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Cabinet Office

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 14 July 2022

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Public Services: Civil Servants

1. Whether the Government plan to make reductions to public services to meet their objective of reducing the number of civil servants by 91,000. (901040)

12. Whether the Government plan to make reductions to public services to meet their objective of reducing the number of civil servants by 91,000. (901054)

The Government are committed to providing high-quality public services. Over recent years, the civil service has delivered in the face of unprecedented challenges, but the civil service workforce has increased by 25% since June 2016. Given the wider economic pressures we face, it is therefore right that we look again at improving efficiency and reducing the cost of delivering high-quality public services. We will look at options for achieving that.

As a result of the Minister’s botched Brexit deal, more and more civil servants have been doing border checks for goods, doing trade deals that the EU would have done better and more profitably for the UK, and making up new environmental farming laws for the sake of it when we cannot even pick our own fruit and butcher our own meat, only for thousands of civil servants to be sacked so that it takes 12 weeks to get a passport or a driving licence. Does this not mean that the massive further cut in civil servants will lead to more service delays and more pain from less public services? The Minister should be taking a lead from his Prime Minister: resign and leave, so that a better Administration can be put in place to run this country.

There is a general rule in public life that whatever the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) says, it is likely to be wrong. Unfortunately, he started his question by saying that we had taken on too many civil servants and ended by saying that we did not have enough, so even within his own question, he was in a deep state of confusion.

The result of Brexit is that we are free to make our own way, to make our own rules, and to diverge from the European Union. That is fundamental and, fascinatingly, it is a freedom that people voted for, including the people of Wales whom the hon. Gentleman tries to represent in this House. What we need to do is to be efficient and spend taxpayers’ money wisely, but the socialist confusion always wants to get it wrong.

Passport delays, driving licence delays, benefit delays, visa delays—which bit of backlog Britain is the Minister going to break further in order to slash the civil service? Does he agree that the civil service did not cause the financial crisis, and that it is not causing inflation? The civil service responded magnificently to covid, and it is now covering for a Conservative party that is too intent on squabbling internally to deliver competent government.

I am happy to give the credit for the financial crisis to Gordon Brown, formerly of this place —[Interruption.] Indeed, he is the famous seller of the gold at a bargain basement price.

The hon. Lady is confusing two different things. There have not been reductions in the Passport Office; these are proposed reductions. What is going on is that too many people are still working from home. We need to get people back in the office doing their jobs, but we can also do more with fewer people. We see that already with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency: when one applies for things with the DVLA online, those things are mainly being returned extremely quickly. There are great efficiency savings to be made by using better technology and turning things around effectively and speedily.

While Tory leadership hopefuls fight over who can be the most economically incompetent to win their members’ favour, the UK’s public services are at breaking point. The Passport Office, the DLVA, the courts, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are all struggling with huge delays. The public are crying out for the Government to act, and what do we get? A proposal to slash vital civil servants’ jobs that will only exacerbate problems, not fix backlogs. The Government could not be more out of touch with the priorities of communities across the country, so I ask the Minister how the public can trust a Tory Government mired in disarray and division, and governed by self-interest rather than public duty, to deliver much-needed, high-quality public services.

What we are trying to do is get back from the covid backlog. It is undoubtedly the fact that people have not been going into their offices. If we take the DVLA as an example, the mail was not being opened. It was piled up in room after room because people were not going in. Some 4 million envelopes were unopened because people were not going into the office, because of a combination of the requirements of covid and the excessive rules of the socialist Welsh Government that made it very difficult for people to go in. That backlog has to be dealt with, but technology is unquestionably the answer. Try renewing your tax disc with the DLVA, Mr Speaker: you can do it in seconds. You no longer have to go into a post office to do it. That is the type of efficiency we need.

I thank the Minister for that very thorough answer, but we have to move on otherwise nobody else will get in, and we all want to hear Lee Anderson.

Veterans Strategy Action Plan

2. What recent progress his Department has made on implementing the Veterans Strategy Action Plan. (901041)

18. What recent progress his Department has made on implementing the Veterans Strategy Action Plan. (901063)

A quarter of the more than 60 cross-Government commitments have been delivered to date, with recent achievements including rolling out the Great Place to Work for Veterans scheme, the completion of the scoping study into digital verification, and the appointment of the first Veterans Commissioner for Wales. I will publish a formal update on progress in the autumn.

We have thousands of veterans in this country who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which can affect their ability to hold down a relationship or hold down a job. There is a lot of help out there, but veterans are a proud bunch and many are hard to reach because they are too proud to reach out for help. What more can the Government do to make sure these hard-to-reach veterans are reached and supported?

I thank my hon. Friend for his relentless advocacy for the small but very important cohort who struggle with life after service. We have now established Op Courage, the UK’s first single care pathway through NHS mental health services for those who need them. It had 19,000 referrals in its first year last year. I encourage people to engage with the service to talk about their mental health and not suffer in silence. Help is there, and I say to them, “You can get better, and the system is there to look after you.”

I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran. To achieve that, we must prioritise supporting veterans with their mental health. Will my hon. Friend set out how the new digital identification service will contribute towards that?

The digital verification service is an extremely important part of being able to identify the veterans cohort, of which no Government have ever really had a true understanding. We are making significant progress. I recognise that individuals want a veterans ID card, which will be a result of it. Alpha testing is going on now and we are looking to do beta testing next year. I am hopeful we will have something online by April next year.

I have heard lots of accusations over the past few weeks that Veterans UK is both judge and jury; in other words, it operates as the assessor and the awarder of assistance to veterans. Are there any plans to review Veterans UK or to conduct an inquiry?

First, I pay tribute to the staff of Veterans UK, who work incredibly hard in a very under- invested system that is still working off paper records. The Government have committed to a £44 million spend to turn it into a digital service, which will undoubtedly increase and improve its output. I share my hon. Friend’s concern, certainly about the data on how many appeals have been overturned. I understand the processes for it, but my very clear view is that the service is not good enough for our veterans at the moment. I will bring forward plans for how we can improve it in due course.

Just how long have this Government been in power, and how many more suicides of veterans will take place before we see firm action to follow through on mental health and get these men the real support that they want? I am the son of a veteran. I know what it is like for someone to finish service, having had traumatic experiences fighting for their country.

The topic of veteran suicides is incredibly serious. The data shows that someone is statistically less likely to take their life if they have served, but every suicide is a tragedy for the individual, the family and the nation that they serve. There is more help available now than there ever has been. Yes, we did start from a pretty low base, but the system is working, with 19,000 referrals through Op Courage last year. The help is available, and I urge all those who suffer in silence to understand that the situation has changed. We will continue to make progress until we have the world-class veteran care that veterans deserve.

This is the first Government to have brought in—through the Armed Forces Act 2021—a statutory requirement on health, housing and education. I am clear that that is a floor, not a ceiling. We are looking to expand what that legislation can do at some point. This is all about making sure that veterans are not disadvantaged, which was the whole point of the armed forces covenant. We will see how the legislation goes—it is the first time that this has been done anywhere in the world—and how it plays out in communities, and we will make sure that it delivers for those who need it. We are always prepared to look at doing more to ensure that veterans are not disadvantaged by their service.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place and look forward to his contribution as a Minister on veterans issues. On funding for privately operated rehabilitation facilities, will he confirm his intention to make sustained grant funding available to charities such as SSAFA and Beyond the Battlefield—one of the charities in my Strangford constituency—which provide services that the Government seem unable to provide for veterans they seem unable to reach?

The beauty of Op Courage is that it does precisely that: it brings order to the various charities and enables them to bid in to run contracts, so that they can run the complex treatment service, the high intensity service and the transition liaison service. It gets them on a sustainable footing and away from year-to-year funding, providing certainty not only for those who do the brilliant work in the charities sector, but for those who need it, so that there is some permanence to the system and veterans can rely on that help.

Food Prices

My Department has been working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to assess the impact on food prices as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and other pressures.

Given the huge increase in costs that farmers are enduring, what is being done to balance the need to mitigate food price increases with ensuring that farmers are paid fairly for their products?

My hon. Friend is right to identify an extremely challenging part of the global cost of living crisis that we are trying to confront. Critical in that is the role of farming and the production of food domestically. One key area where we are able to assist and where lots of work is going on is the provision of fertiliser. She is a rural MP, as am I, so she will know that fertiliser is a key driver of overall food prices. I am pleased to say that for some weeks, DEFRA has been running a fertiliser taskforce, which is doing valuable work to stabilise the market and help farmers to optimise their use of artificial fertiliser.

I visited a farm in my constituency in the Scottish Borders last week, alongside the National Farmers Union of Scotland. The cost of feed, fertiliser and many other essential products has skyrocketed, and that is clearly pushing up food prices. What more can the Government do to help our farmers and support this important industry?

My hon. Friend raises a very good point, although sadly the provision of food is devolved north of the border. We are working very closely with the Scottish Government to make sure that they put in place adequate provision to assist farmers. Here in England, for example, we have introduced the basic payment to help with cash flow. That has been welcomed by the industry, but the key driver of the fertiliser price will dog us for some time. If prices are too high, farmers will use less fertiliser. If they use less fertiliser, there will be lower yields and smaller animals, which means higher prices. Getting that combination right is critical, as is encouraging and supporting farmers through direct subsidy to return to the old-fashioned fertiliser use of animal slurry. We are helping them with their storage capacity and capability, so that they can optimise their yields from the crops that they sow.

One of the most worrying increases in food prices is for infant formula, some of which is now so expensive that it is security-tagged or kept behind the till, because families have resorted to stealing it. What are the Government doing to make sure that infant formula is available to families who need it? At this price, many cannot afford it at all?

We are monitoring all prices very closely, particularly for vital products such as formula. I know that the hon. Lady will welcome the support that is going to 8 million households on means-tested benefits, starting from today and with another instalment coming in the autumn, on top of the assistance that has already been given. We have now put something like £37 billion into the system to assist families, but we constantly keep these things under review and will act if needed.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are very important to everybody’s diet. We would like more people, especially people from poorer households, to be able to afford more. One of the problems is that we do not have enough people in the UK now to pick the British crop of fresh fruit and vegetables. How will we ensure that that happens?

Can we also ensure that fresh fruit and vegetables from overseas can get to supermarkets faster? I do not know what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s experience is when he buys peppers, courgettes, onions or potatoes, but my experience these days is that they have all gone off by the time I get home.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about access to ambient and fresh food for all of us. I know that the Home Secretary is in constant discussion with colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the industry about the provision and balance of labour that we encourage to come to the country to help us with summer harvesting, for example. We also need to work hard to ensure that the bulk of our imported fresh food gets here quickly and can enter the supply chain extremely quickly. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and I will work closely over the summer to ensure that our short, straight supply lines are maintained as efficiently as possible.

I have a small domestic tip for the hon. Gentleman that I learned from a friend who works in the industry. It is extremely important that the chill chain is maintained. If he can get chilled food as quickly as possible into his fridge, it will last a lot longer than if he leaves it hanging around and then chills it again. That is particularly true of dairy products.

Aberdeen Financial Fairness Trust and Bristol University have tracked the fortunes of UK households since the beginning of the pandemic. They report that one in six UK households is suffering serious financial difficulties, and the situation is getting worse. Many households have reduced the quality of the food they eat, sold possessions or cancelled insurance to help them to cope. Single parents, disabled people and larger families are among the worst affected. What steps does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster intend to take to tackle the price rises that are driving this inequality and poverty?

I am sure that the hon. Lady recognises that we are part of an international global food supply chain and are subject to a global fuel and energy market that is broadly driving up prices for pretty much every developed nation, and indeed across the whole of the globe. She is right, though, that we need to seek to assist those who are struggling most in this challenging time. I was very pleased to see it announced in the media that the first of the cost of living payments will go to 8 million households across the country this month, with a further payment of £320-odd later in the year, on top of the £300 extra to pensioners, the £150 extra to those who have disabilities and, of course, the £400 discount on energy bills later this year. We are putting an enormous amount of money—£37,000,000,000—into the system to assist with what is undoubtedly a very challenging period for families up and down the land.

I hear what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster says, but I am afraid that in terms of people’s real experience in their day-to-day life, it is not enough. It is not good enough. Families across the UK know that the Tory Government here are not doing enough with the powers that they have. Scotland has the lowest child poverty in the UK, and that has been achieved by policies such as the Scottish child payment that help households where it is needed the most. Here, we have Tory leadership candidates promising major tax cuts, which clearly indicates that they believe that there is financial headroom.

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that the priority should be the people who are being hit hardest by the cost of living crisis, rather than tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations? What assessment has he made of the benefits of policies such as the child payment, which could make a real difference to households in need?

I have learned over my years in government, national and local, that one of the key factors that we should have in mind is balance. While the hon. Lady is right that we should always have in mind the ability to assist those who are struggling most in our society, we have to balance that against the health of the economy and our ongoing ability to provide exactly that assistance. North of the border, as far as I can see, the Scottish Government concentrate on one and neglect the other. I am sure that there are many people who drive the wealth creation effort in Scotland who rue the day that the SNP Government took office, because Scotland has undoubtedly performed worse economically than other parts of the United Kingdom over the past 10 years.

Government Projects

5. What progress his Department has made on reducing the cost of Government projects to help ensure value for money in public spending. (901046)

8. What progress his Department has made on reducing the cost of Government projects to help ensure value for money in public spending. (901049)

15. What progress his Department has made on reducing the cost of Government projects to help ensure value for money in public spending. (901058)

Before I reply, I want to make it clear that the figure is 1.4 million envelopes at the DVLA—I misheard a helpful heckle.

I gave part of the answer to this question on 12 July, in reply to written parliamentary questions 29939 and 30195. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority provides expert advice and independent assurance on the Government major projects portfolio. Working alongside HM Treasury, which is responsible for value for money, it develops robust project cost estimates and builds capacity and capability to deliver effectively. The 2022 IPA annual report will set out progress made on the GMPP.

As a civil engineer, I was never an enthusiastic supporter of HS2 as the cost-benefit analysis of the project was never completely clear to me. One thing I know as a civil engineer is that project creep, and its related costs, is a very real thing. The Transport Secretary announced—in March—£1.7 billion of potential future cost pressures, so what steps is the Minister’s Department taking to ensure that cost pressures are managed pre-emptively rather than reacted to?

My hon. Friend is wise to raise these important points, because taxpayers’ money must always be dealt with carefully. The Department for Transport is closely monitoring the rate of increase of potential contingency spend on HS2, together with any opportunities to realise cost savings through the monthly ministerial taskforce meetings. The £1.7 billion of potential future cost pressures reported in March is manageable within the phase 1 target cost of £40.3 billion given the level of remaining contingency, noting that that represents less than 4% of the overall budget.

We need to cut the cost of the state and ensure that Government Departments spend our money—taxpayers’ money—in a prudent and commercial way. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to conduct a review of all major Government projects to ensure that we are doing that?

I am entirely in agreement with my hon. Friend. It is so important that with the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and the Treasury we ensure that Departments spend money well. You and I, Mr Speaker, managed together to lay the framework for stopping potentially £20 billion, or whatever the ridiculous figure ended up as, being spent on restoration and renewal here when it all got completely out of control. It is so important that all public expenditure is kept under control, and we all have a duty to share in that.

I welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to his place. I know he is sorely missed in the Home Office.

When the Labour party was last in government, it wasted billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, including an astonishing £26 billion on a botched IT project. Does my right hon. Friend agree that only the Conservatives can be trusted to responsibly manage taxpayers’ money?

Yes, I agree philosophically and practically, because you will notice, Mr Speaker, that my hon. Friend and I carefully refer to taxpayers’ money when the socialists normally refer to it as Government money. There is no such thing; there is only taxpayers’ money that we have a duty to protect. When they are in office we see botched IT projects such as the NHS one that my hon. Friend referred to, costing £26 billion, but what have we done? We have an IT project that is working like billy-o, looking after hundreds of thousands of extra universal credit applications through the pandemic. The Tories know how to spend money sensibly.

Well, crikey! This Government have a track record of waste and siphoning off public money through contracts given to friends of and donors to the Tory party. The Procurement Bill is an opportunity for them to end that reckless approach by making a cast-iron commitment to maximise the value of every pound of taxpayers’ money spent. What is value for money under a Tory Government? Is it an excuse to slash services and leave an open goal for their dodgy mates to profit at the public’s expense, or will they take a page out of Labour’s plan to buy, make and sell in Britain, which would distribute economic, social and environmental value across the country by boosting British businesses?

Order. For the record, may I say that it is easier if I call Members? I was actually calling Patricia Gibson, but do not worry—it is fine: I will come back to her later.

Once again, we hear the socialists calling for two different things, contradictorily, within the same question. First we should be focusing on value for money—yes, I absolutely agree—and then we should be putting all the hobby horses of the left into the procurement process. We want value for money, and that is what is being legislated for in the other place, and the Bill will come to this House in due course.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was down for a topical question, but as I listened to the sound of an alternative universe being played out in the Chamber with this talk about taking care of taxpayers’ money, I felt compelled to get to my feet.

The Public Accounts Committee has described the UK Government’s procurement of £4 billion of unusable personal protective equipment during the pandemic—which has had to be burnt—as the result of a “haphazard purchasing strategy”. Governing is all about responsibility, and we know how much those on the Treasury Bench care about looking after taxpayers’ money, so will the Minister explain who he thinks should be accountable and responsible for the “haphazard purchasing strategy” which has seen £4 billion go up in smoke?

You are right, Mr Speaker: I have got the point, and it is a terribly bogus point. At the height of the pandemic, all Opposition Members were calling for PPE to be delivered “yesterday”, and the Government managed to increase the proportion of domestically produced PPE from less than 1% to nearly 80%, excluding gloves. The hon. Lady talks as if the Scottish National party, our separatist friends, were any good at this. May I say to her “ferries, ferries, ferries”? That was one of the biggest and most scandalous wastes of money, and it was done by the SNP.

GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland Campaign

6. What progress his Department has made on the GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland campaign to (a) promote UK businesses overseas and (b) encourage investment in the UK. (901047)

The GREAT campaign promotes the UK’s trade and investment to global audiences, creating and sustaining UK jobs by growing the economy. I am proud to have worked closely with the campaign over the past year on various overseas activities which have promoted UK businesses and attracted significant investment in all four corners of our country.

It was great to see you at the all-party parliamentary beer group event last night, Mr Speaker.

I think it is clear from the Minister’s response that the GREAT campaign has been a major success since Britain left the European Union. Does he agree that it is vital that the voices of my constituents on Brexit are heard by whoever becomes our next Prime Minister, and that we drive the GREAT campaign forward to deliver further opportunities from Brexit as a result of our freedoms in global trade?

My hon. Friend is spot on. I am in no doubt that Conservative Members, along with our membership in the country, will hold all the leadership hopefuls to account on Brexit delivery. However, it is clear that the voters of North West Durham, who are brilliantly served by my hon. Friend, voted decisively to leave the European Union, as did the good people of my own constituency of Selby and Ainsty. As sure as night follows day, if—God forbid—the Labour party somehow, through a grubby deal with the Scottish separatists and the Liberal Democrats, got their hands on the levers of power, Brexit and all the freedoms that it affords us would be put at risk and the people of our nation betrayed.

Levelling Up: Social Mobility

7. Whether he has had discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of the Government’s levelling up agenda in increasing social mobility. (901048)

The Government’s central mission is to level up the UK by spreading opportunity more equally across the whole country. Representatives of the Equality Hub in the Cabinet Office and the Social Mobility Commission are having regular discussions with levelling up leads and sharing key data on socioeconomic geographic equality, and that includes information on the commission’s new social mobility index.

But the Government’s own social mobility mission drew the conclusion that there was no social mobility in Britain, and in the meantime, levelling up is being used as a way of dishing out funds to Tory marginals. The truth is that in politics, the law, sport, the arts and business, working-class people face systemic barriers to personal progress. Has the Minister noticed that the wealth of the few is rooted in the poverty of the many? Does he agree, on behalf of the Government, that we need a root- and-branch transformation of the way our country works so that every single individual can achieve their full potential?

That was a long question and I am afraid I only agree with the last sentence: we do want opportunity to be spread to every single individual. I find the hon. Gentleman a little churlish, given that in his part of the world £20 million from the levelling-up funding is supporting the Tileyard North development in Wakefield, we have put £24.9 million into the Wakefield town deal and the Mayor of West Yorkshire will get £1.4 billion for transport improvements in the coming cycle. These are all areas of Government expenditure that will improve the area in which he lives. If he wants to see social mobility writ large, I suggest he looks at the current candidates for the Tory leadership.

Value for Money in Public Spending

9. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure value for money in public spending. (901050)

The spending review 2021 placed renewed emphasis on ensuring that every pound of taxpayers’ money was spent well and focused on the areas that make the most difference to people’s daily lives. At the spring statement 2022, Her Majesty’s Government also set out plans to ensure that Departments were delivering the highest- quality services at the best value.

Can the Minister explain to the House why the principles of value for money, public good, transparency, integrity, fair treatment of suppliers and non-discrimination are not on the face of the Procurement Bill, as proposed in the Government’s White Paper?

Value for money is on the face of the Bill; it is a crucial part of what will be going on. When the Bill has completed its passage, it will be issued alongside principles of procurement for Government bodies to follow. This will ensure that value for money is put front and centre, which, it must be said, was the essence of the hon. Lady’s question. She asks what we are doing to ensure value for money, then when we do something to ensure it, she does not like it.

Government Helplines: Low-income Households

11. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the cost of phone calls to Government helplines on low-income households. (901053)

The Government are committed to answering calls from the public in a timely manner. Where Departments are experiencing surges in demand, performance is being monitored and staffing is being increased. For example, for the weekend of 1 July, the Home Office answered 77% of calls to its helplines within 30 seconds, with an average wait time of one minute and nine seconds.

By definition, women eligible for Healthy Start vouchers are on low incomes, but the cost of making calls to the helpline at local rates is prohibitive for many, contributing to the cost of poverty. Will the Minister undertake to speak to Health colleagues to see what can be done to minimise the cost of that helpline and, more generally, look at the cost of calls to helplines across Government that are specifically designed to enable people on low incomes to reach the services and benefits intended to help them?

We are always looking at these matters. The Department for Work and Pensions reviews the forecasted telephony demand and plans its resourcing accordingly to keep wait times down. All DWP customer telephone lines are freephone numbers. Separately, I should say that the DWP is digitising key parts of its service to increase efficiency.

Public Funding: Focus Groups

13. What assessment he has made of the value for money of the use of funding from the public purse on focus groups. (901056)

I am quite surprised by the answer that I will give to the hon. Gentleman, because listening to citizens and understanding their views from focus groups is more useful than I had thought. Focus group insights helped to drive the extraordinarily high levels of public engagement throughout the covid-19 pandemic. More than 80% of people were aware of key behaviours to keep safe and reduce transmission, and up to 82% said that they trusted the information in our advertising, so although I personally have always been suspicious of focus groups, they showed their value in helping to get the message across during the period of covid.

This week we heard from a voter who had had the unfortunate pleasure of attending one of the focus groups organised by the former Chancellor. He was seething that he had been duped by the former Chancellor’s PR machine. Can the Minister explain how many more Government Departments are using taxpayers’ money for party political propaganda? Surely that is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

It would be quite wrong to use taxpayers’ money for party political processes. Focus groups do not do that; they are focused on how Government policy is presented to the voters. However, if the hon. Gentleman has evidence of malpractice, he should always bring it forward to the full attention of the House.

Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests

The Government were sorry to receive Lord Geidt’s resignation and are grateful for his work in the role. Any future appointment will need to be a matter for the new Administration, given that the adviser is a personal adviser to the Prime Minister and is appointed for a five-year fixed term.

That could mean more delays, then. In two months’ time, we will have a new Prime Minister, who will need to appoint a new Cabinet, which in turn will need to appoint a new team of Ministers. There has been a lot of talk of a fresh start, but does the Minister agree that with no ethics adviser to advise the new Prime Minister on the nuances and importance of the ministerial code, all we will see is wallpapering over the cracks? When will the new ethics adviser be appointed?

That is obviously a matter for the new Prime Minister, but the hon. Lady should not labour under the misapprehension that the maintenance of standards and ethical advising is wanting in Government. In the absence of the adviser, that obviously falls to the various permanent secretaries in each Department, who are in any event the first line of assessment for many of those questions. As I hope the hon. Lady will never find out, when one becomes a Minister, one of the key things to do is ensure that the permanent secretary in the Department is clear about one’s own personal interests, and maintain a dialogue with them about the standards with which one conducts the job.

Talking of the highest possible standards, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm whether there have ever been Cabinet-level discussions about the conduct of the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) before or since his appointment as Deputy Chief Whip, and about other MPs who may have conduct records that deserve investigation?

I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Lady what we discuss in detail at Cabinet, but Cabinet is minuted and those minutes are available for public contemplation.

Public Sector Procurement: SMEs

16. What steps his Department is taking to strengthen public sector procurement rules for small and medium-sized enterprises. (901059)

The Procurement Bill will enable simpler, more flexible procurement processes, increase transparency of planned procurements and ensure that 30-day prompt payment terms flow down the supply chain. This will provide small businesses, especially start-ups, with the time and assurance they need to bid for opportunities.

My constituent is a driver who has suffered from cataracts and is required to take yearly eye tests. He would like those tests to be carried out by his local independent optician, but has been advised that a single provider holds an exclusive contract. I raised the matter with Ministers in the Department for Transport, who have told me that the situation arises because the Government are obliged to offer an exclusive contract because of EU procurement rules. Will the Procurement Bill enable smaller, independent businesses to conduct such tests and promote competition?

My hon. Friend raises an important point—that the Government, to achieve best value for money for taxpayers, will ensure that there are overarching contracts that are at the best price available. He then asks whether it will be possible for smaller companies to be part of that. It will be possible and easier for them to be part of the supply chain, but value for money must remain. In the specific case he raises, were Specsavers to carry on being much cheaper than using individual providers, I expect the Department for Transport would—and would be expected to—go down that route. If, on the other hand, competitive prices could be offered by smaller companies, it would be easier under the Procurement Bill for them to get into the process.

Public Sector Workforce: Derby

The Government are committed to looking beyond London to all corners of the UK in the relocation of civil service and public sector roles. Through our Places for Growth programme, circa 6,000 roles have so far been relocated to our locations for growth. This includes more than 100 roles in the east midlands. As of December 2021, there were 980 roles in Derby from Departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice.

The Minister will be aware that the east midlands has the lowest concentration of civil servants of any UK region, and Derby is right at the bottom. I have been campaigning to bring the headquarters of Great British Railways to Derby, which would help to solve this problem and would connect this country’s private and public sector rail industries. Does she agree that having the headquarters of Great British Railways in Derby would support the Government’s ambition to level up the country?

I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour. As a Derbyshire MP, it is serendipitous that I have the joy of answering this question.

The national headquarters of Great British Railways will be outside London, demonstrating our commitment to levelling up. A shortlist of six exceptional applications, including the exceptional Derby, will now compete to be chosen. A six-week consultation and public vote— I urge everybody in Derbyshire to vote—will run until 15 August, allowing people across Great Britain to make their voice heard. I declare my interest as a Derbyshire MP, as I think I said at the beginning. During the public vote, the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), will visit each of the six shortlisted locations to hear and learn directly from representatives.

Standards in Public Life

Before I answer this question, I will offer a small clarification of my previous answer. I think I said that Cabinet minutes are available for public contemplation, which, of course, they are—what I said is technically correct—but not until 30 years hence. Happily, I understand that limit is soon to fall to 20 years, so it will not be long for the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) to wait.

In answer to Question 19, the Government are, of course, committed to upholding standards in public life and reinforcing our system to do so. Tomorrow the Government will make a written ministerial statement detailing our work in response to the reviews conducted by Nigel Boardman and the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Integrity matters. Integrity and ethics speak of character, character speaks of motivation, and motivation speaks of purpose. We are either on the side of our people in investing everything we have to serve, or we are on the side of ourselves in extracting everything we can get for ourselves. As self-serving Tories have exploited and extracted to the extent of putting this place into disrepute, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster assure us that he will not only appoint an ethics adviser immediately but adopt Labour’s proposal of an independent integrity and ethics commission so that public trust can be restored?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the importance of ethics and standards in this place and, indeed, in the whole of public life, right the way through from local government, but she is wrong to cast stones from one side of the House to the other. All parties in this House have had their share of issues in this area, and it is right that the system that polices all of us is independent. However, we agree with the Committee on Standards in Public Life that a single ethics commission

“seems disproportionate and does not sit well in our democratic system.”

When we have a new Prime Minister in the autumn, this will be among the chief priorities in their in-tray.

Topical Questions

I am delighted to have been appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, taking over this key role from my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay), who is the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. He is now looking after the nation’s health and I am making sure that the Cabinet Office is match fit so that, in this time of flux in the body politic, the heart of Government is delivering and pumping strongly, primed to pursue our manifesto commitments and support the Prime Minister’s priorities, and ready for the incoming Administration.

I am extremely lucky to be supported in this task by some of the most doughty buttresses in our political system. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) sits alongside us once again, making his welcome return to the Front Bench as the United Kingdom’s first Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to attend Cabinet.

Not every civil servant and local government officer is back at work after the pandemic, which is creating backlogs and is a waste of taxpayers’ money, so what more can we do to ensure that every local government officer and civil servant is back in the office as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. He is right to say that we want to see as many people as possible back in the office, not just because it is more efficient and we think it is a better way for government to operate, but because we all, importantly, have a duty to the young. It is impossible for them to acquire the skills and abilities they need when they are working remotely. I own a young man in his 20s, my son, so I know how debilitating it would be for those who are starting their career to operate from their bedrooms, and those of us in senior positions have a moral duty to be present, in person, with them to give them the skills and abilities they need to advance their careers.

I welcome the new Ministers to their places on the Treasury Bench for what could be their first and last Cabinet Office orals. It is a pleasure to be here with them. Last week, the Prime Minister finally admitted to meeting former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev, a man who was sanctioned by the Canadian Government. This was directly after a top-level NATO meeting and just weeks after a chemical attack by Russian agents on British soil. No officials or security were present. I have written to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster but am yet to receive a reply, so I hope he will answer my questions now. Did the Prime Minister take any papers from the NATO meeting? Was his phone compromised? Why do Foreign Office records show the presence of an unidentified guest? Given his responsibilities for national security and ministerial standards, does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster believe this was inappropriate conduct by the Prime Minister?

I am in receipt of the right hon. Lady’s letter. Obviously, a number of those questions have to be answered by No. 10. We will forward it to No. 10 and will be replying in due course.

I really hope that that “due course” is very quick, because this is an issue of national security, which is obviously of concern to many of our constituents. Let me move on to another very serious issue. Yesterday, our country reached the dark milestone of 200,000 covid deaths, which is a tragedy for our country and all those who have lost loved ones. The Prime Minister delayed the start of the public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic, with the hearings not expected until 2023, making a full inquiry unlikely before the next election. This week, reports suggest that the Government are trying to block evidence to the inquiry, with Ministers fearful that they could be sued for damages and officials apparently making evidence that could be withheld. There can be no hint of a cover-up or excuses for Ministers dodging scrutiny. Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster deny those reports that have been put in the press? If not, how can he assure us and the public that the process will be independent?

The right hon. Lady has her very own brand of toxic, which she attempts to pump into everything that the Government do. [Interruption.] No, no, we cannot conduct debate in this House on the, “When did you stop beating your wife?” questions. This inquiry will be independently chaired and thoroughly conducted. It will have statutory powers to summon evidence and witnesses, in the way that others have done. We are determined to learn the lessons of the covid pandemic, notwithstanding some of the enormous, difficult but nevertheless globally important decisions that the Prime Minister had to take, not least acquiring vaccines and researching vaccines before anybody else. Nobody thinks that everything that happened during the pandemic was perfect, but to start her contemplation of this issue by maligning the motives of those Ministers who put their shoulders to the wheel at a time of national emergency is, frankly, disgraceful.

Order. We are getting out of hand. These are topical questions and you should be short and to the point. Do you want to ask your question or not? If not, I will move on.

T3. . The Procurement Bill is being scrutinised in the other place. One issue is how we ensure that new, small businesses get the opportunity to bid for government business, get contracts and demonstrate value for money. What measures will my right hon. Friend take to make sure that we do that? (901067)

This is a key part of the Procurement Bill. It is simplifying the system so that, instead of 350 pieces of EU law and four different regimes, there will be one UK law and one regime. There will be a pipeline that makes it known to small businesses when contracts are becoming available, giving them a better chance to get involved. Payment terms for small businesses will be improved. Many things in the Bill will be specifically designed to help small and medium-sized enterprises.

T2. Clearly, this Government cannot organise the processing of passports or driving licences on time. There are repeated errors in issuing visas to the correct location. Ambulances are stacked outside A&E units. NHS dentist appointments are as rare as hen’s teeth, and now the Minister wants to close the Seaham Department for Work and Pensions office in my constituency. Can the Cabinet Ministers join the dots, and recognise that cutting and undermining jobs in the public service is not the answer? (901066)

The reason that some DWP offices will not be needed is that unemployment did not rise in the way that was anticipated. We have the lowest level of unemployment in this country since 1974, and the highest number of people in payroll work, and it is only right that the estate of DWP meets the requirements of the DWP. We get huge efficiencies by implementing technology better. That has become clear in many Government activities. Labour party members always want to keep people on the payroll and then they do not want them to go into work: they either want to be on the picket lines helping them to strike, or they want to have them working at home.

T7. The two local authorities that serve my constituents—Hillingdon and Harrow—have shared with me how they quantify the savings from efficiency programmes, which helps to mitigate my constituents’ council tax and also to reinvest in frontline services. Can my right hon. Friend share with me what approach central Government are taking to demonstrate how savings from efficiency are helping to keep taxes down and focus money on the frontline? (901071)

Again, this is a very important point to raise. Central Government—the Cabinet Office’s Crown Commercial Service—is saving into the billions of pounds across Government, which is money that is then available for Departments. That saves those Department’s budgets and ensures more efficient procurement. We are also cracking down on fraud. I am looking forward to the launch of the public sector fraud authority, which hopes to be able to save £180 million in the first year of its operation.

T4. This week, the Public and Commercial Services Union called on the Government to launch a public inquiry into racism and bullying in the Cabinet Office. It has more than 80 members of staff formally complaining about racial bullying or profiling, the Government giving a six-figure pay-out to a top civil service for racial discrimination and the former Deputy Cabinet Secretary, Dame Helen MacNamara, warning of a systematic problem with race in the Department. I know the Government claim that there is not institutional racism in the entire country, but it is clear that the Cabinet Office has a problem. Before the Minister refers to the review into racism, which has been branded a whitewash, I ask him what steps he is taking to facilitate the public inquiry that the PCS union has asked for? (901068)

The Cabinet Office is conducting its own review of the matter, as the hon. Lady referred to. Any incident of racism is unacceptable anywhere, and every effort will be made to alleviate and extinguish the problem to which she refers. The Cabinet Office makes every concerted effort possible, and Ministers will continue to do that to eliminate the pernicious problem to which she refers. I do not accept the premise of her question that the Cabinet Office has an endemic problem in this area, but any example is serious.

T5. On average, two children in every class have a developmental language disorder, which means that they have a two-to-three year language delay. As chair of the all-party group on speech and language difficulties, I arranged a meeting with a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education. It was then cancelled because he was made Education Secretary. What process is in place to ensure that MPs’ meetings with Ministers are sustained, given that they have the support of the civil servants, in order that disadvantaged groups, such as those children with speech disorders, are not further disadvantaged? (901069)

As new Ministers take their positions over the summer, their diaries will naturally be reviewed. If the hon. Gentleman experiences significant delays in achieving the promised meeting, he should write to me.

T6.   The VIP lane for personal protective equipment procurement and the unlawful activities associated with it was one of the early scandals of this Government, but both the Serious Fraud Office and the National Crime Agency are unable to adequately investigate reports of potential Government procurement fraud. Will the procurement Bill establish a corrupt practices investigation unit to help to investigate potential frauds associated with public procurement? (901070)

As I mentioned, the public sector fraud authority will be announced shortly, but I think this attack on PPE is simply misplaced. The fact is that everybody in the country was calling for PPE—[Interruption.] In the world, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General helpfully points out. There was a dire and urgent need. Contracts were issued quickly to build up supplies, and there was not ministerial involvement in the award of contracts. Some 19.8 billion pieces of PPE were delivered; it was a successful effort to meet a dire need where the socialists opposite would have dithered and delayed.

T8. Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis has warned that in the UK we may reach a point this winter where we have heat banks, the equivalent of food banks, where people spend their days in public buildings because they cannot afford to heat their homes. Does the Secretary of State share my alarm that that could happen in the 21st century, especially when Scotland is one of the most energy-rich countries in the world? (901072)

We all share the hon. Lady’s deep concern about the impact of energy prices on all citizens across the UK. As she knows and as I explained earlier, the Government are taking urgent and significant steps to help to alleviate that. In the autumn, there will be a £400 rebate on every electricity bill across the land to assist with those costs. However, as she knows, we are subject to a global energy market and we are working hard to see how we can be less vulnerable to those fluctuations and create more energy self-sufficiency.

T9.   The news that Ministers who resigned last week will receive nearly £17,000 in severance pay has outraged the people of Newport West. Nowhere in the real world do people get such amounts of money for resigning a job, no matter how sensible the decision might be. I have a long list of things we could do with that money in Newport West, so will the Minister make time to meet me next week to discuss it? (901073)

I am afraid the hon. Lady should have listened to the answers given at the urgent question the other day—[Interruption.] That is absolutely fine, thank you very much. She can read Hansard; we went into great detail. It is a matter of statute.

T10.   After all the decades of cover-up and the appalling treatment of those who were infected by receiving contaminated blood, will the Minister now say that interim payments will be made to those people, as recommended by his adviser Sir Robert Francis in his recent review, where he said there was a “compelling case” for them to be paid? Four hundred and nineteen people have died since the announcement of the inquiry. Time is pressing. (901074)

I heard what the review said and I thank the right hon. Lady for her continued diligence in this area. The infected blood scandal is an appalling tragedy that should simply never have happened. The Government are considering the recommendations and I can assure her that the matter is being given expeditious consideration. We will respond to the recommendations made by Sir Robert Francis QC in his study of a frame- work for compensation for victims just as soon as possible.

I listened with interest to the excellent question from the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and I welcome the Minister’s answer. Given that his predecessor for veterans, the Minister for Defence People, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), declined to uphold and totally disregarded the decision of this House to hold an inquiry, can I press this Minister further to expand a little more on what he suggested to the hon. Member for Bracknell earlier?

My line on Veterans UK has always been the same: it has an incredibly difficult job after years of under-investment by Governments of all colours. It needs to improve its output, and I will be working closely with my colleagues and others—I did receive the hon. Gentleman’s letter this week—to ensure that veterans receive a better service from Veterans UK, conscious of the staff who work incredibly hard in that organisation.