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Cabinet Office

Volume 729: debated on Thursday 16 March 2023

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Sanctions Regimes for Public Procurement: Suppliers

1. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to ensure suppliers follow the UK’s sanctions regimes for public procurement. (904099)

The UK and its international partners stand shoulder to shoulder in implementing sanctions against malignant actors on the international stage. This includes the most severe sanctions ever against Russia, which represents over £18 billion in assets frozen and reported to the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation. Contracting authorities must comply with our sanctions, which have legal force.

On the question of procurement more widely, the British Chamber of Commerce found that, in 2021, small and medium-sized enterprises were receiving a relatively small amount of direct Government procurement money compared with five years ago. Can the Minister explain why SMEs are being increasingly sidelined from access to public procurement under his Government?

Far from sidelining SMEs, the Government are absolutely focused on ensuring that they get a fairer share of the Government procurement pie. I am delighted that the Procurement Bill will put an obligation on contracting authorities to have regard to what their tenders will do for SMEs. That will ensure that, right at the early stages of the process, as well as displaying a long pipeline notice, contracting authorities think through how they can make certain that those tenders are best adaptable to SMEs and their requirements.

In November, it was revealed in The Guardian that the company Infosys was still operating in Russia, eight months after it announced that it would withdraw. Just a month later, that company was awarded a lucrative contract worth £1.7 million of taxpayers’ money. Was the Minister aware of that when that contract was awarded, and do the Government believe that public money should be going to those who are operating in Russia?

We set out in policy procurement note 01/22 our approach to public procurement and links with Russia. That PPN speaks for itself, and I am sure the hon. Lady is familiar with it. It requires contracting authorities to check from whom they are receiving goods and services. It is primarily aimed at those who are Russia or Belarus-based, or who have significant control. I do not know the particulars of the circumstances that she mentions, but the Government’s approach through PPN 01/22 is very clear.

Homelessness Among Veterans

Research shows that only 0.7% of households who were homeless or at risk of homelessness in 2021 and 2022 had support needs as a result of having served in the armed forces, but we will end veteran homelessness this year via Op Fortitude. This new referral scheme will provide a central point for local authorities and charities to identify those in need and refer them to a network of support.

I am aware that the Minister recently visited Forward Assist, where he met veterans from the north-east, including from Blyth and Cramlington in my constituency, and he knows the admirable work that it does helping veterans overcome challenges such as homelessness, mental health difficulties and social isolation. Will he join me in expressing gratitude to everyone at Forward Assist for its commendable efforts in assisting veterans as they transition back to civilian life?

My hon. Friend is a huge champion of the charity Forward Assist, which has done incredible work over a long period. The Government and I are clear that there are two groups of veterans who are under- represented in this space. One is foreign and Commonwealth veterans, and the other is women. We are absolutely determined to correct that. I recognise that there are difficult issues, such as military sexual trauma. We launched the women’s strategy only 10 days ago, and I urge all female veterans to contribute to that so that we can make sure that their needs are met.

I thank the Minister for his response. Can he update the House on what this Government are doing across all nations of the United Kingdom to support veterans who are experiencing homelessness, including in Scotland?

Op Fortitude was something we piloted at Christmas, and it will go live in the next six weeks. It is a single, defined pathway out of homelessness that local authorities will be able to refer into. It is backed up by £8.5 million, and it buys 910 supported housing placements. That is across the United Kingdom. We do not want to see any homeless veterans by the end of this year, and we will strain every sinew to make sure we achieve that goal.

Some 90% of veterans who try to claim personal independence payment for post-traumatic stress disorder have their applications rejected, according to armed forces charities. This is leaving veterans facing homelessness, being reliant on food banks and, in some cases, even considering suicide. Can the Minister explain why it is that veterans are being forced to rely on charities rather than being given the help that they need by this Government?

That question might have been relevant six or seven years ago, but this Government have completely transformed how we deal with veterans, particularly vulnerable veterans, in this country, and recognise that there is a transition between charity and Government responsibility. If there are any individual cases, I am more than happy for the hon. Lady to refer them to me. There has never been better support for armed forces veterans in this country than that given today, and I am determined that all veterans will feel the benefit.

The Royal British Legion estimated in 2020 that there were up to 4,000 homeless veterans in the UK. In Scotland, there is a duty to find permanent accommodation for all unintentionally homeless applicants, including veterans. Will that exemplar be matched in England and an action group set up? What specifically are this Government doing to help eradicate homelessness, particularly with respect to ex-servicemen and women?

I do not recognise those figures at all. There are homeless veterans in this country, including some who are involuntarily sleeping rough because of a lack of provision. We are ending that this year through clear homelessness pathways and through working with Riverside, Stoll and Alabaré and other brilliant service charities to make sure that there are no homeless veterans by the end of this year. Again, if there are any examples, I am more than happy for hon. Members to write to me and I will take up individual cases, but we will end it this year. I remind Members that, if we continue to go around saying that there are lots of homeless veterans when that is not the case, that will be self-defeating as we attempt to make this the best country in which to be a veteran.

Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan: Civilian Life

3. What assessment his Department has made of the impact of the veterans’ strategy action plan on supporting veterans in their civilian lives. (904103)

14. What assessment his Department has made of the impact of the veterans’ strategy action plan on supporting veterans in their civilian lives. (904119)

We have already completed delivery of over 35% of our strategy action plan commitments. Veterans are being supported into employment in the public sector. We are accelerating our investment to end veteran homelessness. The veterans’ survey has been a game changer, and Op Courage is delivering more mental health support than ever before and is on track, despite what the Opposition might say.

We have many fantastic veterans across Keighley and Ilkley, including George Metcalf and Pete Western, whom I have met on numerous occasions to talk about supporting veterans in their civilian lives. Could my right hon. Friend outline the schemes available to help increase veteran employment and to assist their transition into the civilian workplace?

I am clear that having a job—a meaningful job—is the No. 1 factor that will improve the life chances of any veteran and their family. We are putting a great deal of resource and time and effort into that space. On pathways into the public sector, the STEP into Justice programme gets people into the justice system. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs has a veterans employment group. There are some fantastic employment opportunities. We are trying to bring it all together so that it is clearer for people. I commend the work of James Cameron and Mission Automotive in that space. I would like to see those pathways across different sectors, and we are looking to roll that out this year.

I recognise the excellent work that is being done by the Minister and his team. Could he give more detail about Operation Fortitude in respect of homeless veterans? And while he is on his feet, could he give a word of praise to Alex Baxter and his team in Cleethorpes, who do so much for veterans? May I invite him to visit them some time in the near future?

I of course pay tribute to Alex in Cleethorpes, and to everybody who works in this sector. I say to the House again that the nation has a duty to these people. It is not about me, the Government or charities delivering—it is the nation’s commitment and we all need to work together. I pay tribute to the charities that do that work.

Op Fortitude is a referral pathway that will enable anyone who has served and is at risk of homelessness to get into good-quality supported housing, to access wraparound care and treatment for addiction or any comorbidity factors, and ultimately to upskill and get back into civilian life. It is a game-changing programme and I am proud to deliver it.

The Minister and I have worked closely together supporting foreign and Commonwealth soldiers and veterans, so I wonder if he shares my concern about the case of Vilikesa Tubuitamana. He proudly served for 18 years, including two tours of Afghanistan and two tours of Iraq, but sadly his service resulted in severe PTSD. He was honourably discharged on medical grounds and awarded £46,000 to help fund his medical needs and a new life. Shockingly, however, it appears that the Ministry of Defence has used the money awarded for his PTSD to settle an administrative mix-up, leaving him—a father of three—penniless. Will the Minister have a look and see what can be done to support him?

Of course. Clearly, I am not a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, but I raised this formally with the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families earlier this week. I am aware of that case. I totally accept that there are individual cases where the results are not in keeping with making this country the best in the world to be a veteran. That is why I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that case. There is a deficit when it comes to looking after our foreign and Commonwealth personnel, particularly veterans, in this country. He has done great work on this over many years in highlighting their cases, and I hope the sunlight we can bring to this case can bring us to a fair resolution.

After my office intervened on behalf of Sandy, who had been wounded serving in Northern Ireland, by writing to the Secretary of State, we got an inaccurate response that has left Sandy feeling even more frustrated about his treatment and his attempts to get a fairer war pension. Given that the survey by the all-party group on veterans found that 76% of veterans rated their experience of claiming compensation through Veterans UK as poor or very poor, when will there be root-and-branch reform of Veterans UK? Will the Minister promise to take up Sandy’s case and review what has been sent to our office?

I am more than happy for the hon. Gentleman to send me his case. My line on Veterans UK has been the same for four years now. There are good people who work there and they work very hard in delivering that service. Governments of all colours have under-invested in that organisation for many years. When I first became a Minister, they were working on paper records. Jointly with the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, I have commissioned a review of that service to make sure that it works for people like the individual who has been mentioned. I am clear that the service is not good enough in some areas. We are working on that and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see the results of the review, which we launched last week, in the next three to six months.

The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs recently commented in the Express:

“for too long veterans services have suffered from under-investment, and been over-reliant on paper records and outdated tech.”

I agree, but I fear that after 13 years in government, despite the rhetoric and his threat to shave off his eyebrows if he does not deliver, there is no serious plan to deliver the standard of services that all our veterans and their families deserve. So will he confirm what specific resources his office will be allocated for the implementation of the recommendations of the cross-departmental veterans’ welfare services review?

I am a huge personal fan of the hon. Lady, but a lot of what she says in this space is simply not the case. I have written to her to correct the record. I think she may have inadvertently misled the House when talking about Op Courage waiting times. There are problems in this sector and I have spent a long time trying to correct them, but the reality is that the things she mentions, such as waiting times for Op Courage, are just factually not correct. There are areas where we need to work. We have launched the quinquennial review of compensation schemes. I have been going down this path for quite a long time. Never before have a UK Government committed to veterans’ services like the Government have today. That is the reality of the situation. Being a veteran now in this country is fundamentally different from how it was when I started, but I look forward to continuing to work with her in the months ahead.

Civil Servants: Relocation

It is always a pleasure to share good news with you, Mr Speaker. Just three years into our 10-year programme, we have already hit 50% of our target to relocate 22,000 roles from London across the UK. Therefore, more than 11,000 roles have been relocated from London, spreading prosperity and opportunities across the whole of our United Kingdom.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Devon is the natural habitat for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and that, if we are keen to ensure our food security, surely we should locate the Department among our farmers, fishermen and the Met Office, not to mention our world-class universities specialising in climate and marine sciences, and where rurality is an immersive experience?

Departments select places for role relocations using workforce and locational analysis, as well as many other factors, which I am sure would include those referred to by my hon. Friend. As she knows, DEFRA already has 550 full-time employees in Devon and nearly 2,000 across the south-west more widely. I know from previous experience as a Minister that she is a fantastic advocate for her constituency and I am certain that she will continue to make her case.

Yesterday, I joined striking PCS workers on their demonstration, some 130,000 of whom were on strike for better pay and conditions. Irrespective of where in the UK civil servants have been relocated to, their pay and conditions are still determined at Westminster, leading to industrial action across all four nations. When will the Government finally deliver a pay uplift reflecting the work of civil servants throughout the UK?

Individual Departments determine the pay and conditions for their civil servants. There are ongoing discussions with officials. I also met members of the PCS in January. We want to get a resolution. We want to get people back to work, but no one is helped by the current range of industrial action that hits some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Infected Blood Victims: Compensation Payments

I thank all those who attended the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood chaired by the right hon. Lady last week. The Government acted on an interim compensation proposal for those infected in the autumn, paying out more than £450 million, and have accepted that there is a moral case for compensation. I am truly delighted that Sir Brian Langstaff has announced his intention to produce a second interim report, which, as I understand it, will be published before Easter. That will help the Government to meet our objective to be able to respond quickly when the final report is published in the autumn, although I do not wish to understate the complexity of the work involved in addressing the impact of the scandal.

I thank the Paymaster General for attending the meeting with the all-party parliamentary group; we very much appreciated his input. What also came out of that meeting was a desire from those who have been infected and affected to have further information about what the Government are doing in preparation for the reports from Sir Brian—the final report particularly —later this year. I wonder whether the Paymaster General will set out how he feels he can best engage with those infected and affected in the coming months to show that progress is being made and set out a plan for that involvement with those infected and affected.

The right hon. Lady makes a reasonable challenge. She has battled on this issue for many years. I am focused on that interim report from Sir Brian. We have already had the benefits of the Sir Robert Francis study, which I am sure has informed the work of Brian Langstaff and his team. When we see the interim report, it will be incumbent on us to give an immediate reaction—a reaction as soon as is practical—to it, and then to set out what we will be doing to build towards the final report, which, as I say, will be published in the autumn. I know that it has been a long wait for those infected and affected. It is not over yet, I am afraid. There is an awful lot of work to be done, but we are approaching the endgame as these reports come through.

Government Transparency and Co-ordination

6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving Government transparency and co-ordination. (904107)

The Cabinet Office plays a unique role in government, bringing together different Departments across Whitehall to deal with the most complex challenges facing our country. As a founding and current member of the Open Government Partnership, the UK remains committed to improving government transparency. The fifth national action plan for open government sets out the UK’s commitments, and work will start shortly on the sixth plan.

It is several years and, indeed, several Prime Ministers since we had the Union connectivity review. Thankfully, Boris’s bridge has crashed and burned, but, as with the Budget, there were good aspects within it. Sir Peter Hendy, a man who knows about transport, was important in emphasising the vital strategic actions of the east coast main line and the A1 not simply for Scotland, but for the north-east of England. Sadly, questions to the Department for Transport simply result in intimation that there are regular meetings with the Scottish Government, and I have to say that the same obfuscation seems to come from the Scottish Government. We seem to have had no progress whatsoever since Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review. Can the Government please provide some clarity about what their intentions are on upgrading the east coast main line and the A1?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be happy to provide that, and that he will be able to report to the hon. Gentleman the record levels of investment made across our whole United Kingdom under this Government.

From partygate to VIP fast lanes, the level of sleaze we have seen under this Government amounts to a grotesque abuse of power, so transparency is surely necessary to restore public confidence. On that basis, does the Secretary of State agree with me about the need for a truly independent ethics commission, free from political interference, that brings together the various roles and responsibilities of the various bodies and committees responsible for upholding standards in public life to create a single, powerful entity that can restore public trust and confidence?

We have very high levels of transparency. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that Labour Members like to talk the talk, but they do not walk the walk. If they really want to restore public confidence through transparency, they should release now the details of the meetings that took place between the Labour party and Sue Gray. They continue to refuse to do so but are perfectly able to, consistent with the rules of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.

The Fair Tax Foundation revealed that between 2014 and 2019, one in six public contracts were won by businesses connected to tax havens. That means that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is going towards those who try to avoid paying tax. It is fair that the public have a right to know how their money is spent, so will the Secretary of State support Labour’s measures to increase tax transparency in our procurement system?

We already have high levels of transparency, and the Procurement Bill is going through Parliament. The most important thing is to crack down on tax avoidance through tax havens, which is what we saw in yesterday’s Budget and what we have seen previous ones—for example, by addressing the double Irish issue.

In December, the Committee on Standards in Public Life said it was concerned that 18 months had been lost because of the Government’s failure to respond to its report “Upholding Standards in Public Life”, which recommended stronger rules and a better compliance culture for central Government. When can we expect a formal response from the Government?

We are working through the responses. Clearly, a new Administration came in in November, but we will shortly be in a position to publish all the responses to the report. I am working through it with the Prime Minister and publication will come shortly.

How can we be assured of transparency and integrity in decision making if we do not have a register of Ministers’ interests that has been published any time in the past 10 months?

The Government will publish the latest version of that register shortly. The House has discussed and considered this issue, and the hon. Lady may have heard the comments made by the Leader of the House. We are moving to a situation in which we both produce the transparency returns more rapidly and align them more closely with the parliamentary register, but it is important that we get the systems in place so that that can be done properly.

Government Projects: Cost to Public Purse

8. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the cost to the public purse of Government projects. (904111)

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s standards, tools and training for Government projects help to ensure that projects are set up for success. The IPA’s transforming infrastructure performance programme is helping to reduce the cost of projects.

It came as a shock to one of my constituents recently when I pointed out that more than 9,000 public sector workers are paid more than the Prime Minister, including £620,000 being paid to the chief executive of the continually failing HS2 Ltd. It is all public money, so does the Minister agree that we have to demand value for money from such appointments and cap excessive salaries from the public purse?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is essential that we get value for money from the investments we make in our people. There is a role for well-paid people to deliver important projects for the people of this country, but I assure him that any payments above £150,000—that covers the entire remuneration package, not just the salary—must be not only justified by the relevant Department, but personally signed off by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who takes a very close interest in such matters.

Ministers have lifted the cap on consultancy spending for Government Departments at a time when many members of the public are struggling to pay bills or put food on the table. Uncapping the spend on consultancy fees, rather than investing in building and nurturing internal civil service talent, may be short-sighted. Will the Minister reinstate the cap and instead focus on the internal development of skills?

There is a difference between a cap and a control, and it is up to Departments to ensure that they are getting value for money in what they spend. Cutting bureaucracy and cutting exercises that take up a lot of civil service time but that are not productive is a good thing. There is a role for consultancy, alongside growing and nurturing the resources inside the service. It is important that we always get value for money, but that is best generated by having a Department that is laser-focused on value for money in what it is spending and on why it is spending it.

Rapid Response Unit

The rapid response unit was created in 2018 and disbanded in August 2022. It was formed as a central resource in the Government Communication Service that used publicly available information to improve Government’s ability to identify where certain narratives about our work were gaining traction online and to understand public sentiment about Government policies. On disbandment, the information collected was archived and it will be retained in line with the Cabinet Office information retention policy, which is available online.

But why has my hon. Friend refused to admit in answer to parliamentary questions that the rapid response unit collected and stored information on sitting MPs? As my subject access request has confirmed that I was one of those MPs, can he explain why the unit was using taxpayers’ money to snoop on me, who authorised this and why?

My hon. Friend is welcome to come and have a meeting with me and officials in the Cabinet Office to discuss any concerns that he has about the rapid response unit. I have asked them this morning whether there were any monitoring emails that contained his name. I have been given assurances that there were not, but I am very happy for him to come to the Department and talk through all the possible implications. The truth is that the Government have a number of media monitoring services that check what is going on. They monitor not just what MPs and peers say, but what journalists say and anything that is reported in the mainstream media. As my hon. Friend’s name has appeared in newspaper articles in connection with various stories, it is natural that it would be picked up by those monitoring services.

I do have concerns about what has been mentioned. If there are dossiers on MPs, we need to know. If someone put in for an urgent question to get to the bottom of this, I would be very tempted, because I do think it needs clarification. A Government Department holding records on MPs may be fine, but it may not be, so I do have great worries.

As I said, Mr Speaker, we have media monitoring units so that when people’s names appear in the media, be they MPs, peers or people who are not Members of either House, they will be recorded on those systems. There is nothing untoward about this, I can assure you.

Machinery of Government Changes: Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill

10. Which Department is responsible for the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill following the machinery of Government changes in February 2023. (904113)

I do not know whether there is precedent for a piece of legislation bouncing around so many Departments in such a short period. Is there not an irony that the Bill is causing more bureaucracy and red tape of the type that Brexit was supposed to do away with? It is costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds in civil service time, it is causing massive uncertainty across a range of industries, and it is presenting a dangerous cliff edge for so many hard-won rights. Surely, no matter which Minister or Department is in charge of it, the Government should just dump it altogether.

I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation. Through this Bill, we are making the most of our opportunities outside the EU by making sure that we take control and that this place takes control of its own statute book. The hon. Gentleman’s question comes as no surprise to me, because the Scottish National party would be perfectly happy for us to align dynamically with the European Union in perpetuity.

Public Contract Bids: SMEs

15. What steps the Government are taking to support small and medium-sized enterprises bidding for public contracts. (904120)

I am delighted to tell the House that the Government are absolutely committed to supporting SMEs in a variety of ways, from transparently publishing contract pipelines to simplifying bidding processes. The Procurement Bill currently making its way through Parliament will create a simpler and more transparent procurement regime that will open up further business to SMEs.

Analysis by Spend Network found that big corporations were still winning 90% of contracts deemed suitable for smaller businesses. These are worth £30 billion per annum. Will the Minister outline what the Government are doing to ensure that SMEs win procurement contracts that they are suited for?

The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear about the Procurement Bill currently making its way through Parliament. It will come to Report stage after the Easter break. It will help SMEs across the country, including in his constituency and mine, because we have worked hand in glove with the Welsh Government to make sure that the new procurement rules are available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am pleased to say that that is possible only because we left the EU.

National Resilience

Strengthening our national resilience is one of my personal priorities, and my Department continues to lead on this crucial work across Government. We identified seven immediate priorities through the resilience framework; of those, we have already published four. We will soon publish an updated national risk register. Since I last addressed the House, I have also chaired a dedicated resilience Sub-Committee of the National Security Council.

Our preparedness for national emergencies relies on our local resilience, too. In North Yorkshire, we have a high-functioning local resilience forum. Is my right hon. Friend ensuring that these local forums are all operating at the standards needed, and are integrated into our national resilience plans?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We work closely with all resilience forums, which are essential to our whole-of-society resilience approach to any emergency response. There are well-established processes for Government to liaise with local resilience forums to enable national and local integration. In addition, the 2022 resilience framework commits to strengthening local resilience forums, including through clearer accountability and assurance.

We all know how distressing it was for the relatives of people who died from covid to read the former Health Secretary’s leaked WhatsApp messages. There were some dreadful revelations about life and death decisions that were made, and about how they were made. The outcomes of the covid inquiry will be vital for learning lessons to strengthen national resilience—there could be another covid tomorrow. Will the Secretary of State confirm that all evidence from Ministers and former Ministers held on official channels, private emails and WhatsApps has been provided to the independent covid inquiry so that no more delays are caused by the Government?

I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. There has been total and full transparency from Government, as we are required to do under the terms of the Act and the relevant legislation.

Topical Questions

Our economic security is more important than ever, which is why it was at the heart of this week’s integrated review refresh. As part of that refresh, we announced an ambitious programme to bolster our economic defences, which I am leading from the Cabinet Office. That includes a new body in MI5, the National Protective Security Authority, to give businesses the frontline expert national security advice they require, as well as a new supply chain strategy and improved export controls. Those measures will put us at the front of the pack for economic security and ensure that we remain one of the most attractive places in the world to invest.

The former Prime Minister has declared outside earnings of £4.8 million since he left office in disgrace—all of that, of course, on top of his MP’s salary. Why is the taxpayer now being hit for more than £220,000 in partygate legal fees on his behalf during a cost of living crisis? Is that fair?

As the hon. Gentleman may know, there is a long-standing convention that Ministers of either party—this applies to Ministers of both political parties who have been in government—are entitled to legal support in respect of decisions that they made in government. That is an important constitutional safeguard to ensure that Ministers can act freely in government.

T3. Can my hon. Friend assure me that all branches of the Ministry of Truth, which was exposed in the Big Brother Watch report in January, have now been disbanded, so that we no longer have Government and taxpayer-funded activity discrediting MPs who hold the Government to account? In answer to the earlier point that was made, can my hon. Friend explain why, in answer to parliamentary question 148802, which requested information on whether or not the Government were monitoring MPs, no answer was forthcoming? If it was so innocent, why was no answer forthcoming? (904128)

There is no Ministry of Truth; there is the Cabinet Office. The rapid response unit was disbanded in August last year, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about any of his concerns, particularly any parliamentary questions that he feels have not been answered properly.

The Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised to restore integrity, accountability and respect in Government. Reports this week suggest that concerns were raised at the highest levels in Government about the Deputy Prime Minister’s intimidatory behaviour, and yet nothing was done. Can the Secretary of State clarify here today, did the Cabinet Office warn the Prime Minister about the conduct of the Deputy Prime Minister before he was reappointed to the Cabinet?

The right hon. Lady will know that we have been through this process many times before. I thought the Labour party believed in due process. The due process is that Adam Tolley, a very senior KC, is investigating all aspects of that, and I am not going to pre-empt his report in any way.

Yet again, the Secretary of State hides behind the so-called independent inquiry and dodges the question. The reality is that he is protecting a corrupt standards regime upheld by the Conservatives for the last 13 years, with the Prime Minister as judge and jury. Can the Secretary of State say today, in no uncertain terms, when Adam Tolley’s fact-finding mission is complete, will the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser be asked to provide a judgment about whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code by the Deputy Prime Minister?

As the right hon. Lady will know, the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser is independent. It will be a matter for him to decide whether he wishes to take further action, in consultation with the Prime Minister. We see this time and again from the Labour party. They call on us to have an independent inquiry. As soon as we announce an independent inquiry, they ask us to pre-empt it. They ask us to have transparency, yet when it comes to transparency from the Labour party, they still have not provided details of the extensive meetings they had with a serving civil servant. It is in the public interest to declare that, and they have still failed to do so.

T5. I have heard from both my local authorities of the challenges that arise when the obligations placed on them by one Government Department may conflict with those from another Department. For example, the Illegal Migration Bill contains provisions regarding modern slavery and education, which may conflict with local authority legal duties under the Children Act 1989 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015. What proposals are there across Government to ensure that joined-up advice is provided, so that such conflicts do not result in difficulties for our public services? (904131)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have a number of structures in Government to ensure that Departments work effectively together. In relation to parliamentary legislation, there is the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Cabinet Committee, which is led by the Leader of the House. There is also the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat, which ensures co-ordination between different Departments, and those are long-established practices.

T2.   Despite the inquiry by Adam Heppinstall KC beginning over a month ago, the Cabinet Office is yet to speak to Richard Sharp regarding his appointment as BBC chairman. He was appointed to the role over two years ago. Will the Secretary of State advise the House when this inquiry intends to speak to its own subject and when we can expect it to report back its findings? This is a matter of national interest and importance. (904126)

First, I should say that I oversaw that appointment process. I have every confidence in its propriety, and I am sure the inquiry will find that that was the case. In order to ensure that it is an independent inquiry, it is independent from the Cabinet Office, so I cannot give commentary on its timings; that is for the person conducting it.

As the country grinds to a halt once again and children are denied education at the hands of militant trade unions, we learn that the Labour party wants to repeal every anti-strike law in the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public cannot afford or trust a Labour Government while they remain in the pocket of militant trade unions?

It may not surprise the House to hear that I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I am afraid we have seen more evidence of that in this House this year. When this Government brought forward legislation to protect hard-working people from disruptive strikes, the Opposition failed to support minimum service levels.

T4.   I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a proud supporter of every single civil servant who took strike action yesterday. Civil servants have received correspondence from Government Members saying either that civil service pay should be resolved by speaking to human resources or that these decisions should be left to pay review bodies. Civil service pay is not covered by a pay review body, so will the Minister agree to meet the PCS urgently to resolve the dispute and to help his colleagues better understand how civil service pay actually operates? [R] (904129)

Civil service pay is determined at delegated levels between the Departments concerned. At the senior ranks of the civil service, it is more of a Cabinet Office responsibility. I have met the leadership of the PCS—I did so in January. There are ongoing discussions between officials in the Cabinet Office and the unions. We want to see this resolved, but I do not believe that matters are helped one iota by people going on strike and having an impact on the very people they are employed to serve, and I know do serve with great commitment and dedication.

Can the Minister outline what immediate plans the Government have to relocate civil servants out of London? Does he agree that my Cleethorpes constituency and neighbouring Grimsby, as major centres for the renewable energy sector, would be an ideal location for officials who oversee that sector?

The good news to share with my hon. Friend is that we have already got halfway to our target of 22,000 jobs moved out of London around the UK, and a huge number of those jobs have gone to the north of England. I am sure that my hon. Friend will make his case for his constituency in his normal, incredibly effective way.

T6. We had a local council by-election in my constituency last week, which the Liberal Democrats won of course, but it was a reminder of the challenges we face in encouraging high voter turnout at our elections. A recent survey by the Electoral Commission showed that more than a third of people are still unaware of what they will need to take to the ballot box with them in future to vote. When we add to that the number of people who will not have that, how are the Government going to address that shortage? (904132)

The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that there is a major communications programme to address just that issue.

I thank the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) for coming to visit the Veterans Charity in Barnstaple earlier this year. Does he agree that such charities run by veterans often play an excellent complementary role to the excellent work his Department is doing?

I of course pay tribute to the Veterans Charity—it was a fantastic visit—but I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s advocacy of it over many years. It has been extraordinary. It provides great services down in the south-west, and I pay tribute to it.

It has recently been revealed that the Crown Commercial Service in the Cabinet Office is planning to replace local buying and distribution agreements for food and catering services with what it calls a single national prime supplier. That will have a profound effect on many local and regional wholesalers in Cambridge and across the country. Can the Minister tell us what assessment he has made of that impact, and will he meet me and representatives of those wholesalers to assess the situation?

The Crown Commercial Service is always looking at ways in which it can save taxpayers’ money, but it is also mindful to protect small and medium-sized enterprises, which remain a priority for this Administration.

The global expansion of cyber-space is changing the way we live and work. Can my right hon. Friend outline what steps he is taking to advance our national cyber-security strategy and to bolster our defences against malign actors around the world?

Clearly the landscape in which we are operating is getting more risky over time, with geopolitical elements, as the House is aware. I am spending more and more of my time ensuring that we reach appropriate levels of cyber-security, working with the National Cyber Security Centre and other agencies.

I echo the earlier question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) about the contaminated blood scandal. The inquiry is coming to an end, and another interim report is due shortly. I just reiterate that it is so incredibly important for those affected, including bereaved parents such as the Smiths in my constituency, that we know that the Government are preparing now and are ready to act quickly on compensation for those people who have waited so long.

The hon. Lady has campaigned vigorously on this on behalf of her constituents. I am aware of her absolute focus on this matter of major concern. There is work ongoing; I think we will be helped a great deal by Brian Langstaff’s second interim report, which I believe will address compensation. That will help us get that underpinning. It is an incredibly complex issue, as I am discovering, but I can assure the hon. Lady that work is being conducted in Government to make certain we are ready for the second interim report, and then the final one.

In 2016, Hinkley Point C was estimated to cost £18 billion. The latest update is that it is going to cost £33 billion. The UK Government want to replicate Hinkley Point C at Sizewell C; why, then, are they still estimating the cost of Sizewell C at £18 billion? When are they going to come clean about the real cost of Sizewell C?

Some of the precision of that would be better answered by my colleagues in the relevant Department, but what I will say to reassure the hon. Gentleman is that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority learns with every single project that we do. I have discussed this with the IPA, and there will be a huge amount of learning from the planning that has already gone on as to how we can make certain that future projects learn from experience and are more cost-effective. That was the case with how we have built schools: right across the Government service, we are finding ways of learning and applying that more regularly.

I am going to have another go. Will the Paymaster General agree to a series of update meetings with those infected and affected by the contaminated blood scandal in the months leading up to Sir Brian Langstaff’s final report? That is a specific question.

The next point in this process will be the second interim report, and when that is published, I will meet the right hon. Lady and her colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group if that is helpful. That is about two weeks away, in the Easter recess.

Given that Brexit was all about this place taking back control, why are the Government using so many Henry VIII clauses and awarding themselves other delegated powers in the Brexit legislation that they are passing? Is it not about time that we had a proper review of how delegated legislation works, along the lines recently proposed by the Hansard Society?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman would appreciate that, given the sheer volume of European legislation that we accumulated during our membership, we have to move rapidly to establish sovereign control. That is why we have the provisions in that Bill. The provisions of the Bill have been approved by this House and are currently under consideration in the other place, so Members have had ample opportunity to make their views known and to vote on it.

The Veterans’ Minister and I recently met the hero, Ben Parkinson. I was certainly concerned to hear that there was not provision within the system to cover the cost of Ben’s wheelchair. Could the Minister say whether provision was made in yesterday’s Budget to cover those costs, and if so, will he take the opportunity to pay tribute to Ben and his family for their persistence in making the case?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to the veterans mobility fund. He is absolutely right: none of these individuals with these catastrophic injuries should be contributing anything to their specialist mobility equipment. That is why, yesterday, we managed to reinstate the veterans mobility fund, and I pay tribute to Ben and his family for their campaigning on that issue. It is an important piece of work, and we will make sure we see it through.

Figures show that 50% of female spouses of serving personnel aged 30 to 49 experience loneliness, in contrast to 27% of women of the same age in the general population. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that adequate emotional support services are available to the spouses and families of serving personnel?

That is a question for the Minister for support personnel, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), but I know that he would mention all the work that has gone into groups such as Recruit for Spouses, and all the work that those groups do. There is a massive unmet skillset in that space that we should take advantage of; there are some brilliant skills there, and I know the Ministry of Defence is working hard on that at this time.

Sitting suspended.