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Cabinet Office

Volume 715: debated on Thursday 9 June 2022

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Fraud Reduction

We have spent taxpayers’ money on building counter-fraud services, including the counter fraud function, counter fraud profession and a data analytics hub. Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Cabinet Office are going further, spending £24 million on a public sector fraud authority, which will bring increased scrutiny to counter-fraud performance and build a broader and deeper expert service for public bodies.

The Labour party cost each individual hard-working taxpayer £500 a year through fraud and error when it was last in office. Can my right hon. Friend confirm what action he is taking to reverse Labour’s shocking legacy and oversee cost-cutting programmes across Government?

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion of the proper expenditure of taxpayers’ money, which we always remember it is; the Government have no funds of their own. We have announced significant efforts on the counter-fraud service, most recently with the announcement on the public sector fraud authority, which is part of a wider programme of £750 million. That spending is not a virtue in itself, but £1 spent fighting fraud brings a proper, bankable return to taxpayers by bringing wrongdoers to justice and getting money back, and that is what we will continue to do.

I could not agree more with the Minister. Let us have a bankable return for the taxpayer, because the Public Accounts Committee has found that £4.9 billion of money given in bounce back loans is fraudulent. What is he doing to get almost £5 billion back for the taxpayer?

I am glad to say we have Corporal Hindsight on duty in the Chamber this morning. The socialists were calling for bounce back loans to be issued faster, and therefore, inevitably, with fewer checks at the time. The public sector fraud authority is being set up and the fraud departments within Government are working with the British Business Bank and with banks—I have seen a number of them personally—to get them to use their systems to claim the money back from people who have taken it fraudulently. The Government take it extremely seriously, but the socialists must remember what they were saying a couple of years ago.

But what is my right hon. Friend doing about the internal fraud within the Government, caused by low productivity and bloated and dysfunctional public services?

My hon. Friend is a great one for holding the Government and the bureaucracy to account, and he is right to do so. That is why we are looking to significant productivity increases by reducing the size of the civil service back to where it was in 2016, to ensure that services are provided to the public efficiently and effectively. As we reduce the number, so there will be significant taxpayer spending on better technology, because the use of technology speeds up actions for citizens and reduces costs for the taxpayer.

The Leader of the House talks about socialists, but let us talk about the Conservatives. He will be aware that a Conservative peer is under investigation by the National Crime Agency over fraud. PPE Medpro, a company linked to Baroness Mone, was handed hundreds of millions of pounds in Government contracts during the pandemic. It is now reported to have been raided by the police, as has her home. There are serious questions about the due diligence performed on that company, so can the Leader of the House let us know what evidence they hold and why they are refusing to put a single sheet of it out into the public domain? What do they have to hide?

I should just say that he is no longer the Leader of the House. I know we all assume he is, but there we are.

I was going to point out to the right hon. Lady that business questions will follow in due course and that that would be her opportunity to raise such things with the Leader of the House.

Well, that was a way of deflecting from the actual serious question that the Government are not willing to answer because they know there is suspicion about the way in which they handled those contracts.

On the topic of protecting the public purse, as we speak this Government are frittering away almost half a million pounds a day on storing personal protective equipment unfit for human use. That is after £10 billion has already been wasted, alone, on unusable, overpriced and underdelivered PPE. In fact, useless PPE storage is costing the taxpayer nearly half a million pounds a day. Will the Government’s procurement Bill close the loophole and prevent cronyism from corrupting our politics and wasting public money?

These charges made by the socialists are completely false. They have no bearing on reality and they completely ignore what was the requirement two years ago. We needed PPE. There was a global shortage. Everyone in the world was buying PPE, and British manufacturing managed to turn round and supply it in unprecedented quantities. If I remember rightly from when I was Leader of the House, domestically produced PPE went from about 1% to well over 70%, possibly even over 80%. This was an enormous effort, and it has to be said that everyone was calling for it at the time, because it was urgent to protect people in care homes, in hospitals and in offices as masks and PPE were demanded and this was delivered. The right hon. Lady would have sat on her hands and done nothing, expecting it to take months and months to procure a single pair of gloves.

Infected Blood: Compensation

As the Minister responsible for the infected blood inquiry, I announced this week the publication of the study by Sir Robert Francis QC on a framework of compensation for people directly affected by infected blood. The Government are considering Sir Robert’s recommendations and I will update the House as this work progresses.

I was contacted by a constituent who has been affected by the infected blood scandal. As for so many across the country, this has been a very traumatic moment for everybody who has been impacted. As my right hon. and learned Friend says, on Tuesday we have the release of the very welcome study that has come forward. Can we now move at pace on compensation for those who have been impacted? Will he think about the recommendations for interim payments, and will that be able to help the victims quickly now?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for rightly raising the concerns of his constituents. I know that Members across the House will have constituents in similar positions. Sir Robert will give evidence to the inquiry on 11 and 12 July, so just a few weeks from now, and the Government will need to reflect very carefully on his evidence to the inquiry in considering his study. But the points my hon. Friend makes are very valid and have been noted. There are complex factors to take into consideration and we will be doing just that.

National Resilience Strategy: Food Security

3. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help ensure food security preparedness as part of his Department’s national resilience strategy. (900326)

The Government are working closely with the food industry to ensure that the UK’s food security is resilient to shocks. The resilience strategy will be published this summer and will reflect a range of global resilience issues.

This situation has become increasingly urgent because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has seriously disrupted global food supplies. Will the Minister comment on rumours that the Government are reportedly abandoning many of the recommendations in the national food strategy, on which their response is long overdue, including measures that would help us to improve our food security?

We are working in partnership with the food industry—indeed, only yesterday I chaired a roundtable with industry representatives—and also working in partnership across the United Kingdom. We had representatives from the devolved Administrations there yesterday for what is a common purpose. We all want to see resilience, given the pressure on food prices, and we are working in partnership with industry representatives to take that strategy forward.

Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps his Department is taking to mitigate the effects of the war in Ukraine on world supplies of food?

One specific area is working with international partners as to how we get the grain out of Ukraine. There is a pressing timescale on that—a four-week window—so the matter is urgent. Indeed, when I met the US ambassador who has newly arrived in her post, that was one of the issues we discussed, as we do with other international partners.

Bearing in mind the need to secure knowledgeable farmers—I am very fortunate in my constituency to have many—what discussions has the Minister had with counterparts in the area of skills and learning on fostering a supportive route to farming and diversification to secure our food supplies at home?

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. I suggest that he looks first at the approach we took in the autumn, when our supply chains were under pressure. We showed considerable flexibility and worked with industry leaders such as Sir Dave Lewis on how to adapt our approach. Obviously, there are schemes such as the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which has a review mechanism that potentially allows an extra 10,000 workers if required. There is also the opportunity to invest in areas such as agri-tech, and policy from the Chancellor such as the super deduction facilitates that investment.

Government Procurement Policy

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the effectiveness of Government procurement policy. (900327)

Our two Departments are working closely together on matters of procurement policy on a continuing basis, as demonstrated by the provisions being made in the Procurement Bill for defence contracts. I have had regular conversations with my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement during the drafting of the Bill.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Last year, it was announced that a competition would take place to replace the electronic countermeasures. Four companies made bids, including two from my constituency, one of which already supplies that equipment. Three were sifted out on the ground that their answers on the supply chain question were not sufficient, even though the three have very strong supply chain records and gave honest answers to the questions. I believe that that is an unfair and potentially dangerous decision. Will my right hon. Friend look into it, please?

I have had assurances from the Foreign Office that it carefully evaluated the bids in line with its procurement process, and that the answers and documentation supplied provided limited assurance that either supplier could deliver electronic countermeasure systems within the procurement timeframe required. However, I commend my hon. Friend for standing up for his constituents and seeking redress of grievance, which is what this House exists for, and I will question the Foreign Office further to give him further reassurance that the process was carried out fairly and his constituents were not disadvantaged.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I wish you a very happy birthday tomorrow?

The Procurement Bill is important business. The Opposition are concerned that the Government showed little understanding of spending taxpayers’ money efficiently and effectively by irresponsibly wasting billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money during the pandemic. The Procurement Bill is a huge opportunity to ensure that every pound of taxpayers’ money spent takes account of social value—true value for money—to distribute growth, meet environmental targets and develop social wellbeing, but it does not mention social value once. Does the Minister agree that including in the Bill an explicit commitment to deliver social value will help to restore public trust in Government spending, after the failures of the pandemic?

How remiss of me not to wish you many happy returns for tomorrow, Mr Speaker. I expect that Chorley will be en fête over the weekend and that what it was doing last weekend was merely a warm-up for the main event.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) for bringing up the Procurement Bill, which has now started its passage in the other House. What is of fundamental and overwhelming importance—I think we agree on this—is value for money, and that is front and centre of the Bill. The other bits around procurement may be good to do, but if we do not achieve value for money, taxpayers’ money will not be well spent.

I go back to the procurement of PPE two years ago. Had we followed the normal procurement rules, it would have taken three to six months before we ordered a single extra glove. That cannot have been the right thing to do when there was an emergency. I am glad to say that the Bill provides better emergency procurement procedures.

Government Efficiency: Online Services

5. What steps his Department is taking to (a) improve Government efficiency and (b) reform Government online services. (900328)

Digital transformation is central to improving the delivery of Government services. My Department is leading work to improve the efficiency of the top 75 Government services; to embed a build once, use many times approach to technology; and to build a new system that will enable citizens to prove their identity and access online Government services through a single account, one login. In the last financial year, technology platforms built by Cabinet Office digital generated £74 million of savings to Government—six times more than cost to run.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for outlining the Government’s improvements in online applications, but may I ask what conversations she is having with the Home Office? Many Carshalton and Wallington residents have been in touch about delays in the Homes for Ukraine scheme and passport renewals, so what discussions has the Cabinet Office had with the Home Office on improving its online application systems?

Home Office colleagues are working harder than ever to deal with huge surges in demand for passports and visas as a result of the recovery from the pandemic and the UK’s response to the illegal war in Ukraine. The Home Office is currently prioritising Ukraine visa scheme applications in response to the illegal invasion of Ukraine. The Government are communicating directly with other visa customers to note that economic visas are taking longer to process at this time. Staff are being redeployed to those visa routes and further staff are being recruited and onboarded. More passport applications are being processed than ever before, with nearly 2 million applications completed between March and April. Despite that, the vast majority of passports are being processed within 10 weeks.

The Minister’s warm words do not match the reality of the Government’s plans. Their all-male cuts committee, headed by the Chancellor, will not create efficiencies by cutting 91,000 civil servants; in fact it will gut the civil service’s capability to deliver the vital frontline services that our communities rely on. Will the Minister explain to the public how all Departments being asked to model 20%, 30% or 40% job cuts will better serve their needs when it comes to getting their passport on time, not having to wait in queues at the airport or accessing swift justice in our court system?

I am afraid the hon. Lady is out of step with reality. Many MPs have gone to the hub in Portcullis House and have got turnarounds for their constituents’ passports. Many people have got their passports within nine days. [Interruption.] She is asking about technology: improvements in artificial intelligence mean that if there is no issue with someone’s passport, it is returned within nine days flat.

Civil Service: Broadening and Diversifying Expertise

9. What steps his Department is taking to broaden and diversify expertise in senior posts within the civil service. (900332)

What an exciting time we are having this morning. The Government will provide a range of entry routes and a renewed focus on driving the movement of skills, experience and knowledge within the civil service, and between the civil service and other sectors, through loans, secondments and intergovernmental placements and fellowships. We have strengthened the external by default recruitment requirement for all senior civil servant roles, so all Departments will be able to recruit the people best placed to lead and work in Government.

The civil service fast stream ensures that the best and brightest in our society, no matter their background, rise to the top. Does my hon. Friend agree that restoring the fast stream would ensure that the top ranks of the civil service continue to be world leading in their breadth and depth of knowledge?

Fast stream places for autumn 2022 will be honoured and our direct entry apprenticeship and internship schemes will continue to bring new and diverse talent to the civil service. While we pause the fast stream for the 2023 intake, we will take the opportunity to further improve the fast stream offer. That reform will ensure that when the scheme reopens, it is focused on driving up specialist skills in the civil service, as well as improving the regional representation of the fast stream.

I know that my hon. Friend works hard with Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials on their international agenda in his capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on Belgium, Luxembourg and Tunisia. I take the opportunity to update him that, as part of our global Britain agenda and the establishment of the new College for National Security, we are launching international strategy and security fellowships, which are secondments, and where possible—

Order. I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but these are very long answers. We are certainly wandering away from where we started. Let us move on to the shadow Minister.

Increasing the diversity of the senior civil service is key to strengthening leadership and expanding expertise. Representation of ethnic minorities and disabled people in senior roles is still below the working population average. Given that the fast stream is a proven route to senior roles, it should be used as a tool to boost diversity, so the decision to freeze the scheme puts a reckless, ideological cuts agenda ahead of a sustained strategy to create a senior civil service that truly reflects our country. Can the Minister explain how cutting 91,000 jobs and freezing the fast stream will help to increase diversity in the senior civil service?

I am afraid the hon. Lady is missing the point completely. Respectfully, taxpayers should have value for money, and a civil service that has grown by 24% in only a few years is outrageous. The most important point about diversity is that we are moving jobs out of London, with regional jobs all over, and we are reflecting the public in those regional jobs.

Brexit Opportunities: Discussions with Welsh Government

10. What recent discussions the Minister for Brexit Opportunities has had with the Welsh Government on the UK Government’s assessment of the potential merits of the UK having left the EU. (900333)

I am very grateful for this question because it is an opportunity to remind the hon. Gentleman that the people of Wales, in their good sense, voted in a higher proportion to leave the European Union than did the people of England.

My officials and I undertake regular engagement with the devolved Administrations on the opportunities arising from leaving the European Union, including on the Brexit freedoms Bill and the reviews of retained EU law. I was pleased to have a meeting with the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution on 23 May to discuss the Brexit freedoms Bill, and I look forward to further such discussions to ensure we maximise the benefits of Brexit for the people of Wales, including the exciting development of a freeport.

Post-Brexit freight traffic through Holyhead is down by 34%—permanently so. This is not teething troubles and it is not post covid; it is a permanent failure. In January last year, the Secretary of State for Wales told me that he was in talks with the Welsh Government to make sure that Holyhead “flourishes”. Eighteen months later, does this Minister consider that Holyhead is flourishing?

I think everyone is keen that Holyhead should flourish, but inevitably there are competitive routes for transport. It is inevitable in any free market system that people will choose the routes that they decide to use. But there are also issues with the Northern Ireland protocol and, if the hon. Gentleman continues to attend as regularly as he does, he will no doubt hear announcements in this House on the protocol.

Cost of Living: Leaving the EU

11. What recent assessment his Department has made of the impact on the cost of living of the UK having left the EU. (900334)

Her Majesty’s Government understand that many people are worried about the effect of rising prices. That is why we recently announced over £15 billion of additional support, targeted particularly at those in the greatest need. That brings Government support for the cost of living this year to over £37 billion.

We need to look at the wider context here. It is challenging to separate out the effects of Brexit on the UK economy. Indeed, it is worth noting, as Julian Jessop has been pointing out, the very high rate of food inflation in Germany, which I do not believe is an effect of Brexit. We have also seen an illegal war in Russia and supply chain problems following the pandemic. So we will move on with the Brexit freedoms Bill and the Procurement Bill, which will help us to get more opportunities for growth from leaving the European Union.

But Brexit-related trade barriers have driven up the cost of food in the UK by 6%, making life harder for everyone struggling with the cost of living crisis. So severe is the harm that 60% of leave voters accept that Brexit has driven up the cost of living. Does the Minister accept that, and what do the Government intend to do about the rising cost of food across these islands?

I do not know where these figures come from. The hon. Gentleman himself said it, but I am not sure there is any greater source for these figures, though perhaps he will make them available in the Library if there is some better evidence for them.

What we have done by not adding controls on 1 July is ensure we do not add costs to things coming into this country. We believe in free trade. We do not believe in non-tariff barriers. We believe in being as open as possible. That is why my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade is negotiating dozens of free trade agreements, many of them already successfully adopted. That is what we will continue to do because a free and open market reduces prices, which we can do as we are no longer under the yoke—the onerous yoke—of the European Union.

Brexit: Economic Opportunities

12. What progress his Department has made on identifying potential economic opportunities arising from the UK having left the EU. (900335)

The Government and I are very committed to ensuring we maximise the opportunities of leaving the EU to support economic growth. My hon. Friend, with his invariable parliamentary perspicacity, follows from one question to another seamlessly, because what we need is the removal of overburdensome and bureaucratic regulation such as solvency II and the clinical trials directive to create new pro-growth regulatory frameworks in data and AI. Her Majesty’s Government are already delivering an ambitious programme of work to unleash innovation, propel start-up growth across all sectors of the economy and help to level up parts of the United Kingdom. The Procurement Bill alone will cut 350 separate pieces of EU law to one UK law. I have also been receiving excellent ideas from readers of The Sun and the Sunday Express.

I apologise to the House, Mr Speaker: perhaps I should not have asked that question as it obviously required the giving of a long list of benefits.

In my constituency, Weatherbys, the global administrator for horse racing, has developed an e-passport to ease movements of thoroughbreds around the world and provide essential welfare data. If the Government were to link that e-passport to the Government system, that would be a massive Brexit dividend. May I ask the excellent Minister for administrative affairs whether he would put a rocket under the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, make it be courageous and cut the red tape, cut the delay and get this done?

I have good news for my hon. Friend: DEFRA’s equine identification team has been in contact with Weatherbys during the development and launch of its e-passport, and the merits of its e-passport will be considered along with responses from a recent consultation, which closes on 28 June. So it is a case of, my hon. Friend asks and it shall be given. Seek and he shall find.

In October 2019, the Brexit Opportunities Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and assured businesses that the “broad, sunlit uplands” of Brexit lay ahead. Yesterday, I spoke to Elizabeth, whose company, Gracefruit, has exported chemicals for cosmetics to the EU for almost two decades. She weathered the financial crash, but such was the impact of Brexit that she has told me she no longer has the

“mental or emotional energy to make a success of a once-thriving business.”

So would he like to tell Elizabeth, and all the others struggling with red tape, soaring costs and a loss of market, when they can expect those “broad, sunlit uplands” to arrive?

The sun is shining, metaphorically, regardless of the meteorological conditions outside. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that we are in charge of how this economy works, but what we cannot do is make the EU dance to our tune. If it wishes to disadvantage its own consumers—if it wishes to put up prices for its consumers—that is a matter for the EU, but we are producing a dynamic, open, free market UK economy.

The idea that the Minister for Brexit Opportunities believes that the sun is shining for small and medium-sized companies in this country is absolutely unbelievable because, in the first year following Brexit, Elizabeth’s business fell by 65%. Because of red tape and new regulations, her product line had to be reduced from 350 products to one, and the company has had to lay off 50% of its workforce. So it is Brexit that has been an unmitigated disaster for Gracefruit and so many other long-standing successful businesses. Is it not time that this Government stopped playing games with people’s lives and livelihoods and admitted that their Brexit experiment is a lose-lose for everybody, bar a few double-breasted suit-wearing hedge fund managers and City spivs?

The hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong and he actually explains why it was right to leave the EU. What he is talking about is not British red tape—it is EU red tape. We are freeing people in this country from red tape because we look at the United Kingdom playing a global role—trading with the globe, being as economically productive as anywhere in the world. He comes here and explains that the red tape of the EU strangles enterprise and innovation and destroys business. That is why the EU is a failing economic option and why we sing hallelujahs for having left it.

Covid-19 Inquiry: Final Report

14. If he will take steps to help ensure that the UK Covid-19 Inquiry publishes its final report in this Parliament. (900337)

18. If he will take steps to help ensure that the UK Covid-19 Inquiry publishes its final report in this Parliament. (900343)

May I join others in wishing you many happy returns, Mr Speaker? It must be great to be the youngest Speaker of the House of Commons in generations.

Under the Inquiries Act 2005, the process, procedure and timing of the inquiry are matters for its independent chair Baroness Heather Hallett. She has made it clear that she will be doing everything in her power to deliver recommendations as soon as possible.

More than 170,000 people have lost their lives to covid-19. That is an awful lot of empty places at the dinner table and a lot of broken hearts. The families desire rightly to know what happened to help them grieve. I heard what the Minister said about the limits on his agency in the matter, but I did not hear him say that, in his opinion, it would be valuable to have those answers as quickly as possible, and that ought to be within the life of this Parliament.

The hon. Member is completely right to raise his point, which I know is one that the House will agree with. The inquiry’s draft terms of reference actually require it to

“produce its reports (including interim reports) and any recommendations in a timely manner.”

To be fair, Baroness Hallett has made it clear that she will do everything in her power to deliver recommendations as soon as possible. I agree with that—it is part of the terms of reference—and we will work to that, as I know she will.

Seven hundred and fifty-one: that is how many people died within 28 days of a covid-positive test in my borough of Enfield. Those people are not just numbers; they represent hundreds of families who are grieving the loss of loved ones and want answers. They should not have to fight and struggle to get those answers. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. I join my hon. Friend in asking the Minister to do the right thing by those families, including those in Enfield, and ensure that the inquiry reports back as soon as possible.

I am sympathetic to the hon. Member’s point, and I know everyone will be. The consultation on the terms of reference that Baroness Hallett engaged upon is now complete. She received more than 20,000 responses from members of the public. She had already held meetings with bereaved families and sector representatives across the UK and she has now published her recommendations for the inquiry’s final remit. The Prime Minister will be consulting with the devolved Administrations. Every effort will be made to go as fast as is reasonably possible while also getting proper inquiry results. I know that Baroness Hallett will work to that, too.

I think that my right hon. Friend will agree that the Prime Minister and the Government made every effort to avoid having lockdowns where that was possible. Unfortunately, occasionally, it was necessary so to do.

Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Global Cyber Threat

15. What steps his Department is taking with international partners in response to the global cyber-threat posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (900338)

16. What steps his Department is taking with international partners in response to the global cyber-threat posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (900339)

The Government are dedicating significant resources to understanding and countering Russia’s cyber-threat, working with our allies. That has included joint advisories with our Five Eyes partners on how to mitigate that threat.

With daily cyber-attacks against this place as well as institutions and companies across the country, what are we doing to stem the tide of aggression from Russia?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are spending £2.6 billion over the next three years to counter that threat. That is additional to the significant funding going into the National Cyber Force, which gives us offensive capability as well. Alongside that, we have a whole of society approach as set out in our national cyber strategy. I know that you, Mr Speaker, will take a great interest in particular in the north-west cyber-corridor, which is about leveraging that investment in the National Cyber Force and making it about skills across the north-west as a whole.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that disinformation campaigns from hostile foreign states such as Russia also pose a cyber-security threat and that it is important that tech platforms work closely with the intelligence services and the Cabinet Office to identify proactively those threats and to address them?

My hon. Friend is right on that. I know that he has taken a close, long-term interest in the issue, so he will be aware both of the provisions in the National Security Bill on capturing foreign interference as an offence and of the measures in the Online Safety Bill that will force big tech platforms to take action on disinformation.

I wish you a very happy birthday for tomorrow, Mr Speaker.

The US has voiced concern about potential cyber-attacks on major infrastructure operators. What recent assessment has been made of the threat level to UK interests and what additional steps have the Government taken to address it?

The assessment is a sobering one. If I just take online scams as one example of cyber risk, there has been a fourfold increase from 2020, with the national cyber strategy seen as thwarting 2.7 million online scams. I am sure the hon. Member and the House will agree that this is a UK-wide threat. That is why we are working closely with the devolved Administrations and industry to look at our skills, taking both a whole of society approach and a whole of the United Kingdom approach to countering that risk.

Civil Service Staffing: Member Correspondence

19. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the level of civil service staffing to support timely responses to correspondence from hon. Members. (900346)

The Government attach great importance to the effective and timely handling of correspondence. Officials remain committed to providing the highest level of service. As part of our commitment to transparency, we have published data related to letters from MPs and peers answered by Government in 2021, which shows that Cabinet Office timeliness improved each quarter, with 89% of letters—89%—received from hon. Members in quarter four responded to within 20 days.

To get a response: the Equalities Minister, four months; the Health Minister, often four months but can be six months; and the Defence Minister, seven months, with our staff chasing and chasing, while being on the phone for three hours, or up to five hours to UK Visas and Immigration. Behind every letter and every call our office makes is someone in need—often pressing need. We all know that this is due to capacity, so how can the Government state that they plan to cut 20% of civil servant jobs, 91,000 people, when they cannot even cope with undertaking the most basic of tasks?

I recognise the importance of the correspondence for those constituents who write in. It might be instructive to know that Departments have continued to receive a significantly higher volume of correspondence in 2021, mainly due to the pandemic, and that has had an impact on resource and timeliness of responses. During 2021, most Departments continued to receive a significantly higher volume of correspondence. The Department for Transport was able to answer 92% of 13,363 letters, the Ministry of Defence 88% of 3,773 letters, and the Department for International Trade 84% of 2,182 letters, within 20 days.

Order. Can I gently say that I and the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), have been struggling to ensure that Members’ letters, from all sides, are answered? We should not try to defend the indefensible. I will be honest: Members need letters on behalf of their constituents to be answered as quickly as possible and, unfortunately, I am getting all the complaints. So I just want to add that to the burden to take away.

I call James Grundy. Not here.

Topical Questions

Mr Speaker, I feel I should have started with a birthday tribute; I think the credit for that goes to the Opposition Front Bench.

After the wonderful platinum jubilee, which I know colleagues across the House enjoyed, I pay tribute to the work of civil servants across government, who played a key role in facilitating it. As part of the platinum jubilee celebrations, a civic honours competition was held for city status. The Government were pleased to announce that Her Majesty the Queen had commended city status to Bangor, Colchester, Doncaster, Douglas, Dunfermline, Milton Keynes, Stanley and Wrexham, and that lord mayoralty status was granted to Southampton. I know Members will take great interest in those awards.

Colleagues will have seen the work of our armed forces, as part of our work for the jubilee. One of our first actions on taking office was to create the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to co-ordinate support across government. As we approach Armed Forces Week later this month, the Cabinet Office remains focused on our goal to ensure that the UK is the best place in the world to be a veteran by 2028.

Our constituents face ridiculous backlogs for passports, driving licences, decisions from the Home Office and much more across Government. I am afraid that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) did not get an answer to her question: we are told that this will get better, but we are also told that we can afford to cut 91,000 civil servants—how are those two things compatible?

Let me take that question on directly. First, the situation has got better, and the response has been addressed in Prime Minister’s questions and in other questions today. To be specific about how we are dealing with this, we are looking at business and the scope of machine learning and technology. At the moment, only a very small proportion of the passport application process is automated. If the photo is taken in a booth as opposed to at home, that significantly increases the level of automation that can be delivered and that, in turn, reduces the number of staff who are manually required. It is such a luddite approach from Opposition Members to suggest, when businesses such as Amazon are showing exactly what technology can deliver, that the Government who are there to serve the taxpayer and the public should not embrace the same technology that we see in our best companies.

T3. Many of my constituents are frustrated that, while there are delays in getting passports and driving licences renewed, many civil servants continue to work from home. Will the Minister update the House on his progress in getting civil servants back behind their desks? (900351)

Since the pandemic began, civil servants have been delivering the Government’s priorities both from the workplace and occasionally from home. I have written to all Secretaries of State outlining their abilities to ensure that Departments return to pre-pandemic occupancy levels, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency has done so, too.[Official Report, 16 June 2022, Vol. 716, c. 6MC.] We are willing to assist in any way we can. I add, by the way, that the vast majority of passport applications continue to be processed well within 10 weeks.

May I say what a luddite approach it is not to see home working as something that can be efficient? We in the Opposition can see that.

Less than a year since his last outsource government review was published, Lord Maude has again been appointed to lead a review of the civil service, a role that he performed in Government for five long years. Will the Minister tell us what value for money and performance measurement has taken place since the conclusion of Lord Maude’s last review; what tender process has been conducted to award Francis Maude Associates that work; and what conflict-of-interest assessment has taken place? Or are Ministers lining the pockets of their mates with the public’s hard-earned money once again?

Usually, one would expect the House to value corporate memory and experience and the fact that the reforms initially put forward by Lord Maude were a cornerstone of the declaration of civil service reform, signed by the Cabinet Secretary and my predecessor as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). If one looks, for example, at the changes in Government relating to functions and the role of developing functional expertise—whether that is in the Government Property Agency or is about commercial contracts or digital and IT—one can see the value for money that is delivered by bringing in that expertise. This is about learning from the best in the private sector. That is why it is a luddite approach to see any change that brings in technology and new ways of working as a threat to the trade unions that support Opposition Members.

T4. It is clear from the exchanges in the House this morning that not just my constituents, but many constituents are experiencing delays with passport processing, visa applications and driving licence renewals. I know that Ministers have replied on this issue already, but will the Minister reassure me and my constituents that the planned reduction in the civil service will not impact on the capacity of the processing done by those teams, and that the recruitment taking place—particularly in the Passport Office—will be directed into the frontline to speed up the application process? (900352)

My hon. Friend will know, having been a senior business figure before coming to the House, that it is about linking resource to outcomes. We have increased resource in the Passport Office on a temporary basis; we have put in 650 staff since April last year to address the surge in applications as a result of the backlog from covid.

At the same time, there needs to be a change in how we deliver public services, and particularly in how we digitalise access to them. Too often, the same information has to be entered multiple times when addressing things from the Government. We will streamline that through the single sign-on process, and the Passport Office will be one of the beneficiaries of that programme.

T2. The Minister will be aware that the worst covid outcomes have disproportionately been felt among communities from ethnic minority backgrounds. What steps will his Department take to ensure that those health disparities are examined under the terms of reference set out? (900349)

The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point. In the work of the equalities unit in the Cabinet Office, a key focus is on variations in the data across social groups, place and economic background, so that we can learn the right lessons. I am sure that, as part of the inquiry review, Judge Hallett will be looking closely at the data, particularly where there are variations within it.

T5. May I press the Paymaster General on his earlier answer about contaminated blood? More than 400 infected people have died since the infected blood inquiry was announced. Sir Robert Francis’s report suggests that the Government should offer “substantial interim payments”. How soon will the Government respond to that report and implement its recommendations for those affected? (900354)

As I said earlier, Sir Robert will give evidence on 11 and 12 July. The Government will want to hear what he has to say. We will study it very carefully and will act as expeditiously as possible after that.

I was grateful for the recent meeting with the Minister for Brexit Opportunities about the Procurement Bill, along with other hon. Members sanctioned by China. Given the further revelations and documents about the extent of abuse, torture and human rights violations in Xinjiang and other parts of China, will the Government now commit to a full audit of all public service contracts with any Chinese firms that are in any way implicated in those abuses? Will the Government’s default position be to award no contracts to any companies in any way implicated in those forms of abuse?

I very much recognise the considerable interest in and concern about that issue across the House. A cornerstone of our procurement legislation is much greater transparency about the £300 billion of taxpayer spend consequent on that legislation each year. That transparency will better enable the House to have discussions about exactly the point that my hon. Friend raises.

T7. As a consequence of smothering Brexit red tape, a third of UK exporters to the EU have simply stopped trading. Contrary to the frankly ridiculous answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) received, that has hammered the economy, cost thousands of jobs and undermined economic recovery from the pandemic. How can the UK Government claim that Brexit is slashing red tape when it is plainly Brexit-derived trade barriers that are driving businesses into the ground? (900356)

That is a very straightforward question to answer. It is the freedoms that we have from our exit from the European Union, on things like the £300 billion of procurement that we have just heard about, that allow us to put clauses in our legislation about social value, targeting procurement to better benefit small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly where that reduces food miles or allows social value around disability employment, an issue that was raised earlier. Those are the social value provisions in the procurement legislation that we are able to have as a consequence of our exit from the EU.

Will the Brexit Minister tell us which Departments are co-operating with him wholeheartedly and which are dragging their feet? Does he plan to report, perhaps quarterly, on the progress that each Department has made?

My hon. Friend tempts me, but I remind him that the Government speak with one voice. What I will say is that yesterday there was a meeting between Ministers and the Secretary of State for Transport. His Department has, I think, 375 bits of retained EU law, and he is tackling those with great enthusiasm. We need to ensure that people know what the rules are, so that they can point to one and ask, “Is this really necessary?” and I am working with all Departments to do that.

T8. As a former member of the Home Affairs Committee, I still take great interest in its work. I am reliably informed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) that yesterday the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration told the Committee that he had asked to meet the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to talk about the cross-Government approach to channel crossings and had been refused a meeting, and that the Home Secretary had cancelled requested meetings with him six times. Is this an acceptable approach to such a serious issue, and when will there be a meeting? (900357)

One of the purposes of Cabinet Office questions is to enable Ministers to respond to issues as they arise. Obviously I have a range of external meetings that reflect the responsibilities that we have discussed in the House, not least my roundtable on food security and resilience, an issue that was raised earlier. As for the wider approach to illegal immigration, that is a policy matter for the Home Secretary, who leads external engagement on the issue, but of course the Cabinet Office plays a supporting role in relation to Home Office colleagues.

I just want to make it clear that the Government’s approach to the study conducted by Sir Robert Francis was to publish it at the same time as their own response. That is what we were told—although the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood and many campaign groups had asked the Government for openness and transparency, and for the report to be published when it was given to the Government. Given that two people are dying every week as a result of the contaminated blood scandal, may I press the Minister on this issue? Do the Government accept that there is a strong moral case for compensation to be paid, irrespective of any legal liability, and for interim payments of at least £100,000 per individual to start now?

Let me start by commending the right hon. Lady for her work in this area. I know how hard she has been working for some time. As she knows, the study was published this week and a statement was made in the House. The study makes recommendations for a framework for compensation and redress for the victims of infected blood, which can be ready for implementation on the conclusion of the inquiry that the Government initiated, should the inquiry’s findings and recommendations require it. I cannot second-guess what the outcome will be—that is the reason for the inquiry—but Sir Robert has rightly put the views and experiences of the infected and affected, who have suffered so much and for so long, at the heart of his study, and we will expedite this as far as we possibly can.

Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) about the contaminated blood scandal, I emphasise that the victims of the scandal need reassurance. We have not had much reassurance this morning. When will the interim payments be made, and do the Government support recommendation 14 of Sir Robert Francis’s report?

The Government have committed themselves to providing support for those who have been infected and affected, and ex gratia support has been given to those affected by this issue since 1988. As I have said, Sir Robert has made a number of recommendations about compensation, which need careful consideration. It would be remiss of the Government to rush that. It is most important that we are able to reflect on his evidence, which he is due to give in four or five weeks’ time, and we will do so after that.

On, again, the subject of the contaminated blood report, may I reiterate the need to support the families who lost loved ones, such as the Smith family from Newport, who lost Colin, aged just seven, after he was infected by blood from an Arkansas prison? Will the Minister ensure that that aspect of Sir Robert Francis’s report is acted on? As others have said, this is long, long overdue.

The hon. Lady is right to raise that case, and there are many tragic and appalling cases that are similar to it. This is why the Government launched the inquiry, it is why they asked Sir Robert Francis to write his report, and it is why they are acting in a way in which previous Governments over the course of decades have not acted. We will process the matter just as soon as we reasonably, practicably can.

I wish you a very happy birthday, Mr Speaker—the happiest of birthdays.

Why are the Government so bloated? In the UK, we have more Government Ministers than France, Germany and Italy put together, and more than India, Canada and Australia put together. When I arrived in this House in 2001, the Prime Minister made do with one Parliamentary Private Secretary. This Prime Minister has four PPSs; Mrs Thatcher had only one. Why is this Prime Minister so much less efficient than either Tony Blair or Mrs Thatcher? Is it not time, if we are going to have a cull of civil servants, that we had a cull of Ministers? At least one quarter of the Front Bench should go. Would somebody like to name one?

I used to think that the hon. Gentleman liked to have the opportunity to question Ministers, and it is good for him to have such a range to choose from. The key issue is how we are delivering for the public. That is what we as a Government are focused on and that is what the transformation programme will deliver.

I welcome the Minister’s reply to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) a few moments ago about the need to join up Government information so that people do not have to put their data into Government systems all the time. Does that mean that the Minister will be moving forward with plans for automatic electoral registration?

The scope of the single sign-on programme has already been set in terms of the 75 services within the scope of how we make doing business easier. This is about looking at where data is entered—for example, for a passport or a driving licence—and how we then enable that to facilitate access to other services, such as access to benefits, so that we make the customer journey for our constituents as frictionless as possible. I think that that is of interest across the House.

Centrica’s veteran action pathway provides veterans with a secure role, training and support. It is a really positive opportunity for veterans looking to re-enter the civilian workforce. How are the Government supporting the private sector to develop initiatives like this that specifically focus on supporting veterans?

We are supporting the private sector by giving a national insurance contribution holiday to those such as Centrica that employ service leavers, and we commend them for doing so. We know that military service gives people fantastic skills for life.

We now come to the urgent question. I have allowed the sub judice waiver before, and that will continue.