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Commons Chamber

Volume 724: debated on Thursday 8 December 2022

House of Commons

Thursday 8 December 2022

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Winter Preparedness

9. What steps his Department is taking to support the operation of public services during the winter months. (902668)

The Cabinet Office has well-established processes to support Departments and their sectors to ensure the effective delivery of key services over the winter. They are underpinned by comprehensive risk assessments and contingency plans for a wide range of risks, including industrial action and severe weather. The national resilience framework will be the first iteration of our new strategic approach. It will strengthen the systems, structures and capabilities that underpin the UK’s resilience to all risks.

The UK’s power supply is already stretched to breaking point, with the National Grid telling us that blackouts are now a very real possibility. Over the next few days, temperatures are expected to drop to well below freezing. A blackout in those circumstances could be catastrophic for the most vulnerable in our society. Will the Minister urgently explain to my vulnerable constituents what they should do to remain safe and warm in the event of a power blackout during freezing cold temperatures?

The hon. Gentleman raises two important points. First, in respect of the winter weather, the Cabinet Office is keeping a close eye on it. Indeed, I have been briefed on the situation. On the wider situation in relation to energy supply, I am working closely with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). He and I have strong confidence about the resilience of the UK power networks and, excepting a very exceptional circumstance, we are confident that we will continue to supply throughout the winter.

As we approach the peak of winter planning, I would be most grateful if my right hon. Friend set out the role of the Cabinet Office in ensuring that Government Departments are properly co-ordinated, in both their communications and their actions, with local resilience forums and local authorities.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is the central role of the Cabinet Office. We continually watch for emerging risks, and support Departments and their sectors to develop contingency plans for a wide range of scenarios. My officials work closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to share intelligence on those risks with local authorities.

During the winter, severe weather or any emergency, the British people rely on the Government to be more prepared and better ready to respond than they were for covid. The national resilience strategy was promised in last year’s integrated review and then promised again for the autumn. Then we had the summer of ministerial chaos. Autumn is over, winter is definitely here, and the Minister has just promised a new approach on emergencies. Can he tell us when to expect this very important strategy?

The short answer to the hon. Lady’s question is imminently. I have cleared the framework and it is receiving cross-Government agreement. I hope to publish it very shortly. I would, however, like to reassure her that that is not the only thing we are doing. We have already completed three out of the seven initial deliverables. I will chair the first meeting of the UK resilience forum early in the new year.

Winter has finally arrived and, despite the Minister’s confidence, the UK’s energy resilience is about to be tested. Scotland is rich in energy, but far too many people are living in the grip of fuel poverty and will not be able to turn their heating on. Immediate devolution of policy would be fantastic, but failing that, can the Minister tell me what his Department is actually doing to ensure that families will not be without power this winter? What contingency plans are in place and what are they? What advice will the Government be issuing to people, should the worst happen?

We continually test our plans and our resilience. As I set out in response to a previous question, barring a very exceptional circumstance, the Business Secretary and I have confidence in our power networks. The hon. Gentleman asks what the United Kingdom Government are doing. I gently say to him that it is because of the strength of our United Kingdom that we have been able to provide over £50 billion-worth of support for families up and down the country to keep their energy bills under control this winter. An independent Scotland simply would not have that kind of firepower.

National Infrastructure: Cost

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority supports projects to develop robust cost estimates and the capability to deliver effectively. The IPA published the “Transforming Infrastructure Performance” road map last year, which supports a step change in the construction sector to embrace modern methods of construction.

I thank the Minister for that response. As well as getting value for money, with all our infrastructure projects can we make sure that all housing developments and new businesses get the infrastructure they need?

Absolutely; it is critical for all our infrastructure projects that we have comprehensive support for the expansion of the economy and prosperity. By their nature, our major infrastructure projects support the whole of the United Kingdom, levelling up and our people, whether that is at a local level—to which my hon. Friend refers—or through our large-scale projects such as the Dreadnought programme, on the defence of the country, or the school rebuilding programme, which will inspire students for decades to come.

Veterans: Support

The Government are committed to ensuring that our veterans and their families have the support that they need to thrive in civilian life. The Government have established the first UK Office for Veterans’ Affairs and the first Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, who attends Cabinet. As part of the role, the Minister will deliver the veterans strategy action plan, which sets out 60 cross-Government commitments that will make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran by 2028.

The Minister will know that the all-party group on veterans is leading on a bespoke survey of the experiences of veterans when they deal with Veterans UK. Will the Minister commend that survey, alongside the OVA’s survey, and undertake to take our findings seriously? Does he agree that we must leave no stone unturned in all Government Departments to make sure that our veterans get the best possible support?

Certainly, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his campaigning, as well as the work of the APPG and the survey that it has put out on Veterans UK. I have been clear—my position has been unchanged over the years—that there are good people working at Veterans UK. That part of Government has been underinvested in by Governments of all colours over many years, and too many people have an experience that is not acceptable. We are working on that. A £44 million investment in digitising Veterans UK will see a significant improvement in its service, but this is an ongoing conversation. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to make sure that we deliver the service that we all want for our veterans.

Support for our veterans is not just appreciated, but absolutely vital for the physical and mental wellbeing of our ex-servicemen and women. We are well represented in Blyth Valley, with the Royal British Legion in Blyth and in Cramlington, but we also have the Forward Assist organisation in Dudley, which offers support for services and campaigns such as “Salute Her” and its “One Stop” café. I recently had the privilege to meet up with veteran Jack Hearn as he celebrated his 100th birthday. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Jack a belated happy birthday and thanking those organisations for the great work that they do on a daily basis?

Of course I wish Jack a happy birthday, and I pay tribute to “Salute Her” and the many people involved in third sector provision across the country, who work tirelessly to support our veterans. The Government are committed to building an ecosystem of veterans care that works with them to make sure that we all work together and realise our country’s responsibility to our veterans.

It is welcome news that the Commonwealth veteran who was medically discharged from service and returned to Fiji can settle in the UK and access medical care. That is thanks to the new waiver on visa fees for non-UK service personnel, for which the Minister and I long campaigned. Does he agree that those who travel here to put on a uniform and serve our country deserve our support, and that we should do everything that we possibly can to assist them and their families when they complete their service?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his tireless campaigning on this issue over many years—years before I did—to make sure that our foreign and Commonwealth service personnel are looked after properly. There was a change of policy as result of his campaigning, in terms of waiving visa fees, and he knows that my views will be unchanged whether I am in ministerial office or not. We have a duty to these individuals, and my aims and ambitions do not change. I am determined to keep working with him.

I met Help for Heroes, which has done great work to support veterans and to utilise LIBOR funding, which has now ended. What assessment has the Minister made of potential replacement funding streams to support veterans with the cost of specialist wheelchairs and mobility aids, and what internal discussions have there been about reinstating the veterans mobility fund?

I am well aware that the veterans mobility fund is coming to an end—that project was LIBOR-funded and LIBOR funding has come to an end. We are seeking to replace that with a more sustainable, more evidence-based process that will make sure that we look after the specialist needs that some of our amputees will have. I am absolutely determined that they will see no reduction in service, but will, in fact, see a better service through the understanding of their needs as they progress 10 or 20 years beyond their injury. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member and go through with him what we are looking to do.

Last month, the Minister said that the roll-out of veteran ID cards would be completed by next summer. The Government have said that issuing ID cards to veterans

“will help them access specialist support and services”

where needed, but only 3% of veterans have received an ID card since they were announced nearly four years ago. Can the Minister explain how the remaining 97% will receive an ID card in only a matter of months?

Yes, of course—I am more than happy to explain that to the hon. Lady. The issue is that we have managed to issue veteran ID cards to those who are leaving, because we can easily verify their service. We have never before been able to easily verify the service of veterans in this country; that is why we are investing £44 million in Veterans UK. I am confident that we will achieve the digital success we need early next year, in the spring, and start issuing these cards next summer. I look forward to working with the hon. Lady to make sure we deliver on that.

I note that the Minister says he will “start” delivering rather than complete it, but I welcome his determination to get veteran ID cards finally rolled out. However, making bold statements will not divert from the fact that his Government have failed to deliver for our veterans and their families. Whether it is due to incompetence or to negligence, at the current rate it will take more than 100 years to issue all those veteran ID cards. How does the Minister expect our armed forces communities to believe that the Government will make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran by 2028 when this is the Government’s record?

I am afraid that I just do not accept the premise of the hon. Lady’s question about this Government’s record on veterans. Clearly I came to this place because our veterans provision was not good enough; that has markedly changed since we started campaigning. Of course I accept that there are challenges—there are historical challenges around veteran ID cards—but my experience with the veterans community is that there is no doubt in people’s minds that if we commit to something, we will deliver it. When it comes to ID cards, the hon. Lady is more than welcome to hold me to account in the year ahead.

Government Information Campaigns: Local Media

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Government information campaigns in local media. (902663)

The Government monitor the effectiveness of our communication campaigns. We recognise the enormous trust that the public have in local media and the important role that local media therefore play in spreading our messages. As just one example, a recent press partnership on access to NHS services used local media to inform the public about where to seek medical advice. Some 67% of readers said that they trusted the articles, highlighting local print’s importance to communities.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the power of local media in getting vital health messages across, but will he look at ensuring that, as well as local print media, local online-only publishers such as Nub News are included in future campaigns?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about the subject. “All in, all together” harnessed the power of local media and was particularly effective in reaching specific audiences to spread vital information. As he will appreciate, sometimes we want a more targeted approach to get better cost-effectiveness. I should also say that we use OmniGOV, and any local outlet—online or otherwise—that wishes to be on the list can apply by contacting OmniGOV directly.

Civil Service: Recruitment

6. Whether he is taking steps to increase the number of senior civil servants recruited from the private sector. (902664)

We have strengthened the policy of advertising senior civil service jobs externally by default. To increase private sector recruitment and attract a broader range of applicants, new guidance will support Departments working with external search providers to identify new and experienced talent to join our excellent colleagues delivering for the country.

But it is not just about senior civil servants. I think middle-ranking and junior civil servants could also benefit from a fresh influx of the dynamism and different attitudes that people from the private sector may enjoy, so why is my right hon. Friend not chasing those people for middle-ranking civil service positions too?

My hon. Friend is always the very embodiment of dynamism. I absolutely agree: there is a huge amount of talent that we seek, and I am delighted to say that our focus is not just on the senior civil service. We wish to go and get the very best all the way through. Our apprenticeship schemes have been launched for the next three years, and we want to have 5% of the entire civil service formed of apprentices. That is yet another example of how we are reaching out to all starters to make certain that we get the very best talent.

Infected Blood: Support

The Government ensured that all infected and bereaved partners who are registered on the UK support schemes received an interim payment of £100,000 in October, thus meeting Sir Brian Langstaff’s interim recommendation in full. That builds on support already provided, but I want to make it absolutely clear that those interim payments are the start and not the end of this process. Work continues.

As my right hon. Friend knows, there are thousands of victims of this historic blood scandal up and down the country. I know from some of my constituents just how traumatic that is, and how hard they have been campaigning, for a long time, to right what we recognise as an historic wrong. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is critical for the Government to be ready to respond to the Langstaff report as soon as possible?

It is indeed critical, and we commissioned the compensation framework study to ensure that we could be ready to respond quickly to the inquiry’s recommendations. It was a pleasure to meet the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, from whom we may hear shortly. Work is ongoing, and I hope to give the House a further update as soon as possible on how that work is progressing and how we will continue to take it forward.

I thank the Paymaster General for meeting the Father of the House and me last week. May I remind him how difficult it has been to build trust with this group of people who have been infected and affected and have been treated so badly over so many decades? The Government promised a statement to the House in response to the review by Sir Robert Francis KC of the framework for compensation. Can the Paymaster General specify a date on which we will be given that statement?

Let me first acknowledge all the tireless work done by campaigners—those infected and those affected—and by those who supported them in the House and outside, including the right hon. Lady and the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). These are dreadful circumstances, and we are determined to be ready for Langstaff’s report, which, presumably, will be published midway through next year. That is why Sir Robert Francis was commissioned to undertake his study.

I think that, in part, our actions in making the interim payment—thus meeting the interim recommendations in full—speak for themselves, but I understand the right hon. Lady’s point. I look forward to updating the House as soon as possible about the work we have done and will continue to do, and to updating it further on the progress towards the completion of Langstaff’s report.

Government Estate: Running Costs

Since 2010 the size of the central general purpose estate has been reduced by 30%, which has cut annual running costs by £1.6 billion. The “Government Property Strategy 2022-2030”, published in August, commits us to making further estate operating cost savings of £500 million by 2025 by relocating London roles, co-locating in multi-agency hubs, and selling surplus property.

The German Government have limited temperatures in public buildings to 19°C. Double that and add 30, and it is a balmy 68° in English money. We could put on an extra layer and do a lot better, couldn’t we?

I feel that my right hon. Friend could survive in sub-19°C temperatures without an extra layer, but, as he will know, the Health and Safety Executive issues advice on temperatures in workplaces. Regulations suggest that the minimum temperature for indoor working should be at least 16°C, or 13° where rigorous physical effort is required. We have the flexibility to take that action, should we wish to do so.

Could use be made of empty Government properties? Given that bitterly cold weather is hitting the UK with a vengeance this week, have the Minister and the Cabinet Office considered making properties in city centres available to provide warm and dry places for those who are struggling with homelessness?

As ever, the hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, and if he has any specific buildings in mind, I shall be happy to meet him to discuss it.

GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland Campaign

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland Campaign in encouraging investment in the UK. (902670)

The GREAT campaign has been highly effective in promoting the United Kingdom around the world for the past 10 years. In the last year alone, it has attracted more than £60 million of foreign investment, and has helped to generate more than £400 million from international students and a potential further £600 million of export investment and tourism returns.

I recently campaigned for part of my constituency to be an investment zone, and I was pleased when the council put forward Torpoint and Liskeard. What are the Government’s current plans for the proposed investment zones, as a lot of work was put into these proposals?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I pay tribute to her tireless work in promoting her constituency and the wider county of Cornwall. The Government are committed to supporting local growth and to levelling up areas across the country, including the south-west and Cornwall. As the Chancellor announced in his autumn statement, the Government intend to take forward a refocused investment zone programme. We will shortly announce further details.

Government Hubs

I am delighted to confirm that good progress is being made on the Government hubs programme. Phase 1 has been completed by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, delivering 14 hubs across the UK, including two in Scotland and one each in Wales and Northern Ireland. Phase 2, led by the Government Property Agency, opened one hub last year in Birmingham, and further hubs are currently being delivered outside London in locations such as Bristol, Stoke and Peterborough.

York has long been promised a Government hub—indeed, it was once promised the House of Lords, as the Minister might remember—but we have not yet seen the Government’s proposals. The hub’s nature and size seem to keep changing. Will he meet me to talk about the Government’s proposal and to ensure it can be co-produced so that it not only benefits the civil service but benefits York?

I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that. The Cabinet Office is committed to growth in York, and Cabinet Office jobs, including in United Kingdom Security Vetting, are likely to move to a new hub in York in 2027. We are actively considering options on the location, and we will update the House in due course.

Public Spending: Value for Money

The Cabinet Office and His Majesty’s Treasury publish mandatory standards, such as the Green Book commercial standards, enforced through central controls and training. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority shapes the work of Government and, from last year, the Evaluation Task Force is helping to ensure value for money. In its first year, the taskforce advised 169 programmes covering £82 billion of spend.

Under the Conservative Government’s crony approach to public spending, taxpayers’ money has been irresponsibly and unforgivably wasted. Some £9 billion was spent on PPE and written off, with £2.6 billion spent on items not suitable for the NHS. Does the Minister agree that the Prime Minister, who oversaw that waste when he was Chancellor, should not only hang his head in shame but go after the money and get it back?

In the Cabinet Office, through the Public Sector Fraud Authority, we have an extremely effective body targeted at going after fraud where it happens. It is an unfortunate reality that any Government who do a lot are prey to fraudsters. We will always tackle and go after fraud, which is exactly what this Government are doing.

Civil Service: Industrial Relations

The Cabinet Office is not the employer of all civil servants, and Departments are responsible for engaging with recognised trade unions at departmental and local level. The Public and Commercial Services Union is currently in dispute with a number of civil service employers and has called for strike action in several Departments. We remain open to continued dialogue to bring about a resolution.

Following a ballot of more than 150,000 civil servant PCS members, a massive 86.2% voted for strike action on pay, pensions, job cuts and redundancy terms. The strikes will start next week at the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency, National Highways and the Rural Payments Agency. Does the Minister accept that responsibility for this situation lies firmly with his Government for imposing an insulting pay deal of just under 3%—a substantial real-terms pay cut—amid a cost of living crisis?

As the hon. Lady said, 214 ballots took place and 124 hit the relevant thresholds for strike action. That is something I greatly regret, because it will impact the citizens of this country and how they go about their day-to-day work. We will do our utmost to mitigate that and protect the people from the impact of those strikes, but they should not be taking place and I very much regret that they are. I hope that the hon. Lady and this House will recognise that with inflation at 11%, providing an 11% increase across the public sector would equate to about £28 billion—just under £1,000 per household. So I really regret that the unions have felt it necessary to take this action. Our door remains open; we would like to speak to them. We would rather that this was not taking place, but we have to be realistic about the constraints on public expenditure at present.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. With workers in 124 Government departments and public bodies now having that mandate for strike action, a responsible Government would get around the table for meaningful talks with the civil service trade unions. Is that happening? Will the Minister explain how the Government intend to avoid the widespread disruption, and how they plan to bring forward a fair deal on pay, investment in jobs and an end to the attack on terms and conditions for civil service workers?

We will do our utmost to ensure that public services continue and that the public do not suffer as a result of these strikes, although inconvenience is inevitable when strike action of this nature takes place. I regret that it is taking place. I hope that the workers involved will not go on strike and will continue to work in the public interest. We really value the work and the services they do, but there has to be a recognition that the scale of demands being made on us is not affordable for the taxpayer at this time. That is sad, but it is a fact.

Public Procurement

15. What progress the Government have made on enshrining in law the public good, value for money, transparency, integrity, fair treatment of suppliers and non-discrimination as principles of public procurement. (902678)

The Procurement Bill, which will be debated on Third Reading in the other place on 13 December, enacts the principles set out in the “Transforming public procurement” Green Paper. Through the combination of objectives set out in clause 12 and specific rules, we will provide clarity to contracting authorities and suppliers about how they should implement the principles.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Billions of pounds in covid contracts were handed to those with links to top Tories through the so-called VIP lanes, and much of it was for equipment that was simply unusable, yet the Government’s new Procurement Bill is so full of loopholes that all this could happen again. To help clamp down on this, will the Minister now back putting a new clawback clause in the Bill, so that in future we can get the money back from those who rip off the public?

I very much look forward to debating that Bill when it comes to this place, including with the hon. Gentleman. I remind the House that the Bill gives this country the opportunity to rewrite procurement in this country, which we could not have done while we were in the European Union, making it more advantageous to our public services and our businesses, and better for the public.

We have seen in eye-watering detail this week the price the taxpayer pays when the Government lose control of procurement during a crisis and panic: billions spent on unusable personal protective equipment written off; millions spent on storing that PPE; and millions pocketed by greedy shell companies that failed to deliver. The Government have a responsibility to uphold basic standards and, especially in an emergency, to restore normal controls as soon as possible, so can the Minister explain why the Procurement Bill hands Ministers more power over direct awards than ever before?

The Bill sets out a new paradigm for public services to procure in this country. It will move us away from “most economically advantageous” tender to “most advantageous” tender. That means we will be able to take account of things such as transparency, social responsibility and fairness in a way that was not possible under EU legislation.

Civil Service: Apprenticeships

17. What steps his Department is taking to increase apprenticeship opportunities in the civil service. (902681)

We launched our new three-year civil service apprenticeship strategy back in April 2022. The civil service is committed to having 5% of staff as apprentices by 2025, and we have already recruited more than 3,600 new apprentices for the first half of this financial year.

In Southend, the brilliant South Essex College works in close partnership with our equally brilliant Essex chamber of commerce to maximise apprenticeship opportunities across Southend. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the civil service could learn from this excellent example of public-private partnership to increase apprenticeships in the new powerhouse that is the city of Southend?

It is always a pleasure to hear the city of Southend referred to in this place; it brings back happy memories of our friend.

The private sector in Southend West does a brilliant job of promoting apprenticeships, with South Essex College working with the Essex chamber of commerce. I am sure that there are things we can learn. We are determined to progress our own plans for apprentices. They are going well and we can take them forward, but if my hon. Friend has any tips, I would be delighted to meet her and discuss what is happening in the city of Southend.

The Cabinet Office already runs a care leavers’ apprenticeship scheme, which is very welcome, but many care leavers are unable to afford to get on the housing ladder and rent their first property, because they are not able to access a deposit. Will the Minister share the experience and expertise of the Cabinet Office in supporting care leavers across Government? It is sometimes awkward for care leavers to interact with Health, Education and Work and Pensions systems, for example, and they are not able to rely on the financial support of parents, especially in renting their first property. Will the Minister agree to meet me and care leavers from Plymouth to discuss what best practice can be shared so that every care leaver can have the best possible start in adulthood?

That is an interesting idea. I am more than happy to agree to meet the hon. Gentleman and to hear what he has to say, and we will take it from there.

Topical Questions

Last week, in response to the King’s message, this House passed the Counsellors of State Bill. I thank all Members of the House who ensured that that legislation was passed in a timely and efficient manner. The Cobra unit and the wider Cabinet Office continues to co-ordinate Government activity to ensure resilience, particularly with respect to industrial action and winter pressures. This Government will stand up for hard-working people and do all they can to minimise disruption to their lives and their livelihoods.

This month marks the first anniversary of the National Cyber Security Strategy. The cyber threat is real; Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has led to a significant increase in the tempo of Russian cyber-attacks. Just last year, there were 2.7 million cyber-related frauds. Our dedicated experts in the National Cyber Security Centre stopped more than 2 million attacks last year, and I wish to place on record my thanks to them and to officials across the Cabinet Office who will continue to work over Christmas to help keep this country safe.

I have tried before, as have others, but we have not really had an answer, so I will give it another go. The UK has written off £10 billion of spending on personal protective equipment that was either unusable, above market value or not even delivered. Alongside that, and perhaps not unrelated to it, we have seen VIP contract lanes for Tory pals and cronies. Who does the Secretary of State think should be held accountable for this colossal waste of money? From where I am standing, there is no reason why anyone can ever trust this Government to deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

I have to say to the hon. Lady that this is an extraordinary exercise in hindsight from the SNP. It should remember the pressure that the state and the country were under at the time of the crisis, and the Government responded effectively to it. That is not just my view, but the view of the Office for Budget Responsibility, which said:

“Those potential costs—

of not acting with such speed—

“ cannot be quantified with any precision, but…it is not unreasonable to think that they could have been far greater.” Of course the Government are taking action to deal with that. For example, we have stopped more than £700 million of overclaimed grants, but she must understand the context.

T2.   The previous Minister for Government efficiency, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), visited Wrexham to discuss its potential under the Places for Growth programme, with a view to locating a civil service Ministry of Justice hub in the city. Will the Minister please give me an update? (902685)

As my hon. Friend mentions, the Government Property Agency is in dialogue with the Cabinet Office’s Places for Growth programme team to identify the possible demand for relocating civil service roles to Wrexham. Discussions are ongoing in a number of regions and cities across the country; I am sure she will understand that, until further commercial negotiations are concluded and Departments have informed staff, Government hub locations cannot be confirmed. However, I can confirm that future locations are under active consideration.

I am here to spread the message that gingers are for life, not just for Christmas—with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as well, of course.

Christmas came early for those on the VIP fast-track lane to get contracts. Many hon. Members on the Opposition Benches are trying to get to the bottom of that and are very frustrated, as are the public. Billions of pounds were wasted and only those suppliers pushed by Conservative MPs and peers got on that VIP fast-track lane. Why are this Government protecting that fast-track lane and not dealing with it in the Procurement Bill while at the same time telling public sector workers to take a real-terms pay cut? That is galling in the public’s eye.

First, in the spirit of consensus, I welcome the right hon. Lady’s jumper and, as a fellow ginger, wholly endorse the sentiments on it.

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that I am a strawberry blond; I will take that as about the only compliment I will ever receive from him.

It is not just the jumper that reminds me of Christmas; the repeat question from the Labour party does too. I believe Labour raised it in an urgent question on Tuesday and with the Prime Minister yesterday. I am happy to state again, first, that it was not the case that there was a fast track through: 90% of offers referred through that route were unsuccessful. The high-priority lane was established at a time when many required urgent help, and was subject to proper processes. This was all—

Order. Look, I know there are problems with not enough Members in and I know people have been told to go long, but this is topical questions. I cannot say on Monday, “Oh, we have to be short today, because there are lots of Members.” We cannot pick and choose. I am working by the rules of the House and we will continue to do so.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster mentions the Prime Minister’s response yesterday. The Prime Minister said he was “shocked” to hear the allegations, but the Government have known for 10 months and have been dodging our questions on the murky contracts because they are in a so-called mediation process. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell me today what progress has been made on the mediation? Will he commit to publishing any final settlement, and can he set a firm deadline for how long he is prepared to let this drag on before taking legal action to claw back every single penny of taxpayers’ money?

The right hon. Lady knows we are currently engaged in a mediation process, so it would be wrong for me to comment on the specifics, but we have been very clear that that sort of behaviour is not acceptable. If that is found to have happened, we will not hesitate to take action to recover those moneys.

NHS dentistry faces many challenges, one of which is ensuring that locally based practices have every opportunity to bid for contracts successfully. Can my hon. Friend set out how the Procurement Bill will enable them to do so?

This Government want NHS dental service contracts to be attractive. The intention is that the procurement of healthcare services such as dentistry will be subject to the rules set out under the anticipated provider selection regime as enacted by the Health and Care Act 2022. The Procurement Bill will apply to other services and help to break down barriers for small businesses of all kinds to engage in public sector procurement.

On Tuesday the House passed a motion instructing the Government to release all correspondence relating to the awarding of a multi-million-pound contract with PPE Medpro. That motion went through unopposed, and the papers will be released, but shortly before that the Cabinet Office rejected a similar request from the Good Law Project, saying that disclosure would,

“make it harder for the responsible department to secure a sound financial and contractual basis for the future”,

concluding that,

“the public interest favours withholding this information”.

What changed so dramatically between that reply to the Good Law Project and Tuesday’s debate?

We on the Government side respect the will of the House. That motion was passed and we will comply with its terms.

T4. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), knows that there is a war on. Part of our contribution should be a great national endeavour to cut our energy consumption, should it not? (902687)

A planned communication programme is coming this winter. Maybe we should be looking at the temperature in this House. Ambient though it is, would it not be better if we all had a chance to put on fresh jumpers to keep warm?

T5. As reported on BBC news this morning, tens of thousands of civil servants who are members of the PCS union have balloted overwhelmingly to strike over the coming weeks and months at Border Force, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, National Highways and the Rural Payments Agency. Is the Minister aware that levels of pay and in-work poverty in some areas of the civil service are such that now the Department for Work and Pension’s own staff are themselves increasingly having to claim universal credit? That is a disgrace. What is he going to do about it in terms of increasing the offer? (902688)

As I have already said in this House, I very much regret the decision of those concerned to go on strike. I think it will impact people, and I very much regret that that is the decision taken. The hon. Gentleman will have to accept that there are constraints on the public finances, partly because of the money we are providing to ensure that we try to help people through what we recognise is a very serious point at the moment in terms of their personal finances. That support is available to all, including those on lower incomes—including those who may be choosing to go on strike.

Increasingly, we are living our lives online, whether for banking, shopping, sharing photos or whatever it may be. For many, that is normal, but many of those in our elderly and vulnerable population are doing it for the first time. On Tuesday this week, the all-party parliamentary group on cyber security heard about some of the threats people are facing, the enormous frauds they are leaning into and the money they are losing as a result. Could my right hon. Friend perhaps explain how the national cyber-security strategy is helping to bolster support for those people as they go online for the first time?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. That is actually a key part of the national cyber-security strategy—not just Government work but supporting businesses and individuals in keeping safe online. In addition, I have discussed with the Home Secretary further steps we can take to bring forward offences in relation to fraud.

T6. Party donors such as Clearsprings Ready Homes are making vast profits from the Home Office contracts for accommodation and food for asylum seekers. They are overseeing a murky network of subcontractors who are ripping off the hotels and caterers, and they are generating more than 200 complaints a month. What is the Cabinet Office doing now to ensure value for money and decent standards from those expensive Government contracts? (902690)

I assure the hon. Lady that proper process is undergone in terms of procurement. We always look to make certain that we get value for money for the taxpayer, while, at the same time, having a proper and decent service provided, and we will continue to do so.

Now then. In two weeks’ time, it will be six years to the day since my wife had a life-saving double lung transplant at the Royal Papworth Hospital. But she has to go to the hospital every three or four months for a check-up. She is lucky because she has me to take her on the 100-mile drive to Papworth, but other transplant patients around the country are not so lucky and have to use public transport—the trains. Can somebody on the Front Bench please reassure me about the measures in place to ensure that trains are running so that people who, like my wife, do not have access to a car can get to places such as Papworth Hospital for life-saving treatment?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights some of the terrible consequences of these strikes for individuals. In respect of the RMT dispute, we have already put forward an offer that is in excess of the average wage settlement in the private sector, and I would strongly urge all members taking part in those strikes to think again about the impact that is having on hardworking people up and down this country.

The report of Sir Robert Francis KC on the contaminated blood scandal redress scheme was published on 7 June 2022 and made 19 recommendations. It is, frankly, disgraceful that only one of those recommendations has been followed up on. Constituents of mine, such as Marion Nugent, have been fighting for justice. Can the Minister provide assurances that Marion and individuals like her will not be ignored when the Government finally respond to that inquiry?

That study was conducted for a very specific purpose: to ensure that we are ready to respond to Sir Brian Langstaff’s report, probably in the middle of next year. I concur with the hon. Lady that we need to be ready and able to respond. The fact that we met in full Sir Brian’s interim recommendation of the £100,000 payments was critical. We did that in October. We continue to work, and I hope to update the House further.

Can one of the Ministers advise to what extent the Cabinet Office is involved in negotiations to bring about changes to the Northern Ireland protocol? While we talk a lot about levelling up, there is one area of the United Kingdom being very much disadvantaged by that protocol.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. In terms of engagement on the Northern Ireland protocol, work is ongoing through the Foreign Office, the Foreign Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary, and, as ever, the Cabinet Office plays a role in co-ordinating Government efforts, including in this area.

I chaired yesterday morning perhaps the most moving session I can remember in my 21 years as an MP, when kids with brain injuries talked to MPs about the changes that need to happen. Listening to Victoria, Amelia, Eden, Spike and Oscar, who is just seven years old, talk about their brain injuries and how they have been treated in the health service and in schools was gut-wrenching. They are amazing children, every single one of them, with such confidence. As we create a national strategy for acquired brain injury, will the Cabinet Office and the other Departments that are part of this put all their effort into ensuring that children get an opportunity to prosper, even if they have had a stroke at the age of seven?

I know what a passionate advocate the hon. Gentleman is on acquired brain injuries. He may know that I took a close interest in this when I was Culture Secretary and started gathering evidence in relation to acquired brain injuries in sporting incidents. I wholeheartedly endorse all the points he makes and will make sure the Cabinet Office plays its role.

In the west midlands, our Mayor Andy Street is an excellent ambassador and champion for the region, and he understands why boosting skills and investment really matters, including for businesses in my constituency. How much more could the Government use the GREAT initiative to further boost skills and enterprise right across the country?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. In fact, I met the Mayor of the west midlands just two days ago. We did not have GREAT on the agenda on that occasion, but as the Minister responsible for GREAT, I shall certainly pick up the points she raises.

Do the Government have a view on whether there should be an upper limit to the size of the House of Lords, and if so, what should it be?

The Government do not have a view on the upper limit of the House of Lords. The House of Lords contains a great many with expertise that the hon. Gentleman could learn from.

The planned trade union strikes threaten to disrupt not just Christmas and rail services but essential health services. Southend University Hospital is doing brilliantly in bringing on-stream two new ambulance handover units and a new winter ward. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will put in place contingency plans to ensure that my constituents have access to emergency healthcare at Christmas?

The Cabinet Office is working hard with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we have the best possible contingencies. However, there is only one way we can ensure that this disruption is totally minimised, and that is by calling off this unreasonable strike; I urge the unions to do so.

We are spending £700,000 a day on storing personal protective equipment in China. That is enough to put almost 19,000 children, including those in North Tyneside, in full-time nursery. Does the Minister think this is an efficient use of taxpayers’ money?

That is a decision for the Department of Health and Social Care. I gently remind the hon. Lady that that PPE was required for any reason. To have had access to PPE is helpful. There is a lot of hindsight being applied to the circumstances we found ourselves in at the start of covid. It is obviously right that we maintain sufficient levels of PPE, and it is up to the Department of Health and Social Care to determine where and how it is stored and at what cost.

The city of Lichfield is currently experiencing a huge amount of house building, which happens in other parts of the country too, so I welcome the Government’s decision that the number of houses to be built should be advisory not mandatory. Along with those houses, there is a need for hospitals, schools and leisure centres. What does the Cabinet Office do to co-ordinate all those different Government Departments to ensure that those facilities are available for the extra people who will move into the area?

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the need to ensure that infrastructure goes with development. Clearly, that is led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but the Cabinet Office continues to monitor progress against the agreed goals of that Department and to work closely with it.

What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions about providing support to the 60,000 British military veterans with frozen pensions who live in countries that do not have a reciprocal uprating agreement with the UK?

I have regular conversations with Ministers in the DWP and MOD about the pensions issue. The hon. Lady knows full well the history of the issue where pensions are changed after agreements have been made. We are constantly looking at that and I am more than happy to meet her to discuss where we are.

We are very much looking forward to the opening of our new armed forces hub in Scunthorpe in the new year. I am pleased that the census collected data on who and where our veterans are. Can the Minister say more about the plans of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to use that data to further improve the services that we offer to veterans?

For the first time since the second world war, when people started campaigning to have a question about veterans on the census, that appeared last year. That has given us a real granularity to the data around veterans, which we can use to formulate our policies and ensure that, wherever they are in the country, their acute needs are met by the third sector and by statutory provision as we make this the best country in the world to be a veteran.

In response to my earlier question, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General said that they were focused on fraud and on taking action. How many police inquiries are ongoing into PPE contract fraud? When can we expect any of the big-time fraudsters to be brought to justice?

I do not think I would be in a position to discuss police inquiries in this place, so I have nothing to say in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question.

As my right hon. Friend will know, veterans are close to my heart, and none more so than the nuclear test veterans. Will he ensure that the £450,000 that we have already invested in projects to commemorate their service will preserve their testimony for years to come?

I pay tribute to all those who campaigned for the nuclear test veterans, who were awarded their medals, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister two weeks ago. We are spending that sum to make sure that we properly capture their experiences. Their duty and their sacrifice for the nation will not be forgotten.

To help and support veterans with additional cold weather payments, has the Department liaised with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that none of our veterans is left shivering in the dark this winter?

None of our veterans should be left shivering in the dark this winter. Cold weather payments and grants from the Royal British Legion are available to support those who are at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives. Help is available if veterans speak up and reach out. Many people are prepared to help them, so no veteran should be cold and suffering this winter.

As we head towards Christmas, my mind turns to the hundreds of hampers of local produce that I will deliver to veterans in Christmas week, which gives me the opportunity to thank them for their service. I come across veterans who feel isolated and often do not know how to access services. Can my right hon. Friend set out the support that is available to veterans who may feel isolated in the run-up to Christmas?

Isolation is a huge challenge for veterans who have left the military, and what we are trying to do in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is build dedicated clear pathways for those who are isolated, homeless or particularly vulnerable. Homelessness is a particular issue around this time of year—veterans are under-represented in the homeless population, but one is one too many—and I will have more to say about this before Christmas.

It is not just Baroness Mone who made obscene profits out of VIP lane-awarded contracts for PPE purchases. Private Eye has long highlighted other companies that made record profits through this process. When are the Government going to review all the contracts awarded through the VIP lane and try to recover money, instead of allowing people to profiteer from the pandemic?

We have made a lot of progress in recovering moneys. For example, our checks prevented over £2 billion of fraud on bounce back loans and we have stopped over £700 million in over-claimed grants. We have invested £100 million to set up a taxpayer protection taskforce, which is expected to recover up to £1 billion by 2022-23.

Marvellous! We did have plenty of time and we have not stopped early, so the Whips need not panic in the future.

Seasonal Worker Visas: Sponsorship Certificates

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on the issuing of certificates of sponsorship for seasonal workers’ visas.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for asking this urgent question. The Home Office recognises the importance of the UK food and drink sector, and the agricultural industry that supplies it. The seasonal agricultural workers scheme exists to support those businesses and ensure that they have the labour they need. The quota for 2022 was 38,000 workers for the edible and ornamental horticulture sector, and a further 2,000 for the poultry sector. That quota has not yet been met, and the Home Office’s management data suggest that about 1,400 places remain.

An announcement on the 2023 scheme is imminent. My Department and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be making that statement very soon. In the meantime, workers already in the United Kingdom under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme can continue to take other work placements and to stay in the UK for up to six months, even if that involves remaining here into 2023. Further workers can avail themselves of the remaining 1,400 certificates and enter the UK this year—even if, again, that means staying into 2023—for the duration of their six-month placement. My Department is committed to supporting this important sector and to working with stakeholders to improve the delivery of schemes such as the one for seasonal agricultural workers.

The seasonal worker visa scheme has been a tremendous success—perhaps one of the most successful Home Office policies in recent years—and this year it has provided about two thirds of the labour needs of the horticultural sector. However, there have been some serious problems with administration. In particular, scheme operators need to be issued with an allocation of certificates of sponsorship now, so that they can recruit people and secure the visas necessary for workers to start in January.

Last year, the Home Office allowed certificates of sponsorship in 2021 to be used as the basis for workers arriving in January 2022. This year, for reasons that have not been properly explained, Home Office officials have taken a decision not to allow that and have made it clear to operators that they cannot use that route. Indeed, I understand that they have closed the ability to issue certificates of sponsorship from the end of November, so that no one at the moment is able to issue them.

There are two legitimate courses of action. One would be to allow the same situation to apply as last year, and enable the remaining certificates of sponsorship for this year to be used for workers arriving in January. The second course of action would be to make a provisional allocation of certificates of sponsorship on the sponsorship management system run by the Home Office. This could be done very easily and would enable operators to recruit staff in the next few weeks.

That is of critical importance to the daffodil industry in my constituency. Daffodil growers currently have around a third of their staff from last year’s scheme, a third of them being settled EU citizens. At the moment they are going to have a gap of between 30% and 40% of their staffing needs, which will be catastrophic for the industry by the end of January. So will the Minister take immediate action directing his officials to put a provisional allocation of certificates for sponsorship on to the Home Office sponsorship management system?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who of course brings more expertise to this issue than anybody in the House. He rightly says that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme has been a success and is an important contributor to the food and drink sector in this country, but he raises important issues, and I intend to take them up with my officials.

Parts of the sector, such as the daffodil industry, require workers early in the year, meaning that we need to take steps to ensure that those businesses can make sensible recruitment decisions in good time, and not leave these decisions, as has happened too often, to the eleventh hour. I appreciate that last year the decision on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme was announced on Christmas eve, which no doubt was a cause of significant frustration for those working in the sector. I will work intensively with my officials to ensure that we get that decision out as quickly as possible.

In the interim, two options are available to the industry: first, to make use of workers already in the UK under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme who have been doing other work until now but might want to move into a sector such as daffodils as quickly as possible for the remainder of their time in the UK; secondly, new individuals could enter the UK under the scheme using the undercapacity within the 2022 placement, and stay into 2023.

My right hon. Friend raises with me this morning the issue that the Home Office has frozen certificates, making it impossible for employers to bring people in and make use of the remaining certificates in this year’s quota. I have been informed by my officials this morning that nothing has changed from the way the scheme worked last year. If that is incorrect, I will change that today and ensure that the scheme is unfrozen so that important employers such as those my right hon. Friend rightly represents can make use of the remaining certificates before the end of the year. If it is correct that the Home Office has frozen these certificates, I apologise to businesses who have been inadvertently inconvenienced by that and I hope that the Environment Secretary and I can resolve this as quickly as possible.

I thank the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) for asking this urgent question today. He has drawn attention to concerns faced by the daffodil industry in Cornwall—a place I hope to visit over the Christmas break; I am often in his constituency—and those concerns are shared by sectors throughout these industries.

The National Farmers Union says that as much as £60 million of food has been wasted on farms due to labour shortages. During a cost of living crisis, that is disgraceful. Where shortages are linked to pay and conditions, those must be improved, and we will work with industry to deliver. However, countries across the world require seasonal schemes to help support agriculture and horticulture. We need a properly delivered seasonal worker scheme, announced in advance with long-term action to tackle shortages, not panicked short-term announcements without any underlying strategy.

The average time taken to process a sponsorship application has more than trebled over recent years, meaning less certainty for business and more produce going to waste. What steps is the Minister taking to reduce that time? The Home Office has been warned about exploitation in this scheme, including from the results of a Government review last year and reports of recruitment fees charged by agents abroad. Have those warnings been listened to, and what safeguards have been introduced to ensure serious exploitation is not allowed to continue? Finally, this is the latest in a long series of delays, backlogs and chaos from the Home Office. It is not fair on the public and it is not fair on the sectors that rely on the Government to run smoothly; can we confidently say that this is a Home Office we can trust to get a grip?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those points. The scheme is broadly operating as it is designed to, which is shown by the fact that about 1,400 certificates are unused as of today’s date. So the overall quota of 40,000 places a year is approximately the right number. We are, as ever, discussing with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether that quota should remain the same next year or be higher. A statement on that will be made imminently. However, the decision made by my Department—with my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice)—to choose 40,000 appears to have been about the right number.

In terms of the scheme’s operation, we need to ensure that it is as smooth as possible because no business deserves to be put through unnecessary bureaucracy to gain access to the workers it needs. The hon. Lady is right to say that, although of course we want to make the best use of our domestic workforce, there will always be—as there has been—a need for some seasonal workers to come into the UK from overseas. That is exactly why the scheme exists.

On ensuring that those who come under the scheme are properly looked after and not abused, every one of the four or five operators of the scheme is licensed by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, and it is its responsibility, together with my Department, to ensure that those seasonal workers are looked after appropriately and do not fall inadvertently into modern slavery or other poor practices. We at the Home Office have a duty to ensure that those individuals come for the right reasons, that their employers treat them appropriately and that the scheme is not abused. There is a significant minority of people who come under the scheme and subsequently choose to apply for asylum, which is one of the many things that we have to take seriously when deciding the number of individuals who can enter under the scheme each year, but I am certainly sympathetic to the needs of our food and drink sector and will work closely with the Environment Secretary to choose the right number of places for next year. As I said in answer to my right hon. Friend, we will make an announcement soon.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) on getting the urgent question. Businesses need certainty, but one other issue that my right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned is the level of compliance with the scheme. Will he update the House on that? If the level of compliance is very positive, expanding the scheme to encourage more people to come to this country for short terms of working and then returning would be a sensible way forward.

Compliance with the scheme is generally high, but I would not underestimate the number of individuals who do overstay or claim asylum. We have seen a significant number of those individuals this year. There have been some exceptional factors this year such as events in Russia and Ukraine that mean that some individuals would be inclined to stay here and claim asylum. The Home Office needs to take that seriously, because several hundred individuals claiming asylum is a significant number abusing the system as it is designed.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there will be occasions when any sector will need to rely on itinerate labour from overseas, but we must also remember that we have more than 5 million people in this country who are economically inactive, and we have a duty as a Government to help more of them into the workforce here so that they can lead fulfilling and productive lives and make a contribution to British society. That should be the first duty of the Government when designing our immigration policies.

The Minister might want to look at the failed Pick for Britain scheme in reference to those comments. The National Farmers Union’s findings suggest a shocking £60 million-worth of food had been wasted in the first half of the year because of labour shortages. Of course, if the UK Government had listened to the SNP, free movement would be presenting a solution to many of these issues.

Will the Minister now listen to calls from Scotland’s External Affairs Secretary and consider a 24-month temporary visa rather than the short-term sticking plaster approach that we have seen so far? Will he also consider the proposal made by the SNP Government in 2020 through which migrants wanting to work in Scotland could choose to apply for a Scottish visa as well as the Scottish Government’s call for a rural visa pilot to meet the distinct needs of Scotland’s remote rural and island areas? Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland all operate successful visa systems that offer a tailored response to the immigration needs of those countries. Why do UK Ministers insist on such a rigid one-size-fits-all approach?

There is no significant evidence to suggest that the UK labour market varies so greatly between the nations that we need to take different approaches in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. It is better that we remain within the United Kingdom and that we have one single immigration policy covering the whole Union.

On the hon. Lady’s central suggestion that leaving the European Union has led to a diminution of workers available within the economy, that simply is not true. We have just seen figures published showing that net migration was over 500,000 last year and that 1 million people entered the UK last year. They are very substantial numbers. The Home Office issued 350,000 work visas last year. We are ultimately a small country with finite resources, limited housing and pressure on public services. It is right that the Government take their responsibilities seriously, take decisions in the round and try, over time, to bring down net migration.

The seasonal agricultural worker scheme exists to fill in some gaps. The choice of 40,000 does appear to have been broadly borne out by the evidence that we are close to the end of the year and there are still 1,400 places outstanding, so the decision made by my predecessors has been broadly correct. We are in the process of analysing whether we need to continue or expand it next year, and I will make a statement on that very soon.

Horticultural operations around Lichfield will, I think, be very reassured by what my right hon. Friend has said today. When I voted for Brexit, I voted for sovereignty. I certainly did not vote to say that we should not have immigration—with a name like Fabricant, which originates in France, I would certainly not be against that. It is illegal immigration that we all object to. Is the Home Office investigating other processes to get seasonal workers in the UK, for example the system that the SNP representative, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), spoke about for a two-year validity?

I am sympathetic to the proposal that we create a scheme that is of multi-year duration, enabling employers to plan over the longer term. We have just been through one or two of the most exceptional years in which access to labour was heavily reduced as a result of covid and travel restrictions, but now would seem to be a sensible time to explore whether we can create a longer-term scheme that gives industry the certainty it requires. We also need to be working closely with the agricultural sector itself, to ensure that it is embracing automation and new technologies, and training the next generation of British workers to enter the sector and enjoy successful careers. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we have 5 million economically inactive people in this country and we need to draw on our domestic labour force as much as possible.

A former chief of MI5, the noble Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, has called for an increase in visas for seasonal workers to enhance national security, ensuring that the UK produces its own food. Can the Minister confirm that food production is a matter of national security? The Minister referred to a statement that was imminent. Can he say what specific work has been undertaken across Government to ensure that we have a scheme that is evidence based and properly resourced for seasonal workers?

The events of the past few years have taught us all the importance of resilience in many different respects, including food security. That is a factor that we at the Home Office take into consideration, as I know does the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as we enter into regular discussions. I will be making an announcement with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs very soon, so that we can give as much confidence and certainty as possible to the industry.

However, to return to the remarks that I have made on a number of occasions, this year’s quota of 40,000 does not appear to be wildly out of sync with the industry’s needs, as it appears that we will end the year with about 40,000 certificates having been applied for. Given that the scheme is either at that level or even undersubscribed, it is difficult to make the case for a very significant increase in the number of places for next year. However, I will not prejudice the decision that we will come to, and we are sympathetic to the clear labour shortages and issues that some parts of the industry are experiencing.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) on securing this important urgent question. The seasonal worker visa scheme is simply one symptom of a broader disease, which is that we do not have an immigration system that is designed to produce the workforce that different sectors need. Let me bring to the Minister’s attention another area that has been a problem for years: the need for crew for fishing boats. We finally have a visa scheme, but we are still not getting the crew because of the level of the written English language test that they are required to pass. Even when Ministers introduce schemes, the implementation by officials still thwarts the industry’s needs and the policy of Ministers.

I am very alive to those issues. I will shortly meet a delegation from the fishing industry that has been organised at the request of other Members. If the right hon. Gentleman would like to join that, I would be more than happy to extend the invitation.

Farm businesses across the south-west are facing a double whammy of crises: rising energy costs are putting their prices up and a shortage of labour is pushing many farmers to the brink. They are looking for an immigration system that means that crops will not rot in the fields—it is as simple as that. They are not interested in the total cap; they just want the output. Will the Minister set, as a test for the policy, that in order for it to be successful, no crops—whether fruit, vegetables or ornamental flowers —will be ploughed into the field next year? That is the metric of success that farmers want from the Minister. Will he set that as his metric on whether the policy works or is a failure?

We take into account all those considerations in formulating the policy, and we need to consider other factors as well. We need to ensure that we draw on our domestic workforce as much as we can, and that we do not always reach for foreign labour. We also need to ensure that those coming to the country comply with the scheme. As I said, that is broadly correct, but there are a significant minority who do not, including several hundred who claim asylum each year. That is rightly a concern for the Home Office and we need to consider that when choosing the ultimate number of individuals to participate in the scheme. I know that the hon. Member will appreciate that.

There are just 16 days to Christmas and the National Farmers Union is reporting that food will be left rotting in the fields and that poultry cannot be slaughtered. What innovative extra things can the Minister do to get that food on the shelves and to help keep rising prices down for struggling families?

The scheme exists for exactly that purpose. At the danger of repeating myself, having a quota of 40,000 has proved to be approximately what the industry requires. The other thing that Opposition Members could do to ensure that food gets to our tables this Christmas is to have a word with their union paymasters, because Border Force officials, sadly, are going on strike over the Christmas period, which will have a significant impact on the operation of our ports and airports.

Northern Ireland’s fishing industry, in places such as Kilkeel and Ardglass, is at risk of decimation because seasonal workers have not been included on the exemption list so far. That puts at risk the whole supply chain. If there is nothing to land and process, there is nothing for our distributors and nothing for our magnificent hospitality sector to put on its menus. Will the Minister confirm whether Northern Ireland fishing industry workers will go on the exemption list? Will he further explore the possibility of regional visas, because there are substantial differences not only in types of economic activity, but in salaries around the regions of the UK?

I will shortly be meeting representatives from the Northern Ireland fishing sector. I think the issue arose in a Westminster Hall debate that the hon. Lady organised, so if she would like to participate, I am more than happy to extend an invitation to her. From the data that I have seen, I do not think that there are material differences in the wages and labour challenges in the different nations of the UK, or at least not such as to warrant the very significant change of having different immigration rules and procedures in different parts of the UK.

Have Ministers consulted supermarkets and other UK retailers? How are their concerns about the risks that the visa presents of human rights abuses and bondage in supply chains being addressed?

A key priority for me and for the Department is to ensure that those who come to the UK under the scheme do so legitimately and are properly looked after by their employers. For that reason, we ensure that the operators of the scheme are licensed by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority—that is a very important element of the scheme. In considering its future, we continue to review the number of individuals who claim asylum, make modern slavery applications and so on.

Unsurprisingly, I too want to ask a question about the fishing sector, which has opportunities and jobs available but is having great difficulties filling them. I participated in the Westminster Hall debate with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and asked the same question—it is in Hansard. In our discussions afterwards, I also asked the Minister about a meeting with the fish producer organisations to discuss how we can use the present visa system. They are offering £25,000, with accommodation and food, and have put forward positive suggestions to address the English language capability issue. I am very encouraged by what the Minister has said about the meeting. May I respectfully ask him to let us have it as soon as possible? The POs want to meet before Christmas.

The hon. Gentleman was the originator of the meeting, which is now growing into a fairly substantial one—we will have to get a larger room. I will make sure that it is in the diary as soon as possible. I look forward to meeting him and other concerned colleagues.

Called-in Planning Decision: West Cumbria

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement following the decision I made yesterday to grant planning permission for a new metallurgical coalmine at Whitehaven in Cumbria.

I think it is important to stress at the beginning of my statement that I am speaking with regard to a planning decision that I have taken in my capacity as Secretary of State in what is a quasi-judicial process. Members of the House will be aware that the decision may, of course, be subject to a legal challenge, so I urge all Members of the House who are interested in the decision to read the decision letter, which was published yesterday, alongside the detailed report of the independent planning inspector who oversaw the public inquiry into the proposals. Any mature and considered response needs to take account of both my decision letter and the planning inspector’s full report.

I would like to refer in my statement to some of the arguments that the planning inspector has entertained and some of the arguments that he has made in the course of his report, but nothing that I say at the Dispatch Box should be taken in any way as a substitute for full engagement with the inspector’s report.

It is important to note that it is rare that any planning decision is an open-and-shut matter. There are almost always competing elements for and against any planning scheme—particularly a substantial one of this kind, which can raise serious and passionate debate—but the open and transparent public inquiry system allows all those issues to be fully explored. It also allows all parties to put their case before an independent inspector.

The decision that I issued yesterday was in line directly with the recommendation of the inspector, who heard all the evidence for and against the scheme and was able to test that evidence through the participation of interested parties. This was a comprehensive and thorough process, lasting over a month and hearing from over 40 different witnesses. It is summarised in a report of over 350 pages, which, again, I urge all hon. Members to read.

I think it important to restate—as I think is well understood—that the proposal granted permission yesterday for the production of coking coal for use in steel production is not an energy proposal. Our net zero strategy makes it clear that coal has no part to play in future power generation, which is why we will be phasing it out of our electricity supply by 2024. Coal’s share of our electricity supply has already declined significantly in recent years. It was almost 40% of our energy supply in 2012, and less than 2% in 2020.

I took account of the facts in reviewing the planning application, as did the inspector, taking into particular account the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy industrial decarbonisation strategy of March 2021, which explicitly does not rule out the use of coking coal in an integrated steel-making process, and makes it clear that, together with carbon capture and storage, that can be part of a net zero-compliant option.

It is important to note, as the inspector makes plain on page 239 of the report, that it is clear all the scenarios and forecasts for the future use of coking coal which were put before the inquiry demonstrated a continued demand for coking coal for a number of decades to come. It is also important to state that the European Commission, as the inspector noted, recognised the indispensable role of coking coal during the steel industry’s transition to climate neutrality.

It is also important to note, as the inspector did on page 238, that the UK is currently almost wholly dependent on imports of coking coal to meet its steel manufacturing demand. In 2017, 98.8% of the more than 3 million tonnes of coking coal used in UK steel plants was imported. The main exporters of coking coal at the moment are Australia, the USA and, of course, Russia. European metallurgical coal demand is forecast to remain between 50 and 55 million tonnes per annum for the next 28 years, and in the UK demand is forecast to remain at the current level of 1.5 million tonnes per annum.

The coking coal that will be extracted from the mine in Whitehaven is of a particular quality. Coking coal is usually a blended product of soft and hard high volatile coals and low volatile coals. The coal from the proposed mine would have a low ash content of below 5%, compared with between 7% and 8% for US coal and 10% for Australian coal. It would also have a low phosphorus content, lower than that of Australian coal, and a high fluidity. It is also important to note that, while the sulphur content of this coal has been referred to, and it is relatively high, the evidence before the inspector suggests that the coal handling and processing plant will produce coal with an average sulphur content of 1.4 %, and the applicant has stated its acceptance of the planning condition to ensure the product leaving the mine meets this level.

It is also important to note that the applicant is making it clear that this will be the only net zero metallurgical coking coalmine in the world. It is vitally important that all of us recognise—as the inspector does on page 255—that the proposed development would to some extent support the transition to a low-carbon future specifically as a consequence of the provision of a currently needed resource from a mine that aspires to be net zero. I think it is also important that we recognise that, in any change of land use, there will always be a potential impact on biodiversity and on the local environment as well. Again, it is important to note that, on page 278 of his report, the inspector makes it clear that this mine would not cause any unacceptable impacts on ecology or result in a net loss of biodiversity. The inspector also makes it clear in paragraph 22.9 that the proposed development itself would have an overall neutral effect on climate change, and as such there would be no material conflict with Government policies for meeting the challenge of climate change.

Taking account of all these environmental considerations, we should also bear in mind the impact on employment and on the economy, locally and nationally. As the inspectorate notes on page 279, the mine will directly create 532 jobs, which will make a substantial contribution to local employment opportunities because they will be skilled and well-paid jobs. The employment, and indirect employment, that would follow will result in a significant contribution to the local and regional economy, with increased spending in local shops, facilities and services. In addition, the exportation of some of the coal to European markets will make a significant contribution to the UK balance of payments. It is therefore the case that granting the application is compliant with planning policy, and the social and economic benefits should be afforded substantial weight.

The inspector’s report makes a strong case, in a balanced way, for the granting of permission. After reading the inspector’s report in full, I am satisfied, in my role as Secretary of State, that it is the right thing to do to grant this planning application.

Order. The statement I received was the thinnest ever, but the Minister has gone long. Between that and what the Opposition and I have been provided with, there is something missing, which is not in accordance with the ministerial code. We do not work like that. The shadow Secretary of State has not been able to read what has just been said. I am going to suspend the House in order to try to find out what is in the statement.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

I will suspend the House until 11.30, when we will have business questions. That will enable us to try to get a transcript of what has been said in the statement, so that all Members, whatever their opinions, can ask informed questions, as they would wish to. That is how we will play it: we will have business questions at 11.30, then we will come back to the statement. I am sorry about this; this is not the way to do good government.

Sitting suspended.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 12 December will include:

Monday 12 December—Remaining stages of the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Voter Identification Regulations 2022, followed by a motion relating to the first and third reports of the Committee on Standards on a new code of conduct and a guide to the rules.

Tuesday 13 December—Remaining Stages of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.

Wednesday 14 December—General debate on Ukraine, followed by an Opposition half day debate (10th allotted day, first part) in the name of the Scottish National party, subject to be announced.

Thursday 15 December—Debate on a motion on self-disconnection of prepayment meters, followed by a general debate on rail transport services to the communities served by the west coast main line. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 16 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 December includes:

Monday 19 December—Second Reading of the Seafarers’ Wages Bill [Lords]

Tuesday 20 December—Debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

The House will rise for the Christmas recess at the conclusion of business on Tuesday 20 December and return on Monday 9 January.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. I barely know where to start, but let us try with this morning’s chaos, which is not the only example but the latest example of a Minister failing in their duty to provide a copy of a ministerial statement to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Opposition leads, so that they are left listening to a statement that bears no resemblance to the one to which they were expecting to respond. It happened twice last week, and I asked the Leader of the House if she would drop her colleagues a note to remind them of their duty. I am dismayed at the absolute shambles we saw this morning. It is just not on.

In relation to the quality and timeliness of ministerial responses to correspondence from MPs, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) first contacted the Home Office on behalf of his constituent on 1 October 2021, and he received a response this week, 14 months later. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) waited 17 months for her response, only to find out that more information was needed before a substantial answer could be given. The civil servants do their best—an incredible job, in fact—in tackling the backlog, but it has been created by successive Tory Ministers. The Leader of the House has previously spoken to the permanent secretary about this, and I thank her for that, but it needs political leadership. Can she please speak with the Home Secretary about the importance of treating our constituents with respect and highlight the importance of meeting the 20-day service standard for responses?

In our successful Opposition day motion on Tuesday, we called on the Government to end the 200-year-old non-domiciled tax status, which costs taxpayers £3.2 billion a year. We would invest that in one of the biggest NHS workforce expansions in history, which is so desperately needed, but I know that the right hon. Lady seemed to side with non-doms over the NHS. What does she have to say to the 5,000 people in her constituency who faced a wait of 28 days or more to see a GP just in October, or the further 8,000 who had to wait more than two weeks? Does she not think that the great people of Portsmouth North deserve a guaranteed face-to-face appointment, which they would get with a Labour Government? Our motion called on the Government to implement Labour’s plan by doubling the number of medical training places, delivering 10,000 more nursing and midwifery clinical placements and 5,000 more health visitors, and training twice the number of district nurses. Our motion was successful, so when are the Government going to get on and deliver it?

Our Humble Address calling on the Government the same day to release documents relating to the awarding of Government personal protective equipment contracts was also successful. The VIP lane for PPE is a scandal of epic proportions and has encouraged a shameful waste of taxpayers’ money, and we want it back. Ministers have flushed billions down the drain on gloves, gowns and goggles that were overpriced, unusable or undelivered, and even now, the British people are picking up a daily tab of £700,000 for storage of PPE that is unfit for use. A Labour Government would get a grip on this, end the waste and provide sound management of taxpayers’ money.

Meanwhile, in the Lords last week, a high turnout of Conservative peers voted to keep the VIP lanes for direct award in procurement. When the Leader of the House brings the Procurement Bill back to this House, will she at least restrict the use of VIP lanes? Given that our motion was successful, can she tell us when, how and where the documents about these contracts will be released? It is really important, and I hope for a direct answer.

I return to Government chaos on the handling of legislation and their sofa down the back of which Bills seem to be disappearing at a rate of knots. Never mind Bills not making progress—some, like the Online Safety Bill, are heading back in time and going back upstairs. We hear that others are never going to happen at all. Just yesterday, the Government dropped two more. The Education Secretary confirmed that the Schools Bill is gone. Could the Leader of the House tell us why? The Transport Secretary admitted that the revolving door of Government Ministers in his Department was not “ideal” —quite the understatement!

Later today in the Adjournment debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, continues her fantastic campaign against the antisocial use of e-scooters. Despite a commitment from the Government in the Queen’s Speech this year, the Transport Secretary now says that there will almost certainly be no transport Bill in this Parliament.

As my hon. Friend says, there is no transport. The sofa just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Could the Leader of the House confirm whether that is true? Are the Government planning to break yet another promise to the British people? Is there any government actually taking place?

Whether it is the NHS or procurement, schools or transport, this Government’s incompetence and chaos know no bounds. Their inability to govern is quite literally bringing this country to a grinding halt. Nothing is working, and it is on them—ripping apart public services and crashing the economy, and working people are paying the price. The voters deserve a proper say on the country’s future and a Labour Government.

May I start by wishing everyone a happy Christmas Jumper Day and wishing England good luck on Saturday? I also wish Godspeed to the four Royal Navy submariners of HMS Audacious as they set off to row unsupported the 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to promote and fundraise for resilience, good mental health and wellbeing. I hope the whole House will wish them well.

I would like to give my apologies to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), the House and you, Mr Speaker, for what happened this morning. I know that everyone is pulling together to ensure that a full statement can be made available to the Opposition and all Members of this House. I will certainly be following that up, as you would expect me to, Mr Speaker.

On correspondence, I agree with the hon. Lady: all Departments should be meeting those targets and hoping to exceed them. We are doing a lot of work with correspondence teams and parliamentary Clerks, as well as advisers, to ensure that this is in a better place. If anyone has correspondence that is outstanding, please flag it with my office and we will follow it up.

The hon. Lady mentions health and my constituency in particular. I have to tell her that in 2010, when I came into Parliament, my hospital was falling to bits and we had the worst MRSA rates in the country. Those things are vastly improved. We do not have to speculate as to what a Labour Government would do for the NHS; we have only to look at Wales to see that in action. One in 20 people are on a waiting list in England; one in four are in Wales. I am happy to rest on our record versus Labour’s.

The hon. Lady raises the serious matter of PPE contracts. I remind her that I spent a large part of the first year of the pandemic on the telephone to all hon. Members. She will know that, because she was a diligent frequent flier on those 10 am calls. I answered questions from every hon. Member who needed assistance, such as in getting PPE for their hospitals. I fielded questions and concerns, and raised matters with every Government Department on their behalf, particularly for the 2019 intake who had recently come into the House.

In my experience, hon. Members on both sides of the House flagged many companies that changed production lines to help to produce infection-control items, supplied those items at cost or donated them, or opened up unused factory space at their own cost to help the national effort. Those organisations that pulled together and did their bit to help us to get through that dreadful pandemic represent the bulk of British industry. It is important to say that because—God forbid—if we are ever in that situation again, we need such firms to step up and help us, so it is important not to fold them in with companies that were, frankly, profiteering and whose practices are under question.

The hon. Lady knows that investigations are going on, including fraud investigations, with regard to certain cases, as well as mediation and potential litigation, and that particular documentation cannot be released until those investigations are concluded. She will also know the Government’s stance on this from many debates in this place, including the Opposition day debate that was held the other day.

I question the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the Government. This week alone, we have heard announcements on £500 million for schools and colleges in England to spend on energy efficiency upgrades; an additional £50 million top-up to the homelessness prevention grant, which brings the total grant to £366 million; the launch of our first helpline for victims of rape and sexual abuse; the new elective recovery taskforce; gas imports; and new freeports being set up, as well as the Royal Assent to four Bills. Further business will be announced in the usual way.

Following business questions, we will return to the issue of planning in Cumbria. The only item in the future business read out by the Leader of the House is about rail transport services to the communities served by the west coast main line. There is no debate scheduled—obviously it could not be in advance—on whether it is right or wrong to give permission to the coal mine. In addition to the questions and answers today, however, can the Opposition and the Government get together to have a proper debate on whether we go on following planning guidelines, as we seem to have done in this case, or overturn them and go on importing coking coal?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He will know that the next Levelling Up, Housing and Communities questions are on 9 January, but obviously there is a more immediate way for him to put his question to the Secretary of State, who I think will be back in the Chamber shortly. I will certainly ensure that he has heard my hon. Friend’s comments, if he cannot stay for the statement.

It is a little frustrating that the procedures of this place mean that I have to wait a week before I can respond to comments that the Leader of the House makes in business questions, but the motto of Leith in my constituency is “Persevere!”, so persevere I shall.

The Leader of the House likes to play the schoolmarm, but last week’s efforts deserved 100 lines on context. For example, she said that Scotland has the worst A&E waiting times on record while failing to mention that England’s A&E waiting times are the worst on record too and that Scotland’s are nevertheless considerably better than England’s. Some context, as I am sure any schoolmarm would agree, is important.

I recognise that attack is the best form of defence, but I wonder if the time has come for the Government to install the independent House of Commons fact-checking service that some have called for—a real one, not the Conservative pretendy one we saw in 2019—with instant replay, an adjudication function, a claxon and perhaps a “Three strikes and you’re out” feature.

It has been such an exciting week, and not just for those of us in the Westminster SNP group. The Government are in a shambles again, with further revelations about Baroness Mone, VIP lanes and PPE contracts, and the release of Labour’s “Gordy Broon” commission report, which seems only to have left people wondering why Labour thinks it can impose its constitutional proposals on Scotland because of a democratic mandate it hopes to win at the next election but it will not recognise the democratic mandate for an independence referendum won by the Scottish Government at several elections. He is trying to save his precious Union, with assortments from his big bag of vows, so could the Government perhaps humour an old ex-Prime Minister and allow a debate on the devolution of powers to the so-called extremities—extremities being, of course, everywhere that is not London? Given the mood of current red-wallers on the Conservative Back Benches, it might prove a popular move.

Speaking of popular moves, lastly, I notice that the Leader of the House has been sharing her weekly contributions on the SNP on social media, but if she ever looks below the line, she will notice that the vast majority of comments are from people in Scotland absolutely infuriated by her remarks. And guess what? Just yesterday, a major Scottish poll told us that 56% of our people support independence, and that support for the Tories has crashed to a mere 14%, so I say to her: keep those media clips coming! Her unwitting but welcome embrace of the cause of independence for Scotland will not be forgotten.

The hon. Lady mentions the report produced by the former Prime Minister, and although I welcome debate, I think they are flawed ideas. I shall not call him yesterday’s man, but Labour is increasingly looking like yesterday’s party.

The hon. Lady has painted me as a schoolmarm this week, so I shall role play and give an arithmetic lesson. The Scottish Government have complained this week that they are having to make £1 billion of cuts, despite the fact that they have 26% more funding per head than England, and I just have some suggestions about how she might find that. She might cancel the £20 million on a referendum that is not happening, or the £9 million on the eight embassies they run. She could look at the £300 million they have spent so far on two ferries, which are five years late and £150 million over budget, or at the £52.4 million on the collapsed BiFab company or the £5 million on climate change reparations. She could look at the nearly £600 million they spent to bail out Sanjeev Gupta’s smelting business, or the half a million pounds wasted on a publicly owned energy company that never happened. That adds up to over £1 billion, but instead the Scottish National party is going to have to cut frontline services and capital projects to balance the Government’s books. As the Auditor General has pointed out this week, he has lifted the veil on the scale of the SNP’s financial incompetence. I think the people of Scotland deserve better than that, and that is why I will be putting this clip out later.

Can I ask my right hon. Friend why there is nothing in her statement about the disruption to lives and livelihoods being caused by strikes over the next month? We have heard rumours that the Government are going to bring in emergency legislation, but nothing in her statement refers to that, and we are now going to have a recess for about a month. Is she expecting these strikes to disrupt lives with impunity up until 9 January 2023, and what is going to happen after that? Is it not time that the Government got a grip on this?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that these strikes, particularly on transport, are going to be incredibly disruptive for people, especially those who do not have an alternative to using public transport. It is particularly difficult for people who may not be able to see each other over the Christmas period, when families want to come together. The minimum services legislation has already been introduced, but he will know that the Prime Minister is giving this his attention as a priority and is looking at what further things we can do to ensure that the public can rely on basic levels of service across these very important areas.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and announcing the Backbench Business Committee business for Thursday 15 December and Tuesday 20 December. Will the Leader of the House, via the usual channels, indicate whether the Backbench Business Committee will be allocated any time in the first week back after the recess, so that we can notify applicants in an appropriate amount of time for them to prepare?

Over the last few weeks I have received several items of correspondence from the Home Office—often containing responses to four, five or six different cases—which almost invariably are holding responses on cases that have often been registered with it many months ago. Can the Home Office give MPs’ inquiries timely, full and complete responses, rather than endless holding responses on cases that date back many months?

I will certainly give the hon. Gentleman the heads-up on Backbench Business Committee time; as he knows, I have been trying to give hon. Members time to prepare for potential debates, and I will carry on doing that.

The hon. Gentleman refers to Home Office responses and I know that is a concern for many Members. It offers a one-to-one service where Members can sit down with a case officer and work through their cases, but there is also the option to have individual letters; I have explained to the Home Office the admin burden on Members from not receiving individual letters. I have heard from some Members that they have had difficulty securing one of the surgeries offered by the Home Office, and I would be happy, through my office, to facilitate.

Will my right hon. Friend find time in this place for a debate on the consumer protections to householders when builders either go bust or simply disappear midway through a building project? I have a constituent who I would like to say has been left high and dry, but unfortunately he has been left low and cold and wet because a builder has simply not completed the work and has disappeared into thin air. A county court judgment cost him £2,200 to get but at no point was there any health warning that he may never see the money, so he feels he has paid into the court system as well as paying well over £20,000 to a builder, and he does not feel there is any consumer protection for him whatsoever.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this and the work she has done on the issue: she has been raising this matter on behalf of her constituent and I am sorry about the situation they are in. My right hon. Friend will know that the next Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities questions is on 9 January and I suggest she start by raising that issue there. As that is some time away, I will write to the Department on her and her constituent’s behalf and ask that the matter be addressed urgently.

Can we find time for a debate on what is happening at the Shelter charity? Many Members and constituents will be unaware that the Shelter management has imposed a pay cut on its workforce, which has produced industrial action. A debate may help put pressure on the trustees to recognise that they have significant reserves and could pay their staff an inflation-proofing wage increase. The staff are incredibly dedicated but ironically some of them are now struggling to secure a roof over their heads as a result of successive pay cuts in recent years.

That sounds like a topic for a Backbench Business Committee debate and the right hon. Gentleman will know how to apply for that. Charities are of course focused on putting as much money as they can into the services they provide, but what has happened at Shelter is very concerning, particularly at this time of year when we need all its staff to be doing what they want to do, which is help those who are most vulnerable.

Although the charity lottery sales limit for society lotteries was increased in March 2020, further reform is required to end the farcical situation whereby organisations such as the People’s Postcode Lottery are forced to cut ticket prices to comply with the current restrictions, which greatly reduces the amount of funds available to be donated to good causes in our constituencies. I am sure that all hon. Members know of some good causes that have benefited from such lotteries. Will my right hon. Friend bring forward a debate in Government time to discuss wider reforms of sales limits so that society lotteries can remain attractive to players while maximising the benefit to good causes in our constituencies?

My hon. Friend raises an important matter that would be the basis of a good debate, and she will know how to apply for one. Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions are on 26 January. As that is a little way off, I shall write to the Department on her behalf and raise those questions.

I recently met the Bath Philharmonia, an orchestra who work closely with young carers and who have been campaigning for a long time about the barriers preventing young people from engaging with music. Music is such a powerful tool that can be so healing for everybody, and particularly for young carers. Will the Government mention young carers in their plan for music education, and can we have a statement about that? So far, young carers are completely left out of that plan.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that. It sounds like a wonderful organisation and, having been a young carer myself, I know how healing it is, as she says, to be able to take part in the arts. I would certainly want that experience to be available to everyone in that situation. I will write to the Department on her behalf and ask it to contact her office to ensure that it has a comprehensive view.

A reception is taking place in the House today for Team UK, who are back from the WorldSkills competition, where they obtained a top 10 place in the medals table. The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) is doing the House a service by hosting the reception. Could we have a debate to consider the importance of skills programmes and use that as an opportunity to highlight the range of skills programmes available as well as to explore where gaps may lie for the industries of the future?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that and thank all hon. Members who have facilitated and will be attending the reception later today. He is absolutely right that it is incredibly important that we focus on skills. We are also encouraging young people and giving them confidence, and the event will certainly do that.

Earlier this week, I met representatives of Greater Manchester Fire Brigades Union here in the Palace of Westminster. They are currently balloting for industrial action after an inadequate pay offer of 5% was put forward, which is well below inflation and underfunded, coming out of existing fire and rescue budgets. No firefighter wants to takes that course of action, but after 11,000 job losses, including 631 full-time firefighter roles in Greater Manchester since 2010, and a pay offer that will impact local services, what are they meant to do? As such, will the Leader of the House allocate Government time for a debate on increasing firefighter pay and properly investing in fire and rescue services across the country?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising those points. It is deeply regrettable that any sector feels the need to go on strike, even though there will be minimum services and, of course, it is rightly the policy of the union that if there is a major incident, people will come in and attend that. I suggest that he raises that at the next Home Office questions on 19 December.

We have many things to be proud of in Scunthorpe, and we are very proud of Scunthorpe litter pickers and others like them who give up their free time to go out and collect litter to keep our area clean. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking them for the work that they do in the community? Will she support a debate in Government time on how to get rid of the scourge of littering, so that they no longer need to do that for us?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to thank Scunthorpe litter pickers. It sounds like they do an amazing job. Her question is timely, as Monday was International Volunteer Day. I think the last debate we held on this issue was round about May, so it is perhaps time for one and she knows how to apply.

Last week, the Leader of the House used the trope about how powerful the Scottish Parliament is, but the reality is that it is not even the most powerful devolved Parliament in the United Kingdom. Energy except for nuclear, pensions and even the Union are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. If those powers can be devolved to Northern Ireland, why not Scotland?