The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Moving Civil Service Jobs outside London
Before I start, Mr Speaker, I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say I am appalled by the horrific events in Ukraine. This is an unprovoked attack by President Putin, and the UK and its allies will respond decisively. This morning the Prime Minister spoke to President Zelensky and chaired Cobra. He will make a statement to this House later today to outline the UK response, including overwhelming sanctions. The Cabinet Office is accelerating work on domestic resilience and we will provide more information on that in due course.
More than 2,000 civil service jobs have already moved to places across the UK under the Places for Growth programme, including York and the south-west.
May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s words? In this Parliament, we will stand in solidarity against the deranged tyranny we have seen and make the road that President Putin has chosen as painful as possible.
York is a beautiful city. It is the beating economic heart of the York city region, the new devolved region of York and the whole of the beautiful county of North Yorkshire. We would give a very warm welcome to anybody who relocates their jobs and their families to the area. Will my right hon. Friend update us on the very exciting plans we have heard about, which will see a number of jobs coming to the city?
Mr Speaker, even as Lancastrians I am sure that both you and I recognise that York is indeed a beautiful city. It very much features in our plans to relocate roles. Around 300 civil service roles have already moved or are moving to the city, in addition to the 2,790 civil servants already based in York.
We know it is important to have a good breadth of civil service jobs out in the country, but it is also important to have a diverse civil service. Will the Minister explain what he will do to ensure that the top jobs in the civil service better reflect the nation they seek to serve?
I could not agree more. The hon. Gentleman is right to champion diversity, which is at the heart of the Places for Growth programme. If we want a meritocracy, we need diversity as a part of that, recognising, as the Prime Minister has frequently said, that talent is equally distributed but opportunity often is not. People should be able to fulfil their careers closer to home. Moving senior-level jobs—for example, with the Treasury in Darlington—is a key part of enabling people from all backgrounds to access the very best jobs in our civil service.
I associate myself with the remarks made earlier. This is a dark day for democracy. As someone who has been in this House for a very long time and who was born during the Blitz, I know that dictators are never deterred by sanctions; they are deterred by firm action.
Huddersfield is a booming university town. It is the perfect place for people to come and live, with beautiful countryside. We are also a real centre for technology and innovation. We would love anything to do with green skills, green enterprise and green start-ups based in our university town.
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman. Through his experience in the House, he brings great context to the issues we face.
On Huddersfield, I very much agree. One of the issues is how we combine the Places for Growth programme with other parts of Government, not least the record investment in research and development—increased from £15 billion to £22 billion—so that we take the best of our academic research in our universities, and get the start-ups and then the scale-ups in places such as Huddersfield.
I echo the comments that have been made and our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine after Putin’s unprovoked and unjustifiable attack.
To ensure that talented civil servants can build their careers outside London, we need to see senior civil service roles based in our towns and cities, not just concentrated in Whitehall. We need to put opportunities back in the places that built Britain. The Government’s levelling-up White Paper estimates that about 7% of senior civil service roles will be moved out of London by 2025 and that a further 10% would need to be moved out by 2030 to meet the Government’s Places for Growth target, but beyond vague words and wishful thinking, there is no clear plan to achieve that, is there? So what is the Minister’s plan? Is it to move Londoners out, sack hard-working civil servants, as the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency suggests, or to have a meaningful recruitment strategy across our regions?
I went to Preston City Council and to look at the new National Cyber Force—we have investment going into the cyber corridor of the north-west, combining the innovation in Manchester with, for example, the fantastic courses that Lancaster University and the University of Central Lancashire offer—and as I found when talking to that Labour-led council, there is actually a lot of cross-party support for Places for Growth. I do not think there is a huge difference between the parties. On the plan, we can look at the 2,000 roles that have already moved and the levelling-up White Paper of 2 February, which sets out the plan for how this will be taken forward.
Civil Servants: Return to the Office
The Cabinet Office has followed central Government guidance to employers to reduce the risk of transmission in the workplace, so that all our buildings return to the maximum available capacity as soon as possible now that new restrictions have lifted.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. As well as getting Whitehall back to the office, and given the recent announcements about rolling back the state, does he agree that we should now focus on reducing both the record numbers of people working in central Government and the civil servant headcount?
I very much agree. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the spending review 2020 included a provision to do exactly that. However, the point is more nuanced, because this is also about empowering civil servants and taking away often the many layers so that the very good work of sometimes more junior civil servants can get to Ministers and senior decision makers. There is a fiscal benefit of this and an opportunity in how we better empower staff and, in turn, combine that with our learning and development offer. Indeed, that is why the Cabinet Office is doubling the learning and development package that we offer to our staff.
We all know that civil servants have a vital role in delivering and managing public services and it is essential that they can get on with that, so I welcome what has been described. However, will my right hon. Friend reassure my Aberconwy constituents by clarifying that any UK Government instruction to civil servants will also apply in Wales, where Welsh Government guidance remains to work at home?
We are clear, in relation to areas of reserved authority, that we are a UK Government—indeed, the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Union—and we have been clear on that in our messaging with Departments. The point is that many staff want to get back into the office, particularly those who do not have the benefit of a larger house, a garden and perhaps an office at home. There are often important opportunities that come from being in the office that are not always available when they work from home.
It is very good to hear the Minister’s positive response. Has the Department considered encouraging staff by allowing flexible working for a short time to allow reduced staff to acclimatise to working closely with others again? Not only is there a benefit for the workers, but there is a benefit from the economic spin-off of having people in offices so that the shops can also continue to thrive.
As an MP for a rural constituency, I absolutely recognise that point, as well as the issue of wellbeing relating to commuting times and other aspects, so this is part of a nuanced approach. However, the point is that the desks in Whitehall, for example, do not equate to the total number of full-time equivalent staff. There are already far fewer desks than FTEs, so if we are paying for office space, the question is why it would not be used. This is about using the office space that we have as well as recognising that there are opportunities for hybrid working.
Brexit Opportunities Unit
Thank you, Mr Speaker; it is a rare treat.
Her Majesty’s Government are delivering an ambitious programme to seize the opportunities of Brexit and deliver growth and innovation across the United Kingdom. The Brexit Opportunities Unit co-ordinates those reforms in close partnership with other Departments, including by working towards our target to cut at least £1 billion of EU red tape to help businesses to innovate and grow.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Welsh Government and Isle of Anglesey County Council are all setting up new facilities in Holyhead to enforce post-Brexit port regulations, bringing much-needed new local employment to my constituency of Ynys Môn. How will the Brexit Opportunities Unit work with those organisations to gather feedback on their operations that can then be used to inform the review and to inform regulation and policy?
My hon. Friend has become the greatest champion that Ynys Môn has ever had; every time she asks a question in this Chamber, she is always promoting her fantastic and beautiful constituency. Her constituents are very lucky to have her as their Member of Parliament. Once again, as so often, she is absolutely right: we will be driven by data and evidence from the frontline, not simply copying what has been done in the past. We therefore all look forward to seeing what happens at Holyhead.
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about Ukraine? My thoughts are with the people of Ukraine and I fully support them in their sovereignty.
I welcome the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency to his place. One result of Brexit is that we have an independent sanctions regime, so why have the Government not taken the opportunity before now to go further in their sanctions against Russia?
Following this morning’s inexcusable attack on independent Ukraine, may I put on record the SNP’s unequivocal condemnation of President Putin and his actions, and repeat our support for and our solidarity with the people of Ukraine?
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State for fantasy island—sorry, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities—to his place. That was an easy mistake to make, particularly as he believes that Brexit is already a success and that there is no evidence that it has caused trade to drop, despite the Office for National Statistics reporting that UK exports to the EU have fallen by £20 billion in 20 months. How can we trust him to deliver growth when he has hitherto been unable to accept the evidence of the ONS and the experience of just about every exporter in the UK who is losing business while drowning in a sea of paperwork and bureaucracy?
I welcome the cross-party support for the actions that the Government are taking in regard to Ukraine, and the cross-party support for the people of Ukraine in these very difficult circumstances.
As regards the hon. Gentleman’s statement about exports, he may have missed the fact that there has been a pandemic. I know that sometimes the SNP does not pay careful attention to public affairs, but the pandemic has had an effect on supply chains across the world and is one of many things that cannot be blamed on Brexit. I am delighted, however, that Scotland is reaping the rewards of Brexit and has decided to have a green freeport, which will be an enormous boost to the economy of Scotland. Perhaps he has noticed that, through the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, more powers have been devolved to Scotland. Is it not eccentric that our Scottish friends would like to be ruled from Brussels, rather than being part of a United Kingdom that works effectively for everybody?
Yet another classic example of “If the facts don’t fit the narrative, ignore the facts.”
Such was the faith that the Minister had in himself to find these Brexit opportunities that the first thing he did was issue a “What would you do in my shoes?” appeal to readers of a national newspaper. I am sure that the suggestions for what he could do came thick and fast, but what was the best suggestion that he received? Will he be implementing it?
Businesses and business organisations in my constituency are eager to engage with the Brexit Opportunities Unit. Will my right hon. Friend be touring the UK to promote Brexit opportunities, and if so, may I invite him to visit Cleethorpes in the near future?
My hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) compete with each other to be greatest champion of their constituencies. I look forward to visiting Cleethorpes in the not-too-distant future. There is a date in the diary, and I am looking forward to the finest food that Cleethorpes can provide when I go there to speak.
Her Majesty’s Government are reforming the procurement rules to make it simpler and quicker for suppliers, including small and medium-sized enterprises and social enterprises, to bid for public sector contracts. The reforms will entrench transparency for the full extent of a commercial transaction, and will make it easier for buyers to take account of previous poor performance by suppliers.
The Government need to get on and reform those rules somewhat more quickly, do they not? In answer to my written question about steel targets for HS2, the Government told me that they were unable to set targets for British steel procurement because of World Trade Organisation rules, but that is not true, is it? The US sets informal targets through the Buy American Act because the WTO allows it to do so. Where, then, is the Buy British-made Steel policy in Government contracts in this country, using the informal targets that are allowed by the WTO? Labour will make more, buy more and sell more in Britain; why will the Conservatives not do so as well?
One of the opportunities of Brexit is that we will be able to encourage people to buy more from SMEs, which tend to be UK-based rather than from overseas. Opening up procurement has the effect of ensuring that more British companies get contracts, and that is a good thing to be doing, but there is always a balance to be struck between ensuring that one buys cheaply and efficiently and supporting British companies. I believe that British companies can out-compete, and be as efficient as, anyone in the world, and that that is how procurement ought to operate.
The Government spend £2 billion every year on food for schools, hospitals, prisons and so on. When they eventually respond to the national food strategy, will they accept its recommendations on reforming procurement rules so that food purchased with taxpayers’ money is always healthy and sustainable—and will the Minister confirm that foie gras will not be on the menu?
I do not think we need to go into my personal dietary habits. I have mainly been giving free publicity to Cadbury Creme Eggs over the years, rather than going into the details of whether or not I like foie gras—although people may be able to guess what the answer is.
As for the strategy for procurement of food, one of the things it will do is allow social benefit to be taken into account. It will not just be about value for money, although value for money is inevitably fundamental to all procurement, so it will be possible for people to make decisions on a broader range of issues.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer, and the reform that he has promised for contractors, but many large-scale projects suffer because the Government’s ability to procure and contract management have not been as good as they should be. In his role as Minister for Government Efficiency, will my right hon. Friend take that on board, and will he ensure that the Government set out new guidelines for procurement for themselves so that they do not keep changing them and hence building in inefficiency?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The new procurement rules will make it easier for buyers to exclude suppliers that have underperformed on other public contracts. Currently, that is possible only if poor performance has led to contract termination, damages or other comparable sanctions. We will establish a new, centrally managed debarment register, which will identify any companies that should be banned from any new public contract.
Crucially, though, there has been a change within the procurement from Government to ensure that the management of contracts once they are procured is improved and is the great focus of the energy of the procurement department, because however brilliantly the procurement is issued, if it is not then managed well and effectively the benefits are lost. This is, in fact, an issue that we discussed when I had another role in this distinguished House.
Government tender documents are full of ancillary requirements that have laudable objectives individually but collectively form an enormous barrier to the participation of small and medium-sized enterprises because it is much harder for them to demonstrate compliance than it is for large businesses. Will my right hon. Friend consider relaxing those non-core requirements, to enable SMEs in Broadland and elsewhere to compete?
The personal liability insurance that people were required to have when contracting with the Cabinet Office inevitably excluded some smaller companies for which the cost of the extra insurance may have outweighed the benefit of winning the contract, and one of the first things I did in this post was to ask for that to be reviewed to see if it was proportionate and what we really needed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is the detailed pettifogging conditions that keep SMEs out, and we want to bring SMEs in.
Around 70% of all central Government contracts in 2021 went to suppliers in the south of England, with almost half going to companies in London. The Conservative Government’s procurement strategy could not be more at odds with the stated aims of their levelling-up agenda. They have made big promises but they are failing to deliver. We must see proper investment in our communities to create good-quality jobs and opportunities across the country and to boost local economies, so can the Minister outline the specific targets in the procurement Bill that will ensure that Government purchasing of goods and services is better spread across our country?
I cannot reveal the details of Bills before they are published, but I agree with the hon. Lady’s basic thrust and point. One of the advantages of our new procurement system is that we will have better data and will therefore be able to ensure that the whole of the country is represented. To revert to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), part of the way of spreading it more widely around the country is to bring in smaller businesses, which means getting rid of rules that are unnecessary and that hinder businesses from tendering for contracts.
The Minister is very welcome to come to Worthing, where I am sure he will get an even better culinary experience than when he goes to Cleethorpes. One of the great benefits of Brexit is that we are no longer bound by EU bureaucratic procurement rules, so will he ensure that there is clear guidance to local authorities, local schools and other areas of public procurement that they should favour local businesses, particularly smaller businesses, and local producers so that our children and public service workers can enjoy quality food and drink products that are locally produced in this country, environmentally friendly and create fewer air miles?
I look forward to my trip to Worthing and I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s invitation. He is absolutely right; this comes from the de-bureaucratisation—if that in itself is not a bureaucratic word—of the system, because it makes it easier for small companies to apply. The thing to remember is that large companies have departments that fill out tender documents, but small companies do not. We need to simplify the tender documents to bring the small companies in.
Over a year ago, at the Public Accounts Committee, I discovered that there were 10,000 shipping containers filled with millions of items of personal protective equipment costing billions of pounds, and I am afraid of waste. A few months later, I heard that there were 14,000 shipping containers full of unused PPE. I have put in a parliamentary question for an update, but so far it remains unanswered. Can the Minister please give us an update on how many shipping containers are still full of PPE this month?
That is a matter for the Department of Health, but I would defend the procurement of PPE because we needed PPE urgently, as we needed a vaccine urgently. We have heard constant criticism from the Opposition of something that had to be done urgently and had to break through the slowness of normal procurement timescales. Normal procurement takes three to six months, but we needed PPE tomorrow so we had to act urgently, as we did.
Our national cyber strategy sets out how we will ensure that the UK remains a leading democratic cyber-power that is more resilient and able to counter cyber-threats. This and the Government cyber-security strategy are supported by £2.6 billion of taxpayers’ money over the next three years.
I welcome the Government’s pledge to create regional cyber-clusters across the UK as part of their levelling-up agenda, but does my right hon. Friend agree we need to be conscious that, if we attempt to standardise security protocols across multiple organisations, the overall effectiveness of the security of each individual organisation must improve and not be weakened as a result?
I take my hon. Friend’s point, but having the 12 regional clusters will help businesses that want to do the right thing and know how best to protect against the risks of cyber. Our aim is to help businesses improve their cyber-security. Given events in Europe today, it is particularly pressing that businesses take this seriously.
Covid-19: Public Inquiry
On 15 December, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of the right hon. Baroness Heather Hallett as chair of the public inquiry into covid-19. The inquiry is set to begin its work in spring 2022.
On Monday, the Prime Minister told the House that we must learn to live with covid-19. This is cold comfort for the bereaved families whose loved ones will not have that opportunity. What does the Minister have to say to families like mine who feel that the inquiry is simply being kicked into the long grass? Does she agree, now that all restrictions will be lifted, that there is absolutely no reason why the inquiry cannot move forward immediately?
I sympathise fully with the hon. Gentleman. He has told us about his family bereavement many times, and we have all been very moved by those comments.
The inquiry will play a key role in ensuring that we learn the lessons from this terrible pandemic. To do that, we must get the terms of reference right. When the Prime Minister appointed Baroness Hallett as chair, he said he would consult her and Ministers from the devolved Administrations on the inquiry’s terms of reference, and he said that Baroness Hallett would then run a process of public consultation and engagement before the terms of reference are finalised.
To give an update, the Prime Minister has now consulted Baroness Hallett and the process of consulting the devolved Administrations is well advanced. The next stage will be to ensure that those most affected by the pandemic, including those who have sadly lost loved ones, can have their say. This process will begin and conclude very soon.
I associate myself with the earlier comments. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Ukraine right now.
Throughout the pandemic, disabled people and those with underlying health conditions accounted for six in 10 covid-related deaths. Shockingly, when the Prime Minister declared the end of all covid restrictions and measures on Monday, there was no plan for how he would support and protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Have the Government not learned any lessons from the last two years? Will this public inquiry have a specific focus on the disproportionate impact of covid on disabled people?
I associate myself with the hon. Lady’s comments about Ukraine. South Derbyshire and the Derby area have a very large diaspora of Ukrainian-related families, so my thoughts and prayers are with them today.
To answer the hon. Lady’s question, and I will try to answer questions in my new role, I believe the answer is yes.
The covid inquiry has a website and a chair, but it has not formally started and a letter from the Prime Minister is required, so holding hearings and collecting evidence by the spring is going to be incredibly difficult. In addition, “spring” is a vague period of time; daffodils are already out in my garden. We have been promised time and again that the inquiry hearings would start this spring. The Prime Minister told us that, as did Health Ministers, the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Paymaster General, and now another Minister is telling us that. I am tired of coming back to this Dispatch Box and reminding Ministers of this but not being given a date.
I ask the Minister to be straight with me and, more importantly, to be straight with the bereaved families, who are very worried that this inquiry is not going to start in the spring, that we will not be hearing what happened during covid and that we will not be learning the lessons. Will the Minister tell me today when the terms of reference will be passed to the chair for consultations to start and when the inquiry hearings will formally begin?
Derbyshire is a lot further north than Putney and the daffodils are not out in my garden—we still have snowdrops, which are very pretty, so spring is definitely a moveable feast.
The UK Government are negotiating and discussing terms of reference with the devolved Assemblies, and when we receive their replies, we will absolutely move this forward with Baroness Hallett, who is ready to go. The Prime Minister wants this to start as soon as possible, and it will start by the spring.
UK Global Strategy
The Government’s approach to national security was set out in the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. The National Security Council provides strategic direction to ensure that the review is implemented, and provides the necessary flexibility and agility to respond to the changing global context.
On responding to the changing global context, would it be accurate to say that this morning deterrence has failed? Do the Government also agree that perhaps if we had a national strategy council that looked forward a decade to the trends shaping our world, our policy might be less ad hoc, less reactive and less last-minute, and our ability to deter wars, which are currently breaking out in Europe, might be stronger?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in these issues, so he will know better than most that the whole purpose of the integrated review was to look at the period up to 2030, and it clearly identified China as a systemic competitor. I also know from my time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury that at the spending review 2020 we put in place the biggest investment in the Ministry of Defence—in defence—for about 30 years. That shows this Government’s willingness to look longer-term at what the right strategic approach is.
Leaving the European Union: Potential Benefits
Last week, I met port industry representatives to discuss Brexit opportunities, and I intend to meet a wide range of interested parties across different sectors and industries. Ministers and officials from each Department regularly engage with the devolved Administrations on specific policy areas, and I intend to do so in areas of common interest. I am delighted to have had a letter from Angus Robertson asking to have a meeting, which I look forward to doing. We will include in these meetings reviews of retained EU law.
Annual tax loss to evasion and avoidance in the UK stands at £38 billion, which represents more than 14% of the world’s total tax loss and £570 per UK citizen per year. The EU is implementing new tax evasion rules to clamp down on it, but the UK refuses to act similarly. Does the Minister accept that this is yet another Brexit harm? Or does he see the evasion of tax by wealthy individuals and companies as a Brexit opportunity?
Actually, the Government have a very good record in clamping down on the tax gap and ensuring that people pay the tax that is owed. Fraud, within the whole system of government, is something that must be borne down on. Every element of fraud is taking money from other taxpayers. Therefore, the Government have a strong drive to bear down on it, and have introduced over the past 12 years a number of measures to reduce the opportunities for any tax fraud. We do not need the European Union to tell us how to do it; I could go through some countries of that organisation that have a pretty poor tax collecting record.
The Government have touted their so-called Brexit freedoms Bill as a means of cutting up to £1 billion-worth of red tape, yet Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimates that new customs rules resulting from Brexit could lead to increased costs for businesses of up to £15 billion each year. Is it not the case that the only cuts to red tape that have been made since Brexit have been the repeated cutting of red tape lengthways to create many more miles of the stuff than ever existed when we were part of the EU?
The hon. Gentleman conjures up images of origami; I am waiting to see what creatures he will create with the papers he cuts up. It is fundamentally important not only that we cut red tape that was imposed by the European Union but that we do not, as a country, impose red tape on ourselves. We now have the freedom not to impose red tape on ourselves, which is something that I, in my new role, am keen to ensure.
Two weeks ago, the courts again threw out the Welsh Labour Government’s legal challenge to the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Does my right hon. Friend agree that instead of spending the past five years expending an enormous amount of time, energy and taxpayers’ money on fighting a democratic referendum result, the devolved Administrations would have served their populations far better by working collaboratively with the UK Government on the great national mission of levelling up our one United Kingdom?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is noticeable that the hard-left Administration in Wales, backed up by separatists, is not acting in the interests of the people of Wales. It would be much better to accept the democratic result of the Brexit referendum. The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave; we have now left and the opportunities will flow. To waste taxpayers’ money on taking fruitless legal action is, to my mind, the sort of thing that only the hard-left socialist would do.
One Public Estate Programme
The One Public Estate programme has provided support and £140,000 to explore estate collaboration across the emergency services and wider public sector partners in London. The programme is working with the Metropolitan police and the Greater London Authority to establish where project opportunities could be progressed.
With police stations throughout London up for sale, including in Teddington, the Mayor of London is determined to flog them off to the highest bidder, which generally means luxury housing developers. Does the Minister agree that if precious taxpayer-owned sites such as Teddington police station must be closed, they should routinely be part of the One Public Estate programme so that they can be repurposed for community use—for example, for Park Road surgery, an important GP facility in my constituency—and for affordable homes for key workers and young people?
I thank the hon. Lady for her interesting question. She led a Westminster Hall debate on the disposal of Teddington police station yesterday; as the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), said then, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime is responsible for the disposal strategy, but it can take into account the wider social, environmental and economic benefits. He will write to the hon. Lady with further information on this matter.
Official Photographer to the Prime Minister
It has been the case under successive Governments that civil servants and special advisers provide assistance on communications. We employ photographers to capture Government work, including that which cannot be captured by a press photographer due to its sensitive nature. Photographers are a cross-Government resource, supporting other Departments and Ministers, and play a critical role in the support of the Government’s digital communications activity and in progressing key policy areas.
Well, Mr Speaker, that was a nice try at justification, was it not? As I understand it, Downing Street employs three tax-funded photographers to chronicle the work and life of the Prime Minister, Cabinet members, and even the Prime Minister’s pets. Given the cost of living crisis and the rise in taxes for most families, is it really good value for taxpayers’ money to have three photographers for Downing Street?
It plays a key role in the support of modern Government communications on social media. With respect, I will take no lectures on spin from Labour: the Labour Government spent £2.5 billion a year on marketing and communications and 4,000 spin doctors worked in central Government and their quangos—
Covid-19 Contracts: High Priority Lane
Mr Speaker, with your permission, as this is a very detailed question, I would like to give a detailed answer.
The PPE high priority lane was established as one way of efficiently triaging and assessing the thousands of offers of support for PPE early in the pandemic. One hundred and fifteen contracts were awarded to 51 suppliers identified through this route and the total value of those contracts was £3.8 billion. Between May 2020 and March 2021, 50 suppliers had priority referrals for covid testing support and were awarded 128 contracts with a total value of £6 billion. All contracts awarded, no matter the route, were rigorously evaluated to ensure that the products that were progressed met the required specification. There was no separate high priority lane or process.
The Minister will be aware that it has been established that there is in existence an additional 18 VIP lane contracts, bringing the total to 68. Between them, they were awarded £4.9 billion in PPE contracts. Gareth Davies, the head of the National Audit Office, the Comptroller and Auditor General, has said that the Health and Social Care Department was
“open to the risk of fraud.”
What steps are being considered or taken to investigate that and to assure the House that the contracts awarded through the Government VIP lane were not fraudulent?
I can answer the hon. Gentleman. I am delighted to tell him that he has his facts wrong: recent media articles claim that 19 additional suppliers were referred through the HPL, which is totally inaccurate. Having reviewed the records, I can tell him that only one other company was included, so in fact, instead of 50, the total was 51.
I begin by welcoming an excellent new ministerial team. This includes an expanded role for the Paymaster General to include Minister for the Cabinet Office. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler) is the new Parliamentary Secretary, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) is the new Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency.
As right hon. and hon. Members will also know, the Prime Minister has pledged to make changes to the way Downing Street and the Cabinet Office are run so that we can better respond to delivering across the UK and to the issues raised by parliamentary colleagues across the House. In my role as a Minister and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, I will be supporting Cabinet colleagues in delivering for the British people, uniting and levelling up across the UK.
I am sure the Minister will have been as appalled as I was to see the scenes of Russian aggression on our televisions. We should be equally concerned, however, about the Russian aggression that we cannot see. The Minister has responsibility for cyber-security. Can he give the House some assurance that his Department is now taking urgent steps to ensure that Government and commerce in this country will be protected against what we should reasonably expect to be coming from that direction?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. It is one that I touched on in my opening remarks about Cabinet Office plans for domestic resilience. It is something that we are working on across the United Kingdom, including with the Scottish Government. Through the excellent work of the National Cyber Security Centre, we are ensuring that the new national strategy that I launched before Christmas and the Government strategy on cyber that we launched shortly after Christmas are taken forward. They are about building resilience to the cyber risk for the whole of society while also recognising the huge opportunities that online platforms offer.
We know that veterans make brilliant employees, and the picture on veteran employment is good, with 83% of veterans employed full time six months after leaving service. However, we are not complacent; we are putting in place further practical support, such as tax breaks for those employing veterans, guaranteed job interviews for those seeking to join the civil service, and brilliant armed forces champions in jobcentres across the country, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), may I urge the Minister to give more detail on civil resilience, especially in light of what is happening with cyber-attacks and threats emanating from Russia. What extra support is being offered to businesses? I know national infrastructure is important, but many businesses across the UK are concerned about this. Has the national security cell done an assessment, and will that assessment be published?
This is an area of common ground across the House. I know the National Security Adviser has shared briefings with Opposition leaders, as referred to earlier in the week, and we continue to work closely across the House. The clear message being sent by all parties today is extremely welcome. On the specific question of cyber, we will set out further details of the work that the Cabinet Office is doing. We had a Cobra meeting this morning and that was one of the topics focused on.
I thank the Minister for that response. My heartfelt sympathies go out to Ukraine and my support is there with its people. The tragic events of this morning show that there is no space, excuse or justification when it comes to Putin’s continued influence in the UK’s democracy and national infrastructure. We have seen this week that Russian oligarchs and Kremlin-linked organisations have begun intense lobbying of Government Ministers in an attempt to avoid sanctions if Moscow invades Ukraine. Will the Minister confirm that none of his Conservative colleagues have accepted donations from anyone with links to the Kremlin currently lobbying the Foreign Office?
Again, the right hon. Lady raises an important point. She will well know that there is a long-standing principle that permissible donors are those who are on the UK electoral register: in essence, if people can vote in the UK for a party, they are able to donate to it. It is important in our discussions in this House that we remember—although I do not think that is what she was saying—that people in this country of Russian origin are often British citizens.
My hon. Friend is a champion for everything that has gone on since the Grenfell fire tragedy, and I completely understand and share her concerns about the information that has come to light through the Grenfell public inquiry. Current Government policy is to take into account suppliers’ past performance when awarding contracts. We are currently in the process of transforming the way Government procedures work, which will mean that in future poorly performing suppliers can be more easily excluded from procurements and buyers will have more scope and discretion to do so where suppliers have performed poorly in previous public contracts. Furthermore, the Government’s Building Safety Bill will establish a new regulatory regime for construction products and of course we continue to take action against specific companies where we can.
In part, by physically going to areas such as the north-west—I referenced my visit to Preston earlier—working on a cross-party basis to look at creating a cyber-corridor across the north-west, bringing the talent and skills agenda through schools into the universities with courses such as those at the University of Central Lancashire, and ensuring a better pipeline of apprentices into both the business community, such as BAE in that part of the world, and Government itself.
I welcome the opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary contribution Her Majesty has made to the United Kingdom, the realms and the Commonwealth during her 70-year reign. May I also wish Her Majesty a very speedy recovery? I know the thoughts of everyone in this House are with her. In addition to the four-day UK bank holiday weekend, which includes the platinum jubilee pageant, the Cabinet Office is marking this historic occasion by leading a competition for the award of a number of prestigious civic honours, including city status, and we will announce the results of that later this year. Also, the good people of North Norfolk and those across the UK will be as excited as I am that the ballot for tickets to a platinum jubilee party at Buckingham Palace on 4 June has opened today.
I think this issue has been well rehearsed at pretty much all the Cabinet Office questions that I have participated in. As was touched on earlier, the purpose of the high priority lane was to efficiently prioritise credible offers of PPE, and that is what we did. The priority was to ensure that our frontline services had the PPE they needed. That is what we invested in and that is what we secured.
I very much agree that levelling up is a UK-wide endeavour and there are often pockets of variance within regions, as I know with a constituency in the fens: North East Cambridgeshire has a very different set of issues from Cambridge. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of levelling up from the skills, health and transport infrastructure perspectives, which impact differently within different regions of the UK.
I want to put on record my fullest support and solidarity for the people of Ukraine as they face the unlawful, aggressive and unprovoked invasion by Russia.
The Minister will know that the recently published national action plan does not include a commitment on aid transparency, which is critical for all of us in ensuring that taxpayer money goes to those who need it most. Bond, the network of development and humanitarian organisations, is calling on the Government to engage in meaningful and inclusive consultation on this. Will he commit to meeting Bond to create an ambitious target to ensure that we remain a world leader on the transparency of our aid budget?
First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks. The theme this morning has been the unified voice with which this House has spoken on the troubling events in Ukraine. In respect of transparency in the aid budget, I am happy to highlight his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and ask whether she or one of her Ministers would be willing to meet him to discuss the issue he raises.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the cross-departmental work to tackle illegal immigration across the English channel, and specifically the plans for the establishment of an offshore immigration detention and processing centre?
As part of taking back control of our borders, this is an issue of huge concern. That is why, through my role in the Cabinet Office, I have been working closely with the Home Secretary and other colleagues on a whole-of-Government response to the challenge of illegal migration. The Home Secretary has set out a number of areas of that work and we will be saying more on that in the weeks ahead.
In terms of how many people currently work in No. 10, it is slightly over 400. Within the Cabinet Office, the number is much larger, but that depends on whether we cut the data to include fast-streamers, who sit on the Cabinet Office headcount, or to include the Government Commercial Function, which is located with different Departments. In short, one can have a wider answer depending on how we want to analyse the data. The wider point is how we have very clear lines of accountability, how we ensure that the issues raised by the House are addressed and in particular how we empower the Cabinet and Cabinet Government. That is something I am keen to help facilitate through my engagement with Secretaries of State.
Earlier this month, a former civil servant was awarded a large pay-out after suffering a prolonged and sustained campaign of racial abuse, hinting at a systemic problem in the Cabinet Office and its agencies. What steps is the Minister taking to tackle racism in his Department?
There are two issues there. The first is the issue of pay-offs when people leave roles, and we have a manifesto commitment. It is something I was committed to in the Treasury, and I know that the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), is taking forward proposals on the size of payouts. We had a manifesto commitment to cap those at £95,000. The issue the hon. Lady raises is slightly different, because it pertains to employment law, and as the House knows, it is not appropriate for Ministers to comment on individual cases. Where there is common ground between her and me is that it is important that the civil service is an exemplar in how it supports colleagues across the civil service and how it champions diversity, which again is a theme that has come out of the discussion this morning.