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Cabinet Office

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 2 February 2023

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Public Procurement

2. What recent discussions he has had with relevant stakeholders on the potential impact of the Procurement Bill on (a) economic growth and (b) innovation. (903399)

The Procurement Bill is being considered in Committee in the House of Commons. The Bill will create a new public procurement regime that will make it simpler, quicker and cheaper for suppliers, including small and medium-sized enterprises and social enterprises, to win public sector contracts. In developing the proposals for the new procurement regime, the Cabinet Office has worked with hundreds of organisations, and economic growth and innovation have been at the forefront of our minds.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He will know that UK major projects have had, at best, a mixed history of both procurement and contract management over a long period. How will this Bill embed external expertise in the procurement process and IT productivity systems in the contract management process?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that question. The Cabinet Office is producing comprehensive guidance and a programme of training for contracting authorities, with support for sharing best practice. This will complement efforts that the Cabinet Office is already making to support commercial best practice, including through the contract management capability programme and the provision of a suite of playbooks that provide advice on sourcing and contracting.

My residents in North Norfolk often think that Westminster is a long way away from them. Can my hon. Friend tell me how the Procurement Bill will enable businesses in my constituency—there is an incredible range of talent and innovation there—to bid for the £300 billion-worth of services that the Government procure every year?

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the Bill includes a specific duty on contracting authorities to recognise the particular barriers that SMEs face. Other measures will also benefit SMEs, such as the strengthening of prompt payment requirements, with 30-day payment terms applying contractually throughout the public sector supply chain; a single digital platform, so that bidders only have to submit their core credentials once; and new transparency requirements.

I thank the Minister for his positive answers to the question. Wrightbus in Northern Ireland is an example of where we could contract domestic companies and expand our economy, as opposed to going international. What steps will the Cabinet Office take to ensure that we prioritise domestic contracts within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the devolved Assemblies?

I cannot comment on the specific contract that the hon. Gentleman raises, but he will know from the debate we had in Westminster Hall the other day that the Bill introduces provisions that will mean that contracting authorities publish their pipeline and can publish advance notices of procurement, which will enable businesses and suppliers to get ready for local contracts.

Unfortunately, the Procurement Bill in its current form does very little to prevent a repeat of the VIP scandal that, sadly, contributed to almost £10 billion-worth of personal protective equipment being written off by the Government. We know that sunlight is often the best disinfectant, so will the Minister support our amendment to ensure that any Minister, peer or senior civil servant involved in recommending suppliers under direct award must publicly declare any private interest in that supplier’s success?

The hon. Lady will know from the many debates we are having on this subject that transparency is a key element of our new regime, which replaces the old, outdated EU regulations and will ensure that there is sunlight throughout the procurement process, from start to finish.

Ministerial Code

The Prime Minister expects all Ministers to act in accordance with the code and demonstrate integrity, professionalism and accountability. He has appointed Sir Laurie Magnus as the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests to advise on matters relating to the code.

I am tempted to use a word favoured by the Deputy Prime Minister in response to that, but I will not. I am not interested in when people were formally informed or notified about things. I would just like to know when the Prime Minister knew about the bullying allegations against the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab)—was it before he appointed him as Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister?

I am sure the hon. Lady was in the House yesterday and heard what the Prime Minister said, which was that as soon as he became aware of formal complaints against the Deputy Prime Minister, he took action. That action involved appointing Adam Tolley, who is a very experienced employment KC, to look into those allegations. It is appropriate that we have a proper process, and the trigger for a proper process is a formal complaint.

It is all fine and well to talk about a “proper process”, but there are reports that staff working for the Deputy Prime Minister felt physically sick and even suicidal as a result of the alleged bullying. Does the Minister accept that in any other workplace the Deputy Prime Minister would have been suspended, pending investigation? Why is it one rule for the Deputy Prime Minister and one rule for workers anywhere else?

The Government take any complaints of bullying and harassment very seriously. That is precisely why the Prime Minister appointed Adam Tolley to conduct this investigation. Opposition Members have constantly asked me when we are going to appoint an independent adviser so that we can have a proper process, and now that we have appointed one and we have a proper process, they say that we should perfunctorily sack the person. They cannot have it both ways.

Trust in politics matters, and Ministers have a responsibility to uphold standards. The list of Ministers’ interests on the website is currently 247 days old and has not been updated since last May. It is not even an accurate list of Ministers, by a long way. Can the Government not be bothered to update it, or is there something to hide? Does the Minister agree that there is absolutely no reason why Ministers’ interests should be less transparent than those of any other Member of Parliament?

As the hon. Lady will have seen, the Prime Minister has appointed an independent adviser, who is going through those Ministers’ interests. I can assure her that before May they will be fully published, in accordance with the rules.

I, like many others, was surprised to see that it took the head of the investigation into Richard Sharp’s appointment at the BBC a week to realise that there was a conflict of interest and recuse himself from the role. What will the Minister do to tackle this chumocracy around the Prime Minister? Is it not time he adopted our proposal for an independent integrity and ethics commission to finally restore the accountability and professionalism that the Government promised?

I was involved in the appointment to which the hon. Lady refers, as the Secretary of State. We had a clear and transparent process, with independent selectors choosing that person. Indeed, the matter was looked into by the Select Committee, which found that it was an excellent appointment. The Government stand by the appointment, and Richard Sharp, as the chairman of the BBC, is doing an excellent job.

Transparency International’s corruption index has recorded a sharp fall in the UK’s score. This has been affected by factors such as the VIP lane and the claim that 40 potential breaches of the ministerial code were not investigated. Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree with the international business leaders that under his Government, the UK is more corrupt?

I completely disagree with the assertion from the hon. Lady. This Government have upheld high standards of transparency, and we have advanced transparency since we came into office. The idea that this country could be compared to the sort of states to which she refers is completely preposterous.

I did not refer to any states. When will the Prime Minister appoint the anti-corruption champion? This vacancy has gone unfilled for seven months. Given the sharp fall in international views of the UK’s level of corruption, when will this person be appointed?

I simply do not recognise the kind of caricature being pushed by the hon. Lady. Of course we will make that appointment, but this Government have taken steps throughout their time in office to increase standards of transparency and accountability.

Scotland Act 1998

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the use of section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 on the constitution. (903401)

Alas, I am a mere junior Minister and I rarely get to talk to my illustrious Cabinet colleagues, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government used section 35 very carefully and very reluctantly, in order to preserve the balance of powers between our countries.

If the Government were so determined to resolve their dispute with the Scottish Government, they would publish the amendments that they say would make the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill acceptable to them. Is not the reality that the Tories are prepared to veto and undermine the elected Scottish Parliament because they never really wanted devolution in the first place?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, section 35 of the Scotland Act is part of our constitution. He will also know that it is now for the Scottish Government to bring forward a Bill that addresses the adverse effects set out in the statement of reasons. Once again, the nationalists do not wish to take responsibility.

Support for Veterans

5. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to support veterans and their families with the cost of living crisis. (903402)

Tackling inflation is this Government’s No. 1 priority. We have a plan that will help to more than halve inflation this year and lay the foundations for long-term growth to improve living standards for everyone, including veterans.

Many in the armed forces community are being forced to turn to charities such as the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes for cost of living support. The Royal British Legion has awarded £1.9 million- worth of grants in the three months to January alone. Rather than leaving charities to plug the gap, will the Minister outline how he will ensure that veterans and their families right across the UK are not forced into hardship by increased living costs?

There is no question of forcing people to go to charities to bail the Government out. Veterans have access to a range of support sources to help with the cost of living: the energy price guarantee, the cost of living payments, the relevant council tax rebates and veteran welfare services. I pay tribute to the RBL for all the work that it has done.

I really do not think that the Minister recognises just how much some veterans are struggling to make ends meet. Of the £1.9 million-worth of grants awarded to veterans by the Royal British Legion, 88% were for basic energy bills, with 90% of applicants being of working age. How does the Minister expect the veterans community to trust him to make the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran when his Government have forced many of them to rely on charities and to choose between heating and eating?

I am not going to take any lessons about what it is like to be a veteran in this country, particularly for our most vulnerable veterans. A suite of measures are available to help them. Under this Government, there have been light years of change in what it means to be a veteran. I was a veteran under the Labour Government and we are miles away from that place, but I am always willing to do more. I have concerns about these issues, but we are doing everything we can to improve the cost of living for those who need it.

Industrial Action: Public Services

6. What steps his Department is taking to support the operation of public services during industrial action. (903403)

13. What steps his Department is taking to support the operation of public services during industrial action. (903413)

All Departments are responsible for their own business continuity plans and have well-established contingency arrangements. The Cabinet Office’s Cobra unit has supported Departments to develop those arrangements to minimise the impact on public services. Yesterday, for example, more than 600 military personnel undertook action to support a smooth flow at the border. I pay tribute to the work that they and others did.

As if the ultra low emission zone were not bad enough, Carshalton and Wallington residents have had to deal with strikes affecting the transport network, despite the Mayor’s promise of zero strikes. There is a very important point to be made about safety as a result of the ongoing impact on the transport network. Bus stops and railway stations in London face dangerous overcrowding when strikes are on. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the safety of the remainder of the transport network will be a key factor when minimum service levels are set?

As a Member of Parliament whose constituency borders London, I share my hon. Friend’s deep frustration with the conduct of the Mayor and with the ULEZ, which is a tax on hard-working commuters and citizens in London. My hon. Friend rightly raises a point about minimum service levels, which are at the root of the Government’s legislation—the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, which passed through this House in the face of opposition from the Labour party—to protect standards of service and safety on our transport network.

Ambulance response times, particularly in rural areas such as Eddisbury, are one of those issues on which I seem to have been campaigning since I first came to Parliament. Like others, I am perplexed by the contrarian and regressive turn that has been taken in the policy area by unions representing ambulance workers, which are refusing to agree to minimum service and safety levels during industrial action. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they should embrace those common- sense measures? Perhaps the public would then be more sympathetic in the subsequent collective bargaining.

As ever, I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. The public expect a minimum safety level in core public services such as ambulance provision, as exists in comparable European countries. This is a sensible, straightforward measure to ensure patient safety at a time of most desperate need, which is why the Government are bringing it forward—again, in the teeth of opposition from the Labour party.

National Resilience

Resilience is a key priority across Government. My Department has already published the resilience framework, refreshed the national security risk assessment and established a risk sub-committee of the National Security Council, which I chair. We will soon publish a new national risk register, and this afternoon I will chair the UK resilience forum, which strengthens our links with partners across the country in collectively tackling the risks we face.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am involved in family farms.

As the breadbasket of Britain and home to the all-energy coast, East Anglia has a key role to play in strengthening national resilience on food and energy security. Can my right hon. Friend outline the co-ordinating work his Department is doing with other Departments to ensure the east of England realises its full potential in both feeding the nation and keeping the lights on?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight East Anglia’s increasing role in providing energy security through its massive offshore wind developments, which are helping to provide secure renewable energy. In addition, the Government food strategy, which was published last year, sets out plans to boost domestic production in sectors with the biggest opportunities, which will of course include East Anglia.

Prospective Cabinet Members: Financial Affairs

8. Whether his Department receives advice on prospective Cabinet members’ financial affairs before they are appointed. (903406)

Successive Governments have preserved the ability for officials to provide advice to Ministers in confidence. It would therefore not be appropriate for me to comment specifically on any advice in the ministerial appointments process. Ministers are required to declare all relevant interests and matters of concern.

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware that I am not satisfied with his answer. It has been reported that the Prime Minister was given an informal warning about the tax affairs of the former Conservative party chair, and yet he still decided to appoint him to his Cabinet. If true, it means the Prime Minister’s promise of integrity is completely meaningless. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm whether the Prime Minister was given an informal warning?

Lib Dem Members, and indeed other Opposition Members, continually say that the Government need to appoint an independent adviser. We appointed an independent adviser, who looked into all the facts of this case and produced an excellent report, and the Prime Minister took action. That is the way government should be conducted, and was conducted in these circumstances.

Public Procurement: UK-made Steel

10. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to promote the use of UK-made steel in public procurement. (903408)

The Government are ensuring a competitive future for the UK steel industry, and the reported value of UK-produced steel procured by the Government was up last year by £160 million, from £108 million to £268 million.

In last week’s Westminster Hall debate, the steel Minister, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), said

“there is huge scope for more procurement to take place in the UK.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2023; Vol. 726, c. 331WH.]

Will the Cabinet Office commit to publishing up-to-date data on the Government’s record in using UK steel, because it has not been good enough so far, and to adopting ambitious targets across Departments on the use of domestic steel in public projects?

I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady right now that 67% of the steel required for High Speed 2 is UK-produced, 94% of the steel used to maintain our rail track is produced in the UK and 90% of the steel used to build schools is produced in the UK. I understand there will be an urgent question after Question Time, which will give her the opportunity to ask a Minister from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about this.

Veterans: Mental Health Support

The Government are committed to providing high-quality evidence-based mental health support for veterans. There will be an additional £2.7 million of funding for Op Courage over the next few years, on top of the £17.8 million annual investment to provide a specialist mental health support and treatment pathway for veterans and their families.

A recent University of Manchester study showed that veterans under 25 were more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. I welcome what the Minister says, but it would be good if he worked with the Department of Health and Social Care, which is looking at a suicide strategy, to ensure that we are doing all we can to help veterans under 25 with their mental health. Does he agree?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for all his work on mental health over many years. The Manchester study revealed that, overall, people who have served are less likely to take their own lives, but there is a cohort within that for whom the risk is clearly higher. Defence Transition Services is doing everything it can to prepare that cohort for civilian life. We are clear that every suicide is a tragedy for the individual, their family and the military as an institution, and we are working all hours and doing everything we can to prevent every single one.

Two things have impacted on the mental health of veterans in the Rhondda. One is the complete collapse of the private rented sector, with many single men getting no protection under the law and finding it very difficult to find a guarantor so that they can get anywhere to live at all. The second thing is brain injuries. I hope that the Minister has seen the recent research showing that the percentage of people sleeping rough who are veterans—and, of those, the percentage who have brain injuries—is phenomenally high. What can we do to ensure that those elements are sorted so that people who have done everything they can for our nation get the support that they need?

I will first tackle the homelessness point. Veteran homelessness has been an issue in this country for far too long. In December, I launched Op Fortitude, which is a dedicated drive to end veteran homelessness in this country. With £8.5 million and 910 supported housing placements, it will be rolled out across the nation. We are determined to end the problem this year.

I recognise the link with traumatic brain injury. A lot of work is going into understanding how that affects this generation of veterans, who have come out of Afghanistan and Iraq, in particular. That work is ongoing, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to update him on it.

In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we are proud to be home to a number of charities that help veterans with their mental health, including the Tri Services and Veterans Support Centre and its Operation R&R, which is based at its retreat in Newchapel and Mow Cop; and the Veteran Support Network, led by Lee West, which is based in Middleport. Will the Veterans Minister be kind enough to come and visit those fantastic charities and see the work that they are doing, and will he look at what pots are available—whether revenue or capital—to allow them to expand their work across north Staffordshire?

Of course, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his persistent work and campaigning on this issue over many years. This country has some phenomenal charities that work night and day to look after our veterans. Op Courage, which was established in 2019, has formalised that pathway for the first time, and any charity and service can bid in to run different parts of it. That is why it has been an incredibly successful programme. I am more than happy to visit his constituency at a time when we can make it work.

One way in which we can support veterans’ mental health is to ensure that they transition into meaningful employment that allows them to use the highly transferable skills that they bring from the service. Has the Minister had time to look at what is happening in the US, where they are counting the number of veterans in big companies, and does he think that we could or should do that here?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there has been brilliant work in that space. Last week, I visited Barclays, which is the first company in this country to count how many veterans it employs. It is important that companies go beyond rubber-stamping paperwork about what it is like to be a veteran in those companies. They need to mark how many veterans work for them and the ease and equity of access to employment. Some great work is being done in the States, and I am always looking to improve the offer over here.

UK Constitution

The British constitution is a summation of our conventions, practices and laws. The Government constantly assess their function and fitness for purpose. We currently consider the British constitution to remain strong.

The thing about political constitutions is that they need to be underpinned by good relationships based on trust and respect. I do not think it would be an overstatement to say that some of those relationships have been a little strained of late. Will the Minister be proactive and support my private Member’s Bill next month, which will ensure the representation of devolved nations on public bodies? That would be a small step toward improving things.

I am pleased to say that from where I sit I have seen some very good relations recently. We have been working in lockstep on the Procurement Bill with colleagues from Northern Ireland and Wales to devise a new procurement regime. I am obviously happy to consider her Bill.

Veterans: Government Services

14. What steps his Department is taking to ensure Government services meet the needs of veterans. (903414)

We are working to better understand the needs of veterans and their families through research and data collection with organisations such as the Office for National Statistics. We also regularly engage with the charities sector and with veterans directly, for example through the veterans’ survey, which closes today.

Our veterans are civilians in waiting to return to civilian life. Given the recent census and new data on veteran communities, are there any plans to improve healthcare services for ageing veterans with muscular and skeletal problems incurred through military service?

Veterans healthcare is a responsibility across the nation, with 1,789 GP surgeries and 132 hospital trusts now veteran accredited. It is a low level of commitment, but it makes the world of difference to veterans who are trying to access musculoskeletal services. I am determined that by the next general election, every GP surgery in the country will be veteran accredited and every hospital trust too. I will work hard to ensure we achieve that ambition.

In Burnley and Padiham we have long supported our armed forces and veterans, including through brilliant local organisations such as Healthier Heroes and the Burnley and Padiham branch of the Royal British Legion, which support veterans in the community. We also have local events such as Padiham on Parade, which takes place every June as part of Armed Forces Week. Can I invite my right hon. Friend the Minister to Burnley to sit with these organisations and see what more we can do to join up Government support with local organisations so that we ensure this is the best country to be a veteran in?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continued advocacy for a cause that I know is dear to his heart. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs is all about blending third sector and statutory provision. Veterans do not care where their care comes from as long as it is professional and evidence based and they have that community. It is our responsibility, through the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, to ensure they have that care, but it will often be delivered by different groups across the country. As my hon. Friend highlights, there are some wonderful groups up in Burnley doing that, and I would be more than delighted to visit him and talk about how we can support them better.

Can the Minister provide an update on the work undertaken by the Defence and Security Accelerator on behalf of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs on veteran health innovation? What progress has been made to support mental health in the community?

This year we established Op Courage and Op Fortitude, and we are looking at designing a clear, physical healthcare pathway for veterans. We are building pillars of support across the United Kingdom. We have put £5 million into a health innovation fund. A lot of individuals came back from Afghanistan and Iraq with injuries that would have been unsurvivable 10 or 15 years ago, with a level of complexity that we had not dealt with before. We are putting money into understanding the science behind that to ensure they have prosthetics for the rest of their lives, not just the next two or three years. There is a commitment from the nation under the armed forces covenant to special care for those who are seriously injured. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member and talk her through some of the other work we are doing.

Public Sector Contracts: Fraud

Last year we established the Public Sector Fraud Authority as a centre of excellence to work with Departments and public bodies to understand and reduce the impact of fraud. It does so by providing expertise and best-in-class tools to prevent and detect fraud, including in contracts. The Procurement Bill will also fight fraud through extending the grounds for exclusion and by establishing a debarment list.

The covid pandemic exposed several conflict of interest problems in public sector procurement. The Government’s Procurement Bill is an excellent opportunity to address those, but it does not pick up all the issues raised by the Government’s own independent inquiries. What will the Minister do to improve on that?

I beg to differ slightly with my right hon. Friend because, as the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office said, we are absolutely determined to ensure that the Procurement Bill is a step forward in transparency and how we handle conflicts of interest. I believe that it will help to give more reassurance on exactly that topic, but I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend if he has further ideas.

Government Departments: Best Practice

Recording and building on best practice is vital to improving how government operates. That is a challenge in a complex digital world where information and data are created at unprecedented rates, but one that we need to get right. I assure my hon. Friend that the civil service is required to maintain records that can be used to spread best practice.

If we do not learn the lessons of history, we can end up repeating the mistakes of the past. Given that Ministers and senior officials in Departments are regularly changing posts, will the Government ensure that each Department has a corporate memory so that new Ministers and officials can see what worked and what did not, and what lessons were learned, to help us to have the most efficient government that we can have in this country?

My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. Under the civil service code, it is absolutely the case that proper records must be maintained so that people can learn from the past and pass that on, and I would always expect there to be professional handovers between teams. On his wider point, I am keen for civil servants to remain in post longer so that they can be judged on outcomes and have the time to follow through on projects, which is particularly important for senior responsible owners. There is also a role for departmental boards to be a repository of institutional knowledge and to ensure that that is communicated to new Ministers and officials as they come through.

Topical Questions

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.