(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the payment of £33 million to Eurotunnel over no-deal ferry contracts.
I would like to update the House on the settlement that the Government have reached with Eurotunnel, which will help to deliver the unhindered supply of vital medicines and medical devices in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
The best way to ensure a smooth and orderly exit from the EU, both for the NHS and for the wider economy, is to support the deal that the Attorney General is currently finalising. Anyone in this House who cares about the unhindered supply of medicines should vote for that deal, but leaving the EU without a deal remains the default position under the law, and it is incumbent on us to keep people safe. It is therefore vital that adequate contingency measures are in place for any Brexit scenario.
Preparing for a no-deal exit has required significant effort from the NHS, the pharmaceutical industry and the whole medical supply chain, and I pay tribute to their work and thank them for their efforts on these contingency measures. The settlement struck between the Government and Eurotunnel last week is an important part of these measures. Because of the legal action taken by Eurotunnel and the legal risks of the court case, it became clear that, without this settlement, we could no longer be confident of the unhindered supply of medicines. Without this settlement, the ferry capacity needed to be confident of supply was at risk. As a Government, we could not take that risk, and I doubt anyone in this House would have accepted that risk, either. With this settlement we can be confident, as long as everyone does what they need to do, that supply will continue unhindered. Under the settlement, Eurotunnel has to spend the money on improving resilience, security and traffic flow at the border, benefiting both passengers and business.
The Department for Transport, on behalf of the whole Government, entered into these contracts in good faith. Our duty is to keep people safe, whatever complications are thrown up. Although we continue to plan for all eventualities, it is clear that the best way to reduce all these risks is to vote for the deal in the days to come.
Once again, the Transport Secretary is not in his place to answer a question directed to him. His disregard for taxpayers and this House is clear. On Friday he reached a £33 million out-of-court settlement with Eurotunnel to provide services in the event of a no-deal Brexit because the Government were going to lose the case.
The Transport Secretary’s decision to bypass procurement processes in awarding a contract to Seaborne Freight, a ferry company without any ships, breached public procurement rules, and Eurotunnel had the Government over a barrel. Will the Minister now detail the total cost to taxpayers of this decision, including legal costs? How much money will be paid up front?
Eurotunnel will seemingly make Brexit-related improvements at Folkestone. Can the Minister say exactly what sort of agreement the Government have with Eurotunnel? What makes him think that this contract with Eurotunnel will not be challenged on anti-competition grounds? A former Department for Transport adviser said:
“there is a risk it could be construed as another piece of public procurement without open and transparent competition.”
That would risk further legal action and yet more public money being squandered.
Even in this golden age of ministerial incompetence, the Transport Secretary stands out from the crowd. He leaves a trail of destruction in his wake, causing chaos and wasting billions of pounds, yet he shows no contrition, no acknowledgment of his mistakes and no resolve to learn and improve. He is now ridiculed in The New York Times. The mayor of Calais has banned him from his town. The Transport Secretary has become an international embarrassment. The Prime Minister is the only person in the country who retains confidence in this failing Transport Secretary, and she does so only because of her own political weakness. The public deserve to know: how many more calamities is the Prime Minister prepared to tolerate? How many more billions of pounds will she allow him to waste before saying, “Enough is enough”? This country cannot afford this Transport Secretary. He should be sacked without delay.
In listening to that, I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not disagree with the decision we made on Friday. That decision was to ensure that we have the ferry capacity in place so that whatever happens in the Brexit scenario we can have the unhindered supply of medicines. That is the duty of this Government and that is why the whole Government came to this decision. He asked some specific questions, which I answered in my statement. However, let me reiterate: this is a legal settlement with Eurotunnel; the maximum cost is £33 million, as was set out clearly on Friday; and the purpose of the decision is to ensure that unhindered flow of medicines. So, as I said in my statement, the purpose of this is to make sure that whatever happens in Brexit people can be safe. I was happy to support that decision, which everybody in this House would have made in the same circumstances.
Many of my constituents are concerned about the supply of medicines after Brexit. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give me that the supply of medicines to harder-to-reach places such as Scotland will continue after we leave the European Union?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask about the unhindered supply of medicines. The first thing he can do to ensure that that supply continues, with no risks to it, is to support the deal in the meaningful vote, as he has done before. Secondly, we are working with all parts of the country and with the devolved authorities on this. Although ensuring that we have these supply chains in place in any Brexit scenario is a UK Government matter, we are working with the devolved Administrations, especially to ensure that the flow reaches all parts of the country.
I wish to echo the question: where is the £2.7 billion man? I have asked him to step aside several times, I have challenged the Prime Minister to sack him and now he has his own social media hashtag—FailingGrayling. Surely now is the time he has to go.
Apparently, we hear that this is not compensation for Eurotunnel but a contract for vital services. If they were so vital, why did it take Eurotunnel going to court to get a contract? Why was Eurotunnel overlooked in the first place? The secrecy on this is a real concern. How much documentation is still hidden away from public view? If the no-deal contract is not invoked, how much money will still be paid to Eurotunnel? Why on earth would the Health Secretary entrust the transportation of life-saving medicines to the Transport Secretary?
Bechtel is set to sue the Government over the HS2 tender process. What other departmental procurement risks still exist? After his efforts at the Ministry of Justice cost us £600 million, the Transport Secretary has allowed Virgin Trains East Coast to walk away owing £2 billion; he has blamed Network Rail for mishaps when he is in charge of the organisation; and he has culpability for Southern rail, for the £38 million Northern rail timetable fiasco and for the £800,000 ferry due diligence contract, where due diligence was not carried out on the company with no ships. He has tried to argue that the Seaborne fiasco has not cost the taxpayer any money. Only for this Transport Secretary can this £33 million be just the tip of a financial iceberg. What does it take for him to be sacked—or to do the decent thing and walk away?
Unlike in the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), what I did not hear in the hon. Gentleman’s long question was a statement about whether he supports the decision or not. I think that is because he does support the decision to ensure we have what we need to get the unhindered supply of medicines. More than that, he and his Scottish National party friends complain endlessly about a no-deal Brexit, yet they do not do what is needed to avoid a no-deal Brexit, which is to vote for the deal.
It is always a pleasure to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, although rather a surprising one on this occasion. The usual reason for settling an action is to minimise your losses when you are obviously on a loser in defending it, but I am relieved to hear that this was done in order to ensure the safety of medicines. As we are on that subject, can he give me some reassurance about the long-term future for the regulation and approval of medicines in this country? If and when we leave the EU—we look as though we are bound to do so—we of course leave the European Medicines Agency, which is leaving this country, and I am not clear what our long-term arrangements will be. Are we going to seek some association with the EMA system, or will we be setting up a totally new British system to replace it? Can he guarantee continuity of the proper regulation of medicines while that process is under way?
The short answer to that is yes. The medium length answer is that we will ensure that medicines can be licensed in this country with no further burdens than under the EMA system by matching some of the EMA processes, but in a no-deal scenario we would also be looking to introduce our own processes so that some medicines could be brought and licensed here before they could be licensed in Europe. Indeed, changes to this area is one of the examples of advantages from Brexit, which I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend will be delighted to hear about, because they mean that we can grasp some of the opportunities that the future of medicines presents. The long answer is so long that I will be happy to write to him with full details and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.
There is something quite wrong here. I have been in the House for quite a few years—usually people say, “Too long,” but I have been here a long time. This almost seems to be an abuse of the House. The fact is that the Opposition asked for an urgent question on the Eurotunnel payment of £33 million. I do not know what £33 million means in Suffolk, but in Huddersfield it would make a hell of a difference in regenerating our local economy. I am not calling for the Transport Secretary’s resignation because he is a symptom of something deeply wrong with this Government. They are totally incapable of arranging their policies ready for Brexit. That is the truth of the matter. There is total chaos on the Government Benches because they had not predicted what was going to happen with Brexit, and they are showing no ability to cope with post-Brexit conditions, what is happening in the Eurotunnel and so on.
The hon. Gentleman is normally a sensible man, but I could not disagree with him more on this one. The point of this settlement is to ensure that we have the unhindered supply of medicines, so that, whatever the Brexit scenario, people can get their medicines. This was a cross-Government decision and I am here, as the Health Secretary, because it is medicines that will be carried on these ferries. If the court case had gone against the Government and the court had struck down these contracts, we would not have been able to be confident about the supply of those medicines. I think it is incumbent on any Government to ensure that they can deliver that. There is something else we can do to deliver the unhindered supply of medicines and he can do it too; it is within his gift—he can vote for the deal.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s sensible contingency planning for any eventuality, but may I highlight that it is important to focus on all the routes across the channel and everything related to that? Although it is good that Eurotunnel is being focused on, it is worth looking at the transit system as a way to smooth the procedures on the main ferry routes across the channel also.
Yes, and that is exactly what these contracts, with which we can now proceed because of the settlement, do. Essentially, they provide for more capacity away from Dover-Calais so that medicines can be routed into the UK and, indeed, onwards to Ireland through other routes. They allow for that. I am glad of my hon. Friend’s interest in this matter and hope he will vote for the deal.
The Secretary of State for Transport may have ducked today’s questions, but I am pretty sure that my Committee will still require his answers. If there is a Brexit deal or, indeed, if there is no Brexit, how much of our taxpayers’ £33 million do the Government expect to recover from Eurotunnel?
Of course, the medicines are going on these boats that we are procuring and that makes this a serious health matter. The hon. Lady is perfectly within her rights to ask these sorts of questions. The truth is that the £33 million is the maximum figure. It may not be as high as that, but we have been clear about the full exposure.
If we can essay a transport-related question, could my right hon. Friend give me some assurance that the extremely important cross-channel rail link will continue as it is now, under any circumstances, after 29 March? On the medical front, can he say what steps his Department has taken on radioactive isotopes and particularly important medicines? I have constituents who are very concerned about that.
Of course, we very much hope that the train will also continue to operate as now and we have received such assurances. When it comes to radioisotopes, we have also procured flights and aircraft capacity to ensure that those goods and those parts of the medical supply chain that need to be brought in faster and cannot be stockpiled can also be brought through.
Can the Secretary of State tell us precisely how much of the £33 million being paid to Eurotunnel is being contributed by the Department of Health and Social Care?
This was a cross-Government decision. It is all taxpayers’ money, at the end of the day.
It is important that people with long-term health conditions are reassured that they will have access to the right medicines, so my right hon. Friend is right to make sure that there is proper access across the channel. What are the pharmaceutical companies doing to keep a greater stock of reserves over and above those that they usually hold?
We have a multifaceted approach to making sure that we have an unhindered supply of medicines, and stockpiling is of course another important part of that. The vast majority of the 12,300 medicines that are commonly used in England can be stockpiled. For those that can be stockpiled, we asked for a six-week stockpile to be put in place, and we have plans in place for almost all of those. For the very small number remaining, we are putting plans in place right now. We are doing all that with the confidence that by the time we get to 29 March, so long as everybody does what they need to do between now and then, we will be able to have confidence in that unhindered supply.
The Secretary of State is making the mistake of insulting the intelligence of those of us who have been pursuing this issue for the past two months. What happened on Friday was nothing to do with the unhindered supply of medicines: it was an out-of-court settlement to avoid the British Government’s being found in breach of the law of competitive tendering. Will the Secretary of State confirm that even in the event of a deal, not a penny of that £33 million will be recoverable, because it is not for a contract but for an out-of-court settlement to avoid a finding that his Government were in breach of the law?
On the contrary: this is all about the unhindered supply of medicines, because that is what we will be doing with the boats.
I do not know when you last travelled through the channel tunnel, Mr Speaker, but when I came back on Saturday 5 January there was complete chaos at Calais, with miles of queues and hours of delays, so I am glad that Eurotunnel is going to improve its investment in our borders and security. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if the money is not spent on improving our borders and security, it will be paid back to the taxpayer?
I can go even further than that: it will not be paid over unless it is being spent on security, resilience and other measures, so we will get some of the improvements that my hon. Friend seeks.
With all due respect to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, surely the House and the taxpayer are entitled to hear today what the main mistake made by the Secretary of State for Transport was that has resulted in this unnecessary pay-out of £33 million. Where does this latest shambles rate in the Secretary of State for Transport’s top 10 catalogue of ministerial mishaps?
Frankly, I do not think we should really pay much heed to such a statement, rather than a question, unless the hon. Gentleman is going to vote for the deal as well.
It is always a bonus to see my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care at the Dispatch Box answering questions, particularly today. On the deal and making sure that we have a secure supply of medicine, will he reassure me that he will continue to ignore some of the noise and party political point scoring and focus on making sure that the NHS can function in whatever circumstances it faces after 29 March?
There is a notable difference in tone, is there not, between those who care about ensuring that people get the supply of medicines in future, and those who want to make political points out of it but do not oppose the decision we are discussing.
I find this utterly extraordinary, because in the Public Accounts Committee hearing on this matter, the permanent secretary said:
“I am confident that our process was lawful, and obviously the Department and I acted on legal advice in determining how to take that process forward”.
If we were so confident in that legal advice, why was this settlement reached at all? Actually, is this not an admission of a catastrophic failure in stakeholder management?
No. It is clear that we needed to ensure that there were no risks around the two contracts for the capacity that we need to bring in an unhindered supply of medicines, whatever the Brexit scenario. I do not know whether the hon. Lady thinks it would have been worth bearing the risk of a court case, which may well have struck down the capacity to make sure that people who have serious and life-threatening conditions can get the medicines that they want. She implied that she was against such assurances, and I think that would have been a mistake.
I support the withdrawal agreement—it is a good deal—but I also support our being ready for no-deal eventualities. I was reassured by the Secretary of State’s answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) about stockpiling medicines that can be stockpiled, but for those that cannot be stockpiled, what action is the Secretary of State taking to be sure that they can be air-freighted rather than have to come through the tunnel?
My hon. Friend is quite right to support a deal and the action that we have taken in case there is no deal. That is the position that anybody who cares about the unhindered supply of medicines should take. When it comes to those medicines that cannot be stockpiled, we have contracts for flights to ensure that those medicines can be flown in. We have in place a flight from Birmingham to Maastricht, and the return journey, obviously, to ensure that we can get those short-term medicines in.
This must be making parliamentary history this afternoon. We have two urgent questions about the same incompetent Minister causing mayhem and chaos in two different Departments and he does not even have the face to come here and front it out—and we are left with Hancock’s half hour! Let me ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care: is any of the £33 million going to be reimbursed from his budget to the Department for Transport?
This was, of course, a cross-Government decision, which is why I am here. It is the medicines that will be using that capacity. In the Hancock family, we are very proud of “Hancock’s Half Hour”, and we thought that Tony was a very funny man.
It is worth pointing out that that Hancock was deliberately funny.
The Secretary of State has talked about medicines, but there are also prescribed foods—for example, the gluten-free food on which some people depend. What will the situation be for those foods?
Of course that matters enormously, too. Although medicines are the category 1 prioritised goods that will be using the extra procured capacity safeguarded by this settlement, there are other measures being undertaken by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to protect the supply of foods.
That £33 million would pay the annual salary of 118,000 nurses, and God knows we need them. The NHS has 40,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England. Does the Secretary of State for Health think that the cost of the latest blunder of the elusive Secretary of State for Transport is money well spent?
Well, I do think that it is very important that we spend what is necessary in order to have the unhindered supply of medicines. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady shakes her head, but would she, in these shoes, put at risk the unhindered supply of medicines? Of course she would not, so she must agree with me that this was the right decision to take.
My right hon. Friend has dealt with the channel aspect, but one of my constituents, Jeff Screeton, has a small business that specialises in small-scale freight on domestic passenger rail services. That includes medical items, particularly items that need to move quickly. Might he be interested in this work, particularly from the domestic transportation side of this contingency planning?
Yes, I would be very happy to talk to my hon. Friend about that business.
This expenditure is only necessary because of the sheer incompetence of the Secretary of State for Transport. I have sat and listened to him in this Chamber and listened to him in the Transport Committee, and after every fiasco his defence is that it has not cost the Exchequer any money. The fact is that this has cost the Exchequer £33 million. Has he not run out of runway and should he not resign?
No, the decision to settle this case in order to provide for the unhindered supply of medicines, which I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman, agrees is important, was the correct judgment and the correct decision, because we need to make sure that we keep people safe.
Although it can never be comfortable to give a settlement to any organisation, I have to agree with the Father of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), that it is better to draw a line under this and move on. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) is chuntering. I shall have to defer to her knowledge of losing cases in the legal courts. Can the Secretary of State tell me whether it is correct that Eurotunnel has said it will use this money to provide increased resilience at the Dover port?
Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. He makes a broader point: people watching these proceedings, people who have serious illnesses, and people who rely on medicines every day to keep them alive will be amazed by those Members who will not vote for the deal and therefore make a no-deal exit more likely, and by those Members who just cause political noise rather than admitting that, in the circumstances, they too would have settled this case. We are hearing a lot of that from those on the Opposition Benches. On the Government Benches, however, we are hearing from Members who care deeply about making sure that people get the medicines that they need.
Does the £33 million include all the possible expenditure under this agreement, or are there any additional costs, such as legal fees, that need to be added on top? If there are, how much are they?
The settlement is £33 million. Of course, there are lawyers, and legal time was also needed inside the Department. That happens all the time in order to try to make sure that we can keep people safe, which is the whole purpose of this exercise.
The reality is that the Secretary of State is engaged in deflection. We are now in a situation where this country risks running out of vital medicines for each and every one of our constituents because of this Government’s relentless pursuit of a no-deal hard Brexit that will ruin this country. Is it not the case that this money that we are having to pay out is emblematic of the chaos in this Government and the incompetence of this Government and that our constituents will go without medicine because they cannot get their act together?
If the hon. Lady really, really believes what she just said, it is incumbent on her to vote for the deal.
The Health Secretary really is taking one for the team in this urgent transport question. Incidentally, where is the Transport Secretary?
The Transport Secretary is working hard on making sure that we can improve the transport system.
And the Secretary of State almost said that with a straight face. What went wrong and who is taking responsibility for it?
This is a cross-Government decision. The purpose of this settlement was to ensure the unhindered supply of medicines. I am the Health Secretary and it is my job to do everything that I can, in all circumstances, to ensure that there is that availability of medicines. I am sure that, whatever the Brexit scenario, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who need medicines would rather that we made this settlement to ensure that we have the confidence that we can deliver that.
I have recently been to see the Secretary of State for Education to lobby him for desperately needed resources to rebuild schools in my constituency and I was told that there is no money. Can the Secretary of State tell me how incompetent I need to be to walk away with £33 million for my constituents?
I am sure that the hon. Lady’s constituents will need to be confident that there is medicine for them, whatever the scenario is under Brexit, and that is what this settlement is all about.
Is the Minister aware of the number of healthcare companies that are reluctantly extending their bank credit so that they can stockpile goods and components because of the lack of forward planning by this Government? What can he do to help those companies and also to help the banks that have to lend on longer terms than they normally would have an appetite for?
I mentioned in my statement that the pharmaceutical industry has stepped up to the plate and acted extremely responsibly in order to put in place the stockpiling that is necessary for a contingency in the event of a no-deal Brexit. All of us in this House can do something about the potential of a no-deal Brexit: we can vote for the deal.
I know that the Health Secretary dreams of being Prime Minister, but to his great surprise, and to ours, he woke up as the Transport Secretary’s fall guy this morning. Trying to explain to constituents what is happening in this place is really hard. Trying to explain why a Transport Secretary has not been fired or has not resigned for effectively taking a decision that has lost the taxpayer £33 million is really difficult. Why is it that the Health Secretary cannot get up and simply apologise for the Transport Secretary’s error here? It would go such a long way to restoring confidence in politics. At the moment, this shows Parliament and the Government at their very, very worst.
I think I have mentioned that the point of this settlement was to ensure the unhindered supply of medicines, which is very much a matter for me as Health Secretary. People watching these proceedings will also be astonished that the Labour party can argue against a settlement such as this when it is refusing to vote for the deal that could ensure that we have a smooth and orderly exit and that the plans and the contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit are not necessary. Mr Speaker, the hon. Gentleman should vote for the deal, too.
I do not know what is more embarrassing: that the Secretary of State has the brass neck to sit there this afternoon, or that his entire Front-Bench team are nodding along with his “Jackanory” stories.
Since the Secretary of State insists that this is about the supply of medicines, I am going to ask him, for the second time in a fortnight, about radioisotopes. Last time he said that there was no problem because we could fly them in. Can he now tell us how we can get radioisotopes supplied to us if we are not a member of Euratom?
Access to radioisotopes is precisely through the aviation route—that is exactly what I said to the hon. Lady last time, and I say it to her again today.
Was the Secretary of State for Transport advised by any officials that his decision to award a contract to Seaborne Freight would result in a challenge in the courts by Eurotunnel?
This is not linked to the Seaborne Freight contract; this is about ensuring that the contracts that are in place are able to deliver the unhindered supply of medicines in whatever Brexit scenario.
I do not know about you, Mr Speaker, but I think this is the worst “Hancock’s Half Hour” I have ever seen—and it is in colour for the first time. The Secretary of State, in response to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald)—I am grateful to him for securing the urgent question—advised the House that he has been speaking to the devolved Administrations. When did it come to pass that the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have to discuss out-of-court settlements to get medicines with the devolved Administrations?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman had a question in there, but all I will say is that of course discussing the supply of medicines with the devolved Administrations is important, to ensure that those supplies reach all parts of the UK. The devolved Administrations support the wish to ensure that we have in place the capacity to deliver that unhindered supply, and I think that he should support that too.
I call Drew Hendry.
The streak continues, Mr Speaker.
I am going to be more charitable to the Government, because I think they blatantly realise that having no Secretary of State for Transport is infinitely better than having the one they have got. We have listened to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care’s fairy tale about medicines today, but will he at least have the decency to admit that £33 million is a lot of money, especially to people facing hardship on universal credit, the disabled and the low-waged?
It is very important that we always remember that this is taxpayers’ money. One of the duties of Government is to use taxpayers’ money to keep people safe, and that means having an unhindered supply of medicines, which is what we on the Government Benches are working so hard to deliver.
This is not about the deal; this is all about incompetence at Government level, with £50 million for the original no-ships contract and a further £33 million in legal compensation to clear up the Eurotunnel mess. Now that the Government have found the magic money tree, how much is coming to Scotland, since we actually have ferries that we want to run?
I find it astonishing that Members on the Opposition Benches continue to make the case that this is not about medicines; it is all about medicines, because that is what we are going to be putting on this capacity in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It is about ensuring that, whatever happens on Brexit, people can still be safe. That is why this cross-Government decision was the right one to take. I think it is the same decision that anybody in the House would have taken were they in this place.
Points of order are flowing from this urgent question and, exceptionally, I will take them, if they are relatively brief.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance. This is now the second time that I have tabled an urgent question asking the Transport Secretary to come to the House and respond. We are told that he is busy—presumably pouring more money down the drain. Should he not be here, and what can you do to secure his attendance?
While we are at it, will the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care come to the Dispatch Box and explain that he has inadvertently misled the House by saying that this has nothing to do with Seaborne Freight? It has everything to do with that contract. That was the reason Eurotunnel took the Government to court in the first place. He must put the record straight.
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for his point of order. As he will know, the choice of Minister to respond to an urgent question is exclusively a matter for the Government. For example, it is commonplace for somebody other than the Secretary of State to appear. It is not altogether uncommon for a Department other than that at which the question was tabled to field a representative to respond. I recognise that it is relatively unusual for the Secretary of State in the Department questioned not to appear, and for someone who rejoices in the seniority of Secretary of State in another Department to appear instead, but we should never underestimate the enthusiasm, stoicism and commitment to regular performance in the Chamber of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and he has demonstrated that again this afternoon. Colleagues will form their own assessment of how he has batted at the wicket of the governmental team.
As to what the Secretary of State said about the question not being about Seaborne Freight, I think I will say that he has placed his own interpretation on the matter, and colleagues will form their own assessment. I thought that most of the inquiries were about legal action flowing from the cancellation of the contract, but the Secretary of State does have a legitimate public policy interest in the matter, both as a member of the Government and because of his regard for the safe delivery of medicines. Some people will think that he was absolutely right, and others will think that his interpretation of matters was a tad quirky, but nevertheless he has offered us his own assessment and colleagues can now assess it at leisure, possibly over their tea.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In reply to my question, the Secretary of State said:
“I do not know whether she thinks it would have been worth bearing the risk of a court case, which may well have struck down the capacity to make sure that people who have serious and life-threatening conditions can get the medicines that they want. She implied that she was against such assurances”.
I did no such thing, and you were here to hear it, Mr Speaker. I asked very specifically why we no longer have confidence in the legal advice that the permanent secretary herself told the Public Accounts Committee she did have confidence in. I do not take particularly kindly to men putting words in my mouth, so I wonder what recourse I have to get a retraction.
The hon. Lady has made her point with considerable force and alacrity, and I have no doubt whatever that she is totally sincere, because she came up to the Chair to register her displeasure. I think that the Secretary of State was mildly carried away with the theatricality of the occasion, and he is very accustomed to jousting from the Dispatch Box. Ordinarily I have found him a most good-natured individual, so I think it unlikely—very unlikely indeed—that he would willingly impugn the integrity of a very committed and conscientious Member of Parliament in the hon. Lady, because at heart he is a very gracious chap. He may well wish to proffer an apology to her—[Interruption.]
Come on then. Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The first thing to note following these points of order is that—
Order. I am not inviting the Secretary of State to give a sort of general response, in the style of a Second Reading debate, to everything that has been said. If he wants to respond in relation to personal offence being taken, he can. That would be appreciated.
The point I was making, Mr Speaker, which I think I made a few times, is that those who care about having unhindered supply of medicines should vote for the deal, because that is the best way to ensure that people can be kept safe. That is all that I was implying by my comments.
Well, the Secretary of State has said what he has said, and colleagues will make their own assessment of it. I thank him for coming to the Dispatch Box.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State said in response to me a moment ago that the Seaborne Freight issue was nothing to do with this contract and the payment of £33 million to Eurotunnel, but it self-evidently and centrally is. Could you give me some advice as to how we can ensure that Ministers at the Dispatch Box who do not have departmental responsibility are better briefed and/or that the real Secretary of State comes to this House to answer legitimate questions on factual matters about which this Secretary of State does not know?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman’s question was more rhetorical than not, and there was not really a question mark at the end of it. I can only say, for my own part, that when discharging my duties to the best of my ability this morning, I was rather under the impression that the urgent question was about the cancellation of the contract on account of legal action and that it was to do with Seaborne Freight. It may be that my interpretation was notably eccentric, but I do not think so. I think I was pretty clear what it was about, and that my assessment was shared by the team that accompanies me at the 12 o’clock meeting on a Monday morning.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are an esteemed and eloquent Member of this House, as you often say to us, and you have just made a comment about what this case was about. Can I be very clear? The reason we settled this case, as I said to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), was to ensure that the freight capacity purchased from DFDS and Brittany Ferries continues, in order to have the unhindered supply of medicines. That is what the settlement was a about.
No, no—I am not arguing the toss with the Secretary of State. I said earlier that he placed his own interpretation on what he judged to be the gravamen of the matter. That the question was about the cancellation of the contract and that it was about Seaborne Freight is, I think, so manifestly clear as to brook no contradiction by any sensible person. That it also related to the delivery of medicines is a perfectly arguable point. The Secretary of State has made his own point in his own way, and if he is satisfied with his own efforts and goes about his business with an additional glint in his eye and spring in his step, then I am very happy for him.
Further to those points of order, Mr Speaker. You take pride in being a Speaker who is very generous in allowing urgent questions to be asked. The whole reason for urgent questions is so that parliamentarians, particularly Back Benchers, can hold the Government to account. It is quite clearly frustrating today that, yet again, the Transport Secretary, who is culpable for this mess, has not come to answer the questions. We have a stand-in Health Minister who has parroted two lines in response to every question that has been asked: first, “This is about medicines”; and secondly, “If you don’t like it, back the deal.” That is palpable nonsense, and it makes a mockery of urgent questions that are to hold the Government to account. I also know that, as a parliamentarian, if I submit written parliamentary questions on this scenario, the answers will come back saying “commercial confidentiality”, and I will not get any clear information. I am asking for guidance, Mr Speaker, on how we get real information out of this Government when they are trying to shroud everything in secrecy.
On the matter of secrecy, the Government will make their own judgment about what constitutes commercial confidentiality, and every Government are entitled to do that. More widely, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that he has a number of recourses. He has, potentially, access to freedom of information legislation like any citizen. As for as the business of the House, it is open to him and to others to table written questions—not necessarily an isolated question but potentially a series or, if necessary, several series of questions. It is open to Members to put oral questions to Ministers. It is open to them to apply, as happened today, for an urgent question. It is open to them also to seek debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee or, in certain circumstances that commend themselves to the Chair, under the terms of Standing Order No. 24.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman—I mean this very sincerely and, not least, for the benefit of those who are listening to our proceedings—is disquieted, not to say irritated. However, I suppose I am making the point that I have often made to Members on both sides of the House, including, some months ago, to the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), who very sagely took my advice last week: persist, persist, persist. That is the essence of success in parliamentary endeavour—not to make a point once but to pursue one’s goal on a continued, indefatigable, and, if necessary, remorseless basis. I think that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) has become accustomed to such an approach over the past four years in which he has served as a Member of the House.
I thank the Members who have raised points of order and the Secretary of State for proffering his replies. We will have to leave it there for today.