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Commons Chamber

Volume 734: debated on Thursday 22 June 2023

House of Commons

Thursday 22 June 2023

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Public Spending: Value for Money

1. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help ensure value for money in public spending. (905531)

10. What recent steps he has taken with Cabinet colleagues to help ensure value for money in public spending. (905543)

14. What recent steps he has taken with Cabinet colleagues to help ensure value for money in public spending. (905552)

The Government continue to deliver on our commitment to get maximum value for taxpayers’ money in public spending. The Cabinet Office is one of the engines of efficiency in government. In the most recent financial year for which we have the data, the Cabinet Office, working with colleagues across Whitehall and the cross-Government functions, saved the British taxpayer £3.4 billion, a record we are proud of.

It is not just the lies by the former Prime Minister that have damaged trust in our politics; the contracts handed out to Tory friends and donors through VIP lanes did great damage too, yet the Government last week voted down attempts to shut down VIP lanes for good. No doubt Tory donors are rubbing their hands with glee, but with polls showing three quarters of the public are worried about corruption in Government, does the Minister not agree that the refusal to shut down VIP lanes for good will simply add to these grave concerns?

Last week we debated the Procurement Bill. I was very sorry not to see the hon. Gentleman in his place at the time, but if he had been present on that day he would have heard us say that the Bill prevents VIP lanes.

I am sure the Minister is aware of the recent report stating that up to £7 billion of taxpayers’ money is squandered on so-called woke projects, including an Arts Council programme on unlearning whiteness. My constituents would argue that this money is far better spent on frontline services such as our NHS. I am sure the Minister agrees, so will he update the House on what steps he is taking to eliminate such appalling waste and to ensure every penny of taxpayer money is well spent?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about the need for us to ensure every pound of taxpayers’ money is spent appropriately, and he will have heard or read the Health Secretary’s comments in March, when he wrote to the health community saying:

“I would ask that you, as a member of the wider health family, now review whether your organisation is getting value for money from your diversity and inclusion memberships and, if not, consider any steps that you could take to address that”.

Central London is a very expensive place in which to employ civil servants, and it is expensive for them to live in central London, so what are we doing to allow all parts of the United Kingdom to have the civil service based in their areas, particularly smaller towns, not just large ones, and across the UK—not just in the north, but across the whole of the UK?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are the Government who committed to relocating 22,000 civil servants from London to the regions by 2030, and we are making excellent progress on that. We have already achieved half that number, and the other day I was pleased to be in Sheffield opening our new policy unit, which brings people together, and not just entry-level civil servants, but the senior managers and decision makers who are going to inform the decisions that drive government in the future.

Has the Minister been looking at the evidence given by George Osborne and Oliver Letwin? I think they were here briefly on an old Etonian work experience scheme, but the evidence they have been giving is a great revelation about what went on in Cabinet and at the highest levels of Government Departments. Will he look and learn?

Am I standing? My goodness, does the Pope wear red socks?

On value for money, what recent discussions have there been with our European counterparts to ease the cost of living by removing the costly Northern Ireland protocol measures on admin and accountancy for small and medium-sized business, and will the hon. Gentleman undertake to resume discussions if they are not ongoing?

The Windsor framework made significant progress and took a substantial burden off businesses, but I believe conversations are ongoing and if the hon. Gentleman has any particular questions he would like to bring to my attention, I will be very happy to have a conversation with him.

Thank you; good morning, Mr Speaker.

I frequently stand at this Dispatch Box and ask the Minister about value for taxpayers’ money, because his Department is responsible for making sure that every penny is treated with the respect it deserves, especially during the cost of living crisis. With that in mind, can he give us an official estimate of the total cost of fraud to the UK across all sectors in 2022?

We are engaged in a constant battle against fraud. We do so with colleagues across Whitehall, and particularly in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury. I look forward to the right hon. Lady’s next question.

I thank the Minister for that non-answer, but the public deserve to know. While he ducks and dives the question, I have discovered the answer. At a conference in Portsmouth last week, the UK fraud costs measurement committee distributed hard copies of its new report with a fresh new estimate: £219 billion is lost each year as a result of fraud. That is equivalent to this year’s entire central Government running costs budget for health, defence and policing put together. The figure does not even include covid fraud. Can he tell me how much of that money he has clawed back?

We have established the Public Sector Fraud Authority to clamp down on fraud. As a former DWP Minister, I assure the right hon. Lady that this Government go after fraud wherever it is found. Every time we find new opportunities for fraud, we come forward with new means of clamping down on them. We are a Government committed to efficiency, which we are delivering. As the right hon. Lady will have heard me say in answer to the first question this morning, the Cabinet Office, in the most recent financial year for which figures are available, delivered £3.4 billion-worth of savings to the British taxpayer. That is work we will continue to do.

Honours Nominations

7. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of his Department’s processes for scrutinising nominations for honours. (905540)

Nominations are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) will know, taken on merit. The criteria that we use are regularly reported to Government, with our most recent report on the operation of the honours system published last month. We are confident that the process for honours selection, including adequate probity and propriety checks, is proportionate and robust and that all due process is followed.

Does the Minister agree that as proven by recent controversies, the system must be transparently meritocratic, so that it is crystal clear that everybody receiving an honour legitimately deserves it? Now that we have introduced a points-based immigration system to choose the best and the brightest from around the world to live here in Britain, should we consider a similar points-based system to choose this country’s brightest and best to receive honours in future, too?

My hon. Friend is too modest to mention that he came up with this idea some time ago, and it is one that we have considered, but it is not one that we will be taking forward at this moment in time. We go to great lengths to ensure that the process remains transparent, and he can read the most recent report, which was published last month. It is essential that we ensure that the committees that make the considerations around the honours system can do so and can report to this place and to the public. While I am aware that he would like us to go further, we do not believe it necessary to uproot the entire system. We want to ensure that the honours system represents people from the length and breadth of the country.

The Prime Minister insists that he was only following convention when he waved through Boris Johnson’s honours list. It should be obvious to anyone that this former dishonourable Member—a man who will not even be allowed back on to the estate without an escort—should not be doling out honours. Would a stronger, more principled Prime Minister not have recognised that any convention that allows such a man to install his discredited cronies as peers might need changing, rather than blindly following?

The hon. Lady knows that there is a long-standing convention from 1895 that outgoing Prime Ministers have a resignation honours list. To put it in plain language for her, just because that gentleman has been found against in this House, it does not mean that the people who were put forward in his resignation honours list are without merit.

Nuclear Test Veterans: Recognition

3. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to recognise the contribution of nuclear test veterans. (905534)

Nuclear test veterans played a valuable role in developing a nuclear deterrent that has ultimately kept Britain safe for decades. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs has opened the £200,000 nuclear test veteran community fund and a £250,000 oral history project to ensure that the veterans of Britain’s nuclear testing programme are never forgotten.

British nuclear test veterans, such as my constituent Colin Moir, welcomed the news earlier this year that they would finally be awarded a commemorative medal. Given that Mr Moir applied for his medal at the soonest opportunity and unfortunately has not received it in time for this Armed Forces Week, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give that medals will be received in time for Remembrance Sunday?

I recognise that the medallic recognition has taken a long time to achieve. The Government, for the first time in 60 years, have delivered on that medallic recognition. I want to ensure that those medals are in the hands of veterans who deserve them. I recognise the concerns around delays. I will be extremely disappointed if medals are not on the chests of nuclear test veterans at Remembrance Day this year.

Resignation Honours Lists: Impact

4. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of the publication of the resignation honours lists of the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk and the former right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip on public trust in (a) politicians and (b) political institutions. (905535)

My Cabinet colleagues and I have frequent conversations about a range of issues, with a range of colleagues. To the question that the hon. Lady is pushing on, she will have heard me say that there is a long-standing convention, under successive Governments, that outgoing Prime Ministers can draw up a resignation list.

I can now say this without being told off, as was the case a year ago this month: the disgraced, dishonest and serial-lying Boris Johnson should categorically not be given any resignation honours list—period. What steps is the Minister taking to rescind this democratic outrage? If he is not taking any, does he agree with Parliament’s judgment on Monday, given that he chose to abstain on the vote?

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The failed London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has been given a life peerage in Boris Johnson’s list, despite his “Jingle and Mingle” 2020 Christmas party. Does the Minister agree that someone who has failed to be elected on three occasions and flouted the laws that the rest of us stuck to during lockdown should not be offered a life peerage?

The honourable gentleman in question, as the hon. Lady will know, was also a very long-standing member of the London Assembly, and was successfully elected on a number of occasions to fill that role. Obviously, reports of the party in question are unacceptable. We condemn that event, but as she will have heard me say to her colleague, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), the list has gone to the sovereign and been approved.

There is a bit of unedifying silliness in the Chamber this morning. We are absolutely beside ourselves that we seemingly cannot do anything about this, and the Government are not taking any responsibility. Just because something has been convention since 1985 does not mean that we should continue doing it. If the antics of the dishonourable member for the Chiltern hundreds were not bad enough, convention now dictates that the 49-day former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who crashed the economy, which directly contributed to the mortgage rate rises that people are struggling with, will also get to make nominations. Why is even more power and privilege being awarded to those who have caused untold misery and hardship?

Covid-19 Inquiry

We remain committed to providing all relevant material to the inquiry, and will continue to comply with requests so that we can learn the lessons from the pandemic. To date, the Cabinet Office alone has submitted 55,000 documents to the inquiry.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but far from co-operating the Cabinet Office is taking the inquiry to court to block access to information, and the Government are set to spend in excess of £50 million of taxpayers’ money on solicitors to protect current and former Ministers. What do they have to hide?

The Government are committed to getting to the truth on covid. There will be a lot of lessons to learn. We are following a process, and it is incredibly important for the country and the future Governments of the UK that we learn the lessons. We have nothing to hide from the inquiry, but there is one specific technical difference between us and the inquiry and it is right that those things are sorted out in the law courts, as is normal in such circumstances. We want to provide all relevant material to the covid inquiry; we continue to do so and we support its work.

We must learn the lessons from the covid inquiry. It was “ludicrous in retrospect”, a “relatively small part” of the brief, “wildly under-resilient” and a “disaster for the country”—not my words but those used by the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at the covid inquiry this week to describe the Government’s approach to resilience and preparedness for the past 13 years. He also said it was a huge error not to have a senior Minister solely devoted to resilience. Will the Secretary of State finally listen to Labour and appoint a dedicated Minister for resilience?

There is a resilience Minister in the sense that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster maintains oversight of resilience. That is one of a number of responsibilities shared with the devolved Administrations—resilience is important in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. I look forward to meeting my colleagues from those Administrations next week in Edinburgh to discuss these issues. We take resilience extraordinarily seriously. We undertake exercises to ensure that we understand the pressures that may come to bear. We always take resilience seriously and we will look at the lessons coming out of the inquiry about how to do better as a country.

We will keep asking. I am glad that the Paymaster General mentioned emergency response exercises, which are essential for learning the lessons from covid and for being ready for whatever disaster comes next. As the senior Minister for resilience, among many other things, will the Paymaster General tell us how many exercises have been carried out locally and nationally in the last year? Is he ensuring that lessons are learned, changes are made and good practice is shared to make all our communities safe?

Exercises take place locally and nationally. The exercise involving the use of the emergency alert system for the first time ever, to ensure that we have that important pillar in our response, illustrates how seriously we take these issues. We will continue to undertake exercises to ensure that we are as prepared as anyone ever can be for the circumstances that we can plan for and try to project. But clearly, we never know the disaster that might hit us. That is why we take these things seriously.

Government Projects: Cost

6. What steps his Department is taking to reduce the cost to the public purse of Government projects. (905539)

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s standards, tools and training for Government projects and its expert advice and cost estimation guidance helps to ensure that Government projects are set up for success. I am pleased to announce that the IPA is launching its benchmarking data service later this year, which will significantly improve the pricing of Government projects through access to a detailed dataset of realised unit costs, delivering much more confidence to cost estimation.

In reducing costs, the challenge for my right hon. Friend is the way that Government projects are set up in the first place. They blow their budgets because the people set up to deliver them always know that the taxpayer will bail them out. Will he look at introducing a new private sector viability test for Government projects, where a lack of private sector interest would be the warning light that the project is wrong? For example, the total lack of interest from any private sector investor should have been the flashing red beacon for the financial catastrophe that is High Speed 2?

We take infrastructure challenges seriously. It is incredibly important to bear down on inflation for a whole range of reasons, including the impact on our capital projects. Clearly, inflation has had a dramatic impact over the last 18 months. The IPA is a force for challenge in Government projects. It supports HS2 delivery through advice and assurance, particularly through the annual assurance updates, which help to provide external challenge to the Department when it makes its regular reports to Parliament, which it will do this month.

Of course, no one knows what the cost to the public purse of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Illegal Migration Bill will be, because the Government are refusing to publish their economic impact assessment. Will the Minister speak to his colleagues in the Home Office to get that economic impact assessment published, not least because if it will not do that, it will face freedom of information requests and complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which themselves are going to cost the taxpayer more money?

The hon. Gentleman has made his point in his normal way and I am certain it will be picked up by my colleagues in the Home Office.

Veterans: Well-paid Employment

Veterans employment in this country is strong, with 87% of veterans securing employment within six months after service, helping to deliver on the Government’s priority to grow the economy.

As we celebrate Armed Forces Week, let us celebrate the skills of our armed forces personnel and their value in civilian life. The Army’s life skills policy and holistic approach to transition do just that. Nevertheless, the number of veterans claiming universal credit has risen by 50% in the last year and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers tells me that over half its welfare cases are about employment and finance issues. In these difficult circumstances, why have the Government chosen to halve the number of armed forces employment champions in jobcentres?

On armed forces employment champions in jobcentres, we have gone away from that being a part-time role to having full-time Department for Work and Pensions armed forces champions who cover different areas. They are proving hugely successful in getting people into work. I was concerned about the reports on universal credit and I explored that this week. There is now a different method of accounting and I have asked for more detail on that. The truth is that veteran employment is higher than it has ever been before, but I share those concerns and I will continue to explore the data.

As it is Armed Forces Week, may I first take the opportunity to thank our armed forces, veterans, reservists and family members for their service to our country and today, on Windrush 75, particularly those from Commonwealth countries who serve?

We have heard that the latest Government data shows that the number of veterans claiming universal credit has increased every month in the last year, representing a 50% rise in the last 12 months. I heard what the Minister said, but our heroes should not be relying on benefits and charitable support to get by. Amid the current cost of living crisis, can the Minister elaborate a bit more to the House how his Department has been helping veterans to find well-paid employment?

I would be delighted to. What we are creating are clear, defined pathways into different sectors across the UK economy—sector initiatives, whether in renewables, finance or construction. We are designing clear pathways that deliver an equity of access across the United Kingdom, so it is not just who you know or relying on charities; everyone can access them. Having a job remains the No. 1 factor in improving life chances for veterans across the country. We are delighted to see employment at 87%, but we always want to do more and will continue to drive away at that.

I heard what the Minister said, but is what the Government are doing on employment support sufficient when we have heard that the number of armed forces champions in jobcentres has halved? That is less capacity across the country. In contrast, the Labour party is ready to deliver across Government the support our veterans deserve with our plan to fully incorporate the armed forces covenant into law. Will the Minister do the same: yes or no?

I am so sorry. I desperately want to be challenged in this space, but that is incredibly feeble. I would never try and do maths with anybody in this place, but if we have part-time armed forces covenant champions in jobcentres replaced with full-time champions in the regions, we will have more coverage, which is what we have delivered across the country. On incorporating the armed forces covenant into law, I was the first Minister to do that, in my role as the Minister for Defence People and Veterans. Look, we can always do more, but we need to make sure we are not doing down where we are with veterans. How it feels to be a veteran has changed fundamentally. I look forward to proposals from the Labour party going into the election that are realistic, deliverable and will improve what it means to be a veteran.

Industrial Action: Maintaining Public Services

9. What steps his Department is taking to maintain public services during industrial action; and if he will make a statement. (905542)

The Cabinet Office’s Cobra unit continues to support Departments to develop their contingency plans. At the same time, we are co-ordinating preparedness across Government to minimise the impact on public services wherever possible. However, the only way to truly avoid disruption is by union leaders returning to the negotiating table and working constructively to reach a fair and reasonable deal.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I am sure that he can imagine the difficulty that my constituents and those in Burntwood and other parts of the west midlands face because of industrial action. Does he agree that organisations should be free to employ anyone who is best able to do a job, regardless of whether they happen to be a member of a militant trade union?

As ever, my hon. Friend is right. Indeed, the people of Lichfield deserve better and less industrial action. They are superbly represented by their Member of Parliament, who will continue to ensure that they get better than industrial action. I stand four- square with him.

Civil Service: External Consultants

11. What recent assessment he has made of the reasons for which external consultants are used by the civil service. (905545)

My focus is on ensuring that the civil service has enhanced skills to provide all forms of advice where appropriate. However, there is also a role, as there is in other Governments around the world and in the private sector, for specialist expertise. Where that represents good value for money in delivering for the taxpayer, we will use it.

Instead of increasing the resilience of our civil service, this Conservative Government rely increasingly on expensive external contracts to fill gaps. The UK public sector awarded £2.8 billion-worth of consulting contracts in 2022—up 75% from 2019—while poor Government leadership led to a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. Staggeringly, the Government have brought to an end limits on Whitehall spending on external contracts. Will the Minister explain how, when millions, including my constituents, are struggling to pay their bills, the purse strings can simply be untied when it comes to hiring outside consultants?

It is absolutely not the case that there are no limits on consultancy fees. Every Department is responsible for its own finances and is under pressure to deliver effectively for the taxpayer. Any decision to issue contracts is closely scrutinised in the contracting Department. The largest contracts come to the Cabinet Office as well, but the key issue is to ensure that Departments spend their money wisely. There is a role for specialist expertise. There are occasions—I had experience of this in the Ministry of Defence—when consultants are the best value for money in providing a service to the taxpayer.

Extreme Heat Preparedness

13. What recent assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of the Government’s preparedness for extreme heat. (905550)

Keeping the British people safe is the Government’s first duty and that includes from risks such as extreme heat. Central and local government have continency plans that are ready to be implemented when we receive UK Health Security Agency heat health alerts or Met Office severe weather warnings. The Cabinet Office plays a critical role in supporting those plans. For example, the National Situation Centre has been working with Departments to ensure that relevant data can be captured during a heatwave to support timely decision making.

Maybe the heat is getting to you, Mr Speaker.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will remember last summer, when the temperature reached 42°, and that was just in Committee Room 14, where we were holding the leadership contest. The good news is that the Met forecast shows that we will not get such extreme heat this summer, but people are already suffering because of the heat. What action is my right hon. Friend taking right now to ensure that people are safe during very hot weather, and that they are prepared for what may come?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the matter. The situation is precisely why we rolled out the new heat health alerting service in conjunction with the Met Office on 1 June. As climate change continues, we are developing cross-Government working to ensure that we are resilient to the new challenges.

It is not just red-headed, fair-skinned folk like me who suffer during the UK’s increasing heatwaves. I note with envy that, across Europe, many countries have introduced maximum workplace temperatures, and I wonder whether this country could do the same. Will the Minister look at implementing such a scheme?

I am very sceptical about adding further regulatory burdens to business. I think most businesses are incentivised to make sure their employees have a safe and appropriately cooled place to work, which is the appropriate way to proceed. However, we are working across Government, and through things such as local resilience fora, to make sure businesses are properly advised on the appropriate steps to take.

Government Agency Helplines: Response Times

15. If he will take steps with Cabinet colleagues to improve response times to calls made to the customer helplines of Government agencies. (905554)

We know the frustration that my hon. Friend’s constituents, and indeed all constituents, feel when they are kept waiting on helplines. Departmental helplines are not managed or run centrally, and therefore each Department is responsible for its own helplines and for response times and waiting times. However, I know His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for instance, has recognised that its customer services have not been good enough recently and is taking steps to improve them.

With two thirds of HMRC staff working from home, and with HMRC taking more than 20 minutes, on average, to answer the phone, HMRC has now shut down the busy self-assessment helpline over the summer. Will my hon. Friend take action, together with His Majesty’s Treasury, to address the presently appalling level of customer service at HMRC?

Veterans’ Affairs: Best Practice

16. What steps he is taking to share best practice on veterans’ affairs with his international counterparts. (905555)

In recent months, I have met international counter- parts, including from Canada and Korea, to share best practice, and I went to the veteran games in Israel. We collaborate with our Five Eyes partners, and this afternoon I am meeting the Ukrainian Minister to understand how we can help Ukraine to shape veterans and recovery processes.

My constituent Godfrey Hunt was a civilian scientist in the UK’s nuclear testing programme in the 1950s. He has long campaigned for a medal for nuclear veterans, and he was delighted to hear the Government’s commitment, three months ago, that we would finally issue these medals. I heard the Minister’s comments earlier, but will he take this opportunity, once again, to confirm the timetable for getting that medal on to the chest of Godfrey Hunt and all other nuclear veterans?

I pay tribute to Godfrey and all those who served in that programme. I recognise the frustration with this process. It has taken 60 years to get to this point. I want to see those medals on chests on Remembrance Day, and getting these things through Government and so on is not easy. I have made it very clear to officials, and I make it very clear to them again today, that I expect those medals to be on veterans’ chests on Remembrance Sunday this year. I will strain every sinew in Government to make sure that happens.

Topical Questions

We continue to strengthen the country’s overall resilience, which is why last week we published a new biological security strategy that will help to protect us from a whole host of threats, from diseases to bio-weapons and antimicrobial resistance. The strategy includes a new bio-threats radar to monitor hazards as and when they emerge.

This week I will travel to Indonesia and Singapore to strengthen our partnerships on cyber-security and data protection, and to build on the UK’s leadership on one of the most important issues of our time: artificial intelligence.

We know from answers to previous questions that the taxpayer is still being billed £700,000 a day, which is £5 million a week or £21.4 million a month, to store personal protective equipment, much of which is of too poor quality to be used. What will the Secretary of State do to make sure such reckless procurement never happens again?

I do not recall a time during the covid crisis when the Labour party said we should not be purchasing PPE but, on wider procurement, that is precisely why we are taking the Procurement Bill through this House, which seizes the opportunities of Brexit to ensure we have an efficient procurement system.

T3. The Cabinet Office does a really good job, thanks in part to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and others, in looking after veterans’ affairs across the whole of government. However, I would like another group in the armed forces community, armed forces families, to have parity of esteem with veterans. We still have spouses and partners whose careers and jobs are trashed as they move around, with employers not doing enough; we have children who have studied the Romans six times and never get on to the Egyptians; and we have health appointments that do not catch up on moves. We need the Cabinet Office to chivvy this cross-departmentally. Will he do that? (905565)

That is a good question, and I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend for his work over the years; he did the “Living in our Shoes” report when I was in a previous role. Veterans’ affairs are outside the Ministry of Defence because veterans are civilians, not serving personnel, and they require all those aspects of government to work for veterans as civilians. He is talking about armed forces families, and responsibility for them remains with the MOD and the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families. I am sure he will have heard those remarks and I stand ready to assist in any way I can.

T2.   This afternoon, we will have a debate on the infected blood inquiry. Representatives from Haemophilia Scotland met colleagues last week in Parliament and it has called for an independent arm’s length body to be established, as recommended by that infected blood inquiry. Can the Paymaster General confirm that it is the Government’s intention to do that? (905564)

I welcome the fact that the House will have the opportunity to debate the infected blood inquiry this afternoon. I look forward to the debate and I hope other Members will be able to be present for it. The Government have not yet set out their final deliberation on the arm’s length body; an awful lot of work is ongoing. A detailed study was undertaken by Sir Robert Francis and we had a fine second interim report from Sir Brian Langstaff. We are still working through the implications of that and we continue to do so.

I say to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs that we are grateful for the work he does. Can he ask those in his private office whether they will show him the message I sent him yesterday about the secretary to a governor in Afghanistan, who is in hiding and whose grandfather has been killed trying to protect him, to see whether there is anything the British Government can do to allow him to come out of Afghanistan?

I recognise the ongoing concerns about those who remain in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has asked me to do what I can to get the Afghans who are currently in hotels into long-term accommodation in the UK. That will allow us to turn back on those flights out of Afghanistan. I recognise that there are still people there who should be in the UK, and I will, of course, look at the case my hon. Friend raises later today. That process of bringing people out of Afghanistan remains with the MOD, but it will have heard his comments and I will do everything I can to help him.

I return to the issue of nominations into the other place. Is the Minister aware that 27 members of the Lords donated £50 million to his party and that one in 10 Tory peers have given more than £100,000 to his party? Is that all just an unfortunate coincidence, or are we seeing a return to cash for honours? Would it not be simple just to say that nobody who makes donations to political parties can receive an honour in the future? Would that not be the simplest way of dealing with this utter scandal?

We all remember the cash for honours scandal that happened under the hon. Gentleman’s party’s tenure, and we all know how many union barons are barons.

What steps are the Government taking to improve the co-ordination and collaboration between different Departments on addressing the mental health needs of our veterans?

This Prime Minister made the conscious decision to take veterans out of the MOD and set up the Office for Veterans’ Affairs in the Cabinet Office, with a Cabinet Minister responsible for this. For the first time, that aligned us with our Five Eyes allies. That has allowed us to produce things such as Op Courage, the UK’s first dedicated mental healthcare pathway for veterans. It costs £22 million a year, with that rising every year. We had 19,000 referrals in its first year and a massive unmet need in this country is now being met by government. We are very proud of that and we look to do more in the future.

Each year, thousands of young people leave local authority care, yet many of them struggle to be able to afford their first home or to get their first job. As local councils are corporate parents, could the Government be a corporate grandparent and have a cross-government care leavers’ strategy, encouraging more Government Departments to employ care leavers to give them a good shot at life?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Prime Minister has asked me to look at the issue. There are about 92,000 care leavers aged between 18 and 25 in the United Kingdom. They require and deserve pathways similar to those that we have created in the veterans space. I look forward to launching that strategy and speaking further to the House, before the summer recess, about the issue of children in care.

I noted, with interest, the update to the civil service headquarters occupancy data for June on the Cabinet Office website this morning. It shows a pleasing trend of more civil servants coming back to their desks, but with some Departments, such as His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, still below 50%, what is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that more civil servants get to their desks?

We are encouraging people to go back. That is an ongoing trend, and my hon. Friend is right about what he alludes to in the numbers. There are benefits in civil servants working together, as there are for those in other areas of the economy, in terms of innovation, teamwork and being able to bring on new members of a team. I welcome the fact that people are returning to the office and that they are working collaboratively in Government buildings across the country.

Opportunity has been squandered in the way the Government are disposing of public land. Bootham Park Hospital closed seven and half years ago, but it is still vacant despite developers coming and going, meaning that opportunities for creatives and businesses, as well as for residential use for local people, are being denied. Will the Government undertake a cross-governmental look at public land to ensure that it is used for public good, not profit?

I cannot comment on the specifics of the case that the hon. Lady raises, but I can tell her that the Government Property Agency, which is based in the Cabinet Office, delivers enormous efficiencies for taxpayers by rationalising the estate and using some of the savings to create modern working environments, which create greater productivity among our civil servants.

May I take a slightly contrary view about working from home to the one we heard from the Front Bench just now? While I fully recognise that working with other people in an office is constructive from a teamwork and creative point of view, working from home has advantages, including saving travel time and, on occasion, enabling people to concentrate more on the job. Will my right hon. and hon. Friends not take too prescriptive a view of working from home, and encourage TWATism? A TWAT, Mr Speaker, is somebody who works in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Mr Speaker, we are all better informed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The policy is not doctrinaire. As my hon. Friend says, there are occasions when that is the right approach, but the default position should be working together in the office space. We believe that means we get more out of employees, there is better productivity and it is a better experience for those working together in that team environment.

Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), may I press Ministers in relation to HMRC and Department for Work and Pensions phone services? I have constituents who are waiting over an hour to speak to DWP call centre staff, who are then cut off. The pressure is partly caused by more and more people relying on DWP and HMRC services. Having been cut off, they subsequently receive letters saying their benefits have been revoked or they are expected to repay taxes, without having been able to talk to any officials in those call centres. It cannot be right for the Minister to say that it is for those Departments to deal with the problem. The Cabinet Office needs to have a co-ordinating role to resolve these ongoing problems. It is simply not good enough.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say already that it is a matter for those Departments. It is their responsibility, but I know they are taking those responsibilities very seriously. DWP and HMRC are working hard to get the waiting times down.

As the Procurement Bill goes through Parliament, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that hostile nations are not installing equipment in our networks and other facilities?

We were delighted to announce last week, during Report stage of the Procurement Bill, the creation of a new security unit within the Cabinet Office. It will identify high-risk vendors, who will be prevented from supplying things like surveillance equipment to certain parts of the public estate. I am very proud of our record in this space.

We have now passed midsummer’s day, the longest day of the year, and still the children are at school. What is the impact on our civil service and our services of an outdated system where children in this country go on holiday when half the summer—very often the best part of it—is over? Can we have a change and look at how we time our summer holidays for children?

I suspect the question is a matter for the Department for Education. I think the reasoning is that it tends to be warmer in August, but I am happy to take up the matter with my ministerial colleagues.

What steps is the Cabinet Office taking to honour the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment to protect Northern Ireland veterans from vexatious litigation?

I can tell my hon. Friend and the House that we are nearly at the summit of that mountain. The Bill is continuing to go through the Lords. It will come back to this House and become law by the summer recess. We will have delivered on a manifesto commitment to protect those who served us in Northern Ireland, of whom we are deeply proud, from the vexatious nature of investigations and litigation, while providing a better opportunity for all victims of that conflict to find out what happened and to focus on reconciliation and the future.

The continuous briefing against our civil servants by Ministers and Conservative MPs is having a disastrous impact on morale in our civil service. Do the Government not realise that damaging morale in our civil service hinders us in conducting Government business and retaining that expertise in-house, and makes us ever more reliant on expensive external consultants?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I totally refute his contention. That is not the experience of this ministerial team. That is not what we do. I very much value the work of our civil servants. I make that clear to their union representatives and to civil servants themselves. They do a very valuable job for our country and they will always have the support of this Government in attempting to do their utmost, as they do, to support and benefit the prosperity of the whole country.

Where is the surplus personal protective equipment being stored? What is it costing and what are the plans for its disposal?

The benefit of having a long set of topicals is that we cover many Departments through the course of it. I am not totally aware of any answer to that question without consulting my colleagues in, I suspect, the Department of Health and Social Care. I am afraid that I am not able to give an answer to my right hon. Friend on that point.

Last year, the then Prime Minister, now the Steward and Bailiff of His Majesty’s Chiltern Hundreds, announced the creation of the Office of the Prime Minister. It was going to be very exciting—like something out of “The West Wing”, which, of course, was a work of fiction, much like a lot of Boris Johnson’s premiership. In the words of a character from “The West Wing”, is the Office of the Prime Minister still “a thing”?

Within the hierarchy of Whitehall, Downing Street sits within the Cabinet Office. I have found that the way it works best—I think that this is the Prime Minister’s view as well—is that the Cabinet Office supports Downing Street in the performance of its functions, so I do not think there is a need to create a separate Office of the Prime Minister beyond the existing Downing Street capabilities.

In the past week, I have had the opportunity to engage with a veteran who is coming to the end of 24 years’ service in July. He has to leave the Palace barracks in Holywood and move out because his tenure has come to an end. He has no idea how to get housing and job opportunities, due to changes in his personal circumstances. What steps are being taken to ensure that no long-serving soldier is left in such a precarious position or feeling so vulnerable? I know the Minister will answer positively, but I think we need to know that.

I thank my hon. Friend for his long-time advocacy for this cohort, particularly those who served in Northern Ireland. While I recognise that the politics may change out there, he should be under no illusion that this Government’s pride in those who served in the armed forces in Northern Ireland remains completely undimmed. When it comes to housing provision and employment, it is true that opportunities are better now than they ever have been in the history of this nation, but I recognise that there is more to do and we need to ensure that people do not fall through the cracks. I am more than happy to meet him to talk about this individual specifically so that we can load him on to one of the programmes we have designed.

Sitting suspended.

Sudan: Atrocities

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement regarding the rapid acceleration of atrocities in Sudan.

The UK strongly condemns the heinous attacks on civilians across Sudan, including, in particular, in Darfur. All parties involved are accountable for the crimes they commit. Our immediate objective is to stop the violence, ensure that civilians are protected, and bring about immediate safe and unfettered humanitarian access. Civilians and critical infrastructure must be protected in line with international humanitarian law, and communities must have access to critical care and basic services.

On 16 June, the Minister for Development and Africa called publicly for atrocities to stop and for humanitarian access to be granted. The UK is stepping up enhanced observation of human rights in Sudan through a remote risk-monitoring capability. We have provided funding to organisations that are, with input from local partners, collecting, verifying and preserving digital content from the conflict, including instances of significant abuses. That will play a vital role in amplifying the voices of those who are being targeted, and will be permissible in future accountability mechanisms, should they be established.

The UK is pursuing all diplomatic avenues, including ministerial engagement with regional counterparts, to end the violence and de-escalate tensions in Sudan. The UK-drafted resolution, passed at the United Nations Human Rights Council on 11 May, condemns the human rights violations and abuses taking place in Sudan. It is the strongest resolution that the council has passed on Sudan in over a decade.

We continue to be hugely invested in Sudan. Over the past five years, we have invested £250 million-worth of humanitarian aid, and that, combined with our diplomacy, will continue, we hope, moving Sudan towards the path of peace.

A systemic ethnic cleansing is happening in Darfur right now. Last Sunday, 100 members of the Darfur diaspora in the UK met. Every person had lost several members of their family in the last few weeks owing to a campaign by the Rapid Support Forces/Janjaweed to change the DNA in Darfur. That means targeting non-Arabs. Boys over 10 are being murdered; girls over 12 are being raped. Civil leaders are being targeted and murdered, including the Governor of West Darfur.

A quarter of a million people live in El Geneina, which has been under siege for two months. The RSF/Janjaweed has destroyed the water sources, hospitals, pharmacies and food stores. We have no idea of the true scale of the casualties, but an eyewitness has estimated that the number is already in the thousands. The Sudanese armed forces are doing nothing to protect people. The city is just 28 km from the border with Chad at Adré, where French troops have been seen recently and UK aid is waiting, but people are being shot when they try to flee the violence. El Geneina is a strategic gateway for arms and mercenaries entering Sudan. Furthermore, the RSF has a vast gold smuggling network in Darfur and is connected with Russia’s Wagner Group.

Given that the UK is the penholder at the UN, what action are we taking to stop the violence? What pressure is being put on the warring generals to end the conflict? Has the UK called for an urgent debate at the UN Security Council? Could the nearby French troops, backed by the international community, work to provide a safe corridor for those in El Geneina? Why has the UK not sanctioned the commercial wings of the RSF and the SAF, as the US has? Why has the UK still not proscribed the Wagner Group as terrorists? What pressure is being put on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia given that many RSF and SAF commercial entities are registered there?

Lastly, will the Minister meet urgently with representatives of the Darfur diaspora here? Will he ensure that the voices of civil society and marginalised ethnic groups are heard so that a comprehensive solution to the problems at the heart of the terrible Sudan conflict can be delivered?

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for her sustained personal interest in this issue. She comes at this with a great deal of relevant experience, as the most recent UK Minister to have done travelled in the region. The House is grateful for her sustained personal interest and her questions today.

What action is being taken to prevent the violence? We are exerting all diplomatic effort, in concert with the USA and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We hope that the warring generals will see sense. Our diplomatic effort is steered through our membership of the UK core group and will promote the efforts of the African Union. We hope that, through diplomacy, we can progress this measure. We have called for a debate in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and I am pleased to say that we will have closed consultations in the Security Council in New York in the coming days.

My right hon. Friend asked an interesting question about the potential role of French troops. I cannot comment on that specifically, but I know that our diplomats and officials will be liaising with our allies to see what humanitarian work might be expedited by the significant French presence in the region.

Of course, I cannot comment from the Dispatch Box about future UK sanctions. All options continue to be on the table, and we will keep these issues under review. Through our diplomacy and our strong relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, we hope that we might influence both sides in this terrible conflict, and we think that our diplomacy with our Gulf partners has huge possibility.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Development and Africa will engage with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford and any civil society members she thinks are relevant to meet. We do care about Sudanese civil society. Our ambassador, Giles Lever, continues to meet where he can with members of Sudanese civil society, including youth, women and Darfuris. That reflects the scale of our long-term investment in civil society in Sudan, with humanitarian investment of some quarter of a billion pounds in the last five years.

I thank the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for securing this urgent question. She is an effective and committed chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan and South Sudan.

The reports from Darfur are horrifying. The Sudan Doctors Union says that 1,100 people have already been killed just in the small city of El Geneina. Unarmed men and boys are being murdered because of their ethnicity. Women and girls are being mass raped. One rapist was reported as saying that they want to

“change the DNA of this place”.

The provincial governor was assassinated after stating that this was a genocide. Hundreds of thousands possibly remain trapped in El Geneina, shot as they tried to flee.

We knew long before April that racist mass violence and groups armed along ethnic lines were common in Darfur. We knew that the RSF grew out of the Janjaweed, which bears heavy responsibility for acts of genocide 20 years ago. The risk of atrocity crimes was clear. We are the penholder for Sudan on the Security Council. Why did we not better anticipate and prepare? What does it say about our atrocity prevention strategy and the priority that we place on raising the alarm early?

What assessment have we made of the Wagner Group’s role in supplying weapons, and what are we doing now? Why have the Government not even mirrored the United States’ sanctions on economic entities funding the conflict? What can we do at the UN and the African Union to ensure rapid civilian protection now in Darfur? We know that some are determined to block action, regardless of human cost. Can we not expose their role in enabling this horror? Surely we need to bring our partners together now and act.

The hon. Lady raises a number of pertinent questions. When it comes to anticipating the upsurge in violence, we have confidence in our diplomats. It has long been a volatile situation, and I want to clearly express confidence in our diplomatic representatives, our diplomacy and our deep understanding of the region. Of course, they are not able to predict every last event, but we do have a deep reserve of regional expertise built up over many years, and we should be proud of that.

The hon. Lady asked a question about the Wagner Group. Clearly, we keep all options under review, but I agree with her assessment of the hugely damaging, detrimental and pernicious effect of the Wagner Group. That is a regional trend—it reflects the profound diminishing of Russian influence on the European continent—and we keep its activities under close watch. She also made a very good point about protection of civilians. Clearly, all our efforts are focused on pushing for a diplomatic path towards peace, because it is peace that will allow civilians to be protected and the humanitarian aid to flow.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who has been a steadfast advocate for the people of Sudan, for securing this urgent question. There is no question that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated in El Geneina and across Darfur. At the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, we held a session specifically on the crisis, and we heard that the fear is that diplomats are putting their trust in the men with guns rather than civilians. Given that we are the UN Security Council penholder, why are we not leading work to secure a commission of inquiry on Sudan by the Human Rights Council? That is something meaningful we could do that would make a real difference.

Secondly, please can we get a grip on our chaotic approach to dealing with the Wagner Group? We need to bring in sanctions. Can we also look at putting up balloons with allies that would provide internet access to Darfur, so that the voices that are being silenced and massacred can get out and the true scale of what is happening can be known around the world?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for her pertinent questions. She made a very good point about alleged war crimes. We entirely agree that accountability is hugely important—it is an instrument of deterrence. That is why a lot of our work on a daily basis is about ensuring that there is institutional capacity for recording atrocities so that those responsible can be held to account.

My hon. Friend made a good point about civil society, although we have engaged and will continue to engage. On the UN route to further expedite our interest in human rights, the next step is the closed session of the Security Council, but all options are on the table with regard to the Human Rights Council. She referred to the Wagner Group, and I agree with her assessment of the threat, although not her characterisation of our policy. Of course, we keep its activities under review, and that is reflected in robust and deep institutional thinking and policymaking.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford): she is absolutely right to bring this matter before the House today while this violence, which we all condemn, escalates. It would be the understatement of the century to say that Sudan is no stranger to identity-based violence. The Minister said that the UK Government have a deep understanding and regional expertise. It is therefore deeply concerning to hear from academics, policy experts and non-governmental organisations on the ground in Sudan that time and time again, the UK has failed to listen to the advice, the warnings and the pleading to follow an atrocity prevention approach to Sudan.

This week, as we have heard, the Foreign Affairs Committee heard from witnesses across Sudanese and western agencies that the UK Government have ignored repeated warnings. Indeed, a letter from the UK Civil Society Atrocity Prevention Working Group says that

“As violence broke out in April, the Sudan team had in place no expertise on the dynamics of atrocity violence; no system of urgent alarm raising”

and no guidance, and had undertaken no training to address these issues. The SNP has called for an atrocity prevention strategy for years. The 2021 integrated review should have included one, so why has all of this been ignored? When will the UK Government change their strategy to accommodate such an approach, and will they bring to the House details of how they are going to take that forward, along with all of the other answers that should be heard today?

I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford for her deep expertise and experience, and for tabling this urgent question today.

We did not ignore warnings. We have absolute confidence in our diplomats, our civil servants, and those members of our institution who have deep expertise in Sudan. They do not have a crystal ball; they cannot predict every last machination in a conflict that is highly complex and extremely volatile. Diplomacy is the art of the possible, as is peacebuilding, and that is where our diplomacy, considerable humanitarian investment and expertise will be focused.

On the Wagner Group, my hon. Friend said that he keeps matters under constant review and close watch. When will it be time to stop watching and do something?

I am really grateful to the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for shining a spotlight on this, because for too long the international community has not directed its attention to it. Civil society groups reported to my Committee a month ago, and said that they are going unheard when they have been trying for years to raise concerns. Despite rising conflict and reports of atrocities across the region, the Government have continued to make cuts in UK aid in east and central Africa. FCDO bilateral aid to Sudan dropped sharply, from £220 million in 2021-22 to just £25 million the following financial year. Against a backdrop of ongoing conflict and severe humanitarian suffering, what assessment has the Minister made of reversing these cuts, especially in relation to preventing conflict, stopping the atrocities and building peace?

We do engage and we have engaged with civil society groups, so we do care about their perspective. Our ambassador and his team have a long track record of engaging with civil society, youth, women and Darfuris in Sudan, and that will continue, notwithstanding the security constraints they currently face, so we do have a good track record of engagement with civil society. The hon. Member mentioned the scale of our investment. Despite the fiscal reality with which we live and our responsible approach, we should be proud of the fact that, over the past five years, we have invested a quarter of a billion pounds in Sudan in humanitarian aid. We should therefore be confident that our significant investment, twinned with our diplomacy, can have a significant effect.

The Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha is due to take place—that is the prediction—next Wednesday. This should be a time of great joy for Muslims across the world, but clearly it is not going to be in Sudan. Could the Minister advise the House on what action he is taking to at least try to negotiate a ceasefire during the festival, so that people can celebrate even if in terrible circumstances?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that good point. The festival of Eid al-Adha should provide an opportunity and an opening for peace. We will continue to make that point, and push it with our Gulf partners particularly, in our diplomatic efforts, in concert with members of the African Union.

In normal times and peaceful times in Sudan, large quantities of food crops such as sorghum and millet—and corn, barley and others—are grown. If in this planting season we do not see these crops being sown, we could have a massive widespread regional catastrophe on our hands. Can I take it that the Minister understands this issue and that maximum effort will be made via diplomatic channels to see that these crops are planted this year?

The hon. Member raises an extremely pertinent point. The food crisis in the region is acute. It has been exacerbated by constraints in global supply, and the catastrophic impact of Putin’s war in Ukraine, in cutting off the global supply, has had a very significant impact, especially across the African continent. We will of course do all we can to improve not just conditions in the east African region, but the global supply of grain, which is where things such as the Black sea grain initiative are important on a geostrategic scale.

Africa, which will have a quarter of the world’s population by 2050, has many great and powerful economies with which we trade. So what representations have the Government made with the African Union, to which we have an ambassador based in Addis Ababa, about the role the African Union is going to play to remedy this absolutely horrendous situation?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I think the African Union is a very valuable partner, and we have an important role to play. At its core, this is about reform, the promotion of enterprise and societal development, and institutional capacity building. That is the route towards more sustainable and long-term economic development, which means countries will be more resilient when it comes to climate change.

Important humanitarian initiatives in Sudan have been closed down by the authorities in Darfur, including those of the UK charity Tearfund, which is referred to in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does the Minister see any prospect of those initiatives being able to reopen in the foreseeable future?

We must be realistic: it is hard to see an opportunity in the near future, but that does not stop us being very energetic in our diplomacy. Peace will be the gateway to such organisations returning to their work, so we will exert all efforts possible.

I have received many pieces of correspondence from constituents deeply concerned about the horrendous situation in Sudan. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to support Sudan’s neighbouring countries as civilians flee the ongoing violence in Sudan?

That is a good question because the regional impacts are very significant. All countries in the region are a focus of our humanitarian efforts and investment by the UK international development fund. We hope that that, twinned with our diplomacy and the very active diplomatic efforts of our Minister for Africa and Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)—he has recently been in Ethiopia and Egypt, for example—can bear fruit.

We stand here many times to remember and commemorate genocides, and we say, “Never again,” but genocides are not inevitable. Twenty years after the Darfur genocide, unthinkable crimes are taking place. The Government were warned repeatedly about the atrocity risks in Sudan. Will the Minister pledge today to ensure that atrocity prevention training is given and informs all of our work in all of our country teams?

The hon. Lady makes a good point and I am sure the Minister for Africa will look at exactly that.

Is the Minister aware of concerning reports that Eritrean refugees in Sudanese camps, who have already fled violence and oppression in their own country, are now facing targeting, violence, oppression and deportation from Sudan? When he is taking part in the various diplomatic initiatives he has outlined, will he make sure this is investigated and support provided where needed?

I thank the Minister for his response to this urgent question, and the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) for her assiduous commitment to highlighting all these issues across the House. It is estimated that since 15 April fighting in the city of El Geneina in Darfur has taken the lives of 1,100 people, and it is increasingly coming to light that many of them are not soldiers in combat but civilians fleeing the city in fear of their lives. Will the Minister outline what discussions have taken place with our allies to enable women and children to get to safety, and what steps can we take to stop this carnage?

The protection of women and children is at the heart of our diplomatic efforts and we discuss that with our allies in all fora, including the African Union and the UN. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.

Business of the House

10.53 am

The business for the week commencing 26 June will include:

Monday 26 June—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Financial Services and Markets Bill, followed by consideration of a Lords message to the National Security Bill.

Tuesday 27 June—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate in the name of the official Opposition—subject to be announced.

Wednesday 28 June—If necessary, consideration of a Lords message, followed by Second Reading of the Holocaust Memorial Bill.

Thursday 29 June—General debate on the fishing industry, followed by general debate on artificial intelligence. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 30 June—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 3 July includes:

Monday 3 July— Second Reading of the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill.

Tuesday 4 July—Estimates day (4th allotted day)—subjects to be confirmed.

Wednesday 5 July—Estimates day (5th allotted day)—subjects to be confirmed.

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Thursday 6 July—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) (No. 2) Bill, followed by a general debate on building safety and social housing, to mark six years since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, followed by business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 7 July—The House will not be sitting.

It might also be helpful for the House to know that, following further discussions with the Procedure Committee and Mr Speaker, it is the Government’s intention to bring forward a motion next week for the House to consider the extension of the proxy voting scheme for ill health and injury.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business. Today we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the first people from the Windrush generation. They made their homes in cities such as Bristol. They built their lives here, they had their children here, and we are proud of the contributions they made throughout their whole lives. After years of their dedicated public service in the NHS, transport and industry, I have to ask, why are the Government treating these now 60, 70 and 80-year-olds so badly?

The Home Office has failed to process more than 2,000 of the claims for compensation. More than a third have been waiting more than six months for a decision. It is expensive and complex, and just getting to that point is hard enough. A lack of access to affordable legal advice is stopping people from even applying for compensation. Can the Minister tell us when the Home Office will clear that backlog and give people the compensation they are owed? What are the Government doing to make the process fairer and more efficient? Will she ensure that those who need it get specialist help? There is a deep sense of injustice in communities such as mine in Bristol. Will the Leader of the House please ask the Home Secretary to come to the House and make a statement, so that the people we represent can get the answers they deserve?

Order. Can I just say to Members looking at their watch that the shadow Leader of the House has up to five minutes?

I have done only 90 seconds.

I thank the Leader of the House for stepping up while the Prime Minister stepped aside in Monday’s vote to start restoring trust in democracy. It is a very low bar, but a big improvement on her predecessor but one, who tried to rip up the standards system when faced with a similar situation. As grateful as I am, it must have been difficult for the Leader of the House, with no Prime Minister to rally the troops, no Cabinet colleagues on the Front Bench to cheer her on and a roll call of Johnson’s sycophants behind her. I am afraid to say that the Leader of the House looked a rather lonely figure on the Government Front Bench—a Tory version of Greta Garbo; glamourous, but all alone. For most of the debate, she was seemingly the only Cabinet Minister holding the torch for any level of standards in public life. However, I know she will be pleased that her powers of persuasion worked wonders over some of her Back Benchers. In fact, more than 100 of them backed her motion.

The current Prime Minister was perhaps slightly less pleased and more nervous that the sword-carrying second favourite to replace him secured an unexpected amount of support. If so many Tory Back Benchers found the strength to do the right thing, why couldn’t the Prime Minister? Not only did he fail to vote, but he was too weak to utter a single word of substance on this issue. We do not know where this Prime Minister stands on standards. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether the Prime Minister plans to sit out all future votes on integrity, professionalism and accountability? Where was he?

The Leader of the House famously once reassured this House that another Prime Minister was not hiding “under a desk”—words immortalised on the BBC’s “Newscast” intro. I hear news from the parliamentary Press Gallery reception that she is a big fan of the podcasts, so I will end by tempting her to update “Newscast” and this House: is that where the Prime Minister really was on Monday evening—hiding under a desk?

First, I join the hon. Lady in saying how good it was this week to see the Windrush generation, and all their contributions to our nation, treasured and celebrated. The Windrush scandal—the injustice done to those people when they had given so much of themselves, and their families’ lives, to this nation—is a tremendous stain. I shall certainly ensure that the Home Secretary has heard what the hon. Lady said. She will know that the Home Office has stepped up bespoke surgeries for colleagues on other matters in our casework; I am sure that that could be extended to any cases of the Windrush generation that Members are dealing with.

I shall take all compliments that the hon. Lady gives me about my glamour, but I was not alone on Monday. Many Cabinet colleagues were in the same Lobby as us, as were the Chief Whip and the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. I repeat what I said in the debate: whatever hon. Members thought about the motion that we were presented with on Monday night—whether they agreed or disagreed with it, or agreed and disagreed with various aspects of it—we are entitled to exercise our right to vote in either Lobby, or not to vote at all. I stressed that I very much feel that people should be left in peace to determine the course of action that they deem correct.

The hon. Lady has not said this, but some of her colleagues have pointed to my colleagues and called them cowards. I do not have time to look into the character of each colleague who was not in the same Lobby as us, but of the Conservative Members who abstained or voted against the Privileges Committee, 20 of them are veterans. Between them they have more than 253 years of service. I do not know how many medals they have between them, but one of them has a distinguished service order. These people are not cowards; they are honourable and decent people, and they did what they thought was right. I would say to anyone beating up on Members of this House for voting one way or another, or abstaining, “Even though I no longer have a sword, back off!” I hope that the hon. Lady, who has been nodding, would agree with that. We are at our best when we have that approach to these matters.

I appreciate that we have had a lot of debate this week and are awaiting news on rate rises from the stresses that our economy is under. I was disappointed to hear the lack of confidence expressed this week by those on the Opposition Benches in the resilience and capability of our nation. It does not survive contact with the facts. Last year, British exports to the EU were at their highest since records began. We are the largest service exporter in the world. The UK’s trade balance with the EU has improved. We now have the highest growth of any G7 nation in the last two years, and rank third globally as a priority investment destination.

We are the second nation in the world to have a stock of foreign direct investment worth $2 trillion. We are Europe’s most attractive destination for financial services. We have a trillion-dollar tech economy, and the largest life sciences, film and TV sectors in Europe. We have more people in work than ever before. We are modernising our statute book and can legislate to suit our needs and values on online safety, gene editing and data reform, just to give Members a few examples. We have identified £1 billion-worth of savings in red tape for UK firms and we are reducing compliance costs. We have given UK regulators the ability and resources to make sovereign decisions about globally significant mergers and acquisitions, and now have control over all aspects of our fiscal policy, the way we procure and how we grant subsidies, our taxes, and VAT.

We have scrapped 6,000 tariff lines. We have left the common fisheries policy and many of our ports have had a massive increase in sales; Brixham has gone from £40 million to £70 million in eight years. We now have an agricultural regime that supports the foundations of food production. Free trade agreements and state-level memorandums of understanding will increase our market share in goods and services. On freeports, Teesside alone is estimated to create 18,000 highly skilled jobs.

Are we still at the heart of Europe? Do they listen to us? Does NATO? Yes, they damn well do. I am proud of Britain’s leadership, seen again this week on Ukraine. Ditto AUKUS. Ditto the Atlantic partnership and declaration, and our work at the World Trade Organisation. The British public should be confident in the nation and the decisions that it took, even if Labour is not.

I would vote for that. Windrush deserves prominence, but we should not forget SS Ormonde, which landed in Liverpool in 1947 and SS Almanzora, which landed in Southampton in 1947.

The Leader of the House has announced the debate on the holocaust memorial. In that debate I will say that I look forward to a holocaust memorial being built within two years at a far lower cost, but I will argue to detach the learning centre from it and to have a fast competition for a more appropriate memorial, so that most of the money can be spent on the education centre.

My question to the Leader of the House follows a question I put to the veterans Minister in Cabinet Office questions. Will the Government please consider giving the Cabinet Office more power to decide which of those people still stuck in Afghanistan should be given permission to come to this country, such as the person I mentioned, who had been secretary to a governor in a province? I have written to my right hon. Friend in the Cabinet Office and to the Minister for Security in the Home Office, and I hope that the Leader of the House will consider whether more power should be given to that Department, as the Ministry of Defence is failing to extract people who served this country?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he said about the important Holocaust Memorial Bill. There are many different views about the right approach, but we can all agree that we want something done swiftly. It would be great to ensure that as many survivors as possible could be around to witness its fruition.

I completely understand his concern for the brave people in Afghanistan who were associated with the coalition’s work. He is obviously doing all that he can to ensure that his suggestion is heard by Cabinet Office colleagues, but I will make sure they have heard what he has said.

“Eternal Father, Strong to Save”, written for those in peril on the sea, is one of my very favourite hymns. It calls to mind the dangers that those brave enough to venture forth on sometimes stormy waters can face, whether those who travel down to its very depths or those risking their lives to escape war, persecution, famine or drought. Our hearts go out to all those currently lost and their loved ones, but the contrast in approach to recent events is telling. Where were the same levels of energy and resources to help the 750 poor souls crowded on board the vessel that capsized near Greece last week, in what will surely rank among the worst catastrophes in the Mediterranean in recent history?

It is a source of tragic irony that this year’s Refugee Week immediately follows that horrific incident. It also reflects a growing global humanitarian crisis on which this UK Government continue to turn their back. Seeking asylum is a human right, but rather than providing safe and legal routes, this Government choose to abdicate their responsibilities under international human rights law, from the Afghan resettlement scheme to Rwanda deportations and the refugee ban Bill. While Ministers continue to reflexively parrot “stop the boats” to questions on the topic, this week the UK’s leading medical bodies called for an urgent meeting with the Government, warning that plans to detain children indefinitely under the Illegal Migration Bill pose the risk of “unimaginable levels of harm” to their physical and mental health. Can we have a debate on the long-term health impact of that legislation and Government’s immigration and asylum policies?

Scotland stands ready to accommodate refugees and asylum seekers. Glasgow remains the local authority with the most dispersed asylum seekers in the UK, while Scotland has taken in 20% of all Ukrainian arrivals under the sponsorship schemes. If the Home Office really wanted to assist, rather than enriching Tory-appointed private contractors it could provide the necessary funding for local authorities across the UK. Today, over 110 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. That figure will only grow in the coming years. [Interruption.] Can the Leader of the House and her fellow advocates of global Britain tell us how they intend to step up to meet the challenge?

The hon. Lady is shouting loudly because I am coughing! This is not a good way to do things. We have to get a grip of time, because a lot of Members want to get in, and we must look after them.

First, I thank the hon. Lady for the sentiments she expressed about the rescue operation taking place as we speak. I was proud to say the naval prayer at the armed forces flag-raising ceremony that many Members attended. She is right to point out the dangers of crossings on the Mediterranean and right to refer to that appalling situation. Clearly, investigations are ongoing with regard to the coastguards’ activities. I remind Members that it was in a similar incident a few years ago that more people were lost in one night crossing the Mediterranean than were lost on the Titanic. That is why we must use every means at our disposal to stop people-trafficking operations and ensure we have a refugee and asylum system—not just in the UK, but a global set of rules—that enables us to direct finite financial resources to help those most in need and to take people who are lingering as we speak in refugee camps and other places, rather than one that encourages people to make dangerous crossings and puts funds in the way of people-trafficking organisations. I would just stress that to her.

We speak about many topics and matters, but we sometimes forget the personal impact on individuals of the polices our Governments make. One individual this week, Fergus from Inverness who worked in the legal profession for many years and will shortly be drawing his pension, is really dismayed at what is happening in Scotland. He is against the deposit return scheme and wants someone to come and sort that out; he is against the ill- thought-out marine protected areas; he is against the SNP’s transition from oil and gas; and he is against the SNP riding roughshod over UK equality Acts. What would be the hon. Lady’s advice to Fergus? What would she suggest to him, given that Fergus is an SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament who this week voted to support a motion of no confidence in his own Government’s co-leader? I have some advice for Fergus: fill out an application form to join the Conservative party and hand it to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who is standing up for his country- men and his nation.

First Bus, without any warning or consultation, recently announced major changes to bus services in Newcastle-under-Lyme, including, most significantly, the withdrawal of the No. 4 service to Audley and Wood Lane from 2 July—in less than a fortnight’s time—which will mean that people will not be able to get to work or college. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is not appropriate for bus companies to do that after so little consultation with local residents? I am grateful to the interim managing director for agreeing to meet me tomorrow, but may we have a debate about the way bus companies do such things with so little warning and consultation with local residents?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on standing up for his local community. Whatever changes and adaptations are made to services, they need to be done in consultation with residents. If that has not happened, there needs to be a pause to enable that to happen. These are incredibly important services and that is why we have been backing local bus services with a further £300 million over the next two years, which includes £140 million to combat any indications of reductions in service.

On Tuesday, the Backbench Business Committee heard applications for estimates day debates. Following the hearings, we selected the following subjects for debate: the spending of the Department for Work and Pensions; the spending of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero on measures relating to energy infrastructure; the spending of the Department for Education on adult and post-16 education and further education colleges; and the spending of the Ministry of Justice on His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. Those four debates will take place on Tuesday 4 July and Wednesday 5 July, but not necessarily in that order.

We have had a number of occasions recently when the House has adjourned early or relatively early on Government business days. If the Leader of the House and her colleagues have any inkling in advance about such early finishes in future, there is the possibility that the Backbench Business Committee, in conjunction with applicants, might be able to fill the void and conjure up debates to fill the space. We have mentioned that in the past. If Government business were to run to time when we had something lined up, we would just park it and bring it back at a future date. We are always trying to be flexible, but we are also trying to be helpful.

The hon. Gentleman is always flexible and helpful, and I thank him for the helpful advert of his Committee’s deliberations. He makes a good suggestion. I want to ensure that Members have time to debate matters, particularly legislation, but if they do not want to take it up, we should still use our time well in this place. I will follow up his suggestion with him.

Canadian Solar and Windel Energy are proposing to build a solar plant in Rutland and the Stamford villages. This week, the Planning Inspectorate published my response, but they redacted the words “Modern Slavery Act”, all mentions of the Uyghur and even quotes from the Energy Secretary. On top of that, The Times has reported deeply inappropriate approaches from those companies, asking me to drop my opposition in return for a school, a playground, a swimming pool or something I might like. They say that it has been done before. Who can I go to in Government to ask for advice on whether the Planning Inspectorate can make those redactions and for support in dealing with a deeply inappropriate approach?

That does sound inappropriate. I have some experience of dealing with similar companies in my constituency. It is difficult for colleagues when some of our concerns refer to, for example, issues of national security or other matters that are slightly outside the Planning Inspectorate’s direct lane. I will write to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and ask for some advice. It is difficult for colleagues—we do not wish to put Ministers who may make decisions further down the line in a position that they cannot be in, but we also need advice. I shall see what advice I can get for my hon. Friend so that she can ensure that the right thing happens.

I thank the Leader of the House and all Members for their warm words about the Windrush generation. Actions speak louder than words, and as the right hon. Lady said, the personal impact that Government policies have on individuals can be forgotten. With 74% of claims not being resolved, more people are likely to die before their claims are resolved. Will the Leader of the House not just speak to, but work with the Home Secretary to simplify and accelerate the Windrush compensation scheme?

I thank the hon. Lady for what she said. The media have highlighted this week cases such as she described. Whether it is the Windrush scheme or other compensation schemes that are administered by the Government, it is very much understood that the payments need to be swift. We do not want to add further injury to the damage already done. I know that the Home Secretary takes the matter very seriously, but I assure the hon. Lady that I will do all I can from my office to ensure that people get their compensation in the shortest possible time and to facilitate any cases that hon. Members have where that is not happening.

With the prospect of the Victoria Tower being refurbished on the exterior, will my right hon. Friend assure me that the interior will be done at the same time? I have heard that there may be a quirk in the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019 that means that we can do only the outside, and that we will have to do the inside later, which may add considerably to the cost.

My right hon. Friend is very knowledgeable on those subjects. I can tell him that that argument has been put forward to me by other quarters, but I have looked at it and there is no impediment to the outside and the inside of the tower being done at the same time. I know that I speak for Mr Speaker and others when I say that we want the work to be done well, with the least disruption, while also ensuring that there is value for money for the taxpayer.

Supporting the Privileges Committee report on Boris Johnson earlier this week, the Leader of the House said

“the integrity of our institutions matter.”—[Official Report, 19 June 2023; Vol. 734, c. 585.]

Mr Johnson’s actions were not right, and they were not honourable. The Leader of the House is also Lord President of the Privy Council, so can we have a statement from her, in that role, on whether she would recommend that Boris Johnson be stripped of his title as a right hon. Privy Counsellor?

I understand why the hon. Lady and Members are exercised about this matter and cross at the former Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and former Prime Minister. As a matter of information, such a thing would be advice from the Prime Minister given to the King, and I would prefer His Majesty to be kept out of such matters. The threshold, for people who have been booted off the Privy Council previously—for example, having committed financial fraud—is much higher than the situation we were discussing on Monday. I understand where she is coming from and her motivation, and the integrity of all these systems is very important, as I said on Monday, but I do not think it is an appropriate course of action in this instance.

This morning I was contacted by Leyland police, which executed a warrant on a property in Leyland and discovered items of such concern that it arrested a gentleman at the property and put an extensive cordon to protect people’s safety in the Broadfield Drive area. Can the Leader of the House advise me on how I can best communicate my gratitude to the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire for the swift action that Lancashire police has taken today, which has almost certainly kept the British public safe?

I hope all will be well in my hon. Friend’s constituency. She has arrived at her own solution. I will make sure that the Policing Minister has heard her remarks. On behalf of the whole House, we should thank her local force for its proactive policing and for all it is doing in this ongoing investigation to keep the community safe.

I refer to my declaration of interest. Pneumoconiosis, the coal dust lung disease, is still prevalent in coalmining communities and is still a major cause of death. National Union of Mineworkers advice centres are reporting that Government lawyers have become increasingly difficult on applications for compensation. Can we have a debate in Government time on how the Government can assist, rather than resist, these compensation applications from families who have lost their loved ones?

Given that the relevant Department’s next questions will not be until after the summer recess, I will write on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf to make sure it has heard his concerns. As with all such cases, if I can facilitate surgeries and engagement with the relevant officials in that Department, I am always happy to do so.

There is an emerging scandal that the drone technology and other sophisticated weaponry being used by Russia in Ukraine, having been supplied by Iran, uses technology supplied by British universities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) raised this with the Prime Minister yesterday, and the Prime Minister agreed that a cross-Government investigation will take place. I have written to the Secretary of State for Business and Trade with full details, and it is quite clear that this is an emerging scandal and a threat to our national security.

At the same time, the executions continue in Iran. There have been attacks this week by the Albanian police on the Ashraf peace camp for Iranian refugees, and there is pressure on the French to prevent the Iranian resistance from holding its conference next weekend. Can we have a debate in Government time on Iran’s nefarious activities, and on making sure our national security is safeguarded?

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions, as he raises a number of concerning issues. I thank him for all the work he is doing to bring this matter to the attention of the Business and Trade Secretary. He will be aware of what the Prime Minister said yesterday, but I shall make sure that that Department knows he has also raised this matter today.

The Renters Reform Coalition held a parliamentary drop-in event yesterday to brief Members on the forthcoming Renters (Reform) Bill, but the RRC and many other stakeholders are becoming concerned that it is more than a month since the Bill had its First Reading. Will the Leader of the House therefore enlighten them as to when the Second Reading debate on this crucial Bill will take place?

I know that that Bill is of great interest to many Members, in all parts of this House. The hon. Gentleman will know that I will say that I will announce business in the usual way, but I am optimistic that he will not have long to wait.

I thank the Leader of the House for confirming the Second Reading debate next Wednesday on the Holocaust Memorial Bill, which will facilitate the holocaust memorial to be built in Victoria Tower Gardens. Does she agree that that is a good opportunity for Members from across the House to work together to deliver this memorial, which is a commitment of successive Governments and will be a fitting memorial to those remarkable survivors of the holocaust and those people who have given so much of their lives to holocaust education?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks, and I agree entirely with his sentiments. Again, let me reassure him that we are doing all we can to make sure that this is brought forward in the swiftest possible time. The House of Commons has a working group to ensure that any work on restoration and renewal or other things is deconflicted with the work going on to produce this important memorial. It will also be very important to the ongoing work of education on those appalling events.

The Leader of the House will know that we are about 30 minutes away from what is likely to be difficult news for homeowners and renters across the country, with expected rises in interest rates, on top of rising food prices, on top of the energy price hikes that they have seen. I have been speaking to people from businesses in my constituency that are locked into long-term energy deals that they cannot get out of. That is having a huge impact on their businesses and on their ability to employ people and generate growth in our economy. Will she ensure that a statement is made by a relevant Minister on what is being done to ensure flexibility in the energy market for business customers, so that they are not locked into ridiculously high prices if wholesale prices come down?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising an issue that is frequently raised at business questions. As with previous questions, I will make sure that the Secretary of State has heard what has been said today. The hon. Gentleman will know that the next departmental questions are on 4 July and I encourage him to put that question directly to the Secretary of State then.

Pupils have been denounced as “despicable” for failing to accept the reality of a fellow pupil who identified as a cat. May we have a debate on Confucius, for it was he who observed that the most difficult thing is to search a dark room for a black cat, particularly when there is no cat?

I thank my right hon. Friend for not only the question, but the typically dramatic way in which he asked it. I shall leave Confucius aside and deal with the heart of the matter he is getting at. Obviously, the Department for Education is currently reviewing guidance to schools on these matters and I understand that the Education Secretary has launched an investigation into the incident to which he refers.

Today, on the 75th anniversary of the arrival into the UK of the Windrush generation, which included my grandparents, I have written to the Home Secretary, along with other politicians and leading public figures, to call on her to right the wrongs of the Windrush scandal. May we have a Government statement on the compensation scheme and, more importantly, moving that scheme to an independent body so that those from the Windrush generation can finally get justice?

The hon. Lady adds her voice to others we have heard in the Chamber on this matter. As with them, I will ensure the Home Secretary has heard her remarks, and I am aware of calls for the matter to be moved to the Cabinet Office.

Following the Prime Minister’s AUKUS submarine agreement, Rolls-Royce has announced it is creating over 1,100 new jobs in a massive expansion of its Raynesway plant, in my constituency of Mid Derbyshire. That is fantastic news for the whole local economy. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement about the benefits that the AUKUS agreement will have for UK businesses, and for the 200 apprentices per year who will start at the Rolls-Royce nuclear skills academy and have the opportunity to work on world-leading submarine technology?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on that fantastic news and thank her for the role she has played in championing those incredibly important parts of our supply chain, which enable us to be as proud of our defence sector as we are. The AUKUS deal is so much more than a submarine deal. It is about our trade and our interoperability, and will contribute to our prosperity and security. I congratulate all those involved in it. She will be able to raise the matter at the next Defence questions, on 26 June.

The Leader of the House will know that people living in rural communities have disproportionately higher costs, for example because of transport and older buildings, than people living in urban areas. I have asked time and again of her Government to take some cognisance of those living off the gas grid, who are effectively subsidising those on the gas grid, and to do something about equalising things for them while they face increased mortgage rates and food price inflation, on top of everything else. Can we finally have a debate, in Government time, on the pressures on rural communities and the need to do something to help them?