House of Commons
Thursday 24 February 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—
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.
Before the urgent question, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings in the Court of Appeal in respect of the quashing of convictions of postmasters and postmistresses which relied on evidence from the Post Office Horizon IT system. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters of sub judice to allow reference to those proceedings, as they concern issues of national importance. However, I urge Members to exercise caution in what they say and to avoid referring in detail to cases that remain before the Court of Appeal.
May I also say that I am disappointed, as this urgent question could have been granted at other times over the past three days? I was promised there would be a statement. There has been a chance to convert it to a statement, but that has completely failed. Thank goodness that the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) stuck with it by putting in for a UQ every day. If you are going to give me advice, I expect you to stick to it. I do not think it is a good reason.
Post Office: Horizon Compensation Arrangements
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on compensation arrangements for those sub-postmasters/mistresses who have been impacted by the Post Office Horizon software scandal.
First, I apologise, Mr Speaker, for the misunderstanding. I was prepared to make a statement, but obviously the current situation and affairs have got in the way. I am happy to provide an update on Horizon matters since I last made a statement in December. I met the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee last month, and last week the Select Committee published its interim report on the Post Office and Horizon IT scandal. The Government will consider the Committee’s recommendations and respond in due course.
People need to know about how this scandal came about and what protections are in place to avoid history repeating itself. That is why the Government established the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry to investigate exactly what went wrong. The evidence from postmasters who have participated since the inquiry hearings began last week has been harrowing to hear, and I thank those postmasters for their courage and their willingness to revisit the trauma they have experienced. Compensation cannot take away the suffering that affected postmasters have experienced, but we are determined that each eligible person gets what is due to them, and that that is paid as quickly as possible. Of the 72 postmasters whose convictions have been overturned, more than 95% have applied so far for an interim compensation payment of up to £100,000, of which 63 offers have been accepted and paid. The Government are pushing for final settlements for quashed convictions to follow as quickly as possible, and negotiations on the first two have begun. The Government are determined that all unjust convictions are quashed. The Post Office is reaching out to affected postmasters.
The Post Office is also in discussion with other public prosecuting bodies responsible for the convictions of postmasters that may have relied on Horizon evidence to ensure that those postmasters are also contacted and enabled to appeal. Offers have been made to over 40% of applicants and compensation has been paid to 764 postmasters who have applied to the historical shortfall scheme. So far, 28 postmasters are proceeding through a dispute resolution process aimed at achieving acceptable settlements. At least 95% of those cases should have been dealt with by the end of the year.
With compensation for overturned convictions and the historical shortfall scheme well under way, the postmasters on whom my attention is now focused are those who exposed the whole scandal by taking the Post Office to the High Court. I know that many hon. Members support the Select Committee’s view that it is unfair that they received less compensation than those who were not part of the case. I sympathise with that view too. I cannot yet report a resolution of that legally complex issue, but we are doing everything we can to address it.
The compensation that postmasters are due will exceed what the Post Office can afford, so the Government are stepping in to meet a good deal of the cost of that compensation. I recognise that is an unwelcome burden on the taxpayer, but the House, and I am sure taxpayers themselves, will agree that the alternative is unacceptable.
I thank the Minister for his response. As he is aware, the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who I am glad to see in his place, and I are the only remaining Members of the House who were part of the original Post Office review working party that was set up to address the issue over a decade ago. In the years that have followed, we and others have been repeatedly dismissed and fobbed off by all the previous incumbents of my hon. Friend’s current ministerial position when we called out what we saw at the time, the evidence we had uncovered and what, in retrospect, with so many cases, was an obviously flawed computer system and a huge miscarriage of justice.
The issue was first highlighted to me by my constituent Michael Rudkin in 2011. He had been forced out of his position as a national representative of sub-postmasters and his wife had been advised to plead guilty to a crime that she had not committed because of a flawed computer system, which Post Office officials were too arrogant to believe could possibly be to blame, and because of a Post Office management whose relationship with the sub-postmasters I described in this House as “feudal” in 2015.
My constituents are just two of the hundreds who lost their jobs, assets and reputations in what is the largest miscarriage of justice in this country’s recent history. Their lives have been affected for 20 years or more. There is no excuse for further delays to compensation. They were wronged by the Post Office and let down by Ministers and officials who apparently took the Post Office’s word without question. They deserve justice and adequate compensation now—not in months and years when the Department, which is partly culpable for the situation, finally gets its act together.
I have written to the Minister, as I have been passed a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lord Callanan, addressed to Lord Arbuthnot, who was also part of the original Post Office working party and maintains a strong interest in the issue from the other place. The letter states that no formal request for the funding of sub-postmasters’ compensation has been submitted to the Treasury by his Department. Can the Minister clarify whether that is still correct?
Does the Minister agree that all the sub-postmasters who lost out due to the faulty Horizon accounting system should be compensated? I need not remind him that many hundreds of sub-postmasters are due compensation, not just those who have been wrongly convicted, who number at least 736, but the many hundreds—I suspect thousands—who made up shortfalls created by the faulty Horizon system out of their own pocket under threat and coercion from the Post Office but who were not criminally prosecuted. Can he inform the House whether a system has been set up to identify those individuals and put in place a scheme for their compensation?
I warn the Minister and the Government that it is better for us to get on the front foot with the issue, rather than let a claims management company look at the opportunity, which will undoubtedly result in more litigation and delay at a far greater cost to the Government, and ultimately the taxpayer. The Minister will have read the damning Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee interim report by now. It is time that we accelerated compensation, got closure for the sub-postmasters and ensured that it can never happen again.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work in the campaign for both his constituent and for many other sub-postmasters across the country, and I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), whom my h F mentioned, and James Arbuthnot—Lord Arbuthnot—to whom I spoke earlier this week. I have spoken to Nick Read, the chief executive of the Post Office, and officials about this because, as I was quoted as saying in The Times last week, this, of all my wide range of responsibilities, is the one area that keeps me awake at night and absolutely drives me to get resolution.
My hon. Friend asked about the 555 and our commitment. As I have said, the 555 have been pioneers in this area, and I will absolutely work at speed. I do not want this to go on a moment longer than necessary, which is why we have tried to do everything we can to short-circuit any bureaucratic processes to be able to get on and compensate everybody fairly. The 555 postmasters who secured the group litigation order exposed this whole scandal by taking the Post Office to the High Court, and they performed a massive public service by doing so. I have written to the Select Committee with details of the costs and the preparations we have made with the Treasury.
When talking about this legally complex issue, we must remember the timeline of this and the timescale with which we are working. Horizon was installed in 1999, and the prosecutions started in 2000. In 2004, Alan Bates set up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, and in 2009 press reports really started to look into the concerns about those prosecutions. Over this 20-year period, many different Ministers have been involved and there have even been Post Office reorganisations, but now—after this 20-year scandal, frankly—we want to make sure, at pace, that everybody, including the 555, get justice, answers and fair compensation.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for securing this important urgent question, and I really pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for all his work on this issue.
The Horizon scandal is perhaps the most devastating miscarriage of justice in British history, damaging the lives of over 700 wrongly convicted sub-postmasters and their families, and the lives of so many who have been affected but have not been convicted. I join the Minister in paying tribute to those postmasters who have been relentless in their quest for justice. As the judge-led inquiry into this scandal has just begun, we have now been hearing extremely moving and devastating testimonies. I recommend that every Member spends time listening to the accounts just to understand how widespread this injustice has been.
Last week’s very important Select Committee report shows that, 12 years on, we are still painfully far from all the sub-postmasters receiving the compensation they deserve. Sadly, 33 of them have died before receiving any recompense. My thoughts and those of the whole House will be with their loved ones.
Given the cripplingly slow pace of justice, I want to press the Government on a few issues. First, without the extraordinary efforts of the 555 litigants, much of what we know would not have come to light. The Minister expressed his sympathy, but as Labour has pushed for time and again, will he now confirm that this group will be able to claim the compensation that is due, as he has hinted, and if so, when? Secondly, a year on from the historical shortfall scheme closing—I understand that over 2,500 have applied—only 30% of claims have been processed. Can the Minister outline what steps he is taking to hold the Post Office to account in urgently getting through this backlog, and can he clarify the definition of “eligible” that he stated? Finally, could he provide the House with an update on how long it will be before we get closure on compensation for all those affected?
The Minister is right that we will need to learn the lessons, understand the causes and ensure that this never happens again. The devastating reality of this scandal will be felt by so many families for years. The Government have taken some of the right steps, and we do appreciate that, but justice is not happening quickly enough and it is not going far enough.
I thank the hon. Lady, and I sympathise and empathise with everything she said. I know that for everybody affected, whether the 555 or those who were not prosecuted but lost money, nothing will be quick enough, and there is nothing we can do to restore up to 20 years of hurt and distress. On the 555, yes we want to ensure that those people who broke open the case and were the pioneers get full compensation. I am not yet able to outline a resolution for them, but I am working at pace within my Department, and with our legal representatives, Post Office legal representatives, and those of the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance. I hope to have news for the hon. Lady as soon as possible.
Again, the historic shortfall scheme is not moving as fast as anybody would like. The Post Office has paid the de minimis cases and the most straightforward, smaller amounts. For the rest, it is working through the early cases, which will then benchmark the value of compensation for others. That will then allow the Post Office to start rattling through these cases a lot quicker. The Post Office says that it wants this to be 95% finished by the end of the year. I want to say 100% by the end of the year, and that is the kind of timescale I am working on.
I thank the Minister for his response, and for his tone. My constituent, Tracy Felstead, is due to give evidence to the inquiry on Friday. She wants people to be held to account, and so do I. We know that civil servants were non-executive directors on the board of the Post Office, and that they were principal accounting officers for UK Government Investments. We know that civil servants told Ministers to come to this place and to tell MPs that there was “nothing to see here.” Those civil servants are not on the list of the core participants giving evidence to Sir Wyn Williams. How can those civil servants be held to account by Ministers for their failure to act in this case for so many years?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work she does on behalf of Tracy Felstead and others. Tracy’s case is one that I often hold up as someone who was so young that she has spent more than half her life under this absolute shadow, explaining to her children now what happened all those years ago. On civil servants, I set up an independent inquiry to get those answers, and it is right that it remains independent. I do not want anybody to feel that they can get away with this, or that they do not have to answer those questions. I will ensure, as I am sure will my hon. Friend, that Sir Wyn calls up exactly who he needs to call as the facts are uncovered, so that everybody answers without fear or favour.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) on securing this urgent question, and I join him in thanking Lord Arbuthnot for his tenacious efforts over the years. I congratulate the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on its report. It is clear that the only reason this scandal was unearthed was that 555 postmasters, including my constituent Tom Brown, took the Post Office to court. They were forced to settle because the Government and the Post Office used a tsunami of public money to defend the indefensible. The Minister and I have spoken. He knows that these people need compensation. The report recommends an independent comprehensive scheme, outside of the Post Office, and that is what we need now. I congratulate the Minister on what he has done in this area, but if the problem is the Treasury, can he not call that out now, so that we can put the fire on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure we get the funding that is needed properly to compensate these individuals? The Minister knows as well as I do that this scandal will not go away.
I reiterate my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for the work he has done for Tom Brown and all the postmasters. There is no single blockage in the Treasury. We are trying to work through the holistic view about where the money is coming from and how that is justified to taxpayers—as I said at the beginning, however, when taxpayers understand the scale and depth of this, they will clearly want to ensure that those postmasters get their review. We are also trying to unpick that legal settlement, which was, as he rightly describes, pushed through the Post Office under considerable pressure, considerable cost and considerable might. That will take a few days, but I want it to take days, not months—certainly not years—and I am working as quickly as I can to get that resolution. I am really hoping that I will be able to come back to the Dispatch Box and have good news for him in the next few days.
My hon. Friend the Minister may have just answered my question, but I will press him. I do not doubt the complexities and legalities, and I know how sincere he is on this issue for the brave group of postmasters who fought and were acquitted at the earlier stages. However, my constituent Nicola Arch and her family’s lives are on hold. She lost her job, and she tells me that when the Stroud newspapers covered the story, she was spat at and she lost her home. She thinks that she will have to litigate again. She is waiting. I was going to press him on a timeline, but I think he said days, not weeks or months. Will that be the case—for more information, at least—so that they can have some comfort in the knowledge that information is coming?
I believe from my Twitter feed that my hon. Friend is meeting Nicola Arch tomorrow—Nicola and I have those exchanges. Again, my heart goes out to Nicola, because being spat at and stigmatised shows the extra suffering that people experience. It is not just about the convictions, tragic as they are, or the money, difficult as that is; it is about what has happened to these people in their communities as former champions of those communities. I cannot give her the timescale. As I said, I am working at pace and need to give myself a little bit of leeway, but it is days or weeks—it certainly will not be a moment longer than is necessary to put these people out of their misery and give them compensation and justice.
I am speaking in a dual role as I am also chair of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices. The Minister, the APPG and I meet regularly. He has described the Horizon case as “harrowing”, but it is beyond that, and it has gone on far too long. I commend all hon. Members of this place past and present—I will not name them all—who have worked tirelessly on it. The nub of the matter is: is the Treasury really on board for all the money required to compensate for this farcical tragedy and for supporting the continuation of the Post Office network? It is disgraceful that people in Government and the civil service have known about it for so long—far too long—and almost refused to do anything about it. I do not include the Minister in that, because I know that he is working hard, but it requires more than him to work hard; the different silos of Government need to come together and completely sort it out.
I thank the hon. Lady for her work on the Post Office in general as chair of the APPG. She talks about the case being harrowing, and that is why I am so determined to get it done. We have heard about Tracy Felstead and all the years of it that she has had, and frankly nothing that I say at the Dispatch Box will make her trust me because every member of authority, whether in Government, the Post Office or the judicial system, has let her and all those people down. We need to act—actions and outcomes are what matter—which is why I am so driven to ensure that we can resolve the case as quickly as possible.
The Treasury is not a blockage. Clearly, we are having conversations with the Treasury not only to ensure that we can underwrite the additional costs for the Post Office beyond what it can afford, as it has outlined in its accounts, but to give the Post Office the future that it needs. Realistically, we will not be able to get to that until we have sorted out the past. We continue to work constructively.
I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). They are absolutely right, and they have been long-term campaigners on the issue. Mr Speaker, I smiled to myself when you made your statement, but I understand it and support it. This Minister cares passionately about the issue, and, whatever he says, as a long-term Whitehall hand, I see the symptoms of a Minister caught between the jaws of the Treasury and Whitehall lawyers. Lawyers do not always deliver justice and the Treasury rarely does. What I will say to him is this: nobody deserves justice more than the 555. They opened up the worst miscarriage of justice in modern Government. If it helps him in his battle to get this done quickly and properly, I will say this to him: if he cannot do it, we will find a way of having this House instruct the Government to do it. Let him use that in his battle with the Treasury and the lawyers.
I can quote the Francis Urquhart line back at my right hon. Friend, but any pressure will be gratefully received. The last two years of covid have been about learning to speed up Government. As someone who has been running small businesses for 25 years, I am used to making decisions, cracking on, getting on and doing things. The Government do not always work that way. We have learnt in the past two years how to do it and I fully expect it to happen in this case.
As a relatively new Member of this place I am coming to this frankly unbelievable scandal much later than many of my colleagues. However, I recently met a former postmistress in my constituency, Alison Hall and her husband Richard, who have suffered unbelievable stress and financial hardship as a result of this scandal. As well as losing their existing business in Hightown, they were also forced to abandon plans to open a new post office in Roberttown. Does the Minister agree that alongside the dreadful personal trauma that this scandal has been for so many, and which must be urgently addressed, it has had a seriously detrimental impact on communities like mine in Batley and Spen?
My heart goes out to Alison and Richard. Absolutely. Post offices offer not just economic value. Having more branches than banks and building societies put together has a social value, bringing communities together, and at the heart of that are sub-postmasters. That is why we need to give the Post Office a real future by sorting out the past.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for securing this urgent question. I know he will agree with me that the role of the whistleblower has been pivotal in highlighting the known issues with the Horizon system. This has been a devastating series of events for many people, but for constituents like mine who saw their father die in the premises of their shop without seeing his name cleared, the devastating impact has been absolutely tremendous. There is a difference between a settled sum in a civil court and compensation. People need to be adequately compensated for the traumas and the experiences they have had. They have had their names cleared, but they now need to be compensated for what has happened to them.
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work she does on protecting whistleblowers. As I say, I want to make sure we can get fair justice and compensation for everybody involved. That needs to go through a process and we need to get the balance right. That will be done by benchmarking people’s losses and how they have been affected. We have regular conversations both with postmasters and, importantly, their legal representatives to fully understand the harm done to them, so we can reflect that in any scheme we put forward.
I thank the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for securing this urgent question and I pay tribute to the Minister, because I know he cares passionately about this issue. He came before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and expressed himself with great candour. May I press him on the issue of fair compensation? We have heard from many Members today, and we will hear more, that the correct way to address this situation is not by fair compensation, but by full compensation for all those past losses and expenses. They have paid money back to the Post Office and they need that money back. They need their future losses recovered, their pension losses recovered, and psychiatric injury and exemplary damages for their loss of liberty. That needs to be reflected in the system. We cannot have a compensation system on the cheap. These people have to be compensated in full. Will he commit to that?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words at the beginning of his question. He outlines the complexity of what we need to do and what the Post Office needs to do to right this wrong. That will be reflected in conversations with legal representatives to ensure, without being able to restore the past 20 years to the people affected, we do everything we can to make sure they get full and fair compensation.
As a former postmaster, I think I speak for everybody when I say that this Minister has done more than anybody else in his position to pursue this injustice. Last night, I was told that the community of Sheringham in my North Norfolk constituency is losing its post office and I will do everything I can to get it back for them. That shows how important it is for everybody to have postmasters and mistresses in their areas.
Compensation is one thing, but over 800 people were prosecuted and fewer than 80 have had those overturned. What pressure can my hon. Friend put on to speed up that process, and when are we going to start talking about Fujitsu and its role in this?
My hon. Friend brings to the House his experience of being a sub-postmaster and of the social value of the post office in his area. He is absolutely right; we have asked people to come forward to have their prosecutions overturned. Clearly, some of those people have been let down. They do not trust the Post Office and the Government, but we are trying to work through legal representatives of other organisations to encourage them to do that. We want to ensure that we can get people through this system as quickly as possible. I will make sure that I do everything I can with him and others to get this sorted out.
If the Minister really wants to borrow quotes from Francis Urquhart, I suggest to him that he might want to
“put a bit of stick about”,
because the Post Office’s handling of the historical shortfall scheme has been nothing short of another scandal in itself. I recently took part in what I can only assume was ironically titled a “good faith meeting” in which the Post Office itself was not represented. It only had a lawyer from Herbert Smith Freehills, which, I understand, is not exactly at the budget end of the market. At the end, they said to us, “Of course, if you want to take this further, you should be aware that the offer we have made could be withdrawn”. That is how the Post Office is approaching the issue. It is still the same culture that caused the problem in the first place. My more recent meeting was a bit more promising, but it is clear that anybody who has settled under that HSS has probably not had a just settlement and the Minister and his Department need to look at it.
I will certainly continue to look at it. We want to encourage people to go through such things as the alternative dispute resolution so that we do not need to have prolonged cases going through the courts yet again. As I said, we want to get this sorted out quickly, but not in haste. We do not want to get it wrong so that we have to start all over again. I will certainly keep the Post Office’s feet to the fire.
In 2008, Harjinder Butoy, who ran a post office in Sutton-in-Ashfield, was jailed for three years and four months after he was wrongly convicted of stealing over £200,000. It has taken him 14 years to clear his name. He is bankrupt, he cannot get a job and it has destroyed his life. Compensation is one thing, but when are the people responsible for this going to be brought to justice?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question; my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) said much the same sort of thing. I set up the inquiry with Sir Wyn Williams to get to the answers on this. The prosecutions department has been keeping this in abeyance as well. It is important to be able to investigate. That will come up with the answers and, whatever those are, legal proceedings or whatever will flow from that.
The individuals concerned who have had so much damage done to them need not only compensation, but damages awarded for grievous injustice, reputational damage, emotional trauma, mental health damage, stress and the wrongful contempt from their communities. The Minister referred to the importance of post offices to their communities. What the Post Office also did as part of this process was to cynically use it to permanently close post office branches, so many communities, first, had their postmaster or mistress taken from them in dreadful circumstances and then they had their branch closed. Will he review that because an awful lot of branches were permanently closed in an awful lot of places as a result of this scandal? To reiterate comments from across the House, there needs to be a day of reckoning for those who perpetrated this dreadful injustice on these people.
I want to make sure that everybody comes before the inquiry to give evidence and feels confident in doing so, so I do not want to impose my opinions at this stage about who did what; otherwise, the inquiry would not be independent. Once the answers are known, however, there will be that day of reckoning, I am sure.
On post office closures, at the moment we are exceeding the 11,500 criterion, which still stands, alongside the access criterion. It is incredibly important to have that social value that I have talked about.
My constituent Rubbina Shaheen lost her livelihood and her home. She was wrongfully convicted of stealing £40,000 from the Post Office and served 12 months in jail in 2000. She is one of the fortunate ones who have received some compensation, but it has all gone to the lawyers she had to engage to protect her name. I back the calls across the House for a proper compensation scheme to reflect the damage that has been inflicted by a faulty computer programme. I endorse the comments of colleagues: why has Fujitsu not been held to account for the damage that it has caused to so many people?
My heartfelt thoughts go out to Rubbina Shaheen and her family. That is exactly why those who were convicted had the £100,000 interim compensation: to ensure that they could go a little way towards restoring some of their losses and that, if they needed legal representation, they had those costs paid for. We are working at pace trying to achieve full compensation.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. This is the greatest miscarriage of justice that anyone can remember in this country. Most of us have had such tragic cases, and we have worked across parties as Members of Parliament doing our job. I have found the people I have helped pathetically grateful for MPs of all sorts standing up in this House and working on an all-party basis to get this right. Justice and compensation still need to be delivered fast—the faster, the better.
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman said. What he says about individual MPs doing amazing work goes to the heart of the early part of the problem, when all the sub-postmasters thought that it was just them. They did not realise that so many people—hundreds across the country—were suffering the same issue because of a faulty bit of software. It was only when they came together, when pressure built, when there was coverage in the media and when other champions raised the issue in this place and elsewhere that it burst open with the 555. Now we need to make sure that we bring it to a proper conclusion.
I welcome what the Minister has said today. To be honest, previous Ministers have failed miserably to grasp the situation; I welcome the fact that since his appointment we have made rapid progress. I had a couple in my surgery who were elated a few months ago because they thought that real progress was being made, but were deflated when they came a few weeks ago. They are an elderly couple. When convictions are quashed, surely compensation can follow pretty quickly—a quashed conviction is clear evidence to all that they are innocent. They should get at least an interim payment. What can the Minister do to assist in those circumstances?
As I say, we have made good progress on interim payments. If my hon. Friend’s constituents have not applied for or received their interim compensation of up to £100,000, will he please let me know? I will certainly look into it, because that is exactly why those payments are there: as a stepping stone to the final sums.
I pay tribute to the fortitude and strength of character of my constituent Della Ryan, the former sub-postmistress of Dukinfield post office in my constituency. Compensation is one important side of the equation, but another is ensuring that natural justice is not just seen to be done, but done. The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) posed an important question about the involvement of civil servants in that justice over a long period. What assurances can the Minister give the House that there can be no hiding places at all for those involved in perpetuating this injustice?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to pass on my heartfelt sympathies to Della for what she has been through.
This is exactly why we set up the inquiry. My Department has said from the beginning that we will work with the inquiry in the fullest sense to ensure that we offer all the information, support and evidence that Sir Wyn wants, and I have received an assurance to the same effect from Fujitsu and the Post Office itself. I am determined that that process will be carried out.
I thank Members on both sides of the House, and indeed the Minister, for their efforts. As for the 555, lives have been ruined. Now lives have been lost; people die. The compensation must be delivered quickly. Why can people not have access to interim payments? That is the least we could provide. I accept that there are the legal challenges that the Minister mentioned, but this is something that we could and absolutely should do now.
As for the independence of the scheme, Herbert Smith Freehills acted for the Post Office in the litigation to reduce compensation, so how can it be right that it now acts with the Post Office in delivering compensation? That cannot be right, especially given that Herbert Smith Freehills oversaw the Lloyds Bank compensation scheme that was judged independently to be unable to deliver fair and reasonable outcomes to the victims, so it all had to be done again. If we do not put independent oversight into this—with a High Court judge—it will all have to be done again as well. We must act now to change the way in which this is working.
That is why the Post Office has an independent panel to oversee the process. So there is independence. On the interim payments for the 555, they are there for overturned convictions. That is a legal issue that I am working through at the moment because, in the eyes of the law, it was a full and final settlement. That is what I have to tackle at speed because the 555 will understandably not understand this and want to crack on now; they want to receive the compensation. I am determined to ensure that that happens.
I concur with those who have thanked the Minister in particular for his genuine interest and commitment, which we all recognise.
The report produced by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee makes difficult reading for those who took their cases to court and are worse off than those who did not. Constituents of mine who are affected have been asking, where is the equality for all that was promised? Their reputations are shattered and they are financially bereft. Will the Minister direct his team to right this wrong as quickly as possible?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and for his ongoing interest. I am pleased to say that, as the first week of evidence to his inquiry finishes, Sir Wyn will be travelling around the country. He will go to Cardiff, and also to Belfast. It is important for him to hear from people close to where they live, so that they can feel comfortable and confident about giving evidence. However, the hon. Gentleman is right: we need to crack on with this and secure the equality that he seeks.
Sadly, some of those who have suffered so much are no longer alive to see justice served. Will the Minister do all in his power to ensure that the full inquiry reports back as soon as possible, so that those who are accountable can finally be held to account?
I can assure my hon. Friend of that. People have died because this has taken so long, and other people have died because they have committed suicide. It has been horrendous, and that is why we are determined to ensure that we can get this sorted out as soon as possible.
Soon after I was elected, I was contacted by a constituent whose father had been wrongly caught up in this scandal. He lost everything: his livelihood, and, more important to him, his reputation. He sadly passed away before he had the opportunity to clear his name, and he will never see the benefits of this compensation. Have the Government any plans to offer personal, individual apologies to the family members of postmasters who are no longer with us?
I cannot give a particular commitment, but what I can say is that the Prime Minister is personally exercised by this, which is why we met some postmasters last summer. I was talking to him about the matter just yesterday. He is personally involved, and he gives me the kick that I need in order to give other people a kick to ensure that we can get everyone the apology, the compensation and the justice that they need.
Before we come to the business questions, I wish to say something about the conduct of Prime Minister’s questions. PMQs are an important opportunity for the House to hold the Prime Minister to account. It is important that they are conducted according to the rules of the House, that we have an opportunity for as many Members to question the Prime Minister as possible in the given time, and that the Prime Minister and those asking him questions can be heard. I want to address three issues that were raised yesterday and are relevant to that.
First, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) made criticisms of the conduct of the right hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer). Those types of criticisms may only be made if the House is considering a substantive motion that deals with them. They may not be made as sideswipes during questions or during debates on other matters. That is to avoid our question times and debates descending into partisan accusations and counter-accusations. I know that the hon. Member for Bradford East understands the issue and that he has apologised to the right hon. Member for Sherwood.
Secondly, I want to address the issue of the length of questions and answers. I wish to call as many Members as possible. Sometimes we have over-long answers, and I often have to interrupt Ministers when that is the case, but sometimes the questions themselves are far too long. They are meant to be questions, not statements followed by a question, and I hope that Members will consider others rather than themselves. We saw a little bit of that yesterday from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). Considering that a certain amount of time is made available to the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Scottish National party, the remaining time is limited and I have to make sure it is used as effectively and fairly as possible. If Members take too long with their questions, they take away the opportunity for other Members to ask questions. When a Member is asking an over-lengthy question, I try to give them an opportunity to come to an end before stopping them, as I did yesterday. There is nothing personal about that, and I routinely have to call Members on all sides to account for the length of questions. I plead with all Members to keep questions focused and brief.
Finally, I want to deal with a related issue. It is not always easy to ask short, snappy questions when other Members are shouting and barracking. There was far too much of that yesterday, with a disproportionate amount of it coming from the Government Benches, and particularly from those at the side of the Chair, which made it very hard to hear what was being said. I hope that those on the Government Benches will take this on board, and in particular that the Chief Whip will deal with some of his crowd at the side of the Chair. If Members persist in making excessive noise and barracking colleagues, they will be asked to leave the Chamber.
We want PMQs to be a showcase for this House and for our democracy, so I say to all hon. and right hon. Members: please respect the rules of the House about how we refer to each other; make questions and answers concise; and behave with dignity in a way that allows questions and answers to be heard.
Business of the House
I would be delighted to. The business for the week commencing 28 February will include:
Monday 28 February—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Tuesday 1 March—Remaining stages of the Professional Qualifications Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the National Insurance Contributions Bill, followed by a motion to approve the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation etc.) (Revocation) (England) Regulations 2022 (SI, 2022, No. 161).
Wednesday 2 March—Opposition day (14th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 3 March—General debate on Welsh affairs. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 4 March—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 7 March will include:
Monday 7 March—General debate on the Ukraine, followed by remaining stages of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [Lords].
A general debate on Ukraine. I thank the hon. Member for his assistance.
Tuesday 8 March—Opposition day (15th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 9 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). At 7 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Thursday 10 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill, followed by a general debate on International Women’s Day. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 11 March—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your reminder about conduct.
The Leader of the House said that there will be a debate on Ukraine on 7 March. Seriously, whatever happens in the next few days, I ask him to consider whether it could be moved up the Order Paper, because it seems an awfully long way away. I appreciate that things might change rapidly over the next few days.
We have woken up to the grim but unfortunately predictable news that Russia has mounted a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Government must urgently reinforce our NATO allies and take the hardest possible sanctions against all those linked to Putin. The influence of Russian money must be extricated from the UK. The House agreed to our Opposition day motion yesterday, so will the Leader of the House confirm when the Foreign Secretary will be implementing, in full, the recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report? The report was published nearly two years ago, and it really should not take a war to clean up. The Opposition stand ready to work together on this in a bipartisan way.
Economic crime now runs to an estimated £100 billion a year, a huge cost to taxpayers. Earlier this month, the Treasury Committee concluded that the Government are still not prioritising economic crime. It said that, since the Government launched their economic crime plan two years ago,
“economic crime has not reduced but has instead continued on an upward trend.”
Again, this is relevant to the current situation. Will the Leader of the House press his Treasury colleagues to report on actions to stem the flow of dirty money and corruption?
The Prime Minister commented yesterday that the long-promised economic crime Bill will make an appearance, but not until the next Session. I am afraid that rather proves the Treasury Committee’s point. We all want to tackle economic crime, and we will work with the Government to pass this vital and urgent Bill, so will the Leader of the House find time to introduce it in this Session?
The Government first promised a registration of overseas entities Bill five years ago—it is a similar theme—to begin tackling corruption and money laundering. We need transparency, and it is crucial that overseas companies make the same level of disclosures on their beneficiaries as UK companies do. We have had prelegislative scrutiny, but I am afraid to say—again, this is a pattern—there is no Bill. The Minister for Security and Borders could not say yesterday when the Bill will be introduced, so will the Leader of the House please help?
It has been clear for years that Companies House has not done the job it needs to do. Unfortunately, urgent reform is needed so that UK companies can no longer be used as laundromats for dirty money. There are countless examples of UK-registered companies with fake directors.
Not only does a weak Companies House enable international economic fraud, but its inadequate powers, resources and remit enable domestic fraud, too. This is part of the cause of the extensive covid-19 business support fraud, and the Government have written off at least £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money. That money went straight into the hands of fraudsters, so can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on when reforms to Companies House will be brought forward? Can we also have a statement from the Chancellor on why the Government are continuing with this policy?
Finally, we need to take urgent steps to close the loophole that allows foreign money to be donated to UK political parties. Yesterday the Prime Minister appeared to refuse to commit to this. Labour’s amendments to the Elections Bill would prevent the use of shell companies to hide the true source of donations to political parties by foreign actors, and they would prevent non-residents, including people who live in tax havens to avoid paying tax here, from donating to political parties. Will the Leader of the House please explain why we would not want to make it harder for foreign money and donors to infiltrate UK politics? Will he please find time to persuade the Prime Minister of the value of Labour’s amendments to the Elections Bill?
Today of all days, the Government must send a strong, unequivocal message to the world that the UK is not a haven for corrupt money, especially not from Russia. We stand ready to work with the Government on this. They must act, and they must act now.
It is a pleasure to present business questions in conjunction with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I hear the hon. Lady’s plea about 7 March. Clearly, there will be a debate on Ukraine on 7 March, but that will not be the only opportunity for the House to debate these important issues. Just this week, we have had not only Defence questions, but two statements on Ukraine; three hours of debate on Russia sanctions; Prime Minister’s questions, where the Leader of the Opposition raised the matter; and an Opposition day debate on Russian aggression. We are also going to have a Backbench Business debate this afternoon on the UK’s relationship with Russia and China. The House has debated this matter an awful lot this week and there will be more opportunities coming forward, so I think she will support us in that matter. Clearly, this is a huge problem.
The hon. Lady mentioned economic crime, and it is worth pointing out that already we have published this landmark economic crime plan in 2019, increased the number of investigations into corrupt elites, established a new economic crime centre, passed the Criminal Finances Act 2017, and become the first major economy in the world to implement a public register of beneficial ownership of domestic companies. We are going to go further and continue to push on. We will bring forward the economic crime Bill. I know that she wants that as soon as possible and says she wants it in this Session, not the next. My constituents and hers do not necessarily understand the concept of this Session or the next Session; they just want this very soon, and the next Session is coming very soon, so that Bill will be coming forward very quickly.
Turning to covid procurement matters, it is very easy to look back through the prism of hindsight and criticise decisions made at the beginning of a very intense pandemic. This country was trying to procure as much PPE as possible in a very challenging market. The global market was trying to secure as much PPE as it could and we had to make very rapid decisions. Mistakes will have been made, but the Opposition were screaming like mad at the time for the Government to get on and buy PPE from any source they could procure it from. It is rough to look back through the prism of hindsight and criticise those decisions, which were made in the best interests of the country at that moment. I think history will judge the Government’s performance on covid pretty well; when we consider all the big decisions made at the time by the Prime Minister—on going into lockdown, on delivering the vaccine, and on delivering the booster programme and getting us out of covid faster than any other country in the G7—we see a record to be enormously proud of.
Finally, the hon. Lady mentioned foreign donations to political parties. The policy that someone has to be a UK-registered voter in order to be able to donate to a political party is right, but the answer is sunlight—it is transparency. So anyone who donates to a political party should register that donation and we should all be able to view that.
May I start by welcoming the Leader of the House to his place? Will he find time for a debate on the scope of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991? Currently, it does not recognise dog-on-dog attacks as an offence unless the dog under attack is an assistance dog. Consequently, owners of dangerous dogs are not prosecuted unless another human fears injury or is injured. My constituent’s beloved dog Millie was recently mauled to death and no action has been taken against the owner of the dog involved.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, let me welcome my hon. Friend to her place; it is a pleasure to see her at business questions. She carries on a great tradition from her predecessor, who loved business questions and was a regular at this session. I understand that there are existing powers to allow dog-on-dog attacks to be tackled effectively, including through the issue of a community protection notice and the prosecution of offences under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Dogs Act 1871. It is for the Crown Prosecution Service to assess on a case-by-case basis whether to proceed with a prosecution under the legislation. However, my hon. Friend asks for a debate, and I hope that she will take her request to the Backbench Business Committee or to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions on 10 March, where she may wish to ask Ministers directly.
I think the whole world shook just a little on its axis this morning as all our worst fears were realised with the invasion of Ukraine. Even though it has been fully expected, the full horror of what has happened this morning has been quite difficult to comprehend and process. We are grateful for the Prime Minister’s statement, which I understand will be at 5 o’clock today, but will the Leader of the House assure us that it will be the first of many Prime Minister’s statements and that he will promise to keep the House updated on any progress or development?
I welcome the Leader of the House’s words about being flexible with the business, but we need to hear more about that. I am sure he will agree with me and the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), that any legislation required to make the toughest of sanctions must take priority over any other business announced for next week.
We are hoping to hear that the Prime Minister will at last take the firm, decisive action that we have all been calling for and that is now required. Will the Leader of the House tell us what type of legislation might be required for the toughest of sanctions? How long might it take to get through the House? The minimalist measures are proving to be totally inadequate and ineffective; we now need to sanction to the max and end the City of London being Putin’s financial laundromat of choice.
We also need a statement about Russian propaganda. We need to prevent Russian propaganda from being pumped 24/7 into the houses of the UK. The Prime Minister has said it would require an intervention from Ofcom to take RT off air, but does he not now agree that that is a technicality the time of which has passed? I should also say to the Leader of the House that RT contributor Alex Salmond is as much a member of the SNP as the UK Independence party’s Neil Hamilton is a member of his Conservative party. Such petty point scoring should now come to an end, because the Ukrainian people want to see the unity in this House.
This a dark day for Ukraine and for the whole of Europe, but if the Leader of the House brings forward the decisive, hard measures, he will get our support.
I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. The uniting of this House in its objection to Russian aggression is fundamental to our response. A unified House means that we can present ourselves, along with our international colleagues, in a way that sends a strong message to the Russian President.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Government and the Prime Minister have kept the House up to speed, and that will continue to happen, not least at 5 o’clock this afternoon when the Prime Minister will come to the House.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to assisting with legislation; the speed of the progress of legislation is assisted by cross-party and cross-House unity. I am sure that, together, we can send strong messages and try to assist the people of Ukraine at this very dark hour.
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who is the Minister responsible for water, visited Montgomeryshire and stood with me at Clywedog reservoir, noticing that it was quite full, with three storms heading our way. I am unhappy to report to the House that the River Vyrnwy and then the River Severn hit record, historic peaks. Will the Leader of the House facilitate a debate on cross-border water policy? Most water does not respect the border between England and Wales, and the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales must work together on flood prevention as well as drought prevention.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the necessity of cross-border co-operation: it is vital that colleagues in the Welsh Assembly co-operate with the Environment Agency and our friends in DEFRA. My hon. Friend is an assiduous campaigner on this matter and I am sure he will find a way to raise it in the House regularly.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business, particularly the Welsh affairs debate on 3 March and the International Women’s Day debate on 10 March. May I give him advance notice that we have an application for a debate on the Irish in Britain on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March? That is already on the stocks.
Members will have noticed in the statement that the Leader of the House referred to estimates day, the third allotted day. The House will be asked to agree all the outstanding estimates at 7 pm that day, but applications for the subjects of those debates need to be sent to the Backbench Business Committee by no later than 2.30 pm tomorrow. In particular, if Select Committee Chairs want the spending of the Department that they oversee to be the subject of those debates, they should please submit their applications by tomorrow.
The Backbench Business Committee has only eight members—eight hard-working members who are very diligent in their activities. Unusually, though, the Committee has a quorum of four. At the moment, we are two members down because they have been promoted by Her Majesty’s Government to be Parliamentary Private Secretaries and we have one Member on outstanding long leave, so we currently have five active members and a quorum of four, which makes life a little difficult. Will the Leader of the House look again at the following options: increasing the size of the Committee; reducing the quorum of the Committee; or getting his party to appoint some members to the Committee?
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s plea for St Patrick’s Day, which I am sure will be considered in due course. It is worth recognising that a number of my Conservative colleagues will have seen that two members of his Committee have been promoted—that is the route to promotion, clearly—and I am sure there will be a clamour to join his Committee to get on the promotion ladder in due course.
Yesterday, the Government announced that both Hyndburn and Rossendale have been identified as two of the 109 places for levelling up for culture, meaning that they are a priority for additional investment for our fantastic arts, culture and heritage across Hyndburn and Haslingden. Does the Leader of the House agree that this is exactly what we mean by levelling up and putting Hyndburn and Haslingden back on the map? Will he allow a debate in Government time on how we make sure that places such as Hyndburn and east Lancashire are at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up agenda?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. It is vital that we recognise the enormous amount of culture that exists not just in London, which is a great city recognised internationally, but across the country, and she is right to highlight that. She should pursue either an Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate to make sure that she can spread that message to as many people as possible.
Can we have a debate on the operation of tier 1 visas, following on from some of the reports in The Sun and other newspapers today? I have hold of a leaked document from 2019 from the Home Office, which says in relation to Mr Abramovich:
“As part of HMG’s Russia strategy aimed at targeting illicit finance and malign activity, Abramovich remains of interest to HMG due to his links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices. An example of this is Abramovich admitting in court proceedings that he paid for political influence. Therefore, HMG is focused on ensuring individuals linked to illicit finance and malign activity are unable to base themselves in the UK and will use the relevant tools at its disposal (including immigration powers) to prevent this.”
That was nearly three years ago, and yet remarkably little has been done. Surely Mr Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country. Surely we should be looking at seizing some of his assets, including his £152 million home, and making sure that other people who have had tier 1 visas like this are not engaged in malign activity in the UK.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, under the statutory instrument passed in the House this week, there is the opportunity for the Government to take very strong action against high-profile Russian individuals who are of concern. He will be aware that the Home Secretary will be at this Dispatch Box next Monday for Home Office questions, and I am sure that he will be able to challenge her directly.
As my right hon. Friend knows, Southport was the recipient of a £38.5 million town deal to drive jobs, growth and investment. One of these investments is the £75 million Southport surf cove. Yet Labour-controlled Sefton Council is embarking on another consultation about some more unwanted road-blocking cycle lanes. Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State outlining that jobs, growth and investment should not be impeded by unwanted vanity projects such as cycle lanes in areas that have been given town deal money by this Government?
My hon. Friend is a great campaigner for Southport and has secured millions of pounds for his constituents. It is right that he continues to hold the local council to account for how it spends that money. The potential for jobs, growth and investment is a key driver of the towns fund, which is a crucial part of the Government’s commitment to levelling up. I am sure his constituents will recognise that he is standing up for their best interests.
Last month, the High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill containing powers to extend the line to Manchester was published and presented to this House. Hidden in it is a proposal to sever the Metrolink line to Ashton-under-Lyne, which runs through my constituency. The line would be mothballed and HS2 would run bus services instead. Can the Leader of the House indicate when Second Reading will be and can he, through his good offices, put in a request to the Transport Secretary to meet the three Tameside MPs to try to find a solution before then?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The business will be announced in the usual way and he will be updated at that moment. On 17 March, however, there is the opportunity for Transport questions; I am sure he will be present in the Chamber and able to ask the Secretary of State for Transport directly what his constituents want to hear.
Through the Derwent valley mills world heritage site, Derbyshire’s industrial heritage has been rightly recognised by UNESCO for its international importance. That brings value and visitors to Derbyshire, but I am concerned about the state of disrepair the historic mills are in. The owner has had them for more than 20 years and spent virtually nothing on them. I showed the mills to the Heritage Minister during recess, but can we have a debate on preserving our nation’s historic world heritage sites and their value to local communities?
It is important that we protect our nation’s cultural heritage for everyone to enjoy. Certainly those in Derbyshire, like the rest of the 33 designated world heritage sites across the UK, are some of the finest examples and are recognised at a global level by UNESCO. Derwent valley mills, like many other sites, has faced challenges in striking a balance and reconciling heritage and conservation with economic development. I strongly encourage all those responsible for conservation of the site to work in partnership and take their obligations under world heritage conservation seriously.
Last night, I attended a town hall meeting at St Anselm’s church in Kennington in my constituency to speak about the aftermath of and the momentum built around COP26. With the relentless news cycle at the moment demanding our attention in so many areas, it is vital that we stay focused on this important issue. Will the Leader of the House please relay that to his colleagues in government and ensure that there is regular and sufficient time to consider the climate emergency?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight our commitment to dealing with the environment and progressing with our COP commitments. COP questions will be next Thursday, and I am sure she will be present in the Chamber to ask about that. However, I compliment her on ensuring that her constituents are engaged in this process and informed at the same time.
Opposition Members quite rightly like to remind us that we should be careful about the sources of money coming to this country. Does the Leader of the House agree that we should gently remind the Opposition that we should also consider moneys from China, and that maybe we should have a wider debate about where moneys come from?
I think it is important that we have a system of political donations that the general public have confidence in and that is open and transparent. Anyone seeking to make a donation to a political party should register that and should be publicly accountable for that donation.
This week, the all-party parliamentary group on ending the need for food banks, which I co-chair, and the APPG on debt and personal finance, chaired by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), met to discuss research from the Trussell Trust showing that nearly half of all people referred to a food bank in its network owed money to the Department for Work and Pensions. The Cabinet Office carried out a consultation on fairness in Government debt management in the summer of 2020, but 18 months later the webpage says the responses are still being analysed. In the meantime, thousands of people have been pushed into destitution. Can the Leader of the House update the House on when that consultation will report and commit to giving the House time to debate this vital issue?
I am sure there will be many opportunities to debate such issues. The Government’s record on the cost of living is a good one. I know that the hon. Lady will hold Government Ministers to account and I am sure she will be present at DWP questions to put her questions directly to the Secretary of State.
I am always cautious about what I read in the papers, but if the Government have reached a conclusion on extending the covid regulation on the receipt of pills for abortion at home, can I gently remind the Leader of the House that in a parliamentary democracy it is better to have the debate before the decision?
I think I am confident in saying that the Department of Health has issued a statement this morning setting out its extension of the scheme for six months. This is a temporary extension. However, I know my right hon. Friend will continue to raise the matter in this House.