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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 7 September 2023

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Resignation Honours Lists

1. Whether he has held 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. (906243)

It is a long-standing convention, under successive Governments, that outgoing Prime Ministers can draw up a resignation honours list. Any names proposed are subject to the usual propriety checks.

Trust in politics has never been lower, and this has been worsened by the grubby reality that the former right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip handed out peerages to his pals and covid partygoers. The other former Prime Minister was the shortest-serving Prime Minister in history but still managed to crash the economy, and she will also enjoy the privilege of ennobling pals and cronies. Do the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet feel this is inappropriate in any way? Does the Minister think such a spectacle will help to restore trust in politics?

We discussed this at length on 22 June, when it was said that if the hon. Lady were to look at the resignation honours list of the former right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, she will see many people who conducted a great deal of public service and deserved to have that service recognised. We have not yet seen the list of the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), but it is worth remembering that people who are honoured in our system have often contributed greatly to our country.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. What nicer way to spend one’s 28th birthday? Alas, I am not 28.

Artificial Intelligence

2. Whether he has held recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on co-operation with international partners on responding to the potential challenges of the use of artificial intelligence. (906244)

The Government know the importance of collaborating internationally on the challenge and opportunities of AI. That is why, in the autumn, the Prime Minister will convene the first major AI summit, which will bring together major international partners and leaders in the technology to discuss the issues that confront society.

It is great to hear that the international community will be coming to Bletchley Park in November to discuss the principles and core values when dealing with AI. Given that AI is moving so quickly, with the likes of ChatGPT already impacting things like the work of school kids, what more can the Government do to make sure each Department is taking full account of the impact of AI?

My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question. The Cabinet Office, which is home to the Government Digital Service and the Central Digital and Data Office, takes a lead role, along with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, in co-ordinating work within Government so that we can take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities AI presents and guard ourselves against potential disadvantages.

It is nice to see you in the Chair first thing in the morning, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for his response. Constituents all around this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland rely on employment to make ends meet and survive. Has he had discussions with international partners as to how AI will impact on people’s livelihoods and jobs? That is so important.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, as one potential risk of AI is that it displaces employment. However, across Government we are looking at the risks and opportunities. We see a future in which humans working with AI create all sorts of great new opportunities for our economy and for individuals.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. Let me also say happy birthday to the Minister. He has just told the House that the Cabinet Office is responsible for the Government Digital Service—quite rightly. The Government could be making better use of AI to improve government services. For example, we are losing £8 billion a year to benefit fraud and error. Under this Government, we have lost £60 billion to that since 2010—that is £150 a second. Are they going to use AI to deal with benefit fraud and error, or should we assume that this is another example of how nothing works after 13 years?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place and look forward to debating these and other issues with him in future. He will be delighted to hear that over the past three years the Government have saved billions of pounds using the latest technology—

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they have. I can see he is new to the brief and he has some reading to do. [Interruption.] He has been moved from his previous brief to this one. He may be interested to discover that we regularly convene meetings with groups such as Evidence House and 10DS, which contain some of the finest technical experience in Government, to ensure we are taking advantage of the latest technology to make savings for taxpayers. He talks about money lost, but the money that the Government and the Treasury have saved through implementing the latest techniques is far in excess of the number he gave.

Propriety in Public Life

As the Prime Minister set out when he first entered Downing Street, this Government will uphold the highest standards of integrity and propriety. In July we announced a wide- ranging programme of reform, acting on recommendations from Nigel Boardman, the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Public Administration Committee.

We have all heard that the former Member for Mid Bedfordshire failed to speak in this House for more than a year and that her farcical resignation, which was to have “immediate effect”, took nearly three months, but what about the years when there was no constituency office listed for people to make representations to? With no regard to standards in public life, it is clear that the Tories have sold my neighbouring constituency down the river. Does the Secretary of State agree that the good people of Mid Bedfordshire deserve a hard-working, full-time Labour MP such as Alistair Strathern instead?

The people of Mid Bedfordshire deserve a hard-working Member of Parliament who lives and works in the constituency, and in Festus they will find exactly that. I have every confidence that they will return him to this House in the by-election next month.

At the conclusion of Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) made a point of order, picking up on a statement made by the Prime Minister that she described as “categorically untrue”. This is about the sixth or seventh time this year that we have had to make such points of order about the Prime Minister. How can we have any confidence that we are going to get high standards in public life if this keeps happening?

That is simply not the case. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the exchange, he would have heard that the Prime Minister answered comprehensively every question raised by the Leader of the Opposition and demonstrated a far greater understanding of the detail of this than that demonstrated by his opposite number.

Last year, the Prime Minister said that his Government would do “everything we can” to recover covid fraud losses, yet the crony PPE VIP lane helped Tory-linked business owners over small and medium-sized businesses, meaning that £15 billion of taxpayer money was wasted on useless PPE. The Public Accounts Committee found it “unacceptable” that the Government are not prioritising recouping misused money, with only £21 million—only 2%—recovered from fraudsters. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to fulfil his Government’s pledge to reclaim misused taxpayer money? Or is that, like the Prime Minister’s promise of integrity and accountability, another failed vow?

What we saw during the crisis was the Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor, acting decisively and rapidly to save the economy and millions of jobs. Since we have passed out of the covid period, we are taking action to recover fraud and error losses. As set out by my hon. Friends, in the past two years alone, we have recovered more than £3 billion. I would gently say to the hon. Lady that people in glasshouses should perhaps not throw stones, given the experience of her party’s leaders being frogmarched by the police to investigate the misuse of funds by her own party.

Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests: Remit

4. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the remit of the independent adviser on ministerial interests. (906246)

The Prime Minister’s independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, Sir Laurie Magnus, works within established and robust terms of reference, to provide impartial advice on matters relating to the ministerial code. The powers and status of the role were strengthened in 2022 and Sir Laurie has said he is very comfortable working within his terms of reference.

It is an understatement to observe that the ministerial code has been more honoured in the breach than in the observance during the last few years, and trust in our politics has suffered as a direct result. It has taken the Government two years to respond to the 23rd report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and they have failed to accept the most important recommendations in it, including increasing the power and transparency of the work of the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests. Why?

We have already reformed the role of the independent adviser. It is now the case that the independent adviser can initiate investigations with the presumption that the Prime Minister will approve them. That is the appropriate balance, but we have to respect that the Prime Minister must be the ultimate upholder of the ministerial code, because it is an important principle of our parliamentary democracy that the Prime Minister is able to appoint whomever he chooses to ministerial posts.

Veterans Services

5. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help ensure that services provided by the Government meet the needs of veterans and their families. (906247)

This Government are delivering on their commitments within the veterans’ strategy action plan to support veterans and their families. Our plan, which is backed by an additional £33 million announced by the Chancellor in this year’s Budget, contains commitments across Government, including support for health provision, housing and employment, the majority of which have been delivered or are on track.

That is great and we all support those measures, but he will also know that the independent review of the UK Government welfare services for veterans found that the current system is “overly complex” and suffers from

“a lack of cohesion, of strategic direction and single oversight”.

It also found that veterans regularly receive “poor communication” from Government and were left “overwhelmed” by the system. Does the Minister accept responsibility for those failings and what is he doing to fix them?

I initiated that review when I first came back into office under this Prime Minister. That review has now completed. It was due to report before Christmas, but I have pulled that forward and I want to see a response from Government to the review by the end of September or the beginning of October. The review highlights changes that have been overdue for some time and I look forward to having more to say to the hon. Gentleman on that matter when the response comes back.

Cyber-security

The Government’s cyber-security strategy sets out our plans to strengthen the resilience of the Government’s critical functions against cyber- attacks. A key milestone in our plan came earlier this year when I launched GovAssure. This is a new approach to cyber-resilience in which Departments review their cyber-security and take the necessary steps to meet the risks that we face.

These cyber-attacks, which are often totally devastating, have been increasing in both severity and frequency not only against Government Departments, but against many of our major businesses with potentially devastating consequences for livelihoods and jobs. What are we doing in Government to take the expertise that we have acquired within Government to protect Government Departments and to spread it across the economy to protect the private sector as well?

My hon. Friend is totally correct that the external risk landscape is increasing all the time, not least because of the conflict in Russia and Ukraine, which has meant that the United Kingdom, after Ukraine and Russia, is the most cyber-attacked nation. We are taking a whole-of-Government approach, which is why we created the National Cyber Security Centre, working with GCHQ and the Cabinet Office to ensure that we have robust standards in Government and that we also work with businesses to improve their standards and, indeed, with private individuals.

Infected Blood Inquiry: Interim Recommendations

11. What recent steps he has taken to implement the interim recommendations of the infected blood inquiry. (906255)

It was a privilege to appear before the infected blood inquiry on 25 July. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, referred to birthdays earlier and I believe that that was the birthday of the right hon. Lady, but she shared it with us in the inquiry—she was there in person for the hearings. At the inquiry, I shared the work the Government are undertaking to consider the interim recommendations and I look forward to receiving the final report in the autumn.

It was good to see the Paymaster General, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and the Chancellor at those reconvened hearings. Sir Brian Langstaff made it very clear that his interim report on compensation was the last word that he was going to make on compensation. The Government have also accepted the moral case for compensation. What progress has now been made on Sir Brian’s recommendation on extending the interim payments to those who were not included in the first tranche of interim payments last year?

As the right hon. Lady knows, we are working through this. There is more work to be done. It is a mammoth undertaking, as she knows, and we are looking forward to the final report and putting our response into that context.

“Working through this” is not good enough. Several families in my constituency have lost partners or parents as a result of the infected blood scandal and they are frustrated by the delay and obfuscation. One of my constituents told me:

“The lack of transparency is causing great stress and anxiety to those of us at the heart of this NHS treatment disaster who have already waited decades for our loss and suffering to be recognised.”

One person is dying every four days. This is becoming urgent. Will the Government commit to a full compensation scheme as quickly as possible?

We commit to responding as soon as we can to the final report. The hon. Gentleman is right that we have accepted the moral case for compensation. After the final report comes through, we will be bringing out our response as swiftly as we can.

Afghan Resettlement

9. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the progress made on moving Afghan people from hotels to settled accommodation. (906251)

20. What recent discussions he has held with Cabinet colleagues on supporting Afghan people who have been resettled in the UK to access independent accommodation. (906266)

Hotels are not and never were designed to be long-term accommodation for Afghans resettled in the UK. I am therefore pleased to say that, as of 1 September, in line with our promises, no legally resettled Afghans remain in bridging accommodation. As I told the House on 18 July, there is a small number for whom time-limited contingency accommodation will be provided, including where there is a need to bridge the short gap between the end of notice periods and settled accommodation being ready for them to move into, and in cases of medical need, where a family member requires continued attendance at a specific hospital.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the new Afghan families to North Devon and thank everyone locally who is working to ensure that their resettlement is as smooth as possible and to give them a true Devonian welcome?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and pay tribute to all those working locally in her constituency to prepare to welcome Afghan families to the area. North Devon is steeped in military history. I am pleased to see her long-standing support for veterans extend to those who assisted the UK in Afghanistan as well.

I record my admiration for, and thank, the many public and voluntary agencies and individuals in Fife for the dedication and compassion that they have shown to the Afghans they have hosted over the last two years. Sadly, those Afghans are becoming victims of the biggest mass eviction that Scotland has seen since the highland clearances. When we remember that those people are here because they risked their lives for us—they risked their lives in Afghanistan for democracy—why have the Government not even considered a Homes for Afghans scheme, similar to the Homes for Ukraine scheme that made such a difference to desperate Ukrainian refugees?

Largely because these are two different cohorts. Ukrainians are looking to return to Ukraine in the future; the Afghan cohort are staying here and will be in this country for an indeterminate period. We are looking at all ways that we can continue to assist those who have come over from Afghanistan. I, too, pay tribute to all the Home Office liaison officers and all the staff in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and in the Ministry of Defence who have worked hard to get this over the line. I said that we would honour our commitments to the people of Afghanistan and we will continue to do so.

The Minister will be acutely aware, as I am, that around 2,000 Afghans who are entitled to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy are stuck in hotels in Islamabad. I know that he has seen the letter that went to the Prime Minister, which I signed along with other colleagues. What is the plan to get those 2,000 ARAP-entitled Afghans into settled accommodation?

The hon. Member knows that this has been a long-standing concern of mine, both before Government and in Government. My area of specific responsibility in terms of getting people here and into hotels and accommodation has been completed. That is a Home Office area, and I have not had discussions on it so far, but everybody is aware of our commitment to the people who served in Afghanistan, and the Government will follow through on their commitment to those people.

Nuclear Test Veterans: Recognition

12. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to (a) recognise the contribution of nuclear test veterans and (b) support the roll-out of the Nuclear Test Medal. (906256)

While Hollywood remembers the work of Oppenheimer, the Government are committed to recognising the contribution of veterans and civilian staff across the UK and the Commonwealth to Britain’s nuclear test programme. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs is investing £450,000 in projects to commemorate and build further understanding of their experiences. I recently visited the Worcestershire Medal Service in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter to see the first nuclear test medals start rolling off the production line.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of applications for the nuclear test medal, and whether the medals will be ready to be awarded by Remembrance Sunday?

Of course. Last time we were here, I made a commitment that we would do everything possible to get these medals on chests by Remembrance Sunday. We are in line with that commitment. We will meet that commitment. This has been a 70-year project and campaign by these individuals. I totally respect that for some it is not fast enough, and for some it is not enough to be done. We are straining every sinew to bring recognition to this cohort and we will continue to do so. We will have those medals ready for Remembrance Sunday this year.

I am pleased to hear that continued commitment to ensuring that medals are with nuclear test veterans in time for Remembrance Sunday. Our nuclear test veterans served our country with pride and distinction, but given the uncertainty caused by the Government’s previous comments that the medals would be awarded by late summer, and then that they would be ready in the autumn, can we have some clarity, and will the Minister tell the House what recent discussions he has had with nuclear test veterans and their representatives about a formal medal ceremony? Can he guarantee that nuclear test veterans will be awarded their medals in a manner befitting their brave service?

The hon. Member will be aware that Remembrance Sunday is coming up, which is a timeline that campaigners wanted to meet. That gives us a narrow window to do the sort of ceremony that I would think befits these individuals. It is a balance between getting the medals on people’s chests for Remembrance Sunday and at the same time ensuring that they are awarded in a manner that is in keeping with their service. That is simply the art of the possible and what can be done. I am proud of what the Government have done on nuclear test veterans. Her party, when it was in power, did not award nuclear test veterans; in fact, she signed early-day motions to campaign against nuclear weapons, so I will not take any lessons on this. I am proud of what we have done, and I look forward to seeing medals on chests for Remembrance Sunday.

Mental Health: Civil Servants

Civil service sickness absence data are published annually. The latest data indicate that an average of 2.3 working days were lost per staff year due to mental ill health for the year ending 31 March 2022.

I understand that nearly three quarters of a million civil service working days were lost due to alleged stress and mental health reasons, and that that figure is 40% up on the year before. Of course those with genuine mental health needs need appropriate support but, given that many civil servants enjoy pay and pension packages way in excess of what many people can get in the private sector, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that only those with genuine mental health conditions are granted a leave of absence?

I know my hon. Friend will be aware that there has been, in both the private and public sectors, a large spike in all sickness absence this year, because of course the comparative data were with the pandemic period. The good news for him is that the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that sickness absence for all forms is lower in the most recent period in central Government Departments than it is in the private sector. We work with people who are unwell, using occupational health and employee assistance provision to ensure that they get the support that they need. We continue to wish to drive down the numbers of people who are off for ill health and to ensure that those who are unwell get the support that they require, but we work with them.

Border Target Operating Model: Food Prices

14. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the border target operating model on the price of (a) meat, (b) fresh produce and (c) other foodstuffs. (906258)

In April, the Government published a draft British border target operating model and on 29 August we published our final border target operating model, confirming its introduction on 31 January next year. It outlines our new controls regime, using better technology and co-ordination to reduce friction and costs, and will provide a simpler, yet secure, experience for traders moving goods across the border.

Small businesses up and down the country have spent countless hours and millions of pounds preparing for these changes, only to find that the Government are delaying implementation for the fifth time. How does the Minister expect businesses to have any confidence in making long-term investment and supply chain decisions when this Government have such a long list of U-turns and policy blunders?

The hon. Lady is right that we have pushed the date back several times, first because of covid, secondly because of Ukraine and thirdly to ease the pressure of the cost of living crisis. We are now working in line with business readiness, having had regular engagement with people across the sector. We have now set out, as she will have seen from the statement I made to this House in writing on 4 September and the written document published on 29 August, that we have a final time schedule.

The Office for National Statistics has found that more than 50% of people are paying more for their food shop. What is the Government’s plan to bring down inflation quickly to ensure that people can feed their families?

I was trying to glimpse the British border target operating model within that question. The Government have taken a range of measures in order to help bring down the cost of living for people, notably the very considerable help we have given people with the cost of fuel.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is great to see you in the Chair so early in the day. Members will be aware that the Government attempted to sneak out in the summer that announcement about the utter chaos they have created over the border target operating model. I say to the Minister that inflation is of central relevance to this matter, because the cat is out of the bag. The Government’s own document concedes that these measures, when introduced, will have an impact on inflation and will make the cost of food even higher. Can the Minister set out what assessment has been made of the wasted money and the cost to taxpayers and businesses as a result of the Government’s chaos on this issue?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his spot and I look forward to debating with him on this and other issues. I do not quite accept his categorisation of us as sneaking out a document by publishing it and sharing it widely on social media. As I explained to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), we have delayed implementation in response to the challenges the country has faced. We are now ready to move forward with a brand-new border target operating model, which has the support of businesses, of vets and of those dealing with sanitary and phytosanitary checks. It will be a very good thing for the country and will help us to secure our borders in new ways.

Well, that was announced when the House was not sitting, and to describe something that the Government concede will increase prices as a “good thing” is quite extraordinary and shows how out of touch they are.

Let me turn to another area of the Government’s incompetence. The January 2024 deadline for the rules-of-origin provisions is now rapidly approaching. Unless this matter is dealt with, it will devastate our car industry. It should have been anticipated by the Government. Can the Minister tell us when an agreement for an extension to that deadline can be secured, and what contingency plans are in place if the Government fail to do that?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, the document was published when it was ready; it was not hastily snuck out during recess. On his point about readiness for the trade window in the car industry, that matter is being taken seriously by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, who I am sure will be ready to say something shortly.

Public Services: Industrial Action

Cabinet Office Ministers have, through Cobra, been assisting Departments in their responses to industrial action. When there is a spate of industrial action across the public sector, which causes huge disruption to our constituents, it is particularly important that we act together, and the Cabinet Office assists Departments in their planning.

Like many of my constituents, I commute to London daily via rail and have had to deal with another summer of disruption caused by ASLEF and the RMT, while students are applying for jobs with unconfirmed grades from unmarked exam papers and junior doctors continue to strike. What is the Minister’s Department doing to end the strikes and get those people back to work so that we can continue to clear the backlogs and reduce the inflation that they claim to be striking against?

My hon. Friend is right: it is outrageous that his constituents can have their lives totally upended by strikes and by militant unions. We will, of course, respect the right to strike, but we have a duty to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British people. That is what our minimum service levels legislation aims to do. It is a pity that the Labour party will not support it.

The Labour party governs in Wales and the Tories are in charge here in England, while Scotland is the only place in the UK to avoid any strikes in our NHS. That is because Scotland has had and will continue to have the fairest and best pay deals in the UK thanks to the Scottish Government. The Scottish Health Minister recently offered to mediate in the fresh talks between the UK Government and junior doctors. Has the Minister considered that approach given the incompetence of his colleagues?

We will take absolutely no lessons from the SNP on how to govern countries—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman looks at the news about what is going on in Scotland or hears about it when he visits his constituency. We have in this country a Government of whom we can be proud. I am not certain that that is the view of the Scottish people.

Public Procurement: Value for Money

16. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help ensure value for money in public procurement. (906260)

The UK Government already award contracts on the basis of most economically advantageous tender. Furthermore, we are currently taking the Procurement Bill through Parliament, which is an opportunity to streamline procurement processes and ensure that value for money remains central to the UK’s procurement regime.

It is important that taxpayers get value for money when public services are outsourced. Over recent years, the Home Office has given vast sums of taxpayers’ money to Clearsprings Ready Homes, yet the accommodation that it has contracted out for housing asylum seekers has been unfit for human habitation, partly because so much taxpayers’ money is being skimmed off by unaccountable intermediaries before it reaches the hotels or food providers. What is the Cabinet Office doing to stop that sort of thing happening in outsourced services?

I am unable to comment on the specifics of that case, but on the broader point, the Procurement Bill covers a range of issues, including how we can improve quality within our supply chains. Perhaps the hon. Lady will join us for ping-pong next week.

I welcome the recent announcement that a growing number of small and medium-sized enterprises have secured Government contracts, but businesses with a social purpose and female-owned businesses are still under-represented in public procurement opportunities. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss what can be done to remedy that?

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend about this and other issues. She will know that the Procurement Bill means we are now looking at the most advantageous tender, which means that value for money remains central but that those seeking to strike up procurement can also look for other factors when deciding which contract to sign. We are very much on the same page.

National Resilience

Strengthening our national resilience is a key priority for me and for the whole Government. Last month, we updated the national risk register. This is the most transparent approach ever taken by any Government, designed to help the whole of society make the most resilient plans possible. We have also published guidance clarifying lead Government Department responsibilities for risk assessment, preparedness, response and recovery.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. Can he tell the House what discussions he has had with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero on ensuring that we have strong security of energy supply as we progress through the energy transition?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that security of energy supply is critical to our national resilience, and we have made significant progress on this. We are moving from often imported fossil fuels to clean home-grown energy sources, and I look forward to working with the new Energy Secretary on this very important issue.

Environmentally Sustainable Transport

The greening Government commitments prescribe all Departments to address the matter of environmentally sustainable transport management by reducing and refining their need to travel through hybrid working and the current location strategy. Departmental locations, where possible, are all within 10 minutes’ walk of a major public transport hub.

Will this team wake up? They have huge potential in the Cabinet Office to influence every Department of State. From my perspective, as a passionate supporter of sustainable transport and particularly the revolution that is coming in hydrogen power, I see an inert Department not pushing other Departments to do better. Could they wake up and do something about this?

I can think of nothing nicer than being woken up by the hon. Gentleman. I can reassure him that we do encourage our colleagues in other Departments to go further on this. We have a range of carbon offsetting programmes in place and, as I say, our location strategy means that we try to locate people near public transport hubs. This is the very essence of a green transport strategy.[Official Report, 7 November 2023, Vol. 740, c. 3MC.]

Public Sector Fraud

I am delighted that, in its first year of operation, the Public Sector Fraud Authority is expected to surpass its initial targets, as part of the overall £3 billion recovery of fraud over the last two years referred to by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. More widely, the Government have invested £1 billion in fraud and error reduction since 2022, and we continue to be recognised as a world leader in combating public sector fraud.

We know that whistleblowers are responsible for uncovering almost half of all fraud—fraud that costs the public sector an estimated £40 billion a year—yet our laws to protect and support them are not working. If we want to tackle public sector fraud, we need to encourage more people to come forward. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss how we can better support whistleblowers and tackle this vast expense to the public purse?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend, or one of my ministerial colleagues will. I can reassure her that we do wish to support whistleblowers. It is important that they are supported in doing what they do. We certainly respect and are grateful for information shared by whistleblowers. It is just part of the system, though, and it is important that we continue to use AI to ensure that we can track down fraud across the public sector.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and it is of course right that as a country we honour Her late Majesty’s legacy. As a first step towards that, the Government, jointly with the royal household, have established a new Queen Elizabeth Memorial Committee. That committee will develop proposals for a permanent memorial to the late Queen and a broader legacy programme that will enable everyone in the nation to commemorate her life of service to us.

The Cabinet Office plays a critical role in strengthening our national resilience, and over the summer we published the most comprehensive edition of the national risk register to date. That important piece of work will help the Government and the whole country prepare for the challenges we face.

The Cabinet Office is currently carrying out a review into Homes England, and my concern is about the Help to Buy scheme, which helps people to get on to the housing ladder. The Government outsourced that service to Lenvi earlier this year, and since then my constituents have faced huge delays in getting their applications processed. Is the Minister proud of creating a Help to Buy scheme that is doing the exact opposite of what it says on the tin?

Of course, it is incumbent on Ministers to drive efficiencies in arm’s length bodies such as Homes England. I am very happy to pick that up with my relevant ministerial colleagues.

T2. Can my right hon. Friend tell us anything more about the Government’s plans for the late Queen Elizabeth II’s memorialisation? (906270)

I have already met with Lord Janvrin, who will be leading the committee. He of course has two decades of experience in service to the royal household, including as private secretary to Her late Majesty. The aim we are working towards is that the committee will report by 2026, which would have been Her late Majesty’s 100th birthday.

I begin by associating myself with the Secretary of State’s comments on marking the anniversary of the death of the late Queen.

The responsibilities of the Cabinet Office include the National Security Council and co-ordinating the Government’s response to crises. Last night, we learned of a major breach of security with the escape from Wandsworth prison of Daniel Abed Khalife, a terror suspect who was accused of gathering information that could be useful to a hostile state. Can the Secretary of State update the House on the search for Mr Khalife, and whether—in the light of his Department’s responsibilities for national security and resilience—he has asked why such a terror suspect was being held at a lower security category prison such as Wandsworth in the first place?

May I begin by welcoming the right hon. Gentleman to his new position? It is wonderful that the great tradition of gingers across the Dispatch Boxes continues—although, if he does not mind, one should perhaps describe him as a legacy ginger. He brings a wealth of experience to the role, and I look forward to our exchanges.

The right hon. Gentleman is of course right to raise this case. As he will know, the Lord Chancellor has asked for an urgent investigation, working with the Prison Service to find out the exact circumstances of what happened in respect of this escape. Clearly, the initial law enforcement response will be led by the Home Office, but I will be working with the Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and others to ensure that we rapidly apprehend this individual and learn the lessons of what led to this escape in the first place.

I thank the Secretary of State. I can only say to him that the hair may go but the skin remains the same, so in solidarity I wish him well in the current heat.

It is reported that Mr Khalife managed to escape by clinging to the underside of a food delivery van. This is obviously an extraordinary situation, given the strict procedures that are supposed to govern the entry and exit of vehicles on the prison estate, so can the Secretary of State outline how those procedures will now be reviewed; what other aspects of prison security will also be reviewed, and over what timescale; and when the public and Parliament will be informed of any changes made as a result of this very serious breach of security?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to raise all of these questions, and that is precisely what my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is overseeing with an examination into that right now. If the individual escaped in those circumstances, that clearly should not have happened. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend takes it very seriously indeed, and will of course update the House on the outcome of the investigation. Of course, the Home Secretary will update the House, alongside the Lord Chancellor, on steps to apprehend the individual.

T4. Over the summer I once again visited Rolls-Royce and met some of its brilliant apprentices, and last year, with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I was shadowing our Royal Navy. It is clear that some of the challenges on nuclear skills are mirrored in the military and the private sector. What is the Cabinet Office doing to bring together extra work and extra career paths, so that those who have nuclear skills can transition between the two? (906272)

I thank my hon. Friend for his very important question. Alongside a lot of the support mechanisms we have introduced—Operation Fortitude, Operation Courage, Operation Restore and Operation Nova—we have a series of missions or sector initiatives for accelerating veterans who have come out of the military with specialist skills into a job and making sure those skills are not going to waste. Having a job remains the No. 1 factor in improving the life chances of veterans. Veteran employment is at 87%—it has never been higher—but there is more to do, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend in the months ahead.

It is clear from their actions that the Tories want to privatise our health service, selling data from England’s NHS to a Trump-backed business, Palantir, under a £27 million data deal. This was done without a competitive tender. Not only that, but they also accepted a £5 million donation from a rich health tycoon this week. Does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree with me that the only way to guarantee protection and integrity for Scotland’s NHS is to keep it out of Westminster Tory hands and keep it in the hands of the people of Scotland?

The hon. Lady will know, because she sat on the Procurement Bill Committee, that we have a new procurement regime coming in, but in the case she refers to it is my understanding that everything was above board and in line with due process.

T8. Madam Deputy Speaker, may I join you in wishing my hon. Friend the Minister a happy birthday?Given that the constitution is reserved to this UK Parliament, and given that there did not appear to be much in the way of anything new in the programme for government set out this week, does my hon. Friend agree that the First Minister of Scotland would do well to focus on the real issues that matter to the people and businesses of Scotland, rather than obsessing with breaking up the United Kingdom? (906276)

As ever, my hon. Friend has his finger on the pulse. I was lucky enough to be on a work trip to Edinburgh and Glasgow just before the summer break, and all the people I met there were interested in employment, skills, the state of the health service, and law and order. Not one person raised a second referendum with me, which is because it is not among people’s priorities in Scotland. People’s priorities are the same as those of the Westminster Government.

T3.   Ipsos recently published its annual poll on trust in politics, which revealed that only 12% of respondents actually believed what a politician was saying—the lowest level in 29 years. Will the Minister look again at my Elected Representatives (Codes of Conduct) Bill, which is aimed specifically at restoring trust and confidence in politics and politicians? (906271)

I am very happy to look again at the hon. Lady’s work. Our general belief is that it is our actions in this place and outside it as elected representatives that will restore trust in politics rather than legislation, and that is a job for all of us.

The cost to Government of ill health runs into hundreds of billions. The economic impact of obesity alone is estimated to be over £58 billion, accounting for the cost to the NHS and social care, lost productivity, workforce inactivity and welfare payments. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that it is time for a taskforce to look holistically at health and societal challenges and to develop early intervention strategies on a multi-departmental basis?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight those challenges. The health service—I have seen this in my own constituency—is coming up with innovative models to look at wider public health, and to address exactly that issue. We want to get more people back into the workforce, and we need to deal with some of those long-term challenges.

T5.   Although the police data leak in Northern Ireland was caused by human error, it raises wider concerns about cyber-security and data for our public service workers. I have been approached by constituents who work particularly within policing. They would like some reassurance that the Cabinet Office is working with forces across England and Wales to ensure that those types of data breaches do not happen again, and that the Cabinet Office will do more work on securing people’s personal data, particularly when they are working in services such as the police force. (906273)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this issue is local to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but he is also right—I fully acknowledge this—that there may be questions to learn across Government about how we make certain that people’s data is secure. It is critical that individuals working and providing a service to the country know that their data is secure. I agree with him on that, and I have had discussions with officials about what we can to do ensure we can give that reassurance.

Will the Cabinet Office convene an inter-ministerial committee —between the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and the Treasury—to consider what to do where we have built tens of thousands of houses but section 106 money has not been allocated for adequate health facilities? This is a problem across our country and on both sides of the House. I hope we will solve it for the future with what we are doing with the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill and the infrastructure levy, but there is a legacy problem that needs the attention of the Cabinet Office. Given its co-ordinating role in Government, that would be a very useful thing for the Department to do, and an extremely necessary one.

That is an interesting proposal. If we are to get public consent for the number of houses we need to build, we must be able to reassure people that the infrastructure is in place. That is precisely what the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill seeks to do. I will look at my hon. Friend’s proposal for an inter-ministerial group. I am always a little cautious about setting up more inter-ministerial groups, unless I can be sure that they will actually deliver some further outcomes, but I take his proposal seriously.

T6.   Cleaning and security staff in three Whitehall Departments are now striking over a poverty pay offer by the outsourced contractor ISS. What are Ministers doing to help resolve that dispute with the Public and Commercial Services Union, and to end the race to the bottom for the pay and terms and conditions of vital workers due to outsourcing? (906274)

I am sorry that strike action is ongoing. Ultimately, this is a matter between the employees and their employer.

Yesterday the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill passed this House. Legacy is an incredibly difficult issue. Victims have been let down for many years. Veterans have been let down. This Government made a commitment that we would see through our promises to both those groups, and that is what we did yesterday. I am disappointed that the Opposition voted against it again, but politics is about choices, and I am proud of what this Government have delivered.

T7.   Further to the question on the infected blood inquiry from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), why will the Government not get on with extending the interim payments now, as they could do and as was recommended by Sir Brian Langstaff? It is absolutely shameful to delay that any longer, and there is no excuse. (906275)

I have heard many times from the hon. Lady about this subject and about her constituents. She speaks about it passionately in this House and has done so for a number of years. I come back to my earlier answer: we paid interim compensation last year, as the House is aware, and the second interim report has come through. I am expecting the final report in the autumn, putting us in a place to respond as swiftly as possible once it is received.

Yesterday marked a year since the Prime Minister’s predecessor took office, and as you may remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, a lettuce ended up outlasting her. Due to Tory economic mismanagement, that same lettuce would now cost around 20% more. The cost of food might not be an issue for the Prime Minister, who is the richest MP in the House of Commons, but it is a concern for my constituents. What discussions have Ministers had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling food insecurity?

I know that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Chancellor of the Exchequer engage regularly with supermarkets, food providers and others to make sure that we continue to keep prices low. It is the case that since the Prime Minister came to office, we are now seeing inflation falling, and we have seen a record upward revision in growth numbers, which now show that we recovered faster from covid than any other European country, contrary to the repeated assertions of the parties on the Opposition Benches.

I am going to have another go: why is it that the Minister has not been able even to implement recommendation 17 of the second interim report, which is to set up a bespoke psychological service for those infected and affected, when other nations of the United Kingdom have been able to do that? Why has England been left out? Why have the Government not been able to do that?

That issue is being taken forward, as the right hon. Lady knows, by the Department of Health and Social Care. I know it has made substantial progress on exactly such a scheme, and I look forward to it making an announcement in due course.

The forthcoming by-election in Rutherglen and Hamilton West will be the first in Scotland under the new requirement for voter identification. We know that thousands of voters in England were disenfranchised at council elections because they did not have a passport or driving licence. What specific steps is the Cabinet Office taking to make sure that the voters of Rutherglen and Hamilton West, who want to turn out in their thousands to elect Katy Loudon as their MP, are not prevented from doing so because they are too poor to own a passport or driving licence?

I hope the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that people can only vote if they have a passport or driver’s licence. If he does not know that that is untrue, he now does. We have had a widespread publicity campaign to ensure that people understand the identity requirements at elections. At the local elections, despite considerable scaremongering from Opposition parties, the disruption was minimal.

That concludes questions. I pause for a moment to allow the change of dramatis personae on the Front Bench—there is quite a lot of movement this morning.