House of Commons
Wednesday 17 November 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Community Renewal Fund
Two weeks ago, as my right hon. Friend says, £2.9 million was announced from the community renewal fund for 14 projects in Denbighshire, including Blossom & Bloom, a charity in Rhyl that can now support 20 more mothers and babies. Of course, the community renewal fund is there to help communities prepare for the introduction of the shared prosperity fund. Will he outline what discussions he is having about that fund and whether capital, as well as revenue, will be available?
My hon. Friend raises a very good question, and I hope he will take into account that we are looking at the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund and the community ownership fund, as well as the shared prosperity fund, in the round, and other potential funding proposals, too. When he sees the detail, I hope he will see that we address both capital and revenue.
Levelling-up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund
Wales is benefiting greatly from local growth funding, receiving above its population share from all three funds: 7% in the first round of the levelling-up fund, 9% in the first round of the community ownership fund and a remarkable 23% of the UK community renewal fund.
The principle behind the funds is fine, but the prioritisation of Tory-held seats in both Scotland and Wales reveals them to be just another example of pork barrel politics. Instead of meddling in devolved areas, will the Secretary of State accept that it would be beneficial to the people of the devolved nations to have greater control of decision making to do things for themselves? The Government should devolve more, instead of fiddling in devolved areas.
I hope the hon. Gentleman is able to endorse what I am about to say because, of course, that is exactly what these funds do. For the first time, 22 local authorities in Wales and other stakeholders are having a say in devolution. The Welsh Government do not have a monopoly of wisdom any more than the UK Government do, and we are taking devolution to its dictionary definition. He will probably know this but, under the UK community renewal fund, Labour areas got 44% of the funding, Plaid Cymru areas got 24%, independent areas got 17% and Conservative areas were fourth at 15%.
Let us be clear that independent estimates tell us that, over the next five years, the difference between what the devolved Administrations would have got through structural funds and what they will get through the shared prosperity fund is £4 billion. Will the Secretary of State stop promulgating this myth, this deception, that there will be no difference as a result of leaving the EU and admit that this is just another Brexit broken promise?
We are hearing a Brexit broken record, to be honest. The settlement for Wales has gone from £15.9 billion to £18 billion, plus £120 million from the levelling-up fund, plus £47 million from the community renewal fund, plus the community ownership fund, plus more than £300 million-worth of EU tail-off funds, plus £337 million of agriculture funding. It is impossible to come to any conclusion other than that this has been a fantastic settlement for Wales.
Wrexham was fortunate enough to win one of its two levelling-up fund bids, and Wrexham County Borough Council has committed to redefining the other bid and working with officials. Will the Secretary of State let me and the council know when round 2 of the levelling-up fund will be open for bids?
Montgomeryshire has not seen such a level of investment for decades. I welcome the Secretary of State’s levelling-up fund and community renewal fund—the list goes on. Mid-Wales has never seen such investment, and I implore him to continue with this proper devolution of working with local councils and asking local people about their priorities, and to get more investment into mid-Wales.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that every single area of Wales has benefited from these schemes, which was not the case under the previous funding arrangements. It has been a joy to have the feedback and contributions we have had from local authorities across Wales, which really welcome and are getting engaged with this process.
You would never guess, would you, Mr Speaker, that the allocation of funding can be quite controversial? However, with meaningful consultation, we can reduce the risk of that. Let us suppose that two thirds of the levelling-up fund was allocated to the one third of seats held by Tory MPs in Wales. We could ensure less risk of things being called political bias. In the light of the Institute for Government’s recommendation that the UK Government should consult the Welsh Government at every stage on the shared prosperity fund, and bearing in mind the scathing report by the Public Accounts Committee on the allocation of the towns fund, what in-depth discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Government on the shared prosperity fund, and when can we expect more information?
The hon. Lady fixates a bit too much on the shared prosperity fund when there are so many other funding sources out there too. Aside from stressing that there is consultation on a range of these things, and I am hoping to meet the First Minister later this week to discuss them, I remind the hon. Lady that the Welsh Government are not the only game in town; we are engaging with more people, in more parts of Wales, than has ever been the case before, and the funding settlements reflect their priorities as much as anything else. I am astonished that she is not welcoming that.
I am sure the House will be well aware that the Welsh Government have always had a strong relationship with the local government sector in Wales and have always consulted on the sharing out of EU funds. Turning to the amount of those funds, the figures are indisputable: EU funding for Wales would have meant at least £375 million in new money for this year. So with just £46 million for the community renewal fund, the Tories are leaving Wales £330 million worse off, and that is not even counting the £137 million cut in the farm support. So will the Secretary of State now stand up for Wales and pledge that in this transition to the shared prosperity fund Wales will receive not a penny less than we had under EU funding?
I think you would probably reprimand me if I went through all the numbers again, Mr Speaker, so I will have to leave it to the Official Report to enable the hon. Lady to check her figures and work out exactly how well Wales has done with the record settlement. It is beholden on the shadow Secretary of State for Wales to portray a rather more optimistic picture of the future of Wales. If we are interested in attracting investment and creating jobs in Wales, she should be championing our country, not denigrating it at every opportunity she has.
Levelling-up Fund: Project Delivery
The UK Government are fully focused on levelling up the whole of the United Kingdom, through programmes such as the levelling-up fund. We are working closely and directly with local authorities and other local partners right across the UK to ensure that those are delivered quickly and successfully.
Is the Minister aware that Barry in my constituency and the whole of the Vale of Glamorgan did not qualify for European funds? Does he therefore accept that the levelling-up fund is a potential game changer for the Vale of Glamorgan? May I draw his attention to the excellent proposal for a marina for Barry, which would also recover some land to make available for appropriate development? May I also ask him to pay particular attention when this application comes in?
My right hon. Friend has long been a doughty champion of this scheme, as he has of many other schemes, including the seven UK community renewal fund projects that are going to be delivered in the Vale of Glamorgan and are worth more than £1 million. I simply say to him that we would encourage as many good-quality bids as possible from the Vale of Glamorgan and other local authorities in Wales.
On climate action, the UK must step up to provide the funding that is needed across the whole of Wales. Despite the lack of the funding that we would have seen from the EU, the Welsh Labour Government are already delivering on renewable energy and sustainable transport and achieving the third best recycling rates in the world. Will the Secretary of State tell us what discussions he is having with his Welsh Government counterparts to discuss more climate investment?
I am delighted to answer that, because in addition to all the many programmes that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has mentioned—the UK community renewal fund, the shared prosperity fund and the levelling-up fund—we also have the growth deals, which are delivering the very kinds of environmental projects to which the hon. Lady has just referred. Of course the growth deals are funded 50% by the UK Government and 50% by the Welsh Government, who will be receiving an extra £2.5 billion next year as a result of the most generous settlement they have ever had.
There is tremendous enthusiasm for the levelling-up fund in both Denbighshire and Conwy, where the local authorities are champing at the bit to put in their bids. So will my hon. Friend please indicate when the second round is likely to open?
Coal Tips: Safety
Last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister of Wales co-chaired the coal tip safety summit, to receive an update from the joint taskforce. The taskforce has co-ordinated work to identify and categorise tips in Wales and has undertaken inspections of all the highest-risk tips, providing reassurance to the communities that live nearby.
Just a few weeks ago, my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked the Prime Minister for support for coal tip repairs throughout our local authority area; in response, the Prime Minister said:
“This is something that I do want to try to fix”—[Official Report, 3 November 2021; Vol. 702, c. 923.]
and promised to talk to the Welsh Government. Will the Minister provide an update on those conversations? Is the plan for support being put in place, or is it just more empty words?
I am not yet responsible for the Prime Minister’s diary, but I know that he welcomes engagement with the First Minister at every opportunity. With respect to the hon. Lady, coal tip safety is a devolved issue and the Welsh Labour Government do not seem to welcome our involvement in devolved issues. Of course, we have provided the Welsh Government with £2.5 billion of extra funding, so they have the powers and the money to deal with the issue. We urge them to get on and deal with it.
Wales’s dangerous coal tips loom over our industrial communities like spectres from our industrial past and remind us of how our natural resources were exploited, mostly for the benefit of others. Climate change is set to compound the risk posed by coal tips, and we expect rainfall to increase by around 6% over the next 30 years. This month, the COP26 President said it was vital
“that we help at risk communities adapt to the impact of”
climate change. How is the Minister’s refusal to settle the £600 million bill consistent with that statement?
Included in the £2.5 billion of extra funding that will be given to the Welsh Government this year is an allocation of money precisely to deal with the sort of problems to which the right hon. Lady refers. She has often said that the UK Government should not get involved in devolved issues; this is a devolved issue, but we have provided the money for the Welsh Government to deal with it. If there are dangerous coal tips, the Welsh Government have the money and must get on and solve the problem.[Official Report, 22 November 2021, Vol. 704, c. 2MC.]
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, it is an inherited issue. Our industrial communities still bear the scars of the scorched-earth policy inflicted by Prime Minister Thatcher. The green transition must be different.
Last week, the Crown Estate revealed that it is planning to build new wind farms off the coast of Wales. The profits will disappear into Treasury coffers rather than going to the people and businesses of Wales. Will the Minister support my private Member’s Bill, which would ensure that all Crown Estate profits made in Wales are invested in Wales?
In one breath, the right hon. Lady criticises Margaret Thatcher for closing down coalmines; in the next breath, she says that we must not have coalmines because they are bad for climate change. She will forgive me if I feel there is a certain inconsistency there, but I will look with interest at whatever Bill she has introduced.
Electric Vehicle Usage
The UK Government are committed to supporting electric vehicle usage in Wales, as well as across the rest of the UK, which is why we have introduced a ban on the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 and introduced the on-street residential charge point scheme.
I welcome the rapid change to electric vehicles but am sure the Minister will agree that we must not let rural areas fall behind. This is an issue for Wales, but it also affects all parts of these islands, including my constituency in the Scottish Borders. What are the Government doing to support the installation of more rapid chargers in rural areas to encourage more people to make the switch to electric vehicles?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the UK Government recently granted £187,000 from the UK community renewal fund to help the project in his constituency to provide electric vehicle charging points across the Scottish Borders. The UK Government will continue to support the installation of electric charge points through various schemes, including the £2.5 billion that has been committed to plug-in vehicle grants and charging infrastructure programmes.
Rising Energy Costs: Impact on Industry and Businesses
The Government have provided £2 billion to help businesses with electricity costs and to protect jobs in recent years. We also have various schemes in place—including the £315 million industrial energy transformation fund—to support businesses with high energy use, including those in Wales, to cut their bills and reduce their carbon emissions.
Seventy per cent. of small and medium-sized enterprises believe that high energy costs will negatively affect the growth of their companies. We know that businesses will already be hammered by this Tory Government’s national insurance hike, so what are the Secretary of State for Wales and his ministerial colleagues doing to help support Welsh and other UK businesses to overcome their energy cost problems, to provide much- needed stability, to help them plan ahead, and to deliver the growth that our economy so badly needs?
I am sorry that we cannot persuade members of the Labour party to support a small increase in taxes to protect the national health service, but that is a matter to which we can return.
The UK Government recognise that, as we transition from energy sources such as coal and gas, there will be a cost challenge, which is why we have committed to minimising energy costs for businesses through, for example, the £470 million that has been given in relief to energy-intensive industries through a combination of compensation and exemption.
Will my hon. Friend ensure that the efforts that the Government are rightly making to decarbonise electricity generation do not unfairly disadvantage high energy industries, because if they do, we will be exporting carbon emissions, not reducing them?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. The Government recognise that potential issue, which is why, for example, £470 million has been provided to high energy users through a combination of compensation and exemption. It is a very real problem to which she refers, and one that is recognised and being dealt with by the Government.
High energy costs act as a disincentive for investment from international steel and other manufacturing companies and other investors, with the UK seen as a less favourable investment environment than other countries. Other countries with less dramatic price rises are putting in prompt measures to proactively support their industries, so why are this Government so slow to act? Can the Minister outline what discussions he is having with colleagues across Government to follow similar interventions to support the steel and manufacturing industries in Wales?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had, and will continue to have, a range of discussions with colleagues in other ministerial Departments as to how we resolve this problem, but the hon. Gentleman will surely recognise that we are making a revolutionary transition from high carbon emitting sources, such as coal and gas, towards renewable energy, such as wind, solar, and possibly nuclear, and that they do come with costs. They are more expensive. Members across the House will recognise the need to make that transition. The Government are leading that transition, and we are also putting in place schemes to support those who may face challenges as a result.
A5 Between Wales and England
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about cross-border connectivity, including the A5, which is a vital artery connecting north Wales to the west midlands.
The A5 is a really important road joining Wales to England. There are pinch points all the way along, none more so than the most bashed bridge in Britain, right in Hinckley in my constituency. Road investment strategy 3 will be really important for joining up Wales to England, so what conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Department for Transport on decision point 1 for RIS 3 in March?
I used to drive that road regularly when I was working in north Wales years ago. I met the Transport Secretary this week. Cross-border connectivity and this particular road came up in the conversation. We are very conscious of the economic impact of making sure that these things are looked at in a holistic, cross-border way. It has not helped that the Welsh Government have decided to introduce a moratorium on road improvements in Wales. That has slowed down the whole business of economic recovery quite considerably.
Shared Prosperity Fund
Mr Speaker, the answer will be worth waiting for, I promise you.
I am hoping to meet the First Minister with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in Cardiff later this week to discuss how we can best support jobs and economic growth in Wales, including through the various initiatives announced at the autumn Budget.
I am glad that the Secretary of State is with us and awake; that is always nice to see.
Let me return to the shared prosperity fund, rather than levelling up, because the Secretary of State did not actually answer my question. We have seen months and years of dither and delay, and today we have heard questions from the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) and the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) about when the shared prosperity fund will be delivered and when we will have dates for local authorities so that they can plan. Will the Secretary of State simply set out when the shared prosperity fund will be confirmed, when the dates for bidding will take place and when local government will get the information it needs in order to bid for this long overdue funding?
In my conversations with 22 local authorities, they take a much more benign approach to the funding streams than the hon. Gentleman. He obsesses about the UK shared prosperity fund. We have been clear about when that is coming through, with further announcements this year and into next. He deliberately ignores the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund, the community ownership fund and all the other funds that have been such a success in Wales. I say to him what I said to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith): it would be a whole lot better for future investors and job creation if he spent a little more time championing Wales and a little less time criticising it.
Well, the Secretary of State dodged that question, just as he dodged Question 1. He knows that there is a real dearth of information on the Government’s shared prosperity fund, which needy communities across Wales desperately want. The same communities drove real change with the European social fund—probably a better levelling-up fund than the Government could ever deliver. This is the Secretary of State’s second chance: when are we going to get the detail and the dates, so that in Wales and across the rest of the country we can get on with planning to spend the shared prosperity fund?
I have repeated the answer to this question on countless occasions this morning. We are looking at a whole range of funding provisions in Wales. The Chancellor was able to provide a record settlement; this is the best settlement for the Welsh Government and local authorities for 20-plus years, and the hon. Gentleman should be acknowledging that.
We have actually stuck to the timescales that we have set out on numerous occasions in Welsh and other questions. The hon. Gentleman really does need to change the record. We are now witnessing record sums of money going into parts of Wales which never even qualified before; that is something that we should be championing, rather than denigrating.
Levelling-up Fund: Potential Outcomes
Wales will benefit significantly from the levelling-up fund, with projects focused on delivering jobs, promoting growth and levelling up communities. In Denbighshire and Wrexham, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Clwyd South, communities will benefit from over £16.4 million in UK Government investment through round 1 of the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund.
How would the Minister assess the long-term economic, social and cultural impact of, and benefits arising from, the levelling-up fund in Wales, particularly our Clwyd South bid, which he has mentioned, which will send a great deal of badly needed investment into the world heritage site at the Trevor basin, projects in Llangollen and Chirk, and a steam railway in and around Corwen?
The successful levelling-up fund bid at the Pontcysyllte aqueduct and the canal world heritage centre will obviously maximise tourism in the area and provide significant long-term economic benefits to my hon. Friend’s constituency. However, it is just one small part of a much larger programme including the £121 million levelling-up fund, the £46 million community renewal fund and £2.5 billion extra money in a record block grant for the Welsh Labour Government, showing that this Government are committed to strengthening the Union, supporting Wales, and ensuring that jobs and prosperity flow to all parts of the United Kingdom.
One of the problems that we have in the Rhondda is a large number of disused former coal tips, one of which, as the Minister knows, slid down into the river last year. It cost us £14 million to rectify that, and we have another five similar tips in the Rhondda. Can we please have some more money to ensure that we do not have another Aberfan disaster?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as I said earlier, this is a devolved matter. He will also be aware that more than £2.5 billion of extra money has been provided to the Welsh Labour Government. If there are dangerous coal tips in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I urge him to talk to his colleagues in Welsh Labour, ask them to provide the money and get the problem resolved as quickly as possible.
As I outlined in my previous answer, I am hoping to meet the First Minister later this week to discuss a range of issues. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that the M4 is central to cross-border connectivity, and improvements are well overdue if we are serious about levelling up.
I can see south Wales from my North Devon constituency and I am very keen to secure a ferry crossing from Ilfracombe to south Wales, popular on both sides of the Bristol channel, with visions ranging from a Dylan Thomas literary tour through to a Barry booze cruise. Will the Secretary of State meet me to see how to progress this project?
There used to be a ferry from Tenby to North Devon back in the old days. I would be very happy to see that introduced. Until the Welsh Government honour their 2016 manifesto commitment to improve the M4, the quickest way of visiting each other will be a 30-year-old ferry chugging across the Bristol channel.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The Prime Minister will be aware of the considerable public concern in relation to the impression that significant political donations can help acquire a peerage. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) will publish a Bill later today that will prohibit large party donors from being nominated to the other place for a period of five years. Will the Prime Minister offer full Government support to my hon. Friend’s efforts?
I thank my right hon. Friend for what she does to represent her hospital, and I thank the NHS staff for the amazing work that they are doing. We are supporting them, as she knows, by recruiting 50,000 more nurses and putting another £4.5 billion into the NHS over the rest of this financial year. The best thing we can do to protect our NHS over this winter is for everybody to come forward and get their booster vaccination.
Trust matters, and after the last fortnight the Prime Minister has got a lot of work to do. A central plank in this Government’s promise to the north of England is a Crossrail of the north with at least an entirely new high-speed rail line between Manchester and Leeds. A Crossrail for the north; an entirely new line—that is the promise. It has already been made, so I do not want the Prime Minister fobbing off the House about waiting until tomorrow; he can say today: will he stick by that promise, yes or no?
Order. I expect Front Benchers to behave better than they are doing at the moment. If you do not want to listen to the answer, let me know now. I do, and I cannot hear when you all shout together. We want better politics. I expect better politics from both sides. Let us show a little more decorum than we are seeing at the moment.
When we produce our integrated rail plan tomorrow, people across the House and across the country will see what we are doing to cut journey times to make life easier and better for people in the north-east, in the north-west and in the midlands—across the whole of the north of the country—with the biggest programme of investment in rail for a century. What we are doing is giving people in those communities the same access to commuter-type services that people in the south-east of this country have felt entitled to for more than a century. That is going to be levelling up across the whole of the UK.
That was a lot of words, but it was not a yes, so that is one important promise to the north that he will not stand by. Let us look at another. In February this year, the Prime Minister told this House:
“I can certainly confirm that we are going to develop the eastern leg as well as the whole of the HS2.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 325.]
The whole of HS2—that is a new high-speed line, running continuously, no gaps, between Birmingham and Leeds. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he stands by that promise?
I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is in danger of getting hoist by his own petard. He needs to wait and see what we announce tomorrow, because I think he will find that the people of Leeds, the people of Nottingham, the people of Sheffield and the people of the whole of the north-west and the north-east of this country will benefit massively from what we are going to announce.
Again, a lot of words, but not a yes. So that is two important promises to the north that the Prime Minister will not stand by. No wonder trust in the Prime Minister is at an all-time low. Across the country, and belatedly across this House, there is now agreement that Owen Paterson broke the rules and that the Government should not have tried to let him off the hook. Many Government Members have apologised— the Business Secretary has apologised for his part, and the Leader of the House has apologised for his part, but they were following the Prime Minister’s lead. Will he do the decent thing and just say sorry for trying to give the green light to corruption?
Well, yes, as I have said before, it certainly was a mistake to conflate the case of an individual Member, no matter how sad, with the point of principle at stake. We do need a cross-party approach on an appeals process. We also need a cross-party approach on the way forward, and that is why we have tabled the proposals to take forward the report of the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life of 2018, with those two key principles: first, that everybody in this House should focus primarily and above all on their job here in this House; and, secondly, that no one should exploit their position in order to advance the commercial interests of anybody else. That is our position. We want to take forward those reforms. In the meantime, perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman can clear up from his proposals whether he would continue to be able to take money, as he did, from Mishcon de Reya and other legal firms. [Interruption.]
That is not an apology. Everybody else has apologised for the Prime Minister, but he will not apologise for himself—a coward, not a leader. Weeks defending corruption and yesterday a screeching last-minute U-turn to avoid defeat on Labour’s plan to ban MPs from dodgy second contracts. Waving one white flag will not be enough to restore trust. There are plenty of Opposition days to come, and we will not let the Prime Minister water down the proposals or pretend that it is job done. We still have not shut the revolving door where Ministers are regulating a company one minute and working for it the next. There are plenty of cases that still stain this House. There are two simple steps to sorting it out: proper independence and powers for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, and banning these job swaps. Will the Prime Minister take those steps?
I have called for, as you know Mr Speaker, and as you have called for, a cross-party approach to this. What I think we need to do is work together on the basis of the independent report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life to take things forward and to address the appeals process. What I think everybody can see is that in a classic, lawyerly way, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now trying to prosecute others for exactly the course of action that he took himself. What I think the nation wants to know, because his register is incomplete, is who paid Mishcon de Reya and who paid the £25,000? Who paid him for his—
Order. Prime Minister, I do not want to fall out about it. I have made it very clear. It is Prime Minister’s questions; it is not for the Opposition to answer your questions. [Interruption.] Whether we like it or not, those are the rules of the game that we are all into, and we play by the rules, don’t we? We respect this House, so let us respect the House.
Order. Mr Clarkson, Mr Francois—[Interruption.] Order. Look, this is not good. We have lost a dear friend, and I want to show that this House has learned from it. I do not want each other to be shouted down. I want questions to be respected, and I expect the public actually to be able to hear the questions and the answers, because I am struggling to do so in this Chair. I need no more of this.
When somebody in my party misbehaves, I kick them out. When somebody in the Prime Minister’s party misbehaves, he tries to get them off the hook. I lead; he covers up.
Let us try another issue. We know that Owen Paterson was a paid lobbyist for Randox. We know that he sat in on a call between Randox and the Minister responsible for handling health contracts. We know that Randox has been awarded Government contracts worth almost £600 million without competition or tender. Against that backdrop, the public are concerned that taxpayers’ money may have been influenced by paid lobbying. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this: a full, transparent investigation. If the Prime Minister votes for Labour’s motion this afternoon, that investigation can start. Will he vote for it, or will he vote for another cover-up?
I am very happy to publish all the details of the Randox contracts, which have been investigated by the National Audit Office already. But talking of cover-ups, I am sorry, Mr Speaker, but we still have not heard why the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not tell us—[Interruption.]
I think the Prime Minister just said he is happy to publish all the Randox papers in relation to these contracts, so we will take that and we will pursue it. I remind the Prime Minister that when I was Director of Public Prosecutions, I prosecuted MPs who broke the rules. He has been investigated by every organisation he has ever been elected to. That is the difference.
Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money handed to their mates and donors; Tory MPs getting rich by working as lobbyists, one not even bothering to turn up because he is in the Caribbean advising tax havens—and the Prime Minister somehow expects us to believe that he is the man to clean up Westminster! He led his troops through the sewers to cover up corruption, and he cannot even say sorry. The truth is that beneath the bluster, he still thinks it is one rule for him and another for his mates. At the same time as his Government are engulfed in sleaze, they are rowing back on the promises they made to the north, and it is working people who are paying the price. Is it any wonder that people are beginning to think that the joke isn’t funny any more?
It is plain from listening to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he seeks to criticise this Government while refusing to explain his own position. You have ruled on that, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] You have ruled on that, Mr Speaker, and I hear you, I hear you—but his own “Mishconduct” is absolutely clear to everybody. [Interruption.] His own “Mishconduct” is absolutely clear. Meantime, we will get on, on a cross-party basis—we will get on, on a cross-party basis —with taking forward the business that I have outlined. And we will get on with the business of this Government, which is leading the country out of the pandemic and—
Order. Prime Minister, I am struggling to hear, but if I am correct about what was said, it was about the Leader of the Opposition and misconduct. We cannot accuse somebody of misconduct. [Interruption.] Order. Before the Leader of the House gives me an answer, all I am going to say is that I cannot hear. If it was said, I want it withdrawn. If it was not said, I will accept that. [Interruption.] Just a moment! I call the Prime Minister.
Order. I do not think today has done this House any good. I will be quite honest; I think it has been ill-tempered. I think it shows the public that this House has not learned from the other week. I need this House to gain respect, but it starts by individuals showing respect to each other.
It used always to be said that the Tory MPs were behind the Prime Minister, but—my goodness—look at the gaps on the third, fourth and fifth Benches. The rebellion has clearly started.
This Tory sleaze scandal has now been hitting the headlines for the past 14 days, yet it is pretty obvious that the Prime Minister spent less than 10 minutes coming up with yesterday’s half-hearted, half-baked, and already half-botched proposals. These so-called reforms do not even scratch the surface. This sleaze scandal runs far, far deeper. Month after month the public have witnessed scandal after scandal: peerages handed to millionaire donors; VIP lanes; gifted covid contracts to Tory pals; dodgy donations for luxury holidays and home renovations. The Prime Minister and his Government have been up to their necks in sleaze. Will the Prime Minister tell us exactly which one of those scandals his proposals would have stopped?
I thank the humble crofter, as the right hon. Gentleman refers to himself, for his question. What I think we can do is pursue a cross-party approach, based on the report of the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has much of profit in it. Among other things it says is that it is important that this House should be augmented with outside experience of the world, and it is important that Members of this House should have experience of the private sector, as he does. On a cross-party basis we should proceed with the couple of reforms that I have indicated.
This is about Tory sleaze and Tory corruption, and the Prime Minister has basically admitted that not one of this Government’s sleaze scandals would have been stopped by his so-called plan. Perhaps we should not be surprised, considering that the Prime Minister has been at the rotten core of all these scandals. The trail of sleaze and scandal all leads back to the funding of the Conservative party. Since 2010, the Tory party has made nine of its former treasurers Members of the House of Lords, and every single one of them has something in common: they have handed over £3 million to the Prime Minister’s party. That is the very definition of corruption. It is the public’s definition of corruption. Will this Government finally accept that this is corruption, or is the Prime Minister the only person in the country who has the brass neck to argue that it was all one big coincidence?
I will not comment on the missing £600,000 from the Scottish National party’s accounts, but what I will say, in all sincerity and heeding what you said earlier, Mr Speaker, is that I think that these constant attacks on the UK’s levels of corruption and sleaze do a massive disservice to billions of people around the world who genuinely suffer from Governments who are corrupt, and who genuinely have no ability to scrutinise their MPs. This is one of the cleanest democracies in the world, and people should be proud of it.
I had the good fortune to walk Offa’s Dyke very recently. I am delighted that English and Welsh organisations are working together to protect that fantastic national monument, and Historic England has committed to give almost £300,000 more to that great cause.
Ambulance response times are now the worst ever, people are waiting for ambulances longer than ever, and with A&Es in crisis, patients are stuck in ambulances outside hospital longer than ever. Waiting times are not statistics; they are about people—people often in great pain and in danger—so why are this Government closing ambulance stations in parts of our country? Why is the West Midlands ambulance service closing up to 10 community stations, including in Rugby, Oswestry and Craven Arms? With this health crisis for our ambulance services and in our A&Es, injured, sick and elderly people are being hit. When will the Prime Minister deal with this health crisis?
I appreciate that ambulance crews and ambulance services are doing an amazing job, particularly at this time of year, and I thank them for what they are doing. We are supporting them with more cash. Another £450 million was awarded to 120 trusts to upgrade their facilities, and as the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are putting another £36 billion into dealing with the backlog, which is fundamentally affecting the NHS so badly at the moment, through the levy that we have instituted, which I do not think he supported.
First of all, I want to thank GPs for everything they are doing, particularly during the booster roll-out. As well as recruiting as many GPs as we can, we have 10,000 more nurses this year than last year and 25,000 more healthcare professionals altogether. There are more people now working in the NHS than at any time in its history, and because of our investment—the extra £36 billion that we are putting in—there will be even more, and I am afraid that the hon. Lady voted against that investment.
My hon. Friend is quite right to champion carbon capture and storage, which has a great future in Scotland in spite of all the gloomstering of the SNP. The Scottish cluster remains on the reserve. We will continue to study it and, we hope, bring it forward in due time.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the River Tyne is a massive economic asset for the whole of the north-east. It has suffered from historic contamination, but we are going to work with the North East local enterprise partnership to invest another £6 million to help to develop clear plans for sustainable economic growth along the whole of the estuary.
The hon. Gentleman is a passionate campaigner in this area. One way or another—I will get back to him on the exact way—we will legislate to allow parents of children in neonatal care to take extended leave, giving them more time during the most vulnerable and stressful days of their lives.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind invitation. I will certainly keep it mind. The Government are absolutely committed to reforming technical education through new T-levels. That is why we are investing a further £65 million to develop teacher retention, and support and recruitment for teachers in further education. As for the potoroos in his area, are they wild? I will do my utmost to come and inspect them.
I thank my hon. Friend very much, and she has much relevant experience from her work for Save the Children in Greece. Our only credible way of fixing this is with our new plan for immigration. That will be made possible with our new Nationality and Borders Bill, which will make it possible for us to distinguish at last between those who come here legally and those who come here illegally. I hope very much that it will command the support of the whole House.
In May, part of Northwich station in my constituency collapsed. I have asked the Transport Secretary to intervene and build back better and fairer to allow access for people with disabilities. He has declined my kind offer, so I ask the Prime Minister to intervene: no bluster, substance, build back better and fairer Northwich station—it is in the north of England.
I thank my hon. Friend; she is campaigning on a very important issue. Too often, we find that our armed forces fail to provide the wonderful women in our armed forces with the support they deserve. That is why I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has secured a parliamentary inquiry into this for the first time. It is vital that we support and encourage women in our armed forces, who make a massive difference to those services.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I think the word that I would fasten on in his question is “legitimately”. There is no question but that the use of article 16, which, after all, has been done by the EU Commission to stop vaccines being exported to this country, is something that is perfectly legal and within the bounds of the protocol.
What I would say to my hon. Friend and her students is that nothing that is said or takes place in this House—none of the argy-bargy, the repartee and the occasional abuse to which we subject each other—should in any way deter anybody from seeking a career in politics, because it is a wonderful privilege and we are all very lucky to be here.
In my constituency of Edinburgh West, numerous people come to us with delays from the Department for Work and Pensions with pensions and benefits, to add to the delays that others are facing with passports and with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Can the Prime Minister tell us who—among the many jobs being done at the moment—is making sure that the Departments of Government are running smoothly and quickly?
I think that actually the Department for Work and Pensions, under the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), has performed outstanding service. It has performed miracles. Among the things that it has achieved is helping to get millions of people effectively back into employment, in spite of all the difficulties that we have faced. We now have unemployment running at virtually record lows, in spite of all the difficulties we have faced in this pandemic and as we come out of furlough. That is largely thanks to the work of the DWP. Of course there is more that can be done and people can always up their game, but I think that the DWP and its officials working across the country —huge numbers of men and women—have done an outstanding job.
In July 2019, I was in Manchester when the Prime Minister committed to building a new line, Northern Powerhouse Rail, between Manchester and Leeds. That commitment was reaffirmed in our manifesto in November 2019, and last month it was reaffirmed in the Prime Minister’s conference speech in Manchester. Were the voters of the north right to take the Prime Minister at his word?
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have just received word on the wires that the Leader of the Opposition—I did not hear this at the time, because there was so much noise—called the Prime Minister a coward. Surely that is in breach of “Erskine May”, is improper and should be withdrawn.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Alongside the hon. Members for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), and our friend in the other place the Bishop of Durham, we have been pressing Ministers in the Home Office to permit a cross-party visit to the Napier barracks.
On 7 September, the Minister for future borders and immigration—the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—declined our request for an in-person visit. The Select Committee on Home Affairs was refused a visit in July. On 27 October, we again requested an on-site visit and asked the Minister to respond by 10 November; we have yet to hear anything. Despite the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons finding early this year that there were serious concerns and failings in the provision of accommodation at Napier barracks, the Government have extended the use of the barracks until 2025 and have stated that the site will be used to pilot the design of future accommodation for asylum seekers.
You can see that a visit is now more than pressing, Mr Speaker. Could you advise me whether it is in order for the Government to refuse Members of Parliament access to this important site?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving notice of his point of order. It is for the Government to decide whether to invite Members to visit the barracks. That said, the use of the barracks has been a matter of public concern and debate, and of course I would always encourage the Government to agree to such requests from right hon. and hon. Members, not least to ensure that they are able to hold the Government to account in a well-informed manner.
I accept that there are occasions when it is legitimate for the Government to refuse a request for a visit—on security grounds, for example—although I should stress that I do not know of any reason for a refusal in this case. However, those on the Government Benches will have heard my view, namely that in principle I would hope that such requests for visits could be accommodated. At the very least, I hope that Home Office Ministers will discuss the matter properly with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that it does not take too long to contact him.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I had had no intention of raising a point of order until I heard the Prime Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) who chairs the Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces. The Prime Minister indicated that there would be a parliamentary inquiry, based—I think—on that report. Given that we have seen a tenfold increase in reporting of rape and sexual assault of women under the age of 18 in the armed forces, Mr Speaker, can you tell the House why the Government, and the Prime Minister in his answer today, have not met the demands of my hon. Friend, and are not implementing the Wigston review?
That was actually a continuation of an earlier question, but I will say that we take seriously the point that has been made. If the hon. Member for Wrexham feels that she needs a statement, or that an urgent question could possibly provide an answer to her wishes to continue this, I am sure that it could be viewed favourably.
I assume that there are no further points of order. It is certainly very quiet.
Peerage Nominations (Disqualification of Party Donors) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Angus Brendan MacNeil, supported by Ben Lake, Douglas Chapman, Liz Saville Roberts, Patricia Gibson, Carol Monaghan, Hywel Williams and Jonathan Edwards, presented a Bill to prevent persons who have donated £50,000 or more to a political party within the previous five years from being nominated for a peerage.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 November, and to be printed (Bill 192).
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the use of disposable barbecues on open moorland; to give local authorities the power to prohibit the sale of disposable barbecues in their area; and for connected purposes.
This year alone, at least two wildfires have been caused by disposable barbecues in High Peak, destroying hectares of farmland and environmentally significant peatland. In 2019, a fire in Marsden Moor near Huddersfield raged for four days and damaged more than 700 hectares of moorland. A similar fire in April 2021 caused an estimated £200,000 worth of damage. Alongside that crude financial cost lies an environmental one. This is damage that will take hundreds if not thousands of years to repair, with peat accumulating at a rate of only about 1 mm per year. Distressed sheep farmers have conveyed to me the pain that they have experienced in being forced to clear up the charred remains of their own livestock.
Every year, from spring to summer, communities across the country live in fear of wildfires that are entirely avoidable. A local gamekeeper once told me that there were three main causes of wildfires—men, women and children—but more specifically, a large number of fires are caused simply by people not disposing of their barbecue properly, leaving it unattended on the ground where its residual heat or a stray spark is enough to start a fire.
The aims of this Bill are simple. They are to reduce the risk of wildfires and protect our beautiful countryside, to protect local communities faced with the threat of wildfires, to protect hard-pressed farmers’ livelihoods, and to protect carbon-capturing peatland, which is so vital in our fight back against climate change. That last point is particularly important, especially given the recent climate change agreement in Glasgow. The Glasgow agreement is an important step forward: 65 countries have committed themselves to phasing out the use of coal power, some of the world’s largest car manufacturers have agreed to make all new car sales zero-emission by 2040, and the leaders responsible for 90% of the world’s forests have pledged to end deforestation by 2030.
However, when we speak of international co-operation, we should not forget the importance of nature-based solutions to climate change. Peatland restoration is an essential part of that. Wet, healthy peat soils absorb and trap carbon dioxide. It is estimated that, worldwide, peatland contains more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon—more than is stored in all the world’s forests put together. Since it regulates the flow of groundwater, restoring peatland also reduces the risk of flooding, improves water quality and enhances biodiversity.
Since being elected, I have actively campaigned for the restoration of our local peat moors. I asked my very first question in this House on this subject and I am proud to have secured a significant increase in funding for this vital work. I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s England peat action plan to restore, sustainably manage and protect peatland, as well as the increase in the nature for climate fund to £750 million by 2024-25, with the aim of restoring 35,000 hectares of peatland across England.
I have seen first-hand the fantastic work that funding makes possible. On Rushup Edge and Brown Knoll, one of the highest hills in the Peak District, the Moors for the Future Partnership has been hard at work restoring peatland. Recently, I took the farming Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), to meet Hope Valley Farmers and to see the work on Brown Knoll. I am encouraged by the leadership that the Government have shown in this issue.
That work is meaningless, however, if we are to continue to allow a reckless few to destroy this precious resource by wildfire. I did not come into politics to tell people how to live their lives, and this Bill certainly does not set out to do that, but, as a conservative, I firmly believe that we hold a duty to future generations not only to conserve what we have today, but to provide them with an inheritance greater than our own.
While this Bill represents only a modest change to the law, it would be a mistake to overlook its significance. The aims of the Bill are not new, but build on work that a range of organisations have already undertaken. The New Forest and Peak District National Park Authorities, for example, have already banned the use of disposable barbecues within their boundaries and called for local retailers to stop their sale. I have had considerable success in convincing retailers to remove them from sale within High Peak; I pay tribute to responsible businesses such as Morrisons, which has removed them from sale in its Buxton store, while the Co-operative Group has also removed displays of disposable barbecues in 130 of its stores that border national parks.
The National Fire Chiefs Council, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, the Moorland Association, the Moors for the Future Partnership and the National Trust, among others, have all warned of the danger that disposable barbecues present and have called for tougher regulations on their use. This Bill provides just that.
While the countryside code already sets out an expectation that visitors should only barbecue where it has been deemed safe to do so, there is no law to enforce that guidance. Without one, there is widespread confusion and ignorance, sowing the seeds for future wildfires. The Bill seeks to clarify the law, banning the use of disposable barbecues on open moorland.
I am incredibly grateful to colleagues on both sides of this House for the positive, cross-party support that the Bill has received. I have worked hard with a range of partners to ensure that it is fit for purpose, and I will keep working in a bipartisan spirit to do so. I am aware that, as a ten-minute rule Bill, there is little chance of this Bill progressing into law at this stage. None the less, I seriously urge the Government to listen to the concerns raised in the Bill, to act on disposable barbecues and to redouble their efforts to promote, and to educate people on, the countryside code. To prevent wildfires, to protect farmers’ livelihoods and to build up our existing defences against climate change, this Bill offers a small but significant way forward. With that in mind, I humbly request that the Bill be given due consideration and be passed into law.
May I personally thank the hon. Gentleman for this Bill? As he knows, I was affected by those severe moorland fires in my constituency.
Question put and agreed to.
That Robert Largan, Mr John Baron, Karen Bradley, Damian Green, Andrew Gwynne, Simon Hoare, Helen Hayes, Kevin Hollinrake, Simon Jupp, Jason McCartney, Munira Wilson and Sammy Wilson present the Bill.
Robert Largan accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 14 January 2022, and to be printed (Bill 193).
[8th Allotted Day]
Randox Covid Contracts
I beg to move,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House the minutes from or any notes of the meeting of 9 April 2020 between Lord Bethell, Owen Paterson and Randox representatives, and all correspondence, including submissions and electronic communications, addressed or copied to, or written by or on behalf of, any or all of the following:
(a) a Minister or former Minister of the Crown,
(b) a Special Adviser of such a Minister or former Minister, or
(c) a Member or former Member of this House
relating to the Government contracts for services provided by medical laboratories, awarded to Randox Laboratories Ltd. by the Department for Health and Social Care, reference tender_237869/856165 and CF-0053400D0O000000rwimUAA1, valued at £133,000,000 and £334,300,000-£346,500,000 respectively.
At the heart of this debate are two very simple questions. Do the Government have anything to hide? And will Members opposite now vote for a clean-up or a cover-up? I say “Members opposite,” but there are not many Members opposite to say it to.
The Prime Minister, just minutes ago, said in answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition:
“I am very happy to publish all the details of the Randox contracts”.
If that is the case, the Prime Minister should vote for our motion and publish all the documents and correspondence related to the Randox contracts and the dodgy lobbying that went on around them.
The motion before the House is very simple. We already know that the former Member for North Shropshire broke the rules on lobbying. We already know that Randox was awarded nearly £600 million of taxpayers’ money without a tender. We already know that Randox was awarded a second £347 million contract having failed to deliver on a previous £133 million contract. And we already know the decision was made after a conference call involving the then Member for North Shropshire and the then Health Minister, Lord Bethell.
What we do not know is what happened in those meetings, who else was present, what was discussed and what was decided.
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point about who was at the meetings. It is not just a convention but an absolute necessity that, when a Minister meets a Member of Parliament or, indeed, an outside body, they are accompanied by civil servants who make a record of the meeting. Can we be certain as to whether the Minister was accompanied by civil servants who took those notes?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He has been a Member for a long time, and he is aware these conventions and procedures are there to ensure that process is followed and recorded, but we do not know what was said in any of the correspondence before or after, including from private email accounts and phones. We do not know why or how these contracts were awarded. I hope the Minister for Care and Mental Health can give us some insight. We do not know what rules might have been broken and what role the lobbying of the former Member for North Shropshire played in the Government’s decision.
We all know about the failures of the Government’s dodgy crony contracts, which have wasted taxpayers’ money by the billion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only should the Government come clean but they should get the cash back to spend on projects like a new hospital for Stockton to help deal with our huge health inequalities?
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point, and it is why the public are so frustrated. We know there has been waste in some of these contracts, and that money is needed in many parts of our country and in many areas of our constituencies. We know that money could have been better spent, and we know the cost of not doing it properly.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it speaks volumes that Conservative Members cannot be bothered to turn up to defend the Government’s position? Does she agree that the reason they have not turned up is because they know what they are doing is wrong? The country deserves so much better than what the Tories are delivering for them.
I do not think I have ever seen the Government Benches so empty when I have been at the Dispatch Box. It is quite novel. It is not just about respect for this House; it is about respect for the public who are watching and who want to know the answers. They want to know what elected Members on both sides of the House think.
The Government have refused to provide answers to the freedom of information requests on these points, and this is far from the only time that they have swerved scrutiny on their decisions. Take the mystery of Lord Bethell’s mobile, for example. The House may recall that the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson categorically denied that Ministers ever use private accounts for Government business, only for that denial to fall apart. The Government have now admitted in court that Lord Bethell corresponded about public contracts via WhatsApp or text message, and searches of his three private email accounts using covid contract keywords unearthed tens of thousands of messages and documents.
In December 2020, Lord Bethell was told his mobile phone would be searched for documents. Just weeks later, he said he had replaced his phone. First, he claimed his phone had been lost, then he said it was broken and then he said he had given it away to a family member. Finally, nearly a year on, he remembered that he had his phone all along, but that unfortunately he was in the habit of deleting his entire WhatsApp history and, sadly, the relevant messages may have been lost. He said the problem—I am not making this up—was exacerbated by having two phones, a personal phone and an official phone. I can at least agree with him on that; I am not kidding.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the Good Law Project. Over the past couple of weeks we have been talking about the sleaze and corruption we have seen. The Prime Minister spoke at Prime Minister’s questions about how sleaze and corruption affect the UK. I say to him and to Conservative Members that it is not the UK that is sleazy and corrupt, as we have seen in how the UK has responded to the sleaze and corruption; it is this Government who are sleazy and corrupt.
The problem is that the Government are rotting from the head down. The Prime Minister has to get a grip on his own actions, bearing in mind he has appeared before the sleaze watchdog three times and he had a corrupt track record as London Mayor. We cannot stand on a global stage and say we are not a corrupt country until he is cleaner than clean.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This goes to the nub of the problem. The Prime Minister—even when asked to apologise by the Leader of the Opposition; even when his Ministers have already apologised; and even when Conservative Members will not attend this debate because they are embarrassed by their Government’s actions—refuses to accept his responsibility. That is why we are calling for transparency today.
I would like the Minister to think for a moment about the companies that were not awarded contracts. Arco, in my constituency, is known for being the UK’s leader in safety equipment. It had a warehouse full of personal protective equipment that it would have been willing to give to the NHS but, for some reason, it could not find its way through the maze of bureaucracy involved in awarding Government contracts. We hear about companies being awarded contracts that had no record of expertise or knowledge, yet companies such as Arco were denied. How can that be right?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have heard about this distinction from other companies and organisations that have experience in the field; they feel as though they were blocked and there was not a transparent process for them to go through. We have seen concerns about how procurement decisions were being made for companies such as Randox, with the lack of any paper trail showing that they were made properly. How is that fair? The question is very simple: what are Ministers hiding?
Is that not the nub of the point: the fact that Ministers are using WhatsApp messages to make contracts is a way of circumventing the procurement process, which is there to protect the probity of Government spending? That is why we should be challenging these things as firmly as we can.
My hon. Friend makes a good point on probity. If Ministers have nothing to hide and no rules were broken, surely they would be happy to publish the details of these meetings and the correspondence. But they have refused time and time again to do so. So today we have tabled this motion and we will put it to a vote, because the only logical conclusion is that there is something to hide—that the dodgy lobbying at the heart of this scandal has played a part in how vast sums of taxpayers’ cash have been spent.
My right hon. Friend is making a strong case indeed for reforming this rotten process. Does she agree that when this House granted the Government the powers under emergency legislation to handle the procurement of important medical supplies, it did not expect for one second this orgy of procurement outrages, this feeding frenzy of money for their friends and donors, and the ransacking of public money to help their own that we have seen?
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. I say it again: in all my time in Parliament, I have never seen the Benches opposite so empty. I will be gracious to a number of Conservative Members who have expressed, both in public and in private, their concerns about this issue. I urge Members from across the House to look at this issue not in a party political sense, but by examining the damage it has done. The Prime Minister talks in PMQs about the UK and sleaze and corruption, but he has brought that to the UK and has undermined—[Interruption.] Even former Conservative Prime Ministers have raised concerns about the Prime Minister’s conduct. So I do not want to make it too party political, because I can see from the sparseness on the Benches opposite that many Conservative Members absolutely agree with us.
I am listening with great interest to the very good speech my right hon. Friend is making. I have been in the House a bit longer than her. I came here in 1979 and I have never seen anything like this. It is an honourable thing for every Member to champion firms in their constituency. I tried to help businesses in my constituency to get orders at this time but I could not get through; it was not a level playing field. May I also remind the deputy leader of my party that I have been here all this time and I have never seen this determined boycotting of an important debate on an Opposition day in all my years in the House?
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I remind him that I was born in 1980, so I am definitely going to—[Laughter.] I also remind him that I am a grandma and my granddaughter is four next week. He has considerably more experience than this granny, so I will bow to his better judgment on that. It is a shame that so many are not here for this very important debate. It is important because it goes to the heart of what we are here for. People want to see that we are really taking these issues seriously. The public have an interest in making sure that the rules and the transparency that they expect from our Government are upheld.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of our constituents are extremely angry about this, not just because there is cronyism and corruption, but, worse still, because there has been a massive waste of taxpayers’ money? Many of the contracts that the Government let for PPE did not even result in the PPE being provided? What was provided was substandard and therefore it has been a massive waste of our money, which could have been better spent on services in our constituencies.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that, which leads me to my second simple question for the House today. Two weeks ago, the Government led Conservative Members through the Lobby for a stitch-up and a cover-up. Many of those Members have publicly and privately expressed their regret at voting in favour of that motion, and I have no doubt that their regret is sincere. They surely must now look with fresh eyes at those who led them through the Lobby. The Prime Minister brought shame on our democracy and on this House. That vote undermined trust in our democracy and the integrity of public office. So today I say to right hon. and hon. Members opposite: learn the lesson; do not vote for another cover-up.
The first step in restoring trust is publishing these documents today. Taxpayers’ money must be treated with respect, not handed out in backhand deals to companies that pay Conservative MPs to lobby on their behalf. Randox is just the tip of the iceberg in this scandal. Just yesterday, we finally found out the list of the favoured suppliers referred to—the so-called VIP lane for PPE procurement. This is the information that Ministers have failed to release of their own accord, despite a ruling from the Information Commissioner; we found out only because of a leak. No wonder they did not want to publish it. We already knew that those companies that got to the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to win a contract than anyone else. As Ministers have belatedly admitted, many of these did not go through the so-called “eight-stage process” of diligence. We now know how these companies got into the VIP lane in the first place. Not a single one of them had been referred by a politician of any political party other than the Conservative party. Of the 47 successful companies revealed yesterday, the original source of referral was a Conservative politician or adviser in 19 cases. The then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Cabinet member who oversaw the entire emergency procurement programme, fast-tracked a bid from one of his own personal friends and donors, who went on to win hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.
And £3.5 billion of contracts have been handed out by this Government to their political donors and Ministers’ mates. Almost £3 billion more has been wasted on unusable PPE, which is costing British taxpayers £1 million a day just to store. So, yes, we need an investigation into that, too. We need an investigation into every pound and penny that has been handed out, and to learn the lessons so that public money is not wasted again. But the question before the House today is very simple: do we choose to clean up or to cover up?
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. There is one point about the contracts as they stand and another about the situation going forward. Just last week, I had to get a flight back into the UK. I filled in the England passenger locator form and there was a drop-down menu for the day 2 lateral flow test with 15 companies listed. Of those 15, three were Randox. I chose another; it turned out to be Randox. Is this part of a wider scam?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The general public are also asking these questions. That is why the question is: do we clean up or cover up? Are we going to have the transparency that the public deserve and that Members from all parties deserve?
I know that Members throughout this House care about our democracy. Although we disagree on many things, I hope we can agree on the importance of trust in our politics and the values of honesty and integrity in public office. A vote for our motion today is simply a vote for the truth, to tackle the dodgy lobbying that has brought shame on this House. The Prime Minister has created a corruption scandal that has engulfed his Government and his party. I have to say that voting for another cover-up today would send a very clear message to the electorate: that the Prime Minister cares more about covering up dodgy lobbying than putting things right—that he cares more about his self-interest than the public interest. After the last two weeks, that cannot be the message that Government Members want to send. I hope they are listening; let us end the cover-up and begin the clean-up.
I am grateful to the Opposition for using today’s debate to raise such an important matter. I welcome the opportunity to debate it and to introduce a few facts.
We have risen to meet the greatest public health challenge in a generation, by working together. Whether it is the NHS, Government, academia, industry, the Army or, indeed, the British people, we have all had our part to play. That has meant that, today, we have given over 110 million life-saving vaccine doses and are now rolling out the booster programme. We have launched game-changing treatments such as dexamethasone and Ronapreve and, of course, built the largest testing infra- structure in Europe, with the new-found ability to test millions of people in a single day.
That is a very good question and one that I myself have asked. It is important to look at what we actually did. The equipment we had was in universities, and some of it was in NHS labs, but they did not have the scale that we needed, so we all worked together in what they call the triple-helix partnership: universities, the NHS and industry worked together to build and scale up to the level we needed. If you remember, there was discussion at the time about moonshot testing; you all laughed, as you always do because you do not have to deliver, but we delivered it. We delivered the moonshot.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful for your guidance. The Minister keeps referring to the House as “you” which, I am pretty sure you will be aware, is used to addressed you, Mr Speaker. It is not you who has been dealing with contracts; it is the Government, and not Opposition MPs.
Thanks for that. What I will say is that I take no responsibility for the letting of these contracts, and nor do I wish to. I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I was letting things flow because, in fairness to the Minister, she is defending an impossible position. In fairness, when someone gets a bad hand, at times it is best to let them go on.
May I clarify that, first, the Government did not actually deliver the moonshot, and secondly, that in the end the £100 billion for private companies was diverted to local councils and authorities, which were the ones that delivered the vaccination roll-out, with the help of the NHS, which is a socialist endeavour? I caution the Minister not to twist the truth.
Does the Minister accept that none of us on the Opposition Benches would fault anything done by the wonderful team and the effort that went into finding and developing the vaccine? We believe all that was wonderful; the problem is what came out about the equipment contracts and the testing contracts. It can be done above board and brilliantly, and it was in the production of a vaccine, but it was not in the other endeavours. That is what we are trying to say. I know the Minister is going to keep going on about the vaccine—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is not being fair. As he reminded us all earlier, he came to this place in 1979, so he knows the rules, and no rule is more apparent than that interventions have to be brief and not speeches. If he wants to speak, I am happy to put him on my list. He should not use up all his words just yet.
I will use a few words to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are in the position we are in today because of the countless powerful partnerships we have built. If we cast our minds back to less than two years ago, we faced a far more uncertain picture. SARS-CoV-2, which later became known as covid-19, had no known treatment and no vaccine, and we had little to no ability to test for it. It was spreading through the world at unprecedented speed, causing unprecedented death and widespread despair. I am sure that Members, when given a moment to pause and reflect, can recall just how they felt as they saw those harrowing pictures, first in Wuhan and later in the hospitals of Italy and Spain. With grim foreboding, we saw this very unfamiliar virus heading to our shores.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She has been given a terribly tough gig, but she does not seem to be answering the point made a little earlier. Arco in Hull had existed for 135 years and had supplied the NHS with top-quality products since its very inception. It was blocked from the VIP lane—why?
As I said, I would like to get on to answering some of these questions, so if Members will bear with me and let me get my speech out, I will have time to answer further interventions.
The context in which we were operating was the fear that we would run out of vital testing equipment, that we would not have the capacity to test people for covid and that, as a result, this deadly virus would continue to pass from person to person, overwhelm our national health service and cause untold devastation. It is the duty of any responsible Government to do all they can to prevent such a grim outcome, to save lives, to protect our key workers and to partner with as many people as are available with the experience and expertise to get things done. So we engaged with many thousands of businesses, large and small, from all over the country and all around the world, to set out what we needed and find out what they could do.
Randox has been globally recognised in the in vitro diagnostics industry for nearly 40 years. It is a British business with roots in Northern Ireland and a history of developing diagnostics solutions for hospitals, clinical settings and research labs. Even as early as March 2020, Randox had lab-based polymerase chain reaction testing capacity for covid-19. Against the fears that we would not have enough testing capacity, we worked with companies with existing diagnostic capability—that is just plain common sense.
As I have said, I would like to press on. I know that Members are very keen to get my words —[Interruption.] My words are correct.
As I was saying, this was against the fears that we would not have enough testing capacity. Members must remember those days. We all knew it. We saw it on the news every single night. So we worked with the companies that had existing diagnostic capabilities, and that is just plain common sense.
I will not give way until I get some facts out, so can hon. Members please bear with me?
Moreover, working with Randox made sense with respect to our cross-UK efforts against covid-19, giving us the ability to use the existing facilities in Northern Ireland for the benefit of the whole United Kingdom. Initial contracts with Randox were procured under regulations that allow us to marshal goods and services with extreme urgency in exceptional circumstances, and these were extremely exceptional circumstances, Mr Speaker. There is no question but that Randox played its part. The initial challenge that it faced was the challenge facing Governments the world over: a shortage of machinery and transport. None the less, it quickly overcame them to play a critical role in our pandemic response.
An independent assessment in June 2020, which the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) might like to read, found that Randox was ahead of all other labs in terms of its process, its plans and its reporting, so a six-month extension was agreed in September 2020. By March this year, Randox was actually exceeding its contract target—
I am grateful to the Minister for running through the dates. She may recall that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care came to this House in, I believe, July of last year to announce that 750,000 Randox tests that were being used in care homes had to be withdrawn because they were faulty. Subsequent to that announcement, the Government awarded a £350 million contract to Randox. Why?
Why? It was because the Government were trying to get out as many tests as possible. As I said, Randox processed—[Interruption.] Just to put it into context, Randox has, to date, carried out more than 15 million tests for covid-19, and identified more than 700,000 positive cases. That is 700,000 people who might otherwise have gone on to spread the disease. As a result of this testing capacity, they received the right advice to isolate, thereby protecting their friends, their family and society at large.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am prepared to take at face value everything that she says about Randox, but it does then raise in my mind the question of what exact benefit the company had from engaging the services of Owen Paterson. That being the case, will the Minister commit now at the Dispatch Box to publish the minutes of the telephone conference call of which he was part?
With respect, I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has ever been in government during a global pandemic. What I was answering was his question about the value to a company of employing someone on a contract. I cannot answer that. On the minutes, I think that we have said that we will publish things here in the Library. [Interruption.] I will get on to that.
Order. May I just say that this is a very interesting question? I know that the Minister has been put on the spot in being asked to provide an answer, but meetings should be logged and minutes of official meetings should be held. If the Minister cannot provide an answer to this very serious question today, I hope that it will be looked into, because it will bring a lot of other things into question if what has been said is indeed the case. I do not want to make a political point, but I am very concerned about this matter for all of us in this House. I am sorry to interrupt you, Minister.