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Topical Questions

Volume 724: debated on Thursday 8 December 2022

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.