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Topical Questions

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 13 January 2022

I would like to begin by paying tribute to the Member for Birmingham, Erdington, who was a hugely respected figure throughout the House. When I first arrived in Parliament, I worked very constructively with him on the important issue of gangmasters, on which he had long been a champion, particularly in respect of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. He will be greatly missed on both sides of the House. We send our condolences to colleagues opposite and, in particular, to Harriet, for their great loss.

May I also take this opportunity to place on the record my thanks to Sir Dave Lewis for all his work with the supply chain unit in helping to ensure greater resilience of supplies in the run-up to Christmas and that some of the wilder concerns that were highlighted about shortages at Christmas did not materialise? That is a great tribute to his work and that of the supply chain unit.

Today, the Cabinet Office is launching a Government campaign on an issue that I know unites all of us in this House: tackling the abhorrent crime of child sexual abuse. The Stop Abuse Together campaign empowers parents and carers to help keep children safe from harm by recognising potential signs of abuse, and by building trust by speaking to children regularly and finding further support where they have concerns.

As the lead Minister for cyber-security, I find it shocking and tragic, as I am sure all Members do, that this is the worst year on record for child sexual abuse online. The Internet Watch Foundation reports a threefold increase in imagery showing seven to 10-year-olds who have been targeted and groomed by predators during the pandemic. The charity investigated more than 360,000 reports of suspected criminal material in 2021, which is more than it dealt with in the previous 15 years. An estimated one in 10 children in England and Wales will experience sexual abuse before they are 16 and many will not tell anyone at the time. We all want to play our full part in keeping young people safe, online and in person, and this important campaign launched today can help bring them the protection they need.

I very much welcome what has just been said.

Colleagues at the London Borough of Hillingdon have told me of the benefits to the procurement process that they see from the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, so what measures does my right hon. Friend have in mind to promote the benefits that that Act can bring to public sector procurement, and especially in how it might support the levelling-up agenda?

My hon. Friend knows from his own time in local government how important that Act is in requiring that people who commission public services think about how they can secure wider social, economic and environmental benefit. That is why we are going to extend the terms of that provision. As the Paymaster General set out a moment ago, the new procurement legislation will further empower local authorities, and others procuring on behalf of the taxpayer, to drive better social value, for example by targeting contracts to businesses that employ a larger proportion of those with disability. I think these measures will be supported across the House, and they build on much good work that has already been done in local authorities across the country.

Earlier, in his response to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), the Paymaster General talked about poor performance. The Government’s VIP lane for personal protective equipment procurement was not just dodgy, but actually illegal. That was not my opinion, but the judgment of the High Court yesterday. Once again, this Government have been shown that they cannot seem to stay on the right side of the law. Listening to the Paymaster General, anybody would think that they had won their case in the Court yesterday. Time and again, Cabinet Office Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that detailed diligence and full financial checks were done. Yesterday, the Court found that the Cabinet Office simply did not have the resources necessary to undertake due diligence. Officials simply searched online to confirm that one company existed, and another received a red warning but it was not passed on. Can he tell us how much, from those two contracts alone, was spent on equipment that was not even used by the NHS?

With respect, what the right hon. Lady omitted was that the court acknowledged that it is highly unlikely that the outcome would have been “substantially different” if a different assessment process had been followed. What the House would quite rightly challenge the Government on is, first, whether anything different would have occurred had there been a different approach; and secondly, the fundamental point of whether, at a time of national crisis, the Government were straining every sinew to ensure that the clinicians at the sharp end of our NHS had the PPE that they needed, and the answer is that they did do that.

That is why we paid higher procurement costs when I was in my role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It is why colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care strained every sinew possible to get that procurement. What the Court said was that it was highly unlikely that the outcome would have been “substantially different”. That is the key finding of the case yesterday, but, of course, we will look closely at that case—it was only yesterday—to see what lessons can be learned.

There was no answer to the question about the billions of pounds that were wasted on the dodgy contracts through that VIP fast lane. I encourage people to read that judgment, because the Government at the moment seem to think that it was all good and rosy.

When the Paymaster General was sent to cover for the Prime Minister this week, he told the House that

“a fair and impartial investigation takes place before there is a judge, jury and executioner.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 430.]

The terms of reference for that investigation are clear. They say:

“Any matters relating to the conduct of Ministers should follow the process set out in the Ministerial Code.”

That process is also clear. The rules say:

“The Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the…appropriate consequences of a breach”.

So, will the Prime Minister act as the judge and jury even though he is also the man in the dock, or will his Conservative colleagues find their integrity and finally act as executioners to his premiership?

The right hon. Lady is conflating two different issues. On the first issue, the reality is that more than 16.5 billion PPE items were delivered, and that was the key challenge, at a time of national crisis, that the Government were set to ensure that those on the frontline were protected, as they needed to be. The Court’s judgment yesterday was very clear. As I said a moment ago, it is highly unlikely that the outcome would have been “substantially different” had a different process been followed.

On the right hon. Lady’s second item, the Prime Minister addressed those points in the House yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, when he apologised. He recognised the extraordinary sacrifices that have been made by the British public over the past 18 months, and it is right that Sue Gray, a highly respected senior civil servant, as the Paymaster General said, is allowed to complete her inquiry so that the full facts can be established.

T2. As part of the celebrations for Her Majesty’s 2022 platinum jubilee, 39 places are in competition for city status, including the town I represent, Dudley. Does my right hon. Friend agree that city status can deliver more jobs and business opportunities, and play a vital part in the wider regeneration of towns such as Dudley? (904999)

I do agree with my hon. Friend. These civic honours are a rare acknowledgment, awarded by Her Majesty herself, to celebrate a place’s individual heritage, its sense of community and the fact that residents have worked so hard to create a special environment. That is being recognised. The platinum jubilee will be a historic moment in time that brings people together and helps us to renew our nation as we emerge. I am delighted that Dudley, among a number of places, has put itself forward for Her Majesty’s consideration.

Repeatedly throughout the pandemic, the devolved Administrations have asked their people to do the right but often difficult thing, which, to their enormous credit, they have. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister’s remarkable admission that he attended an illegal Downing Street party during a period of strict national lockdown will strengthen or undermine the relationship between the Government in London and those in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh?

The fact that yesterday I, together with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, was on a call with the First Minister of Scotland, the First Minister of Wales and others underscores the commitment on all sides across the Union to work together on the common challenges we have faced throughout the pandemic. At both official and ministerial level, people have been willing to set party differences aside to respond to a common challenge. Building on the conversation yesterday, that response shows a willingness to work together, and I think that is what the public in Scotland and across the United Kingdom want their elected representatives to do. Certainly in my role I am extremely keen to continue that positive engagement with the First Minister and others in the interests of our electorate.

I assume, therefore, that the answer is, “No, it will not strengthen that relationship.” Still on the illegal party in Downing Street during a strict national lockdown, when did the Minister first become aware that the party had taken place? Now that the Met is finally taking an interest in this matter, what advice has he sought from the Attorney General, ahead of speaking to the police?

To the direct question the hon. Gentleman raises, I first became aware when it was covered in the media—I am sure at a similar time to him. We cannot anticipate the conclusions of the current inquiry, as the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, and we should allow that inquiry to conclude.

T3. Last week, I met my constituent Mark Isaacs from the UK Veterans Hearing Foundation, who explained that services for veterans with hearing loss got considerable funding from the LIBOR fines, but that since that money has not been available many veterans are struggling to get the support they need. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how veterans can get the services they need for often considerable hearing loss? (905000)

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the matter and the fact that he has met the UK Veterans Hearing Foundation. The issue is very important and I will be very pleased to meet him to discuss it further. I also put on record my gratitude for all the energetic work he does in his constituency to support veterans, including local veteran Councillor Bill Service of Didcot Town Council.

T4. The civil service fast stream graduate programme to recruit more black civil servants has been an abject failure. Out of over 14,000 black applicants, only 98 were successful. That is one in 143, compared to one in 44 for white applicants. That is clearly not levelling up. Does the Minister agree that that is because of deeply entrenched institutional racism? Will he explain what assessment has been undertaken on levels of diversity and what actions will be taken to deal with such significant under-representation? (905002)

With respect to the hon. Lady, I do not accept the characterisation she places on the civil service.

I was actually going to come on to what I hope is a constructive point, because the underlying concern the hon. Lady raises is fair. I am very happy to pick up on the issue with the disability and equalities unit that sits within the Cabinet Office. It is important that we have the right processes in place, particularly with fast streamers, because if we are to have better representation at senior civil service level, including at perm sec level, then we need to get the ladder in place for other ranks in order to have the trajectory through. So I do not accept her characterisation, but she raises an important point and it is one that I will pick up with the disability and equalities unit. I will write to her on the point she raises.

In considering ministerial responsibility for the hydrogen sector, will the Minister bear in mind that 95% of hydrogen is so-called blue hydrogen derived from natural gas and that, if we really are to have a hydrogen revolution that puts Britain on the map, we need more green hydrogen derived from renewable or nuclear power?

May I first congratulate my right hon. Friend and Lady Goodwill on the fantastic news from Her Majesty’s new year honours list? The good people of Scarborough and Whitby will be rightly proud of their Member of Parliament. He is right to ask that question. The strategy that we are implementing supports multiple production technologies including both electrolytic green and carbon capture-enabled blue hydrogen production. We are not limiting ambition for any one technology by arbitrarily splitting our 5 GW ambition between green and blue hydrogen. Following the consultation, we will develop an approach to different production routes, including the less developed ones to which he refers, by early this year.

T5. Given the damage that the self-styled Minister for the Union has done to public trust in recent days and the decision of some Cabinet colleagues to diminish the role of the Scottish Conservative leader, the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), will the Minister prove that the Government can at least try to do one thing right and commit to supporting my private Member’s Bill, which would at least ensure that the boards of public bodies include appropriate representation from the devolved nations? (905003)

As a former member of the Whips Office, I know that it is always a triumph how different issues can be used in support of a private Member’s Bill. I am sure that my colleague the Chief Whip will look at the Bill’s terms in detail.

As for the Union, the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Union, and its importance was reinforced by the recent machinery of Government change and the leading position taken by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. We want to level up across the entire Union of the United Kingdom. I referenced the call that I had yesterday with other Ministers and colleagues in the devolved Administrations as part of the ongoing covid response on which we are working closely together. The Union is fundamental to the Government—it certainly informs much of my work as a Minister—and the Prime Minister and ministerial team are hugely committed to it.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is a crucial step forward to preventing illegal immigration and abuse of our asylum system, but the Home Office clearly cannot solve the problem on its own. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on cross-departmental efforts to stop small boats crossing the channel?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point that is a key issue for the illegal migration taskforce, which I chair. I will meet the Home Secretary later today, and I met the Foreign Secretary yesterday. He is right that our response is a whole of Government endeavour and I am sure that the Home Secretary will update the House further on our progress.

T6. Does the Paymaster General, as a former Law Officer, agree that there is a fatal flaw in our system when the person who ultimately makes judgment on the ministerial code is a Prime Minister who is at the centre of allegations of breaking the law and misleading the House? Does it not go against all the rules of natural justice to be judge and jury in your own case? (905004)

Well, natural justice also requires something on which to impose justice and as yet we do not have any result from the inquiry, so, if I may say so, the right hon. Member is putting the cart before the horse. I would say that the Prime Minister is a man of integrity, as I have said before, and the ministerial code has always been under the purview of the Prime Minister since it was created.

I want to thank my right hon. Friend and the noble Lord Agnew who, with the Cabinet Office and the Home Office, have managed to bring more than 500 brand-new jobs to the city of Stoke-on-Trent as well as further investment in developing a site. Will he update the House on progress for the Stoke-on-Trent relocation and on the wider move that is taking civil servants out across our United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is right to mention the importance of the Places for Growth agenda not just to Stoke, but across the entire United Kingdom. It is fundamental to greater diversity in our civil service—diversity of place, as well as gender and race—and I am very happy to have further discussions with him about the role of Places for Growth in Stoke. As he knows, it fits within a range of Government programmes that are committed to levelling up Stoke, including those that he and other Stoke MPs highlighted to the House at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday.

The Government’s VIP lane for personal protective equipment contracts has been ruled by a judge to be unlawful. The judge found that the

“operation of the High Priority Lane was in breach of the obligation of equal treatment…the illegality is marked by this judgment.”

The House needs to know what steps Ministers will take to ensure that there are no corrupt processes, particularly involving contracts to Conservative party cronies. In particular, I would like to hear confirmation from Ministers today in relation to some of the serious questions about PPE Medpro. Will the Minister agree to release details of the financial checks done on that company, including its connections to a Conservative party peer?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that question perhaps predated the various discussions we have had, including with the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), in the course of these departmental questions. As I said, we have delivered more than 16.5 billion PPE items. The court found that it is highly unlikely that the outcome would have been substantially different. We have had questions in the House on, for example, the contracts with PestFix and Ayanda, and the court found that we did not rely on a referral to the high-priority lane when awarding those contracts. It is right that the House considers properly the judgment yesterday, but that judgment shows that the outcome would not have been substantially different.

We will face local elections later this year. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what action will be taken to make sure that personation does not take place and that postal and proxy voting is in accordance with the law?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. He will be well aware, following the recent machinery of government change, that that subject no longer falls within the purview of the Cabinet Office, so I do not want to incur the displeasure of Mr Speaker by straying into the territory of ministerial colleagues. However, I will ensure that the relevant colleague is alerted to the very good point that my hon. Friend highlights.

I remind the Minister for Defence People and Veterans of my request to him about the charity Beyond the Battlefield, which does amazing work for veterans who suffer from poor mental health and particularly those who often go under the radar and are not accounted for in the stats process. In Northern Ireland, its work is phenomenal. Will the Minister consider allocating funding to assist with its privately funded veterans centre in Portavogie in my constituency, which is due to open next week? The Minister would be very welcome to come along with me to visit it.

Does the Cabinet Office agree that the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), is a “lightweight”?

I think he is a hugely talented colleague. I work extremely closely with him and I look forward to doing so. One of the points that has come out through departmental questions is the commitment from many across the House, although not those on the Scottish National party Benches, to the importance of the Union. That is an absolutely central commitment of the Government and the Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet are committed to defending it.

Can I give a bit of friendly advice to the Paymaster General, who has been valiantly defending the indefensible? When the ship is about to sail, you jump on it because it is leaving without you. The ministerial code matters, standards in public life matter and trust in politics matters. The case against the Prime Minister is clear. Why is the Paymaster General destroying his own integrity to save a man who has none?

It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to be concerned about my position and I am very grateful to him. My position is clear: the Prime Minister answers to the people of this country and to this House. He came to the House yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, and he apologised. He has said—and I agree—that we should wait until the result of the investigation that is in progress. That would be the case with any individual facing any allegation anywhere in this country. One waits until due process is complete. The hon. Gentleman ought to accept that that would be the case, whether that view comes from his party, my party or anywhere else.

Despite the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s words at the Dispatch Box, the reality is that his Cabinet colleagues yesterday were calling the Scottish Conservative leader a “lightweight” and irrelevant because he was up in Elgin. Is it not the case that there has never been a Union of equals? It is always “Scotland, know your place,” and that was demonstrated yesterday.

Again, that is a question that pre-empts the discussion that we have had in the House today. I flagged to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague a moment ago the very constructive discussions that I, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and indeed the Paymaster General had with the First Minister of Scotland yesterday. We touched on the role—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wants to heckle through the answer, that is entirely up to him; I was just running through the various things that we do as part of our commitment to places for growth. The Cabinet Office has a commitment to our office in Glasgow: we had a hugely successful COP26 event that showcased the great talents of Glasgow, of Scotland and of the United Kingdom. That is part of our wider commitment to the Union, which is four-square at the heart of our agenda as a Government.