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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 724: debated on Thursday 8 December 2022

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.