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Cabinet Office

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 27 October 2022

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Support for Island Communities

Island communities are important to the United Kingdom, which is why the previous Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), chaired the inaugural Islands Forum meeting in Orkney last month. This forum brought together council leaders, chief executives and other island representatives from across the UK to share challenges and best practice on net zero. The forum will continue to meet to work together on shared opportunities and challenges in other areas, and I look forward to seeing the real difference it will make.

Cornwall is not quite an island, but if the River Tamar was a couple of miles longer it would be, and many a proud Cornishman has considered taking their shovel and finishing the job. But being a remote peninsula, we bear many of the hallmarks of island communities. That has shaped our proud, independent identity and culture but also created challenges in our economy and in delivery of public services. What consideration is given to Cornwall’s unique geography when considering funding public services and in levelling up the Duchy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and declare a bit of an interest in having a grandmother from Devon. Cornwall’s geographical position at the far end of the south-west peninsula is well known, and the challenges are well understood by the Government. The Government have committed £99 million across four Cornish towns through the future high streets fund and stronger towns funding, which will be invested in a range of projects to create community hubs, green transport, affordable housing and commercial flexible workspaces. We have also allocated to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly £132 million from the UK shared prosperity fund so that Cornwall can decide what to invest in locally in order to best target the funding. We are also negotiating a historic devolution deal with Cornwall Council, recognising the distinctive characteristics of Cornwall, and empowering strong local leadership by taking a county deal approach to devolution.

Does my hon. Friend agree that island communities have unique characteristics that are best represented by having a dedicated Member of Parliament, which is why Ynys Môn has been granted special protected status in this Government’s recent boundary changes? Ynys Môn has been deprioritised under the Welsh Labour Government’s plans to increase the size of the Senedd from 60 to 96 Members and Ynys Môn will no longer have an MS with specific responsibility for it.

I agree with and understand what my hon. Friend is saying. She has worked hard to ensure that Ynys Môn is given protected status by the UK Government, and I understand her concerns about the island and that it must not be deprioritised. I understand her point about MSs as well. My Conservative colleagues have done a brilliant job, despite the Welsh Labour Government, which is propped up by Plaid, and I thank her for her hard work.

Last Thursday the main telecommunications cable between Shetland and the mainland was damaged, leaving most of my constituents in Shetland with no access even to landline or broadband services. It was really fortunate that we were able to get services restored much better and more quickly than we expected, but it is surely apparent that the system does not have the necessary resilience. Will the Minister bring together the different stakeholders—the companies involved, the local authorities, the Scottish Government and UK Government Departments —and see what can be done as soon as possible to ensure that any repetition of what happened does not leave us stranded in the way that we were?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and I am glad that the situation has been resolved. As I said in relation to the Islands Forum, the Government are committed to ensuring that island communities are fully represented. I am sure that we will be more than happy to continue with the meetings, and I am certainly happy to meet any stakeholders to discuss how we can improve the situation and continue to work together.

Government Responsibility for the Union and Intergovernmental Relations

2. What discussions he has had with representatives from the devolved Administrations on recent changes in Government responsibility for the Union and inter- governmental relations. (901876)

4. What discussions he has had with representatives from the devolved Administrations on recent changes in Government responsibility for the Union and intergovernmental relations. (901880)

The Union is at the heart of the Government’s work, from securing UK-wide growth to establishing freeports and supporting the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Central to that is working closely with colleagues in the devolved Governments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be continuing that work in his new role.

The previous Prime Minister, in her short tenure, managed to keep only one pledge: to ignore the Leaders of the devolved nations. The new Prime Minister has said that he wants to lead the most active UK-wide Government for decades, and also to respect devolved Governments. Will the Minister explain how this Government can claim to be respectful when the Prime Minister has pledged to circumvent Holyrood and undermine the devolution settlement even more than his predecessors?

I remind the hon. Lady that the previous Prime Minister did meet with First Ministers at events commemorating the Queen. We have also heard that the new Prime Minister has already spoken to the devolved leaders of Wales and Scotland and has made a firm commitment to work with our devolved Governments and to strengthen our precious Union. I am sure that he will continue to do that and, in doing so, will certainly have the support of Conservative Members.

The Prime Minister believes that he is delivering on the mandate that his party won, with a minority of votes and a lower percentage than that won by the SNP in both recent elections as the source of his legitimacy. Does the Minister agree that, as the Prime Minister was not elected, not even by his own party members, the cornerstone of renewed intergovernmental relations must be respect for the mandates won by the actually elected First Ministers of devolved Governments?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As the Prime Minister made clear, we will continue to work with devolved Governments. This Government have a mandate from 2019. We also respect the mandates of the devolved Governments, which we will continue to do, including the mandate in Scotland from the independence referendum to remain part of this precious Union.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the new team of Ministers to their positions today. I am not alone in being worried about the effect of this Government chaos on the Union, specifically on what they will do in terms of Union activity. The Union has been treated as a departmental tennis ball. It has gone to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, then to the Cabinet Office, and then back to the Department for Levelling Up, and now, we hear, it is potentially staying there. Does that really suggest priority for the Union? The former Prime Minister did not call the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales during the entire time that she was in office. That says a lot. Will the Minister please explain to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland why this Tory Government treat our Union as a departmental tennis ball, instead of, as Labour would do, defending and building on our strong Union, which is a priority for everyone across our country?

I take the hon. Lady’s point but, of course, as we have said, the Prime Minister telephoned the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh devolved Governments on his very first night in office. If that does not show how much the Union is treated as a priority, I am not really sure what else can be done. On departmental work, it is very important that the Cabinet Office deals with the constitutional elements of that and to use its expertise to make sure that intergovernmental work is as effective as possible.

I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State and his team to their place.

It has been well documented that not once in her 45 days in office did the former Prime Minister pick up the phone to our First Minister. Indeed, such was her antipathy towards the nations of the UK that one of her first actions was to farm out responsibility for the Union and intergovernmental affairs from No. 10 to the Cabinet Office. I am pleased that the new Prime Minister has talked about a good working relationship and that he has called Nicola Sturgeon. Does this mean that responsibility for the Union and intergovernmental affairs will now return to Downing Street, or will it stay with the Cabinet Office? If it does stay with the Cabinet Office, what does it intend to do with it?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister remains in charge of elements relating to the Union. More than 200 intergovernmental ministerial meetings took place between just January and September of this year, and the focus of those engagements was on issues including the Ukrainian conflict, delivering net zero, cost of living pressures, covid-19 recovery, freeports and myriad other matters. Transparency is key, and we will continue to publish quarterly and annual intergovernmental relations reports on to give a snapshot of the activity and to allow the scrutiny that Members wish.

It seems that responsibility for the Union and the intergovernmental relationship has become a hot potato that is passed from Department to Department, because no one knows what it is or quite what to do with it. My suggestion to the new Secretary of State is that he uses his new responsibility to encourage the Prime Minister to respect the mandate the Scottish people gave last year, when they elected a pro-independence majority Government with a commitment to holding a referendum. Does he agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) said: that a Prime Minister who was rejected by his own party members but subsequently put into office, unelected, by the MPs on the Government Benches, denying the wishes of the Scottish people in a free and fair election, is an absolute disgrace?

Talking of free and fair elections is to undermine the tremendous democracy we live in and to show a lack of appreciation of what we have. The Prime Minister has continually referred to the result of the 2019 general election and mentioned his commitment to the 2019 manifesto we were elected on. We respect the devolved Governments; as I have said the Prime Minister spoke to those devolved leaders on his very first day in office and he will continue to do so. However, if we are talking about mandates, there is still the mandate in Scotland from the independence referendum. We are very firm on that, and we will continue to support it and prioritise the Scottish people rather than playing politics and navel gazing at this point in time.

Civil Service Jobs: Relocation

3. How many civil service jobs he plans to relocate from London to the south-west of England in the remainder of this Parliament. (901879)

The Government are committed to relocating roles out of London and to increasing and spreading opportunity, providing an economic boost to cities and towns across the UK. We have already relocated more than 8,000 roles and will relocate 15,000 by 2025. Around 1,200 of those roles will be relocated to the south- west by 2025.

The south-west is a great place to invest, and the Land Registry and the Valuation Office Agency are already prospering in our city. Will the Minister look ahead not only at allocating existing civil service roles, but at those we will develop in the future? Plymouth is building out a world-leading capability in autonomy, which has the potential to create huge numbers of jobs if we can create a cluster of Government and private sector expertise in one place.

We currently have around 43,570 civil servants working in the south-west and, when I checked this morning, around 755 jobs are being advertised there. I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman that Plymouth is well represented in the Cabinet Office now.

It is always good to hear that the town of my birth is well represented in any Department. The Minister will be aware that moving civil service jobs into coastal communities, particularly into our town centres, can help to kick-start regeneration. What plans does he have to look at doing that in Torbay?

Of course, my hon. Friend is right: this Government are committed to levelling up not just in the north of England, but across the whole country, ensuring that everybody has opportunity wherever they are. That is why we are ensuring that we create jobs and opportunity everywhere in the country, including in constituencies such as his.

Infected Blood: Support

By the end of this week, all those infected and/or bereaved partners currently registered on UK infected blood support schemes will each receive an interim payment of £100,000. The Government remain committed to meeting in full the interim recommendations made by Sir Brian Langstaff. The payments build on the support already provided by the four United Kingdom schemes.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position, and thank him for reaffirming that support. I am sure that all Members have constituents who have been deeply affected by the infected blood scandal. It is absolutely right for the Government to bring forward compensation payments. The concern is that the deadline is looming in just a few days. Can my right hon. Friend be absolutely sure that every single person affected across the country will receive the interim compensation payment by the end of October?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Like him, in a previous incarnation as a Minister in the Cabinet Office, I met with survivors. All of us, I think, who have met those survivors have been humbled by their courage and dignity. I can of course give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. All four national Health Departments have confirmed that the payments will be made by the end of this week.

I thank the Minister for that very positive response. Some of my constituents, and indeed people across Northern Ireland, will welcome the £100,000, but other families have lost loved ones who were potential recipients of that money. Can the Minister assure us that those families will receive the money, and will do so at a suitable time? In some cases, they have been waiting for 12 to 15 years.

I understand and share the angst felt by those families at the time that this has taken. As the hon. Member will be aware, these are interim payments, and it is the start of a process. It would be wrong for me to prejudge the entire process, but I very much share and sympathise with his concerns, and I will ensure, as the responsible Minister, that those sentiments are represented.

Domestic Cyber-resilience

8. What steps the Government are taking to strengthen domestic cyber-resilience against potential impacts from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (901886)

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal, barbaric and will not stand. My hon. Friend is right that we face a heightened security threat, and the Cabinet Office and the National Cyber Security Centre play a key role in meeting that. Building on the commitments in the national cyber strategy, we are running a campaign of public warnings and guidance, and we have undertaken significant outreach across critical national infrastructure to keep businesses and individuals safe.

At the beginning of this terrible and illegal attack on Ukraine by Russia, a cyber-attack saw many Ukrainian Government websites go down. Has a full analysis been completed of the tactics used, and are we confident that we could now defend against those tactics if they were used against us?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise that. As she will appreciate, work is ongoing literally 24 hours a day by the Cabinet Office and relevant agencies. Before and since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the UK Government and our allies have attributed a number of cyber-attacks on Ukraine to the Russian Government. All that is of course based on expert technical analysis, and that work is tireless and ongoing.

I warmly welcome the Minister and the rest of the team to their posts. I disagree with him, however, about one thing: the invasion did not start this year; it started in 2014. Every time we say that it started recently, we forget that we were not robust enough in 2014, which was one of the things that emboldened Putin. One tactic of Putin and his team is the targeting individual politicians in this country. How safe is it, therefore, for the Home Secretary to have been using a separate and unsecure email address? Does that not need to be addressed?

I will start on a point of agreement with the hon. Gentleman. First, I welcome his kind words. He is entirely right to point out that this whole episode began at least with the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Arguably, it began even before that, in terms of Russian aggression. I am sure that he was in the House yesterday and will have heard the Prime Minister, and indeed my hon. Friend the Paymaster General, addressing exactly this point, but I am happy to reiterate that the Home Secretary accepted that she made errors of judgment in her conduct. She recognised that, accepted her mistake, apologised and resigned. I think that that was an appropriate course of action.

Strengthening the Union

This Government are committed to delivering for citizens across the UK, whether it is protecting households against rising energy prices or stimulating growth through the creation of freeports. When we act as one United Kingdom, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous, and we remain committed to working collaboratively with the devolved Governments on the collective challenges ahead.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, and it is good to see my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the team on the Front Bench. I have been fortunate enough to work in all four corners of this great Union—and Cornwall; my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) is no longer in his place. We have fought shoulder to shoulder for freedom and democracy all over the world, not least at Waterloo and the landing beaches of Normandy. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be foolish to let this great and successful Union fall apart on a whim, with the aid of the likes of Mel Gibson? Should there not be a legislated timeframe—say, 25 years—before another referendum can be held?

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent and, as always, good-humoured point. People across Scotland want both their Governments to be working together and focusing their attention and resources on the issues that matter to them, not talking about yet another independence referendum.

I am delighted to see the Ministers in their places. Cross-border transport links are essential for strengthening the Union and connecting people across the United Kingdom. Yesterday I had a positive and productive meeting with the Ministers at the Scotland Office to see how we can push forward the extension of the Borders railway. Campaigners hope that the UK Government will soon give the green light to the next steps of the plan and consider extending the railway to Hawick, Newcastleton and on to Carlisle. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are committed to moving that project forward as soon as possible?

I know that my hon. Friend has been a great champion on this issue. I can confirm that the Department for Transport has been working closely with Transport Scotland and the Borderlands Partnership on development of the evidence behind a possible extension of the Borderlands railway, following commitments made in the Borderlands inclusive growth deal. The DFT will continue to work closely with all parties and is considering the next steps.

I wonder how the Minister thinks the Government’s repeated and increasingly blatant disregard for the Sewel convention helps to strengthen the Union.

Again, I refer the hon. Member to my earlier answers. If he would like to meet me, I am more than happy to discuss the issue with him at greater length.

Civil Service: Apprenticeship Opportunities

As announced in the civil service apprenticeships strategy, we are committed to 5% of total civil service headcount being apprentices by 2025. Some 47,490 apprentices have been recruited since April 2016, with 78% of those being outside London. We will provide entry and progression routes within a range of careers and professions for new and existing staff.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I welcome the fact that hundreds of civil service jobs have moved to the north from London as part of our levelling-up drive. It is important to the north that the maximum potential is released by that move. To achieve that, can the Minister assure me that apprenticeship opportunities will be available alongside the move?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I can give him that assurance. We want civil service apprenticeship levels to grow in line with the local civil service workforce in every region of the UK. As I say, some 78% of our apprentices are outside London. In Yorkshire alone, we have already created 3,800 apprenticeship opportunities since 2016. That is good news for the apprentices, good news for Yorkshire and good news for our public service.

The Government have moved 933 jobs from London to Scotland since March 2020. The Cabinet Office’s Glasgow HQ is set to more than double its presence by 2025. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that, within this relocation, a proportionate number of high-quality apprenticeships are made available in Glasgow?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I agree that it is great news that the Cabinet Office, among other Government Departments, is relocating jobs to Scotland. We have a hub in Glasgow; the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and many other Departments also have a Scottish hub. That is good news. I have been assured that our UK apprenticeship programmes are available across the UK, and I believe that we are in dialogue with the Scottish Government. Where we can work together to provide good apprenticeship opportunities across the public sector, that must be a good thing.

Reducing Public Sector Fraud

I was so entranced by the brilliant advocate of civil service jobs in Scotland, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), that I had forgotten my old friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). I apologise to him and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The Cabinet Office co-hosts the new Public Sector Fraud Authority with His Majesty’s Treasury. It will work with public bodies to better understand and reduce the impact of fraud against the public sector. In its first year, it will deliver £180 million in outcomes and agree targets with other public bodies. I hope that was worth waiting for.

It was well worth waiting for; I warmly welcome the Paymaster General to his place.

There is a lot of commonality between different types of public sector fraud and between public sector fraud and regular consumer fraud. Often, there are the same professional enablers, there can be the same criminal gangs, and of course, there are the same routes out for money laundering. Can he reassure me that he and his Department will continue to seek every possible synergy between what different Departments are doing, and between the Government and law enforcement?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct; I know he speaks from significant experience from his time in the Home Office. Tackling fraud is clearly critical. The Government work closely with the private sector to share threats, tools and practices. As an example, the Public Sector Fraud Authority’s national fraud initiative has developed pilots to use its data to help to find fraud in other sectors. The NFI assists utility companies and car hire and insurance sectors. Between April 2020 and March 2022, its work resulted in savings of £33 million.

Public Spending: Value for Money

I assure the hon. Gentleman that our Treasury colleagues hold us all to account in ensuring that value for money is secured. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority provides advice and assurance specifically on the Government major projects portfolio. It supports robust project cost estimates and builds delivery capacity and capability. Its 2022 annual report sets out the progress made across the GMPP.

Under the Conservatives’ crony approach to public spending, taxpayers’ money has been unforgivably and irresponsibly wasted. During the pandemic, a staggering £9 billion was spent on personal protective equipment that was written off, £2.6 billion was spent on items that were not even suitable for the NHS, and a whole series of contracts just happened to be awarded to friends of Tory donors. Can the Minister explain why the principles of

“public good, value for money, transparency, integrity, fair treatment of suppliers and non-discrimination”

are not in the Procurement Bill as promised in the Government’s Green Paper?

The hon. Gentleman talks about what happened during the pandemic. I remind him what it was like. Opposition Members were constantly saying that we needed PPE in hospitals and we needed it yesterday. They were right to demand it and the Government were right to deliver it. They stretched every sinew and our brilliant civil service did an enormous amount of work and good to get the PPE where it was required during the pandemic.

The hon. Gentleman raises a point about the Procurement Bill, which we will soon be able to scrutinise in this place. He will welcome, as I do, the fact that it will bring greater uniformity in regulations across Government and greater transparency across Government in terms of pipelines, and it will give more opportunities to small and medium-sized enterprises to exploit the many benefits of Government procurement.

What work has been done across Government to look at the temperatures at which public buildings are heated this winter, and in the longer term can more be done to improve the energy performance of these buildings?

I will have to get back to my right hon. Friend on the details of that. I am afraid I do not know whether that specific work has been undertaken, but he raises a good point that, given the costs of energy, we should all be cognisant of that cost and particularly—giving value for taxpayers—ensure that we in government are doing our utmost to be as efficient and effective as we can be in the delivery of high-quality services.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) highlighted the fact that, during the pandemic, we saw the Government ignore qualified companies and use its VIP lane to give their friends enormous contracts. This does all have consequences. Meanwhile, Social Enterprise UK found that, between 2010 and 2020, the UK may have missed out on £700 billion-worth of economic, social and environmental opportunities. This is not value for money. Far too often, small businesses end up at the back of the queue for public contracts behind big corporations that have an army of PR staff and flashy websites. So will the Minister cut the red tape, and create a fairer, more transparent and streamlined procurement process that gives all our small businesses a fighting chance?

Yes, I will. May I welcome the hon. Lady to, I believe, her first Dispatch Box performance? It is good to see her on the Front Bench. If I may say so, where we can we try to work together across the Floor, and I think there is commonality of view that we need to cut red tape, to reduce regulation and to give the maximum opportunity to small businesses across the country to access procurement. I hope that she and her team will be welcoming the Procurement Bill when it arrives in this place. [Interruption.] She is going to wait to see it. That is perfectly reasonable, and she will be very impressed when she does. It will increase transparency, reduce regulation and, I am certain, increase opportunities for smaller companies.

Food Security

14. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure adequate contingency planning for food security in the context of the (a) cost of living crisis and (b) market unpredictability. (901893)

The hon. Lady is right that the disruption to supply chains caused by covid and Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine poses challenges to food security the world over. The UK does have a high degree of food security, and my Department works closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and industry figures to monitor food supply. I can reassure her that we remain well equipped to deal with situations that may cause disruption. Indeed, our food security strategy sets out a plan to transform our food system to ensure it is resilient and fit for the future.

I thank the Minister for that response, although I notice he did not mention the cost of living crisis, which was mentioned in my question. In the past week, both the former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, and Henry Dimbleby, the author of the national food strategy, have called for Cobra to be involved and to look at the extent of food poverty in this country, particularly given rising food prices. Will the Minister support that suggestion and, if not, what will his team do to ensure there is cross-governmental co-operation on tackling this issue?

I hope the hon. Lady heard from the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday his commitment to showing compassion in this area, and it is certainly something that is very important to me as well. Of course, I will take my duties as Cabinet Office co-ordinator and as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to include ensuring that we take a co-ordinated approach to that. The Government have spent many billions of pounds supporting the most vulnerable, such as the over £200 billion through the welfare systems in 2022-23, including £108 billion to people of working age, but I will continue to take action to make sure we help the most vulnerable.

The latest Office for National Statistics figures show that half of adults are buying less food as a result of the cost of living crisis. Earlier this year, farmers slammed the Government for being “blasé” about food security following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One farmer branded governance from Westminster as shambolic, slow to see problems, slower to react and inadequate when it does. It is the Government’s responsibility to plan and be prepared for sudden shocks, and it is essential for us to have a national resilience strategy, but we have been waiting 14 months for that crucial strategy. I am starting to think its existence is an urban myth. At this time of national crisis, can this month’s Minister explain to the public why the national resilience strategy is permanently at the bottom of the Department’s in-tray? Will that change?

First, I would hope that the hon. Lady heard from my previous answer my personal commitment as Chancellor of the Duchy to ensure this is at the top of the Government’s in-tray. Of course one of the consequences of the invasion of Ukraine is greater food insecurity. That is why the Cabinet Office is taking action to co-ordinate to ensure we address that. However, underlying all this is an inflationary problem. At the absolute heart of the Prime Minister’s commitment as an incoming Prime Minister is making sure that we get a grip of inflation and start to see it fall. If we can start to see it fall, all those pressures will be relieved.

My concern, and that of others, is that this summer of chaos has left a black hole in emergency preparedness, beyond just food strategy—in other emergency resilience planning. This morning the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy concluded in its report that

“no Minister is taking responsibility for”

ensuring the resilience of vital power, transport and communications networks. We have long called for a dedicated Minister of resilience as part of Labour’s three-point plan for a more resilient Britain, learning the lessons from covid. So will the Government now follow our lead and adopt the recommendations of the Joint Committee report, but start with a dedicated Minister responsible for resilience?

In essence, the Cabinet Office is the Department of resilience; it is the cornerstone of my duty as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and indeed the duty of the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. It is absolutely top of our agenda and of course, at a time like this, as we deal with the consequences of the invasion of Ukraine, it is one of the many things we are grappling with and dealing with. So I can give the hon. Lady my complete assurance that that remains at the heart of the Government’s activity. I do not believe we need a specific Minister for resilience, as we are both Ministers for resilience.

Public Services: Reductions

15. Whether the Government plans to make reductions to public services to meet its objective to reduce the number of civil servants by 91,000. (901894)

In recent years the civil service has delivered in the face of unprecedented challenges. This Government are focused on improving efficiency and reducing the cost of public service delivery. The Government are totally committed to delivering high-quality public services and want to do so as effectively and efficiently as possible.

I thank the Minister for his answer. However, such job losses risk even longer backlogs for services such as issuing passports and driving licences—systems that are already in chaos—and they will not even deliver savings to the taxpayer. A new study by economists employed in the Government Department shows that, in addition to the short-term bill for redundancy payments, these plans could drain £3 billion annually from the UK economy and result in the knock-on effect of the loss of 118,000 private sector jobs. With civil servants feeling increasingly overworked and underpaid, should not the Minister drop these reckless proposals?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises that, given what is going on in the world at the moment and the pressures on household incomes, what every person in this country wants is high-quality public services but delivered as effectively and efficiently as possible. He is wrong to assume that just because we have x number of people we need to always keep x number of people. There are innovations we can do, which are common in the private sector, such as the use of digital networks and of AI to support strong delivery of public services. None of these should be ignored or forgotten about as a way of delivering high-quality public services on an efficient and effective basis.

In the summer, there was a number of stories about downgrading the fast-track process for recruiting civil servants. I have always believed we need the best and brightest in the civil service to deliver first-class services. Is that Government policy, or have they had any thoughts about this, because the system has served us very well over many years?

The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that there is always a path into the civil service for people who are high quality; we need really good, high-quality civil servants. That is absolutely our priority. I spoke earlier about apprentices, and my hon. Friend raises an important point regarding fast track. I can assure him we will make certain there are routes into the civil service for the high-quality public servants we all need to deliver high-quality public services.

SMEs: Public Procurement Rules

16. What steps his Department is taking to help improve the (a) transparency and (b) complexity of public procurement rules for small and medium-sized enterprises. (901897)

The Procurement Bill will enable simpler, more flexible procurement processes and increased transparency of planned procurements. These changes will make it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises to compete for and indeed win public contracts.

When it comes to public procurement, I know that it is administratively easier for the Government to award contracts to bigger companies, as that involves a smaller number of contracts with a smaller number of companies. What happens is that SMEs then become subcontractors of those big national organisations but with reduced margins. It would really help local economies if SMEs could bid directly for Government procurement contracts, because that would raise margins at the local level and be a real boost to the local economy.

Not only that: it would increase competition for the contracts, enabling us to have even better delivery of our services on a cost-effective basis. I have good news for my hon. Friend: the most recent stats, for 2020-21, showed that the Government were spending £9 billion indirectly with SMEs and £10 billion directly with SMEs. We are making a lot of progress in opening up procurement, but I assure him that the Procurement Bill will make the pipeline easier and more transparent—there will be one core set of data already in the system—which will enable SMEs to focus on the bid itself. It will also ensure more uniformity across Government regulations and process. That will help SMEs and help level them up.

FOI Requests

17. How many requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 have been denied by his Department citing an exemption under section 35(1)(a) of that Act in each of the last five years. (901899)

Statistics for the requests made under each subsection of section 35 are not held by the Cabinet Office. However, to assist the House, I will share the number of FOI requests refused under the entirety of section 35 in each of the last five years. In 2021, 150 FOI requests were refused. In 2020, there were 142; in 2019, 67; in 2018, 81; and in 2017, 63. Each of those figures represents between just 4% and 6% of total FOI requests made in that year. FOI requests are considered on a case-by-case basis, with information released where it is not exempt.

It is obviously disappointing that the Department does not collect those statistics given that the paragraph in question specifically relates to Government policy. I do not expect an answer today, but perhaps the Minister can write to me on the number of instances when decisions were subject to challenge at either the first-tier tribunal or upper tribunal and how much the Department spent in legal costs defending each challenge.

I thank the hon. Member for his question. I remind him that responses are handled in line with the legislation, which includes applying the relevant exemptions where applicable. Parliament has agreed that certain sensitive information should be protected from disclosure, including information relating to the formulation and development of Government policy. I am however happy to write to him and will try to provide him with as much information as possible.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office sits at the very heart of the British Government, supporting our new Prime Minister to co-ordinate and deliver for the British people. Like the rest of the country, I was deeply moved by public commemorations for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and I am proud of the work undertaken by officials in my Department to co-ordinate those efforts and make them such a success. Of course, planning has already begun for a safe and successful coronation of His Majesty the King in May. I welcome the opportunity to debate with Opposition Members, and indeed Government Members, the issues in my Department.

Constituents involved in the contaminated blood inquiry want to know when the arm’s length body to administer payments will be ready, whether independent legal support will be available for those making claims and, crucially—this is on behalf of the Smiths, whose harrowing evidence was a key part of the inquiry; I ask Ministers to watch it—whether parents who lost children will be included in future compensation schemes. When will we know? These people have waited far too long already.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady on what happened to those people, the suffering they endured and the length of time that they have had to wait. I hope that they can draw some comfort from the fact that interim payments will be made by the end of the week. Of course, that is the beginning of an ongoing process and I do not want to prejudge its outcome, but she raises important points that will be considered as part of the process. I hope to respond positively to all of them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me welcome the newest Ministers who have made it through the revolving door to the Government Front Bench—and may I say that it feels like the Spice Girls versus the Backstreet Boys? When their latest Prime Minister was campaigning in the leadership election—the one before last, that is—he said that reappointing an independent ethics adviser would be one of the first things he would do, but the first things he did were to bring back a Home Secretary a week after she resigned for breaking the ministerial code and an Immigration Minister who admitted that they had acted unlawfully in office. When will there be someone in place to investigate the new Cabinet?

First of all, I welcome the right hon. Lady’s question and her kind words. In fact, as we were discussing previously, we have more in common than people might think: not only are we both gingers, but we both come from good working-class stock and we both rather enjoy a trip to Glyndebourne to see the opera —just to prove that nothing is too good for the working people.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the question of the independent adviser. I have discussed it with the Prime Minister. He will make an announcement shortly and a person will be in place.

I absolutely welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s comments. I listened to him earlier with regard to the Home Secretary. I am sure he heard last night that the former Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Sir Jake Berry), revealed that the Home Secretary was involved in multiple breaches of the ministerial code, that these were really serious and that the Cabinet Secretary had expressed concern. Perhaps the new Minister can tell us what they were, how will they now be investigated and what action will be taken over them. If the Government had an ethics adviser, does he really think they would have sanctioned the return of this Home Secretary?

Once again, to restate it to the right hon. Lady, the Home Secretary did accept that she made errors of judgment in her conduct. That is why she resigned. Of course, the Prime Minister, on appointing her, sought assurances to ensure that that would not happen again. In respect of private advice given by the Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister on making appointments, it has never been the case, under any Administration, that that advice is made public. I would, however, gently say to the right hon. Lady, and to Opposition Members, that this is the third occasion the House has had the opportunity to discuss an issue of process, and I wonder whether it is because they do not want to discuss the strong record of the Home Secretary, whether in tackling migration—

Order. This is topical questions. We had a good love-in at the beginning, but answers are meant to be short and punchy, not a full debate. Laurence Robertson, show us the example.

T5. On the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s replacement of electronic countermeasures, can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster advise me on whether that process has reached the end? If it has not, will he reconsider the bids that were made by a number of companies, two of which are in my constituency, which do not feel that the process was carried out as thoroughly, in terms of investigations, as it might have been? (901906)

This is a matter for the FCDO, as my hon. Friend will understand, but I am informed that its view is that the correct procedures have been followed and that it determined that both suppliers failed to satisfactorily provide answers and documentation following classification questions. The existing procurement remains in compliance with all procurement regulations and will, I am informed, be concluded within the original timeframe outlined.

T2. Doncaster Sheffield airport is part of our critical national infrastructure, both as a major regional economic asset and as a base to emergency and national security services. Despite the risk to those essential services, it is due to close within days. Will the Minister meet me and other hon. Members to discuss how the Government could step in to save the airport if the owners refuse to sell, including through the use of their powers under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004? (901902)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are always keen to see thriving regional enterprises. This matter has been discussed frequently in the House, and I refer her back to the debate earlier this week and what the Minister said.

T6. As you know, Mr Speaker, the National Cyber Force is to be located in Lancashire, which is a great boost for local high-skilled jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to level up the country, it is important that young people can gain the skills and qualifications that they need locally to feed into those high-skilled jobs? (901907)

I know what a strong champion my hon. Friend is for the National Cyber Force in Samlesbury. Thanks to the efforts of her and others, 6,000 jobs were created just last year and more than 52,000 people are now employed in cyber-security. Crucially, more than half of them are outside London and the south-east.

T3. Further to the comments on the Home Secretary, we have learned today from reports in the media that she was the subject of an inquiry by the Cabinet Office security group and MI5 in January into security leaks. Given what we have heard about the circumstances of her resignation, this would surely be the time to reopen that inquiry, both to give the security services confidence in her and, actually, for the Home Secretary’s sake. (901904)

The hon. Lady, as a former colleague of mine in Downing Street during the coalition days, will remember that we do not ever comment on issues in relation to the security services. However, in all leak inquiries, as she may recall, everyone is interviewed, so I would not read too much into some of those reports.

Poor mental health costs the economy £118 billion per annum, obesity-related diseases cost the NHS £6.5 billion every year and ill health in England’s most deprived communities costs £30 billion, yet schemes that would improve the nation’s wellbeing and reduce those sums are scattered across Whitehall Departments and buried low down in their priorities. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how his Department can lead a wellbeing strategy to improve the physical, mental and economic health of the nation?

I know my hon. Friend’s passionate commitment to that cause, and I would be delighted to meet her to discuss it.

T7. If a civil servant were to use their private email to send confidential Government business, they would rightly be expected to face the harshest penalties and lose their security clearance. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that reappointing the Home Secretary just six days after she made significant breaches of the ministerial code in that way smacks of having one rule for them and another for our hard-working civil servants? (901908)

The Home Secretary has accepted that her conduct was not acceptable. That is precisely why she resigned and accepted that responsibility. However, I have to say that Labour Members’ obsession with a mistake for which she has apologised stands in stark contrast to their failure to answer questions on crime or immigration. That says it all about their priorities for the British people.

If an election result is declared and challenged, it can ultimately be settled in the High Court. If an election result is declared and a genuine mistake is spotted, even with the agreement of the returning officer and all the candidates, the only option to correct it is through the High Court, causing delay, great expense and distress. Will that anomaly be looked at by Ministers and corrected?

Once again, my hon. Friend demonstrates his in-depth knowledge of electoral issues. He raises a very important point; I will take advice on that and look into whether there is something that we can do.

Will the Minister do a root-and-branch review of the transparency of publications by the Government on ministerial hospitality received? Quite often, those lists are not even an accurate list of Ministers, let alone an accurate list of the hospitality that they have received. Why is it that ordinary Members of Parliament have to register and publish any hospitality that they receive within 28 days, whereas if someone is a Minister, they never have to provide all the details and it does not get published for at least nine or sometimes 12 months?

I am happy to look into the points that the hon. Gentleman raises. The standards of transparency in this country—and indeed, that have been introduced under this Government—are some of the highest in the world, but I will look into that.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to having move civil servants outside London. Leicestershire is a perfect place for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; we have a rural community, with big farming and concern for the environment. I would be surprised—amazed, actually—if Ministers had not heard about the campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) to bring DEFRA right to the heart of England. Is that something the Cabinet Office would support?

I hear a proper call from a Leicestershire MP for Leicestershire’s values to be recognised. It would not be for me to make determinations for DEFRA, but I wish my hon. Friend well in his campaign.

I wonder whether we might give Ministers a second chance and see whether one of them can explain what they understand the principles of the Sewel convention to be, and whether nowadays they are more easily observed in their breach than in their application.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as I am sure he realises, we will not normally legislate on a matter that involves the Scottish Parliament or another devolved Administration without consulting the devolved institution and letting it pass a legislative consent motion. I am sure that will continue. If he has any issues with any particular case, he is welcome to come and speak to us about it.

The inquiry into food security by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has identified a major problem, which is that British farmers who want to produce more food do not have good access to the right amounts of nitrogen fertiliser. As part of the Government’s resilience work, can Ministers look across Government at what more we can do to ensure access to the fertiliser that British farmers need to produce British food for British consumers?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point that I will take away. He is probably more of a farming expert than I am, but I believe we have already loosened some of the requirements in relation to fertilisers. However, it may well be that there is more to do.

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will have impacts that require a dedicated and well resourced workforce like the civil service to deliver its goals and prevent complications. What assessment have Ministers made of headcounts to ensure project deliverability?

We will always make certain that we have the right resources and the right civil service support to ensure that we continue to govern appropriately and that laws passed by this place and the other place are put into effect.

The Financial Conduct Authority has found that 13% of all people in Northern Ireland are finding it difficult to keep up with bills or loan repayments. Can the Minister reaffirm the commitment to maintaining support for the Northern Irish economy during this very difficult period?

Absolutely. There are problems across the UK, and indeed globally, and we are very mindful of supporting our citizens right across our United Kingdom.