House of Commons
Thursday 9 June 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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—
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
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
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
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
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.
Russian Invasion of Ukraine: Global Cyber Threat
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Northern Ireland Protocol: First Treasury Counsel
As the Foreign Secretary set out to the House on 17 May, to respond to the serious situation in Northern Ireland the Government intend to bring forward legislation to fix the Northern Ireland protocol. As she also set out, the Government’s view is that such a course of action is lawful and in accordance with international law. In line with long-standing convention, we do not set out details of the internal deliberations regarding that view, but we will be setting out further details about the Government’s legal position in due course.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question. It was reported on Tuesday evening that Sir James Eadie QC, First Treasury Counsel, had not been consulted on the legality of the Government’s proposed legislation to override the Northern Ireland protocol. This was denied directly by the Prime Minister yesterday in a response to a question from the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood). It would now appear that, at the very least, the answer given by the Prime Minister to the hon. Gentleman was incomplete.
We have learned in subsequent media reports that while Sir James was consulted on aspects of the proposals, he was in fact asked not to give an opinion on whether the plan would breach international law, and was told to assume that there was a respectable legal basis for the Government’s position. Can the Minister confirm to the House that this information in the public domain is correct? Was Sir James asked to give an opinion on the merits of the legal advice that the Government had been given or not? Can the Minister tell the House why the request to Sir James was framed in this way?
Sir James is understood to have volunteered that he found the argument of one particular lawyer advising the Government
“considerably easier to follow and more convincing”.
The lawyer in question had said that it would be “very difficult” for the UK to argue that it was not “breaching international law”.
It is a matter of fundamental import to this House that Members are being told by the Government that the content of a Bill is not in breach of international law when that assertion is based on information that is incomplete, and apparently intentionally so.
The Government have put First Treasury Counsel in an almost impossible situation. We are fortunate indeed that he has been willing to take his professional duties more seriously than those who sought his legal advice. We know the position about the publication of Government legal advice, but that relies on Governments acting in good faith and their legal advisers being free to give the best advice that their professional skills allow. That full advice must be published for the Bill.
I make it clear to my right hon. Friend that I voted for the withdrawal agreement and the protocol against my better judgment, and so it has proved. If the Government bring forward a Bill that does not hold out the serious prospect of the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland and the restoration of the Good Friday agreement, I will vote against it. Will he undertake to make sure that his right hon. and hon. Friends understand that those voting for such a Bill would be voting to wreck the Good Friday agreement?
My colleagues on the Treasury Bench will have heard the point that my hon. Friend made; obviously, the question is narrowly focused on legal advice. As I said, we are confident that our position is legal but we do not discuss the details of legal advice to Government.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. Britain at its best is a country that adheres to the rule of law, sticks to its word and is trusted around the world, but under this Government the rule of law is being treated with disdain—whether it is law-breaking parties in No. 10, or the treaties they signed up to just a couple of years ago.
The Prime Minister knew that the Brexit deal he negotiated would create trade barriers in the Irish sea, which have stoked political tensions in Northern Ireland and placed strain on the Good Friday agreement. Rather than seeking workable solutions, the Government are threatening to rip up the agreement, with no concern for international law or for what is best for the people of Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK.
We are calling on both sides to find a solution. Both the UK Government and the EU must get round the table and do everything possible to solve this. Solutions exist, and must be found. Media reports suggest that the Government have not only been careless, but that the First Treasury Counsel, the Government’s independent barrister on nationally important legal issues, was not asked to give his opinion on whether imminent plans to overhaul the Northern Ireland protocol would break international law.
It would be unprecedented for the First Treasury Counsel not to be consulted on an issue of this importance. This is the issue that runs to the heart of whether this Government can be trusted to follow the rule of law. Can the Minister confirm—yes or no—did the Government ask the First Treasury Council for a specific legal opinion on whether their plans around the protocol would breach international law? Yes or no?
I listened very carefully to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). He well knows, as a former Minister, that the Law Officers’ convention is very clear about the disclosure or non-disclosure of legal advice that might be tendered to the Government. I will say this to him in all respect: it is important that lawyers advising the Government do so in privileged circumstances. The real question here is, why on earth are leaks happening time and time again about important legal advice? I want to see the legal position published when the Bill is published.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes an incredibly strong point. I am conscious that I may get a reputation for repetitiveness at the Dispatch Box, but he is right that the Government’s position is that our actions are legal in international law. It is a long-standing convention that we do not disclose the legal advice given to the Government.
On 16 June 2020, the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster told the House that the Government were “faithfully implementing” the withdrawal agreement, including the Northern Ireland protocol. We know there are no surprises in the withdrawal agreement because we spent long enough debating it in this place, so either it was signed in bad faith, knowing the inevitable outcome, or the Government really did not understand what they were doing. Either way, it is a very bad look for this Government.
If it is true that the Government have not sought full legal advice on the legality of their protocol plan, and if they have given themselves the green light to go rogue, does the Minister agree that breaching international law in this way will only increase the UK’s reputation for being a bad-faith actor in the international community?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making those points. I cannot see how they relate to the urgent question, but I say again that the Government are confident that we are acting within international law. It is a long-standing convention of this House that we do not disclose the legal advice given to the Government.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
In response to the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), the reality is that until the Bill is published—in other words, finalised—it is almost impossible for the Law Officers to give an absolute finding on whether or not it is in breach of international law. When the Bill is published, I have no doubt that the Attorney General, whose responsibility it is as an independent adviser to the Government, will say whether it complies with international law. Does the Minister agree that those who criticise the process should recognise the simple point that the Good Friday agreement is itself an international agreement and should function as a priority above all else?
Is it not a disgrace that hon. Members cried for years that Northern Ireland should not be used as a pawn and that the Belfast agreement should be protected and applauded but, at their very first opportunity to Boris bash, they use Northern Ireland as a pawn to thinly veil their attacks on the Government? Northern Ireland needs support from every party in this House.
Is it not also the case that the UK’s proposals to remove trade friction between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, are in keeping with international trade law, and it is the EU, under the terms of the 2014 trade facilitation agreement, that is in breach of its international obligations to reduce trade friction between co-signees, which include both the EU and the UK? The fact is that the protocol is the worst example of a European Government or Governments trying to use red tape to destroy commerce in the United Kingdom.
Her Majesty’s Government are committed to ensuring that north-south trade and east-west trade are free flowing and beneficial to all communities in the UK and Ireland. The hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority on the importance of protecting the Good Friday agreement.
There is a lot of talk about integrity, but what could be more important than the integrity of the United Kingdom? Why has this Bill not yet been published? When will it be published? Can he prevent the Government from bickering in public on this issue and just get on with it?
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker!
The integrity of the UK will always be an incredibly high priority for Conservative Governments, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we should work to protect it. I have been looking forward to using this phrase: the Bill will be published in due course.
Newspaper reports suggest that the First Treasury Counsel was asked to give only very selective advice. I am not asking the Minister to say what was in that advice, for the reasons set out by the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland). However, given the concerns that have surfaced, can the Minister assure the House that the First Treasury Counsel was not constrained in any way from giving whatever advice he thought appropriate about the lawfulness of the plans that the Government have?
Following on from the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), will the Minister confirm that any actions the Government take will maintain the supremacy of the Good Friday agreement? The maintenance of that international treaty is the central issue here; without that, we do not have peace, prosperity and a functioning withdrawal agreement. Will he express some disappointment about the fact, or agree with me, that people in this Chamber use the phrase “breach of international law” when they have no idea whether there has been a breach of international law? That is a decision that will come out when the Bill is published.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The Good Friday agreement is the foundation stone of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. We applaud the courageous peacemakers who were instrumental in bringing it into existence. We are coming towards its 25th anniversary, and this Government will absolutely ensure that it is protected.
Penblwydd hapus—happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Did the Minister see the report in the Financial Times this week on the impact of the protocol? It showed that Northern Ireland, which remains in the EU single market because of the protocol agreement, is the only part of the UK other than London to have bounced back economically above pre-pandemic levels. The report says that Wales has “regained the ground” lost during the past two years, but all other regions are still producing “much less” than they did “before the health emergency”. So why are the Government trashing our international reputation for keeping our word? People on their side of the House used to say, “My word is my bond.” Why are we trashing our international reputation in order to unpick an agreement that is bringing clear and easily identifiable economic benefits to Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the Northern Ireland Executive has not been reformed, and it is an important part of the institutions created under the Good Friday agreement. As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), this Government take the Good Friday agreement incredibly seriously. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have assured right hon. and hon. Members from around the House, that the Government are confident that our actions are in accordance with international law. As I say, it is a long-standing convention of this House that we do not disclose the legal advice given to Government.
Clearly, a negotiated solution to the problems of the protocol is preferable, in the interests of everyone on the island of Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one lesson from the last Parliament is that attempts by this House to circumscribe our negotiating position end up weakening it and we are not able to deliver for our citizens?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We enjoy a good working relationship with capitals around Europe and indeed with the institutions of the EU, and we do of course want a negotiated settlement. But we do have to fix the Northern Ireland protocol, and the legislation that we will bring forward is intended to do that.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that this is an issue of vital, fundamental constitutional gravity. I believe that he is responsible, accountable and honourable, but there is something pretty dishonourable going on over this. The fact is that we have a Prime Minister who is a serial offender in getting his own way despite what the rules or international laws tell him to do. The Minister knows that is the truth, I know that is the truth, and the whole House knows that is the truth. When will he stand up and be counted?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I always listen carefully when he speaks, whether it is in this Chamber or elsewhere. The simple truth is that this Government are confident that our actions are in accordance with international law. We will be bringing forward legislation based on that in due course.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right not to break the conventions of this House on discussing legal advice. However, does he agree that those who still seek to use legal acrobatics to take the side of the EU rather than that of our country are forgetting section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, which makes this House—this Parliament—sovereign to do whatever it takes to protect the Good Friday agreement and to protect the integrity of our whole United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The priority of this Government is to ensure the ongoing success of the Good Friday agreement and the ongoing integrity of this Union—this United Kingdom—and our actions will always be guided by those two principles.
When the Government put forward the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol, they went in with their eyes open, knowing that Northern Ireland was effectively a pawn. This Bill risks further antagonising the EU—the very body with which we need to negotiate to help resolve this. Will the Minister tell the House, hand on heart, whether he is genuinely a negotiator, or whether he really believes in this tactic of throwing up sand and being bombastic in international negotiations? When I had the privilege of performing such a role for three years in the Home Office, this was not the way that we operated, and I do not believe that this is the way that he wants to operate, so will he be straight with the House?
Article 13(8) exists for a reason. Article 16 exists for a reason. This is why we have been negotiating with the European Union to ensure that the Northern Ireland protocol, which we regard as an incredibly important document that we want to succeed, is effective. Those articles exist for a reason, but, as I said in response to the question from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the Northern Ireland Executive is not currently up and running and the provisions of the Good Friday agreement are not being discharged fully in Northern Ireland. We want to see those institutions up and running and we want to see the protocol working. Our actions are in accordance with international law.
I congratulate both Ministers, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), on their efforts in trying to facilitate the restoration of Executive government in Northern Ireland and untangle the difficulties and disagreements over the Northern Ireland protocol. I know that my parliamentary neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West, has been in the United States recently in an attempt to keep the US on board. Are there any changes to the Northern Ireland protocol that come with America’s blessing, as it is, after all, a guarantor to the Good Friday agreement?
We are taking action in a way that keeps our good friends internationally informed of both what we are doing and why we are doing it. I have had conversations recently with Foreign Ministers and ambassadors in European capital cities, and yesterday I discussed these very issues with the newly appointed ambassador from the US to the Court of St James’s. We take our responsibilities as codified in the Good Friday agreement incredibly seriously, and our international friends and partners know that we do.
The thing is, this was all so predictable, was it not? In fact, it was predicted by many people in the House with different views about Brexit. I am sure the Minister will be absolutely furious when he discovers who actually signed the Northern Ireland protocol. Can he tell us whether the Bill will be published before the summer recess? Once it is published, if there is a legal contest, which tribunal or court will be adjudicating on whether it is within international law?
I apologise for being a little late at the beginning of the statement, Mr Speaker.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is by no means unknown for independent advice to be taken from a range of senior counsel, particularly where novel or highly specialised areas of law are concerned, and that that is done without any prejudice to the position or independence of the senior Treasury counsel and does not of itself constrain them? Does he also accept that it is important to remember that partial leaks of illegal advice are all the more unhelpful in circumstances such as this, not only because of the breach of the convention, but because an assessment on the necessity test, which may be relevant in international law, can be made only on the totality of the legal advice and the totality of the evidence, which must be then weighed against that advice, and we are not in a position yet to do that?
My hon. Friend makes a strong and important point. He knows that, both professionally and personally, I listen carefully when he speaks, as do all those on the Treasury Bench. On issues such as this, leaks are incredibly unhelpful for exactly the reasons he gave. Important decisions need to be taken with the totality of evidence, not partial fragments of such, and he is right to highlight that.
If there is a problem with the Northern Ireland protocol, that is down to the Prime Minister. He wrote it, he negotiated it; he should own it and he should honour it. The Minister is doing an excellent impersonation of Geoffrey Boycott at the crease, stonewalling all attack, but my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) is right. If the Minister says that it is the Government’s belief that they are acting in accordance with international law, is that not only because the questions they have asked their counsel are so narrow and specific that they get the answers they are looking for?
The Northern Ireland protocol has articles in it that envisage the need for amendments. That is why article 13(8) and article 16 exist. We are confident that we are acting in accordance with international law in what we are doing and, as I have said to a number of right hon. and hon. colleagues across the House, it is a long-standing convention of Governments of all political persuasions that we do not discuss the content of legal advice given to Government.
I thank the Minister for his responses. In another example this week of the damage caused by the Northern Ireland protocol, a photo framing business in my constituency coming to my office on Tuesday past told me that its supplier will no longer sell to it, as the time spent on paperwork outweighs the profit margin. With local businesses in Northern Ireland unable to access the VAT breaks for the UK and tensions within communities in Northern Ireland at boiling point, I find the desire of some to delay further action being taken to be parliamentarily unsound and physically potentially dangerous. Will the Minister assure us today that the Government will hold to their word, present a workable solution, and stop asking people from every part of Northern Ireland to grin and bear it, swallow the cost and watch their business crumble to pacify remainers in this Chamber, who will not accept democracy and are prepared to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland just to play their own dangerous game?
The hon. Gentleman, as always, speaks with clarity and passion. Voices from across the political divide in the United Kingdom and outside it have recognised that the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for all communities and businesses in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It needs to do that. That is why we are taking steps to fix the Northern Ireland protocol, and in doing so we absolutely intend to abide by international law. As I have said at a number of points, we maintain the long-standing convention of not disclosing the nature of legal advice given to Government.
Business of the House
It will be a pleasure. The business for the week commencing 13 June will include:
Monday 13 June—Remaining stages of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
Tuesday 14 June—Opposition day (2nd allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 15 June—Second Reading of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill.
Thursday 16 June—General debate on the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, followed by general debate on abuse of short-term letting and the sharing economy. The subjects for these dates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 17 June—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 20 June will include:
Monday 20 June—Second Reading of a Bill.
Tuesday 21 June—Opposition day (3nd allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Right hon. and hon. Members may also wish to note that a motion for the House to agree this Session’s sitting Fridays has been tabled for the remaining Orders.
It is good hear the hon. Member’s delight at the scheduling of private Members’ Bills.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business, but I have to say: what has happened to the Government’s Queen’s Speech? Have they lost it down the back of a sofa? Where are all those Bills we were promised? While I am on it, can the Leader of the House tell me why the Public Advocate Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) was not even mentioned in the Queen’s Speech; and why, a year after the collapse of the criminal trials, there is still no Government response to the 2017 report on the lessons learned from the Hillsborough disaster?
Whether it is cancer waiting times, long waits for passports and driving licences or queues at airports, we are in backlog Britain, and the Leader of the House’s statement does nothing to deal with that either. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister seems to be once again embarking on yet another attempt to reset his premiership. But there are only so many times you can try turning something off and then on again, only to find it is still broken and you just need to get rid. Tory MPs have made their choice, though.
At the start of so-called health week, the Culture Secretary admitted what Labour has known all along—that underfunding and Tory mismanagement left the health service “wanting” and “inadequate” as we went into the pandemic. When asked about this yesterday, the Prime Minister did not deny it. With so many lives lost, Members must be given the chance to question the Secretary of State on the lessons learned. Will the Leader of the House ask the Health Secretary to make a statement clarifying this?
Yesterday, the report on health and social care leadership was published. In his statement to the House, the Health Secretary did not seem to have any idea of whether or when the Government would implement the report’s recommendations. Too often, this Government commission a review and then drag their feet when it comes to implementation. Could the Leader of the House give us a firm date for when the Government will publish their plan to sort this out?
On Tuesday, Labour’s Opposition day motion gave the Government the chance to start putting right months of Tory sleaze. Our motion backed the crucial reforms put forward by the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life. But not a single Tory MP bothered to turn up. The Government have clearly given up on listening to Parliament because Ministers do not like the outcome when they do. Picking and choosing which votes they will respect and which they will ignore is no way to run a Government, and it is disrespectful to this House and our constituents. After Labour’s success in winning that vote, will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will now introduce these vital proposals on standards in public life?
Meanwhile, the recommendations of the Standards Committee, so ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), on strengthening the code of conduct for MPs are a very welcome step. The Leader of the House is nodding. So will he allow time, in Government time, for these recommendations to be debated as soon as possible? Labour has long called for transparency of Members’ interests and for a ban on paid consultancy work, but we would like the Government to go further. There is a clear need for stronger enforcement of the rules. Will the Leader of the House bring forward the time for that debate but also support Labour’s proposals for the establishment of an integrity and ethics commission?
Backlog Britain is evident even in the Government’s own Departments. I know that the Leader of the House is sympathetic to this: it is about the late, tardy or even no responses to ministerial letters and written parliamentary questions. Pressure from Labour means that new data has been published, and some response times are improving, but unfortunately some are not improving or getting worse. The Department of Health responded to only a third of correspondence on time. Even timely responses from the Government’s flagship Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department have plummeted. We know from our staff, mine in Bristol West and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), the huge amount of time that is being wasted on hold—there are the phone bills as well—to Government hotlines, or standing, sitting or whatever in slow queues in Portcullis House, lasting for hours, for the Home Office hub. Please, does the Leader of the House have a plan for dealing with backlog Britain in Parliament?
The Government argue that we must move on from partygate and from 148 of their MPs voting against their own leader, but it is evident that this Conservative party cannot govern, has no answers to backlog Britain, and has no plan to deal with the Tory cost of living crisis, whereas Labour does have a plan to get money back in people’s pockets, to bring down bills, to deliver a new generation of well-paid jobs right across the country, and to get the economy firing on all cylinders. Frankly, it cannot come too soon.
I thank the hon. Lady for her series of questions. Of course, Mr Speaker, I should apologise for not announcing a significant political event taking place tomorrow: your birthday. I am sure the whole House will celebrate as you reach another significant milestone in your way through life. I trust you will have a good day.
The Queen’s Speech is rammed full of Bills, and they are coming forward. We have some time to deliver on them, so the hon. Lady should be patient. I am sure we will munch our way through that huge legislative agenda. We have already begun, with a number of Bills having started their journey through Parliament, and it is an ambitious programme, which we will deliver on behalf of the British people.
The Government recognise the challenges the health service is facing. That is why, coming out of the global pandemic, we introduced the health and social care levy to support the health service as it tries to deal with those challenges. That is a huge cash investment in our health service, and I am sorry that the hon. Lady found herself incapable of voting for and supporting it. If she compares how the health service is run in England and in Wales, she will see that there are significant advantages to being poorly in England. The health service here will diagnose people quicker, put them back on their feet quicker and get them back to their lives quicker.
Of course standards in public life are important. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the Privileges Committee for the work they have done. The Government are considering the Committee’s report. I think it is important that we reflect and take our time giving this big and important report our full consideration, and that we move forward on a cross-party basis.
We are looking at it. We will come back in due course on how we deliver and give the House the opportunity to debate and vote on it.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) knows I am sympathetic to the plight of Back Benchers when it comes to written questions, but to use health service and Department of Health and Social Care data from the period of covid—[Interruption.] We are not in the period of covid today, but the statistics she quoted were from that period. It is easy to comprehend that at that time the Department was busy and focused on dealing with covid rather than other things. Now that we are out of that period, I expect the next set of statistics to prove that the Department is responding more quickly, and I will do all I can to make sure that Departments respond as quickly as possible.
I admire the hon. Lady. We do not agree on everything, but every week she comes here and presents her case with enthusiasm and supports her constituents. I can only imagine her frustration that the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Levelling-Up Secretary did not mention the unions that are about to cause misery to our constituents up and down the country. In fact, the shadow Levelling-Up Secretary, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), said that she is on the side of the unions. They are going to cause misery for commuters trying to get to work and students to their exams; they are risking empty shelves and chaos for the Great British public. We on this side of the House are on the side of commuters and hard-working people, not on the side of the big unions and their paymasters.
The 5p reduction in fuel duty was very welcome, but a coach operator in my constituency contacted me yesterday to say that it has seen a 10p a litre increase this week, which makes their weekly fuel bill £3,500 more than in January. Can we have an urgent debate to ensure that this House has fully explored the impact on business of the unacceptably high proportion of tax on a tank of fuel, and look at ways to alleviate it?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that the global fight against inflation is causing huge challenges for our constituents, which is why at the spring statement, the Government cut fuel duty by 5p for 12 months—the largest ever cash-terms cut of fuel duty rates. Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have all committed to passing on that tax cut. All taxes, including fuel duty, remain under review and I expect the Chancellor of the Exchequer to continue his enormous level of support for people as we battle global inflation.
It has been an interesting week, and certainly bumpy at the start, not just for the Leader of the House. There was much to-ing and fro-ing, pushing and pulling—and that was just the tug of war on Tuesday night. I congratulate him on his expert coaching of the men’s MP team in their success over the lords at the annual Macmillan tug of war. I also congratulate the women’s MP team on their success over the baronesses. Such events are often a bit of fun, but they give us an opportunity to support and highlight the extremely important work that groups such as Macmillan Cancer Support do and to do our wee bit to help with that.
I echo the comments of the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire). After weeks of hold-ups and delays, we have constituents who are desperate to secure their passports but who are coming up against brick wall after brick wall. Members and their staff are doing everything they can to try to help and support them, including sitting in queues in Portcullis House for days on end to try to get answers. That is not good enough. We are quickly approaching the school holidays, which are only three weeks away in Scotland, and we expect demand for such things to be exceptionally high. Can we please have a further statement on what more can be done to address those delays? Folk have been waiting for years to get away and have a break. It is not too much to ask that they should be able to do that in a sensible way.
I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) about the urgent need for further action to address the cost of living crisis. Prices are going in only one direction. I recognise that the Government have taken some action, but a lot more clearly needs to be done.
Finally, will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Allyson Dobson of Dalkeith High School, who was named headteacher of the year 2022 this week at the Scottish Education Awards? That is brilliant recognition of her work. Teachers across the board play such an important role in all our lives, as we grow up and beyond, so it is brilliant to see such recognition and I congratulate Allyson on that achievement.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in the tug of war team; he is certainly a huge part of that team. [Interruption.] As am I, I hasten to add. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) says that he was sacked from the team, but other weighty individuals were available in his stead. As the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) said, it was important to support Macmillan Cancer Support. It was a cross-party event and it was great fun, as well as being for a very good cause.
The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about passports, which is another important issue. I understand that people are stressing about the summer holidays. They have a right to a summer holiday; we are coming out of covid and people want to get away. That is why we have employed 650 additional staff since April, with 550 more arriving by the summer. The good news is that the vast majority of passport applications—91.2%—are being processed within six weeks or less, but that does leave some people waiting. If he has individual cases that he needs me to highlight with the Home Office, of course I will do that.
The hon. Gentleman went on to mention that the Government have, I think he said, given some support to people with the cost of living challenge. I think £37 billion is some support, and I hope he would recognise that that is a huge package, brought forward by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to support people. We are in a global fight against inflation, following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and we will continue to wrap our arms around and support people through the challenges we face.
Finally, of course I join the hon. Gentleman in supporting his headteacher, Allyson Dobson. I pay tribute not only to her, but to teachers up and down the country who are doing great work to educate the next generation.
Would my right hon. Friend make time for a debate to both celebrate and highlight the incredible work of community groups and the voluntary sector throughout the country? Individuals such as Gem, Sherridan and Liz of the Fishpool, Goshen, Redvales and Springs community hub are changing people’s lives every day. There is a debate to be had in this House about how the state can support individuals such as Gem, Sherridan and Liz, and many others in my constituency and throughout the country, to continue with their brilliant work.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and of course I join him in celebrating all that those in the voluntary sector do and his constituents who are assisting. I think a series of Governments have worked well with the voluntary sector. It does enormous amounts of work, and we should always take the opportunity to praise it whenever we can.
Can I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench Business debates for 16 June?
Mr Speaker, can I wish you a very happy birthday for tomorrow? As I can testify, being born in 1957 makes you no age whatsoever.
Mr Speaker, you may not have noticed, not coming from the north-east, but today is 9 June, which is a day of celebration for the Geordie nation, as Geordies across the world celebrate Blaydon Races Day. This year is the 160th anniversary of that event famed in tune:
“Aa went to Blaydon Races, ’twas on the ninth of Joon,
Eiteen hundred an’ sixty-two, on a summer’s efternoon;
Aa tyuk the ‘bus frae Balmbra’s, an’ she wis heavy laden,
Away we went ‘lang Collin’wood Street, that’s on the road to Blaydon.”
So happy Blaydon Races Day to the entire Geordie nation.
I think I understood most of that. I am the beneficiary of having a Geordie in the office, who keeps me informed of all matters that are pro-Geordie and anti-Mackem. We are grateful that the hon. Member’s Backbench Business Committee continues to do the work it is doing. He raises important topics every week. I know that colleagues across the House appreciate the efforts of his Committee and will continue to support him.
A constituent of mine who is a park home owner has asked for clarification about the £400 that he is entitled to under the Government energy bills support scheme. As a park home owner, he pays the park site owner for the electricity and does not have a personal account with an electricity provider, the organisation tasked with making that available. The explainer from the Government says this area of policy is being developed, but to provide comfort to my constituent and the 180,000 other park home owners, many of whom are pensioners in need of this support, might we have a statement?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and of course he is right to highlight that topic. I know that people will be concerned. That is why we are working to make the energy bills support scheme as robust as possible. The issue of households that do not receive electricity through a domestic electricity supply contract, such as residents of park homes, was covered in the Government’s technical consultation, which concluded on 23 May. The Government’s response to that consultation will be issued later this summer, but we are exploring options and other ways in which we can support households that might receive similar support.
This week is Volunteers Week, and I would like to say a huge thank you to the many volunteers working across my Blaydon constituency who play such a huge part in supporting our community. But to continue a theme—“Ah me lads”—today is 9 June, the day of the famous Blaydon race. I will not be home in time to see them
“Gannin’ alang the Scotswood Road”,
but I would like to say a special thank you to all those volunteers who make the race possible. Can we have a debate in Government time on the involvement of volunteers in community sports, please?
That would make an excellent Backbench Business debate and I am sure the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee may be sympathetic to a debate on such a topic. I pay tribute to all the volunteers across the hon. Lady’s constituency and others who do all that work. As we continue to debate Geordie culture, I can feel a question or two coming from Sunderland at some point in the future.
Can we have a debate on the positive impact that angling has on participants’ mental health and wellbeing and, during that debate, can we celebrate those enlightened wildlife trusts that promote angling and can we call out those such as the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, which states on its website that it has a long-standing policy of not allowing angling on any land for which it holds the angling rights? That recently brought it into conflict with the Nottinghamshire Anglers Association, which last week was banned from the Attenborough nature reserve. Anglers like me love our rivers and streams as much as football fans love their clubs. It is a visceral relationship and wildlife trusts should not get in between it.
I am disappointed to hear that Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust is taking that approach towards the angling community. Angling is one of the largest participation sports in the country and anglers have a self-interest in making sure our rivers and fish are healthy and plentiful. I hope that the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust will reflect on that. On my hon. Friend’s behalf, I will certainly pursue the matter directly with my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Darren Henry) and for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), whose constituencies border Attenborough nature reserve.
Some 85,000 households in England live in park homes. In Bath, residents in Quarry Rock Gardens are worried about soaring costs. These residents face minimum protections from sky-high pitch fees and rogue site owners because pitch fees are linked to the retail price index, rather than the lower consumer price index. The Government have committed to reforming pitch fees so they increase with that index, but after four years they have still done nothing. Can we have a statement from the relevant Department on when these changes will come forward?
I am wondering which Department that may fall to and whether it is the local government Department or the Treasury directly. I will make sure, however, that I discover which Department is responsible for that. I know it is an important issue up and down the country. I certainly have residents in park homes who share the concerns the hon. Member has raised. I will make sure the right Department responds in due course.
Could we have a debate on the Mayor of London’s plans to extend the ultra low emission zone to the Greater London boundary and introduce pay-per-mile driving charges, because I am deeply worried about the impact of these new charges on my constituents at a time of rising inflation?
It almost feels like the Mayor of London is launching a war against commuters. Extending ULEZ to the boundary and working with the union bosses to cause misery through tube strikes is going to cause commuters coming in and out of London huge challenges. He should be supporting people coming in and out of this great city to work, not making their lives more difficult.
Could we have an urgent statement from the Home Secretary regarding the general competence level of the Home Office, especially in relation to Homes for Ukraine? Youngsters are missing out on the education they could be receiving here through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Families are desperate to accept these youngsters, but there is a problem around their travelling not with a parent but with a legal guardian, and there is enormous delay. Please will the Leader of the House urgently communicate that to the Home Office?
Home Office questions are on 20 June and I hope the hon. Lady will be in her place to challenge the Home Secretary directly, but I should say that we have already granted 120,000 visas through the two uncapped humanitarian routes, and 65,000 Ukrainians have already arrived. The UK is making huge efforts and is opening its arms to thousands of Ukrainians. I am sure we can improve that system and the Home Secretary is committed to doing so. I hope the hon. Lady will be in her place on 20 June to ask the Home Secretary about this directly.
Parliament decides the laws. The court interprets them. I understand that the flights to Rwanda with economic migrants, which were passed as lawful by this House, are being challenged in the court. Can I ask the Leader of the House an actual business question? If the court decides that, somewhere, the legislation is wrong, will he immediately introduce new legislation to fix it, so that we can end the people smuggling across the English channel?
Of course, my hon. Friend is right that we have to wait until there is an interpretation by those courts that are looking at that. He will be reassured by the Home Secretary’s commitment to ensuring that we stop the exploitation of people being ferried across the channel. He will have the opportunity on 20 June at Home Office questions to ask her about that directly, and on 5 July at Justice questions to make sure he gets the reassurance he requires.
One of my constituents should have been off on a cruise today, but he is missing his holiday because his new passport has not been issued. Another young constituent has already waited 13 weeks for her new passport. I am grateful to the Passport Office staff here in Parliament, but she and her parents now face an anxious week waiting for a promised phone call 24 to 48 hours before their holiday to tell them that they can make the 110-mile round trip to Peterborough to collect her passport. It is wholly unacceptable. Can the Leader of the House please clarify how many of the staff being belatedly recruited will be processing applications and not just trying to respond to anxious phone calls from my constituents and my staff?
As I said, another 550 staff are going to arrive before the summer, but we have already recruited another 650; they are now in place and have come in since April 2021. As I said, I understand that more than 90% of cases now are being processed within six weeks, but that leaves the 9% that are not. I understand that there are challenges there. But if the hon. Member wants to pass those specific cases to me, I will pursue the Home Secretary on her behalf.
We subsidised the rail industry to the tune of £16 billion during the pandemic because people had stopped using the trains. I represent a commuter belt constituency and, while I am very angry that the upcoming train strikes will cause yet more misery to my commuters, I am particularly angry that this is not good for rail workers. Disrupting train services will reduce train revenues and ultimately lead to job losses and reduced pay for those rail workers. Can we have a debate on this important issue?
My hon. Friend is of course right to raise that. We will have Transport questions on 30 June and I am sure that she will be in her place to ask the Secretary of State for Transport about that. She is right that commuters and taxpayers have the right to know that their money is being invested and looked after properly, and the unions should reflect long and hard before they make commuters’ lives miserable and stop them getting to and from work.
Will the Leader of the House take the opportunity to congratulate Michael Dunlop on his 20th Isle of Man TT victory, putting him in the top three racers ever to perform on the Isle of Man?
I turn the Leader of the House’s attention to another island: the island of Rathlin in my constituency, which has a wonderful puffin sanctuary. On 20 June, it will be cutting a sod for 10 new housing units, showing that the population of that little island is expanding wonderfully. However, I notice five words that interest me in the business for 20 June: Second Reading of a Bill. Should I be in my place here on 20 June? Will that Bill be relevant to Northern Ireland, or should I visit Rathlin island that day?
The hon. Gentleman is always relevant to parliamentary debates, and he should most definitely be in his place to contribute on whatever Bill comes forward on that day. As I said, there are 38 Bills in the Queen’s Speech and we will decide and announce in the usual way from the Dispatch Box.
I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Michael Dunlop. I took the trouble to watch some of the footage of the TT racers and the speed and professionalism of those motorcyclists is awe-inspiring.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the Prime Minister’s leading and significant role in supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression, but this is an ever-evolving situation that changes daily and there is a need to constantly review and always do as much as we possibly can, with our western allies, to support Ukraine. Will he agree to a debate on Ukraine, in which we can also consider how to best access grain, because of the potential catastrophic consequences for global food supplies if we do not manage to get access?
There will be an opportunity at Defence questions next week to continue to ask the Secretary of State for Defence what support we are offering to the Ukraine Government. There has been a huge amount of opportunity to debate Ukraine in the Chamber. Already, we have had 11 oral statements, seven urgent questions, three Opposition debates, three general debates, a general debate on NATO, a Backbench Business debate on Russia and China, a debate on Russian sanctions, and departmental oral questions on top of that, so we have debated this issue a huge amount. With the support of colleagues, such as my right hon. Friend, we will continue to ensure the Government are doing all they can to support the Ukrainian people.
My constituent Clare-Anna Mitchell has worked tirelessly to provide vital medicines to be sent to Ukraine through fundraising from my generous constituents in Gower and Swansea. The latest delivery she arranged arrived at the depot in Dnipro just 20 minutes after the compound was bombed. Ten people died in that attack and all the medical supplies in the stores were destroyed. Had the Welsh delivery drivers arrived any earlier, they too may have lost their lives. Will the Government put aside time to discuss this issue, and can the right hon. Gentleman give me and my constituent, Clare-Anna Mitchell, any advice on what Government resources are available so she can continue to provide this vital medical aid to Ukraine?