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Commons Chamber

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 29 June 2021

House of Commons

Tuesday 29 June 2021

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

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

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

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Image-based Abuse

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation in protecting victims from image-based abuse. (901925)

We recognise and share public concern over abuses of new technology to harm victims, and we are taking action. Today, new provisions on threatening to share private sexual images come into force, and we are going further. We have asked the Law Commission to review the law on image abuse to ensure that victims are properly protected. The commission will publish recommendations in spring next year, and we will consider them very carefully.

My constituent Helen Mort had the appalling experience of finding out that someone unknown to her had taken ordinary images from her social media and superimposed them on violent and extreme pornography. These were not intimate images, but they were used to create deepfakes. When she went to the police, she was told that there was no crime to investigate as the original images were not private. The Law Commission’s review, to which the Minister refers, proposes extending the criminalisation of sharing intimate images to include deepfakes. Will the Minister ensure that the Government respond positively and quickly to those proposals so that people like Helen are protected in the future?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that harrowing case. He is absolutely right to do so. We recognise that the law needs to keep pace with those who would use technology to perpetrate dreadful abuse. We have asked the Law Commission to act, as he indicated. It is doing so at pace, and we will be looking very carefully with a view to extending the law where it is appropriate to do so.

Court Capacity

The pandemic has affected courts, like it has affected so many other areas of life. The Government have responded energetically and comprehensively, for example by opening 60 new Nightingale courtrooms, hiring an extra 1,600 Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service staff, injecting hundreds of millions of pounds extra into the system, and making sure that around 20,000 hearings a week can now be conducted online. These measures are designed to enable court recovery, and I can assure the House that these efforts will continue.

The Minister’s total failure to improve court waiting times is having a very real-world cost, no more so than for my 100-year-old constituent whose fraud case against a former carer amounts to more than a quarter of a million pounds. Despite initiating the case more than four years ago, that elderly woman is still waiting and is unlikely to see justice served in her lifetime. The Minister knows about that case, as I have written to his Department on multiple occasions, but still the delays persist. What exactly does he have to say to my constituent, along with the thousands of others like her who are once again being left behind by this Government and denied justice?

Listing of individual cases is a judicial function, and there are sometimes legal reasons why cases get put off. I must say that in Wales, actually, the court system is performing particularly well at the moment. The hon. Lady talks about delays. Of course, during the pandemic some delays have built up, but in the magistrates court, for example, about half of the backlog that accumulated due to covid, which peaked in about August last year, has already been removed. The outstanding case load in the magistrates court is currently dropping at a rate of around 2,000 a week. I also gently point out that the outstanding case load prior to the pandemic in the Crown court, at 39,000 cases, was considerably lower than the 47,000 cases in 2010.

The Crown court backlog has reached a new record high of nearly 60,000 cases. That is the result of a decade of Conservative cuts and court closures. Will the Government commit to continuing Nightingale courts until the backlog is cleared?

We are continuing Nightingale courtrooms. We are also saying to the judiciary, critically, that there will be no constraint on Crown court sitting days this current financial year; the judiciary can list as many cases as they are physically able to. On Crown court numbers, clearly, jury trials and pandemics do not mix very well, but thanks to the steps taken, we have seen the corner turned just recently—in the last few weeks. Crown court case numbers are beginning to edge down for the first time, and we are committed to making sure that continues.

I welcome the Minister’s last point, because the Director of Public Prosecutions told the Justice Committee two weeks ago that case loads in the Crown court are currently at 95% of physical capacity, making allowance for the Nightingale courts, but that the Crown Prosecution Service’s total case load has increased by some 53% since February 2020. Does the Minister agree that that must mean that, to keep the backlog reducing in a sustainable fashion, we must have long-term, continued investment in increased court capacity, but also in judges and recorders, in court staff available to hear and try cases, and in CPS staff to ensure that they are ready for trial on time?

The Chair of the Justice Committee is, as always, right in his analysis. We need to ensure that the capacity exists and, for the reason he mentioned, 1,600 extra staff have already been hired for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. He also mentioned Crown Prosecution Service capacity. I think its budget recently went up by about £80 million to enable 400 additional prosecutors to be hired.

In relation to judicial capacity, we will shortly bring forward measures to increase the mandatory retirement age for magistrates and judges from 70 to 75, which we hope will retain the most experienced judges who will be able to sit and hear these cases. In relation to physical courtroom capacity, we have clearly invested enormously in technology to enable remote hearings and, as I mentioned, about 20,000 a week are taking place. In addition to that, we have the 60 Nightingale courtrooms. When social distancing is relaxed—nothing has been confirmed, but we have a reasonable expectation that it will be in the near future—a reduction in those requirements will enable more courtrooms to be used safely than is the case today, which will also greatly assist court recovery.

The Minister has been keen to talk up the Government’s efforts to get court waiting lists down, but it is vital that efficiency does not come at the expense of effective and proper justice. I hope he is aware of the controversy surrounding the use of the single justice procedure in relation to the thousands of people prosecuted for coronavirus-related offences and the fact that hundreds—the bulk in their absence—may have been wrongly charged and convicted. Indeed, 37 people have been unlawfully prosecuted under schedule 22 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, which has never been activated in England. When that problem was highlighted by Big Brother Watch and The Guardian newspaper, the Ministry of Justice said that

“defendants can…have their conviction voided and reheard if necessary.”

Surely the Minister agrees that such incompetence adds to the burden of the courts, is more expensive, weakens justice and may well be unlawful. What is he going to do about it?

First, it is important to make clear that prosecution decisions are taken by the independent Crown Prosecution Service, not by the courts system. Secondly, when it comes to maintaining standards of justice, I think the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), the shadow Secretary of State, floated the idea of having smaller juries earlier in the pandemic. Of course, we have maintained juries at 12. However, where unusual measures such as remote hearings have had to be taken throughout the pandemic, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has ensured that justice standards have been maintained. Judges have always had the proper discretion to direct proceedings in their courtrooms so that justice is not only properly done but fairly done.

Human Rights Act 1998 (Amendment)

The Government have established the independent Human Rights Act review to examine the framework of the Act, how it is operating in practice and whether any change is required. The review is considering the approach taken by our domestic courts to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and whether the HRA currently strikes the correct balance between the roles of the courts, the Government and this place. The report, due this summer, will be published, as will the Government’s response.

Given this Tory Government’s track record of either not consulting or railroading changes without consultation, will the Secretary of State confirm that any proposals to amend the Human Rights Act will be subject to a full public consultation lasting at least three months?

The hon. Lady will be glad to know that a wholly independent review reflecting opinion from right across the United Kingdom and beyond was set up and will report in due course. Then, no doubt, there will be a consultation on those issues ahead of any legislative change that the Government might introduce to this place.

This week, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights said that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 and the judicial review Bill will all make human rights violations more likely to occur. The Lord Chancellor will be aware of his special responsibilities to defend human rights both in his Department and across Government. As his two-year anniversary as Lord Chancellor arrives next month—I congratulate him on that—will he consider starting to do that part of his job? How will he respond to the UN special rapporteur’s assessment?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. With respect to the special rapporteur, I would strongly argue that in everything we do and say in this place and in Government, the necessary checks and balances are carried out to ensure that the human rights that he and I believe in are preserved. I can think of no better example than the Bill currently before the House with regard to the duties that the police will have on the need to balance freedom of expression and the rights of other people. That is a balancing exercise at all times, and I will discharge my duties in the way that I believe I have for the past two years.

Violence Against Women and Girls

What steps his Department is taking to improve support in the justice system for the victims of violence against women and girls. (901948)

We are investing in vital victim support services to the tune of more than £150 million this year. The forthcoming victims Bill will enshrine victims’ rights in law and explore the provision of domestic abuse and sexual violence support. We are also working with the Home Secretary to develop new violence against women and girls and domestic abuse strategies to help to drive a step change in response to these crimes.

During this pandemic, we have seen an unprecedented rise in domestic abuse cases in the UK. In my constituency, the Broxtowe Women’s Project has worked tirelessly to support many victims of domestic violence. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to ensure that they are tackling domestic abuse? Will he also set out their plans to provide long-term support, both to those who are directly affected and to their children, who often do not receive the support they need?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that organisation to prominence; I am grateful to it for the valuable work that no doubt it has done, alongside others, during these dreadful past 16 months or so. For our part, we have boosted funding for specialist services by £51 million to support victims through the covid-19 pandemic and beyond. That included £20.7 million for local community-based sexual violence and domestic abuse services and a £27 million investment over two years to recruit more independent sexual and domestic violence advisers. The landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 contains new measures to protect victims and will be followed by new violence against women and girls and domestic abuse strategies, while the victims Bill will further transform victims’ experience. I hope that that will have an impact in Broxtowe, along with the rest of the country.

Mr Speaker,

“Domestic abuse victims have to be taken seriously and listened to”.

That is a direct quote from a letter to me from a constituent who suffered physical, emotional and financial abuse at the hands of her now ex-partner. She came to my surgery not to talk about him, but for help with dealing with the police, who she says mishandled her case and have not taken her seriously. Instead of believing that the red marks on her neck were from an attempted strangulation, they responded that the marks were too thin and did not look serious enough. They also did not follow up on the spy camera in her home.

Victims of domestic violence and abuse have told me that the burden of proof is on them. Can the Minister tell me what steps he is taking to bring about a culture change in the police so that victims of domestic violence are believed from the outset?

Obviously, I am very alarmed to hear about that incident. I hope that the hon. Lady will advise her constituent, if she is unhappy, to pursue a complaint about her treatment through the provisions available to her, both through the Metropolitan police and through the Independent Office for Police Conduct. As part of our work over the next few months towards a new violence against women and girls strategy, we will be engaging the police to ensure that, as the hon. Lady says, every victim who comes forward to the police and makes allegations of such a serious nature is taken into account.

I have to say that, while I am sorry to hear about that experience, I have witnessed some very good and important work by the police, not least the Metropolitan Police Service. I recently visited its predatory offenders unit, which specifically targets those who commit domestic violence and abuse where the victim is too afraid to pursue a prosecution, and looks for other ways to apprehend the perpetrator and put them behind bars.

Henriett Szucs and Jan Mustafa were brutally murdered, and their bodies were found in the freezer of a known violent sex offender. Their deaths were avoidable, had it not been for a catalogue of failures within the justice system—failures that allowed this man the freedom to repeatedly commit horrifying crimes—and the collapse in victim safeguarding. Two women each week are murdered by a current or former partner, and apologies simply are not enough. I do not see the necessary action being taken to prevent the next Henriett or Jan. Labour has a ready-to-go plan, including a review of domestic violence and homicides; new progress indicators, as we have in Wales; more sustainable funding; and better access to specialist support services. The Minister has the power to stop violence against women being an afterthought in the justice system, so will he work with us to achieve it?

I obviously reject the assertion that violence against women—or, indeed, anybody—is an afterthought for this Government. I do not think anybody could look at what we have done over the past two years and think that we have done anything other than throw our entire weight behind the fight against violence. Specifically, the hon. Lady will have noted that one of the five key priorities set by the National Policing Board for the whole of the criminal justice system, including the police, has been the suppression and reduction of murder, a third of which are domestic. She will be interested to know that I am now entering the second round of homicide murder roundtables with police forces across the country and looking at their murder prevention strategies to ensure that they get ahead of exactly the kind of heinous crime that she points to. We know that the perpetrators of murder in this country have, on average, seven previous offences. That means that we should be able, as she rightly says, to identify them before they commit that catastrophic and appalling act, and that is exactly what we are trying to do.

Domestic Violence Victims

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on supporting victims of domestic violence. (901930)

We are working across Government to transform the response to the abhorrent crime of domestic violence. We passed our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 in April, to be followed by the new violence against women and girls and domestic abuse strategies. The victims Bill will further transform victims’ experience. We have also provided unprecedented funding to support the sector.

My constituent, a courageous woman, Ms Charlotte Budd, is a survivor of domestic abuse, but she suffered a great deal further from her experience in the family court system. Ms Budd has criticised the pro-contact nature of the family court, arguing that decisions have resulted in unsafe child arrangements. I would be extremely grateful if my hon. Friend could set out what steps the Department is taking to ensure that the presumption of contact issue does not have damaging consequences for victims of domestic abuse like Ms Charlotte Budd. Will one of the Ministers in the Department meet me and my constituent, Ms Budd, to discuss these issues further?

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this case, and I am very sorry to hear this distressing story. He is quite right to say that the presumption of parental contact has been a cause of concern to many, on the basis that it might expose parents and children to greater risk, and we are reviewing this provision at the moment. I would be more than happy to meet him to discuss this case—and, indeed, the review—further in the hope that we can move to an improved situation.

Pet Theft

The Government recognise the deep distress that the theft of a much-loved pet can cause, and I have met the Home Secretary and the Environment Secretary to create a taskforce to investigate the problem end to end. That work is under way and it is gathering evidence to understand the factors that may be contributing to any rise in pet theft and to recommend measures to tackle the problem. It will report to Ministers on potential solutions by the summer.

I am grateful for that response. Mandatory microchipping has been a welcome step forward, and I understand that the law is now consistent across all parts of the United Kingdom. What steps have been taken to improve the microchipping process so that owners can know where microchips are being run, when and by whom?

My hon. Friend will know that our manifesto pledge is to extend microchipping to cats as well. With regard to dogs, over 90% of them in England are now microchipped. This year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is carrying out a post-implementation review of the regulations that introduced microchipping in 2015, to see how the various databases can operate in a more co-ordinated way, and it will come forward with proposals later in the year.

Pet theft is the most scurrilous crime, and residents have spoken to me about the loss they have felt when their dog or cat has been stolen from them. Does the Minister agree that each local force should have a dedicated dog theft lead? Will he join my calls for the police and crime commissioner to have a dog theft lead for South Yorkshire police, like the one for the Nottinghamshire constabulary?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to this campaign. I am pleased to hear about his energetic efforts in this sphere and I wish him well. Decisions on priorities are, of course, a matter for individual forces, but I am sure he will want to work with his local force to achieve the laudable aims that his campaign represents.

Pet theft is a shameless and disgusting act that harms families across our country. Scumbag Malachy Doherty of Tunstall was recently sentenced to 27 weeks in prison for stealing Labradors Denzel and Welly. Twenty-seven weeks does not seem long enough to me, so does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke that, as part of the pet theft taskforce, firmer punishments and vets checking microchips at the first visit will be ways to help prevent the heartache felt by many victims’ families?

My hon. Friend always speaks with vigour on behalf of his constituents, and I wholeheartedly agree with his revulsion at this appalling type of crime. We share his deep concern, which is why the sort of ideas and proposals he outlined are very much at the forefront of Government thinking.

I thank the Secretary of State for speaking to me recently about pet theft. In the recent local election campaign in Wolverhampton, I spoke to several constituents who are now too nervous to go out to walk their dogs, especially in the evening time. Does he recognise that, for their wellbeing, and for that of their dogs, this is an urgent matter? Can he reassure me that as soon as the taskforce reports the Government will take action on pet theft reform?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her deep commitment to this issue. She is so right to highlight the wellbeing and mental health effects of the loss of a much-loved pet on her local residents in Wolverhampton and more widely. That is precisely why we took action to set up the taskforce, and we will indeed be reporting as soon as possible to address the concerns of her constituents.

Pet theft can be absolutely heartbreaking for families. I have spoken to some of the families in my constituency who have gone through this process and they warmly welcome the establishment of the pet theft taskforce. Can my right hon. and learned Friend outline what kind of solutions the taskforce is looking at?

My hon. Friend is right to reflect the views of his constituents in Bolsover and the wider community. We are looking at not just the consequences of pet theft, but ways in which the black market in the trade in animals can be dealt with. Lots of ideas and initiatives merit serious consideration as to how we can prevent the incentives for this sort of despicable crime from occurring in the first place. That is the work that is being carried out now.

It is clear today that pet theft is having a huge impact on so many families across the country. Indeed, if my mam had the choice between me and her beloved, slightly obese Bichon, Archie, it would be a close call and I would not fancy my odds. Pet theft is on the rise. The loss of a furry family member is having an impact on so many families. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm not if and how, but when we will update the law to tackle this terrible crime?

I am glad that my hon. Friend declared his interest, as is appropriate. Many other Members of this House will be dog owners. I am a cat owner, so I declare that interest. Clearly, behind that, there is a very important point about the ways in which we can help to prevent the spread of this crime. As the Prime Minister said, this is often the underbelly of more organised and serious criminality, where profit is being made on the backs of the misery of not just the pets themselves, but their owners, who suffer great distress as a result of the theft.

International Treaties on Human Rights: Obligations

What steps he has taken to ensure the UK upholds its legal obligations under international treaties on human rights. (901932)

The United Kingdom has strong human rights protections within a comprehensive and well-established constitutional and legal system, and a long-standing tradition of ensuring that our rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling our international human rights obligations. We have put in place a combination of policies and legislation to give effect to the international human rights treaties that we have ratified. We have a strong record before the various UN treaty-monitoring bodies and fully participate in the relevant reporting processes.

By contrast with what the Secretary of State just said, the Joint Committee on Human Rights recently published a report that concludes that his Department’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will restrict peaceful protest

“in a way that we believe is inconsistent with our rights.”

The report also singles out the provisions on noisy protests as

“neither necessary nor proportionate”.

With findings like those, will the Secretary of State reconsider his assertion that the Bill is compliant with the European convention on human rights?

I am happy to repeat the declaration that I made on the face of the Bill: its provisions are indeed compatible with the convention. As a former member of the Joint Committee, I well appreciate its work, but with respect, I wholly disagree with the analysis that it has produced. The balance between freedom of expression and other fundamental rights and the need to maintain order and protect the rights of other citizens going about their lawful business is properly struck in the Bill, which I commend strongly to the House.

The Secretary of State recently dismissed the relevance of international treaties, so it is interesting that today he is using what he says is compliance with the ECHR to convince us that his Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is not, as the Joint Committee said, “inconsistent with our rights.” How relevant, then, is the opinion of the UN special rapporteur on human rights, who said last week that the Bill runs “counter to the” human rights “direction” that the UK

“need to be going in”?

Is the Secretary of State not just a little bit embarrassed about that?

Just as the rapporteur is entitled to express, in clear and independent terms, their view, so are we entitled to disagree with it, and we do so very strongly in this instance.

So the Secretary of State does not respect international treaties and is not listening to Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights; let us see whether he has a little more respect for the UK’s Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Will he join in the condemnation of the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), who branded Travellers as thieves? What does he say to Travellers who described the Bill as

“the single biggest threat to”


“traditional way of life”

and said that it may “entirely eradicate nomadic life”. Does the Secretary of State want to eradicate their way of life?

I have not seen what was reported to have been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). I simply say that in everything that we seek to do we uphold the principles of equality, inclusion and diversity in our society, but it is also right to remember that the interests of one group will sometimes conflict with the interests of another. It is important for us to maintain the balance between the rights of, in that instance, local residents and the rights of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community. It is all about balance, which is what this Government constantly seek to strike through their legislation.

Outcomes for Rape Victims

We are taking steps to ensure that we tackle this horrific crime and restore confidence in the criminal justice system, as outlined in the rape review that was published 10 days ago. We will return the volume of rape cases going through the courts to at least 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament and are taking steps to improve the quality of investigations and reduce the time taken for victims to be given their phone back during the course of investigation. Furthermore, we are going to improve the culture of joint working among police and prosecutors and hold each part of the system to account through performance scorecards.

The Crown court backlog currently stands at a record high of almost 60,000 cases, and figures show that there has been a 67% rise in the number of sexual offences cases awaiting trial. In the Secretary of State’s own words, rape victims have been “failed” by this Government. The rape review accepted that court delays have contributed to the plummeting number of rape prosecutions. Rape victims deserve a criminal justice system that works for them and not against them, so why did the Government vote against Labour’s amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that called for the fast-tracking of rape cases to be rolled out across England and Wales?

The hon. Lady is quite right that delay in the criminal justice system, both from report to charge and then from charge to court, has a significant impact on victims and is a driver of victim attrition and cases therefore not proceeding. We are very focused on compressing each of the various parts of the criminal justice system so that they work efficiently and speedily, in line with the need to get quality cases into court that will hopefully secure convictions. While we have not supported the measures that she put forward for the Bill, she will in time be able to see the performance and the timeliness of various parts of the criminal justice system through the publication of comprehensive scorecards, which will allow us to judge, over time, first, whether the number of cases in court rise, which I believe they will quite significantly, but, secondly, whether more measures are needed to be taken to drive further progress.

Rehabilitation of Offenders

We must rehabilitate offenders by focusing relentlessly on the factors that we know drive reoffending. That is why we are working across Government to support people into a job, stable accommodation and treatment for substance misuse. We have recently announced a £200 million investment in third-sector providers that deliver specialist rehabilitation services to address those core priorities.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer thus far. What further measures does he intend to introduce to ensure that prison governors enable those people leaving prison to be properly trained and briefed on how they can get not only housing, but job opportunities and benefits if they qualify for them, so that when they leave prison they are not tempted to go back to their old haunts and, indeed, to reoffend.

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on this matter. This House will recall well the excellent work that he did in respect of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. He is absolutely right. We are investing more than £20 million in a landmark new accommodation service, providing up to 12 weeks of accommodation for prison leavers who would otherwise be homeless. That will start later this summer in five of our probation regions in England, but we want to go further. We want to introduce housing specialists in 20 prisons to strengthen partnerships with key stakeholders such as those of local councils and housing providers and to improve the expertise in prisons. We also want prison work coaches, so that not only is the accommodation sorted, but getting into a job is as well. Why is that important? It is because those who leave with a job reduce their chances of reoffending by 9%, changing lives in the process.

HMP Berwyn is one of the largest and newest prisons in Britain and has been chosen as a pilot site for the Ministry of Justice’s employment advisory board scheme. This scheme will bring together business leaders, prison coaches, statutory services and the MP in order to secure employment for offenders on release. I thank the Minister for backing Berwyn and invite him to Wrexham to see the businesses that are putting their faith in the justice system and to sample one of Berwyn’s award-winning custodial pies.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, but I am even more grateful to her for being such a champion of HMP Berwyn and, indeed, of this important initiative. She is absolutely right: getting more prison leavers into jobs is key to cutting crime. As I have indicated before, it reduces the chance of reoffending by 9%. Of course, I would be delighted to visit her in Wrexham to see the great work of the employment advisory board. I congratulate her and all those she is working with on their fantastic work at Berwyn in the Custodial Pie Corporation, upskilling men in the hospitality industry.

Government and the Courts

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on plans to review the relationship between Government and the courts. (901936)

Well, not me. I will leave that to others to answer.

Naturally, I do not disclose the details of private conversations that I have with Cabinet colleagues, but I can say that the Government are thinking very carefully indeed about how to make sure the balance of our constitution is right. In addition to the reviews of administrative law in the Human Rights Act 1998, I am now considering the constitutional settlement that was left by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. I will say more about that in due course and I will be open and consultative as that work is carried out.

The Public Law Project requested a breakdown of Government spending on judicial review, but it said that the information received was “barely a fraction of what should have been published. It is not detailed or clear enough to give any meaningful insight as to how judicial review impacts Government departments”.

Why are the Government so reluctant to publish everything requested?

The hon. Gentleman has expressed the view of one contributor to the consultation. I would argue on the contrary—that, indeed, we are publishing everything, consistent with our wider public duty and with our duty to maintain collective Cabinet responsibility. The current consultation has been ongoing. We are due to publish a response to that ahead of any potential legislation. That will all be done. Of course, any proposals will have the fullest scrutiny from him and other right hon. and hon. Members in due course.

Domestic Abuse: Legal Advice

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of legal advice deserts on the ability of victims of domestic abuse to access justice. (901937)

We are committed to ensuring that civil legal aid remains accessible to those who need it, including, in particular, victims of domestic abuse. The Legal Aid Agency keeps market capacity under review to ensure adequate provision across England and Wales. We are reviewing the legal aid means test, including in relation to victims of domestic abuse. On 3 March, the Chancellor announced a further £19 million package to tackle domestic abuse, and we have made changes to the evidence requirements to make it easier to access legal aid.

Too many victims of domestic abuse still end up in the family court with no representation, as litigants in person. Does the Minister agree that we should make legal aid available for all victims of domestic abuse?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that legal aid is a vital pillar of support to many people, which is why we have taken steps to ensure that the evidence requirements for those who want access to legal aid have been relaxed. We have also gone further; we have supported organisations such as RCJ Advice through its Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors service, which is a fantastic digital portal to assist people in the agony of that moment—as they may be in their home circumstances—to receive the kind of support that they require so that they are best placed to get a non-molestation order or an occupation order. We are determined to stand up for victims of domestic abuse.

Independent Human Rights Act Review

Since January this year, the review has conducted a public call for evidence, which has received more than 150 submissions, and has engaged with a wide range of interested parties at roundtable meetings and online public roadshow events. The evidence-gathering period has now concluded. The panel is now considering the evidence and will draft its report over the summer. The report will then be published, as will the Government’s response.

What does the Secretary of State want to achieve with his review? He will be aware that as long as we remain a party to the European convention on human rights, the rights that are available to citizens as a consequence cannot be altered. Any changes to the Human Rights Act would just return us to the situation that we had before the Act, when we could only enforce the remedies for these rights by going to Strasbourg. Is that what the Government want to achieve here?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman will read the review’s findings with great care. I have been clear that this is not about changing the fundamental rights themselves, as he has quite rightly observed; it is about the way in which the domestic courts implement and interpret those rights. It is about the mechanism, if you like. It is now 20 years since the Act came into force and I think it is right at this juncture to give it a careful examination. That is what the independent review is all about. As he would expect, it will be followed up by the fullest consultation, in which I know he will play a vigorous part.

Sexual Assault Victims: Public Naming

It is an offence to publish any matter likely to identify a person who has made an allegation of rape or other sexual assault. The prohibition applies automatically from the moment the offence is reported and has effect throughout the complainant’s lifetime.

The public naming of a rape victim who has bravely come forward is devastating for the individual concerned, but under current legislation perpetrators of this crime get no more than a mere £200 fine. At a time when 44% of rape victims are actually pulling out of the justice system before their day in court, does the Minister agree that such lax laws can deter even more sexual assault victims from coming forward? If so, why did his Government vote down proposals that would have strengthened prosecuting powers against such perpetrators?

Those proposals were not appropriate for support, but we are having a think and will make an announcement shortly.

Medomsley Detention Centre

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that appropriate compensation is disbursed to Medomsley Detention Centre victims. (901945)

I have every sympathy for the survivors and victims of Medomsley detention centre, who suffered abhorrent abuse. The Ministry of Justice has been working for several years to compensate properly survivors and victims. Where necessary, claimants are able to submit medical evidence to support allegations of abuse so that damages can be appropriately assessed. That includes both physical and psychological injury. The majority of claims for compensation have now been settled under a settlement protocol.

I am grateful for that answer. The compensation scheme covers physical, not sexual abuse. My constituent suffered terrible, much more serious abuse. He was drugged and raped, which has had a profound effect on his health for over 40 years—both his physical and his mental health—and that of his family. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me, my constituent and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Medomsley detention centre to discuss a proper compensation settlement for my constituent?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and he paints a truly harrowing picture. For the avoidance of doubt, cases involving serious sexual harm and psychological injury can be dealt with by the Government Legal Department, albeit outside the standard compensation scheme. Because of their seriousness and complexity, they are considered on a case-by-case basis and awards made have been significant. We take great care to ensure the level of compensation properly reflects the seriousness of the abuse. It is of course always open to claimants to issue proceedings in the courts outwith the scheme, should they see fit. I would be happy to meet to discuss the protocols, but I just say this: it is important that Ministers do not interfere in specific cases when litigation is ongoing.

Topical Questions

Over the weekend, we launched the unified probation service for England and Wales. It was the culmination of huge amounts of preparation over two years, and I am hugely grateful to probation colleagues and frontline staff for making it happen. We have invested £310 million in that time to recruit 1,000 extra probation officers, with 1,500 more on the way, alongside making more use of technology such as GPS and sobriety tags. We are determined to ensure that the millions of hours of unpaid work handed down to offenders every year are served more visibly, keeping our towns, cities and our countryside clean. I have said many times that every Department of Government should be a criminal justice department, and the new probation service will be at the heart of a more joined-up approach with police, health services, local authorities and others to cut crime and keep the public safe from harm.

On 17 June, I wrote to the Justice Secretary about probation services, raising a deeply concerning whistleblower case in the probation service. When my constituent first joined the service, there were 10 members of staff in her team. At the end of 2020, three members of staff had left and a further three were on long-term sick leave, and the case load was overwhelming. Does the Secretary of State accept that the 60% drop in staffing levels presents an unacceptable risk to public safeguarding, the welfare of probation service officers and the rehabilitation of offenders?

I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s letter is brought to my attention. She sent it just over a week ago. I will not comment about the individual case, but it will of course be looked at carefully. She will be encouraged to know that as a result of the investment we are making, 1,000 more probation officers have been recruited already. We are going for another 1,500, and that means that, together with the changes to how case loads are managed, probation officers will be supported and encouraged, and the sort of issues that she raises I believe will start to diminish, because that is my determination. I want to sing the praises of an unsung public service.

I am very concerned by the number of constituents who have approached me who have been the victims of online and telephone economic crime. Can the Secretary of State update the House as to what he is doing to tackle such crime? (901987)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. The Government’s response to the economic crime threat is set out in our economic crime plan, which lists seven strategic priorities for combating crime through a specially convened public-private partnership. That includes a number of specific actions, including focusing on high-harm fraud types through online activity such as courier fraud, romance fraud and investment fraud. We are considering whether further legislative changes need to be brought in to provide law enforcement with the tools it needs to combat these emerging threats.

Both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have apologised for the Government’s failure of rape victims resulting in record low prosecution and conviction rates. In attempting to atone for these mistakes it is vital that the Government are honest with victims. Last week, in Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister claimed he was investing another £1 billion in clearing the court backlogs, but in the spending review the figure announced to address the backlogs is £275 million. I am sure that the Prime Minister was not deliberately misleading the House. Will the Secretary of State correct the record?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an issue that I think I can help to clarify for him. With regard to the specific figure, that of course relates to spending during this coming year. We spent another equivalent sum in the previous year on court recovery. Indeed, when you look at the figures that we were spending anyway on new technology in our courts, and indeed the Crown Prosecution Service expenditure as well, then the figure actually is the correct one. He should realise that it is not just the Ministry of Justice that is funding court recovery and the effects of covid; the Attorney General’s Office and indeed the Home Office as well have a responsibility with regard to victims. So I am afraid that fox is well and truly shot.

I have to say that the Secretary of State’s verbosity serves him well.

In March, the Lord Chancellor told the Justice Committee that he had been “played for a fool” in relation to improvements at Rainsbrook secure training centre. He was clear that

“this will not happen again. Otherwise, the consequences will be extremely serious for those responsible.”

Yet this did happen again, and only a year and a half later have children been moved out of harm’s way. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Does the Lord Chancellor feel like a fool, and what “extremely serious” consequences will he deliver to ensure that this does not happen again?

I am very glad that the right hon. Gentleman asks me that question because I can reassure him that as soon as the particular reports were received from the independent monitors I took swift action to make sure that the safety and wellbeing of children at Rainsbrook was preserved. That is why we ordered that children in the unit were moved. Indeed, work is carrying on with regard to the overall future of Rainsbrook. It would be wrong of me to speculate while discussions with the provider remain ongoing, but I can tell him this: I will do whatever it takes to make sure that the children in our care are protected and that all our institutions, including Rainsbrook, are run properly. I can assure him that the providers have had the message loud and clear from me and that there will be no second chances.

My constituent Claire suffered 13 months of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, who continued to stalk her after the end of their relationship. He was given a 12-month restraining order. Will the Government strengthen sentences for stalking and commit to greater support for victims? (901986)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that matter. It is an extraordinary fact that 10 years ago stalking was not even an offence, but it was made an offence in 2012. I, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), had a campaign to double the maximum sentence so there is a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. But it is not enough to have the punishment; we have to make sure that these matters get before the courts as well, and that is why I am grateful to the police and the courts for prioritising them. Those who stalk should know that they will be punished properly.

I once again place on the record my thanks to the Lord Chancellor for backing my private Member’s Bill which called for specific protection and punishment for those who desecrate memorials and graves to our glorious dead. The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke also want to know whether this change in the law will protect the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, which may not be a war memorial but is an important reminder to the public of our greatest Briton. (901994)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising an issue of genuine and widespread public concern. He will note that the phraseology in the Bill talks about memorials, which of course would include memorials such as the one to Sir Winston Churchill. The important point is that we can now move away from the court determining on the mere cost of repair to criminal damage to look at the overall cultural and emotional value of statues like that one, and indeed, ordinary “unvisited tombs”, to quote George Eliot, of people who have a great value to the local community and to their loved ones.

The Merseyside and Vauxhall law centres in Liverpool, Riverside are extremely concerned about how constituents access the legal advice that they need in the light of the drastic impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 cuts on legal aid, court waiting times and availability of advice. How does the Minister intend to ensure that the sector can provide access to justice in a properly functioning legal system for those facing problems with rent arrears, welfare benefits, employment, immigration, crime and domestic violence in the wake of the pandemic? (901991)

I thank the hon. Lady for paying tribute to law centres; she is absolutely right to do that. They do an important job of ensuring that individuals—sometimes vulnerable individuals—can get that vital legal advice and access to justice that they need. That is why, at the beginning of the pandemic, when the message came out that they might face real threats to their viability, we stepped in. The Law Centres Network asked for £3 million and we provided that. It was distributed through the network to ensure that law centres have the funds they need to continue their excellent work.

The number of Albanian prisoners in jail has increased from 524 in 2015 to 1,469 in 2020 and they now represent the largest single national group of foreign national offenders in custody. Although it is very good news that those criminals have been caught and sentenced, given that we have a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Albania, which was signed in 2013, why are those convicts not being sent back to Albania to serve out their sentences in prison in their own country? (901995)

My hon. Friend is right to analyse the figures closely. It is interesting to note that some of the assumptions that people make about foreign nationals and where they are from are out of date. My hon. Friend is right to highlight our agreement with Albania, but operationally those issues are difficult because often the individuals whom we have identified, prosecuted and properly incarcerated will not be known to the authorities in the receiving country and there are issues with identity. However, we carry on with our joint work across Government to ensure that as many of those foreign national offenders as possible are repatriated as quickly as possible. I think the latest cumulative figure over the past five years is about 5,000, but of course I will correct the record if that proves to be incorrect.

It was good to see the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State condemning the harassment of Chris Whitty in recent days. However, the irony seems to be lost that Chris Whitty experienced textbook antisocial behaviour of the kind that happens increasingly up and down our country in every single community. Will the Secretary of State explain why antisocial behaviour has been rising for five years, yet use of antisocial behaviour orders and measures has fallen? When he introduces a victims Bill, will it include measures to give victim status to people who suffer from antisocial behaviour? (901997)

May I put on record my condemnation of the appalling incident involving Professor Whitty in the last few days? With regard to the way in which antisocial behaviour is policed, there have been welcome initiatives and, indeed, changes to the law by Government on preventive measures, particularly for young people and children. Our youth offending teams and other diversionary teams have done a lot to ensure that those issues do not end up before a court, when the damage is already done. I take the strong view that the distinction between crime and antisocial behaviour is artificial. Of course, I will look constructively at anything that we can incorporate in the forthcoming victims consultation and, indeed, the Bill, which, I assure the hon. Gentleman, will come.

Death by dangerous driving is not just heartbreaking for the families left behind, but has a huge impact on local communities. I am thinking in particular of Radcliffe New Road in my constituency. Will my right hon. and learned Friend highlight what work he is undertaking so that those who cause death by reckless and dangerous driving receive tougher sentences to reflect the serious nature of their crime? (901996)

My hon. Friend is right to raise on behalf of his constituents in Bury the real damage that can be caused to the community by careless and dangerous driving. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we will increase the maximum penalties for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink and drugs, and for causing death by dangerous driving, from 14 years to life imprisonment. There will also be a new offence of causing serious injury by careless driving, to close a gap in the law.

If reports are to be believed, my right hon. and learned Friend has used the reconsideration mechanism to re-refer the double murderer and child rapist Colin Pitchfork to the Parole Board. Can he confirm that is true? If it is, I thank him for listening to me, my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and the people of Leicestershire, who still feel that crime vehemently. Does he agree that the legislation was brought in exactly for heinous crimes such as the Worboys case? (902000)

I thank my hon. Friend for speaking so strongly on behalf of his constituents. Colin Pitchfork’s offences were the gravest of crimes, and the families of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth still live with the pain that he caused. The independent Parole Board’s role is to assess whether he is safe for release, rather than whether he has been punished enough. I understand why this decision has affected public confidence. It has been reviewed by officials in my Department, and we found arguable grounds that the decision was irrational, so I have asked the Parole Board to reconsider it using the mechanism that my hon. Friend rightly identified.

Can the Secretary of State tell us why the Ministry of Justice has left the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme? Can he reassure me that his Department will continue to respect the rights of all its LGBT employees, and indeed the rights of all those with protected characteristics, including women and those who hold gender-critical beliefs? (902010)

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for that question. I can absolutely assure her that the rights of LGBTQ+ people will be respected, honoured and celebrated by my Department. We are taking the fullest and most enthusiastic part in Pride Month, which of course is now. The issue with regard to Stonewall was simply this: my officials and I were no longer convinced that the particular scheme that we had taken part in was the right use of public money. There were concerns about the direction of that organisation, which has done so much to advance the cause of people of an LGBT+ orientation. It was with great sorrow and regret that that decision was made, but I assure the hon. and learned Lady that the underlying commitment to and passion for those issues absolutely remains.

Over 8,000 criminal cases are waiting to be resolved in Devon and Cornwall. Many of my constituents in East Devon are anxiously awaiting progress on their cases, and they feel no closer to justice. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to reducing the backlogs in Devon?

My hon. Friend is right to raise issues affecting his constituents. He will be glad to know that in his region, huge strides have been made in magistrates and Crown courts to deal effectively with the case load. Based on the figures I see regularly, I am encouraged by the progress being made in his local courts. That is part of a national drive to deal with capacity, which we have increased through Nightingale courts. There is no limit on sitting days in the Crown court during the year ahead. If all is well with the road map later in July, the further easing of restrictions will allow even more cases to be listed, so that justice can be delivered as quickly as possible, both for my hon. Friend’s constituents and for the wider public.

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

Sitting suspended.

Emergency Covid Contracts

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the Government’s use of emergency covid contracts.

Urgent questions are appearing like buses for me this week.

I am grateful for the chance to address the House about the Government’s use of emergency covid contracts. I have previously responded to debates on this issue with as much detail and candour as I have been able to provide as someone who came to this brief last June and who has tried subsequently to understand what happened in the early months of the pandemic.

The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) will know that all corners of our country have worked together to tackle covid. The public have all too often seen division between different regional authorities but, in truth, close collaboration with the devolved Administrations has been at the heart of our pandemic response, enabling swift policy action such as the roll-out of the vaccine programme UK-wide, the furlough scheme and a rapid increase in testing capacity.

At the beginning of the pandemic, over 13 million items of personal protective equipment were distributed to the devolved Administrations. Throughout the pandemic, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations have worked side by side on sourcing and supply of PPE such as FFP3 masks, and they continue to work together on meeting future demands on frontline staff. The existing procurement rules rightly allow the Government to procure at speed at times of emergency under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. The rules predate covid-19, and there was no need for suspension or relaxation in order for them to be used. None the less, I understand and welcome questions that right hon. and hon. Members have about covid contracts, because how we spend taxpayers’ money matters very deeply to public trust.

It is true to say that the Government faced a number of challenges at the height of the pandemic, and we should be open about those. It is incumbent on all of us to understand not only the kinds of pressures that were on the system, but some of the shortcomings that desperately need to be addressed. That being the case, the Government are already adapting their commercial guidance and work. Following the first, independent Boardman review of procurement processes, looking at a small number of contracts in the Government Communication Service, 24 out of 28 recommendations have already been implemented, and the remainder will be met by the end of the calendar year. Following the second, wider Boardman review, which looked at PPE, ventilators, test and trace, vaccines and food parcels across Government, 28 further recommended improvements were identified, and progress on those is under way. Our Green Paper on transforming public procurement also sets out proposals to update the rules on procuring in times of extreme emergency or crisis.

Let me also briefly address the issue of Government polling during the pandemic. The Government regularly undertake research to support policy development, which includes work related to the impact of covid in areas across the UK. It is the sign of a responsible Government to understand the public’s views on how best to keep people safe to recover from the pandemic and to ensure that we will continue to deliver for all parts of the United Kingdom.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I welcome the Minister to her place; it is the first time I have appeared opposite her.

After the revelations and resignations at the weekend, this urgent question concerns yet another scandal at the very heart of this Tory Government. It seems that not even a health pandemic can do away with classic Tory cronyism, and the scale of this particular scandal makes it one of the biggest yet.

The Secretary of State ordered the use of a £560,000 emergency covid contract to conduct constitutional campaigning on the Union. Instead of using an emergency covid contract to order PPE for the NHS, the Minister chose to order political polling. This is not media speculation, and it is not even a political accusation. It is, Mr Speaker, a plain fact. It comes directly from official evidence that has been published in the High Court. It comes in evidence from the Cabinet Office, in a witness statement dated 24 December 2020, which states:

“I...received an urgent request for Union-related research from the office of the Rt Hon Michael Gove...In response, I asked Public First to conduct some testing of people’s attitudes”

on this issue.

Did the Prime Minister know or approve of that polling and constitutional campaigning? Who were the polling results shared with, and will they be published in full? How many other pieces of political research were ordered during the pandemic, and exactly how much public money has been spent? These are just some of the questions that the Secretary of State needs to answer. There are many, many more.

The Secretary of State was in Scotland yesterday. He held a press conference. He told Greg Russell of The National newspaper:

“We don’t use taxpayer funds for party political polling”.

He went on to claim that the contract was assigned by others. We know from the witness statement that these things are not true. The truth and this Government are distant strangers, and that should come as no surprise when we remember the Prime Minister has been sacked not once but twice for lying.

Last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said he was unaware of these contracts, and ever since he has ignored demands for a full—

Order. A serious allegation about somebody lying will have to be withdrawn—as we know, hon. Members would never lie. I am sure we would like to think about the language being used, because I am not convinced about the proof of that. I think we should withdraw the word “lie”.

I have been very careful with my language, Mr Speaker, and I am pointing out the contradiction between the witness—

Order. [Interruption.] Order. Mr Blackford, please. You cannot criticise another Member such as the Prime Minister without a substantive motion. That is not what has been granted. The language we use is important for me to keep good order, and I am sure you could reflect on the words about another Member, who I presume has also been given notice of any criticism.

Indeed, I am relying on matters of fact, Mr Speaker. Just as the Prime Minister failed to act and sack his Health Secretary, he has failed to act on this scandal, too. But no matter how hard they might try to sweep this under the carpet, this scandal is not going away. This morning I have written to the Cabinet Secretary, urging him to launch—

Order. We are now one minute over the time that I granted. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is now going to end in the next seconds.

This morning I have written to the Cabinet Secretary urging him to launch an independent investigation into this blatant misuse of public money for political purposes. So finally, if this UK Government have nothing to hide, will the Minister join me in supporting that investigation by the Cabinet Secretary, and will she co-operate with it?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions, and I will try to address them with facts, not party political allegation. First, if I may, I would like to provide some context to the direct award of the Public First contract for communications during the pandemic. In March 2020, there was no vaccine, no test and trace, and very little knowledge of how to best manage this novel disease. Strong messaging of the kind that could alter behaviours was, at the outset of the pandemic, one of the few tools in our arsenal in the battle against transmission. It was in this context that rapid decisions were made on comms contracts, including a decision that was challenged in court recently.

Public First was taken on, alongside BritainThinks, as one of only two companies in the market deemed to have the scale, expertise and experience to provide focus group testing in March last year. Both were rapidly diverted from existing work to take a snapshot of public reaction, and that allowed us to test things such as the contain strategy, the early “Stop The Spread” campaign and the “Stay Home” message, alongside an understanding of how best to tailor messages to different audiences across the UK. These key communications campaigns were seen on television and social media, and I am sure we will all be familiar with them.

Ministers had no personal involvement in the decision to award this contract, and they do not, of course, personally approve contract awards. This contract did not relate to constitutional campaigning, and any suggestion that the Government carry out party political research is entirely false.

The Government regularly conduct research in every part of the UK to support policy development. In this case, we were testing public attitudes relating to the covid-19 pandemic. This became particularly relevant as different regions of the UK began to diverge in their approach to tackling covid, and that created understandable confusion.

Focus groups, which were conducted by Public First but commissioned by the national resilience communications hub, looked at attitudes towards the virus, upcoming recovery and the wider context in which to interpret the results, and the results were shared with relevant policy and communications teams. They were involved in developing and delivering covid policy and communications across the devolved Administrations, enabling them to differentiate their content and messages as appropriate. We do not plan to publish the full results of the polling and focus groups that have been used to inform ongoing policy formulation. However, we regularly review all the data we collect, and we intend to publish the elements that are not sensitive in due course.

Separately, the Cabinet Office carries out polling on attitudes towards the Union on a regular basis, but this work was paused during the coronavirus crisis. We are aware that the Scottish Government also conducted polling on attitudes in relation to covid. We did not see this research, nor would we expect to. The Secretary of State for Scotland has already addressed some of the questions that the right hon. Gentleman has raised online on his Twitter account.

Finally, to return to the judgment on Public First at the recent court hearing, that judgment found in favour of the Government on two grounds, which were emergency award and contract terms, including length. It was recognised that

“everyone involved was acting under immense pressure and the urgency of the…crisis did not allow time for reflection. The time constraints justified…derogation from the usual procedures required under PCR 2015. But they did not exonerate the Defendant from conducting the procurement so as to demonstrate a fair and impartial process of selection.”

We have already recognised that there was an issue of process, where we could do much better. That is why we investigated what had happened to prepare for the court case. We launched an internal independent review—the subsequent Boardman review—which is published in full online. We have taken forward its recommendations in full, and have nearly delivered all of them. A steering group, chaired by our chief financial officer, has been tracking implementation.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman feels reassured by my answers. I look forward to continued collaboration with the Scottish Government to the benefit of citizens across our Union.

Against unprecedented global demand for vital equipment, the UK Government secured over 32 billion items of PPE, including for our devolved Administrations. Also against the odds, and against the desire of some on the Opposition Benches who wished to remain in the EU vaccine programme, the UK again successfully secured a world-leading programme. The marketing budget for the vaccine programme was just 0.07% of the budget. Sensibly, it included work to ensure that messaging had the maximum impact in all parts of the United Kingdom to save as many lives as possible. This was rightly done at pace, and should this not be celebrated, rather than be used as a party political point-scoring urgent question by the Opposition SNP?

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out just how fantastic the co-operation has been between all parts of our United Kingdom. The UK Government have provided huge support to the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations—that comes in testing capacity; we have helped with PPE; we have obviously helped with the furlough scheme—and, as he says, that should be celebrated, not denigrated.

I think it is worth reiterating that the Government have been found to have acted unlawfully over the contract with Public First. Their attitude is that the rules do not apply to them. Given that the judge found apparent bias, surely this must now be referred to the independent adviser and the Cabinet Secretary. What are they scared of?

I know all too well, on the point made by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), the need to secure PPE for our frontline NHS and social care workers, but while nurses were working in bin bags, others were filling their pockets at the taxpayer’s expense. The Minister quoted the National Audit Office, but the Comptroller and Auditor General said that the evidence shows that

“standards of transparency…were not consistently met”.

Perhaps the Minister can explain today why the National Audit Office found that PestFix, for example, was wrongly added to the high priority lane and awarded over £300 million after a shareholder reminded a senior official that he was a friend of his father-in-law.

The Minister claimed that a full eight-stage process always took place, but the NAO found over 70 contracts awarded before that process even existed. Can she confirm that Ayanda Capital was placed on the VIP list without that process, thanks to an adviser to the International Trade Secretary? Officials admitted that due diligence had not been carried out on Ayanda, and the bar seems to have been lowered in that case.

Mr Speaker, £150 million was spent on entirely useless PPE, so can the Minister confirm how much equipment bought this way was not fit for use? We already know that over £10 billion has been awarded without a competitive tender—for example, the £100 million given to Pharmaceuticals Direct Ltd after lobbying by the Home Secretary, with millions apparently ending up in the hands of her close associate, the “broker” to the deal. Will the Home Secretary be referred to the independent adviser—and if not, why not?

Yesterday, the Minister accepted that private emails were used by other Ministers in the process of awarding contracts, but the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson denied it. Will the Minister ensure that the record is now corrected?

Finally, the Minister promised that all such emails are covered by freedom of information. We have submitted such a request, but how will the former and current Health Ministers be prevented from permanently deleting the emails first? I urge her to refer the whole issue to the Information Commissioner. Surely she can see why only an independent process can restore trust. If Ministers want to be taken seriously by the public, then, quite frankly, they need to stop taking the hit and miss.

I have listened over this past year to the criticisms and attacks made by the Opposition and campaign groups on covid contracts, and I take them very seriously. That is why I took the time, when I assumed my role after maternity leave, to understand what happened. I do not think anyone is standing here suggesting that everything went smoothly during the height of pandemic. It did not. A whole series of challenges were faced and shortcomings highlighted. I have now twice set out in some detail the problems that have been described to me, and I have set out what we are doing to resolve them.

Let me go through some of them in relation to PPE. Some 450 people from across Government were moved into the Department of Health and Social Care to become a stand-up virtual team to assist with securing PPE. That team is normally only 21 people strong. That meant a lot of people who did not know each other working remotely on a range of different IT systems, with suppliers they did not know, on product they were not familiar with, in the most highly pressured market of their careers. That has led to lags in contract publication, as paperwork has been very tricky to join up across systems.

Faced with exceptional global demand, the usual vendors in China, which service the central procurement function, very quickly ran out of supply, and the world descended on a few factories in that country to bid for available items. It was in that market context that the Government had to procure with extreme urgency. That was often through direct award of contracts. If we did not do that, we risked missing out on vital supplies. We never ripped up procurement rules. It was a situation of genuine crisis and extreme urgency, where offers had to be accepted or rejected in a matter of hours or days, and it was simply not viable to run the usual procurement timescales.

The effort to secure PPE was herculean and involved setting up a new logistics network from scratch. I have explained in Parliament on a number of occasions that the VIP fast-track lane that has been touted often by the Opposition, was actually a mailbox set up by officials during the height of the pandemic to consider some of the 15,000 offers of assistance to supply PPE. In the early months, leads were coming in a lot faster than they could be processed. When they were rejected, or if they were delayed, people started chasing them through their MPs or through Ministers. To manage that influx of offers, a separate mailbox was set up to handle this area of work and sift credible offers.

I addressed yesterday concerns about private email use and the rules governing it. Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and comms applications should be used for communicating classified information, but that other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting Government business. Each Minister is responsible for ensuring that Government information is handled in a secure way. We also set out that where business is conducted on non-official IT, relevant information should be recorded on Government systems, but we are keeping the guidance under review to ensure that it is up to date.

The most important thing to note, as the right hon. Lady does, is that all PPE offers, no matter where they came from, went through the same eight-stage checks. The PPE team compared prices with those obtained in the previous two weeks, to benchmark the competitiveness of those offers. Separate approval and additional justification were required for any offers not within 25% of the average that were considered for possible approval. It is also important to note that of the 493 offers that went through the priority mailbox, I understand that only 47 were taken forward—in other words, 90% were rejected.

There have been judicial reviews in respect of some of those contracts. The case relating to the Department of Health and Social Care looked not at the awarding of contracts, but at the delays in publishing their details. Health Ministers have always been clear that transparency is vital, and the court found that there was no deliberate policy to delay publication. In the judicial review relating to Public First, the court recognised

“that everyone involved was acting under immense pressure and the urgency of the…crisis did not allow time for reflection. The time constraints justified the…derogation from the usual procedures required under PCR 2015. But they did not exonerate the Defendant”—


“from conducting the procurement so as to demonstrate a fair and impartial process of selection.”

We recognised very quickly that there was an issue of process where we could do much better. That is why we investigated what happened to prepare for that court case and launched an internal review into the contracts that were undertaken. Public First has cross-party directors and, as I mentioned, we already have a programme of work in the two Boardman reviews.

I appreciate that throughout the pandemic the Opposition have wanted to raised questions about the contracts. I hope that I can address them as best I can. If there are any questions that the right hon. Lady feels I have not covered, I will come back to her on them.

With nothing better to do, the Opposition continue to sensationalise the details surrounding a handful of high-value contracts that were subject to the emergency procurement procedures at the outset of the pandemic. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to transparency surrounding the use of taxpayers’ money and that all new contracts over £10,000 are published online for anybody who wishes to see them?

Order. Can I just say that it is my decision to grant a UQ? You are now questioning my judgment, and I am not going to have my judgment questioned.

The other thing to say is that I do feel sorry for the Minister being set up. I am sorry that Minister Gove was not here to take some of the questions, because most of them are named for him, but this House will not be taken for granted. When statements continue to be made outside the House, I will continue to grant UQs, so let’s get used to it. If the Government do not want to come here, I will ensure that they are heard here.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; I appreciate your zeal and I think you are right.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have tried throughout to be transparent, but I have set out some of the very good reasons why it has been difficult sometimes to publish the contracts in a timely way. This has been a very complex process where we have had to surge teams at very short notice and go back through all the paperwork, looking across different IT systems across different Departments. That has been a challenge that I have tried to address, as has the Department of Health and Social Care. My understanding is that all PPE contracts are now transparently published. We are working through them all in relation to comms and have a programme of work under way to make sure that we have transparent publication. I completely agree that it is important that we offer reassurances to the public on how taxpayers’ funds are used.

The Government were able to award contracts using their high priority lane because this House gave them the power to do so. We did it, effectively, on trust. Will the Minister now repay the trust that this House placed in the Government by publishing the details not just of the contracts that were put through that high priority lane, but of those who introduced the contractors to the Government, the basis on which it was thought appropriate to put them through the high-priority lane and the economic outcomes of those decisions?

I thank the right hon. Member for his inquiries. As I say, 47 went through the high-priority lane, and discussions are under way on the extent to which we can be transparent about that because of commercial sensitivities. However, as I said, all PPE contracts have now been transparently published.

Our vaccine programme is a fantastic example of how the best of the British science industry and Government have worked together to tackle the virus. Does my hon. Friend agree that without the expertise, willingness to take risk and innovation of our private sector, the success of the vaccine programme would not have been possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is quite right to point out that we absolutely need commercial expertise in times of pandemic and any similar crises that may come along. As we look at how we can do things better on procurement in the future, we must guard against crowding out external expertise and taking an overly cautious approach to risk. While I absolutely accept that there are questions to be asked after the event, the priority in times of crisis must always be delivering on the ground, and that is what we have always sought to do.

I welcome the Minister’s tone in coming to the House in that she has acknowledged that mistakes were made and that the Cabinet Office has accepted both Boardman reviews and the National Audit Office’s recommendations on procurement. However, we are in a whole different ball game when members of her Cabinet are having private email exchanges and neither we nor officials know what is in them. She says that the Cabinet Office is reviewing guidance. Is it not time that she just said, “This must stop,” because nobody—not the National Audit Office or officials—can see what is in those conversations, and that is a very real concern for the taxpayer?

I thank the hon. Lady, who has done tremendous work through the Public Accounts Committee in scrutinising this area. Sometimes I think she has been leading the opposition—not the Opposition—on this. It is important that we focus on where we had problems and the very genuine concerns that need to be addressed. She raises matters in relation to emails. I cannot comment on email conversations that I have not seen.

But those are relevant only when officials are asked to take any action, and that is the point at which official process and procedure come into play. I know the hon. Lady does not want to listen to this, but that is why the eight-stage process that officials undertook is so important; that is the aspect that should reassure the public that there are procedures that ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent correctly.

Normal contract procedures for PPE take months to navigate—months that patients and staff simply did not have last year—so criticising the Government for abbreviating procedures to save time and lives seems a poor use of hindsight. Is my hon. Friend aware that exactly the same decision to abbreviate processes in the name of speed was taken by Labour in Wales and by the SNP in Scotland, the only difference being that the SNP wanted to suspend freedom of information requests at the same time?

My hon. Friend is right that the devolved Administrations also use regulation 32 to procure in an emergency. It is important to note that the Government are dissatisfied with the procedures at our disposal. That is why, in our procurement Green Paper, we are looking at what measures we can take to procure with greater transparency and success in times of crisis to give us a better option between a full-fat procurement, which takes too long, or a direct award, which raises concerns about transparency.

Diolch yn fawr, Llefarydd. Let us call this out for what it is: a gross misuse of public money. The shady deal to award a half-a-million-pound covid contract to Ministers’ friends at Public First is yet another example of Tories putting Tory interests first. Given that focus groups were held in Wales, did the Secretary of State for Wales consent to the decision to use the Public First contract for political research purposes?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. As I said, we do not use public money for political campaigning purposes.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing the urgent question.

The Minister seems to be auditioning for the role of Minister for the Cabinet Office; I do not know whether he has been kidnapped but he does not seem to be about at the moment—but my hon. Friend is doing very well. Is this urgent question not an opportunity to highlight the fact that if the Government had not used emergency powers, we would not have established the world-leading vaccination programmes, which have saved not just hundreds of thousands but probably millions of lives across the globe? They used the emergency powers to develop the vaccine programme, rather than go through the red tape and bureaucracy that the European Union did and did not develop a programme.

I assure my hon. Friend that I am not auditioning for that position; the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has not been kidnapped. He is in Scotland, as part of our efforts to make sure that we are less Whitehall-centric as a government—we have offices now in Glasgow.

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of being able to take sensible risks that save lives in times of crisis, which is what we did in a number of these areas, and that was the right decision to make.

The question is not about the emergency use of funds to buy lifesaving vaccines and equipment; it is about the deliberate misappropriation of those funds for political canvassing purposes—it cannot be disguised as anything more than that. It is noticeable that none of the fake outrage from Conservative Members has attempted to address that question as yet.

If the Minister is so concerned about knowing what Scotland’s attitude to the Union is, may I point her to the biggest opinion survey ever conducted in Scotland? In May, the people of Scotland voted by a majority for pro-independence parties. The Scottish Parliament has a pro-independence majority yet again. Does she accept that that is a proper demonstration of the will of the people of Scotland to be rid of this corrupt Union, once and for all?

There was a proper demonstration of the will of the Scottish people when they had their referendum on Scottish independence and made their views clear. Interestingly, Scottish National party Members never seem to accept that.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this was not a PPE contract; it was a contract about communications and the important role they played in managing the pandemic at a time when we did not have the vaccine, the testing capacity that we wanted or other measures that we needed to tackle the pandemic. Communications, in this context, were extremely important in making sure the public understood the behaviours they needed adopt to keep themselves safe.

Ministers are not actually in charge of checking contracts—the civil service is. Does my hon. Friend agree that any contract, whether urgent or not, always requires due diligence by the civil service, even after the decision, and that that happens within every Department? I find accusations of cronyism to be normally very wrong indeed—does she agree?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I do agree. As I set out, there are a number of assurances the public should take from the way in which contracts are managed and handled; these things are quite separate from Ministers, which should provide the public with the comfort they want.

It is clear that nothing is clear about the way this Government are procuring goods and services with public money, and it is these dodgy deals that anger my constituents who play by the rules while government fails to. Following the National Audit Office report and the Boardman review’s recommendations on process and practice, process in governance, and conflict of interest and bias, what progress has the Minister made in implementing those recommendations? Will she publish an update on the Government’s actions and place it in the House of Commons Library? In auditing these contracts, will she ensure that they have fulfilled what they promised to do?

Yes, I believe that the Public Accounts Committee will be updated on the second Boardman report in July. With regard to the first Boardman report on communications contracts, we are working through all the recommendations. I believe we are up to 20 of 24, but we will endeavour to complete that process by the end of the year.[Official Report, 12 July 2021, Vol. 699, c. 2MC.]

From the onset of the pandemic, the contracts we have signed have allowed us to procure billions of items of PPE and secure vital lifesaving equipment at a time of unprecedented global demand. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we had dithered and delayed, if we had not explored every possible opportunity, and if we had not tried to take advantage of every olive branch that was offered, the public would never have forgiven us and the Opposition would be sitting here today saying exactly the opposite: that we did not act quickly enough?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I believe that the Opposition asked us to strain every sinew at the time of the pandemic, and that is what we did.

Can the Minister clarify the exact total of taxpayers’ money abhorrently used to conduct political research throughout the pandemic?

I thank my hon. Friend for the answers she has given thus far. At the start of the pandemic, we were competing across the world for the supply of PPE and other lifesaving equipment and for developing vaccines. It is quite clear that the Government had to make instant decisions on that procurement, competing against other nations. The key now is learning the lessons that come from that process, so will she undertake to ensure that there is a full review of the emergency procedures that may be needed, in case there is another pandemic or a requirement for us to set aside normal procurement rules?

My hon. Friend is quite right to set out some of the challenges we faced at the height of the pandemic. When it comes to procuring PPE, for instance, we were competing with every other country in the world for PPE from just a few factories in China, and that was extremely difficult. Frankly, if we had dithered and delayed, we would not have secured the supplies we needed. In terms of learning the lessons that he wishes us to learn, I can assure him that we are already doing that. That is why we conducted the Boardman 1 and 2 reviews, and the National Audit Office has looked over these matters in fine detail. The public inquiry into covid will begin next spring.

It has been revealed that a handful of Conservative party donors who gave the party £8.2 million have won Government covid contracts worth £881 million. It was also recently revealed that just three days after a Conservative billionaire donor was made a Lord—with the Prime Minister overruling his own appointments watchdog to push that decision through—the donor gave the party half a million pounds. What does the Minister say to my constituents who ask why the pandemic has meant growing poverty for them, while for Tory donors it has been an opportunity to line their pockets through dodgy deals?

I thank the hon. Lady for her concerns, and I wish to assure her that a link to the Conservative party was not one of the criteria that needed to be fulfilled when those PPE contracts were being undertaken.

The National Audit Office report on PPE procurement made it clear that there was a lack of transparency in the documentation relating to key procurement decisions. We now know about the routine use of private emails to conduct Government business, which raises the question of whether the NAO could not find all the documentation because it was hidden away in private email accounts. Can the Minister now give us an assurance that all relevant private emails were handed over to the NAO as part of its investigations? If she cannot give us that assurance, can she ensure that all those private emails will now be passed over to the NAO?

In relation to the challenges we faced in trying to transparently publish all the contracts, I have set out some of the reasons for them. It was partly because a team of 450 people had to be surged across Government, and they were all working on different IT systems. Going back and trying to look at all the documentation relating to PPE has been a real challenge, and those challenges have been acknowledged in the various court cases that have been brought. I wish to assure the hon. Gentleman with regard to the emails that, in so far as freedom of information requests are made, they will be looked at in the relevant way.

Every week, SNP Members come to this House with the sole focus of tearing our country apart, while every week this Government are focused on delivering on the British people’s priorities and building back better from the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that if the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) wants to use this time to explore conspiracy theories, he should instead go and look for the Loch Ness monster?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question about the Loch Ness monster whose existence I can neither confirm nor deny. He is right to highlight the fantastic ways in which our Union has worked together during the pandemic, whether that be on vaccine procurement, on the schemes that have been run out by the Treasury, or on some of the testing capacity that we have provided. We should not overlook the fantastic Union story that we have seen during this pandemic.

It is absolutely gobsmacking that, in the middle of a pandemic, Tory Ministers secretly redirected funds from an emergency covid contract to carry out political polling to benefit the Conservative party and its Unionist cause. Following the humiliation of the High Court case, will the Minister now commit to a full public inquiry into this gross misuse of public money? Does she take any responsibility for this failure and will she apologise for it?

As I have set out on numerous occasions this afternoon, that was not political campaigning; it was important work that was being undertaken as part of our response to the pandemic.

The Opposition parties are accusing the Government of corruption—of deliberate and systematic corruption. They are claiming that Ministers used the biggest peacetime challenge that this country has ever faced for the simple purpose of enriching a few distantly connected contacts. As my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General put it in answering the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) a few weeks ago, this is an absurd charge. It is simply unbelievable. Everybody knows it; we know it, they know it and the public know it. It is a conspiracy theory on the level of the anti-vax campaign. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the businesses that stepped up to supply the NHS with what it needed rather than smearing them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the importance of what business achieved with the Government in relation to the pandemic. Some fantastic commercial expertise has been brought into Government. One thing we want to do is to set up a secondments unit to make sure that we can get that private sector expertise into Government when it is needed. There are also number of other initiatives, such as civilian reserves, that can be used so that we can get that expertise as and when we need it in times of crisis.

Mr Speaker, here is how it works. Lord Bethell, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, held a private undeclared meeting with Abingdon Health, which then won a £85 million contract. Andrew Feldman, the former chair of the Tory party, became an unpaid adviser to Lord Bethell and he managed to lobby and get a client a PPE contract for £23 million. We have had David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, lobbying the Government direct. We know that the Minister for the Cabinet Office was found in court to have acted unlawfully with apparent bias with regards to an award to Public First. That is why we need a full proper inquiry not just into the awarding of contracts, but into the lobbying that goes on in the background for companies that have no track record in delivering the kinds of contracts that were awarded.

I set out the reasons for the court case and what the judgment actually said, rather than what the hon. Gentleman is implying that it said. It was in relation to some procedural issues that we have addressed via the Boardman recommendations.

Does the Minister agree that what the people of this country want to see is all politicians coming together to get this country back on its feet, rather than the party political squabbling around PPE contracts that were absolutely necessary and needed at speed to save lives? Let us put people first.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have already said in this Chamber, tremendous work has been done with every corner of the UK and every devolved Administration, whether that is the vaccine programme, the furlough scheme or the rapid increase in testing capacity.

Has the Minister read the allegations made by Dominic Cummings that Ministers and officials would take procurement decisions and then subsequently a meeting would be arranged to pretend to retake them and go through the paperwork properly? Can she confirm that such behaviour would be completely unacceptable and that any investigation is taking place to determine whether these allegations are true?

I am afraid that I do not know in relation to the private meetings that Dominic Cummings had when he was in Government, but I know that he has set out concerns about our response to procurement in relation to getting the wrong answers after the event. I think he is concerned about whether we then create too much process around important decisions that need to be made in the heat of the moment, and he is right to set out those concerns. We need to make sure that our Green Paper on procurement makes us have better decision-making processes in times of crisis that can be properly scrutinised.

Last week at the Dispatch Box, the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), bragged that the Government were

“unleashing the potential of our whole country”—


“by backing British industry”—[Official Report, 21 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 672-673.]

He derided China for “trade-distorting practices” and dismissed trade deals with China. That all sounds good, except it is just not true. Today in a covid briefing, the Government’s position on the US Food and Drug Agency judgment that the Innova tests were deadly was that it is down to an overreliance on the manufacturer’s data, and that the tests are being tested at Porton Down to disprove the Chinese manufacturer’s own data that they are unsafe. All the while, the UK diagnostic industry across the countries of the UK have been utterly betrayed. Can the Minister tell me: why are this Government using trade-distorting practices to prop up discredited Innova lateral flow devices made on the cheap in China but at massive expense to the UK? Why are UK diagnostic contracts and the hundreds of jobs that Lord Bethell—

The hon. Gentleman may shake his head or his hands, but he ought to realise that Members have the right to be heard, and not just him for the length of time that he thinks is appropriate; I will make the decision on that.

I am enjoying your zest today, Mr Speaker.

The hon. Gentleman raised with me the importance of onshore manufacturing capacity in Westminster Hall last week. I have asked for a briefing on the issue and shall get back to him, because he raised an important issue about the extent to which we have key manufacturing capacity in this country. Project Defend in the Department for International Trade aims to ensure that we have the capacity that we need.

I thank the Minister and the Government for their massive and positive response to covid-19, and for a vaccine roll-out that is second to none. Has the Minister made an assessment of the sustainability of the Government’s use of emergency covid-19 contracts with large firms, and will she confirm whether the contracts have been beneficial to the UK, given the potential and alleged anomalies that occurred at their procurement?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight how fantastically the devolved Administrations have worked with central Government on some of the critical issues that have faced us during the pandemic. He raised the issue of large firms. One hope in our procurement Green Paper is that our procurement reforms will make it much easier for small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for key Government contracts.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the last 24 hours, we have had two urgent questions; the Minister for the Cabinet Office has not appeared, although the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), has done her best. In the last hour, we have heard media reports that No. 10 has confirmed that Lord Bethell used his private email address in regard to procurement. I seek your advice as to how we get clarity on this matter, because there have been misleading reports over the last 24 hours. How can we get an independent inquiry so that we actually get to the facts of the case?

Obviously, I am not aware of what has just been announced. If we are going to criticise, there needs to be a substantive motion, but the right hon. Lady is asking about the internal arrangements. Her point is now on the record; I hope that people have been listening to her request. We will take it from there. I am sure that this will not be the end of the matter being raised. I know that she will use her best endeavours and offices to ensure that the issue continues to be addressed.

We are going to suspend the House for two minutes so that the necessary arrangements can be made before the next business.

Sitting suspended.

International Travel

Order. I wish to make a short statement before we take the next urgent question. Last Thursday evening, the Government announced changes to the countries listed on the green and red travel lists. They also announced that they intended that fully vaccinated UK residents returning from amber list countries would not have to isolate from later in the summer. These are important announcements. They should be made to this House first. The fact that Transport Ministers were answering oral questions in the Chamber that morning only strengthens the case.

Although I do not have to explain my reasons for allowing the urgent question, in this case I want to say to those on the Government Benches that if Ministers choose to make important announcements outside this Chamber first, they must not be surprised that I will grant urgent questions on those matters. In fact, I will just continue to grant them on the basis that there may be a statement, because it seems that this Chamber is being ridden over roughshod. I will continue to make sure that this House gets an opportunity to scrutinise the Government, but it would be better for all concerned if the Government simply followed their own ministerial code and made important announcements to this House, to which Members are elected to represent their constituents and to ensure that Ministers and Secretaries of State can be scrutinised with questions—not via the media, but via MPs.

I call Jim McMahon to ask the urgent question.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the Government’s plans for international travel.

After 15 months of restrictions and lockdowns, I know that everybody in the House is determined to get this pandemic behind us, so that we might finally begin to think about returning to some sort of normality. Decisions over how to control our borders during these unprecedented times are of course never easy. In everything we do, the overwhelming priority is to protect the public and the hard-won gains that have been made.

Last week, in recognition of the hugely successfully vaccination programme, we were able to confirm that in the future, when I will certainly return to the House, fully vaccinated people will be able to avoid quarantine when they return from countries on the amber list.

I want to be realistic with the House: this is a complicated policy that requires time to work through. First, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has yet to opine on whether children should be part of a vaccination programme. They are not at present, and we must resolve how children would therefore be treated under a programme that enabled people to travel without vaccinations.

Next is the question of what to do for people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or are perhaps on one of the non-standard vaccine trials. That accounts for around half a million people and we need to work out what to do in that respect.

There is also the question of how to recognise vaccine status at ports and airports. That is easier for people who have been vaccinated in the UK, because the main NHS app—I should stress that I am not talking about the test and trace app—can already display a person’s vaccine status, but it is less easy to prove for someone coming from overseas, particularly if their country has a paper-based system.

As a result of all this work, we will announce to the House when we are ready to make these decisions in order to bring this system into place. It will most likely be phased in for UK residents first.

As has been said, we have confirmed changes to the traffic light system, which take place tonight, at 4 am. That will change the countries that are on the red and the green lists. There are some complications with establishing the list on a UK-wide basis, including with the devolved Administrations. Once the decisions have been made, it is also very difficult not to have them escape from the various different Administrations, so I apologise to the House for not always being able to get here first before I start to read of them in the newspapers. In this particular case, I heard them instantaneously—or within an hour or so, I should say—from the devolved Administrations elsewhere in the UK, meaning that the story was already out there. Malta, Madeira, the Balearic islands and several UK overseas territories and Caribbean islands will be added to the green list, while a further six countries will move to the red category, as we continue to adapt our system.

Our border regime is one of the toughest in the world and I know, from chairing meetings of the G7 Transport Ministers, that it is closely tracked and in some cases followed by other countries. We are now focused on the long-term issue of how to keep our country safe while getting international travel back up and running. These decisions are not easy and will not be enhanced by simplistic calls to stick countries on either a red list or a green list without providing the level of detail that the amber list helps to provide. In comparison, this Government are taking a cautious, evidence-based approach. I will return to the House with more information once we are aware of the details.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. As you pointed out, it was unacceptable that the Government were not willing to come to the House to make the announcement when the traffic light system was reviewed last week. Thank you so much for your robust defence of Parliament on this matter.

Passengers and the industry want to see a clear plan of action, supported by transparent data and with measured interventions to balance the urgent need to keep our borders safe with the desire to support aviation and tourism.

First, on data and country-by-country assessment, I urge the Secretary of State to publish not only the decision-making criteria for the traffic light system but, importantly, the analysis that underpins it.

We have been pushing for the Government to show international leadership, but so far they have failed to step up. Why will they not bring forward concrete plans for an international vaccine passport that will be accepted by key destination countries?

International co-operation is key to getting travel back up and running again, yet the Prime Minister missed a golden opportunity at the G7, including with the US. What progress has been made on reaching an agreement to see the safe return of transatlantic travel?

As much as we want to see more countries added to the green list, we also want to see a robust red list. Given that the easing of restrictions has been delayed throughout the country, will the Secretary of State now commit to reviewing the decision not to place India on the red list, so that lessons can be learned?

Labour’s position is clear: we have set out a sectoral deal and a simplified red and green list, supported by clear country-by-country assessment that shows the clear direction of travel. The Government also promised a sectoral deal, so when can the industry expect to see that promised sectoral deal? In the early days of this pandemic the public were willing to support the Government as they learnt on the job but, frankly, patience has run out. It is important that action is taken, and taken now.

First, it is worth saying that I keep hearing the hon. Gentleman calling for the data to be published. For his ease, I have been to the website and checked it for him. The JCVI and Public Health England do indeed publish their methodology and the data behind it for each of these countries. It is already published. For the sake of the time of the House, I will not run through it, but it is there for him to see.

The hon. Gentleman calls for a passport that could be used for people who are double-vaccinated, yet at the same time his policy is to put every single country in the red list. That would mean that somebody who was able to visit a dying relative in an amber list country would now have the cost and expense of returning to Government quarantine in order to just go on that mercy mission. I think that what he is suggesting is quite cruel.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the progress on the US-UK working group. I can confirm that it took place for the first time last Thursday and progress is being made. That is an officials-level meeting and they will say more when they are ready to. There is a whole series of complexities to resolve. For example, the US does not currently recognise AstraZeneca because AstraZeneca has not applied for the licence. On the other side, we do not have any particular system to recognise vaccine status from the United States, because it does not have a digitised system, as we do with our NHS—it has 50 separate systems—so there are complexities.

India has been discussed many times, but I remind the hon. Gentleman again that it went on our red list a week before it became a variant of interest and two weeks before it became a variant of concern, so it is simply not the case that it was not already on the red list. Even when it was on the amber list, people had to take a test before they came here. They had to take a test when they got here, on day two and on day eight. They had to quarantine. It is worth looking at those facts.

The hon. Gentleman again calls for the red and green list. He wants to scrap the amber list. He wants to simplify it, no doubt before claiming that we should publish yet more detail, but it simply does not make sense. He cannot stand up and call for further support for airlines and the aviation sector while deliberately trying to ensure that pretty much every person who comes to this country has to go to Government quarantine hotels. It simply does not stack up.

The hon. Gentleman asks about support for the aviation and travel sectors. They have indeed been at the forefront of this pandemic and £7 billion of support is being provided. We are continuing to do our bit. But the best support of all that we can provide is to get international travel running again. That means not taking all the countries in the amber list and sticking them in the red list.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker, for giving us this opportunity to scrutinise. You have constituents who are impacted and they should know that you have given them a voice in this place.

I also thank the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for giving us this opportunity. I disagree with his suggestion that we turn the amber list to red. I believe it should be turned to green, because we have a successful vaccination programme and our NHS app. We know that the Secretary of State is pushing for that to happen later in the summer, and therein lies my question. For the domestic restrictions being eased, we have a road map with data and dates. For international travel, can we have the equivalent—a flight path—so we know what is going to happen, when and by what measure? Perhaps I could ask him to give us a little more detail now, but also consider whether he would be willing to give a little more certainty to industry and passengers alike.

I will certainly be very pleased to return to this House with further details as soon as next month. I explained in my opening remarks that there are quite a number of complexities to do with how we treat children and younger people who have not yet had the opportunity to have two vaccinations. Although we will have everybody on a single vaccination, promised by 19 July, there will still be significant numbers who would not be able to travel under that system, so there are a lot of fairness issues to resolve too. However, like my hon. Friend, I share the absolute desire to return international travel as soon as we practically can to something as close as possible to normality, while recognising that it is important that we ensure that variants of concern are properly monitored and not brought into this country. One of the problems that we have is that no other country in the world sequences the genome at the rate that we do, which means that it is sometimes very difficult to tell what is happening in other countries, so we sometimes have to be cautious, but I will return to this House.

Aviation is the hardest-hit sector, according to the Office for National Statistics. One third of the 6,000 jobs based at Glasgow airport and countless more in the supply chain are gone, a proportion that is common in the sector. In business travel, 60% of workers have gone and of those who remain, 80% are on furlough, and that is the key point: hundreds of thousands of jobs have gone while there is a job retention scheme in place.

This is the 36th time I have asked about support for the aviation sector since the start of the pandemic, back in the day when the Secretary of State was boasting of saving Flybe and the Chancellor was promising a sector-specific deal. With many parts of Europe now wary of the UK delta variant outbreak, five bleak winters in a row beckon for the sector. Are the Government finally considering keeping their word on grant support and extending its limited and capped business rates support to at least match the durat