House of Commons
Thursday 13 January 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Underpayment of Benefits: Compensation
I would like to start by extending an apology to Ms U for the experiences that have been highlighted in the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s report. The Department will, of course, formally apologise and make additional payments now that that the PHSO report has been published.
I should remind the House that the employment support allowance was introduced in 2008, and from March 2011 the Department began reassessing people in incapacity benefits for eligibility for ESA, which saw some claimants underpaid. The Department’s priority was that all people get the financial support to which they are entitled. It undertook a special exercise to review all cases that were potentially affected and paid arrears where due. We realised how important it was to get this matter fixed and ensure that people get the benefits that they are owed as quickly as possible. We therefore set up a dedicated team, with up to 1,200 staff at the peak of the workload. This has enabled us to complete this important work at pace.
I remind the House that the exercise to correct past ESA payments and pay arrears, following conversion from the previous incapacity benefits, was completed last year, and the then Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), made a statement to the House in July 2021. All cases have been considered and reviews completed, where the information has been provided, and arrears due were paid. As of 1 June 2021, we have reviewed approximately 600,000 cases and made 118,000 arrears payments to those who are eligible, totalling £613 million. The Department published an update on the exercise last Thursday on gov.uk, which sets out further detail on the progress that it has made on processing the cases.[Official Report, 18 January 2022, Vol. 707, c. 4MC.]
May I start by paying tribute to the Greenwich Welfare Rights Service and to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford)? It is a reminder of the value and the vital importance of welfare rights advisers, who do so much for our constituents despite grappling with swingeing cuts under the last 10 years of Conservative Government.
The report came about because a vulnerable person with significant long-term health needs, recovering from a heart bypass, was forced to endure years of hardship, trying to live on less than 50% of what she was entitled to, for a sustained period because of mistakes made by the Department for Work and Pensions when it migrated 100,000 claimants from incapacity benefit to contribution-based employment and support allowance between 2011 and 2014. The ombudsman’s report today not only vindicates Greenwich Welfare Rights and hon. Members who pursued the case, but is damning for the Government.
The DWP’s incompetence and failure to provide compensation has been judged as maladministration. Does the Minister accept that, as a consequence of the Department’s incompetence, more than 100,000 people were unable to access passported benefits and extra support such as free prescriptions, despite being highly vulnerable and often having long-term health needs?
The ombudsman rules that refusal to offer recompense for that was inconsistent with the Department’s own principles of remedy. With respect, and although I welcome the apology, it is no good Ministers’ putting their fingers in their ears and pretending that there is not a bigger problem here. This stands as—in the words of this report—“an unremedied injustice”, impacting on some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Will Ministers remedy that injustice via compensation for those affected, as the ombudsman and the Department’s own principles recommend, or will the Minister deny compensation to 118,000 disabled people and people with long-term health conditions who lost out through no fault of their own? Frankly, when disabled people face a cost-of-living crisis with rising heating bills, when 600,000 disabled people are struggling with a universal credit cut, and when disabled people face their support being cut this April because inflation is heading to 6%, does this sorry saga of maladministration not prove once again that disabled people are worse off under this Government?
I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about welfare advisers. They play a vital role, whether in Greenwich or in Macclesfield, where we have the Disability Information Bureau, and provide the extra support that people in very vulnerable circumstances often need. He highlighted the situation involving Ms U; as I said in my apology, it was very concerning, and those compensation payments will be paid, as I have reassured him.
On the point about broader compensation, of course we only received the report this morning—it has only just been published—so we will consider it and review its recommendations, as is entirely right. We would also say that if people believe they should have further compensation and want to contact us at DWP, they can contact us through the various helplines that have been set up. There is a team working specifically on this broad issue, and if they prefer, they can go through the complaints process, so those avenues are available to those individuals. In these situations we are typically not compelled to come forward with compensation payments, but we will consider the wider points and the views put forward by the report.
I know from the individual constituent cases I have dealt with how distressing it is when people’s benefits are underpaid. One issue here is dealing with compensation payments, but the other is taking the steps to ensure something like this does not happen again. Can my hon. Friend assure me that those steps, if they have not been taken already, are in the process of being taken?
Lessons really have been learned from this situation, and if underpayments are made, that can have a real impact on people’s lives. Lessons will be learned from this. While it is not my departmental responsibility, I will take this away and work closely with the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work and the Secretary of State, who is not able to be here today, to see what further lessons we can learn as a result of this report. As I have said, we must formally reply to the report as well.
Under this Tory Government, we have had the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign scandal, the universal credit cuts, pensioners now losing £500 a year and a cost-of-living crisis that they are doing nothing about. They really do not care. It is outrageous that it has taken the ombudsman to determine that compensation is due to the 118,000 claimants underpaid for up to seven years. Of course people should be paid compensation for having been forced to live in poverty, so what are the timescales for providing justice to those claimants?
In August 2021, there were still 76,000 cases open for review. What is that number now? What are the Government doing to assess the extra top-ups that were due, such as enhanced disability, severe disability, carer and pension premiums, that have not yet been considered for all the 118,000 underpaid claimants? Scope estimates that at present 42% of families on disability benefits live in poverty. What are the Government’s plans to rectify that? Pension credits are consistently underclaimed; when will they make that an automatic entitlement, and when will there ever be a level playing field between the DWP’s responsibilities and the way it treats claimants?
The hon. Gentleman has made a number of points. Arrears have already been paid to the 118,000, but the team are still in place, so when people are deceased and the surviving parties feel, on the basis of the report, that they could be eligible to receive such arrears, they can do so. I have already explained how those who feel they should receive further compensation can find out more about the process of investigating that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to do more to increase people’s awareness of the pension credits that are available. He also mentioned people with vulnerabilities. We want to help those people, which is why we established the household support fund and made additional funds available in Scotland as well.
During the period of the inquiry the benefits system was incredibly complicated, involving many mutually exclusive benefits. I well remember talking on the helplines to civil servants who did not know which elements were mutually exclusive and which were not. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the need to ensure that the system is straightforward, that people can understand it, and that people are paid the compensation and the benefits they are due? We are talking about the most vulnerable members of society.
My hon. Friend has made some good points. I know that he has a proven track record in this area, given his campaigning work both locally and nationally. The benefits system is indeed complicated. Universal credit has helped to simplify it by putting benefits into a single bundle, but as the new Minister on the welfare delivery block, I am aware that the system is still complex even under the universal credit banner. I shall be working hard to ensure that we can communicate clearly with some of those most vulnerable people in explaining what benefits are available; and, as I have said, we will review the report and see what further lessons can be learnt.
I welcome this important report, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.
What is the position relating to the payment of interest in cases such as this? The ombudsman found that these failings had had a severe effect on Ms U’s existing mental and physical health problems, and no doubt the same is true for quite a number of the other 118,000 people affected. Will the Department work out, proactively, who should be receiving compensation? One of the ombudsman’s recommendations is that the Department should report to the Select Committee on its progress in considering his report and the decisions that it makes on how to remedy its own failings. Will the Department accept the recommendation and report to the Committee, and if so, when can we expect that to happen?
Obviously the primary responsibility is to respond to the report, and we will do that, but I—and, no doubt, the Secretary of State—will note the right hon. Member’s point, and will make appropriate responses to his Committee. I have mentioned the 118,000 people who have received the arrears, and, as I said earlier to the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth)—I am sorry, I should have said “the shadow Secretary of State”: I do not want to understate his importance—there are mechanisms for those who feel they have grounds for further compensation to get in touch with the Department and explore that further.
The benefits system is crucially important to my constituents. The Resolution Foundation has praised it, and has praised universal credit for its resilience during the pandemic. Will the Minister commit himself to maintaining that resilience for the benefit of everyone in the country?
My hon. Friend has made a good point. There are people who criticise universal credit, but, as I said earlier, it is a simplifying mechanism. It proved to be very resilient in response to the pandemic, and it helped millions of people at a crucial time. We have learnt lessons in that regard, but, as we have said before and as I have reiterated today, there are wider lessons that we also need to learn, and we will do so.
I wish to pay tribute to Greenwich Borough Council’s welfare rights unit for identifying this error and for the tenacity with which it pursued it on behalf of my constituent. This will affect the 118,000 other people who have also been wronged. My constituent suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, arthritis, hypertension and Graves’ disease. This decision left her to survive on far less than she was entitled to between 23 May 2012 and 11 August 2017, amounting to £80 a week. The DWP, having made this error, compounded the problem by refusing to allow her to complain to the independent case examiner and by failing to tell her about her right to go to the ombudsman.
The ombudsman has now recommended that, within one month of the final report, the DWP should write to my constituent to apologise for the impact of maladministration on her life, make a payment of £7,500 to compensate her for the impact and apply the appropriate rate of interest to the benefit arrears payment of £19,832.55. Will the Minister give me an undertaking that the DWP will comply with the ombudsman’s recommendations on behalf of my constituent?
As I said right at the beginning, the hon. Gentleman has represented his constituent’s case well, as I would expect. We apologise unreservedly for the situation in which his constituent, Ms U, found herself. We will pay the compensation and the interest, as set out in the report. That will happen, and I very much hope we can get the apology over to her well before the month set out by the ombudsman. I will gladly discuss this further with the hon. Gentleman after this urgent question.
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman said in its judgment:
“It is human to make mistakes but not acting to right wrongs is a matter of policy choice.”
In this case the choice has been made by the very organisation that is responsible for supporting those most in need. Will the Minister please outline how many people in my Vauxhall constituency were impacted by underpayments? This decision has had a devastating impact by causing financial hardship for some of the most vulnerable people. They need that compensation now, so can he confirm that it will happen?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I genuinely do not know how many were in the Vauxhall constituency, as we do not have that level of data. As I set out, there are mechanisms that her constituents who might have concerns can follow up. We will formally respond to the report, as I set out.
Such incidents are obviously very regrettable, so having robust IT systems and finding ways to design out the human element that might have caused these mistakes is clearly very important. Can the Minister assure me that every possible effort will be made to ensure such incidents do not happen again?
We all make mistakes, and this was clearly a big one. All I can say is that we will learn the lessons. We made an active response when we found out the scale of the problem. We did the review, and then we put 1,200 staff into this exercise to rectify the situation. We did not take it lightly. We responded actively to the situation once we found the error.
I think all hon. Members here know this is not the first time the ombudsman has found maladministration in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions. Before Christmas I wrote to the Minister about two of my constituents who seem to have been given incorrect advice by benefit advisers in relation to being on remand and being released without charge. They are suffering financial hardship as a result. I listened to what he said about reading the report and taking its recommendations, but what is the DWP doing when these issues are highlighted to it by MPs and rights agencies to ensure we deal with them at an early stage?
I am relatively new in post—I have been here about three or four months—and all I can say is that I take a very active interest in the correspondence from MPs across the House. I hope people are aware of that. I will gladly separately follow up either in writing or in a meeting about the particular points that the hon. Member makes. We need to learn lessons. Our postbags are invaluable sources of information that sometimes are not really seen by officials or civil servants in the same light. It is an invaluable source of information to help me do my job. I will gladly follow up.
The problems highlighted by the ombudsman’s report were not only predictable, but in some respects were predicted. Welfare rights workers are brilliant at what they do on behalf of our constituents, but they are often swamped by the demand, but would they be necessary at all if the Department was doing its work properly, efficiently, in a timely fashion and getting its determinations right for our constituents in the first place? Can the Minister outline how many people in my constituency of Gateshead were affected by this ministerial and departmental maladministration? If he cannot do so now, will he do so in writing in short order?
I would like to, but unfortunately we do not have that data at that individual level. [Interruption.] As I was about to go on to say, let me see what is available, and I can follow up. What I will say is that an error has been made here—I accept that—but we all know that many, many people who work in the Department for Work and Pensions do a fantastic job and are committed to serving people who are very vulnerable. Through this error, I would not want to cast a view across all DWP civil servants; they do a remarkable job. I accept that we made an error in this situation, and I will follow up on the points the hon. Member makes.
The Government and this Department have a track record of having to be dragged to the ombudsman or dragged to court to make the most basic human decisions. In Scotland, we put dignity and respect at the heart of everything we do with regards to social security. Does the Minister not agree that that would be a much better approach than having to be dragged to court or the ombudsman to make decisions that should have been made in the first place?
I understand the point the hon. Member makes. There are obviously competing challenges here. We are here today worrying about the concerns of some very vulnerable people, but we also need to look at the taxpayers’ demands, too, and there are challenges, as the Scottish Government will discover as they start to take on more benefits. We work closely with the Scottish Government in their desire to take on more responsibility for welfare provision, and all I would say is that things are not always straightforward; there are very challenging circumstances, as Members on the Opposition Benches who have been in these offices will know. I accept the challenge, but we are working together with the Scottish Government to give support here. We will learn the lessons from this case and move forward.
May I just say that it is very disappointing that this had to be an urgent question today, rather than a statement from the Government? It is also very disappointing that the Minister does not have the basic information that most constituency MPs will want to know, which is how many of our constituents have been affected by the maladministration of his Department. Can he reassure me that he will employ the same energy his Department uses to pursue those who receive overpayments to ensure that those people who should get compensation and payments for benefits that they did not receive will do so?
Yes. We are a very large operational Department that takes care of the needs of millions of people. It is disappointing to me when we make errors. I work as hard as I can day in, day out to ensure we do not make errors. Sometimes we do and they are genuine and then we need to rectify them speedily. Sometimes they are fraudulent situations, and when we have a figure of £8.4 billion for fraud, partly because of the increase in welfare payments around coronavirus, we have to go through procedures, because some people, sadly and disappointingly, are trying to rip off the taxpayer and take money away from people who deserve it. There is a difficult balance. I understand the point that the right hon. Lady makes and I can assure her I am working hard on those points.
It is not the first time that there has been a finding of maladministration at the DWP; there was a similar judgment on the pensions of 1950s-born women. That does prompt questions about the DWP’s competence.
On this specific issue, I was going to ask the Minister how many people in the Denton and Reddish constituency are affected, but he does not have that data, which I find astounding, quite frankly. That is basic data that Members of Parliament need. Why is the onus on individuals to come forward to the DWP? Why is he not being proactive in going out to the individuals who are affected? That seems like common sense to me.
We were very active in engaging in with the 118,000 people to make sure that their arrears were paid. As I said, if people still believe that arrears are owed or that they should receive further compensation, they can get in touch with the available helplines. We will, as I said, consider and review the report, which we received—as it was published—only today.
The Minister will know that the UK was found to be in breach of the human rights of people with disabilities by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. He will know that some 7 million people live in food insecurity and food poverty in Britain. In Wales, we earn only 70% of the UK average, so thousands of vulnerable people in Swansea have been hit by this. Will he ensure not just that those people are paid, but that payments are made to charities for disabilities, and that we look again at universal credit uplift and perhaps a universal basic income so that the poorest do not continually fall through the net during the cost-of-living crisis?
I think I have highlighted what we are going to do in response to this particular situation. The hon. Gentleman makes some other points about what we are doing on food security and for those vulnerable people. As he knows, we have created an additional support fund—in England, it is called the household support fund—of £500 million across the UK. A chunk of that money—around £21 million, from memory; it is over £20 million anyway—has gone to Wales, and the Welsh Government are using it to help vulnerable people. We recognise that there are people who need further support.
On universal basic income, people who have tried that out—ask the Finnish Government—said that it is not the way forward; it is untargeted and does not provide a work incentive. I do not think it is the way forward. Of course, we can always improve our welfare approaches, but that is not the approach that would help.
The Minister has said that we are talking about some of the most vulnerable people, so does he not think it shameful that 42% of families relying on disability benefits are still living in poverty? Can he tell us what long-term strategy his Government have to address that and lift those families out of poverty? Will he make sure that the DWP will permanently continue virtual and telephone health assessments to help remove some of the barriers for disabled people who need the support? Often, that is the most stressful part of the entire process of claiming support.
More needs to be done to make those processes simpler. Again, this specific area is not part of my portfolio or brief, but we have made significant progress in getting disabled people into work, and we want to move that forward with the disability strategy and a clear action plan. I know that my colleague the Minister for Disabled People will actively drive that forward across the nations, and will work very closely on that with the Scottish Government as well.
I thank the Minister for his replies. There is no doubt that the inaccuracy of benefit payments will have a detrimental impact on individuals and their families throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Many of those 118,000 people are vulnerable and face the injustice of arrears. Those moneys belong to those people. Will the Minister confirm a timescale in which those affected are likely to receive their compensation? How many of the people to whom unpaid money is due are from Northern Ireland? What amount of money is due for Northern Ireland? I would appreciate an answer today, but if the Minister does not have the figures, I am very happy to wait for a written response.
The exercise to pay the arrears to the 118,000 people is complete. As of 1 June 2021, we have reviewed 600,000 cases. The 118,000 arrears payments were made to those who were eligible, and a total of £613 million has been paid. I will follow up on the hon. Gentleman’s other points.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 17 January—Remaining stages of the Elections Bill.
Tuesday 18 January—Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [Lords] followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Charities Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 19 January—Remaining stages of the Building Safety Bill.
Thursday 20 January—Debate on a motion on the Uyghur tribunals, followed by general debate on lawfare and the UK court system. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 21 January—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 24 January will include:
Monday 24—Opposition day (9th allotted day—2nd part). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party, subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 25 January—Remaining stages of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill.
Mr Speaker, may I conclude this announcement by paying tribute to Jack Dromey because it is the first opportunity for me to do so and to pass my sympathy to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)? It is such a tragedy for her. It is a loss to the House, a loss to the Labour party and the Labour movement, but also a loss to politics more generally. We mourn with the Mother of the House and her family.
First, I thank the Leader of the House for his tribute to our friend Jack Dromey. I find it hard to talk about, so I will wait until the tributes, but I join him in sending our love, support and sympathy to the Mother of the House. The loss of Jack will be felt so keenly by so many and it is a real tribute to him that so many people have said so and so obviously fulsomely.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. I was listening intently to him. He will have noticed that I was gazing, waiting for the words to drop from his mouth. Given the publication of the Standards report into the conduct of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), I should not have to ask, but in the light of recent actions on a previous case, will he please confirm when the Standards motion will be laid, and whether the Government will mount the same level of defence as they did for the former constituency neighbour of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, Owen Paterson?
Last week, the Leader of the House revealed his socialist tendencies in calling for the scrapping of the national insurance rise. Last night, in the media, he revealed his Scottish National tendencies. [Interruption.] Didn’t he just? Indeed, I do not think that Scottish National party Members are as rude as he about his Scottish colleague. Is it now Government policy to attack their own party? Does the right hon. Gentleman think it is appropriate to dismiss the leader of the Scottish Conservatives as a “lightweight”? In the light of all that, could we have a statement on where the Government see the future of the Union?
First, the Prime Minister said no rules were broken. Then he said that he did not know about any parties, then that he needed to wait for the internal investigation, and now he has admitted that he was at one of them, but he did not know it was a party. The Prime Minister was the one setting the rules. Are we really expected to believe that he did not understand them? As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said—and goodness me, I wish I had thought of it—what a
“shower of shenanigans”—[Official Report, Wednesday 12 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 573.]
Can the Leader of the House direct us to the part of the coronavirus legislation where there is an exemption for the Prime Minister and those in No. 10 to break the rules and hold a boozy gathering just so that they can enjoy the nice weather? Does he really think that the Prime Minister cannot tell the difference between a party and a work meeting? And while I am at it, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he knows the difference? It is completely unsurprising that the public—the public—have concluded that the Prime Minister is lying to them and that he is laughing at them while he does. [Interruption.] It was the public—I did refer very carefully to the public and I did not make any accusations myself.
Throughout some of the most difficult months of this pandemic, all my constituents, and I am sure all the Leader of the House’s constituents, were following the rules that the Prime Minister set. On that day—when hundreds of people died from covid, it was illegal to meet any more than one person and that was allowed in an outside setting only—a bring-your-own-booze party was held at No. 10. I know that the Leader of the House has previously dismissed this as “brouhaha” and that the Prime Minister only attended the party for 25 minutes—I think that is what he said last night—but to all those who were unable to say goodbye to dying loved ones, unable to comfort family and friends, 25 minutes would have meant the world. But they, unlike the Prime Minister, followed the rules because they believed they were the right thing to do. How does the Leader of the House defend any of this as acceptable behaviour?
As if that is not enough, the Tories have been busy wasting even more taxpayers’ money this week. While our hard-working NHS staff were going without personal protective equipment, the Government were busy lining their mates’ pockets with PPE contracts. They are still covering up key documents and critical messages. Minutes have gone missing. A judge has ruled that the Government’s so-called VIP lane for handing out crony contracts was unlawful. So will the Leader of the House commit to a fully independent investigation to get to the bottom of how £3.5 billion of taxpayers’ hard-earned money was handed out in crony contracts and ensure that the Government cannot do this again?
When they are not wasting taxpayers’ money, the Government are voting against helping people with their bills. Working families feeling the pinch with rising prices deserve security, prosperity and respect, but this Government are not delivering that. I know the Leader of the House will say that there is a global gas price crisis, but I am sorry—it is 10 years of Conservative failed energy policy that has left us and our constituents uniquely exposed. The Conservatives’ dither, delay and incompetence have created an energy price crisis felt by everyone.
On Tuesday, the Government could have fixed this by backing Labour’s plan. Will the Leader of the House please explain why the Government refused to back the windfall tax that would have helped to support families and keep bills low, because if it was not clear then, it certainly is now—this is a Government who have lost their grip and working people are paying the price?
As regards the Standards report into my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), I had a discussion this morning with the Chairman of the Standards Committee, and the Government, as is normal, look forward to bringing forward the motion as soon as possible. The business statement for next week was prepared before we had received a copy of the inquiry, but that will be brought forward swiftly.
The hon. Lady went on to the Opposition day that was held earlier this week. The problem with that Opposition day was not the main subject that it tried to get to, but the process it was using, where the Opposition decided that they would take over the Government and suspend Standing Order No. 14. There is one very important thing that you have to do to control the Order Paper in this House, and that is to win a general election. The Labour party, in December 2019, failed to win a general election. It was won by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister with a majority of 80, and that is why, under Standing Order No. 14, the control of time in this House belongs to the Government. I would suggest to the hon. Lady that if she wishes to take control of the Order Paper, she wins an election—something that the socialists have found extraordinarily difficult in recent years and I expect they will continue to do so.
Then we come on to the issue of PPE, which has been raised before, and it is worth giving exactly the same answer: we needed PPE urgently. The normal procedure for procurement takes three to six months. We needed it immediately—there was not the ability to hang around. Interestingly, the judgment that came forth yesterday said that the contracts would have been awarded in the same way anyway and they were awarded not by Ministers, but by civil servants. Exactly what happened with the vaccine success was what was done with PPE. It was essential to ensure that the national health service had what it needed.
The hon. Lady challenged me about my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). My hon. Friend has an office within the Conservative party and it seems to me that people who hold office ought to support the leader of the party. That is the honourable and proper thing to do. But the United Kingdom is something that we can celebrate and debate in this Chamber daily. It is the foundation—the cornerstone—of the success of the nation as a whole. We are very fortunate to have the United Kingdom that we have and we are particularly fortunate to have the Scotland Secretary that we have, who is such a formidable figure in Scottish politics and offers the strongest, firmest and clearest leadership.
Let us come to the most important issue that the hon. Lady raised, which relates to events in Downing Street on 20 May 2020. First, I remind her that the Prime Minister came here yesterday and apologised. He said that with hindsight it was not what should have happened or what he would have wanted to happen. It is being investigated by Sue Gray, a civil servant of the highest integrity and of the greatest reputation. I think that everybody understands, on all sides of the House, that people were obeying the rules and that these rules were very hard for people to obey. I received a message last night from a friend of mine who was unable to go to the funeral of his two-year-old granddaughter. One cannot hear these stories without grieving for people who suffered. Decisions were taken at the beginning of the pandemic that affected people up and down the country and they were very hard. We must consider, as this goes to an inquiry and we look into what happened with covid, whether all those regulations were proportionate, or whether it was too hard on people. As we hear of these stories, we inevitably grieve for those who suffered, those who could not visit people they loved—their family—and could not attend funerals. But I think the key is that this is being looked into, Sue Gray will report, the Prime Minister has made his apology clear and, as he said yesterday, he understands—as do I—the “rage”, his own word, felt by people who they were making these terrible sacrifices. There is no doubt about that and the Prime Minister’s position was absolutely clear.
I was going to ask the Leader of the House about my private Member’s Bill tomorrow on abolishing the licence fee and the support I seemed to get from the Prime Minister for it. Unfortunately, however, this morning, my office was yet again vandalised. It is not fair on my staff in Wellingborough and it is not fair for other Members who have suffered similarly. So my question to him now is: may we have a debate next week on the security of Members in this House and the importance of that to our democratic process?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am very concerned, as I know you will be, Mr Speaker, about the issue that he raised on the security of his office and the risk taken by his staff. I can reassure him that the review of MPs’ security with the Home Office and the Metropolitan police is going ahead well, that an updated letter went to you, Mr Speaker, and the Home Secretary at the end of December, and that you have both approved work to continue. It is so important for the sake of democracy that Members are safe in their offices and I am sure that the police will take this attack extremely seriously. It is difficult for me to promise a debate because we do not debate security matters publicly, for very obvious reasons in relation to security itself.
May I just reaffirm that all Members’ security and safety is taken very seriously? I have quickly made a note of what the Member has just said, but I would not expect a debate on Members’ security on the Floor of the House because, as the Leader of the House said, it is something that we do not discuss.
I suppose the only statement we want in the next few days is one confirming that the Prime Minister has written to Her Majesty the Queen to offer his resignation. The absurd and laughable defence that he did not know he was at a party has insulted and offended a nation, who now just want him gone. For the Leader of the House to stand there and say that somehow the rules were wrong just compounds this.
There are three options available to the Prime Minister: first, he somehow manages to find some self-respect and dignity, and goes of his own volition; secondly, Conservative Members somehow find a collective backbone and compel him to go; or, thirdly, we all wait until an election, and a good proportion of them will go down with him. That is what they are left with.
Now, of course, the Scottish Tories know exactly how the rest of Scotland feels after the Leader of the House poured his scorn and contempt upon them last night. According to him, the democratically elected Scottish Tory leader is an insignificant figure—a “lightweight”, a nobody—presumably just like every single Tory MSP who agrees with their Scottish leader. The Scottish Tories are supposed to be the praetorian guard of their precious Union, and the Leader of the House has just undermined them and thrown them under the proverbial bus. If this is how the Government treat even the Scottish Tories, why should the Scottish people even entertain being any part of their useless Union?
Does the Leader of the House want to take this opportunity now to apologise to the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for his remarks last night, or is he prepared to make them once again in this House just to confirm what we in Scotland all know, which is that this is a Government who could not care less about Scotland and Scottish democracy?
The problem with the hon. Gentleman’s approach to business questions is that he is so angry every week that one never knows whether it is real or synthetic. He could have called for the Prime Minister to resign at every business questions at which we have exchanged pleasantries since I became Leader of the House, other than during his brief sabbatical away from the role, so I think his call for the Prime Minister to resign is not one of which any notice will be taken.
The Prime Minister won an election, and that is the basis on which our democracy in this country works. He won a majority of 80, and he has done so much to the benefit of this country in the last two years. If we look at the whole panoply of decisions made with regard to covid, the Prime Minister has consistently got them right. He got the vaccine right, he got ending the lockdown in the summer right, he got the refusal to impose new restrictions before Christmas right, and he got furlough and the £400 billion to support the economy right.
Again and again, the Prime Minister got the decisions right that mean this country is coming out of the pandemic in a better position than other countries across the world. It is something we should recognise, and that required good, solid, decisive leadership. That is not beginning to say that every decision made was perfect—that would not be within human nature—but the result of what has happened following the decisions that the Prime Minister has made has been to allow this country to do better than others as we come out of this pandemic.
Could we have a debate or a statement about developers that build on greenfield sites and do not tell the people who buy their houses that Japanese knotweed is present when they know it is present? They should do a survey, and they should alert people to it. I have constituents who now cannot sell their houses because developers such as Persimmon are not dealing with the problem seriously and getting rid of it so that they can sell their houses on. Could we have a debate on that?
My hon. Friend has raised the point so very effectively. Japanese knotweed is the most common of four invasive knotweed plant species in the UK, and landowners have an obligation to stop knotweed on their land spreading from their property. Soil or plant material contaminated with non-native and invasive plants such as Japanese knotweed can cause ecological damage and may be classified as controlled waste. This is a matter to be raised with the Environment Agency, and I will do that on behalf of my hon. Friend. People do not have to remove knotweed from their land unless it is causing a nuisance, but they can be prosecuted for causing it to spread into the wild.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week, particularly the two debates on Thursday under the aegis of the Backbench Business Committee on the Uyghur tribunals and on lawfare and the UK court system.
Due to the very heavily subscribed application for the Holocaust Memorial Day debate on 27 January, we are at the moment considering converting a whole afternoon to that debate, which I hope does not cause any problems with clashes with other events. We have now received the application for the Welsh Affairs debate to coincide with the week of St David’s Day on 1 March.
On Tuesday, I chaired a meeting with Network Rail and London North Eastern Railway about the proposed timetable changes on the east coast main line. At over 500 miles long, it is a line that LNER shares with nine other operating companies, and it is quite clear that the complexity of the timetabling problems is caused in the main by lack of line capacity north of York. Can we have a statement on what the Department for Transport is going to do as a matter of urgency to increase capacity on the east coast main line north of York?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee for giving me advance notice of his debates and that the Holocaust Memorial Day debate may be a full day’s debate. I will take that as lobbying me to try to deter statements on that day; Mr Speaker may well take it as an attempt to lobby him to deter urgent questions on that day. We have our separate responsibilities.
The integrated rail plan investment expenditure is going to be £96 billion: a great deal is being done to ensure that the rail system has the funding it needs. The £26.2 billion Department for Transport budget for 2024-25 is a real-terms increase of 1.9%, but there is £35 billion-worth of rail investment over the spending review period. Enormous sums are going in, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of where they should specifically go; an Adjournment debate may be the most suitable option.
Next week, the last piece of roof metalwork is due to be installed as part of the restoration of the 26 individual cast iron roofs of the Palace of Westminster. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Mary Gallagher and the team involved in this historic project, which has been done on time and within budget, and in wishing the restoration and renewal programme every success in following the roof projects team’s impressive example?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I thank Mary Gallagher for the work she has done. “On time and under budget” is not a phrase that one often hears in relation to projects in the public sector, let alone within the House of Commons, so this is absolutely terrific news. As we come to debate in due course the rumours that we hear of a potential 20-year decant, and enormous sums of money for restoration and renewal, we will have to think about how well the roofs programme was done. It is an indication of the historic nature of this building that the roof has a very unusual form, and it has been very carefully repaired—within budget, as my hon. Friend says. Keeping careful control of taxpayers’ money should be our watchword.
I am delighted to say that the unsuccessful attempt by the board of Liverpool Victoria to demutualise and sell up to the controversial American private equity giant Bain Capital just before Christmas was unsuccessful, but it revealed a series of legislative and regulatory weaknesses in the rules governing mutuals. Almost 90% of the owners of Liverpool Victoria rejected the board’s dismal deal, but will the Leader of the House nevertheless find time for a debate about how to strengthen the mutual sector and its rules?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. Historically, mutuals have been a good way of providing financial services and pooling risk—and, indeed, pooling profits for investors. Sometimes mutuals have been demutualised with very significant profits for the mutual owners, which has been quite welcome to them, but of course it is always important that people should be treated fairly and that boards observe their fiduciary duty. The hon. Gentleman is sitting next to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee; I suggest that he has a quiet word to seek a debate.
There are many unsung heroes in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, but I want to commend one in particular: Isaac Rotherham, a pupil at St Mary’s Church of England Primary School in Tunstall who turned nine on 27 December. Rather than asking for a list of presents for himself, he asked for a list of items needed by the homeless. Isaac handed the 200 to 300 items over to legendary Stoke City manager Lou Macari, who now runs the Macari Centre, which provides support and shelter for homeless people. During the covid pandemic, the centre provided covid-secure accommodation for roughly 40 people in glamping-style pods. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Isaac a belated happy birthday and applauding him and Lou for all they have done for the local community across Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke?
It is an honour to join my hon. Friend in wishing Isaac a belated happy birthday. I am sure that the whole House will applaud Isaac and Lou for what they have achieved and for the incredible support that they have provided for the homeless. I am glad to say that the number of households that are homeless or threatened with homelessness is now below pre-pandemic levels. Good progress has been made on our manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping: our most recent rough sleeping snapshot shows that levels have fallen by 43% since 2017. The Government’s ambition to end rough sleeping within this Parliament still stands; we are working on the sector to build on the recent progress. Isaac and Lou are an inspiration to us all, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing another success of Stoke to the attention of the House.
I have met many constituents who have post covid-19 syndrome, also known as long covid. Many of them are workers—teachers, healthcare professionals, police officers—who caught covid working as part of this country’s frontline response to the covid-19 pandemic. With that in mind, will the Government provide time for a debate to allow MPs to bring the experiences of their constituents with long covid to this Chamber, giving the Government the opportunity to explain how they intend to deliver on their obligation to those workers and support them in the long term?
The hon. Lady raises a point of considerable importance that will be of concern to hon. Members across the House in representing their constituents. I can tell her that NHS England and NHS Improvement is spending £224 million to expand NHS long covid treatment and rehabilitation services and establish 90 long covid assessment services, including paediatric hubs for children and young people. I am sure that we still have a great deal to learn about the condition, but I can reassure her that NHS England is taking steps.
One of the familiar names on high streets up and down the country is Wilko. It is crucial to the vitality of St Peter’s Avenue in Cleethorpes, but unfortunately the company has announced the store’s possible closure, which is of obvious concern, particularly to the staff. The Government have done a great deal to support our high streets, but this is clearly another example of the difficulties that companies are facing. Could I urge the Leader of the House to consider a debate to further explore what can be done to ensure that companies such as Wilko retain their outlet in Cleethorpes?
As always, my hon. Friend is a great champion for his constituency. I can tell him what the Government have been doing. The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund includes help to regenerate town centres and high streets. Considerable measures have been taken to spur innovation and investment across the country and help business to build back better from the pandemic. We are increasing the British Business Bank’s regional financing programme to £1.6 billion, providing capital to businesses across the country; extending the temporary £1 million annual investment allowance cap to March 2023, providing more up-front support to help businesses to invest and grow; and reducing the burden of business rates by more than £7 billion over five years. All those things should help high streets, but the support that my hon. Friend gives by encouraging people to use their high street and go to the shops will also be important in maintaining a competitive high street.
I have a British constituent who is still trapped in Afghanistan. She is an eight-year-old child—just eight—and is being kept from her mum and little sister because of successive Passport Office failures dating back to 2014. We have made frantic efforts to get her out, before and since the flights stopped. On one day, she was in a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office minibus, so close to the airport, for 24 hours—an enormous risk—but was turned away because she had been given nothing to show and no support to get through the checkpoints and the gates. I have written to the Foreign Secretary and others many, many times, but there has been no constructive answer and no action. This little girl is in grave danger, and she believes her mum does not love her. We have to bring her home. Will the Leader of the House intervene with his friends in the Home Office and the FCDO to get an answer and some action as soon as possible from someone?
I am very sorry to hear about that eight-year-old girl. The hon. Lady puts her case very forcefully. I have said before at this Dispatch Box that whenever right hon. and hon. Members have individual constituency cases I will do whatever I can to take them up with the relevant Departments, to try to get answers. I cannot promise the answer, because that is not within my purview, but if she writes to me with all the details, I will certainly take it up with both the Home Office and the Foreign Office as necessary.
As we know, the Welsh NHS is managed by the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff, and the biggest challenge facing my constituents is access to healthcare. Twelve hours in A&E is now normal, as are two weeks to get a repeat prescription and patients having to travel over the border to access minor injury units. I understand that that is not this Government’s jurisdiction, but can my right hon. Friend suggest ways that I can hold the Welsh Labour Government to account for my constituents?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this concerning matter, and I also thank her for her personal contribution to the health service, not just before becoming a Member but throughout the pandemic; I understand she returned to frontline nursing in 2020 to support the fight against covid-19. The poor performance of the NHS in Wales is, as she rightly says, a devolved matter and the precise policy is a matter for Cardiff Bay rather than Westminster, but those problems in the end affect the whole United Kingdom, with people coming across into England for minor injuries because of failures in the Welsh health service.
I am glad to say that on 18 January the Welsh Grand Committee will meet in Parliament to debate strengthening the Union in Wales—[Hon. Members: “Hurrah!”] I am glad it is so widely supported across the House; at last we have achieved bipartisan support. It will be a good opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I expect that many right hon. and hon. Members will be able to use their parliamentary standing to hold the socialist Welsh Government to account.
When the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill left this House it was woefully under-scrutinised, since which time the Government have ladled amendments into it hand over fist in the other place. Those amendments include many draconian restrictions on our prized freedoms, especially the right to protest. Can the Leader of the House give me some assurance that, if the Government are successful in getting those amendments through the other place, when the Bill comes back to this House we will be given proper time—at least half a day or a day—to debate those amendments and not just the usual one hour?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. This House and the other place are both here to protect the freedoms of this nation and of the individuals within it, but also to protect their right to go about their lives in an orderly way. Therefore, there must be a balance between the right to protest and the right of people to go about their business. Amendments from the House of Lords go through a normal process. The precise timing for any consideration of Lords amendments is a matter for discussion; his representations have been made and I have heard them, but it will depend on the other business going through the House at the time.
Today, trade talks kicked off in New Delhi between the United Kingdom and India. As my right hon. Friend will know, the EU has been trying to do a trade deal with India since 1997, without any success. The opportunities for the United Kingdom and India of a mutually agreed trade deal are clearly enormous, so could my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to be made next week on the objectives the UK has in achieving this trade deal, so that Members across the House can contribute their ideas on how we can get the best deal possible for both the United Kingdom and our friends in India?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. India is one of our closest and most important allies, and I think will become closer and more important over the decades ahead. I can tell him that there will be questions to the Department for International Trade next Thursday, which would be an initial opportunity to raise those important matters. However, the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee is still in his place, and—without trying to lobby him, because I have no standing to do so—I think this would be a worthy subject for debate and many Members would be interested in how our friendly relationship with India can become even better.
I am sure that many Members present have experienced the never-ending struggle of trying to get a timely response from the Home Office. In Luton North, we have hundreds of cases that have exceeded the 20 working day response time. It is simply not good enough, especially for those waiting on immigration and asylum cases who want to get on with their lives—they want to get jobs, feel safe and contribute to our society. I would ask for a debate, but what I really want is some answers for constituents.
I take this issue extremely seriously. I think it is part of my role as Leader of the House to chase up Departments when answers are not forthcoming punctually. I have done that for quite a number of right hon. and hon. Members, and I am happy to continue to do so. Earlier this week, I wrote to all other members of the Cabinet reminding them of the importance of giving timely and good answers to written questions. I will happily take up the hon. Lady’s individual case if she contacts my office.
In 2006, Gunner Lee Thornton from Blackpool sadly lost his life during his second tour of Iraq. Lee loved his country and serving in the Army. Lee’s mum Karen has been campaigning for a suitable memorial for him, but, despite contacting Blackpool Council on multiple occasions, she has yet to receive a response. A petition requesting that Blackpool Council honours Lee’s service by, for example, looking to name a local road after him, has attracted a great deal of local support. Does my right hon. Friend agree that surely it is right that those who make the ultimate sacrifice serving the country receive a fitting tribute? Will he find time for a debate on how we can suitably recognise those who make the ultimate sacrifice?
We should be so grateful to people like Gunner Lee Thornton who are willing to lay down their lives for the country. It is, as my hon. Friend says, the ultimate service, and it is right that they should be memorialised locally. That is a proper way of remembering them, and that is surely our duty. We always say that we will remember them, and it is right to do it locally where their families and friends will be able to see the permanent memorial. I encourage my hon. Friend to continue his campaign. I think that the specific issue would benefit from an Adjournment debate to discuss the individual facts. I think that there would be so much agreement about the proper memorialisation in a wider debate that it would be rather more a series of statements in support of my hon. Friend.
It is telling, is it not, that the only Scottish Conservative willing to defend the Prime Minister is the Scottish Conservative on the Prime Minister’s payroll? The Leader of the House’s withering dispatch yesterday of the Scottish Conservative leader evidences the disdain with which Scotland is viewed by the Westminster elite and demonstrates that Scotland is a possession and not a partner of this Union. Can we have a debate about how we smoothly and transactionally move Scotland out of this Union and into a brighter independent future?
I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are equal fundamental parts of the United Kingdom, without which there is no United Kingdom. Our great history, our great tradition and our success as a nation has been built on this Union. How did we, a small country, a small island off the coast of the European continent, become one of the great empires in the world? It was thanks often to the work of people from Scotland. Why was it that, when I used to live in Hong Kong, there was Aberdeen in Hong Kong? It was because of the contribution of the Scottish people to making the whole of the United Kingdom a great nation. That is celebrated on the Conservative side of the House and is something that we glory in as our great, shared, joined history. It is our history of ties of kinship, of ties of blood and of ties of involvement in each other’s lives. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s absolute question and fundamental point, people who hold office in the Conservative party are honour-bound to support the Prime Minister.
There are currently no statutory requirements for a planning authority to consult immediate neighbours in another planning authority, nor are there any requirements to consult anybody at all in relation to the issuing of certificates of lawful use. The current framework therefore provides for greater opportunities for green-belt development by the back door, and that is happening right now between my constituency and neighbouring South Staffordshire. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on planning policy in relation to the requirements for public consultation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Certificates of lawful use are exactly what they say and if the use is lawful then people are allowed to do it. If, on the other hand, enforcement action is taken, or people get it wrong and they should have applied for planning permission, then they have to apply for retrospective planning permission and can be forced to take buildings down. Local planning authorities are meant to co-operate with each other, but do not necessarily have to consult on individual applications. They all, however, have an overriding obligation to co-operate, because development can have knock-on effects from one community to another. I reassure my hon. Friend that protecting the green belt is a firm manifesto commitment. We are looking to improve the planning system to make it work more effectively, but also to ensure that restrictions are carried out properly. We need to build more houses. We need to ensure that people have homes they can live in and to make the dream of home ownership available, but it must be done in a proper and considered way.
Can we find time for an urgent debate on pensions injustices, so that I and many other Members across the House can raise the case of members of the Pensions Action Group, including members of the financial assistance scheme and many former Allied Steel and Wire workers in my constituency? I pay tribute to our late friend Jack Dromey for all the support he gave, typically, to those seeking justice on pensions during his time as shadow Minister. Many are suffering because of the failure to link their pensions to inflation, which is now going up massively. Some are now receiving 40% less than they were entitled to. With them, we met the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) in summer last year and provided detailed submissions afterwards, but received a reply only in November, with little comfort or support for those pensioners. The Leader of the House might think they are going to go away, but I assure him that they are not. It is important that we have a debate, so we can all put our cases to the Minister.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that private pension schemes are much more effectively regulated than they once were to try to ensure protections for pensioners, but many of them are still dependent on the underlying business and the ability of the business to afford the pensions. The Pensions Regulator has a responsibility to do that. It also has a fund to support pension funds that become insolvent or businesses that become unable to afford their pension obligations. None the less, he is right to stand up for his constituents who are expecting pensions they do not get. For a debate, however, in the first instance I point him to the Backbench Business Committee.
The Mayor of London is failing to maintain and upgrade tube stations in my constituency. South Kensington, the gateway to our world-class museums, unbelievably has no step-free access to the District and Circle line, and the Piccadilly line does not even stop at South Kensington at the moment. Ladbroke Grove in north Kensington, which is vital to access north Kensington, again has no step-free access. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Mayor of London needs to get his act together and provide suitable transport links for my constituents, and will he contemplate a debate on the matter?
I am contemplating having a set question every week to which the answer is, “The Mayor of London is failing,” because this is a continued theme of questions I get about what he is not managing to do. My hon. Friend raises a very important question about mismanagement. Bear in mind that £4 billion of emergency funding has come from the taxpayer to Transport for London, and that when London transport was run by the Prime Minister when he was Mayor of London, in that halcyon age of 2008 to 2016, services were much better. Disabled access is of fundamental importance and this failure of the Mayor is further evidence of his mismanagement.
The judge in the High Court ruling that deemed unlawful the Government’s red carpet-to-riches VIP lane for personal protective equipment suppliers, stated:
“There is evidence that opportunities were treated as high priority even where there were no objectively justifiable grounds for expediting the offer.”
Some 32 billion items of PPE, valued at £14 billion, were bought through directly awarded and negotiated contracts. Rather than giving us history lessons in his reply, as he so often does during business questions, what action is the Leader of the House going to take to ensure that VIP lane procurement is investigated, and will he set time in Parliament for debates accordingly?
I suggest the hon. Lady reads the judgment, because it was absolutely clear that the contracts would have been awarded to the same people, and that they were done by civil servants, not by Ministers. I reiterate what I said to the shadow Leader of the House—that it was a matter of emergency, of urgency, and of need. There is dither and delay with the socialists. They never want to get on with anything. They always put process ahead of achieving things. They would still have us in lockdown and not able to move about. They love regulation, because that is what they believe in. What Her Majesty’s Government did was get the PPE that was needed and the vaccine that was needed. To do that, yes, of course, they had to short-circuit some elements of procurement, which normally takes three to six months.
The first part of the inquiry into the Manchester arena bombing has just been published. As the House will know, on 22 May 2017, Islamist suicide bomber Salman Abedi murdered 22 people and injured hundreds more at the Manchester arena. Despite the fact that Salman Abedi was known to security services as an Islamist extremist with multiple terrorist connections, he was not questioned when he returned from Libya just a few days before the attack. Given that and given similar failures to stop attacks in Liverpool and Southend, can we have an urgent debate on the Prevent strategy and the Government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy? We must not bury our head in the sand.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I welcome the Home Secretary’s publication of the consultation findings on the Protect duty. As he rightly highlights, the Manchester arena attack was a tragic event, and it is so important that we bring forward legislation to support public safety while not placing excessive burdens on smaller businesses. The Government’s overriding priority must be, is and always will be keeping the people of the United Kingdom safe. Prevent is having an effect in stopping people being drawn into terrorism. Prevent is about working in areas where there are risks of radicalisation, and it offers support predominantly through local community partnerships.
The independent review of Prevent is looking at the effectiveness of the Government’s strategy to protect vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism. The Government will carefully consider the findings and the recommendations of the review and assess the implications for the future of Prevent. I obviously note my hon. Friend’s points about the better monitoring of those who come into this country, which I am sure has been a great concern to many British people following these attacks. We have Home Office questions on Monday, so I urge him to raise this directly with the Home Secretary then.