contracts under scrutiny were published.
As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption and responsible tax, I think that the Government’s following robust procurement measures is absolutely critical, but clearly a year ago we were not in normal circumstances; most reasonable people would accept that desperate times called for desperate measures. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are now following all normal, standard procurement processes? Will he confirm what percentage of the contracts from a year ago have been fully published and when the remainder will be published?
My hon. Friend highlights the situation we faced at the time. He also, quite rightly, highlights the importance of transparency and complying with all transparency processes. The Government invoked regulation 32, which recognised the exceptional circumstances that allowed for procurement without the usual tendering process. I believe that the usual tendering process could take, at a minimum, 25 days. My hon. Friend recalls the situation at the time. The Government did what we felt was right to ensure that we got the PPE that our frontline needed. The court case also found that there was no policy to deprioritise compliance with transparency regulations. I give him the assurance he seeks: the Government are doing everything possible to ensure that we fully comply with those regulations going forward.
Some 94% of contracts awarded before 7 October were, unlawfully, not published in time and, as of late last week, 100 are still not published. Some 58% were awarded without a competitive tendering process. There are conflicts of interest, inadequate documentation, a high-priority crony lane and then the Prime Minister announcing that all of the contracts were,
“on the record for everybody to see”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 631.]
When he said that, it was simply not correct. Is the Minister not concerned that this failure in transparency, the potential conflicts of interest and a Prime Minister who does not even appear to know what is going on, simply feeds a perception of a Government doing profitable deals with friends and cronies, rather than delivering meaningful transparency that will drive value for money for the taxpayer?
The right hon. Gentleman highlights quite accurately the 94%, which was cited in the subsequent judgment and the order that flowed from it, of the contracts that were late in publication. We accept that that is a statement of fact. The Department has published 100% of the CANs that it is obliged to publish that are related to this matter. He talked about a percentage that were procured without following a normal competitive tendering process—I think he referred to 58% as the percentage that were procured. That is entirely appropriate under regulation 32, recognising the situation we faced at the time and the priority of this Government to make sure that, at pace, we got the PPE that our frontline needed to keep it safe.
On his final two points, I do not see in the judgments in this case or in any of the other scrutiny of this issue by Committees of this House or other organisations anything that asserts or finds that inappropriate conflicts of interest influenced how these contracts were awarded. I am proud to serve in a Government led by a Prime Minister who leads from the front and has done whatever is necessary to make sure this country gets through this pandemic.
This time last year, there was a desperate need to secure PPE urgently when, almost overnight, it became one of the most hotly sought-after commodities globally. I congratulate the Department on its Herculean efforts to keep my residents safe and get them the PPE they needed when the shortage hit. Of course, delays to publication are not ideal, and I am glad that the Department is urgently trying to resolve that. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as part of the review into the pandemic, we need to look at how procurement procedures can be improved when responding to a national crisis or, indeed, future pandemics?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on this issue; he is a strong and vocal champion for the NHS and those who work in it. The context he sets is absolutely right. I will quote from the summary of the NAO report without making a value judgment on it. It highlighted in paragraph 2:
“Demand for PPE rocketed in England from March…There was also a surge in demand in other countries. At the same time, the global supply of PPE declined as a result of a fall in exports from China (the country that manufactures the most PPE) in February.”
That is a statement of fact, and it highlights the context in which we were operating.
My hon. Friend is right: all Governments should rightly look at what they have done and what lessons they can learn, to ensure that they are well prepared for future events.
On 22 February, the Prime Minister answered my question about unpublished covid contracts by claiming:
“As for the contracts…all the details are on the record”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 634.]
Two days later, when the Minister was dragged to the Chamber, he did not tell us about the 100 contracts that were still not on the record. We had to wait for the High Court to reveal that last Friday. Are we expected to believe that the Prime Minister had not sought any briefing after the High Court found that his Secretary of State had acted unlawfully? If he sought no facts, why did he give such a categorical yet wildly inaccurate reply, and why was that inaccurate reply not corrected two days later by the Minister?
At the point in time to which the hon. Lady is referring—22 February, when she asked the Prime Minister her question—I understand that we had published 100% of our contract award notices for contracts of the Department that were subject to the Court case, and I believe the Prime Minister spoke accurately.
Notwithstanding the answer that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), does he agree with my constituents and I that, during a national emergency, the British people want a Government who focus resources on saving lives over prioritising red tape?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the point he makes on behalf of his constituents. The overwhelming priority was to ensure that we got the PPE in the quantities we needed to our frontline, and we procured that in an incredibly challenging environment. I pay tribute to all the officials who worked flat out to do that. The Court judgment found that there was no policy of deprioritisation of meeting transparency requirements, but it also found as a matter of fact, which is clear in the judgment, that that bar was not met. That is something we have worked very hard on subsequently and continue to do so, to ensure that transparency requirements are met.
It feels a bit like groundhog day. Once again, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has overall responsibility for procurement, is missing in action, and the Health Minister has come to the House to talk about how breathlessly urgent it all was at the beginning of the pandemic—I do not disagree with that, but it is not an excuse for not publishing these contracts in time. With contracts worth more than £10 billion awarded without tendering action between the beginning of the pandemic and July, seeing that paperwork urgently is more important, not less. If the paperwork is still not being published in time—and this goes back to the problems we discussed two weeks ago—can the Minister not just apologise and give a firm commitment that from now on, every contract will be published in time? It is either insouciance or incompetence that they were not published in the first place.
I have known the hon. Lady since I came to this House, so I will not take it personally if she suggests that, as I am not the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the import of my answers is in some way diminished. I will endeavour to answer her specific questions. As I made clear, we have published 100% of the CANs that give the information on the contracts awarded—in the context of this case, the contracts awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care.
However, the hon. Lady asked a very fair question at the end about the future, and I can give her the reassurance that this Department is doing everything possible to ensure that it meets those transparency requirements. Officials are aware of them and officials are reminded of them. I recognise the vital importance of transparency, not least for building trust, which she mentioned last time in her question, but in allowing her, the NAO and other Members of this House to do their job, quite rightly, in scrutinising and challenging those contracts and Government decisions, where appropriate.
I am quite sure that Ministers want these contracts published, and I look forward to the remaining publications. Will the Minister confirm that in the emergency phase, when it was just desperate to get hold of PPE, all those contracts were negotiated and vetted by independent professional civil servants, and it was not a case of friends of Ministers?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I am happy to say he is absolutely right. He has a lot of experience in government and in this space. All those contracts and all assessments of contracts, whichever route they came via, went through the eight-stage process of assessment by independent civil servants who know commerce and know procurement. I would not for a moment cast aspersions on their judgment, and Ministers did not determine which contracts were or were not awarded in that context.
Given the number of fast-track VIP covid contracts that have resulted in unusable protective equipment, will the Minister commit to recovering public money from the companies that did not meet their contractual obligations? Does he agree that those hundreds of millions of pounds might have been better spent on a decent pay rise for the NHS workforce?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about contracts that either failed to deliver or where PPE, for example, did not meet the required standards. I can reassure her that we are undertaking a stocktake—an audit—of exactly that, and we are already pursuing a number of cases where, if PPE was either not to the required standard or was not delivered, we will recoup the money from that.
The Court’s judgment focused solely on the publication of contract notices. It did not make any judgment on the contracting process or on any of the individual processes in any way. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition are wrong to play politics and to misrepresent the Court’s opinion in this way?
My hon. Friend highlights something important, which is what the Court actually did and did not consider. It considered, quite rightly, whether the Government met the simple binary of publishing the notices within the required timeframe, and found that they did not. It did, however, find against the claimants and in favour of the Government that there was no policy of deprioritising transparency and publication requirements. As he says, the Court did not make any judgment on the appropriateness of the awards or the process followed for those awards.
I know the Minister to be a person of integrity and openness; indeed, this is an opportunity for the Government to show that.. Would the Minister once again outline the intention for timely competition in line with the comprehensive judicial review judgment? Does the Minister have any update on any moneys that the Government have been able to recoup from contracts for things that were unusable or incorrect?
I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance I have given to other hon. Members. We recognise entirely the importance of transparency. We will comply fully with the Court judgment—the Court order—and, going forward, we will comply with the requirements on transparency. To his specific point, I have alluded to the stocktake—the audit—that we are doing to make sure that if anything was not delivered or was faulty, we can recoup the money for it. I would say more broadly that the Department has cancelled or curtailed contracts up to the value of around £400 million so far—I believe that was in the evidence given by the second permanent secretary at the Department to the Public Accounts Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)—and I hasten to add that cancellation of those contracts has occurred for a multitude of reasons not necessarily representative of faulty or inadequate PPE. I hope that gives the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) an indication of the work the Government are doing to ensure value for money.
Is it not important to remember that over the course of this pandemic we have created the largest diagnostic network in British history, delivering around 90 million tests and contacting over 9 million people who would otherwise have spread the virus? Does my hon. Friend agree that our ability to set up this network is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our frontline health and care workers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this amazing achievement. It reflects on the phenomenal effort of our frontline health and care workers, but also more broadly on the partnership we have seen at work in this country over the past year between the public sector, the private sector, the voluntary and charitable sector and ordinary members of the public all working together in a joint effort to beat this disease. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that.
As much as I have a high personal regard for the Minister, he is incorrect in his remarks. The High Court ruling last Friday made it absolutely clear that at the time of the Prime Minister’s response to hon. and right hon. Members in this House last month 100 contracts had not been published; they were outstanding. Whether intentional or not, the Prime Minister—[Inaudible]—was factually untrue; he needs to come to this place with a full apology, as warranted by the ministerial code.
I lost a few words of the hon. Lady’s question, but I think I know what she was asking about in respect of the Prime Minister’s remarks on 22 February. May I start by saying that her kind words at the start of her contribution are reciprocated? I have known her since I came to this House and I have the highest regard for her as well; so I am grateful for her kind words.
In terms of the specifics the hon. Lady asked about in respect of the Court judgment and the Prime Minister, as I understand it on the date the Prime Minister spoke 100% of the contract awards notices—the details of the contracts are contained within them—were published, and that, I believe, is what my right hon. Friend was referring to.
Our NHS staff have made huge sacrifices during this pandemic and done all they can to support patients and their families, and now they are delivering a successful roll-out of the vaccine. Does the Minister think it is fair for millions, in some cases billions, of pounds to be spent on contracts that do not deliver but to deny those same NHS staff the decent pay rise they need and deserve?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. She is right to highlight the amazing work being done in the roll-out of the vaccine by our frontline health and social care workers, and indeed many others, and I join her in paying tribute to them. What is important is that we worked flat out, as did senior officials, to make sure that the NHS and the frontline got what they needed last year: PPE to help keep them safe. I have to say to the hon. Lady that I hear the point she makes, but I make no apology for the efforts made by the Government to get the PPE in the quantities needed to keep our front- line safe.
The British people want us to focus on fighting this virus so we can protect our NHS as we roll out the vaccine and save lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that the political sniping the Opposition are engaging in is the exact opposite of what people expect and want to see politicians doing?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who alludes to the fact that our constituents and the wider public want to see all of us in this House and in Government doing everything we can to ensure, as in the context of last year’s procurement of PPE at the height of the pandemic, that the frontline gets what it needs to keep it safe. Transparency is of course hugely important, but this is not an either/or, and the focus had to be on getting that PPE to frontline. My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely right.
I believe in restorative justice, which requires the offender—that is the Government—to accept responsibility for the harm it has caused to the principles of contractual openness and transparency. Can the Minister therefore advise the House whether the Government—the offender in this case—accept responsibility for the judgment handed down by a court of law?
I recognise that the Government have had to take urgent decisions when it comes to some of these contracts, especially when securing PPE at the height of the pandemic, but will the Minister ensure that any new UK health contracts are not agreed or signed unless the business concerned employs a significant amount of apprentices—preferably higher than the public sector target of 2.3%—as part of its workforce?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for that question. I started out in Government as his Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was the apprenticeships Minister, and that is something that he has taken a huge and passionate interest in throughout his time in the House. I am sure that colleagues in the Cabinet Office responsible for Government procurement across the piece will be very happy to have a conversation with him about the point that he has just made as to how greater use of apprenticeships can be baked into procurement decisions.
Initially, the Welsh Government anticipated a UK-wide approach to buying PPE; they then took responsibility for their own procurement, but they have still worked with this Government when the opportunity has arisen. Therefore, did the Secretary of State seek the agreement of the Welsh Labour Government before awarding any relevant contracts without competitive tendering or transparency, and did the Welsh Government themselves raise any concerns about the lack of competition on their own initiative?
My understanding is that the procurement process for PPE, as the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights, was a UK procurement process. As he will have seen, we invoked regulation 32, recognising the speed needed to meet the demand for PPE in the frontline, and throughout this process we worked at pace to ensure that the focus was on the procurement of the PPE required. Throughout this process—throughout this pandemic—we have worked closely with the Welsh Government.
In the middle of an emergency, value for money goes out of the window, and I am sure that terrible mistakes were made in the tendering process, but on the central charge that contracts were awarded to cronies, I am mystified why that should have taken place if civil servants and not Ministers took the decision. Does my hon. Friend accept that the best way to resolve these issues is to take them out of party politics and let the National Audit Office get on with its job? No doubt in time, the Public Accounts Committee will issue coruscating reports that are very wise with the benefit of hindsight.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that the decisions, as I touched on and as the PAC was told, were made following an eight-stage process run by civil servants and not Ministers. He is also right that there has been no evidence found, either by Committees of this House or the NAO, or indeed in any court cases, of any inappropriate involvement in terms of conflict of interest by Ministers. On his final point, he is absolutely right, and I know that going forward, as we always do, the Government will look to co-operate fully with the NAO in seeking to supply all and any information that it seeks, so that it can form its judgments and inform the PAC and the House of them.
Back in December, in the public interest, not just playing politics or sniping, I and other MPs highlighted cronyism and waste in the Government’s pandemic procurement. Three months on from that Westminster Hall debate, does the Minister agree that responding then, by increasing transparency reporting on those companies that won £1.7 billion-worth of contracts via the Government’s VIP fast lane and were 10 times more likely to receive a contract, would have been better than waiting to be taken to court?
In respect of the appropriateness of contract awards and whether there are any conflicts of interest, I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I just gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). The hon. Lady talked about last December and the debate, I think, in Westminster Hall—although I could be wrong on that—where this was discussed, and I point her to the lines used by the judge in his judgment:
“The evidence as a whole suggests that the backlog arose largely in the first few months of the pandemic and that officials began to bear down on it during the autumn of 2020.”
At the time that she was speaking of—in December—the judge acknowledged that the Department and the Government were working at pace to meet their transparency requirements, so that was already being done.
In the teeth of the global pandemic and facing unprecedented global demand for vital supplies, does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s ability to secure over 32 billion items of PPE— including many items supplied from businesses in the Calder Valley and Leeds West, all stepping up to the plate—is a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of British businesses and should be celebrated?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. He is right to highlight the amazing effort by British business and by businesses that stepped up in this country’s hour of need to repurpose their production lines and to source PPE. Indeed, I would include in that the work of my officials and officials in the Cabinet Office to make sure that it was bought and procured and that it got to the frontline. To cite one statistic that alludes to exactly what he is saying, we have moved from 1% of this country’s needed PPE being produced in this country to 70%, and that is testament to the amazing ingenuity and hard work of British business.
Yesterday, the Minister’s Department answered a named day question that I tabled on 1 December 2020 about some of its multimillion- pound contracts with management consultants. The Government either have something to hide or they are staggeringly incompetent, so will the Minister see that I get answers to the further questions on consultants tabled on 19 January? And will the Government now support my Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill, which they blocked back in 2017 and which would make private companies winning public contracts subject to the Freedom of Information Act?
The hon. Gentleman made two points. On the latter, the Government will always look very carefully at anything he suggests to them. On the former, very serious point, if he is able to let me know, after this session in the House, the written parliamentary question numbers, I will endeavour to have them looked at and a response expedited for him.
Crisis situations such as the present pandemic often require action, not paper, and the ends can justify the means. Does the Minister agree that sending PPE out to users was the Government’s top priority and getting right the supporting paperwork, which can be filed later, should not jeopardise that speed of delivery?
I am grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend for his question. He is absolutely right to highlight that our No. 1 priority, as I think the people of this country and Members of this House would expect, was, in the face of an unprecedented demand for PPE, that this Government did everything that they could to massively ramp up the supplies of PPE that were available and to get them to the frontline. Of course, transparency is hugely important and the court did find that there was no policy to deprioritise compliance with transparency regulations and requirements. However, he is absolutely right to highlight that the absolute priority must be to get the kit to save lives.
It has been revealed that almost £2 billion has been handed to Conservative party friends and donors in dodgy covid contracts. That includes the likes of Steve Parkin, who has donated over £500,000 to the Conservatives. He is the chairman of Clipper Logistics, which was awarded a £1.3 million PPE contract. Another Tory donor, David Meller, has given £65,000 to the Tories over the past decade. His company, Meller Designs, was awarded PPE contracts worth over £150 million. Those people did not get rich giving their money away for nothing, so does the Minister believe that it is appropriate for the Conservative Government to hand out fortunes—public money—to Conservative party donors?
I refer the hon. Lady, once again, to the answer I gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I also highlight that, to the best of my recollection, no court and no Committee of this House has found any evidence of inappropriate conflicts of interest or inappropriate involvement by Ministers in the award of contracts. What I would say to her in conclusion is that what matters here is whether companies supply what is needed to standard. I pay tribute to all companies who came on board, stepped up and did what was necessary to help us get the kit we needed to protect those on the frontline.
The vast majority of people in Blackpool can understand the exceptional circumstances which led to this paperwork being submitted slightly late. How many people does my hon. Friend estimate came to direct harm because of a late submission of that paperwork, as opposed to those people who would have come to direct harm had PPE and medical supplies been delivered late?
My hon. Friend makes an important point in his usual very forthright and clear way. The priority for this Government and for those working for them was to get the PPE needed in the quantities needed to be able to get it to the frontline to save lives. Transparency is important, of course it is. I recognise that and that is why we have worked since that time to get everything up to date in terms of transparency. But I make no apologies for the amazing effort that the Government and, most importantly, those working for them—the civil servants who did this work—put in to get the PPE in the quantities we needed.
Despite the Minister’s protestations and despite the huge amount of money that was spent, the fact is that for those working in the social care part of health and social care, the equipment did not get anywhere near the frontline anywhere like on time. I think the Minister is maybe glossing over the fact that, although supplies to the health service seemed to have been okay, supplies to the social care sector were desperately inadequate. A Public Accounts Committee report, endorsed by its members, a majority of whom are Government supporters, found that the Department had wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on equipment that was of poor quality and could not be used. We were also told by the Cabinet Office that it did not know how many contracts had essentially been approved after the work had started and how many contractors were only checked out for suitability after they had been given their contracts. Does the Minister not understand that all of that taken together creates a bad smell? Does he agree that the best way to get rid of that bad smell is to have everything published, including assessments of conflicts of interest and information that in normal circumstances might be termed or deemed to be commercially confidential? Does he not understand that confidence in public procurement by the British Government—
I will endeavour to give a short answer to a long question. Two key points there. The hon. Gentleman mentions social care and he is right to do that. The focus of some of the questioning has been around the frontline in the NHS, but he is absolutely right to talk about social care. That is why we went from a supply chain where we were supplying PPE to 226 NHS trusts in England to 58,000 organisations. Historically, social care settings had procured their own PPE on the open market. We recognised the pressures on that market—price pressures and demand pressures—which was why we expanded the supply chain to ensure that 58,000 settings ended up being able to access it.
On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, very briefly, he talks about money spent on contracts where they were either not fulfilled or did not meet the relevant quality criteria. I have already set out to the House the steps the Government are taking to review and audit those, and we will recoup money where appropriate to do so.
Mr Speaker, do you recall photographs, back in the dark days of March, April and May last year, of nurses wearing bin liners, photographs taken in Spain, Italy and the United States? In fact, if I had not been banned from having a backdrop of Lichfield cathedral on Zoom, I could actually pop up those photographs from The New York Times. Does my hon. Friend the Minister not agree with me that the priority must be for the delivery of the PPE, and that these rather unpleasant Labour slurs actually do no good at all?
It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend, and I hope it will not be too long before we see him in person in the House again. He is absolutely right to highlight the overall priority as being to get the PPE to the frontline. He highlights clearly the situation we were seeing on our televisions every day—for example, the real challenges at hospitals in Bergamo and elsewhere. That was the context at that time in Europe, and we moved heaven and earth to try to get the PPE needed in time. We did not run out of PPE in this country, but it would be fair to say that there were shortages in particular situations. These were met by the Government through the national shortage response. It was in that context that we had to do everything we possibly could, and I pay tribute to the officials who did it to procure PPE in bulk in an incredibly overheated and challenging global market.
As I alluded to on the previous occasion I came to this House to answer questions on this matter, we set out that some contracts were put forward by Members of this House and by Members of the other place and were assessed through the fast-track priority lane, but there was no difference in the approach taken—the eight stages that all those contracts had to pass through to be awarded. They were all assessed independently by civil servants, so they all went through the same process, and those contracts that were awarded and that met the rules for the contract award notices publication will be published, and have been published, under the CAN regulations and on the website.
At the start of the pandemic, just 1% of PPE in the UK was made here in this country. Now, 70% of it is made in the UK, which is a huge achievement. Does my hon. Friend agree that our rapid response to procuring and delivering PPE to frontline workers has been essential in keeping them and others safe? Will he work even harder to increase the percentage so that even more PPE is made in the UK, perhaps by focusing on areas with a textile heritage such as Thurcroft and Dinnington here in Rother Valley?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For our businesses to go from a capacity to produce this country’s PPE of 1% to 70% is an incredible achievement, but we must not rest on our laurels. We must continue to work with British business to allow it to continue to innovate and develop its ability to meet UK need. I pay tribute to the businesses in his constituency of Rother Valley for the work they did in helping out this country when it needed it most.
The simple truth is that businesses up and down the country feel as though they were misled by the Government. They were encouraged to get behind the PPE challenge, and they made capital investments to expand their capacity to manufacture, yet we know that Government middlemen mates were 10 times more likely than they were to win contracts. So can the Minister set out when he will publish the details of all the contracts, including when the principal businesses were established and what the duration of the contracts are?
The Government will meet their legal obligations to publish contracts under regulation 50 and the requirements that that places on us for the information that needs to be published. Those that meet the criteria for a CAN—a contract award notice—under that, and that have been awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care directly, have been published. All contracts will be published—all details under CANs will be published—where that is required by the regulation, and the information specified as to what is published in a CAN notice is of a standard format. We will continue to meet that obligation.
Does my hon. Friend accept the finding of the independent National Audit Office that no health trust in the UK went without the PPE it needed, in contrast with many other countries? My constituents rightly expect transparency in procurement, but most would never want pursuing paperwork to be prioritised over providing proper protective equipment.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people of this country would expect the Government’s No. 1 priority in March, April and May of last year to have been, as it was, to move heaven and earth to get the PPE that was needed in a very challenging environment to the frontline. I think that what he was alluding to in the NAO report was paragraph 18 of the summary, which said:
“The NHS provider organisations we spoke to told us that, while they were concerned about the low stocks of PPE, they were always able to get what they needed in time.”
That is not necessarily an NAO conclusion, but it is a reflection of what it was told and cited in this report, so he is right to highlight it.
The Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), which would require Ministers to answer questions in Parliament about any personal, political or financial connections they have to companies given government contracts, will now go forward to a Second Reading. I hope the Government will support it, as this Bill should help with the Government’s present court and publication difficulties. Does the Minister agree that it is crucial that we get greater scrutiny and have stringent regulations in order to increase transparency on the issuing of Government contracts and to ensure that the right people or companies are getting those contracts during these difficult times?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I have highlighted just how important I consider transparency to be. This is the second time in two weeks, rightly, that I have been answering at the Dispatch Box, so I would argue that there is scrutiny there. On her final point about that private Member’s Bill, I know that the Government will look at that Bill as they would look at any private Member’s Bill, in the usual way.
Nurses have seen us through this crisis and they have been putting their lives on the line every day, yet the Prime Minister has offered them only a derogatory 1% pay rise but handed out billions to private companies that did not provide what was needed and to standard—I remind Members of the 400,000 substandard gowns from Turkey. Does the Minister agree that it is a kick in the teeth that this Govt have chosen to waste £37 billion by giving it to Serco for a failed track and trace system while denying our incredible nurses the pay rise they deserve?
What this Government have done, and did in the context of the issues under discussion in this specific question, is recognise the huge need for PPE during the pandemic last year and take every step they could to meet that need. They secured a large number of contracts, which delivered 8.8 billion pieces of PPE to date. I think that is called delivering.
More than 70% of PPE is now made in the UK, whereas it was less than 1% before the pandemic. When that is coupled with the expansion of more than 22,000 ventilators, we see that this Government have done an incredible job. Does my hon. Friend agree that the petty point-scoring of the Labour party is not what we need at this time of national emergency?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have set out in my answers that what I think is most important for this country is that we work together— the public, private and voluntary sectors, and the Great British public—as we did, in this context. We have pulled together and done everything we can, including, as he alludes to, building that capacity for UK businesses to meet more of our need for PPE. That is a great success for those businesses and I pay tribute to them.
The Minister is adorable, but I am not falling for that old trick. The truth of the matter is that the Government did not even get PPE out fast enough to people who really needed it, especially in our care homes, which is why so many people died and we have the highest excess death rate of any country in the world. So I am not taking any of this nonsense about how, “We had to focus on that, which meant we could not deal with transparency.” The truth is that they set up a VIP track for some people to be able to get massive contracts, and some people enriched themselves phenomenally during this pandemic, many of whom, surprise, surprise, happen to be Conservative party donors. I have to say that it looks like corruption, and the only way the Government can wipe that slate clean is if they come clean with all the contracts. Otherwise, it just looks like a cover-up.
I will take the hon. Gentleman’s first comment as a compliment, I think, from a colleague I know well. Having said that, I do not recognise his characterisation of what happened. He is right that challenges were faced not just in frontline NHS situations, but in social care. He is absolutely right to highlight that, and I alluded to it earlier, and that is why we increased the number of organisations that we were able to supply centrally from 226 to 58,000. That is why we massively ramped up the purchases of PPE and the stocks of PPE that were available to get to the frontline to ensure that staff could access what they needed to keep them safe. He mentions the assessments of the contracts and how they were awarded. I merely take him back, very gently, to the point that I made to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), which is that these contracts, as set out to the Public Accounts Committee, went through an eight-stage assessment process undertaken by civil servants. I know the hon. Gentleman well, that he would not be impugning the integrity of those civil servants and that he has great respect for them. But I say very gently that there has been no evidence cited and no findings in court of any Minister in terms of conflicts of interest or having behaved inappropriately.
Throughout the pandemic, the Government, the NHS and the armed forces have focused on saving as many lives as possible, while the Labour party has focused on this sort of hindsight and political games. Saving lives meant securing as much PPE as possible as fast as possible, so can my hon. Friend confirm that all those PPE contract notices that faced a short delay in publication are now in the public domain?
Will the Minister tell us: how much was paid out under the contracts in advance of delivery; how much has actually been clawed back for services or products not delivered; and how much are the Government still to pursue in repayments?
As part of the answer to her question, I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). In response to the rest of her question, the honest answer is that we are undertaking a stocktake and an audit. It is that which is required to assess whether any stockpiles are not fit for purpose or do not meet requirements, or to check what was and was not delivered and make sure that every order was fully fulfilled. We have been very clear that, as part of that audit, that stocktake, we will pursue with any who did not meet the requirements or did not supply the goods the recouping of that money for the public purse.