Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in order to advance plans for a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the vital importance of covid recovery. I was grateful for the constructive work across the United Kingdom.
Mentioning that conversation gives me the opportunity, which I am sure the whole House will want to share, to thank Arlene Foster for her leadership as First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive. Arlene will be stepping down shortly. She is a lovely, wonderful person who has done an amazing job. She is a brilliant advocate for the people of Northern Ireland. I know that we will all wish her very well for the future.
We have all heard already this morning about the importance of levelling up in our covid recovery, but in constituencies such as mine, Edinburgh West, it is also important to reinforce and remind people of the strength and support available from the UK Government. Does the Minister for the Cabinet Office agree that it is vital that we remain focused on that and on recovery, and that we do not get side-tracked by the SNP’s damaging obsession with independence?
The hon. Lady puts the case in absolutely the right way: we need to focus on recovery. It was good to hear the First Minister stress in our conversation yesterday that she appreciated that that was a priority. I know that people in Edinburgh completely find the hon. Lady’s arguments compelling, which is why her colleague and friend Alex Cole-Hamilton secured more than 50% of the first preference votes for Edinburgh West in the Scottish Parliament; obviously it was for a different party from my own, but it is a reflection of the fact that he and she are really good local representatives.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, following yesterday’s Wagnerian-length Committee session, the proper place for learning from the pandemic will be in the independent public inquiry announced by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister? Given that the chair of that inquiry will require the confidence of the nation—and not least that of this House—does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that that chair should be subject to a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing by the relevant Select Committee?
I am a great fan of Wagner, but I also recognise that the young tenor voice of my hon. Friend as Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is one that deserves to be heard in the debate about how the inquiry should go forward. How exactly that voice is heard and amplified, and as part of which chorus, will be a matter for the whole House, I think.
I welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to our first exchange at the Dispatch Box, but I only wish that it were in better circumstances. The testimony that we heard yesterday has left families across the country wondering what happened to their loved ones and how they died. It has left all of us fearing that the Government have not learned the lessons or taken the action needed to prevent more avoidable loss.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster once said that he had
“reluctantly but firmly”
concluded that the Prime Minister was
“not capable of…leading the party and the country in the way that I would have hoped.”
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster knows Dominic Cummings very well as his former chief of staff—better than anyone else in this House. Does he believe him to be a credible and truthful witness?
First, may I welcome the right hon. Lady to her place? She is someone who started her working life on the frontline of social care, who has been a highly effective trade union representative and who has spoken passionately and movingly in this House about the need for greater social mobility and educational reform, and it will be a pleasure, I hope, to work with her over the weeks and months ahead.
As far as yesterday’s testimony went, people will make their own judgment on everything that was said then. I would say only two things. It has been a privilege to work closely with both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health over the course of the last 12 months. They have given unstinting service. It is thanks to their leadership, for example, that we have a world-beating vaccination programme, and it is a privilege to serve alongside them. I think the Prime Minister is doing a fantastic job, and I also think the Secretary of State for Health has shown unstinting—
I have not had the opportunity to read all the evidence that was given yesterday, and indeed the Speaker has enjoined brevity on me, but I think that the public inquiry that we have been discussing is the right place to review all the evidence from every individual.
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and any of the victims of this appalling scandal. I raised this issue at the recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, and I want to let all those people who have lost children know that just because we published the written ministerial statement, which made reference to other support for other individuals, that does not mean that they are not at the forefront of our minds. The compensation study that we recently announced will obviously be looking at many of the issues that they have raised, but I would be happy to meet them.
The broad public inquiry that we have set up—with, of course, consultation with the First Minister of Scotland—will, I hope, look at every aspect of our pandemic response. Although I did not hear all the evidence history, I understand that I was mentioned and the point was made that I got some things wrong. I have got lots of things wrong, but of course we will all reflect on those in due course.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) about the particular challenges in Cornwall. Challenges exist across the United Kingdom, and as part of our levelling-up drive we are committed to meeting them.
I do not think so, but the hon. Gentleman raises an important point: we should thank those at the frontline of the NHS for the amazing work they have done. Part of supporting them is making sure that they have the right personal protective equipment. This Government, like Governments around the globe, were under great pressure to make sure that we had the right PPE in the right places at the right time. More than 99% of the PPE that we procured was directed, usable and effective.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a proud tradition of steelmaking in Scunthorpe and she is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of the issue. My colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have established a new joint industry and governmental steel procurement taskforce, which was launched on 12 March. Of course, as the Government Department that helps to co-ordinate procurement, we are working with BEIS to achieve the goals that my hon. Friend rightly points out on behalf of her constituents.
Rother Valley is a centre of enterprise in South Yorkshire, and it contains brilliant businessmen such as Mr Don Wightman, who is a manufacturing superhero. He, like his Member of Parliament, recognises that the new trade opportunities that Brexit brings, and indeed the new opportunities for smarter regulation, mean that enterprises in Rother Valley and across Yorkshire have a very bright future.
Public appointments to Ofcom are of course a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I should say that the hon. Gentleman would be a superb chair of Ofcom, given the range of experience that he brings. That would mean, sadly, having to stand down from his position in the House, but I think we would all welcome that sacrifice for the greater good.
I think the Prime Minister is absolutely right. I think my right hon. Friend has been doing a great job as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Looking at the last 12 months—everything we have done from the roll-out of the vaccine programme to the support that we have given those on the frontline—we should celebrate the fact that, at a time of challenge, we have in the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care a dedicated public servant.
My right hon. Friend is a great champion of widening opportunity and has done a fantastic job in ensuring that equality is taken more seriously across Government. The campaign that she mentions is absolutely right, and something that I will ensure we embrace in Government publications.