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Topical Questions

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 2 February 2023

The Cabinet Office is co-ordinating action to strengthen our nation’s resilience, including our energy security, cyber defences and industrial action contingencies. His Majesty the King’s coronation in May will be another significant milestone in the history of our nation. A coronation claims office has been created within the Cabinet Office to consider claims to perform historic or ceremonial roles in that ceremony. So far, more than 200 such claims have been received, and we will work with experts from the royal household to determine which will play a part in that historic day.

Shockingly, a survey found that one in 12 Public and Commercial Services Union members are having to use food banks. Yesterday, more than 100,000 civil servants took part in industrial action, principally over pay. What steps will the Government take to make a significantly improved offer so that they can reach a negotiated settlement for underpaid civil servants?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office continues to engage with the unions in constructive discussions about precisely those points, with a particular view to the forthcoming financial year. I also pay tribute to the overwhelming majority of civil servants who did not strike yesterday—only 12% participated —to ensure that essential public services continued uninterrupted.

T2. One clear lesson from our covid response has been to understand the severe and disproportionate consequences of closing our schools and the impact that that has had on our children’s education and development. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of that so far, and does he agree that we should look at making schools part of our essential national infrastructure, so that we ensure that that does not happen again in future? (903424)

I am deeply saddened, as my hon. and learned Friend is, by any interruption to our children’s education, particularly when they have suffered so much during covid. I pay tribute to the headteachers and others who ensured that about 90% of schools were open in one capacity or another so that our children continued to have an education—indeed, 70% of teachers did not participate in the strike. I hope that we continue to keep schools open on a voluntary basis, but if we cannot, we reserve the right, under the legislation passing through Parliament, to deem education an essential service that requires minimum service levels.

Last week the independent adviser revealed that the former Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), submitted his declaration of interests only in the last two weeks, some three months after his appointment and while he was in the eye of the storm. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell the House how many other Ministers are yet to submit their declarations and what steps he or the Prime Minister has taken to pursue them, and can he guarantee there are not yet more ministerial conflicts of interest waiting to emerge that he knows about either formally or informally?

I can assure the right hon. Lady that we are upholding high standards of transparency. The ministerial code requires such declarations to be made, and they are policed by the independent adviser, which the Labour party urged us to appoint and we appointed that person. Where there are failures, action is taken immediately, as we saw from the Prime Minister this weekend.

While we are on the subject of transparency, The Guardian has today revealed that the National Audit Office is due to meet the Cabinet Office this week to obtain details of public money spent on the former Prime Minister’s legal fees. The permanent secretary has already admitted a budget of £220,000 could have been exceeded, and the contract, which has already been extended once, could be extended again. Will the Minister publish the details of this arrangement and tell us who approved it and why—or, even better, can the Minister just put a stop to this insulting waste of public money all together?

The right hon. Lady will know that this was dealt with by the permanent secretary at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and the contract was published on Contracts Finder. It has always been the case that Ministers receive support in respect of their conduct in office after they have left office. That was extended to Ministers in the Conservative party and the Labour party. I will add that it is a good job that we did not extend it to former Leaders of the Opposition given the millions of pounds being spent by the Labour party defending itself against allegations of antisemitism.

T5. In 2020 we have evidence that the Cabinet Office monitored the journalist Peter Hitchens’ social media posts in relation to the pandemic. In an internal email the Cabinet Office accused him of pursuing an anti- lockdown agenda. He then appears to have been shadow- banned on social media. Will the Minister confirm that his Department did nothing to interfere with Hitchens’ communications, either through discussion with social media platforms or by any other mechanism? If he cannot confirm that today, will he write to me immediately in the future to do so? (903428)

It is a pleasure to take it, Mr Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He referred to the rapid response unit; what it was doing during the course of the pandemic was entirely sensible—trawling the whole of what is available publicly on social media to make certain we as the Government could identify areas of concern particularly regarding disinformation so that correct information could be placed into the public domain to reassure the public. I think that was an entirely reasonable and appropriate thing to do. I do not know about the specifics that my right hon. Friend asks about; I would rather not answer at the Dispatch Box, but my right hon. Friend has asked me to write to him and I certainly will.

T3. Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster believe there should be a minimum qualifying period for a Prime Minister’s resignation honours list? (903425)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are conventions that govern lists submitted by former Prime Ministers; they are not for direct decision by current Ministers.

T6. I have mentioned many times in this place the need for better connectivity in my constituency, namely for the unreliable bus services and trains into London. I have also recently spoken about ambulance wait times even on non-strike days. As yesterday there was the biggest national walk-out in over a decade, can the Minister provide an update on what he is doing to ensure my constituents can continue to use these public services and go about their daily lives? (903429)

As a fellow Hertfordshire Member of Parliament, I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the disruption to travel, particularly for commuters into London. That is precisely why our manifesto committed to bringing forward minimum service legislation. We are passing that legislation through the House in the teeth of opposition from Labour, and the reason for doing so is to ensure that our hard-working constituents can get on with their lives and livelihoods.

T4. This week, the Government passed draconian anti-strike legislation while we saw the largest public strikes for over a decade. Does the Minister agree that instead of vilifying public sector workers, it is time the Government got around the table with the unions and negotiated a resolution? (903427)

Ministers get around the table with unions all the time—the Education Secretary did precisely that earlier this week—but Ministers also owe a duty to hard working people in all four corners of our nation to ensure that minimum standards of public services are upheld for their safety, and we will continue to pursue legislation to that effect.

T7. As the Government’s 12 levelling-up missions transcend the responsibilities of any one Government Department, what co-ordinating and monitoring work is my right hon. Friend’s Department carrying out to ensure the successful delivery of those policies? (903430)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that that needs co-ordination. I am delighted to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has regular meetings to make certain that that co-ordination happens across Government. The levelling-up missions themselves are jointly monitored by my right hon. Friend and by the No. 10 policy unit to ensure that they are effective and we get bang for buck.

T9. The aim of my Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, which is supported by the Government and will have its Report stage and Third Reading tomorrow, is to create respectful workplaces where everyone can feel valued and supported. What example are the Government setting when 24 civil servants are involved in formal complaints against the Deputy Prime Minister? Does the Minister think it is appropriate that the Deputy Prime Minister is still in office? If not, is it not one rule for them and another for everyone else? (903432)

The Government take those allegations very seriously, which is precisely why we appointed a leading King’s Counsel with employment law experience to investigate it. I thought the Liberal Democrats believed in due process—we have a due process and we should allow that to take place.

T8. In north Yorkshire we have a very high forces presence, so we have a correspondingly significant number of veterans. Today is the close of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and Office for National Statistics survey. I am concerned that some leaving our services find the transition to civil employment not very smooth. Will the results of the survey be used to identify either policy or practice where that transition can be improved? (903431)

Of course. The whole point of those surveys was that, when we set up the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and I came into this job, we were starting from a very poor position on data. We managed to get the question into the census to understand how many veterans we have in this country, and the ONS study that my hon. Friend mentioned increases the granularity of that data, to really understand what the challenges are for people transitioning. I am confident that the services provided now are much better than they were, but we are always looking to learn and I will look closely at the results of the survey.

Public procurement rules are the responsibility of the Cabinet Office. With the Procurement Bill, the Government are seeking to extend the scope of Government contracts to small and medium-sized enterprises, but I have always firmly believed that we also need to extend the number of advanced and higher-level apprenticeships as part of public procurement, so what more are the Government doing to get those high-level apprenticeships linked to contracts?

As a former Minister for apprenticeships, I share the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm. If he wishes to find out more about the Procurement Bill, he can join me and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) in Committee Room 10 on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the foreseeable future. He will hear us talk about social benefit and the social value embedded within it, and I hope apprentices will be part of that.

Stoke-on-Trent is proud to still be the largest recipient of the levelling-up funding announced to date, and the second-largest recipient of the Places for Growth programme, through which we now have 500 Home Office jobs coming to our great city, with 100 jobs recruited, another 160 being advertised and the office due to open in March at Two Smithfield, a regeneration site led by Councillor Abi Brown and her fantastic Conservative councillors on Stoke-on-Trent City Council. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Councillor Brown and the Home Office on securing those important jobs for our local area and place on record my thanks to the Cabinet Office for all its hard work in making this achievement come true?

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue, and I congratulate him and his area on achieving that huge goal. It is part of a process: since September last year 8,000 jobs have been relocated away from London, with all the associated benefits of people being close to the communities that they serve.

There is, literally, one rule for all normal MPs and another for Ministers in relation to transparency. All ordinary MPs must declare all their financial interests within 28 days, whereas, as has already been revealed, Ministers do it considerably later, if at all. Why do we have to wait until May to know what Ministers’ financial interests are? Only a few weeks ago, when we had a vote on this matter, the Leader of the House promised that she would ensure that all Ministers were held to the same timetable as other MPs. When is that going to happen?

Ministers are required, under the ministerial code, to provide full declarations, so I dispute the hon. Gentleman’s claim in that regard. However, he raises an important point which I have discussed with the Leader of the House. We are taking steps to move to more rapid declarations of ministerial interests so that they align more closely with the declarations of Members of Parliament, and we are working through those processes with our private offices.[Official Report, 20 February 2023, Vol. 728, c. 2MC.]

Many Members will know of the work of Bryn Parry, who set up Help for Heroes. Will the Veterans Minister join me in wishing him well—I know he is not well at the moment—and paying tribute to him for the work that he has done?

I know your appetite for short answers, Mr Speaker. As my hon. Friend says, Bryn Parry is not well at the moment. He founded Help for Heroes with his wife Emma back in the early days of the Afghanistan campaign, and his contribution to care for the veterans of this nation and what he has achieved over many, many years is unrivalled. He has changed hundreds of lives for the better, and he has a dear place in my heart and in the heart of the nation. I pay huge tribute to him and his work, and we are all thinking of him and his family at this difficult time.

In the three years since the United Kingdom left the European Union, almost all Brexit-related legislation has included sweeping Henry VIII powers, or other regulatory powers, for Ministers. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster give us an example of how democratic scrutiny and control have been taken back to this House rather than by Executive power grab?

There are a number of ways in which we are taking back control in this place following Brexit. The most obvious example is what is taking place in Committee Rooms in the House even as we speak, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has said. The Procurement Bill is a major step forward: it increases flexibility, and will help smaller companies for many years to come.

I apologise for not being here earlier, Mr Speaker.

Under my Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, the Ministry of Defence has a duty to ensure that all veterans leaving the armed forces are provided with a settled home, and are advised to approach their local authority. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the MOD keeps to its legal duty?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his work on homelessness. There should be no homeless veterans in this country. Provision is generally available but, under Op Fortitude, we have procured £8.5 million-worth of services to deal with instances in which it is not. This will be a clear, dedicated pathway for those who are at risk of homelessness, providing wraparound support in supported housing. We are going to end veterans homelessness this year, and I look forward to briefing my hon. Friend on how we are going to do it.

The Institute for Government has suggested that publishing more policy advice from officials, publicly, would improve transparency, ministerial engagement and analysis. What assessment have Ministers made of that recommendation, and will it be implemented?

Every Minister relies on good and honest advice from our officials, and we are blessed with just that. It is up to Ministers to determine how that policy is then prosecuted, and to stand up to represent and defend it, and I believe that we need to preserve the privacy between the advice received and the decisions made by the Government. We as Ministers are responsible. I am grateful for the advice I receive, and I do not expect civil servants to defend it. I have to take the decision and I have to defend the advice, and I would rather stick to that position when it comes to how we are accountable to this place.

One in 10 people in the ex-services community face financial difficulties, as the Minister knows. According to research from the Royal British Legion, that is about 430,000 people. In the current crisis, the situation is only getting worse, and I am aware of that as well from my constituency. What steps will be taken to ensure that those former members of the armed forces are not left behind?

The issues facing the veterans’ community are no different from those faced by all people across the United Kingdom today with the cost of living challenge. There is help and support through the energy price cap scheme. Grants are available across the country, including specialised grants from groups such as the RBL, which has been working hard in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I pay tribute to them and we will continue to do all we can to support the most vulnerable through this very difficult time.

Sitting suspended.