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Commons Chamber

Volume 718: debated on Thursday 14 July 2022

House of Commons

Thursday 14 July 2022

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

Committee of Selection

Ordered,

That Christopher Pincher and James Morris be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Kelly Tolhurst and Sir David Evennett be added.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

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.

British Special Forces in Afghanistan: New Allegations

Before I call John Healey to ask his urgent question, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active judicial review proceedings in relation to the allegation of unlawful killings in Afghanistan. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters of sub judice to allow references to those legal challenges, as they concern matters of national importance. This applies to today’s urgent question and to relevant future business.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on new allegations concerning British special forces in Afghanistan.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your very careful consideration of this urgent question request.

On 12 July, the BBC broadcast an episode of “Panorama”, claiming evidence of criminality allegedly committed by the UK armed forces in Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence is currently defending two judicial reviews relating to allegations of unlawful killings during operations in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012. While I accept, Mr Speaker, that to allow today’s urgent question you have waived the convention that we do not discuss matters that are sub judice, advice from Ministry of Defence lawyers is that any discussion of specific detail of the cases would be prejudicial to the ongoing litigation, and thus I am afraid I simply cannot enter into detail about specific allegations made on specific operations relating to specific people.

I am slightly concerned. I did ask for the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), to be fully briefed by officials within the MOD, so that I would not have to be put in this position. Unfortunately, that has not been forthcoming, so I am very disappointed. I would have thought that a senior Minister, and certainly officials, would have gone through why they will not be discussing this. That did not happen, and I have been put in this position, so I am disappointed that the MOD did not take it seriously.

Let me apologise on behalf of the Department for the fact that you, Mr Speaker, and the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne were put in that position. I was not aware of the request that you had made, but I assure you that, when I return to the Department, I will investigate fully why that was not responded to in the way that it should have been.

We very much recognise the severity of these allegations, and where there is reason to believe that personnel may have fallen short of expectations, it is absolutely right that they be held to account. Nobody in our organisation, no matter how special, is above the law. The service police have already carried out extensive and independent investigations into allegations about the conduct of UK forces in Afghanistan, including allegations of ill-treatment and unlawful killing. No charges were brought under Operation Northmoor, which investigated historical allegations relating to incidents in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2013. The service police concluded there was insufficient evidence to refer any cases to the independent Service Prosecuting Authority. I stress that both these organisations have the full authority and independence to take investigative decisions outside of the MOD’s chain of command.

A separate allegation from October 2012 was investigated by the Royal Military Police under Operation Cestro. It resulted in the referral of three soldiers to the Service Prosecuting Authority. In 2014, after careful consideration, the director of service prosecutions took the decision not to prosecute any of the three soldiers referred. It is my understanding that all the alleged criminal offences referred to in the “Panorama” programme have been fully investigated by the service police, but we remain fully committed to any further reviews or investigations when new evidence or reason to do so is presented.

A decision to investigate allegations of criminality is for the service police. They provide an independent and impartial investigative capability, free from improper interference. Earlier this week, the Royal Military Police wrote to the production team of “Panorama” to request that any new evidence be provided to them. I am placing a copy of the RMP’s letter in the Library of the House. I understand that the BBC has responded to question the legal basis on which the RMP are requesting that new evidence, which makes little sense to me, but the RMP and the BBC are in discussions. As I have said, if any new evidence is presented to the Royal Military Police, it will be investigated.

I am aware that the programme alleges the involvement of a unit for which it is MOD policy to neither confirm nor deny its involvement in any operational event. As such, I must refer in generality to the armed forces in response to the questions that I know colleagues will want to ask, and I cannot refer to any specific service personnel who may or may not have served in those units.

We should continue to recognise that the overwhelming majority of our armed forces serve with courage and professionalism. We hold them to the highest standards. They are our nation’s bravest and best, and allegations such as these tarnish the reputation of our organisation. We all want to see allegations such as these investigated, so that the fine reputation of the British armed forces can be untarnished and remain as high as it should be.

No one doubts the bravery of all those who served in Afghanistan, nor the extreme risks they faced. And the Minister is right: our British armed forces have a proud tradition of upholding the very highest standards of military ethics and professionalism, and the international laws of armed conflict and human rights. This is fundamental to Britain as one of the world’s leading democracies, so the allegations reported in Tuesday night’s “Panorama” programme could not be more serious—a pattern of suspicious deaths, with newly obtained military reports suggesting that one unit may have unlawfully killed 54 people in a single six-month tour; “drop weapons” planted to fabricate evidence, with the squadron’s reports “causing alarm at headquarters”; and those at the top warned, but not acting to stop the pattern of killings and withholding crucial details from the military police. Verifying the truth in any new evidence should matter most to military leaders and the MOD. This will not be buried.

What action are the Government taking to respond to the growing calls from military figures, including the former Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards, for a thorough investigation? I welcome the Minister’s statement today that, if there is any new evidence, it will be investigated, but how can he argue that the service police can credibly tackle this task when “Panorama” exposes the systemic failures in their investigations, just as the Government’s own Lyons review highlighted gaps in capabilities in the military police, and when the new defence serious crime unit, designed to fix the problems, will not be up and running until the end of the year?

There were similar claims from the same period against Australian special forces. However, these have been investigated thoroughly via a special inquiry commissioned by the head of the army, not Ministers. That inquiry had independence, justice and military experience, and welfare support. It had privacy, immunity and compulsory questioning powers to get to the truth. Justice Brereton’s report confirmed credible evidence that members of Australian special forces were responsible for the unlawful killing of 39 people. It made 143 recommendations, all accepted by the Australian defence force, and referred 36 matters to the federal police for criminal investigation. Will the Government now do the same and investigate these claims and any cover-up in the chain of command, to secure justice for any of those affected and above all to protect the reputation of our British special forces?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this will not be buried. Absolutely nobody in the Ministry of Defence wants to see these sorts of allegations buried. That does no service to our armed forces whatsoever. These allegations will be investigated fully, if the new evidence is handed over.

The investigation by the RMP itself has already been double-checked, as it were, by a recently retired chief constable and a senior QC, and they agreed that the investigation was sound. Further to that, there has been the Henriques review, published in October 2021, which recognised only too well that there were problems—failings, if you like—in the military justice system that needed to be resolved, so ahead of this there has already been a recognition that the military justice system could work better. The Henriques review identifies many of the ways that it could.

The Secretary of State was clear when I spoke to him earlier in the week on this matter that he is not ruling out any type of public inquiry or review if it is clear that there are failings that need to be looked at. The MOD wants this to be as transparent as possible, so that everybody can have confidence in the service justice system and the reputation of our armed forces can remain untarnished.

The Minister is right to say that there is scope for a systems review, and we must always keep our processes under review. However, would he agree that it is very important not to make insinuations or suggestions that could tarnish the reputation of parts of our armed forces that are among our finest? Those of us who have experience of operations know how difficult circumstances can be. Would he agree with me that the overwhelming majority of the men and women of our armed forces serve this country and do our bidding with honour and courage, and we must not seek to disparage them in any way?

Obviously, I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend has said, and we do have to be careful. What was published on Tuesday was a television programme in which some new evidence, allegedly, was brought to light, but the service police have asked the BBC to share that evidence with them so that it can be investigated. Beyond that, a lot of the allegations, particularly those relating to individuals, were very carefully calibrated to reach a certain point without crossing a line that might have got the production team in trouble with libel lawyers. I think we have to be very careful, as my right hon. Friend says, to be clear that what is said in TV programmes is not said in a court of law and has not been investigated by the police. We have asked the production team to hand over the evidence they have, and we must very careful not to impugn individuals based on what a production company insinuated, rather than actually alleged, in the programme.

The overwhelming majority of those who serve in the armed forces do so with honour and courage, and we are rightly proud of their service, but by defending or failing to investigate properly the bad eggs that exist we tarnish everyone’s reputation. The “Panorama” programme should concern us all, especially since these accounts were given by those within the armed forces themselves. The documentary described “kill or capture” night raids, the systematic killing of detainees and unarmed civilians, planted weapons, competitions between squadrons on the numbers killed, and cover-ups by senior officers. If senior officers knew of such behaviour, why was no action taken? If they did not know, why not?

The Ministry of Defence has so far treated the allegations with some flippancy, saying the documentary “jumps to unjustified conclusions”. The House needs an assurance that the review of this material will be carried out by an independent investigator. Flaws in the investigatory process and potential cover-ups by senior officers should be included. There must be democratic oversight of our special forces, and I would appreciate the Minister’s reassurance that this is something he is considering. Finally, how is the MOD investigating failures in the chain of command?

Can I remind Members that there are set times for urgent questions? The SNP has one minute, but that was over one and a half minutes. If I am going to grant urgent questions, Members know the rules and they have to stick to the rules. Please can you all take that on board?

I could not disagree more with the suggestion that the MOD has been flippant over the investigation of these events. I think nobody would pretend that Operation Northmoor was not slow to get off the ground in the first place. That is already the subject of what the Secretary of State has asked to be reviewed. When the initial service police investigation was completed, a recently retired chief constable and a senior QC were asked to revisit the investigation to check that the processes were sound.

The MOD, at every turn, has wanted to see this done properly because we believe more than anybody else, especially those of us in the Department who have previously served, that nobody in our nation’s armed forces benefits from even the slightest suggestion that there is protection on the basis that they are too special, too brave or too courageous. Our armed forces get their licence to operate around the world from the fact that they are held to the very highest of standards, and everybody in the MOD believes that should be the case.

My hon. Friend knows, because of his service in the armed forces, how morale can be affected by any form of investigation into units, and it reduces the effectiveness of any fighting force. Although this happened some time ago, does my hon. Friend agree that we must make absolutely sure that soldiers who are serving now within the Special Air Service and the armed forces realise that any inquiry will be done quickly and efficiently, that recommendations will be carried out by the Government as soon as they can, and that the morale of the troops and the units in which they serve will be held at the highest level, to ensure that we are fighting efficient at all times?

Yes, Mr Speaker. We are obviously always concerned for the morale of our nation’s armed forces, and investigations such as this can have an impact on morale. At the risk of disagreeing with my constituency neighbour, I think that sometimes morale must come secondary to doing what is right. That is why the Chief of the General Staff rightly removed the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment from an operational deployment this summer, and why the Royal Air Force Red Arrows are flying with fewer planes this display season than they would normally do. People in the MOD have the courage to do the right thing, even if it might cause some concern within the ranks. What matters is the institutional representation of our nation’s armed forces.

Having met members of our special forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the Defence Committee and as a Minister, I have nothing but the utmost respect for them and the difficult job that we ask them to do. These allegations will be appalling to them as individuals, but I say to the Minister that this will not go away. Let me suggest what should happen. We do not want a lengthy inquiry, but I suggest putting in charge of an inquiry a former judge advocate general who understands the military context of this issue, and who could look quickly at the allegations and ensure that those that need investigating get investigated, and that we get answers. This stain on the reputation of those good servicemen who we rely on to protect us cannot be allowed.

This will not go away, we do not want it to go away, and the Secretary of State has told me that he does not want anything to be ruled out at the Dispatch Box today. I am certain that the House will hear from him in the near future about what he thinks is the right way to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

The sad fact is that it seems that a large number of people died, and the allegations made against the special services are very serious indeed. Does the Minister think it appropriate that the Royal Military Police should be conducting these investigations at all? Should it not be done by an outside body? In response to the question from the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), does the Minister think it is time for special forces to be brought under the same democratic accountability as the rest of the armed services?

I have every confidence in the independence of the Royal Military Police as an independent police force, free of political influence or influence from the chain of command, just as I have confidence that all other police forces are proudly operational and independent. No, I do not think that the special forces should be moved into a position of more overt democratic oversight. The reason for that is that the work that they do is right at the extreme end of the threat envelope. The risk to life and limb is profound, and what they do in defence of our nation’s interest is extraordinary. If we were to compromise that even in the slightest, our nation would be at a disadvantage, and brave people would be in severe peril.

We all understand the dangers, pressures and awfulness of armed conflict, and that is precisely why we have rules of engagement and the Geneva convention, in order to set boundaries. When those boundaries are breached, that has to be dealt with. May I urge the Department to listen to Lord Richards, who had some considerable experience in this, and also to learn from Australia? Will Ministers have discussions with their Australian counterparts, ministerial and military alike, to learn from their effective and successful way of dealing with a not dissimilar problem?

There is a lot that we discuss with our great friends in Canberra, and every day we find new things to talk about. The relationship between the ministerial teams is ever closer. The right hon. Gentleman is exactly right: there is lots to learn from the way that the Australians approach this. It is important to say, again, that this is not the House encouraging us to take a second pass at only one investigation. This was investigated and verified, and we have been clear that if new evidence comes to light, we will investigate that too. As I said to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the Secretary of State is clear that he rules nothing out, and he will be in touch with the House shortly to say how he thinks this might be further reviewed.

The Minister is absolutely right that insinuendo is not the same as evidence or proof of guilt, and nobody wants to tarnish the reputation of the British armed forces without due reason, but the allegations are important and serious. Following on from what you said, Mr Speaker, will the Minister ensure that there is a proper briefing for the shadow Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), and perhaps for the Select Committee on Defence as well, so that people can look at this matter without having to worry about sub judice concerns?

Mr Speaker, I can absolutely promise that there will be a briefing for the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne and for you, Sir. There may be an issue over Privy Council terms for the Select Committee at large, but I will look into that suggestion as well.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches also pay tribute to the courage, bravery and ingenuity of UK special forces and all of our armed forces, but of course it is incumbent on them to follow the laws of armed conflict. Does the Minister agree that members of the armed forces will be first among those wanting to see those laws applied and abided by, so that we can continue to call out the war crimes that we see happening in places such as Kremenchuk, Irpin and Bucha?

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House and to his place as his party’s defence spokesperson, and pay tribute to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), who was an excellent defence spokesman before him.

Speaking as a veteran to a veteran, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: nobody who has served in the uniform of our nation’s armed forces wants to be treated as if they can get away with whatever they like. We want to be held to a standard, because that gives us our licence to operate when we train other nations’ armed forces around the world and when we have to do difficult things in dangerous places. That licence to operate is our most important weapon.

So many members of our armed forces sacrificed so much in Helmand, yet our armed forces and all of us have to have confidence in our processes. What discussions have the Minister and the Secretary of State had with our international partners, including those within NATO, about the processes they adopt to ensure objectivity, accountability and independence?

A lot of these matters are governed by international treaties, conventions and laws that all our allies within NATO hold in common, and that we all work to enforce. So much of the outrage over the way the Russians have behaved in Ukraine—to reference the question raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord)—is due to the fact that that army has not followed those international laws, conventions and treaties. NATO prides itself on behaving in the way that international law requires, and the British armed forces more than anyone.

I also pay tribute to all of our forces and special forces for their bravery, courage, determination and perseverance. Some 1,281 allegations were made after the closure of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, and £20 million in settlements was paid out by the Ministry of Defence. Will the Minister confirm that the importance of discharging our duty of care has been taken on board, and that the further allegations made in the programme will be taken seriously, but according to the premise that people are innocent until proven guilty, not simply accused of being guilty?

The allegations in the programme will be taken very seriously if new evidence is handed across to the service police that they can investigate. What we will not do is react to a lot of insinuation and what appears to be a repetition of allegedly criminal events that have already been investigated—that is not in itself enough to say that the service police need to reopen that investigation. Hopefully, the BBC will hand across whatever new evidence it has.

Business of the House

It will be a pleasure.

Monday 18 July—Consideration of a motion of confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.

Tuesday 19 July—Consideration in Committee of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (day 2).

Wednesday 20 July—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (day 3).

Thursday 21 July—General debate on UK sanctions for human rights abuses and corruption, followed by the Sir David Amess summer adjournment debate. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

The House will rise for the summer recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 21 July and return on Monday 5 September.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. I note the pleasure, on all sides of the House, at the forthcoming Sir David Amess debate. I wonder if it will be the opening dispatch from the deputy Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), opposite my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden).

I am surprised to see the Leader of the House in his place, as all we can gather from his statement and everything else we have heard from his party this week is that his Government are done. They have given up on governing. Tories are running scared, blocking Labour’s vote of no confidence—another new low; morally and constitutionally bankrupt to the bitter end. It is a core convention that the Government must be able to command the confidence of the House and that Opposition motions of no confidence are given time. That has been the case for centuries. Indeed, the Tory party itself tabled a very similar motion on 2 August 1965, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, which states, and I quote because I have checked it:

“deplores the Prime Minister’s conduct of the nation’s affairs.”—[Official Report, 2 August 1965; Vol. 717, c. 1070.]

That is what we want to do.

So, I ask the Leader of the House, why was that Tory motion acceptable, but Labour’s motion is not? I think we know why, Mr Speaker. It is clearly a political decision: a Tory party clinging on to a law-breaking national embarrassment brass-neckery—I am not sure whether I have used that word correctly, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) used it yesterday—of a Prime Minister. Labour’s motion is entirely orderly and the Leader of the House knows it. I have checked. So, could he please point to the part of “Erskine May” where it says the Government can now choose to accept or reject or dictate the wording of an orderly motion of no confidence purely on a political whim?

The Leader of the House announced today that the Government have tabled a motion of confidence in themselves for Monday. What makes him think that it is right for the Government to dictate to Her Majesty’s Opposition which orderly motions we can table? If they do not want any sort of confidence motion, do you know what they could do, Mr Speaker? They could get rid of the Prime Minister now. He should not be in No. 10 Downing Street a single day further.

I am afraid it is the Government’s incompetence that means the Online Safety Bill has been delayed yet again. I see just now chaos online between Tory Ministers and leadership candidates in their opinions on that. I am sorry, but the Government have had years to bring in this Bill. I called for it for months from the Dispatch Box. They could have brought it in months and months ago. Delaying it means inaction on making children safer online and on tackling fraud and scams. It is on them, Mr Speaker. How long is the Leader of the House going to delay the Bill this time?

From flagrant breaches of long-standing constitutional conventions to not turning up. After spending all her time deciding whether or not to join the circus that is the Tory leadership contest, the Home Secretary just did not bother turning up to be scrutinised by the Home Affairs Committee yesterday. Can the Leader of the House please tell us what it is about passport delays, asylum delays, rising crime, falling prosecutions, record low rape charges and record high fraud that makes the Home Secretary run away from the Select Committee? Lots of preparation goes into these sessions, not just from Members on all sides but from staff. Will the Leader of the House please remind his Cabinet colleague about the importance of just turning up? We have a Prime Minister hinting that he will not turn up to his last Prime Minister’s questions; and with ambulance services in crisis, instead of coming to this House yesterday and telling us what he is going to do about it, why was the Health Secretary somewhere else, tweeting support for a leadership candidate? Will the Leader of the House ask the Health Secretary to take some responsibility, come to this House and make a statement on why the longer the Tories are in power, the longer patients wait?

We can believe the former Chancellor when he said this week that he has no working-class friends, because literally none of them here are doing any work! But this is serious: the Prime Minister has already done untold damage to our country and to standards in public life. He has repeatedly been caught disrespecting the British people, and his pattern of behaviour as Foreign Secretary shows that he is potentially a risk to national security. Those on the Tory Benches are all complicit. They know that he is not fit to govern—they told the public so just days ago—and they are now propping him up until September. He must not be allowed to stay over the summer, when he will have no parliamentary scrutiny and can do whatever he wants.

This situation needs more than challenging the Tory at the top. Conservative Members have failed to remove the man they admitted was entirely unfit for office, and they are all culpable. Labour will act in the national interest and vote with no confidence in this failed and frankly dangerous Prime Minister and his Government, because we need a fresh start with a Labour Government who will reboot our economy, end the cost of living crisis, revitalise our public services, re-energise our communities, unite our country and clean up our politics.

I start by welcoming the deputy Leader of the House of Commons to his place. It was a very wise decision to appoint him, and it will certainly make business questions easier for me to have him sitting on the Front Bench rather than on the Back Benches asking awkward questions.

Turning to the weekly rant from the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), let us get to the crux of the matter. The Labour party wants a no-confidence vote and we are supplying it with one. The wording is now constitutionally correct. It is not my fault that the Labour party cannot seem to copy and paste from what is constitutionally accepted, but we are giving it its confidence vote on Monday. I trust she will be in her place—

I hope that I will be with the hon. Gentleman in giving confidence to the Government.

The hon. Member for Bristol West also says that we are not getting on with the job, but that is absolutely not true. Payments are landing in people’s bank accounts today to help them with the challenges of the cost of living—£326 is being given to 8 million households. That is the Government getting on with the business of supporting people through the challenges that we face. Rather than being in the Westminster bubble making cheap political points and trying to stir up trouble, the Government are delivering for people on the challenges that we face.

The Home Secretary will be in her place the next time we have Home Office questions. I am sure that she will be very keen to stand by her record of recruiting 20,000 more police officers; we already have 13,500. We have given more powers to the police and are giving them £17 billion extra this year. We are ensuring that our police have resources through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. We produced our beating crime plan last summer. We have a huge track record of defending police officers and pushing down crime. The shadow Leader of the House should pay tribute to the Home Secretary.

The hon. Lady will be aware that we are recruiting even more people to the Passport Office to try to help. The vast majority of passports are now being delivered within six weeks, so progress is being made—[Interruption.] It is factually correct that a huge volume of the people who apply for a passport now get it within six weeks.

The hon. Lady mentioned that the Health Secretary was busy; he will be here next week for health questions. I am sure he will point out to her when he gets to the Dispatch Box that although there are challenges following covid and queues that we need to overcome—that is why we are investing in our health service through the social care levy—compared with Wales, the queues are shorter in England. That is because the Conservative party is managing the health service in England whereas the Labour party is doing so in Wales, where the queues are longer and the challenges are not being met with the same efficiency. The hon. Lady needs to stop trying to score her cheap political points and recognise and celebrate what the Government are doing to support people.

The Ministry of Justice wants to build a large new prison in my constituency, on a beautiful piece of open land between Lubenham and Foxton. It is completely the wrong place to build a new prison; it will force smaller traffic on to some very narrow country lanes, including in front of a rural primary school. There is also an issue of democracy: Harborough District Council clearly voted against the prison proposal, because it was not in its local plan. I asked the Ministry of Justice not to appeal against the decision, but unfortunately it has done so, as it has done in other locations. I am in favour of new prisons— we need new prisons, because we need longer prison sentences—but this is not the right location. There must be a better brownfield location for the new prison. Can we please have a debate about the new prisons programme? I know that the same issue is occurring elsewhere.

My hon. Friend is a tenacious campaigner for his constituents and I know that he will make sure we get to the right decision. I will pass my hon. Friend’s comments directly to the Secretary of State for Justice and ask him to write to my hon. Friend about the matter.

It would be remiss of me not to congratulate the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and welcome him to his place. He is the very epitome of bizarre Brexitism, and he is now finally part of the payroll that up to now he has always loathed. When they have got so far down the pecking order to fill places in this ramshackle Government, we know that they have finally reached the bare Bones.

We need a debate about squatting and forced evictions, because we have a problem here in central London that we need to resolve. At the bottom end of Whitehall, there is someone we just cannot get rid of: Schrödinger’s Prime Minister, simultaneously gone and apparently still here. His latest wheeze is this vote on Monday: a Government tabling a vote of confidence in themselves. It would be great to think that they have finally got it and that they will be joining us in relieving this nation of this appalling Conservative Government, but actually it is more ridiculous than that. Knowing that any motion specifying the Prime Minister would probably be passed in this House, they have decided to make it a motion about a Government they can barely fill—a motion of confidence in themselves. Denying Labour’s legitimate motion was just shocking; it was against every principle of House democracy. Any Opposition must be able to table a motion of confidence in the Government at any time and in any way they want.

Wednesday was an appalling instance of democracy denial, but at least it was a diversion from the tedious, grotesque Tory anti-beauty parade. The “I’m the Most Right-Wing Candidate…Get Me Out of Here!” franchise is making Margaret Thatcher look almost like Mary Poppins. One of those people is going to be Prime Minister. For the third time in a row, a small group of Conservative party members will determine who governs Scotland. Is it not therefore timely that today our First Minister will lay out the democratic case for an independent Scotland? I do not know what will be in it, Mr Speaker, but I can tell you something: it will be almost the exact opposite of what happens in this place.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. When he had a pop at my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, I think he lost the Chamber. My hon. Friend is very popular in this place.

I am confident that we would win that Division quite handsomely, to be honest.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) wants to pivot to talking about a referendum on independence, because he does not want to focus on the record of the SNP in Scotland. The Government are getting on with the job: we are delivering for millions of people up and down this country, including in Scotland, where people will be getting large amounts of support to help with the challenges of the cost of living. That is what we are focused on.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be here next week to make the same point about the need for a referendum. I will give him the same answer: we are focused on getting on with the job, and we will not fall for his smoke and mirrors.

The delivery of the urgently needed and far too long-awaited town centre revitalisation in Burgess Hill is an absolute priority for me. Nearby, 3,500 homes are coming forward, supported by Homes England. Our spade-ready pride in place bid for round 2 of levelling-up fund round 2 is ready to go. Will the Leader of the House please make time for a debate in Government time about how levelling up in action is based not on geography, but on the Government responding well to the needs of all our communities?

I wish my hon. Friend well with the bid for Burgess Hill and her ambitions to improve that area. She will be aware that there is a £4.8 billion levelling-up fund that I am sure she has been bidding into. I know that Members across the House will be making their bids and putting them in as we speak, and I wish all colleagues well with that process.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business, particularly the Sir David Amess summer Adjournment debate next Thursday.

I welcome the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) to his place. He is a former member of the Backbench Business Committee. This is more proof that the Committee is an amazing springboard for ministerial advancement. Conservative Members should therefore be rushing to their Whips Office to volunteer to take the currently unfilled place on the Committee that the Government should have. I am looking forward to that in no short order.

A report issued this week—it is no shock to many of us—shows that a greater proportion of children in the north-east of England are now living in poverty than in any other part of the country. Child poverty is not a new phenomenon in the north-east, but it is getting much worse and rapidly so. Can we have a statement from the Government on what they are going to do to lift children in constituencies across the north-east out of poverty as a matter of urgency?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, because the Sir David Amess debate was the idea of the Backbench Business Committee and I pay tribute to the Committee for coming forward with that plan. He referred to the fact that the Committee is the springboard to ministerial greatness. I would say to colleagues on the Back Benches that, like the Deputy Speaker, if you serve on that Committee for 17 years, you too could aspire to ministerial greatness.

On the hon. Gentleman’s very serious point about child poverty, the Government do recognise that there are huge challenges out there at the moment with global spikes in the cost of fuel and food. That is why we are coming forward with huge amounts of money. We have unveiled a £15 billion intervention to help households in these challenging times. Today, payments of £326 will be landing in 8 million households. We are also providing one-off payments of £300 to 8 million pensioner households and £150 to individuals receiving disability benefits. We are doubling the value of the October universal energy bill discount to £400 and scrapping the requirement to repay that money. That is a huge intervention to try to help people in these times of global turmoil.

Could we have a debate about the Boys Brigade? That would allow me to congratulate 1st Buckie Boys Brigade on receiving the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, which is the most prestigious award for voluntary organisations and is richly deserved by 1st Buckie, one of the biggest companies anywhere in the United Kingdom, in this their 75th year. They are also helped by dedicated officers and helpers, 14 of whom were recently given awards for a combined total of 455 years’ service. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating 1st Buckie Boys Brigade and everyone involved who has made this company so successful?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in congratulating 1st Buckie. It is a huge achievement that they have been given this award, particularly in the platinum jubilee year. I pay tribute not only to 1st Buckie but to Boys Brigades up and down the country, and to all the volunteers who help them to keep young people busy, occupied and stimulated.

Last Saturday was the Durham miners gala, with this big meeting taking place after an absence of two years. It is magnificent to see the banners flying and the brass bands playing again. I was proud to march behind the banner of Chopwell in my constituency and then to join the Greenside banner, which was an emotional experience as we remembered our dear friend and colleague Jack Graham MBE, who did so much to contribute to our local community and our local mining heritage. Can we have a debate in Government time on the importance of the Durham miners gala to our communities and our local history?

I did not myself receive an invitation to the Durham miners gala this year, but I recognise its importance. Nottinghamshire has a huge and proud mining history as well, and there are still a number of banners in my constituency. I know the pride that goes with those communities, and I hope the event went well.

I am delighted that the Government have such an ambitious outlook in seeking to sign as many free trade agreements as possible. Unfortunately, however, they have set in motion the process under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 in respect of the UK-Australia free trade agreement without allowing our International Trade Committee to present its report to the House and without providing a debate on the agreement. It is essential for all Members of Parliament to be able to give their views on the trade deals that we are signing, and to give our constituents a voice in this place. I know that this is ambitious, given that my right hon. Friend has already outlined next week’s business, but may we please have a debate on the UK-Australia free trade agreement before we ratify it?

The International Trade Committee had six months in which to examine the agreement before the commencement of the CRaG process. The Government’s commitment to holding debates on free trade agreements during that process is subject to the timeliness of requests and the availability of parliamentary time, and my hon. Friend will doubtless appreciate that there is a wide range of competing demands on time in the Chamber before the House rises for the summer recess.

I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker, that fish and chips are the great British culinary gift, and that the local fish and chip shop is often the centre of a community. You may not agree that the best fish and chips in the world are made in Yorkshire, but I will concede that the second best are on the other side of the Pennines.

Mr Malcolm Tully has run the same fish and chip shop, feeding the same community, for 30 years, having used his miner’s redundancy money to set up the business. However, it is now under threat because of the rising costs of various artefacts that he needs to use, and there are tens of thousands of other small businesses in the same perilous position. Will the Leader of the House organise a debate in Government time so that we can discuss the pressure on fish and chip shops and all the other small businesses in the country?

I declare my interest, Mr Speaker.

Let me join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Malcolm Tully on the work that he does. Fish and chip shops are indeed a great community asset, and there are some great ones in my constituency. They do face huge challenges—particularly the price of sunflower oil, which is driving many of their costs—but the Government recognise the great contribution that they make to our communities, and we should support them.

May we have an urgent debate on the response from both the Government and the local community to the disgusting and abusive vandalism perpetrated by young teenagers in my constituency this week? Some of it was racially motivated, and some of it targeted one of our finest female police community support officers. Does the Leader of the House agree that this requires both a police and a community response? We have a record number of police officers in Bedfordshire—1,411—but they need to be deployed throughout the county.

Of course I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to the work that he does in his constituency. Antisocial behaviour will be one of the primary focuses of the £50 million-a-year safer streets fund. Next week is antisocial behaviour awareness week, and there will be a debate in Westminster Hall. The deployment of police officers is a matter for the local force, which is operationally independent, but I certainly think that antisocial behaviour is something on which it should focus.

The independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Telford published its findings this week, providing an opportunity for the authorities to reflect on their failings and take responsibility for their mistakes. Telford and Wrekin Council, however, published a response suggesting that the child sexual exploitation had happened a long time ago, that the council had made improvements, and that many of the inquiry’s recommendations had already been implemented. There was no apology for the failings, no reference to having made any mistakes, and no commitment to change. Telford and Wrekin Council is in denial. May we have a debate on the report and the response of the authorities?

First, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend. I know that she has worked tirelessly on this matter, and she is a huge champion for those people who have been victims. The scale of the abuse carried out in Telford and Wrekin was truly appalling. I understand that Telford and Wrekin Council has confirmed that it will accept all the inquiry’s recommendations and deliver all the suggested improvements, but we must ensure that the lessons are learned so that victims are protected and offenders are brought to justice. This is an important matter and I am sure that any debate on it would be well subscribed.

Further to the Leader of the House’s failure to answer the question from the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), could we have a statement on the whereabouts of the Home Secretary? Along with her failure to appear before the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, she has cancelled a long-arranged meeting on Monday with Tony Cox, the father of my constituent Lorraine Cox, who was brutally murdered in September 2020. It would be an understatement to say that Mr Cox is upset about this, particularly given the Home Secretary’s previous admission that the circumstances around Lorraine’s murder represented “total state failure”, the serious police failings in the murder investigation and the concerns shared by Mr Cox and many on both sides of this House about the lack of Government action generally to improve women’s safety.

I will of course make sure that the Home Secretary is aware of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments and write to her directly on his behalf. She will be here on 5 September, the first day back after summer recess, and I hope that he will be in his place to hold her to account.

The Leader of the House has already mentioned the £326 payment that is arriving in the bank accounts of 1.5 million people today and further people in the days to come. The cost of living crisis is the biggest issue we face in this country, so can we have a debate on the Government’s wider package on this, which could see low-income households benefiting from £1,200 of help and other macroeconomic measures needed to get inflation down?

My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the £37 billion of support. That is a huge amount of money that is going to support people in these challenging times. What Putin did in Ukraine has caused huge turbulence across food and energy markets around the world. That is why, as she said, we are making the £326 payments today to 8 million homes, but there also further payments coming. I think it is worth reiterating the £300 to 8 million pensioner households, the £150 to individuals receiving disability benefits, the doubling in value of the universal October energy bill discount to £400 and the scrapping of the requirement to pay that back. That is a huge amount of Government cash going out to support people in these challenging times.

As the England women’s football team reach the quarter-finals of the Euros, I want to raise the lack of recognition for the women who played for England in the first official international women’s football match, against Scotland in November 1972. The women in that team have never been awarded a cap by the Football Association, while the Scottish FA has awarded caps to its women footballers for that match. Not only that, but when the England women footballers of the 1970s were invited by the FA to Wembley in 2019 as the “legends of women’s football”, they were only allowed to walk around the pitch and not on it, and yet the male football legends were paraded on the pitch just a few weeks later. I am calling on the FA to award an official cap to every woman who played for England in that match in 1972, and to give those first Lionesses the same status as legends of football that it gives to the male footballers. Will the Leader of the House join me in this call, and will he make time for a debate on the issue?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on raising this matter; I think she carries the support of the whole House. Of course I join her in making those representations to the FA. I will also write to the FA on her behalf making that very point. It is worth reflecting that we have moved a very long way and that now, in 2022, we are in a whole different world. We should celebrate all women’s sport and women’s football, and I wish the Lionesses all the best for their future matches.

Peel Group announced yesterday that it is likely to close the award winning Doncaster Sheffield airport, saying that it is not viable. The people of Doncaster and South Yorkshire need that airport to remain open. Not only are 800 jobs at risk; so is our local economy. The airport is a strategic asset, and could and should be the driver to increase prosperity for South Yorkshire as a whole. Will the Leader of the House meet me to discuss the airport’s future, whether that be through another private investor or maybe—as our very own Ben Houchen did in Teesside—through the mayoral combined authority?

I have not had the opportunity to fly from Doncaster airport, but I know a lot of people who have, and their experience was very good. Regional airports are a key part of local communities; as my hon. Friend said, they support hundreds of jobs. Although this is a commercial decision for the owners of the airport, I hope that after consultation with stakeholders, they conclude that there is a viable aviation future for the airport. I wish my hon. Friend all the best with his campaign.

Department for Work and Pensions figures that have come out since the House has been sitting show that 359,000 households—1.3 million children—are affected by the two-child limit in universal credit and child tax credit. Shockingly, just to put food on the table, 1,830 women have had to fill out a form to prove that their child was born as the result of rape or coercive control. The two-child limit is driving up child poverty rates right across the United Kingdom, so can we have an urgent debate in Government time about the desperate need to scrap this policy once and for all, and to value every child, regardless of when they were born?

These are difficult decisions to take. People up and down the country who are not receiving benefits have to make very difficult decisions about how many children they can afford to have. There is not a blank cheque from the taxpayer to keep funding people. It is about bringing balance and fairness into the system, so that we can protect taxpayers’ money and make sure it is spent in the fairest possible way.

Another issue of confidence, on which we need an urgent debate, has come to my attention: Taunton station. The staff there are utterly lazy and incompetent. Those who are young, vulnerable, disabled or need help cannot get from one side of the station to the other, because passengers have to walk around a main road and up a ramp, taking all their suitcases with them; it makes Gatwick and Heathrow look positively balmy. It is beyond belief! Great Western Railway says it is inclusive and stands up for its customers—well, Taunton does not. Can we please have a debate on the issue before somebody gets injured or, worse, killed?

There has been huge investment in access to railway stations up and down the country, particularly for disability access to help people get from platform to platform, but I will of course pass on my hon. Friend’s comments directly to the Secretary of State for Transport.

Further to earlier questions, MPs on both sides of the House will be acutely aware that the Home Office’s MPs’ inquiry line for visas and passports is on its backside. Waits are now measured not in minutes, but in hours. Could the Home Secretary take some time to find her way to the Chamber and make a statement on what she will do about it?

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman by telling him what the Government are doing. Some 850 additional staff have been brought in since April 2021, with a further 350 arriving before the summer. Between March and May this year, the Passport Office processed approximately 3 million passport applications, 1.5% of which had been in the system for longer than 10 weeks, so the vast majority of passport applications now are being processed within six weeks.

May I start by wishing everyone a bostin’ Black Country Day, as we celebrate the beating heart of the west midlands?

I come here today with some frustration about an issue that I raised with my right hon. Friend’s predecessor regarding onerous clauses in council house tenants’ contracts and leases that said they would be evicted if they criticised the Labour Administration in Sandwell. After a promised U-turn by the local authority, I found out an hour ago that those clauses have been included in council house tenants’ contracts. That is absolutely outrageous. Members of Parliament in Sandwell were given a guarantee by the Labour Administration that this would not happen. We have had corruption, commissioners and now contempt for the most vulnerable. Can we have a debate on the Floor of the House about this reckless council, and put this situation to bed?

I am sorry to hear of my hon. Friend’s frustrations. He is a tenacious champion, and I know he will continue to hold Sandwell Council to account. I suggest he applies for an Adjournment debate to raise the matter fully with a Minister and get a proper response.

It is 52 years since the contaminated blood scandal started. Since the former Prime Minister announced the public inquiry—five years ago this week—419 people have died. On average, a person dies every four days. The Government’s independent reviewer of compensation said there is a “compelling case” for interim compensation payments to be made now.

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate? I had a wholly unsatisfactory answer from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General this morning as to when the Government will make an announcement about the payment of compensation. The Government have rightly found time to make interim compensation payments in relation to the Post Office’s Horizon scandal and the Windrush scandal. Why has the infected blood community again been left with nothing when people are dying?