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Commons Chamber

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 8 June 2021

House of Commons

Tuesday 8 June 2021

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

Oral Answers to Questions

Health and Social Care

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Support for Scottish Government

What steps his Department is taking to support the Scottish Government in their response to the covid-19 outbreak. (900820)

The UK Government work closely with the Scottish Government to provide a co-ordinated approach to the response to covid-19 for the benefit of people across Scotland and across the United Kingdom. For instance, the UK Government have provided the Scottish Government with £1.2 billion in Barnett funding in the 2021 Budget, procured more than 500 million vaccines for the whole of the UK and made sure that our testing programme reaches all parts of the UK. This is a partnership in which the people of Scotland benefit hugely from the reach and strength of the UK Government.

It is becoming clear across the entire United Kingdom that our NHS is facing a huge challenge as we reopen society to deal with the thousands of procedures, treatments and operations that have been delayed due to lockdown. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the national health service in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can work together as easily as possible, sharing resources and services to ensure that this truly national health service for our whole country will support delivery to support our constituents wherever in the United Kingdom they might live?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The NHS is one of Britain’s proudest achievements. It operates across the whole of Great Britain and co-operation is ingrained in the DNA of the NHS. I am absolutely determined, as the UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, to ensure that, wherever people live in this United Kingdom, they can access the very best of care. If a constituent of my hon. Friend’s in Aberdeenshire needs a treatment that is only available in England because it is so specialised, they should have absolutely every right to that treatment, in the same way that a constituent of mine in Suffolk or a constituent in north Wales should. We have one NHS across these islands, and it is one of the things of which this country is most proud.

I am sure the Secretary of State is well aware that the Scottish NHS has been separate since 1948 and has been under direct Scottish Government control for the last 20 years, so there are actually four NHSs. Perhaps I can ask him about some of his decisions that have made it harder for the Scottish and other devolved Governments to fight covid. Last September, he refused to follow Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advice for an urgent lockdown, and the six-week delay allowed the more infectious B117 Kent variant to emerge and spread across the UK, driving a second wave more deadly than the first. He has repeatedly claimed to follow the science, so can he explain why he did not follow scientific advice last September?

Just on this point, this attempt at division within the NHS is deeply regrettable. It is not what people want. It is not what people want in Scotland. It is not what people want anywhere across the country. The NHS is an institution we should all be very proud of. Of course it is managed locally—it is managed locally across parts of England and it is managed under the devolution settlement in Wales and Scotland, as are health services in Northern Ireland, and rightly so—but it ill behoves politicians to try to divide the NHS. It is a wonderful institution that should make us all proud to be British.

On the specific question that the hon. Lady asked, of course we are guided by the science and take all factors into consideration. These are difficult judgments based on uncertain data, and we make the best judgments that we can. That is still the process we are going through, in the same way that the Scottish National party Government in Scotland have recently opened up parts of the rules in terms of social distancing, despite the rise in cases.

We face a challenging decision ahead of 21 June, but that decision is made easier by—indeed, the decision to open up is only possible because of it—the UK vaccination effort. Today marks six months to the day since Margaret Keenan in Coventry was the first person in the world to receive a clinically validated vaccine—the same day as Scotland, the same day as Wales. Since then we have delivered—

Order. It is not a statement, but an answer that we require. I call Dr Philippa Whitford to ask her second question.

I think the Secretary of State would find that most people in Scotland were rather glad that their NHS did not come under the Health and Social Care Act 2012 fragmentation. Having ignored the Scottish Government’s call in February for all arrivals to undergo hotel quarantine, he then delayed adding India to the red list. This allowed the more infectious Delta variant, which one dose of the vaccine is less effective against, to enter and become dominant in the UK. Is he not concerned that, if he removes all social distancing completely in the near future, the variant will cause a covid surge among those who are not fully vaccinated?

Touché, Sir. In response to the hon. Lady’s question, I will say this. The opening up and the return of our freedoms is only possible because of the UK vaccination effort. In the six months to the day since we first vaccinated across these islands—yes, in Coventry, but also in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—we have delivered 68 million vaccines across the whole UK and saved thousands of lives, and the whole United Kingdom has been set fair on the road to recovery thanks to the UK Government’s vaccination effort. I am very grateful to everybody in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England who has played their part in delivering it. That shows the benefit of the United Kingdom Union saving lives and working together for everybody on these islands.

Adult Social Care Reform

I am hugely ambitious about social care reform. I want a sustainable care system that meets people’s needs and aspirations and gives them the care and support they need to live life to the full. We are working on proposals for reform and will bring those forward later this year.

This Government are responsible for over 40,000 needless deaths from covid-19 in care homes. A plan to fix social care in this country is long overdue. This crisis is not new—people are routinely forced to sell the family home to pay for care. The workers are paid peanuts, while the 13 million unpaid carers are left to pick up the pieces. Does the Minister agree that we have had far too many vague promises and that unpaid carers cannot wait a minute longer?

I agree with the hon. Member that there are many challenges for social care, and that is one reason why many Governments have talked about social care reform. As he will understand, over the last year, we have rightly focused on supporting social care through the pandemic, but we are working on our proposals for reform and will bring them forward later this year.

Almost two years ago, the Government promised to fix social care once and for all, but we have seen in this pandemic that it is still seriously broken. Care does not stop at the hospital exit or the GP’s door. Carers have sacrificed physical and mental health caring for loved ones during the pandemic; 72% have had no break, and 44% say they are at breaking point. In national Carers Week, will the Minister commit to cross-party talks in the immediate term to fix the social care crisis throughout the UK?

As the hon. Member says, this week is Carers Week, which is a really good opportunity to raise awareness about the important role that carers play in supporting loved ones and to remember something that I personally am committed to: we must support carers not only in the care that they do but to live their own lives, for which respite care is really important. As part of our reforms to social care, we are listening to carers and want to ensure that their needs are met.

In July 2019, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and pledged to fix the broken social care system. Two years on, we are still waiting. There were only warm words in the Queen’s Speech a couple of weeks ago:

“Proposals on social care reform will be brought forward.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 May 2021; Vol. 812, c. 2.]

Can the Minister tell us when the Government will move from rhetoric and warm words and fix this broken system for the people she has just mentioned, who need it desperately?

I welcome the hon. Member’s support for and interest in social care reform, along with others across the House. We know that social care reform is needed. We have rightly over the last year focused on supporting social care through the pandemic, getting £1.8 billion of extra funding for social care to the frontline and providing billions of items of PPE, over 100 million tests to social care and the vaccination programme to care home residents, those who receive social care and the workforce. We are working on our social care reforms and will bring those forward later this year.

Many in this place and across England will be asking, “Where is England’s long-awaited social care Bill?” because they will have seen that the SNP Government are delivering a new deal for the social care sector in Scotland, building a new national care service that will improve workers’ conditions and standards of care, and increasing investment in care by 25%. Will the UK Government follow Scotland’s lead in transforming social care, and will the Minister contact Scottish Government Ministers to learn from our over a decade-long experience of integrating health and social care?

One of the great strengths of our United Kingdom is our ability to work together and learn from different parts of the UK. We also look at the best in England and, of course, in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman mentions the care workforce. We absolutely want to make sure that this important workforce are front and centre of our social care reform plans and that they receive the training, opportunities, recognition and reward that they deserve.

The Government have had 11 years to reform social care, but with cuts of £8 billion over that period, it is fragmented and costly and does not value workers and employees. Is it not time that the Minister and the Government grab the bull by the horns and introduce a national health and social care service? When are reforms going to come into play—what day, what month, what year?

It is not just over the period mentioned by the hon. Member that social care reforms have been talked about; this goes back at least 25 years, to when Tony Blair was the Labour leader and Prime Minister. He talked about reforms to social care, but he has also said that it is not simple; these are complex problems to address. When people talk about how social care needs fixing, different people mean different things. That is why, as part of our reforms, we are going to bring forward a long-term plan for reforming social care.

Can I just say to the Minister that I think most Members of the House of Commons will find her attitude incredibly complacent on one of the key issues that faces most families in this country? As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) has just said, there has been an £8 billion cut to social care since 2010. One of the steps she could take straight away is to reinstate that £8 billion to local authorities, so that they can at least provide services through the social care system that we have.

I have huge respect for the right hon. Lady and her work in many areas, but I am disappointed by her language. She will appreciate that, together, the Department, local authorities and the care sector are working hard on how to bring forward the right package of reforms for the system. We have already taken some of the first steps on that road. For instance, the health and social care Bill includes plans to strengthen oversight of the social care system. That is an important step, but it is the beginning, not the end, of the social care reform road.

Six hundred and eighty-five days ago, the Prime Minister promised to fix the crisis in social care to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve. Since then, more than 32,000 elderly people have died from covid-19 in care homes, millions of care workers and families have felt abandoned and pushed to breaking point, and 300 elderly people have been forced to sell their homes to pay for their care every single week. Does the Minister think that has given people security, let alone dignity, and will she tell the country, after more than a decade in power, specifically when her Government will deliver?

What I will say, after the enormously difficult year that social care has had through the pandemic, is that that has indeed strengthened the already strong case for reform of social care. I will say to the hon. Member that I want us to have a better social care system, whether it is for our grans and grandads, mums and dads, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, or, indeed, as and when we need it ourselves. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform social care. Now is the time, now is the moment and we will seize this opportunity. We will be bringing forward proposals for reform of social care later this year.

Food Standards Agency

Next week the Food Standards Agency will produce its annual report and hold its annual general meeting. That report is likely to recommend significant changes regarding live bivalve molluscs, which have a huge impact on my constituency and on the health of the nation for those who eat seafood. Will the Minister commit that any changes recommended in the report next week will be brought forward in record time, so that they may be implemented quickly and we can secure the future of the seafood industry in the United Kingdom?

It is a change to be talking about a different sort of mussel in this place during Health questions. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and I are well aware of the challenges that currently face the shellfish industry, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for his dogged determination, especially on behalf of those businesses that rely on exports. We will continue to work closely with the FSA, which I know has been working hard to resolve these issues and make progress. I have been advised that there is potential for change to ensure that classifications are awarded in a proportionate and pragmatic way, while continuing to ensure high levels of public health protection. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to work closely with the FSA and with my colleagues in DEFRA.

Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit: Dorset

What steps he is taking to support the construction of a new psychiatric intensive care unit in Dorset. (900823)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not least for providing me with my only opportunity to answer a question on the Order Paper today. I am delighted to confirm that St Ann’s Hospital in Dorset is already part of our plan to build 48 hospitals by 2030—the biggest hospital building programme in a generation. The new build at St Ann’s will provide child and adult mental health services for the people of Dorset, resulting in outdated infrastructure being replaced by facilities for staff and patients that are at the cutting edge of modern technology, innovation and sustainability, driving excellence in this hugely important area of patient care.

I thank the Minister for his hard work in reopening the Yeatman Hospital in Sherborne, which will happen in a couple of weeks for A&E. On top of what he has already offered, which I very much appreciate, will he commit specifically to increase inpatient provision for children and young people in West Dorset with severe mental health difficulties, as we have a number of difficult cases?

My hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters and, as he will know, the number of places commissioned is a matter for NHS commissioners locally. I reassure him that we can commit, and my hon. Friend the Minister for mental health services is committed, to expanding and transforming community mental health services across England, boosted by an additional £79 million this year, so that children and young people get timely access to the support and treatment they need, without having to be admitted to hospital. That is, of course, alongside the investment to which I have referred for inpatient mental health facilities at St Ann’s.

Mental Health Treatment Reform

We are transforming mental health services through the NHS long-term plan, investing an additional £2.3 billion a year by 2023-24. Where national waiting time targets exits, the majority are being met. Targets for eating disorder services are sadly not being met, but additional resources have been allocated to increase capacity and address waiting times. We are working on the consultation responses for the Mental Health Act White Paper, and we will bring legislation forward when parliamentary time allows.

After a career working in mental health for almost 30 years, prior to entering this House, I was delighted to be asked to become a board member for a local charity, Anxious Minds, which is based in Blyth town centre. Its aim is to improve mental health and wellbeing for local people. Will my hon. Friend assure me and those who worry about the toll that this pandemic has taken on the vulnerable that she will do everything she can to ensure that mental health is given the highest possible propriety as restrictions begin to ease?

I thank my hon. Friend for his years of service working in mental health. Mental health is one of this Government’s top priorities, and I assure him that we are doing our utmost to ensure that mental health services are there for everyone who needs them. Through the NHS long-term plan, we are expanding and transforming mental health services in England and investing an additional £2.3 billion a year in mental health services by 2023-24.

In addition, we have published our mental health recovery action plan, backed by a one-off targeted investment of £500 million in addition to the £2.3 billion, to ensure that we have the right support in place this year. The plan aims to respond to the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of the public, specifically targeting groups that have been most impacted. We have set up a cross-Government ministerial group to monitor progress against the actions listed in the plan, and the group will also identify areas for further action and collaboration.

I welcome the priority put on young people’s mental health, which is perhaps more important now than ever. Will the Minister give an update on progress on implementing the proposals in the children and young people’s mental health Green Paper, particularly on mental health support teams in Hampshire and nationwide?

We are making good progress on implementing the Green Paper proposals, and I am pleased to say that we have established 11 mental health support teams in Hampshire. Nationwide, there are currently 180 mental health support teams, covering around 15% of pupils in England. Over 200 more are in training or being commissioned, and we expect to have around 400 in place by 2023-24, covering 35% of pupils. We recently announced £9.5 million to train thousands of senior mental health leads among school and college staff.

Last year, in my NHS trust 37% of children referred to mental health services were turned away. That was up from 28% the year before. That is 2,649 children not getting treatment despite referrals from professionals. That will be exacerbated, of course, by the acute children’s mental health unit at Ticehurst being shut and no new hospital provision commissioned.

It is not just Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust that is failing; it is services across the country. In 2019, 140,000 children were turned away from child and adolescent mental health services, and some experience exceptionally long waits. Is the Minister comfortable with these huge numbers of children being turned away from treatment? Does she think that these waiting times are acceptable? What message does she have for those children and families who do not receive the treatment that they desperately need?

The short answer to that question is no, and that is why we have committed an additional £500 million to address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman highlights. However, I must reiterate that the majority of our targets, where they have been set, are being met. Sadly, in eating disorders—I hold my hands up—we are not meeting the targets that we want to, but as he may be aware, we are trialling four-week waiting targets for children and young people. The results of that review and pilot will be available soon.

We continue to look at ways in which we can increase access to services for children and young people. Children and young people have told me themselves, via organisations such as Barnardo’s, that they want their mental health services delivered in a different way. They do not want to go and sit in a village hall or a hospital, or wherever they may receive their services from community practitioners; they want some of their services delivered via their phones, laptops or computers. Obviously, one-to-one services have to be available where they are needed, but children and young people are demanding a change, and we are going through that change now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) raises a very important point and, frankly, I am shocked that the Minister seems so relaxed about it. Across the country, there are numerous children who have waited more than 400 days for help with autism; 280 days for post-traumatic stress disorder; 217 days for suicidal ideation; 195 days for treatment after an overdose—I could go on and on. Children should not have to wait so long for treatment. That will have a scarring impact on their development. These waiting times simply are not acceptable, so will the Minister apologise to these children, and can she explain where it went so wrong?

I do not believe that meeting almost all our targets for NHS waiting times for mental health services, with £2.3 billion a year of investment into our NHS and no NHS mental health service closing during the entire pandemic, has been a failure. Of course I am sorry for those children and young people who cannot get access to services as quickly as they want; that is exactly why we committed an additional £500 million and established a mental health recovery plan: so that we can put community services in place to reach those who have been impacted most by the pandemic over the past 15 months. We have a long-term plan in place, with the investment that the NHS tells us that that long-term plan needs to provide the very services that we want to provide. The mental health of children and young people is this Government’s priority. We will continue to invest, and are proving to continue to invest, to make sure that those children and young people access the services they need.

Covid-19: Restoration of GP Services

What steps his Department is taking to support the full restoration of GP services as part of the covid-19 recovery. (900826)

What steps his Department is taking to support the full restoration of GP services as part of the covid-19 recovery. (900835)

What steps his Department is taking to support the full restoration of GP services as part of the covid-19 recovery. (900840)

General practice has remained open throughout the pandemic, offering face-to-face appointments as well as telephone and online consultations, while playing a leading role in our vaccination programme. We are enormously grateful to general practices, the GPs and their broader teams for everything that they have done, but to ensure that general practice can continue to provide all necessary and appropriate care during this very busy time, we have made an additional £270 million available until September.

If it is done right, we can use technology and data to improve healthcare services, improve patient outcomes and help to save lives, so I welcome the proposals for a new GP data system, but it is vital that we get this right with the appropriate protections in place. With that in mind, will the Minister update the House on these vital reforms?

I could not agree more. Data saves lives —it is as simple as that. We have seen that in the pandemic, and it is one of the lessons of the vaccine roll-out. The GP data programme will strengthen the system and save lives. Patient data is, of course, owned by the patient. We are absolutely determined to take people with us on this journey. We have therefore decided that we will proceed with the important programme, but we will take some extra time, as we have conversed with stakeholders over the past couple of days. The implementation date will now be 1 September. We will use this time to talk to patients, doctors, health charities and others to strengthen the plan, build a trusted research environment and ensure that data is accessed securely. This agenda is so important, because we all know that data saves lives.

I have been contacted in recent weeks by quite a number of constituents who are struggling to get a GP appointment, but we have a pre-covid problem as well, which is that thousands and thousands of new houses have gone into the constituency without an increase in GP services. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how to get my constituents the GP services that they need and deserve?

It is right that local health commissioners pay careful regard to the impact of new housing and growing areas, which is to be welcomed. I understand that both practices in my hon. Friend’s area are still accepting patients and that the Oxfordshire clinical commissioning group has been working closely with the practices in Wantage to make sure that the impact of housing growth is being accommodated, which I expect all CCGs and councils to be doing. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

I recently met two cancer groups in Sedgefield, the Solan Connor Fawcett Family Cancer Trust and the Great Aycliffe Cancer Support Group, and heard about the wonderful work that they have been doing over the past year. We also discussed how delayed GP appointments have affected early diagnosis of important medical issues such as cancer. Early diagnosis is necessary to provide patients with the best chance of stopping the cancer spreading and of recovering. Furthermore, the later cancer is caught, the more complicated cases become; they take more time and more resources and, of course, are horribly distressing. Will the Minister please tell me what is being done to ensure that backlogs in appointments are being addressed as urgently as possible?

I pay tribute to all the cancer charities out there who have done sterling work during the pandemic. As I have said, GP services are open, and they are offering different forms of communication with patients. We are running the Help Us, Help You campaign so that people can come forward when they have symptoms. As my hon. Friend says, identifying cancers early to save lives is part of the long-term plan, but I would like to assure him that my latest data showed that in March 2021 we had the highest ever recorded number of GP referrals for cancer. GPs are working really hard, and if patients are worried about any symptoms, they need to come forward.

For GPs and for the NHS more broadly, using data effectively is an important way to restore our health services. However, the current plans to take this data from GPs, assemble it in one place and sell it to unknown commercial interests for purposes unknown has no legitimacy whatsoever. There has been no public engagement and no explanation; this has simply been snuck out under the cover of darkness—[Interruption.] I will get there, Minister; do not worry. This is an NHS data grab. The news of the delay is welcome and I am glad that the hon. Lady has made that commitment, but within that, will she commit to ensuring that the 23 June opt-out date is also moved to 1 September and that there will be a full public consultation on whether people want their data used for these purposes?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan). We will be considering everything in the round. As I have said, I have spoken to many of the stakeholders involved and as we move forward we will be ensuring that we take all trusted individuals with us to build confidence in the system.

Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Act 2019

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Act 2019 in increasing the number of organs available for donation. (900827)

The organ donation opt-out system has increased the number of organs available for transplant and is saving hundreds of lives. Since the law changed last year, 296 people in England have donated their organs under the opt-out system. These donations account for 29% of the 1,021 donations that took place last year.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. She will know that 20 May marked one year since Max and Keira’s law came into effect—a change that will give hope and save lives—but despite the tireless efforts of NHS staff, covid has had a devastating impact on patients in need of life-saving operations. Can the Minister outline how she is going to get organ transplant services back to pre-pandemic levels and tell us what additional resources will be committed in order to support an increase in organ availability?

I would first like to thank the hon. Member for the part he played in campaigning for this life-saving change to organ donation and bringing about the increase that I mentioned earlier. The current services are now running at pre-covid levels and NHS Blood and Transplant is working with the wider healthcare system to enable as many transplants as possible. The new Organ Donation and Transplantation 2030: Meeting the Need strategy, which was launched last Tuesday, sets out the steps we are taking to increase organ availability further.

Medical Cannabis

What recent progress his Department has made on helping to ensure that medical cannabis is accessible to people who require it under prescription. (900830)

I have discussed these concerns with the hon. Member and with the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on medical cannabis under prescription, and he knows that I sympathise deeply with the parents of these children and with the patients and their families, many of whom I have met. They are dealing courageously with conditions that are difficult to treat. My immediate priority was to resolve the supply of Bedrocan oil from the Netherlands. I have further meetings planned to make progress on other issues in this incredibly complex situation.

I welcome today’s letter from the Minister detailing the extension of the arrangements for the provision of Bedrocan, and I am pleased that we are working towards the manufacture of Bedrocan oils in the UK. I have two issues today. The first is that patients still need to pay for their medicines. If the numbers are so small and this is such a niche product, surely it could be provided free on the NHS. Secondly, I have been told that research is ongoing regarding the wider possibilities for medical cannabis, but despite being promised an update a month ago, I am still waiting for one from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency on clinical trials and the licence application. Could that please be forthcoming?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have met Dr June Raine from the MHRA and subsequently met further specialist clinicians in this area to discuss progress with the research and evidence on supporting prescribing on the NHS. Establishing clinical trials is vital, with the support of the National Institute for Health Research, to make sure that we are making the right decisions on routine funding. From 1 April, we have introduced a national patient registry to record data and monitor patient outcomes in England, with a view to it being rolled out across Scotland and the other devolved Administrations later this year; this covers both licensed and unlicensed cannabis-based medicines on the NHS, with a view to including private patients in due course. As he knows, I am very focused on making sure we get the right solutions for families, but at the heart of this matter always has to lie the safety of what we prescribe.

Question 24 about covid-19 variants has been withdrawn, but if the Minister can give a response, we can go to Justin Madders for his supplementary question.

The Government have produced a four-step road map to ease restrictions across England. Before each step, an assessment is made against the four tests, including assessing the current risk posed by variants of concern. The move to step 3 on 17 May was based on the assessment that the risks were not fundamentally changed by those variants of concern. Step 4 is due no earlier than 21 June and the variants of concern will again be considered in advance.

On Sky News, on Sunday, the Secretary of State was asked about figures that contradict his claim that India was not put on the red list at the same time as Bangladesh and Pakistan because positivity rates were three times higher in those countries. In response, he said that he did not recognise those figures, but he should have done, because they are his own figures from Test and Trace. Indeed, there are no published figures for the time the decision was made that support his claim. Given the allegation that the only reason there was a delay in putting India on the red list was to help secure a trade deal, and given that this delay is now having serious consequences, will the Minister agree to publish all the data and advice on which the decision was based, in the interests of transparency and accountability?

The positivity rates were three times higher from Pakistan than they were from India when we made that decision. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we keep these things under constant review and we would be equally lambasted if decisions were made before we had the correct information. Acting when we have the right information on variants of concern is an important thing; we will keep following the data.

New Hospital Construction

In October, the Prime Minister confirmed a £3.7 billion funding allocation over the next four years to support the delivery of 40 new hospitals by 2030, and I am delighted that that includes Kettering General Hospital. We have since confirmed that there will be 48 new hospitals built by 2030, and six of those projects are under way.

I am delighted that one of the new Boris hospitals will be built on the site of Kettering General, starting with an accident and emergency department and with the whole hospital being finished by 2027. Unfortunately, there may well be a substantial delay to that because of red tape and bureaucracy. Will the Secretary of State use his great skills, bang some heads together, and get the pen-pushers and accountants to sort out the delay so that we can get on with this? Will he be kind enough to meet the three hon. Members who represent north Northamptonshire to discuss the issue?

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than making stuff happen, so I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and the nearby colleagues who represent the people served by Kettering General Hospital to make sure we can get this project moving as soon as we can.

Office for Health Promotion: Mindfulness

Work on the scope and organisation design of the Office for Health Promotion is ongoing. We will present more detail on our plans for the OHP in due course. Public Health England’s “Better Health—Every Mind Matters” social marketing campaign aims to inform and equip the public to look after their mental health. Its NHS-endorsed website offers guidance on the actions that people can take to improve their mental wellbeing, including by practising mindfulness and reflection.

Research shows that mindfulness training can contribute to improvements in obesity, eating behaviours, addiction and mental health and wellbeing. Will the Minister ensure that the Office for Health Promotion looks at the evidence of how mindfulness can help with how we all manage our health?

There is emerging evidence on the mental health benefits of mindfulness, which can take the form of meditation or wider approaches that incorporate a mindful approach. As the hon. Lady may be aware, I have been particularly concerned that we separate out mental illness and wellbeing and mindfulness. We should focus on mental illness, which needs intense clinical intervention in NHS services, but also look at mindfulness and wellbeing. That is why I mentioned “Every Mind Matters”: the facilities are there.

Pharmacies: Range of Work

The pandemic has proven to the public how vital our highly skilled pharmacy teams are in supporting their communities. Pharmacies have massive potential to build on the new services they are already delivering, and we will continue to look at how we can use them further.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Can we also make sure that the public are aware of everything that pharmacies can do, so that they can use them to take pressure off GPs?

Indeed we can. I would be honoured to work with my hon. Friend to do that so that people think “pharmacy first”. Pharmacies are delivering lateral flow devices into our communities; 500 of them have stood up to be vaccination sites; and we can now refer from NHS 111 and GPs into community pharmacies for the supply of prescribed medicine and for minor illnesses. We need our pharmacies to show their skill base; they are a highly skilled group that we should all be asking to do more and celebrating.

Topical Questions

I can tell the House that today, working with local authorities, we are providing a strengthened package of support, based on what is working in Bolton, to help Greater Manchester and Lancashire to tackle the rise in the delta variant that we are seeing there. The support includes rapid response teams, putting in extra testing, military support and supervised in-school testing. I encourage everyone in Manchester and Lancashire to get the tests on offer. We know that this approach can work: we have seen it work in south London and in Bolton, stopping a rise in the number of cases. This is the next stage of tackling the pandemic in Manchester and Lancashire. It is of course vital that people in those areas, as everywhere else, come forward and get the jab as soon as they are eligible, because that is our way out of this pandemic together.

Currently, all primary care providers in Wales remain on amber alert, which means that many of my constituents in Bridgend are unable to access necessary services unless it is an emergency. Will my right hon. Friend explain how this situation compares to his Department’s strategy to provide catch-up services as we come out of lockdown?

It is very important that, across the country, the UK is open, the NHS is open and that people can come forward and get treatment if they need it. As my hon. Friend knows, I work closely with the delivery of the NHS in Wales. The NHS there is of course the responsibility of the devolved Administration, but I am happy to take up his concern with the new Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services to see what we can do.

We have seen reports today of how exhausted NHS staff are. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in the media this morning that he was not sure what more the Government could do to support NHS staff. Obviously, the Government could give them a pay rise, but will the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care also commit today to extending free hospital car parking for NHS staff beyond the pandemic?

Of course, we have made hospital car parking free for staff during the pandemic. That is one of the many, many things that we have put in place to support staff. Staff wellbeing support and mental health support have also been incredibly important, learning, as we have done, from the support that we give to others in public service who go through traumatic episodes. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right that there is a wide array of things that we need to do to support NHS staff on the frontline.

I wanted a commitment to extend the relief of hospital car parking charges beyond the pandemic.

The Secretary of State knows that waiting lists are at 5 million and that 432,000 people are waiting beyond 12 months. Once we are through this pandemic, the priority must be to bring those waiting lists down, but he is about to embark on a reorganisation of the NHS with his integrated care legislation. Local boards permit the private sector to have a seat on them. Virgin Care has just been given a seat on the integrated care system in Bath and North Somerset. He once promised that there would be no privatisation on his watch, so will he instruct that ICS to remove Virgin Care from its board?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that integrating the health service with services provided by local authorities, such as social care, is absolutely critical, and I know that he supports those proposals that have come from the NHS. When it comes to delivering services in the NHS, what matters to patients is that they get high-quality services, for instance, to deal with the backlog, and what matters is getting those services as fast as we possibly can. People care much less about who provides the service than they do about the service getting delivered, and that is the approach that I take, too.

Today, the Health and Social Care Committee published its report on NHS and social care staff burnout, which chronicles the emotional exhaustion and chronic fatigue felt by many frontline staff in the past year. Much support has been put in place; the 50,000 nurse target is welcome, the extra doctors and nurses hired during the pandemic extremely welcome, but still we have shortages in nearly every specialty, leading to a sense of despair. Will my right hon. Friend consider the recommendation that we make today that Health Education England should be given the statutory power to make independent workforce projections, rather as the Office for Budget Responsibility does for Budget forecasts, so that we can at least look doctors and nurses in the eye and say that we are training enough of them for the future?

I am very happy to work with the Select Committee on the forthcoming health and care Bill. The Committee has already had a huge amount of input into that Bill, and I am sure that, during its passage, we will be working together on making sure that this piece of legislation, which has cross-party support, can come through the House in the best possible state. I am very happy to look at the specific proposal, but what I would say is that we have been recruiting record numbers of doctors and nurses to try to make sure that the NHS is always there for all of our constituents and their families.

The British Medical Association has warned that the freezing of the lifetime and annual pensions tax allowance until April 2026 could significantly impact the retention and overtime of health and care staff, with 72% of doctors that it surveyed saying that it would make them more likely to retire early. What consideration has been given to the BMA’s proposal of offering a tax unregistered scheme, similar to that of the judiciary, for those in the NHS? (900881)

We made very significant progress on this in the Budget immediately following the general election, as the hon. Lady will know. That has removed this problem for the vast majority of doctors who serve in the NHS. I am very glad that we were able to make that progress. I am always happy to look at suggestions from the unions and others, but I am glad to say that we have made a good deal of progress on this one.

Despite the recent rise in infection rates, covid-related deaths and hospital admissions remain low across my constituency. Surge vaccinations and testing have been effectively rolled out in high-risk areas, and pop-up vaccination centres, such as the Darby and Joan Club in Clayton West, are doing a fantastic job. Given that, can my right hon. Friend assure the people of Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale that there will be no need to introduce local restrictions in the future? (900883)

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the whole team on the incredible work that they did in pretty difficult and urgent circumstances. I reassure him that, as the Prime Minister has said and as the Secretary of State has said from the Dispatch Box, we want the whole country to come out of this lockdown together.

My constituents continue to be concerned that covid-19 is being used as an excuse to remove services from Ealing Hospital permanently. Accepting temporary suspensions for covid-19 is fine, but will the Secretary of State confirm that this public health crisis will not be used as an excuse to scrap services without following proper consultations and undertaking rigorous impact assessments? (900882)

The Airedale General Hospital celebrates its 51st birthday this year, despite having a life expectancy of 30 years when it was originally built and 83% of it being built from aerated concrete, which is known for its structural deficiencies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is well aware of my campaign to get a rebuild of the Airedale hospital, so that we can mitigate the risk of those structural deficiencies. Will he visit the hospital to meet me and Brendan Brown, the chief executive, so that we may discuss the plans in more detail? (900887)

Mr Speaker, not only has my hon. Friend made a compelling case for me to visit, but you have just told me to visit, so I have my marching orders. I look forward to my now forthcoming visit to Airedale hospital. I have not been yet, so I am very keen to come.

The Minister of State responsible for the hospital building programme has been heavily involved, and I have been looking at the paperwork. As my hon. Friend knows, on top of the 40 hospitals we announced—six of which are already being built—we have eight further slots to come, and Airedale hospital is very much on my radar for those slots. We will run an open competition and will make sure it is fair, but I will certainly visit.

This week, the Prime Minister praised the major benefits of the private finance initiative companies that are part of the LIFT—NHS Local Finance Investment Trust—initiative running GP services. That is why I am sure that the Secretary of State will be disappointed to learn that here in Walthamstow, Community Health Partnerships, a PFI LIFT company that we estimate has made several millions of pounds of profit from the deal on top of its service charges, and which the Secretary of State is ultimately in charge of, has just handed our local toy library a business rates bill of £30,000 for during the pandemic. I hate to add to the Secretary of State’s busy diary, but will he meet me to discuss what we can do to ensure that such companies stop making major profits from our NHS services and that benefits such as a toy library are not lost due to their antics? (900885)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend saw Fergus Walsh’s report on the BBC news last week on spinal muscular atrophy and the importance of the UK’s newborn screening programme. Surprisingly, the UK screens for only nine rare diseases in the heel-prick test, compared with other European countries such as Iceland and Italy, which test for 47 and 43 diseases, respectively. The sooner the diagnosis for a child with a rare disease the better, because it can change their life and their life chances. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK should now consider expansion of the newborn screening programme? Will he meet, or ask a Minister of State to meet, me and campaigners on the issue? (900889)

Yes, absolutely, I 100% agree with my hon. Friend. We have the funding to expand that programme. She will have seen in our national genomics healthcare strategy that newborn screening is specifically highlighted. It is a personal mission of mine to make that happen. I am happy to meet her and Baroness Blackwood, the chair of Genomics England, who has been driving the project forward.

Early diagnosis gives the best chance of survival, but a GP in my constituency has expressed serious concerns about delays in accessing urgent blood tests, which are critical to diagnose cancer. Will the Secretary of State ensure that local issues such as this do not worsen the already significant cancer backlog and put more people’s lives at risk? (900888)

Yes. The hon. Lady raises a very important issue, and if she writes to me with the full details, we will get right on it.

I am delighted to report back to my right hon. Friend that the University of Brighton, which has a campus in Eastbourne, has experienced a significant rise in the number of applications to study for careers in health professions. A shortage of training placements is the only real brake on the numbers of would-be students. I understand from having talked to the university that in the UK students must complete over 2,000 hours in placement. That is in contrast to Australia’s and New Zealand’s 1,000 hours. Is that seemingly high requirement under review with Health Education England so that we do not miss an opportunity to capture this new interest, build the NHS workforce of the future, open opportunities to all those who have the talent to succeed, and further secure my home town as a destination for studying? (900890)

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. Nurse education standards are set by the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Its current standards are based on EU law, but that no longer applies to the UK, and it has launched a survey on whether those standards should change. Acceptances for pre-registration nursing programmes at English universities for 2020-21 increased by over 5,000 since the previous year.

Many constituents have con, deeply concerned by Government proposals to grab, store and share GP health data. Can the Secretary of State tell me this: if I opt out of this data grab, will my health data be available to a hospital outside my home area should I have an accident, for example? If I do not opt out of it, how can I control how my data is shared, whether individually or in aggregate? I do not want to have to choose between privacy and my health. (900892)

The hon. Lady is quite right, and if she was in the Chamber earlier, she would have heard the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), say that we are going to delay the deadline for this programme, including the opt-out, which is currently scheduled to end on 23 June. That has already been welcomed, while we have been in here, by the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association, and then we will work through these issues. Everybody agrees that data saves lives. We have to make progress in this area, and it is very important that we do it in a way that brings people with us and resolves exactly the sorts of issues that she raises.

Although covid cases remain above the national average across Kirklees, thankfully hospitalisations and deaths remain low. Locally, my constituents are getting vaccinated and tested. Can the Health Secretary please confirm that he will not reintroduce local restrictions? (900891)

I am really glad to say that in Bolton and other parts of the country where we have sent in a big package of support, including surge testing—as we have done in Kirklees—we have seen a capping-out of the increase in rates without a local lockdown thanks to the enthusiasm of people locally and, of course, the vaccination programme. That is our goal. Our goal is that England moves together. That is what we are putting these programmes in place to do, and we are seeing them work.

Northwick Park Hospital, which serves my constituents, was the first to be hard hit by covid last year. At the height of the second wave in January, its remarkable staff were looking after some 600 patients. It needs investment in intensive care and recovery services. When Ministers receive the business case, can I ask them to look particularly sympathetically at it? (900893)

Macmillan estimates that the current backlog of people awaiting a first cancer treatment across England stands at 39,000 people. What plans can my right hon. Friend outline to bolster cancer services so that those people get the treatment they need? (900894)

Recovering the backlog that has been caused by the pandemic is a huge task for the NHS, and was raised by the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) from the Opposition Front Bench, quite rightly. The backlog has unfortunately been increased as a consequence of the pandemic. We have put in extra money—an extra £1 billion this year—and we are seeing cancer services running at 100% of their pre-pandemic levels, and in some cases above 100%, in order to get through the backlog. The most important thing for the public watching this and for my hon. Friend’s constituents is to make sure the message gets out loud and clear that the NHS is open, and that if they have a problem, they should please come forward.

Diolch, Mr Speaker. What recent discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Office regarding the successful clinical trials in the use of psilocybin in helping to deal with depression? It is a natural chemical found in fungi. (900907)

That is not something that has yet come across my desk, but I will make sure that the relevant Minister writes to the hon. Gentleman with as much detail as we know.

Community defibrillators are vital potential life savers, and many community groups fund investment in them. However, it is concerning to hear that members of the public are denied access to defibrillators when they are on private land. What can Ministers do to ensure that access is presumed rather than subject to permission? (900895)

What my hon. Friend says is absolutely right. Of course if someone puts a defibrillator on private land, access to it should naturally be open to anybody who needs it. I will look into the exact legal status, but let us set aside the legal status for a minute. If there is a defibrillator on private land that could save somebody’s life, the landowner should of course allow access to it for anybody who needs it.

As current Government investment in motor neurone research is not the targeted funding that is needed, will the Minister meet charities, researchers and patients to examine this discrepancy and commit to additional funding of £10 million a year for five years for a virtual motor neurone disease research institute, with a specific focus on helping us to get a world free of MND?

I will look into the hon. Lady’s specific request, but I can tell her that the Government are actively supporting research into motor neurone disease. For instance, in April I jointly hosted a roundtable event on boosting MND research with the National Institute for Health Research/Sheffield Biomedical Research Centre, which brought together researchers and others. We are absolutely committed to this area of work.

Mr Speaker, I am very grateful that you could fit me in at the end.

Yesterday during the statement the Secretary of State did not have the information to hand on the efficacy of the covid vaccines in reducing serious disease and hospitalisation. He made a commitment, rightly, to set them out today at Health questions at the Dispatch Box; and I am delighted, with this question, to give him the opportunity to do so.

First, I can say that a single dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca jab offers protection of 75% to 85% against hospitalisation, while data on two doses, which is currently available only for Pfizer, indicates 90% to 95% effectiveness against hospitalisation and 95% to 99% effectiveness at preventing death. However, my right hon. Friend also asked specifically about the delta variant, and I said that I did not have the figure in my head for the reduction in hospitalisations. I do not know whether I should be glad, but I can report to him that the reason is that there is not yet a conclusive figure. This morning I spoke to Dr Mary Ramsay, who runs this research at Public Health England, and she told me that the figure is currently being worked on. The analysis is being done scientifically and should be available in the coming couple of weeks. This is obviously an absolutely critical figure and I will report it to the House as soon as we have it.

I will now suspend the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.

Ajax Programme

(Urgent question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on what progress has been made with the Ajax armoured vehicles programme.

The Ajax family of vehicles will transform the British Army’s reconnaissance capability. As our first fully digitalised armoured fighting vehicle, Ajax will provide crews with access to vastly improved sensors, and better lethality and protection. Maingate 1 approval was granted in March 2010. Negotiations with the prime contractor to recast the contract were held between December 2018 and May 2019. The forecast initial operating capability, or IOC, was delayed by a year to 30 June 2021—later this month—at 50% confidence, with 90% confidence for September 2021.

Despite the ongoing impact of covid, we have stuck by that IOC date, but of course, it remains subject to review. By the end of next week, we will have received the requisite number of vehicles to meet IOC. The necessary simulators have been delivered and training courses commenced. These delivered vehicles are all at capability drop 1 standard, designed for the experimentation, training and familiarisation of those crews that are first in line for the vehicles. Capability drop 3, applying the lessons of the demonstration phrase, is designed for operations.

We remain in the demonstration phase, and as with all such phases, issues with the vehicle have emerged that we need to resolve. We were concerned by reports of noise issues in the vehicle. All personnel who may have been exposed to excessive noise have been tested, and training was paused. It now continues with mitigations in place as we pursue resolution. We have also commissioned independent vibration trials from world-class specialists at Millbrook Proving Ground, which should conclude next month.

I assure the House that we will not accept a vehicle that falls short of our requirements, and we are working with General Dynamics, the prime contractor, to achieve IOC. Similarly, we are currently working with General Dynamics to ensure that we have a mutually agreed schedule for reaching full operating capability. That is subject to an independent review, which we have commissioned. This is an important project for the British Army, delivering impressive capabilities and employing thousands of skills workers across the UK. We look forward to taking it into service.

That was a statement of astonishing complacency. We have seen £3.5 billion paid out, four years late, and just 14 vehicles delivered, light tanks that cannot fire while moving, and vehicle crews made so sick that the testing has been paused. If this is defence procurement that the Minister is content is broadly on track, how badly has it got to go wrong before he will admit that the contract is flawed? This project has been flagged red by the Government’s own Major Projects Authority. The Defence Committee calls it

“another example of chronic mismanagement by the Ministry of Defence and its shaky procurement apparatus.”

Yet the Defence Secretary is failing to get to grips with the failures in this system and failing our frontline troops as a result. He is breaking a promise he made to them in this House when he said:

“When it comes to equipment, the first thing is to ensure that we give our men and women the best to keep them alive and safe on a battlefield.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2020; Vol. 685, c. 556.]

He has been in post for two years now. Since then, the black hole in the defence budget has ballooned by £4 billion up to £17 billion. Ministers are failing British forces and failing British taxpayers.

Have the Ajax problems of noise and vibration now all been fully fixed? How many personnel are under medical treatment following the Ajax testing, and what are the conditions they are being treated for? Can the Ajax now in fact fire while moving? Where will the gun turret be manufactured? What is the full updated cost of the Ajax programme? When will all these vehicles be delivered in full?

This is the largest single procurement contract outside nuclear, and it requires independent scrutiny, so will the Minister invite the National Audit Office to do an urgent special audit?

The Minister says that this is an important project for the British Army. He is right. The defence Command Paper makes it clear that the rapid further cut in Army numbers is directly linked to more advanced battlefield technology based on the Ajax. So will Ministers now halt the plans to cut Army numbers and focus instead on fixing this failing procurement system?

I had imagined that whatever my response, the right hon. Gentleman would accuse me of being complacent. That is the expectation I had and I was not disappointed. We are not in any way complacent about our nation’s defence and security. That is why we are investing another £24 billion in our defence and in our security over the next four years. We are absolutely on top of and getting to grips with our equipment programme and what will stem from it.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. I can assure him that I am absolutely focused on this project achieving its IOC. I will not hide from him, as I have not from the House, that we have two primary concerns: noise and vibration. On noise, we have mitigations currently in place to enable a certain element of training, albeit reduced training. We are looking at two headsets that hopefully, within the next few weeks, will be approved for use, further extending what we can do in terms of training. But that does not get us to the root cause of the noise. We need to get to the root cause of the noise issues within this vehicle, be they mechanical or indeed electronic; this is, after all, the first digitalised platform of its kind anywhere. We need to resolve those issues.

We are concerned about vibration. I have to say that over many thousands of miles of testing GD has not had the same experience of vibration, but I absolutely trust the reports that have come to me from our service personnel. We are determined to get to the bottom of this. That is why we are using Millbrook, a world-class proving ground, to check exactly what noise comes back on vibration. It may come back with a good answer, but we await that answer. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman —I understand his concerns—that we will not take anything into IOC until we are satisfied that we are getting the kit that we require.

I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on a host of other issues that he raised. I do not deny that we have serious issues that we need to resolve, but there are a number of points where there is a difference between what is certified and what the vehicle is capable of. I can reassure him that the vehicle is capable of going well ahead of 30 km per hour, but with newly trained crews, a certification has been placed restricting speed, and I would expect that to be lifted during the course of next month. There has been a restriction in terms of going up over a reverse step. This is a vehicle that is capable of reversing over a 75 cm object. A restriction has been placed, and I expect that to be lifted shortly too. This is a vehicle that is capable of firing on the move. That is not something that we have certified it to do as yet. We are working through the demonstration phase, but we will continue to advance that demonstration phase. There will be issues; there always are in demonstration phases.

We do have issues to resolve, but as I say, the key ones are noise and vibration, both of which we are very focused on. I hope that we will be able to get resolution on all these issues, but it is what we are working with, with General Dynamics. It is a firm price contract, so £5.5 billion is the maximum that is payable, including VAT. Currently, we are at just under £3.2 billion spent. There is a heavy incentivisation on our suppliers to ensure that they get this over the line. We are working very closely with them at the very top level of their organisation. The joint programme office was delayed by covid, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware. There were significant covid issues in Merthyr, and they did brilliantly through them. We have a joint programme office on the ground, and a combination of top-down and bottom-up will, I hope, enable us to make ongoing progress.

In terms of the reporting, as the right hon. Gentleman may be aware, an Infrastructure and Projects Authority report has been requested by the senior responsible owner, which was helpful. These things are helpful. It is helpful that SROs and their teams can speak honestly to the IPA and get proper independent assessments. That was conducted back in March, and it has certainly helped. I look forward to making further progress and reporting back on that to interested parties as we resolve the issues that are outstanding.

I reiterate that this is a first-class vehicle. It is the first of its kind. It has an important job to do. It is currently employing around 4,100 people across the length and breadth of the UK. I visited Merthyr, and I am proud of what they are doing there. We will, and we must, get this right and get it delivered.

For some time, I have been warning the House about the growing, complex threats that our nation faces. Over the next decade, the world will become more unstable and more dangerous. That is why I have argued for an increase of the defence budget to 3%, to meet the integrated review obligations, but it makes the job harder of convincing the Treasury, Parliament and the taxpayer when we see so many errors, delays, cost overruns and redesigns.

The Ajax’s predecessor, the Scimitar, weighed just 8 tonnes, yet Ajax weighs 43 tonnes—almost too heavy to fit in or be carried by many of our RAF aircraft. As the Defence Committee’s report underlines, there seems little operational logic to the Army’s land combat operational capabilities. We are reducing our main battle tank fleet. We are retiring all our armoured fighting vehicles completely and replacing the Warrior with the Boxer, which does not have a turret. I know that the Minister is committed to revisiting all this, and it is a massive headache, but with global threats on the increase, does he acknowledge that we must do better?

There is always room to do better—I totally acknowledge that, and I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his comments. It may not be 3%, but a £24 billion increase is certainly good news for defence and something that was necessary. I can assure him that we are focusing on spending that well and in the interests of our armed forces.

The Ajax is going to be a real game changer on the battlefield. It is larger—it is some 40 tonnes—and Scimitar was a different capability, but my right hon. Friend would be the first to say that things have moved on. There is the range of sensors and the four dimensions that Ajax can produce, allowing it to stand off from the enemy. It is a significant sea change. It has that extra lethality compared with what went before and the extra protection that our troops deserve. This is a vehicle that has an incredibly useful role to play on the battlefield and as part of our operational advantage. The emphasis on our suppliers is to get it right.

There is in the UK no shortage of MOD procurement debacles to draw on, such as the £4 billion Nimrod MRA4 scrapped before service or the Mk 3 Chinooks—half a billion pounds of aircraft that could not fly low or in bad weather—but this multibillion-pound Ajax failure sets a new low. The UK Government have presided over a procurement project that would see soldiers arriving late for operations in vehicles only capable of a pedestrian 20 mph, with a human endurance range of no further than 30 miles, and then unable to fight duty due to sensory impairment and pain caused by these £3.5 billion boneshakers. Can the Minister confirm that the sight system manufactured by Thales in Scotland is working perfectly and is unconnected with this broader failure? Where was the intelligent client at the heart of this project, and where was the learning from previous procurement fiascos? Is the Minister accepting personal responsibility for this debacle, and if so, how does he plan to atone?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his wide range of questions. I think he ought to be slightly careful in damning all defence procurement. He mentions Nimrod, but I am sure he is very proud to see Poseidon arrive in Lossie, and indeed the E-7 in due course. I hope he is proud of the work being done on the Type 26 and Type 31 on Rosyth and the Clyde, and the huge amount of work that is going through Scottish industry at the moment, including Boxer. Again, Thales is employed on that, and I am sure will do a good job. I have had no complaints, he will be pleased to hear, about the sighting systems that are made, as he rightly says, by Thales—in Glasgow, I believe, but certainly in Scotland. We are going through the demonstration phase, and as an intelligent client, the MOD is required to check everything we are receiving. I reiterate that we will not take something into service and accept IOC until we are ready to do so, and we are holding our suppliers to account.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that we are fully committed to the Ajax programme, with its assembly in Wales and huge investment in the Union, and also its operational deployment in 2023-24?

Yes, we are absolutely committed to Ajax. We have come a long way with this project. It was originally approved by Ministers of a different colour back in March 2010, and in saying that I acknowledge that it has been a long time coming. However, we are on the cusp of getting this right and getting it sorted. There are issues that need to be resolved—I recognise that—but we will resolve those issues and we will bring it into service.

As the Minister has said, in March 2010 the then Government opted for Ajax in contrast to the suggested BAE CV90. This weapon is in operation with seven armies, two of which are members of NATO. It can make 70 kph and it weighs considerably less than Ajax. Is it not possible, in all honesty, that a mistake was made when we opted for Ajax as opposed to the BAE suggestion, which would after all have been manufactured in Newcastle?

I would not dream of answering for the Ministers in the last Administration back in 2010, but I would say a couple of points in mitigation. First, on a tiny point of detail, this vehicle is intended to be able to go at 70 kph, and the temporary limitations are temporary for training purposes. On the broader question, again it is a long time ago, but my understanding is that they are fundamentally different platforms. The Ajax we look forward to taking into service is the first of its nature to have the digitalisation of the platform, with the enhanced lethality and enhanced protection. We stand by the decision that the MOD made, and we are very close to getting to IOC, albeit that we have two significant issues to resolve.

Can the Minister update us on how UK suppliers are involved in the Ajax project, and does he agree with me that projects such as this provide the opportunity to support British jobs in steel, textiles and other types of heavy industry, while protecting our troops on operations?

I am absolutely delighted to. There are some 230 companies, all in all, as part of the supply chain. A lot of them had a tough time during covid; I mentioned Merthyr, where General Dynamics is based, in particular. I am very grateful for the work that has continued on the project throughout. I had the opportunity to visit one of the track manufacturers up in north-west Durham, and there are many others around the UK; the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) referred to Thales in Glasgow, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) rightly referred to components of the electronics from Wales, so there are companies around the UK that benefit. We need to learn lessons from Ajax, but we also need to recognise that there are so many great skills and fine companies across the UK that we need to ensure are properly embedded into the land industrial strategy that we will publish in due course.

Defence equipment is traditionally procured to do damage to our adversary, but I understand that the Ajax vehicle has been giving soldiers a risk of tinnitus and swollen joints if they were driven at speeds above 20 mph. In addition, it is unable to fire while moving. The Minister has just described it as a first-class piece of equipment; the men and women of our Army had better hope that he never procures something that he considers substandard.

In his answers so far, the Minister has told us that he is aware of the problems, but he has not given us any real sense of where the solution is or when it will be coming. Can he tell us any more about when we expect the Ajax to be fully operational? What progress has actually been made, as well as identifying the problems that we are all aware of?

The hon. Gentleman asks serious questions. I just reiterate that there is a difference between what a vehicle can do and what it is certified to do. With things like fire or manoeuvre and the speed limitation, we should not read into them that the vehicle is incapable either of firing on the move or of going above 20 mph. That is not the case; it is simply that that is not what it is certified to do at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman also highlights, perfectly reasonably, the issues that I touched on about noise and vibration. On noise, there are mitigations in place at the moment, and there are further mitigations in terms of the headsets. When we introduced Ajax, the problems occurred in using the standard British Army headset for use in armoured vehicles; the concern that we came across in testing the inner ear was that that was not adequate for the task.

There are two issues that we are therefore looking at: the headset and the noise of the vehicle itself. The noise can have two components; it can be mechanical, but it can also be the electronic noise generated by the aircraft that is communicating with the headsets. I wish that I could tell the hon. Gentleman that a week on Tuesday it will all be resolved. I cannot, but I can tell him that there are issues that we are seriously working through with the suppliers to ensure that we get there.

With vibration, General Dynamics has not had the same experience that we have had, apparently: over many thousands of miles of driving, it has not seen the same issues. That is why we are going to Millbrook, which will have sensors all over the vehicles to test where the vibration is happening and whether we can isolate it. It may be resolvable quickly; it may not be. I can commit only to telling the hon. Gentleman that we will do the work and that I will ensure that people are aware of how it progresses.

It is encouraging that General Dynamics has been able to make a vehicle work satisfactorily in the United States, so will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will not be rushed into bringing this already much delayed vehicle into service until these problems are solved to the satisfaction of the people in the armed forces who will have to fight in it?

I am so glad that my right hon. Friend asks that question, because it requires a very simple answer: absolutely. Unfortunately, as he rightly says, there has been a long pattern of delays with the project, but we are not going to take into service something that does not meet our requirements. It is a firm price contract; we need to have it right, and take it into service when it is right to do that. We are not going to obfuscate in order to do so.

There are reports in the media citing the leaked Government report on the procurement of Ajax tanks and stating that

“the problems were known to the army as early as 2017, but they”—

the MOD—

“didn’t admit them due to embarrassment.”

Does the Minister agree that it would be far more embarrassing, and a failure in the duty of care to our defence personnel, if the Ajax programme went ahead without finding the root cause or mitigating these serious defects?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to find the root cause of the defects—that is absolutely right—or at least, we have to first identify that there are defects and then make certain that we have resolved them. I think that would be a fairer way to put it, and that is what a lot of the testing is doing right now. On when these problems first occurred, I do not think awareness of them came from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority report. I have been aware from social media sources of a suggestion that the Army was aware back in 2017. That has not been my experience, having looked into it. The concerns over vibration are a far more recent occurrence.

As the Minister is well aware and has articulated well today, this Ajax programme is a critical capability for the British Army. When originally the contract was let, we did not have in this country an assembly line capable of manufacturing land capability at scale, particularly armoured capability. The introduction of this capacity through General Dynamics into south Wales is a very important part of the defence industrial strategy, which he has referenced. It is valuable for the whole House to remind itself that we are not talking in a vacuum here; this is a capability that the Government in the coalition days ensured was built in this country.

We were looking at a design that relied upon economies of scale to bring a state-of-the-art turret, which was going to be jointly deployed on Warrior, with a cannon jointly developed with France, again with state-of-the-art capability and lethality. Can my hon. Friend reassure the House that the cancellation of the Warrior programme will not impact on the ability to deliver turrets and cannons into the Ajax programme and will not add further delay or cost increase?

My right hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience, and I thank him for what he says about the production line. I do not know whether he ever had the chance to visit Merthyr. He probably did.

He did, as I have done recently. It is an impressive factory with impressive personnel doing a good job. We just need to make certain that the whole thing fits together and works, and that is what we are committed to do.

To reassure my right hon. Friend on the Warrior, I have seen no evidence that the cancellation of the Warrior capability sustainment programme should have an adverse effect on the turrets for Ajax. Indeed, I believe I am right in saying that 58 of those have already been manufactured.

May I also confirm that the Merthyr factory is an impressive capability? The defence and security industrial strategy gives Ajax as an example of regional levelling up, so can the Minister confirm where the turrets for Ajax will be built?

My understanding is that those turrets have been built by Lockheed Martin and are being constructed in Ampthill in Bedfordshire. That is my understanding, but I will double-check. If it is any different, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and leave a copy of my letter in the Library of the House of Commons. It is my understanding that that is happening at Ampthill.

Does the Minister agree that the Ajax situation undermines global Britain’s forward presence objectives as envisaged in the integrated review, such as the ability of the Royal Dragoon Guards based in Warminster to project reconnaissance combat teams, which they were being re-roled for? If it turns out that the vibration issue—[Inaudible.]

I am very sorry that we have lost my right hon. Friend. It gives me scope to interpret his question. I think he was asking about our capability to equip our recce troops. What we can do is a needed step change. The vehicles we are currently using were brought into service in the 1970s. We need that digitised framework. We need those sensors. We need the four dimensional capability. The programme will significantly help our armed forces, and we will be able to deliver it at speed.

The Minister is a decent person, but this is extremely worrying news. The idea that we have a vehicle that can go almost as fast as a bicycle, but cannot actually fire its weapon on the move, while also posing such a risk to our troops is very worrying. The defence analyst, Francis Tusa, has described this as the Army’s Nimrod MRA4. Is he right, and what does that say about our defence procurement capability or, should I say, incapability?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his nice remarks. He is also a very decent person, but I fear that he was not listening fully to my earlier responses regarding speed and fire on manoeuvre, which are capabilities that Ajax will be able to deploy. We are still in demonstration phases, so we do not get the full finished article; it is the capability 3 drop that provides us with the vehicle that will be used on operations.

The hon. Gentleman is worried. I, too, am concerned that we have issues. I would much rather have come to this place and said, “All’s well; 30 June 2021—we’re looking good.” The fact that we have tests on vibrations, which will not be fully reported on until the end of July, speaks all one needs to know about that particular date. We have been pushing and pushing, and it is still possible that we will get a very easy answer. I fear that it may take longer, but we will continue to work to resolve these issues. However, we are spending £5.5 billion on a fixed-price contract. A lot can go wrong in a contract. A lot needs to be worked on with the suppliers, and in terms of the demonstration phase, that is what we are going to do.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the MOD has been found not to have undertaken the proper due diligence with respect to its hardware. There are serious questions about not only this hardware, given the reports of potential injuries to personnel, but the process through which it was selected, developed and commissioned. Given tenders such as the Nimrod MRA4 and others like it, the British Government have billions of pounds lying in the balance. Will they therefore commit to reviewing how they handle such tenders?

We constantly look at how we can best procure. Through the defence and security industrial strategy, we are looking at trying to improve significantly the processes that we undergo, including by having far more active contact with companies, particularly onshore UK companies, in order that we are able to work with them, and more agility in the nature of the contracts that we undertake. There is a process in place to ensure that we procure as best we possibly can, although, as I say, it is a £5.5 billion contract doing something that has not been done previously globally, and it is important that we recognise that issues can emerge. The critical point is to spot those issues and then make certain that they are resolved.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to investing in our armoured fighting vehicles. It is vital that we never have a repeat of a situation where our armed forces personnel are put in harm’s way without appropriate protections. However, it is clear that there have been issues with the Ajax programme, so can the Minister assure the House that all steps will be taken to learn the lessons of this and improve our defence procurement?

Yes, we can learn from all procurements. We learn something from everything that is done. I wish this was a totally smooth process. It has not been—from the recast in 2014, to the recast in 2019, the delay to IOC and the fact that here we are, at this point, with two significant issues that I still need to get to grips with and resolve. We will have points to learn from, but I gently say to the House that a demonstration phase is a demonstration phase. We need to learn through a demonstration phase and then apply what we have learned.

The Minister seemed slightly hurt that the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), described him as complacent, and then he went on to confirm that description. He talked about vibration. He took the manufacturer’s word for it, even though the users found something different. Talk about shades of “dieselgate”. He said that the noise can be mechanical, but somehow, he does not seem to have got to the bottom of where it is coming from. He said that Ajax is capable of firing on the move, but somehow, it does not seem to be able to do so at the moment. Do the troops on the frontline not deserve something better, and does he not need to get a grip?

The right hon. Gentleman made a number of points. On the vibration, if I took the word of the supplier, we would have met IOC and we would not have issues. I take the word of our crews who have been training on the vehicle; that is why we have taken it so seriously, why we have commissioned the reports that we have commissioned and why the vehicles are currently at Millbrook being put through their paces. I absolutely reassure the House that we will not take the programme into IOC until we are confident that we have achieved what we need to achieve at this stage of the vehicle’s development. I absolutely stand by that.

The right hon. Gentleman also made points about firing on the move and the speed restrictions; there is a difference between the certification of rolling process, certification during a demonstration and future phases, and what the vehicle is capable of.

On the back of Army modernisation and the £24 billion investment in the integrated review, there is a significant opportunity to grow land exports. Will my hon. Friend confirm to me and the House what export opportunities he expects to arise from the Ajax programme?

I would very much like to see this vehicle as an export opportunity, and I believe it can be. The noise that has been quite rightly and legitimately raised in respect of the issues in the demonstration phase is understandable, but it probably will not help the vehicle’s export potential immediately. I hope that, during the demonstration phase, we can resolve what we need to resolve, and I would love to see a situation in which I can confirm to the House that all is well, that we have hit IOC and that we are going to proceed to FOC. Incidentally, someone asked about FOC earlier but I did not come back to them: we are doing work with Tony Meggs from the IPA to make certain that we get an agreed FOC. I should have said that earlier, but it is now on the record. I hope to get that sorted and then proceed to export what will be a transformational vehicle in service with the British Army to our allies and friends around the world, meaning more jobs for this country.

In addition to issues with the Ajax programme, the Government are still struggling to get on top of the massive black hole in their equipment plan, with the most recent report from the National Audit Office having found that it “remains unaffordable” for “the fourth successive year”. That is another warning from the NAO that has not been properly heeded by this Government, and the plan is up to £13 billion overdrawn. What plans does the Secretary of State have to plug the huge financial black hole?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, the report to which she referred was published prior to the injection of the additional £24 billion earlier this year. As a result of that, we will be publishing an equipment plan that will add up. I recognise that that will be for the first time in many years, and under successive Governments, but we will have a plan of which we can all be proud.

As a proud member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I am delighted with the £24 billion investment in our armed forces that was set out in the integrated review. As my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) just said, that investment also presents a great opportunity to grow exports. So can the Minister confirm what progress he may have made with colleagues in the Department for International Trade and what opportunities he may expect will arise in respect of armoured fighting vehicles?

That is a positive point on which to end these exchanges—if, indeed, this is the end Mr Speaker. It is absolutely right that we should look at the land industrial strategy to see what we can secure for this country. In terms of armoured fighting vehicles, we have not only Ajax but Boxer, and there is additional work on our Challenger 3 main battle tank. We have a lot of capabilities in the land domain, as we have in respect of exporting ships of various descriptions and the fantastic work that we continue to do on Typhoon and the development of our future combat air system. There is huge potential for us not only to defend our country and keep us secure but to offer huge prosperity benefits to all the people of the UK.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.

British Council

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, if he will make a statement on British Council closures.

The British Council is a crucial part of the UK’s presence overseas and a key soft power asset. It works in more than 100 countries to promote UK education, arts and culture, and the English language. The Government remain committed to the British Council. As the integrated review made clear, we value the influence of the British Council. We agreed a 2021-22 spending review settlement totalling £189 million, which is a 26% increase in funding from 2020-21. The British Council has not been cut. Although we have had to make difficult decisions to cut in other areas, we have increased the money we are providing to the British Council. Not only have we increased funding; we have provided a rescue package during the covid-19 pandemic. This includes a loan facility of up to £145 million, with a further £100 million loan being finalised to support restructuring. We have also provided a letter of comfort to ensure that the council can meet its financial obligations.

We found this funding for the council in the context of an extremely challenging financial environment. As a result of the pandemic, the UK is facing the worst economic contraction in over 300 years and a budget deficit of close to £400 billion. This package is necessarily accompanied by changes to the council’s governance essential to modernise the council. These include measures to update the British Council’s charitable objects, to focus the council on its core pillars, to streamline its governance structures and to agree new key performance indicators and targets to monitor council performance in key areas. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and British Council officials have worked together to ensure that the council will align even more closely with the Government’s strategic priorities and can focus on doing what it does best.

Having worked closely with the British Council, we are reviewing physical council presence in-country as part of this modernisation process. These changes will be minimal, but it is a strategic mistake to judge the impact of the council in a digital age solely by the physical office in-country. Rather, it should be judged by its operational presence, by the digital services we are investing in and which have expanded rapidly as a result of covid, and by its ability to operate through regional hubs and third parties. The covid crisis has changed the way we all have to operate. We have also implemented a new evaluation mechanism, so that when Ministers travel, they can assess the value for money and the impact provided by the British Council on soft power. This is a strong rescue and reform package. The council will also shortly have a new chief executive officer, so it will have strong leadership and a governance structure to make it viable and to reinforce its role as a force for good.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I also thank colleagues from all parties who are supporting our campaign and who signed the letter to the Prime Minister, and I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question. Speaking as chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, I know that our own dealings with the Government and the letter published between the FCDO and the Foreign Affairs Committee confirm that office closures are about to take place overseas. This is about to be announced by the Government. The number varies from five to 20, but even five would represent the largest set of closures in the British Council’s history, and all for the sake of a £10 million shortfall in funding.

The Minister is right when he says that funding has been supplied to the British Council. We all know that the British Council does an excellent job, and I will not waste colleagues’ time by extolling its virtues. It is a key reason that the UK is considered a soft power superpower. Its high-quality, dedicated staff do an excellent job in promoting British culture, education and the English language overseas, facilitating cultural exchanges and building trust between other countries and the UK. In any normal year, it derives only 15% of its funding from the Government because of its commercial activities, but those commercial activities have been savaged by the pandemic. The Government have stepped forward, but their funding is still £10 million short of what the British Council needs to maintain its international network —its footprint of offices overseas—and its programming. The Government have gone so far, but they are falling at the final fence.

The Minister may say that the British Council needs to move into the technological age—he talks of a digital age—but there can be no substitute for a presence on the ground. The litmus test when it comes to the site closures is not only the Government’s talk of hub and spoke arrangements in certain regions; it is whether the country directors themselves are in situ, and country directors are going to be made redundant.

Let us remember that these closures are happening only because of the £10 million in cuts. They are not of the British Council’s choosing, so talk by Ministers that such decisions are for the British Council rings somewhat hollow. There has been strong ministerial involvement in these decisions, as confirmed by the letter to me from the Prime Minister, and it is Ministers who have instigated these cuts.

Very briefly, the closures are wrong because they are not in keeping with the concept of global Britain—the Defence Secretary has said that there is not enough British Council in the world—but they are also wrong strategically. It is a bad decision—

Order. We have to go to the Minister. I warned the hon. Gentleman that he had two minutes, and he has now taken three minutes-plus.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have a great deal of time for my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who does a great job chairing the all-party group. I am sure he is fully aware that, given the challenging position in which we find ourselves, many arm’s length bodies would be thrilled with a 26% increase in funding for next year.

Obviously, plans for the British Council’s global presence are still being finalised. It is a matter for the British Council to comment on the plans, and if they involve changes in country, I think my hon. Friend would appreciate that it is only right that the British Council is given the opportunity to consult its employees, trade unions and so on. Of course, any final decisions will be communicated in due course.

We will continue to support the council to ensure that it plays a leading role in enhancing UK soft power. My hon. Friend briefly mentioned global Britain before he was chopped off at the knees, and our commitment to it is clear. It is clear in the fact that we are hosting the G7 this week, as well as securing a deal on global tax reform. We also rank exceedingly well in the leading soft power indices and rankings. I, too, am getting the stare from Mr Speaker, so I shall sit down.

I would first like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for his tireless work as chair of the APPG. Secondly, I declare an interest: I worked for the British Council from 1996 until 2008, during which time I was posted to Brussels, St Petersburg and Sierra Leone.

The council’s core purpose is to build long-term, trust-based relationships between the UK and other countries—and my goodness, it delivers. From its global network of world-leading English language teaching centres, to its outstanding arts and culture programmes, its work on democracy and good governance, its education reform and media freedom projects, and its scientific exchange and promotion of the UK’s higher education sector, the British Council provides us with an object lesson in how to win friends and influence people.

The council also provides excellent value for money for the British taxpayer, with the success of its commercial operations gradually reducing reliance on Government financing, but those operations have of course been hit hard by the pandemic, meaning that the council requires UK Government support to weather the storm. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the Government are refusing to make good the shortfall, which in turn is forcing the council to look at closing down offices in up to 20 countries. The Government’s position represents the very definition of a false economy. It is short-sighted and would inflict profound damage on Britain’s status as a soft power superpower.

On the eve of the G7 summit, I urge the Minister to think again. Will he please tell me how he intends to support the British Council to fulfil its integral role in making Britain a force for good in the world—an ambition set by the Government in their integrated review? Does he understand fears that the Government’s abandonment of their 0.7% manifesto commitment on foreign aid, combined with their ambivalence towards the council, sends a signal that Britain is withdrawing from the world stage, rather than offering leadership? Will he therefore return to this House before the summer recess with a plan that secures the British Council’s entire global network?

May I praise the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done with the British Council— 12 years is a very long stint working for a fantastic organisation—but also prod him gently for talking about our “ambivalence” towards the British Council? I politely remind him that we will be providing £149 million in grant in aid this year and £189 million in grant in aid next year. That is an increase of 26%. We have provided the British Council with a £145 million covid loan and are providing a £100 million loan to help it to restructure. In March 2020, we provided £26 million. Madam Deputy Speaker, £609 million of British taxpayers’ money since the pandemic hit does not sound like ambivalence to me. The hon. Gentleman is right: the integrated review made it clear that we value the influence of the council—of course we do—and we will continue to support the British Council in playing its leading role in enhancing the UK’s soft power throughout its work overseas.

It was very welcome to hear the Minister’s defence of the spending going towards the British Council and the way in which the Department and the Government have supported this essential service of Britain’s presence overseas. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister would also like to set out not just how we defend such a fantastic institution, but how we improve it and increase its reach. The closure of these five sites will, one must only hope, be reversed soon—perhaps not in exactly the same place, but in other buildings. What plans does he, the Department and the Foreign Secretary have to make sure that the British Council fulfils the opportunity that is before it and does not simply become a backwater?

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for his remarks. We will be supporting the British Council going forward. It has undoubtedly gone through a torrid time: the covid pandemic has hit the British Council’s commercial activities incredibly hard. May I also use this opportunity to pay tribute to the staff of the British Council, as well as the leadership? They have had a torrid time, as has all the FCDO network, working under such difficult circumstances during the pandemic.

To answer the Chairman’s questions, we are revising the charitable objects of the British Council to focus on arts and culture, English language and education. There will be some key performance indicators coming forward. I work very closely with the chairman and the acting chief executive of the British Council and have met them on many occasions since taking up this position. We will continue to work with them closely. I think that the future for the British Council is very bright going forward, and we intend to continue to ensure that global Britain is a world leader for soft power.

The decision by the UK Government to refuse to support the British Council in its hour of need is further evidence of the “little Britain” attitude at the heart of this Government. Indeed, this new little Britain approach is so small that the Scottish Tory party wrote to the UK Tory party to question why the Scottish Government have the temerity to pursue links abroad. Yet we learn only a fortnight later that the Government are happy to slash the British Council’s international outposts. So, is the Prime Minister’s “global Britain” pledge as hollow as these moves suggest?

Furthermore, the Government previously described the British Council as a

“key driver of UK soft power overseas.”

If it is integral to the UK’s global outlook, why have this Government decided to withdraw their support? Lastly, once again we see the Government renege on their word. The last Conservative manifesto stated:

“We will work with our cultural institutions like the BBC and British Council to expand our influence and project our values.”

Just like cuts to life-saving support for the world’s most vulnerable, is this yet another broken promise for this Government?

I have a lot of time for the hon. Gentleman, but references to little Britain are frankly nonsensical. I am not entirely sure whether he listened to my statement, but we are increasing funding to the British Council next year by 26%. That is not abandoning the British Council. We value the work of the British Council. We will be supporting it, we have stuck up for it and we have got it a good settlement going forward. We have helped to bail out the British Council when times have got tough, and we will continue to work with it to ensure that it continues the fantastic work it does around the globe.

The British Council gives extraordinarily good value for money, as the Minister knows. He will also be aware that taxpayer support for the British Council is significantly less than that provided by their counterparts—and, dare I say it, our commercial competitors?—in France, Germany and Japan. Research by the British Council demonstrates that its building of trust and connections generates greater economic activity. Will he bear in mind the importance of not spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar? In promoting our values, will he pick up on research showing that our commitment to the rule of law, our free judicial system and the quality of our legal system are also strongly recognised as being critical great British global values?

My hon. Friend is spot on, and that is exactly where we are on this. As the integrated review made clear, we value the influence of the British Council globally, and we will continue to support it in playing a leading role. In his foreword the Prime Minister reiterated our commitment to soft power and, indeed, recognised the contribution of the British Council, writing that it is one of the

“vital instruments of our influence overseas”.

That is why we are providing support and continue to work very closely with the British Council.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his encouraging remarks, because as the former chair of the British Council all-party parliamentary group I saw at first hand just how the council works across the globe as the engine room of UK soft power. In the face of the budget short- fall, however, offices will close, programmes will be cut and jobs will be lost. Does he agree that the promotion of British culture and language is key to the UK thriving post Brexit, and vital in building a truly global Britain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the first time I have seen him in a very long time; may I congratulate him on how magnificent a specimen he looks these days? He raises an important point: it is absolutely essential that we continue to promote the United Kingdom, and the British Council does exactly that. Research has shown that students, for example, are 15% more likely to choose the UK as their study destination after using British Council services. I also thank my hon. Friend for his work as a former chair of the all-party parliamentary group.

It is clear from Members’ contributions that there is absolute unanimity about the importance of the British Council in promoting Britain’s interests and soft power across the globe. Indeed, the Minister himself has emphasised that. However, there seems to be contradiction between the commitment he expresses and the funding gap that is being allowed to develop. Will he tell us how the Government propose to close that funding gap in future years to ensure that the British Council does not move into some sort of managed decline as a result of a lack of funding?

I assure the hon. Lady that it is absolutely our intent to support the British Council—that is why we have increased its funding. As I have said, since the pandemic hit, this Government have committed to providing £609 million, which is a considerable increase. We want to ensure that the council remains on a stable financial footing. I can also tell her that the recently announced new CEO of the British Council is a formidable figure, and I am sure that he will do a fantastic job alongside the chairman, Stevie Spring. I think it has exciting times ahead under such formidable leadership.

In 2019-20, there were six schools in my constituency that benefited from excellent British Council programmes. Five were twinned with schools elsewhere in the world, and one—Ysgol Llywelyn in Rhyl—received an international school award. Will my hon. Friend confirm that opportunities such as these will not be impacted by covid-induced financial pressures?

I think my hon. Friend is referring to the Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning schools programme, which builds long-term relationships between schools, communities in the UK and developing countries. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will continue to fund that programme for 2021-22.

There is unanimity across the House on the values of the British Council going way beyond narrow commercial ones. This is about the values that we have as a nation, and the kind of world in which we want to live. Even in hard commercial terms, the British Council pays back to this nation what it costs, and in considerable excess of that. What consultation is there with other Government Departments, such as Education, International Trade, and Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy, for example? All those Departments and others would have an interest in making sure that we do not lose up to 20 British Council posts worldwide. That kind of information would allow us to assess whether the Government’s credibility is real on this issue.

May I just correct the record? I may have said Stewart McDonald was the incoming CEO. I was confusing him with one of our colleagues; it is Scott McDonald who will be the new chief executive. [Interruption.] Two of our colleagues! Crikey. I am sorry to disappoint the two in question. Anyway, Scott will do a fantastic job leading the British Council.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) makes a good point. Of course we talk across Government—across all our network. We have BEIS employees in posts where there are British Council employees around the country, and we will continue to do that. We want to support the Council in continuing its brilliant role in ensuring that our United Kingdom soft power is enhanced through its work overseas.

Will the Minister identify which other body promotes the British language, the arts, the global economy, Climate Connection and so many other sectors which are so competently handled within the existing structure? Does he acknowledge the tremendous work that has been done by the British Council so far?

Absolutely; we hugely value the influence of the British Council. We will continue to support it in the leading role that it plays, enhancing the United Kingdom through its work overseas. As I mentioned previously, the Integrated Review reiterated our commitment to soft power. It recognised the contribution of the British Council. The Prime Minister’s foreword to the Integrated Review policy paper referred to the British Council as one of the “vital instruments” of our influence overseas.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will shortly be able to travel the world, and when he does so he will find that the presence of the British Council on site is the best embodiment of global soft power that this country has. The British Council has a funding shortfall because it cannot operate commercially. Can my right hon. Friend please find it in him to give that additional support to make sure that that on-site presence is there for when he makes those ministerial visits?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. May I correct the record—with apologies, because she is a very good friend of mine—as I am an hon. Member rather than a right hon. Member? Either way, she will appreciate that plans for the global presence of the British Council are still being finalised. We have provided a package of support and an increase in funding of which, as I said, many arm’s length bodies would be extremely envious. It is, of course, for the British Council to comment on its plans for the overseas network, but I assure my right hon. Friend that those final decisions will be communicated shortly.

Does the Minister not understand that funding for next year is no remedy for cuts, decisions and closures that will take place now? There will be long-term consequences as a result of what he is trying to describe as short-term funding shortfalls. Is that not the problem with the likes of the Prime Minister viewing aid as a giant cash machine in the sky? The Government are losing sight of the long- term consequences of their short-term decisions.

I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assumptions. The impact of the pandemic has forced the Government to take incredibly tough but necessary decisions in many areas. Despite that economic climate, we have managed not just to protect the grant in aid funding that the British Council received this year, but to increase it. As I said, we are also providing a loan to help it get through the impact of the covid pandemic. Last March, when the pandemic first hit, there was immediate assistance of £26 million, plus another £100 million restructuring facility that we are working with the British Council on, so I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s assertions whatsoever.

The French and the Germans are steadily increasing their efforts through the Goethe-Institut and the French Institute, where I spent many happy hours trying to bone up on my inadequate French. Meanwhile, for decades we have been closing British Council libraries, which are often the only places where people can get free access to English literature. Will the Minister go back to his officials and insist that English literature is our greatest cultural export, and that there must be no diminution in our efforts to expand and promote it worldwide?

My right hon. Friend is correct. The British Council is a world-leading provider of language teaching, teacher training and examinations on behalf of the UK Government. It reaches 100 million learners and teachers of English annually across more than 100 countries, and it has been shown that increased levels of English language speaking benefits the United Kingdom.

The Minister has heard from colleagues across the House of the great support for the British Council, the recognition of its incredible work and the great value it gives. In 2018-19 the British Council estimated that German funding for their soft power agencies was three times that of the UK, and that in France it was twice the UK level. Is the Minister not concerned that the cuts the British Council now has to make will further undermine and reduce our influence compared with our major European neighbours?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Other countries have various programmes, and the Goethe-Institut and the Institut Français have different models. The British Council operates slightly differently with more commercial operations, and it is reliant on less Government funding than the others. Our determination to work as a force for good in the world is an important part of our soft power. The British Council is the key driver in that and will continue to act as a force for good for the United Kingdom, for example by teaching English to young women in south Asia. The education that the British Council provides is outstanding and will continue to be, and we will continue to support it.