House of Commons
Monday 26 April 2021
The House met at half-past Two 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.]
Business before Questions
Highgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]: Suspension
That the promoters of the Highgate Cemetery Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in this Session on 22 January 2020, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Monken Hadley Common Bill: Suspension
That the promoters of the Monken Hadley Common Bill, which was originally introduced in this House in this Session on 22 January 2020, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the Bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next Session of Parliament according to the provisions of Standing Order 188A (Suspension of Bills).—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities
The best place for vulnerable children and those with special educational needs is at school. That is why we kept schools open throughout the pandemic. The high needs budget has grown by £1.5 billion in two years, and £42 million has been made available for specialist organisations to support children with special educational needs.
During my campaign in 2019, I became aware that parents of children with special educational needs in Blyth Valley were very concerned about the lack of educational provision for their children. I am delighted that plans are now well under way for the opening of a new special educational needs school in Blyth on the site of the old Princess Louise First School, in an area well known to a lot of my constituents. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that this much-needed facility will be available as quickly as possible for these children, who so desperately need the additional support and resources that it will offer?
I join my hon. Friend in recognising the important role of this new free school, led by the Prosper Learning Trust. It will make a real impact on so many children in his constituency, and I look forward to working closely with him and with the new school to ensure that we deliver the very best special educational needs education in his constituency.
The all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities heard some very moving and sometimes concerning personal experiences from young people about the impact of the pandemic on them. I know that schools and local authorities, including in Buckinghamshire, worked incredibly hard to provide the best services they could, but could my right hon. Friend reassure the House that help and funding will be made available specifically to support the mental health of young people with SEND as part of the recovery from the pandemic?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight some of the challenges that young people suffer, especially in the area of mental health. That is why, just a short while ago, we announced extra provision and extra money and resources to support children in schools and make sure they have the very best mental health, and we are supporting schools in doing that.
Lost Learning: Covid-19
Helping pupils to make up learning is vital. That is why this Government have invested £1.7 billion to provide support to help pupils get back on track as they return to school.
From its birth in Bolton to its national roll-out, Tutor The Nation has connected schools in more challenging areas to carefully vetted volunteers, supported by professional tutors working for free. Unfortunately, Tutor The Nation is unqualified to participate in the national tutoring programme. What support can the Secretary of State’s kind Department provide to Tutor The Nation, to give children across the UK the same opportunities that we are enjoying in Bolton?
The national tutoring programme is making great progress in supporting so many children right around the country. I am certainly happy to look into Tutor The Nation in greater detail, to see whether there is more we can do to work closely with it, to ensure that we are able to continue with the great expansion of the national tutoring programme across all constituencies.
As we support vulnerable and disadvantaged children in returning to the classroom, ensuring that they have routines and structures in place to help them reach their potential will be essential. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot overestimate the importance of promoting behaviour and discipline in schools in our ambition to give every child a quality education?
We all know how important it is that we create calm, positive and good environments for children to flourish in, and strong behaviour and discipline policies have been the hallmark of being able to do that. It is particularly important for children from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure that we create the type of environment in schools that we want and expect to see right across the country.
The national tutoring programme is reaching only one in six pupils on free school meals, and changes to the school census date mean that schools are also losing out on thousands of pounds of pupil premium funding for those students. Will the Secretary of State now come clean and publish his Department’s full financial analysis of the funding lost to schools from this pupil premium stealth cut?
The hon. Lady forever moans and complains about the resources—the extra resources—that we have been putting into schools. Just a short time ago, we unveiled a £14.4 billion expansion of funding into secondary schools.[Official Report, 16 June 2021, Vol. 697, c. 2MC.] On top of that, we have outlined a further £1.7 billion that is going to support schools in helping to ensure that children are able to catch up having been away. We continue to make those investments and to make that difference.
So are headteachers moaning when they say that the pupil premium stealth cut means that they will not be able to pay for speech and language therapy, or a teaching assistant, or additional small group sessions? One head told me that they lose out more on pupil premium cuts than they receive in catch-up funding. This is not a Government that are serious about catch-up. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that no school will be worse off as a result of his changes to the pupil premium?
This Government are delivering real increases for schools right across the board. We are delivering an extra £1.7 billion in support to schools to ensure that they are able to help children to catch up. That is what we are doing. That is the difference we are making through schemes such as the national tutoring programme. This is making a real impact on children’s lives. We are proud of that and we will continue to drive it forward.
While I strongly support the Government’s summer holiday activities programme, there is a risk that disadvantaged pupils may be less likely to attend. Extending the school day with proper buy-in from parents and pupils makes it easier to engage disadvantaged pupils who are already through the school’s gate. All the evidence suggests that extending the school day has beneficial effects, including increasing educational attainment by an additional two months, and Sheffield Hallam University has said that it generates £4.5 million from improved educational attainment. Will my right hon. Friend support extending the school day, and can he confirm whether the Government have conducted any modelling to calculate the potential cost of an extended school day in England?
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that we want to ensure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds will be among the key beneficiaries of any changes and further interventions we make to ensure that children are able to catch up. One of those areas, which it is right to look at, is an extended school day and how we ensure that children from all backgrounds can benefit from being in school longer. That is why we have asked Sir Kevan Collins to look at this with us. We are doing extensive modelling on this whole area, looking at a whole range of different options, not just on the time in a school day, but targeting schemes such as the National Tutoring Programme as well as supporting teachers in their professional development and continuing to raise the quality of teaching in all our classrooms.
Adult Education Devolution: Choice of Colleges
Devolution gives providers an opportunity to work with mayoral combined authorities to shape the ways in which they can contribute to meeting skills needs locally, so that more people of all ages and backgrounds are given the opportunities to develop the skills and experience they need. Devolution is based on the residency of learners, so where learners reside near boundaries, they need to attend a provider with which their funding body contracts. Many providers are funded through a number of areas to overcome this.
Both Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Liverpool city region have been refusing funding for their residents looking to study outside their boundaries. That is severely limiting the choices available to students and has left West Lancashire College in my constituency, near both the Liverpool and Greater Manchester boundaries, with a greatly reduced potential student pool. Liverpool has agreed to stop this but Greater Manchester has not. What advice can the Minister give to local authorities acting in this protectionist way with taxpayers’ funds, to the detriment of places such as West Lancashire College?
We would encourage all mayoral combined authorities always to look at outcomes for learners. We are there to ensure that learners get the best experience and outcomes. The White Paper that we published in January 2021 sets out the Government’s overall objective for the funding system, which is to streamline the system so that there is a simpler allocation approach that will give greater autonomy and flexibility, and we also want an effective approach that improves accountability. We are currently working with the sector to develop and test our proposals ahead of consultation.
The Minister refers to a simpler adult education funding approach, but the decision to increase the adult education clawback threshold from 68% last year to 90% this year, and to impose it at the last minute, will place many colleges in a brutal financial situation. Leicester College, for example, is forecasting that it could be as much as £4 million worse off than expected. The Government can either commit to a skills-based revolution, as they claim they want to do, or endanger the sector by repeatedly cutting its funding; they cannot do both. Why is there such a dangerous discrepancy between what the Government say they want on further education and what they do?
The Government have actually increased funding across the sector quite significantly in many different ways. On the issue that the hon. Gentleman refers to, it is wrong to categorise it as such. We have effectively changed from 97%, which is the clawback this year, down to 90%, thereby giving colleges some leeway. He refers to a previous year, and it is true that we did reduce it to 68%, because that was at the very beginning of the pandemic. We have asked providers to keep provision available, to move online and to give learners that experience, and we have given them time to do so. That is a fair approach.
University of Central Lancashire: Medical Degrees
Although the Department of Health and Social Care leads on this area, I would like to take this opportunity to commend the University of Central Lancashire for the excellent job it is doing. The Government are committed to supporting the NHS by ensuring that its future workforce needs are met. Over recent years we have created an extra 1,500 medical school places and opened five new medical schools across the country, and as a result we have seen record numbers of medical students in training.
Mr Speaker, as a neighbouring MP to me, you know that the quality of education at the University of Central Lancashire medical school has been independently assessed as excellent. At a time when the health service has been crying out for more doctors during the covid-19 pandemic, can the Minister please provide assurances that, through her discussions with the Department for Health and Social Care, the University of Central Lancashire will be allocated an evidence-based significant increase in its permanent allocation of domestic medical school places, for the benefit of the county of Lancashire and the wider north-west region as a whole?
The cap on medical places was lifted last year, and those medical students who had to defer will not count towards the cap this year. If medical training places are to be permanently raised, there will be a process for medical schools to apply for a proportion of the expansion, just as was the case with the recent uplift of 1,500. I am sure that the hon. Member will be more than happy to meet the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who also looks after workforce matters, and that she would be only too happy to discuss the issue with him.
T-Levels: Industry Placements
The Government have invested £165 million to help providers to prepare for and deliver industry placements, building capacity in their relationships with employers. We have invested nearly £7 million so far in direct support for employers, and we are also exploring what short-term funded support may be appropriate to enable employers to offer placements.
I welcome the Government’s plan for jobs, which rightly prioritises technical education. Does the Education Secretary agree that investing in further education and T-levels in places such as the High Peak is vital for our economic recovery, for improving skills and training, and for increasing opportunity, helping local people of all ages and backgrounds into good-quality jobs?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is so vital that we see the roll-out of T-levels. These qualifications have been designed hand in glove with employers to make sure that they are delivering not only for students, but for the employers themselves. As we roll out our skills accelerators across the country, we are putting in £65 million-worth of further investment to ensure that we start to link up jobs, skills and young people, to ensure that we are getting the workforce right for the future.
Each T-level comes with a 45-day placement in industry, which is a fantastic opportunity for young people to get some real-life experience of their chosen sector. However, owing to competing pressures on business at the moment, some businesses are reluctant to commit to these qualifications, so will my right hon. Friend meet me and the principal of Hopwood Hall College to discuss how we ensure that young people can access these qualifications and that they turn out to be the success that they clearly should be?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the principal of Hopwood Hall College to discuss that. It is incredibly important to ensure that we get this right and that it works, and for T-levels such an important element of that is the industrial placements that those young people will be able to benefit from. I think that there is agreement on both sides of the House on the importance of getting this right, and I very much hope that we can continue to build on the original consensus about the vital role that T-levels can play in ensuring that our young people have the right level of technical skills to meet our future economic needs.
Speech and Language Therapy
We have been very clear that speech and language therapists are able to visit educational settings and that ideally they should not be redeployed during the most recent lockdown, although that was not always possible in all parts of the country, so some children will have missed some therapy sessions. However, I met representatives of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists last week to discuss this important issue.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but she will be aware that reports say that 70% of families do not have access to pre-pandemic levels of speech and language therapies. When does she hope to see this restarted in all schools? What specific steps is she taking to address the educational impact of delays for children who need this particular support?
We have been very clear that speech and language therapists are able to attend all educational settings. As we move out of restrictions, more therapists are back in schools delivering face-to-face therapy. Schools can use their catch-up and recovery funding to purchase additional therapies, and we know of examples where that has already happened. For example, my advisers spoke to a special school in Greater Manchester that has done exactly that, and it was very pleased with the services provided. Therapies are really important for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and we want them back as soon as possible. That is why we are investing more of our recovery and catch-up funding in special schools and for those with SEND than we would for others.
Official Development Assistance Reductions: Higher Education
My Department and I regularly discuss research in universities in England with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and with the Minister for science, research and innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway). Overall, Government investment in research and development across the UK is up to £14.9 billion in 2021-22, following four preceding years of significant growth. This shows the clear benefits of the Union in delivering on science and research across the nation.
The Universities of Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Coventry have all been leaders in the global challenges research fund. With the cuts to ODA, they are now having to find additional seven-figure funding to keep life-saving research going. Is this really the Tories’ fabled levelling-up agenda?
The Government recognise the importance of supporting international research partnerships and the UK research sector, especially our universities. Our commitment to research and innovation was clearly demonstrated by the recent Budget announcement that we are increasing investment in research and development to £14.6 billion. International collaboration is central to a healthy and productive R&D sector and, as a result of the policies of this Government, UK scientists will have access to more public funding than ever before.
Twelve flagship research hubs were supposed to run projects lasting five to 10 years in support of the sustainable development goals. Some of those projects are midway through clinical trials on humans but, thanks to the recent cuts, might not be able to continue, thereby jeopardising both the research and research jobs. How on earth can the Government justify funding cuts to research projects in the middle of human clinical trials, in clear violation of medical ethics?
The hon. Gentleman might like to take up his question with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is ultimately responsible for research. On 1 April, BEIS set out an additional £250 million of funding for R&D—as a result of which, as I have said, UK scientists will have access to more public funding than ever before—taking the total Government investment in R&D to £14.9 billion in 2021-22, despite what the Opposition would have the public believe.
Because of the ODA cuts, universities have reported that research contracts have been terminated, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice. This has undermined trust between researchers, universities and UK Research and Innovation, and it also means that research commissioners now require a risk assessment on the UK Government’s ability to honour contracts. Why does the Minister think it is acceptable that the UK Government’s promises mean so little that they need to be risk assessed?
On the actual ODA allocations, BEIS is currently working with UKRI, all global challenge research funds and its Newton fund delivery partners to manage the financial year 2021-22, including by determining which projects will go ahead. Its delivery partners have been communicated with, and award holders will set out the next stages of the review of ODA funding next year and explore the options available for individual programmes.
Northern College, Barnsley: Residential Provision
The Further Education Commissioner carried out a diagnostic assessment at Northern College in February, and a structure and prospects appraisal started this month, on 21 April. A number of options are being considered to improve the college’s financial position. We will continue to work with Sheffield City Region Mayoral Combined Authority and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which will provide the majority of the college’s funding from August 2021.
I am grateful the Minister for that response. She will know that Northern College is one of Barnsley’s proudest institutions—it provides an outstanding level of education and reaches disadvantaged learners—but financially it is on the brink. In respect of the Government’s review, will the Minister commit to working closely with local stakeholders, so that together we can do everything we can to ensure that Northern College retains its independence and its residential provision?
I have had many representations from MPs in the hon. Gentleman’s area, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates). As I said, the structure and prospects appraisal began on 21 April. Membership of the steering group includes representatives of the college governing body, the interim FE Commissioner, the deputy FE Commissioner, senior officers from the two combined authorities and the Education and Skills Funding Agency. The FE Commissioner’s team has made contact with all local MPs and I have offered a call with all local MPs. We are committed to work in good faith to ensure that we look seriously at the options for Northern College.
End-of-Year Assessments 2021
In the absence of statutory assessments, primary schools continue to assess children’s attainment and support the transition to secondary education. Guidance has been published to support secondary schools to determine grades for GCSE, A-levels and AS-levels, as well as vocational and technical qualifications. Students can be assured that grades will be as fair and consistent as possible and that they will be able to move on to the next stage of their education and careers.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. I met students from years 11 and 10 and the staff from South Charnwood High School near Markfield. They are very concerned about the assessments not only for this year, but for next year as well. What work is going on to look at future assessments to make sure that what happens is fair not only this year, but next year and subsequently, because those pupils are anxious?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We remain clear that exams are the fairest method of assessment. We know that students at South Charnwood High School and elsewhere will be working hard to prepare for exams in 2022. We continue to monitor the impact of the pandemic, and we will announce our plans to ensure that pupils in years 10 and 12 can be awarded grades safely and fairly in 2022.
Like so many other aspects of the Government’s coronavirus response, the Department for Education’s handling of exams has been a total disaster. Schools are currently grappling with a whole series of challenges that could have been easily avoided if only the Department had planned ahead. Can we finally have the triumph of hope over experience, and the Government learn their lessons from last year’s disaster and the unfolding disaster this year and publish plans for next year so that those exams are not a disaster, too?
Given the disruption to children’s education over the past year, it would not be fair for exams to go ahead as normal. On 15 January, 11 days after the decision was taken to cancel exams, we consulted Ofqual on the details of alternative arrangements to ensure that students can be awarded a grade and can move on to the next stage of their lives, despite the fact that we have had to cancel exams. That consultation received more than 100,000 responses. This year’s students taking their GCSEs and A-levels and some vocational and technical qualifications will receive grades determined by their teachers based on a range of evidence, including in-class tests, course work and optional exam board-provided sets of questions. Robust internal and external quality assurance processes are in place to ensure fairness and consistency. We will monitor the position regarding 2022 and we will make a statement then.
Covid-19: School Reopenings
The return to school from 8 March has been very successful. Just before Easter, on 25 March, 99.8% of state-funded schools were open. From 15 April, pupil attendance in state-funded schools was at 94%. That is higher than at any point during the autumn term.
School funding in South Cambridgeshire has been a particular focus of mine and something that I have raised with the Department before. We have the sixth lowest funding in the country, with £400 per pupil per year less than the national average. The formula means that small village schools are particularly badly affected. Last week, I met one chair of governors of a primary school that has had to make a teacher and an assistant teacher redundant and has now had to merge the years. Will my right hon. Friend consider a change to the system to help small schools that have high fixed costs per capita but that are expected to meet the same standards as larger schools with comparatively higher funding?
We all know the very important role that small schools play in our communities and villages right across the country. That is why we took the decision to increase the funding to support them from £26 million to £42 million in the latest settlement. That is on top of the fact that we are increasing spending on our schools right across the board, and, for this financial year, my hon. Friend’s schools will receive, on average, a 3.8% increase in their funding, which goes to show that we recognise the importance of fair funding right across the country.
I thank the Secretary of State for the work that his Department has done with the Engineering University Technical College in Scunthorpe on its new and exciting health, sciences and social care course. Will he welcome this course and encourage young people in Scunthorpe to look at everything that is on offer, because colleges have not had their usual opportunity to speak to students and visit schools during this unusual year?
I congratulate the Northern Lincolnshire University Technical College. UTCs do an amazing job right around the country, not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They can be truly transformative to young people’s life chances. I very much look forward to working with her to make sure that that message is put out there. It is also quite right to pay tribute to the amazing work of Lord Baker who has done so much to champion the cause of UTCs, making sure that they opened up opportunities for so many young people in all of our constituencies.
We all know that children gain so much from visiting museums and other great cultural institutions right around the country. I was delighted that the latest step out of lockdown taken by this country meant that children were able to go on non-residential visits around the country. Moving into step 3 will be another opportunity—for young people to be able to visit museums. It will be so important for them to have that experience. We look forward to working with schools and encouraging them to make such visits—not least, of course, in my hon. Friend’s part of world in Cornwall.
50 to 66-year-olds: Qualifications
I always feel nervous to cut off the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) when he is in full flow. Office for National Statistics data for 2020 shows that 29% of those aged 50 to 64 have a degree, and 20% have A-levels or equivalent as their highest qualification. This Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to upskill, including through: the lifetime skills guarantee, which includes free courses for jobs; new skills boot camps, funded by £375 million, made available through the national skills fund; and a new lifelong loan entitlement.
This question is very timely because, in the here and now, today’s report from the Resolution Foundation highlights the difficulties being faced by the over-50s in getting back into work. One of the many obstacles they face is insistence by employers, or their graduate-stuffed HR departments, on A-levels or university degrees, even when those qualifications are not relevant to the job. The Minister will recognise the unfair nature of this for a generation for which, as is shown by the figures, taking such qualifications was much less common. Can we get employers—public and private—to focus on the person, not the piece of paper, and end this wasteful discrimination against older workers?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, as he would often say he always is; he is absolutely right on this issue. It is so important that employers look at the experience—what people have learnt over their careers—and the true value that they are able to bring to that company. We must not be trapped in the situation that so many companies get themselves into, whereby jobs are advertised as “graduate only”, when so many people who could be applying for that job would bring a level and depth of experience unequalled in so many other areas. I would happily work with the right hon. Gentleman to do more to ensure that all employers understand the value of a workforce of all ages.
Disabled Children: Covid-19 Recovery Plan
We are committed to helping all pupils and students, including those with disabilities, to recovery from any lost learning or development. We have already allocated £1.7 billion to support education recovery and have appointed Sir Kevan Collins, who has a wealth of experience on SEND, to lead our work to effectively target resources and support towards those with the greatest need.
The Disabled Children’s Partnership says that the health of over half of disabled children has deteriorated due to delays and reductions in essential health and therapy appointments. The Government have advised that such appointments should be prioritised, but many families are not being reached. Will the Minister develop a cross-departmental therapies and health catch-up plan for disabled children and families as part of the wider covid-19 plan?
We have been very clear that schools and colleges remain open for therapists to attend, but some children will have missed some therapies during the pandemic. Schools can use their catch-up and recovery funding to purchase additional therapies, as I mentioned in my answer to an earlier question. Many schools, especially special schools, have done so already. I advise the hon. Member to ensure that he is in touch with local schools in Bedfordshire. In his own borough, we have increased the high-needs funding budget by 8% for this financial year, on top of an 8% increase last year. The funding should be there; please do get the therapists back into the schools and use that catch-up and recovery funding well.
Solar Power for Schools
I will try to be brief, Mr Speaker. In January 2020, the DFE commercial team conducted market research when considering the possibility of undertaking a commercial tender for the provision of solar installations and monitoring in schools. On 14 and 15 January, a two-day supplier surgery was held where officials met a range of organisations, including community energy groups.
Community energy providers have successfully installed community solar on school roofs for many years, including in my constituency of Bath. This is one of the few remaining community energy models, but the Department’s proposed new framework to centralise procurement threatens to take it away. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the community energy sector to discuss the impact of these proposals, plus a possible way forward?
Yes, of course I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member. The DFE is currently reviewing a variety of options for the most appropriate solutions for schools to assess the relevant supply chains for solar installation, and I look forward to having that discussion soon.
Turing Scheme: Disadvantaged Students
The Turing scheme encourages take-up among students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with additional financial support to make this opportunity accessible to all. Disadvantaged students can receive increased grants towards living costs and funding for travel-related costs such as passports, visas and insurance. We have actively targeted and promoted the scheme in areas of disadvantage, helping to level up the country.
Can I ask my right hon. Friend particularly about agricultural and technical education? Across the United Kingdom, young farmers clubs and our agricultural colleges are doing a terrific job and have built a global network, and have often been let down by previous schemes. What can we do to support the technical and agricultural aspects of this scheme?
I think we all know in this House that my hon. Friend is a great champion of agricultural interests in his Montgomeryshire constituency. He is right. This is an incredibly international business and it is important to learn on an international level, whether it is from our friends in Australia, in New Zealand or in many other countries. I would be happy to meet him to discuss how this could be done more, maybe through the agricultural colleges and universities that serve our agriculture industry so very well.
The Government have stated that they want more disadvantaged students to participate in Turing, so how does the Secretary of State assess the success of this scheme for disadvantaged students, and will he commit to an annual report to Parliament on these figures?
We have already seen a really high level of interest from both institutions and, most importantly, students in the new Turing scheme. They recognise that they want to seize the opportunities on a global scale as against being constrained by the European Union. That is why I have every confidence that we will have such an enormous success with the Turing scheme and it will be truly transformative to young people’s lives.
This is a Government of illusion. The Prime Minister said that there was no risk to Erasmus, then it was gone, replaced with the Turing scheme, which Ministers said would improve opportunities. But a quick look at the scheme shows that for cost of living, Turing offers just £490 of support—£140 less than Erasmus—while for travel costs, only a fraction of students are now eligible whereas under Erasmus+ all students were eligible for up to £1,300. In tuition fees, there is no support, whereas it was guaranteed under Erasmus for free. Could the Secretary of State just be straight with students and confirm that Turing equals Erasmus minus?
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman obviously is not very familiar with the scheme. Actually, there are a number of slight inaccuracies in what he stated. I would be happy to send him the details so that he can undertake some homework and understand it a little bit better in future.
International Students: Hotel Quarantine
I have been working closely with my counterparts across Government, including in the Department of Health and Social Care, about how covid-19 policies affect international and domestic students. Immigration concessions allow for the ongoing provision of online learning this academic year, meaning that international students can study remotely from the UK or in their home country. Universities have informed us that a sizeable number have stayed in the UK throughout.
International students are hugely important to our universities. With India added to the red list, there is real concern that the cost of hotel quarantine will be a deal breaker for some. Can the Minister tell us whether universities will be allowed to manage the quarantine system for themselves, which they are well qualified to do, and how soon could that be resolved? If not, who or what is the obstacle?
International students, including those from India, are indeed a vital and valued part of our higher education sector and communities. The UK was one of the first countries to introduce important visa concessions for international students at the very start of the pandemic. That has been flexible throughout, including extending the deadline for eligibility for the graduate route to 21 June. We continue to work with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that the UK remains as accessible and welcoming as possible. International students are also eligible for the additional £85 million that we have given universities for support with hardship.
The “Skills for Jobs” White Paper set out the Government’s plans to put employers at the heart of local skills provision. Since January, we have delivered on what we set out by expanding our skills bootcamps, offering free level 3 qualifications to eligible adults from 1 April and opening applications for the skills accelerator. We will continue to build on that over the coming weeks and months.
In Wales, the Labour Government are investing heavily in catch-up summer schools, geared in particular to children from poorer backgrounds. We know that 50% of children from poorer backgrounds start school with speech and language difficulties. What is the Education Secretary doing to ensure that these pupils do not suffer disproportionately from cuts in England to the pupil premium, when it is they who are most in need of catch-up after the lockdown?
I am glad to see that the Government in Wales are following the example of what is being done in England. Hopefully they will be able to see an increase in standards in schools in Wales similar to what we have been seeing in England. We continue to ensure that we offer additional support, especially to those schools that are special schools and looking after some of the children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Our interventions, including an additional £1.7 billion, go a long way to ensuring that children, especially those who are most disadvantaged, are properly supported.
It is absolutely vital, as we make more courses and support available—people may have to look at re-entering the labour market in a different area from the one they previously worked in—that we are matching that up with where the skills needs are. We work very closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Work and Pension, but most importantly, we work with employers on the designation of what courses are available. I would be happy to take any representations from my hon. Friend if there is more work that can be done together to ensure that this process is best honed to ensure people get into work as swiftly as possible.
The Department has already been funding breakfast clubs in more than 2,450 schools in disadvantaged areas of the country. We have just announced another £24 million to continue that programme and reach even more children in the two years ahead.
I think we are all very much looking forward to welcoming all university students back, and we very much expect to be seeing that as part of the next step. I would like to thank universities for the work they have been doing to ensure that universities are covid-secure, including extensive testing of students in universities and the greater availability of the home testing kits that we have been able to deliver on. We will continue to work with Universities UK, the Russell Group and the whole sector to ensure that students are able to return to university safely at the earliest possible moment and that we are able to welcome a new cohort of students in September.
More and more children are relying on free school meals because of the pandemic. The Government’s holiday activities and food programme tells local councils to provide just 16 days’ worth of food support over a six-week summer holiday period, so could I ask the Minister: what does she expect children to eat the rest of the time?
This Government have extended free school meals to more groups of children than any other Government over the past half a century. We have spent almost half a billion pounds on vouchers so that children had access to food when schools were closed during lockdown. We have spent £270 million through local authorities on making sure that children, including pre-school children, could get access to food and essentials. We have this massive holiday activities and food programme running all across the country—not only food, but fun and friendships. I just wish the Labour party would get behind this fantastic initiative, go and see what it is giving our children, see what they get out of it and the benefits of it, and say well done to everybody involved.
Our overriding objective is to keep covid out of the classroom and keep pupils and staff safe. All decisions will be based on that data, and on scientific and medical advice. Whether or not we continue to advise that face coverings should be worn in secondary school classrooms is subject to step 3 of the road map process, which will happen, as my hon. Friend mentioned, no earlier than 17 May.
We recognise that it is incredibly important that we do everything we can do to support students, which is why we made available £85 million of hardship funding. We also recognise how important it is that we have a really thriving higher education sector. That is why we have maintained investment in research and development, which is the backbone of so many of our universities.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue about mental health and wellbeing. Sometimes, bullying can sadly be exacerbated as a result of such issues, and mobile phones are used to do that. Some 50% of schools have already rolled out phone-free environments, while ensuring that students have access to a mobile phone as they travel to and from school. That delivers benefits for children’s wellbeing and mental health, as well as for how well they do at school. We want such environments to be rolled out, and I assure my hon. Friend that that is what we will do.
We have invested record amounts in early years funding over the past few years, with more than £3.5 billion a year for the past three years. We have continued to put unprecedented amounts into that. I confirm that, on the whole, more funding will be going to the pupil premium next year than in previous years. The Schools Minister leads on this matter, and I am sure he would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady.
On 8 April we announced that we are working with 16 colleges in some of the worst conditions, and we expect to announce the outcome of the first FE capital transformation fund bidding round in October. The condition improvement fund 2021-22 application round for schools closed on 14 January, and outcomes will be announced later in the spring.
There is a major expansion in the amount of money we are investing in further education, and the last settlement included a commitment to close to £700 million for that. We are also putting a £1.5 billion capital investment into further education colleges, and colleges in London are able to apply for that.
Support for the mental health and wellbeing of our young people is important, and the Government are making a major investment in such support. We recently announced a further £79 million boost for mental health services for children, which will accelerate the provision of mental health support teams in schools and colleges. That is on top of the £2.3 billion a year that we have committed through the NHS long-term plan. Since September, our Wellbeing for Education Return scheme has linked schools with local mental health experts in 90% of local authorities.
The essence of our academies programme is about delivering autonomy for schools, and it is that autonomy—the hon. Lady is quite right—that is driving up standards. We have also, since 2014, been addressing the workload issues of schoolteachers up and down the country, and that has proven successful in reducing the number of hours in addition to teaching time that schoolteachers face.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about this issue, and I pay tribute to him for his work on this matter and that of the APPG. We aim to attract and retain high-skilled, talented individuals, including men, into teaching through effective pay structures and financial incentives, and we have set out plans to increase starting salaries nationally to £30,000. We also intend to retain male teachers in primary schools by offering world-class support and development through the early career framework reforms.
We have invested £1.7 billion to help pupils get back on track, including through tutoring. We will continue to monitor the impact of the pandemic on all students, including those due to take their exams in 2022, to ensure that students in this cohort can receive a fair grade. We have appointed Sir Kevan Collins as recovery commissioner, and he is advising on further measures to ensure that all students catch up on the education that they have lost.
The ministerial code is the responsibility of the Prime Minister of the day. It is customarily updated and issued upon their assuming or returning to office. The code sets out the behaviour expected of all those who serve in government. It provides guidance to Ministers on how they should act and arrange their affairs to uphold those standards. The code exists and should be read alongside the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life.
The current version of the code was issued by the Prime Minister in August 2019 shortly after he assumed office. While the code sets out standards and offers guidance, it is Ministers who are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in light of the code, and, of course, for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and to the public. That is as it should be in a robust democracy such as ours. Ministers are not employees of the Government, but rather office holders who hold their office for as long as they have the confidence of the Prime Minister as the Head of Government. It is always, therefore, the Prime Minister who is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of an individual Minister and of the appropriate consequences were a breach of those standards to occur.
The code also sets out a role for an independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. It is an important role, the principal duty of which is to provide independent advice to Ministers on the arrangement of their private interests. The independent adviser also has a role in investigating alleged breaches of the ministerial code. As the House will be aware, Sir Alex Allan stepped down from his role towards the end of last year. Following the practice of successive Administrations, the Prime Minister will appoint a successor to Sir Alex. The House will understand that the process of identifying the right candidate for such a role can take time. However, an appointment is expected to be announced shortly. The House will be informed in the usual way as soon as that appointment is confirmed. It will clearly be an early priority for the new independent adviser to oversee the publication of an updated list of Ministers’ interests. I expect that will be published shortly after a new independent adviser is appointed.
I can, of course, reassure the House that the process of managing Ministers’ interests has continued in the absence of an independent adviser, in line with the ministerial code, which sets out that the permanent secretary in each Department and the Cabinet Office overall have a role. Ministers remain able to seek advice on their interests from their permanent secretary and from the Cabinet Office. The ministerial code has served successive Administrations well and has been an important tool in upholding standards in public life. It will continue to do so.
Let us go to the SNP spokesperson for the urgent question. I call Alison Thewliss. [Interruption.] Order. Can I just say to Members that they should be wearing a mask in the Chamber? For the two Members sat there: please, it is not my decision, but the decision of Public Health England that we should be wearing masks. If you do not wish to, please leave the Chamber.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
In his foreword to the “Ministerial Code”, the Prime Minister says:
“To…win back the trust of the British people, we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety…No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document—integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest—must be honoured at all times”.
Well, this UK Tory Government is failing on all counts. They are riddled with conflicts of interest and allegations of corruption. Indeed, 37% of the public think the Prime Minister is corrupt—53% think that in Scotland—and that is before getting into the latest on what the Prime Minister is alleged to have said, which is that he would rather see bodies pile up in their thousands than order a third lockdown. Despicable, cruel and callous. Comments not befitting the office of Prime Minister.
Transparency International’s “Track and Trace” report raised serious questions on 73 Government contracts worth £3.7 billion. Of those, 24 personal protective equipment contracts, worth £1.6 billion, were handed to those with known political connections, with a further £536 million on testing services. We need to know who has benefited and what their links are to Ministers, especially in the light of the VIP lane that the National Audit Office identified as a risk. People on that list were 10 times more likely to win a contract. Transparency International identified the VIP lane as potentially a
“systemic and partisan bias in the award of PPE contracts.”
Will the Minister stop hiding behind commercial confidentiality and publish in full the details of those VIP contracts, along with who recommended them? It is our money and we have a right to know. Will he also finally publish the updated register of Ministers’ interests?
From the contracts for the Health Secretary’s pub landlord to the cosy chumocracy of the Greensill Capital affair, the casual text messages between the Prime Minister and Sir James Dyson promising to “fix” tax issues, apparently in exchange for ventilators that we never even got, and now questions over the Prime Minister’s funding for feathering his Downing Street nest, does the Minister agree that there is a clear pattern of behaviour and it absolutely stinks? The UK Tory Government are about to prorogue the House to duck further scrutiny. In the absence of an independent adviser to investigate Ministers, we can no longer trust them to investigate themselves; that much is clear. Will the Minister for the Cabinet Office instead instruct a full independent public inquiry to get to the bottom of the sleekit, grubby cabal in charge of the UK?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising a number of issues. She raised the whole question of procurement of PPE. It is a well attested fact that less than 0.5% of the PPE procured did not meet the standards that we had set out. It is a fact that every single recommendation for the procurement of PPE went through an independent eight-stage process verified by independent civil servants. It is the case that the Government, operating at a time when the pandemic was raging, did everything possible—we make no apology for it—to ensure that those at the frontline got the equipment that they deserved. The techniques that we used and the processes that we followed not only stand up to scrutiny; the same techniques and the same processes were used by the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.
The hon. Lady raises the Greensill question. Of course, the truth is that all the efforts on behalf of that company in order to push the Treasury and others were rejected. She raises the issue of Sir James Dyson. She does not acknowledge the fact that Sir James spent millions of pounds of his own money to try to ensure that we had ventilators to save those on the frontline. She does not mention that the ventilator challenge was investigated by the Public Accounts Committee, which said it was a model of public procurement. She does not mention the fact that the changes to the Prime Minister’s flat were paid for by the Prime Minister himself, and she repeats a line from a newspaper but ignores the fact that the Prime Minister instituted not only a second but a third lockdown to keep us safe.
What the hon. Lady does not mention is that she and other Opposition Members criticised the appointment of a vaccine tsar as cronyism when Kate Bingham has been responsible for saving millions of lives. What she does not say is that Opposition MPs criticised Kate Bingham for spending money on public relations when that money was there to ensure that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds were able to get the vaccines they required. What she does not acknowledge is the determined effort by public servants in this Government and others to deal with a pandemic and to save lives. Instead, she tries to score political points in a way that, sadly, causes regret.
I commend a great deal of what my right hon. Friend just said, but let us face it: there is not a great deal of public confidence in propriety and ethics in politics in this country, and that is to be laid at the door of all political parties over a long period. What would begin to restore public confidence in such matters is more genuine discussion of principles and values and how conflicts of interests should be better managed, and to have rather less quibbling about whether we are inside or outside certain rules. I feel that accusations should perhaps be less blaming as well.
I commend to my right hon. Friend the letter sent by the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to the Prime Minister last week. It recommended a number of changes to the role—that the chair should be able to initiate his or her own inquiries and to publish a summary of the findings—that the
“Prime Minister should retain the right to decide on any sanction following a breach of the Code”
and that it is “disproportionate” for the Prime Minister always to require a resignation for a breach of the code. The Prime Minister should be able to use a range of sanctions to deal with breaches of the code. Will the Government accept those recommendations?
My hon. Friend makes a characteristically thoughtful series of points. As a former Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and as a current leading Select Committee Chairman in this House, the points that he makes are certainly ones that we should reflect on. It is the case that the process of holding Ministers and others to account is always an evolutionary one. We should look at thoughtful recommendations such as those made by Lord Evans and others and we should consider what more can be done. It is important to stress, however, that the Government have already introduced a series of changes in order to ensure greater transparency in public life. Of course, we always seek to do better.
“There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking…No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”
Those words are from the Prime Minister’s foreword to the ministerial code. I do not know whether he believed them when he wrote them, but he is certainly trampling all over them today. The Prime Minister is now corrupting the standards of public life expected in high office as he dodges questions and tries to cover up payments for the luxury refurbishment of his flat, feathering his own nest and possibly breaking the law through undeclared loans.
As for leaks, we are seeing the pipes burst with the sewage of allegations. People say that a fish rots from the head down. There is a reason why there is no independent adviser on ministerial standards and why the Government will not publish the long-overdue list of Ministers’ interests. The reason is that the Prime Minister has not wanted them. This is a Prime Minister who would rather the bodies “pile high” than act on scientific advice, but they are not bodies; they are people, they are loved ones and they are deeply missed.
I ask the Minister to engage with the issues at hand. When will the Government publish that register of Ministers’ financial interests? Who paid the invoices for the Prime Minister’s flat refurbishment in the first place and when were those funds repaid? When will the review by the Cabinet Secretary of this fiasco be complete? When will the vacancy for the independent adviser on ministerial standards be filled, and will the Government give that adviser the powers to trigger independent investigations, as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) has just said and as recommended by Lord Evans?
Finally, will the Minister apologise for the stomach-churning comments that have come out today and announce an urgent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic? This is all about conduct, character and decency. Frankly, our country deserves an awful lot better than this.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. As ever, she raises a number of significant issues. On the question of the No. 10 Downing Street refurbishment, it is important to stress that previous Prime Ministers have used taxpayers’ money in order to refurbish No. 10 Downing Street. In 1998-99, in real terms, the then Prime Minister spent £73,000 of taxpayers’ money on refurbishing Downing Street; in 2000-01, £55,000; and, again, in 2007-08, £35,000—all taxpayers’ money. This Prime Minister has spent his own money on refurbishing Downing Street. That is a distinction to which the hon. Lady should pay close attention.
The hon. Lady also suggested that the Government did not act on scientific advice in dealing with the pandemic. I hope that she will reflect on those words and recognise that that is completely wrong. This Government, as I pointed out, initiated not just a second but a third lockdown in response to medical and scientific advice, and this Government, working with doctors and scientists, have ensured that we have had the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe. We have also developed many of the therapeutics and tools necessary to ensure that those who are suffering and in pain at last receive relief. Of course, the ventilators that this Government took part in procuring are now helping to save lives in India.
The hon. Lady is right to say that we should appoint an independent adviser on ministerial interests as soon as possible, but as I mentioned in my statement, that appointment is due within days and that independent adviser will have the freedom to carry out their role in exactly the way that they should. Scrutiny is always welcome, but it is also the case, as the hon. Lady should recognise, that scrutiny should extend beyond those who are our political opponents to the parties that we ourselves lead or are members of. I can only quote from The Times at the weekend, one of whose columnists wrote:
“our only proper bit of suspected corruption”
in this country
“in Labour-run Liverpool. The allegations have got everything: dubious contracts, records created retrospectively, discarded in skips or destroyed altogether.”
The hon. Lady must look at the beam in her eye before criticising the mote in others’.
May I pick up on the excellent point made by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Liaison Committee about the powers of the next occupant of the position of the Prime Minister’s adviser on the ministerial code and encourage my right hon. Friend to go down that road? The proposals made by the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life exactly match ones that I made to that committee about a month and a half ago. It strikes me that we have now reached the point where we must strengthen the entire system so that it commands cross-party confidence and trust, and these proposals will be very welcome and widely appreciated on all sides if this is a step that we could ultimately take.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and the work he has done to increase standards in public life has been applauded across parties and across this House, and, indeed, outside it. The Government and the new independent adviser on ministerial standards will want to reflect on Lord Evans’s recommendation and other points to make sure that we can have the maximum confidence in our system.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this important urgent question. We have had PPE contracts awarded to donors and cronies without a robust tender process, NHS contracts awarded to a firm partly owned by the Health Secretary, privileged secret communications between an ex-Prime Minister and the Chancellor, and between James Dyson and the current Prime Minister—and I could add a Tory fondness for oligarchs—and the allegation of Tory donors funding the Prime Minister’s home improvements. There is no point in the Minister’s sitting there, part bombast and part Teflon Don, hoping that the stench of cronyism will simply pass. It is far too late for that. When did this Government judge that integrity, probity, transparency and the ministerial code were obstacles to be overcome rather than principles to always be adhered to?
The right hon. Gentleman is always a skilled and gifted rhetorician, but as I pointed out in response to his colleague, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), if we look at PPE, we see that the processes by which it has been procured by this Government have been independently validated and assured by officials, with an eight-step process to ensure that contracts were awarded only to those who could provide the right equipment. There is no variance in the approach that this Government took and the approach that the Scottish Government or Welsh Government took in the procurement of PPE.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about a Tory fondness for oligarchs, and refers to text messages and so on. I can only point out that our mutual friend the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism dined with Mr Lex Greensill and Mr Gupta in one of Glasgow’s finest restaurants. If there is a particular fondness for dining with oligarchs, it is not the preserve of any one individual or party in this House.
As for suggesting that the ministerial code is something to be got round or overlooked and suggesting that propriety might need to be looked at, I would simply refer the right hon. Gentleman to the report of the independent Committee of the Scottish Parliament on the investigation into the former First Minister. If people want to see a story of obstruction, obfuscation, prevarication and a waste of taxpayers’ money, they can find it there.
Constituents are sick and tired of this endless tittle-tattle. They just want their lives to go back normal, which is what this Government are helping them to achieve. They could not care less about the Prime Minister’s cushions or his curtains. When will we have an Opposition who care about the actual priorities and not who the Downing Street decorators are?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It does seem sometimes as though the Opposition and some critics are more concerned about the world of interiors than about the real world in which the rest of us live. The really important thing is that we welcome scrutiny when it is there to ensure that we are serving the public. It is quite right that there should be scrutiny of how we respond to the pandemic; and it is quite right that we should resolve to learn lessons from everything that this Government have done; but it is also right that those in this House who have the opportunity to scrutinise the way in which taxpayers’ money is spent look effectively at the delivery of public policy, rather than necessarily seeking to make partisan points.
The Minister just said that public scrutiny is always welcome, so does he not agree that instead of all the reports relying on leaks in the newspapers and on accusations in Dominic Cummings’ blog, the best way forward would be to get all the facts straight in an independent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic? Will he urge the Prime Minister to go ahead with it without delay?
The hon. Lady makes the very fair point that we need, in due course, an independent public inquiry into dealing with the pandemic, but I also think it is important that we concentrate now on the successful vaccine roll-out and on making sure that the road map on the lifting of restrictions, to which so many people are quite rightly looking forward, is in place. There will be time for an independent public inquiry and there will be lessons to be learned; mistakes have been made. But I think it is important that we concentrate now on making sure that our economy is restored to health, that public services get back to the level that they should be, and that we deal with the virus once and for all.
There is no doubt that the allegations made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) are serious, but there is also very little doubt that we work in a profession where often claims and counterclaims are made with scant reliance on evidence. Transparency and openness are vital to retaining the trust of this House and the people who put us here. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend confirm that any donations and benefits given will be returned and made open and transparent through the regular processes?
Last week, the Government claimed that the Prime Minister funded the up-front costs of decorating the Downing Street flat himself. This afternoon, the Prime Minister did not deny that the up-front costs were met by Conservative party donors. This is not the first but the third time in the space of just one week that the Prime Minister has been caught out. How many more times will Ministers accept that their leader—our Prime Minister—has misled the public, the press and Parliament before they declare him unfit for office?
I have enormous respect for the right hon. Lady, a brave and courageous fighter for many causes and a very distinguished former Select Committee Chairman, but I think she may wish to reflect on the specific allegation she makes against the Prime Minister. On the broader point of substance she raises, as I pointed out earlier, the Prime Minister paid for the costs of renovation. Declarations are properly made about political donations, and indeed the Cabinet Secretary pointed out, when being questioned by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, that he is making sure that everything done was done in accordance with the rules.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this Conservative Government have taken more steps to reform and regulate lobbying and public procurement than any Labour Government did, and that at the last general election the Labour party said it intended to scrap the same lobbying law that it now wants to strengthen? Does that not show the hypocrisy of Captain Hindsight? [Interruption.]
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know why Labour Members were making a noise. It was the case that this Government banned the use of taxpayers’ money for quango lobbying. We banned taxpayers’ money being used in grants for other organisations’ lobbying. We introduced a statutory registrar of lobbyists, and we have introduced transparency measures on Government spending, Government salaries, Government contracts, Government tenders and Government meetings. He is quite right: the Labour party said that it wanted to scrap that legislation. It is for the Labour party to justify to people in Redcar and Hartlepool why it wants to scrap lobbying regulation, and it will be interesting to hear that conversation on the doorsteps.
At Prime Minister’s questions two weeks ago, the Prime Minister agreed with me that politicians “must not lie”. That is vital to the credibility of the ministerial code, but a host of recent events, including the Prime Minister’s reported comments regarding lockdowns, raise serious questions about the Government’s adherence to that code. Is the Minister confident that his answers today are sufficiently comprehensive and robust to lay these matters to rest?
I read through the ministerial code this morning; it took me longer than most Members because I am slower. I could see absolutely nothing in there to make me think that the Prime Minister has done anything wrong. Why do we not leave it to the system to investigate this matter, if there is a requirement for it, rather than dance to the tune of a media frenzy?
My right hon. Friend is an officer and a gentleman, and he puts the point very well. There are tried and tested procedures and principles in order to make sure that Ministers and others in the House behave in an appropriate way. Judgments can be made, of course, by all of us in a democracy. His reading of the ministerial code this morning may be a prelude to his being appointed as a Minister in due course, but I cannot further speculate on these matters.
Contrary to what one Minister said at the weekend, concerns about the Prime Minister and the ministerial code are not “tittle-tattle”. People care deeply about this, which is why Peter Stefanovic’s video on the Prime Minister’s relationship with the truth has been viewed nearly 13 million times on social media. If the ministerial code says that any “inadvertent error” should be corrected at the earliest opportunity, what should be done about systematic deliberate errors? If, as seems to be the case with our archaic and dysfunctional rules, it is the Prime Minister himself who decides whether the ministerial code has been broken, should we really be trusting this one to mark his own homework, or should the whole system not be urgently revised?
The hon. Lady makes a number of important points. She is absolutely right that the public have a right to expect that those who are responsible for discharging Government duties and spending taxpayers’ money do so in a way that is consistent with the public’s values. She also makes a broader point about the need always to review the mechanisms of scrutiny to which Government are subject. As was pointed out by my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), there is an opportunity, with the appointment of a new independent adviser on ministerial interests, to look again at how that role and, indeed, perhaps other roles can be strengthened if necessary.
While these matters should always be open and transparent, one can only muse at what other world leaders think of the UK Prime Minister having to pay for his own refurbishment, additional tax for the benefit in kind and the running costs of the flat that we insist he stays in. Surely my right hon. Friend agrees that the ridiculous situation here is why our Prime Minister should be paying anything at all personally, unlike other world leaders, when it is us—the taxpayer—who demand that they live above the shop.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and existing trusts are responsible for looking after Dorneywood, Chequers and, I believe, Chevening, where Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative politicians have used those facilities in order to discharge their duties. Downing Street is a working building, and it is appropriate, as has been the case in the past, as I referred to earlier, that some public money is allocated to ensure that the Prime Minister and others who work in that building can perform their duties as appropriate. Of course, when we are spending taxpayers’ money we must have a care—we must recognise that this money is entrusted to us—but when it comes to Government buildings, particularly Government buildings such as Downing Street, there is a role for public funding in making sure that they function effectively, on behalf of all of us.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Leader of the Opposition was really serious about tackling corruption, he would start by cracking down on the Labour Government in Wales, who handed out NHS contracts worth more than £650,000 to a Labour activist without any kind of competitive tendering process?
Whether it is the Prime Minister’s luxury refurbishment of his flat or other things, day after day more sordid, sleazy details are unearthed about this incompetent Conservative Government, who are becoming an embarrassment for our nation, given the billions wasted on crony covid contracts. Tory donors have been profiteering at the British taxpayer’s expense, in the midst of widespread public misery. So will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster inform the House as to why he is delaying the public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, which would allow us all to ascertain for ourselves how many Ministers have broken the ministerial code by texting or handing out Government contracts to their Tory chums?
As I pointed out in response to some earlier questions, every PPE contract that was awarded went through an eight-stage process. It was supervised by independent civil servants, and the imputation that lies behind the hon. Gentleman’s comments is unfair to those dedicated public servants, who worked incredibly hard at a difficult time to make sure that those on the frontline received exactly what they needed. Of course, it is the case that there needs to be an inquiry in due course, but that inquiry should cover every aspect of the handling of the pandemic and we should all be suitably humble in recognising that it will necessarily make recommendations that all of us should take account of as we prepare for future health and other challenges.
Yes. The point that was made earlier is that when Lex Greensill and others with whom he was working were making representations to Government, those representations were dealt with in an appropriate way, and the critical thing is that the efforts that they were soliciting were rejected—that is quite clear.
Of course attached to the ministerial code are the seven principles of public life, the first of which is “selflessness”, where it states:
“Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.”
Today, we have had a number of sources state that the Prime Minister shouted in a rage that he would rather see the bodies piled high in their thousands than order a third lockdown. Does the Minister not accept that a Prime Minister who does not put public health first is no Prime Minister at all?
Let me deal with this. I was in the meeting that afternoon, with the Prime Minister and other Ministers, as we looked at what was happening with the virus and with the pandemic, and we were—[Interruption.] We were dealing with one of the most serious decisions that this Prime Minister and any Government have had to face. People have been pointing out, quite rightly, that tens of thousands of people were dying. The Prime Minister made a decision in that meeting to trigger a second lockdown. He made a subsequent decision to trigger a third lockdown. This is a Prime Minister who was in hospital himself, in intensive care. The idea that he would say any such thing, I find incredible. I was in that room. I never heard language of that kind and I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, by seeking to make the points in the way that he does, I think diverts attention from the fact that so many people who have been affected by this pandemic rely on the Government, the NHS and others to strain every sinew. These decisions are never easy, but the Government made the decision, and the Prime Minister made the decision, to have a second and third lockdown, and I think we can see the evidence of the leadership that he showed then, not just in the courage that he showed, but also in the success of the vaccination programme, from which people across this whole United Kingdom have benefited.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that people in glass houses should not throw stones? Does he also agree that there is an election next week and as the Labour party is behind in the polls, Labour Members have chosen to wheel out a mantra from 20 years ago that they thought worked then and perhaps works now? And if we are talking about wheeling out glass houses, may I mention the Member under criminal investigation for fraud, the Liverpool mayor arrested for fraud, and a past Labour Prime Minister who pocketed millions from advising big businesses and foreign Governments?
My hon. Friend makes an important point—that we all have a responsibility to learn lessons, learn from the past, do our best to make sure that we collectively maintain high standards in public life, acknowledge that there are human frailties in individuals who represent all the parties in this House and do our very best to learn from the past.
Does the Minister know the identity of the person who gave the Prime Minister the money to pay for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat? Either he does not know, in which case he should not be at the Dispatch Box saying there is no problem at all, or he does know, in which case he should just tell us what their name is. Can he do that now, please?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this UK Government are almost painfully transparent by any yardstick, and that while sessions such as this may be an inevitable part of the disinfecting oxygen of publicity, it is a bit rich for the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) to raise concerns when the SNP wants the UK to rejoin the EU, a body that has not had its audit signed off for decades?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Governments of all stripes can always do better, but I think it is fair to say that, over generations and across parties, there has been a determined effort by our Prime Ministers to do everything they can to make sure that our democracy stays healthy. Of course, Prime Ministers in the past have made mistakes, but I think it is important that we recognise that, overall, we can have confidence in institutions like this House of Commons to hold them to account.
The Minister has a specific duty to ensure transparency in Government through the Freedom of Information Act. Is he concerned that Transparency International last year identified nine unremedied breaches of the ministerial code? Why is information withheld in Government FOI responses more often than not? And is he still running his FOI clearing house to delay and filter FOI responses?
The freedom of information clearing house, sadly, is not mine. It was set up under a Labour Government, so it is a Blairite inheritance. What it exists to do is make sure that freedom of information responses are effectively co-ordinated and that we do everything we can in order to make sure that we comply with the terms of that legislation. But of course one point about the freedom of information legislation is that it needs to be a safe space for frank advice to be offered by officials to Ministers, and it is important for the good conduct of government that that safe space remains.
We need to get the system of regulation and accountability right. I echo the point made earlier by the Chair of the Liaison Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), that most of all we need a culture of values in public service to run through what Ministers, ex-Ministers and officials do. We will never write rules so perfect that people do not have to make judgments about who they see and what they do, but to shore that up, we really need a culture of transparency, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that the independent review into the Greensill affair will have full access to all the documents and all the decision makers involved?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point—two actually— about the importance of culture complementing rules, and also about the review being undertaken by Nigel Boardman, who will be given all the details he needs about any contact between individuals within Government and those acting on behalf of Greensill.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office says that he welcomes this urgent question today, and for once I believe him, because there is nothing he likes more than seeing the remaining shreds of the Prime Minister’s credibility for probity being blown into the wind. We know that he will look forward to an opportunity to finally get his own head down in that lavishly furnished apartment above No. 10 Downing Street, and that when we come to the next Conservative party leadership contest he will once again be persuaded to put his hat in the ring, but is he really saying that the way this Government have operated is acceptable and that this is really the way we should expect a Government to operate?
In the past 12 months, right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House have stood up and made sure that offers of support from local businesses have reached Ministers at the right time and in the right way, because that is how we have supported people across the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that ensuring that those offers got to the right place at the right time has been an important part of getting PPE, ventilators and vaccines to people across the United Kingdom when they needed them most?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government were operating—as all Governments were, to be fair—in difficult circumstances and with a clear demand that we do everything possible to source PPE. As has been pointed out, the overwhelming majority of the PPE was sourced in a way that was rigorous, so that the equipment was fit for purpose and those on the frontline could benefit.
I wonder, does the Secretary of State agree that a version of the ministerial code should apply to the leaders of new political parties who might possibly be receiving payments from the arms of overseas Governments who do not hold dear to their heart the best interests of the United Kingdom?
I do not want to embarrass the hon. Gentleman too much by saying that almost every time he asks a question or makes a point in the House of Commons, I think how lucky his constituents are to have him as their Member of Parliament. Even though we disagree on many issues, he puts his finger on an important point of public scrutiny at this time, as people decide how to cast their votes.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is only one party in this House that stands guilty of ignoring votes in a Parliament to which it is responsible, that withholds legal advice, that spends thousands of pounds trying to cover its back in a botched court case, and whose leader had been found guilty by a cross-party Committee of that Parliament of misleading that Parliament? It is not my party but the party of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who asked this urgent question today: the Scottish National party—the real cosy, sleekit cabal that is running Scotland today.
I could not put it better myself. The surprising thing is: where are the SNP MPs now? Some people might think that turning up, reading out a question and then leaving before the debate has concluded is the perfect definition of a cynical political stunt, but I will leave that for other people to decide.
The Minister is trying to say that there is absolutely nothing to see here over contracts for cronies, shady deals for decorating, text messages for tax breaks and peerages for donations. If that is the case, are not the public entitled to see this examined in a full, independent public inquiry? If not, what is he afraid of?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, there are a number of issues that might appropriately be the subject of a full, independent public inquiry—we can all think of appropriate issues—but I would say that, in response to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), I ran through the points about PPE and I explained why James Dyson had done so much to ensure that ventilators could be available to all. It is also the case, as I have mentioned to a number of Members, that an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is of course appropriate, but the important thing is that we should not pre-empt its findings.
In January 2020, the Government were a party to the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, which restored devolution to Northern Ireland. That agreement included a commitment to a panel of commissioners for ministerial standards. More recently, the Northern Ireland Assembly has given that role to the Assembly’s Commissioner for Standards. Why are the Government prepared to support that much more rigorous approach to ministerial standards in Stormont but not in Whitehall?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I applaud the cross-party working that Stormont has exhibited in ensuring that the Executive and Ministers work well. As I pointed out earlier, we hope that the independent adviser on ministerial standards will be appointed very shortly. There will then be an opportunity, of course—following on from a number of questions put by right hon. and hon. Members—to review what changes, if any, are needed in order to improve that role.
I have spent the last few days knocking on literally hundreds of doors across mid-Cornwall, as I am sure many Members have done in their own constituencies. The residents of St Austell and Newquay raised a number of important issues with me: the roll-out of the vaccine that is protecting them and their loved ones; the economic impact of the pandemic and what the Government are doing to ensure that we recover quickly; and the lifting of restrictions as we follow the road map that will enable them to see their loved ones again and get back to life as normal in the coming weeks. The one thing that nobody raised with me at all was the matter of the arrangements for refurbishing the Prime Minister’s flat. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Prime Minister and the Government will remain focused on the things that really matter to the people of this country, which is getting through the pandemic and getting back to life as normal as quickly as possible?
My hon. Friend is spot on. Today I had meetings about the vaccine roll-out; ensuring that our justice system operates more quickly after the pandemic; ensuring that we can deal with the backlogs in the NHS as a result of elective operations having to be put aside because of the pandemic; and ensuring that the educational opportunities of our young people—again, scarred by the pandemic—are restored. I think—others may disagree—that those are all more important issues than curtains and soft furnishings, but I leave it to others to decide.
Dominic Cummings has described the Prime Minister’s plans to get Tory donors to pay for the lavish refurbishment of the Downing Street flat as “unethical, foolish and…illegal”. Either the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser is a liar and a fantasist, or the Prime Minister is not being entirely straightforward with the House or the country. Which is it?
The question today relates to the ministerial code and to Government Ministers, but has my right hon. Friend reflected on the fact that while the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) was asking her questions, a number of her own Front-Bench colleagues are under the direct employ of prominent and well-known lobbying companies? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to look at the ministerial code, we should also look at the rules governing shadow spokesmen?
In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), the Minister made a virtue of the Prime Minister having paid for the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. There have been several weeks of speculation about this and it was only last Friday that Downing Street confirmed that he had. Will the Minister clarify whether the Prime Minister paid the original invoices for this work, or did he reimburse the donors who allegedly donated money to this fund or to the Conservative party?
As I pointed out earlier, the Prime Minister paid for the renovation of the flat. All donations to the Prime Minister, to any other Member of Parliament, or indeed to political parties, will be declared appropriately and properly. Of course, the Cabinet Secretary also made clear in his hearing with the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs the background to this issue.
Does my right hon. Friend not find it ironic that the self-same people who are attacking the Government today for the process of procurement were attacking the Government just about a year ago for their slowness in achieving supplies of PPE and other equipment? Is it not right that the Government have moved heaven and earth and that Ministers and civil servants have worked literally through the night often to make sure that we get through this covid pandemic as safely as possible?
My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. It was the case, entirely legitimately and appropriately, that Opposition Members were criticising us for the slow procurement of PPE, and that the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) wrote to me to encourage us to go faster and made a number of suggestions about companies that we should follow up, which we did. Now the allegation is that, when political figures pressed us to procure PPE more quickly for those at the frontline, that was a mistake. Either Labour’s position last spring was wrong, or its position now is wrong; they both cannot be right.
May I conclude by wishing my hon. Friend a happy birthday? It is, I understand, a very significant date, but the Official Secrets Act forbids me from revealing how significant.
We all know that the delay in locking down the country in lockdown one, lockdown two and lockdown three led to a higher toll in both lives and livelihoods. What I do not think anyone expected was to read on the front page of the Daily Mail today that the Prime Minister had said:
“Let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”
The claim has been subsequently verified independently by other journalists. The Minister takes statements that he makes at the Dispatch Box more seriously than the Prime Minister does, so may I ask him again to be absolutely categorical that he has never heard the Prime Minister say those words, that the Prime Minister did not say those words, and that, prior to arriving in the House this afternoon, he received assurances from the Prime Minister that he did not use those words? Can he be absolutely clear, straightforward and honest about that?
Totally. As I pointed out earlier in response to the question from, I think, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), I had been in a meeting in the Cabinet Room with the Prime Minister. I would not ordinarily go into discussions that take place in Cabinet Committees, for reasons that the hon. Gentleman will well understand, but I never heard the Prime Minister say any such a thing. We were all wrestling with an incredibly difficult decision—the decision to lock down necessarily imposes costs in other ways, as we are all aware. The Prime Minister concluded at the end of our discussion, which was a sober, serious and detailed discussion, that it was necessary not only to have that second lockdown but, sadly, to have a third lockdown as well.
According to Opinium for The Observer, 53% of people in Scotland think that the Prime Minister is corrupt. Whether it is covid contracts for his cronies, peerages for his pals, or tax breaks over texts, the Prime Minister is leading a Government who are rotten to the core and fast losing public trust. Any healthy democracy must have leaders with credibility. Will the Minister do the right thing and ensure that a public inquiry happens and recognise that people in Scotland have a right to decide their own future—a future free from Tory sleaze and corruption that they did not vote for?
I think we are grateful for that party election broadcast. The most important thing to stress is that, on each of the detailed questions raised quite understandably by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), I explained the position and it is not as the SNP would wish it to be.