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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 13 January 2022

Cabinet Office

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Physical and Mental Health of Veterans

We are committed to striving to provide a gold standard of care and support for all veterans. This year, we have allocated £17.8 million to the veterans health and welling service—Op Courage at the NHS—and recently committed a £2.7 million boost over the next three years to further expand services supporting those who experience complex mental or physical trauma or alcohol and substance misuse.

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for our veterans. At Christmas, I delivered hampers of fresh local produce to over 100 veterans across the Workington constituency to thank them for their service. Does he agree with me that as the party that looks after all who have served, it is right that we take every opportunity to repay that service?

I thank my hon. Friend and put on the record my gratitude for the fantastically energetic way in which he supports veterans in the community. He briefed me last year on the hamper project and I commend him for the tangible benefit that he provides and energy with which he supports veterans in Workington.

Omicron Variant: Support for Key Services

2. What support he is providing to businesses and the voluntary sector to support key services affected by the omicron variant. (904973)

12. What support he is providing to businesses and the voluntary sector to support key services affected by the omicron variant. (904987)

14. What support he is providing to businesses and the voluntary sector to support key services affected by the omicron variant. (904989)

15. What support he is providing to businesses and the voluntary sector to support key services affected by the omicron variant. (904992)

The most important thing to support businesses in the voluntary sector is to come out of the covid restrictions and reopen our economy. Boosters remain the best way to save lives, reduce the pressure on our NHS and keep our country safe. It is a great tribute to those working in our NHS that almost eight out of 10 eligible adults in England are now boosted.

A year ago, Phil Grant of the DVLA tragically died of coronavirus. He was a man in his 60s with a heart condition who had previously been allowed to work from home during the first lockdown and was forced to go to work. A year on, just pre last Christmas, unions and management agreed that, after 700 cases of coronavirus at the DVLA, there should be new arrangements for people to work from home and a rota system to allow safety. The Government intervened and stopped that from being instated on the grounds that omicron was not as dangerous. Since then, we now have a cumulative figure of 1,700 coronavirus cases at the DVLA. Will the Minister intervene to enable the scheme agreed by both unions and management to be implemented for at least a couple of months and meet me urgently so that the safety of workers and their families can be protected?

I recognise the seriousness of the case. On behalf of all colleagues in the House, I am sure, I express our sympathy for the family concerned. As he will know, it is difficult to comment on individual cases. He will also be aware that under plan B, employees are encouraged to work from home where possible. I am happy to flag the case to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who oversees the body concerned. My right hon. Friend is balancing the need to address those employment issues with the importance of getting testing boosted when it comes to HGVs, cars and others. But he will pick up the case and I will raise it with him.

During the pandemic, charities have played a hugely important part in supporting people, particularly those in need of help and more vulnerable older people. Does not the Minister agree that it would have been better to have involved those charities in the planning right from the start? Can we learn that lesson for the future?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the importance of charities, including in the pandemic response more widely. That is why we have had a package of £750 million of support for charities, which indicates their importance and how they have been involved throughout the pandemic.

Ealing food bank in my constituency is doing tremendous work feeding those struggling the most. Those in greatest need already cannot afford to feed themselves and their families even while in work. If the Government move to charging for testing, will the Minister commit to funding lateral flow tests for the most vulnerable to prevent unwanted covid-19 outbreaks?

The reality as we meet today is that we continue to offer universal free testing. Actually, the UK is an outlier both in terms of the sheer quantum of testing that we have delivered—more than any other country in Europe—and the fact that we have not charged to do so. Testing has played a key role in our response, along with the booster campaign, but we need to balance that with value for money and the cost, which is very significant.

MAKE, based in Fratton, is an amazing, award-winning service that is supporting men struggling with their mental health during the pandemic through its Breakfast OK project, which provides a safe space for them to share their experiences with others with similar issues. What specifically is the Minister doing to support Portsmouth social enterprises to flourish and succeed at a time of rising demand and lengthening waiting times for vital mental health services?

I will have to pick up on the specific organisation the hon. Member references, but as I said in my answer a moment ago, we have had a package of £750 million of support. We have worked with a number of organisations, including our school sector with holiday clubs and other support that has been offered. I am very happy to look at the specific case he highlights to the House.

At every twist and turn during this pandemic, the Government have dangerously dithered and delayed instead of being ready and resilient. The reality is that Labour brought in the Civil Contingencies Act in 2004, but the Conservatives have deprioritised and underfunded vital emergencies infrastructure since 2010. While I welcome the temporary funding for local resilience forums announced last year, it is just a meagre £7.5 million. It is tiny sum in the grand scheme of resilience needs, and it runs out in three months’ time. This leaves us unprepared to face the omicron variant, and potential future variants and emergencies, so will the Minister commit to properly and sustainably funding local resilience forums and ensure they are never again left without the resources they need to keep us all safe?

The hon. Lady is right on the importance of local resilience forums, but she is not right to say that the Government have not responded. There has been over £400 billion of support from the Government as part of our pandemic response. On specific measures, I refer her to the statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on 21 December 2021 announcing further measures. I will not run through the full quantum of them, but just to take one, there are the one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises to support the hospitality and leisure sector. We have also taken wider measures to support businesses, such as reducing the isolation period, the daily contact testing and addressing issues within specific sectors—whether that is in social care or in the transport sector. There has been a whole range of measures from the Government, including the funding support, and as she mentioned in her question, much of that is continuing until the end of March.

Minister for Hydrogen Role

3. Whether he has held discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the creation of a dedicated Minister for Hydrogen role. (904974)

Developing a thriving low-carbon hydrogen sector in the UK is a key piece of this Government’s plan to build back better with a cleaner, greener energy system. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change has ministerial responsibility for this sector, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published the UK’s first hydrogen strategy last year, building on the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister will know that hydrogen covers all regions of the United Kingdom, and I hope he agrees with me that we need to create a golden thread that brings together all the Departments of Government so that we can maximise and make sure we do not miss out on the hydrogen revolution for the United Kingdom, because it will be a game changer for our economy. Does the Minister agree that such a Minister would help create a contact point for the engineering supply chain across all of the UK, which is worth billions of pound to our economy?

I know the hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion for this sector, with the Wrightbus company in his constituency, of which he is rightly proud. He should be aware, and I know he is aware, of the £100 million of new funding for the net zero innovation portfolio, which will support industry to switch to low-carbon fuels. The supply chain of course needs to be an integral part of that, and it will certainly be taken into consideration as we develop this policy. I look forward to the opportunity of possibly visiting the site in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Government Contracts: Underperforming Suppliers and Legislative Proposals

4. What steps he is taking to ensure that underperforming suppliers do not receive Government contracts. (904975)

16. When the Government plan to bring forward legislative proposals to reform public procurement. (904993)

19. When the Government plan to bring forward legislative proposals to reform public procurement. (904996)

In December 2020, we published the Government’s response to the consultation on the Green Paper on “Transforming Public Procurement”. We intend to bring forward these detailed and ambitious legislative proposals when parliamentary time allows.[Official Report, 20 January 2022, Vol. 707, c. 6MC.] The reforms will make it easier for buyers to take account of previous poor performance by suppliers, which is an important factor in deciding whether to award contracts, and there will be clearer and stronger rules about excluding suppliers that pose an unacceptable risk.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. What action will he take to get contractors to supply the service for which they are contracted, rather than necessarily cancelling them? However, if they continue to underperform, what action will he take to cancel those contracts and get suppliers in who do the job properly?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his excellent question. As he knows, the Prime Minister is bringing forward some of the biggest reforms in decades in this country. One of them will be in procurement, which is worth £300 billion a year to our economy. We have seen underperformance and it is of course current Government policy to ensure that suppliers’ past performance in adhering to contracts is taken into account when awarding new contracts. Under the public contract regulations, contracting authorities can use selection criteria, but we will make across-the-board improvements and reforms in the procurement system. I know that my hon. Friend will look forward to that and its benefits.

The Government maintain buying standards for food and catering services. The relevant Select Committee, campaign groups such as Sustain, and Henry Dimbleby with his food plan have all made the point that those standards should be brought up to date. The shadow Chancellor has pledged that Labour will ensure that public bodies have to report on how much British produce they buy. What are the Government doing on that, or is it just open season for Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and the rest?

The Conservative party is a party of free trade and a free economy. I do not know about the Labour party. We are improving procurement and thereby having a major effect on the economy. The hon. Member, like everyone else, will have to wait for the details of how the new rules will be implemented and how they will work, but, through a Green Paper, we have asked everyone to feed in their ideas and suggestions for detailed policies. Based on that, a Bill is currently being prepared for introduction to Parliament and I know that the hon. Member will look forward to that.

Given that the Government’s VIP lane for personal protective equipment contracts has been ruled unlawful, will there be immediate publication of contracts after emergency procurement to restore faith in the system? It would help avoid having the Government hauled so embarrassingly through the courts.

I do not accept that characterisation of any technical breaches that may have occurred. If the hon. Member looks at the judgment, he will see that the court ruled yesterday that the Government’s industry call to arms was open, transparent and justified in a time of national emergency. Actually, the court found that it was highly unlikely that the outcome would have been substantially different if a different assessment process had been followed.

During the pandemic, UK companies stepped up to the mark and changed production lines to meet our needs and increase our resilience. They were encouraged to think that they would get ongoing business for helping out during the PPE shortages. A local SME in my constituency invested more than £700,000 in automating its hand sanitiser production, but now finds that most of its UK Government Department customers have gone back to their original foreign suppliers. What will the Minister do to recognise the resilience that British firms provided, improve the uptake of British-made products by Government Departments and ensure that build back better is not just a slogan?

I would appreciate it if the hon. Member wrote to me with that particular example. I know that companies in her constituency are ably supported by her and I would like to hear more about that example. She is right that companies across the United Kingdom provided support at a time of national emergency, and they should be thanked for that.

The shocking news this week that the Government broke the law by handing out contracts worth huge sums to those with political connections shows that cronyism is rife in the Tory party. When will all the emergency procurement procedures end and all the emergency covid contracts finally be published?

I do not accept that characterisation. The court found that we did not rely on referral to the high priority lane when awarding contracts in certain cases, but that it was a technical matter, and that we were open, transparent and justified in what we did. “Justified” is a key word. As for emergency procurement, that is perfectly routine. It happens all the time, every year, including outside pandemics for various reasons. That will have to continue, but we are looking, in a new procurement Bill, at different ways of proceeding.

Frustratingly, pre-Brexit, “EU procurement rules” was always trotted out as a reason why local firms, local farms and others never got a look in when it came to local public service contracts. Post Brexit, will the Government take a proactive lead to support local procurement, which benefits local small businesses especially, as well as farmers and local food and drink producers? That would also help to reduce food miles.

The short answer is yes. Thanks to the work of my noble friend Lord Agnew, who has been working on this matter for a considerable time, my hon. Friend can look forward to further progress.

The Government’s use of emergency procurement during the pandemic has raised concerns around the transparency of contracts, potential conflicts of interest and the unsuitability of suppliers. Nearly two years on, Government Departments can still use those emergency regulations to bypass open competition and scrutiny. That is unacceptable, and it implies that Departments have failed to plan ahead to meet demand. Will the Minister explain why that has been allowed to continue?

The availability of an emergency mechanism for procurement existed prior to the pandemic. It has taken place under Governments of all political colours, and it will continue to take place occasionally. The contracts signed by Government with third parties are myriad, and there will frequently be circumstances of supply, or circumstances that relate to particular individual cases where emergency mechanisms have to apply. That is routine and it continues on a regular basis when it has to.

Good procurement that benefits the whole country needs good decisions made by a civil service that reflects the society it serves. However, the civil service fast stream recruitment over the last three years—from 2019 to 2021—resulted in more successful applicants coming from homes in London than the whole of the midlands and north of England put together. Although young people whose parents did not go to university made up more than half of external applicants, they made up only less than a third of those who were offered jobs. What is the Minister doing to rectify that regional and class discrimination in the civil service fast stream recruitment?

Procurement or otherwise, I am proud of our civil service, and I hope that the hon. Lady is, too. She criticises the civil service and makes a class warfare-type assertion about it—I do not accept that. This country, under this Government, is levelling up. We are levelling up across the country and making reforms in all our mechanisms of government, including in the national health service, housing, the economy and transport, and we are doing it in the civil service, too.


Our new national cyber-strategy was launched in December. It builds on the previous five-year strategy, which reinforced the UK’s position as a global leader in cyber, second only to the US and China in independent studies. The new strategy sets out how the UK will continue to be a leading, responsible and democratic cyber power, and able to protect and promote our interests. It is supported by £2.6 billion of investment over the next three years.

What further steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that the UK’s use of cyber-space enhances the UK’s economic and social prosperity and national security, and ensures a strong, cohesive and resilient society while maintaining our core values of freedom, fairness and the rule of law?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. That is why the strategy sets out a whole of society approach, including a focus on building skills and the highest standards in cyber-security across society. Over the last five years, we have seen the cyber sector grow significantly, with more than 1,400 businesses generating revenues of £8.9 billion last year alone, and supporting 46,700 skilled jobs. That is also why we are targeting key sectors as part of that strategy, such as through the CyberFirst programme, which will ensure that 6,500 pupils from 600 schools can benefit, in particular by attracting girls into that competition so that they are a part of the cyber-strategy.

A cyber-attack last March on the UK Defence Academy was recently reported to have caused significant damage despite ultimately being unsuccessful. Those behind the attack remain unidentified. What measures are the Government considering to improve identification of malicious hackers and impose consequences on them?

That is an extremely important point, and the hon. Lady is right to highlight it to the House. First, that is why we are putting in more funding: £2.6 billion over three years, as opposed to the previous £1.9 billion over five years. On her particular point about deterrence, that funding is outwith the funding provided to the National Cyber Force, which is going into Preston and the north-west as part of our levelling-up agenda. That will have a key role in the deterrence aspects of the risk that she quite rightly identifies.

Ministers’ Personal and Lifestyle Costs: Vulnerability to Outside Influence

9. If he will take steps to reassure the public that Cabinet Ministers’ personal and lifestyle costs are not being funded by donors and therefore vulnerable to outside influence. (904983)

All Ministers are subject to the ministerial code, which requires Ministers to ensure that no conflict arises, or could arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise.

It was so good to hear the Paymaster General praising civil servants, so could he please explain why the Foreign Secretary overruled civil servants’ advice and went to a £3,000 lunch in a private members’ club owned by a Tory donor, and he calls that abiding by the code? Will the Paymaster General immediately include that in the investigation being undertaken into the other boozy parties in No. 10 Downing Street?

It is absolutely ridiculous to characterise the matter in the way that the hon. Lady does. The reality of the matter is that the Labour party engages in trade union entertainment on every possible occasion. There is no conflict of interest in the matter she describes. Indeed, all the matters that are brought to the attention of the relevant authorities are properly dealt with.

It would seem to be quite a hard life being a Prime Minister at the moment. In WhatsApp messages to Lord Brownlow that surfaced last week, the Prime Minister described his No. 11 flat as a “bit of a tip” that is desperately in need of a lick of paint, some gold wallpaper and the offices of a leading fashion designer. In return for expediting this, the Prime Minister assured Lord Brownlow that he would take a look at his idea for a great exhibition festival. So we have a new term in British politics: wallpaper for access. Can the Minister give a serious explanation as to why this exchange with Lord Brownlow was not passed on to the independent adviser on ministerial interests but was passed on to the Electoral Commission for its investigation? Out of interest, does he have the Prime Minister’s new number?

As set out in the letter, Lord Geidt has not changed his assessment that no conflict of interest arose from the support provided by Lord Brownlow. The Prime Minister correctly declared an interest, as required under the ministerial code, and Lord Geidt now considers the matter closed.

Veterans: Employment Opportunities

11. What steps the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is taking to help improve employment opportunities for veterans. (904985)

We are putting the employability of veterans at the heart of our veterans strategy. We are rolling out a national insurance holiday for employers of veterans and guaranteeing job interviews for veterans applying to join the civil service. We know that veterans make fantastic employees and that military service does indeed give skills for life.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Could he outline for the House every step that is being taken to ensure that all veterans get access to and information about every opportunity and every job vacancy?

We are determined to ensure a gold standard when it comes to communicating the availability of support and opportunity for veterans. That is why we have invested £500,000 in this financial year alone to help deliver the Veterans’ Gateway service, which is an online portal for all veterans’ welfare needs. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs continues to promote all services and opportunities available to veterans.

Press Conference Rehearsal: Consequences for Staff

13. What consequences staff have faced who were involved in a video reported in the media in December 2021, which showed members of the Prime Minister’s office rehearsing for a press conference. (904988)

Following the long-standing practice of successive Administrations, Her Majesty’s Government do not comment on individual disciplinary matters. The terms of reference for the Cabinet Office’s investigation have been published and the Government have committed to publishing the findings of that investigation.

But now we know that there were parties at Downing Street in lockdown and the Prime Minister was present. It is serious. He knowingly breached the rules that he himself set for the country. He broke the law, and over recent weeks he has told the House things that turned out not to be true, breaking the ministerial code. Allegra Stratton paid the price for joking about parties at Downing Street—parties that the Prime Minister attended. Why is it always the little people who get the chop to save this unsaveable Prime Minister?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this matter is under the purview of a senior civil servant—the second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who is an expert having been director general of propriety and ethics. She is carefully looking into the matter. She is a highly respected civil servant with probity, independence and integrity, and she will report in due course, swiftly. So the hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to wait before he jumps to any unwarranted and unevidenced conclusions.

Departure from the EU: Regulatory Reforms

17. What steps his Department is taking to make regulatory reforms following the UK’s departure from the EU. (904994)

The Government are driving a wide range of regulatory reforms, from shaping the approach for new technology such as data, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, to reforming existing regulations to better suit the UK, including on financial services. In addition, a range of smaller reforms will make a material difference to specific industries, and we are digitising regulation and reviewing all EU retained law.

Despite years of Labour trying to block Brexit and keep us tied to mirroring EU rules and regulations, it is this Prime Minister who got Brexit done, and we are therefore able to reform procurement rules, blocking companies with a poor track record of delivery from winning public contracts. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Labour had its way, we would be in a scenario whereby companies failing to deliver for the taxpayer with their money could still win public contracts?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He highlights an extremely important Brexit opportunity around our £300 billion procurement spend. As we heard earlier, we now have the ability to use our public procurement in new and innovative ways, particularly to drive social value within communities. That will make a big difference as part of our wider levelling-up agenda.

Covid-19: Public Inquiry

18. What discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on formally starting the public inquiry into the covid-19 pandemic. (904995)

On 15 December, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of the right hon. Baroness Hallett—Heather Hallett—as chair of the public inquiry into covid-19. The inquiry is set to begin its work in the spring of 2022.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but it would appear that discussions on this have not been a priority. The terms of reference for the inquiry have not even been set yet. Bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s distant relationship with the truth, will the Minister outline exactly how the public, and Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, can have any faith in this inquiry at all?

We have appointed a very senior figure from the judiciary—a recently retired lady justice of appeal from the Court of Appeal. The Prime Minister has confirmed that the inquiry’s detailed terms of reference will be set out in due course, and the bereaved families and other groups will be consulted before they are finalised. The process will be done carefully and properly and with consultation and consideration for all.

Might the Paymaster General consider the approach that was adopted when the infected blood inquiry was set up, whereby those infected and affected have been at the heart of the consultation around the terms of reference? Sir Brian Langstaff made it his first priority to ensure that those people were at the very heart of the infected blood inquiry that he now so ably chairs.

May I take this opportunity to thank the right hon. Lady again for the support she has provided and the work she has done on the infected blood inquiry? It is no exaggeration to say that she has been instrumental in achieving what has been achieved so far—there is still a lot to do, of course. In answer to her question, of course it would be the wish of everyone concerned to involve the bereaved as much as possible. Baroness Hallett, a Cross-Bench peer, will have command and control of this matter, if I can put it that way, just as Sir Brian Langstaff does in the infected blood inquiry. I am sure that all concerned will have heard what the right hon. Lady has had to say.

We are going to topicals early, so there will be a great opportunity to get more people in. Let us start with David Simmonds.

Topical Questions

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.