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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 25 November 2021

Cabinet Office

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service Jobs outside London

The Government are committed to relocating 22,000 civil servants out of Greater London by 2030, with up to 15,000 by 2025. We are working with Departments and public bodies to ensure that roles are relocated at pace, and the spending review will enable Departments to now finalise those plans.

According to the “Preparing for the Civil Service Verbal and Numerical tests” section of the Government website, these tests are

“fair and free from bias and discrimination”,

but they are based on algorithms to ensure that a

“person meets the requirements of a particular job level”.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the civil service employs individuals from a broad spectrum of political beliefs?

The tests to which my hon. Friend refers do not assess political beliefs; they are focused on reasoning ability in relation to verbal and numerical skills. However, the point she raises is addressed through the Places for Growth programme, which, by recruiting civil servants in larger numbers from across the whole of the United Kingdom, will facilitate far greater diversity through our recruitment.

York has been promised many jobs, including the House of Lords—remember that one?—a northern government hub, a conference centre, and now 600—or is it 200?—new Cabinet Office jobs, but nothing has materialised; it seems like chaos. Will the Minister meet me to talk about the potential of York Central and how this incredible opportunity could best be used to strategically serve the purposes and functions of government as well as my city of York?

I am a little surprised by that, because the Government are committed to York. The hon. Lady has already, along with other colleagues, made the case successfully. Not least, the Cabinet Office itself is committed to increasing its presence from about 400 to 600 in York. We are committed to York through Places for Growth, and I hope she would celebrate that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington, with its skilled workforce, transport links and infrastructure, would be the ideal location for civil service jobs outside London, and that this would be an example of our Government’s determination to level up across the country?

I very much do agree that Bury would be a great location, as indeed would a number of locations across the north-west. It is important that the Places for Growth programme does not solely look at inner-city locations but also looks at the opportunities that places like Bury offer to relocate jobs.

I call Richard Holden. He is not here—in which case, let us go to Barry Sheerman, who is here.

It is on Thursday mornings, Mr Speaker, that those of us who are regulars miss David Amess—those Thursday mornings when he was so lively and showed that he was a true parliamentarian.

When the Minister talks about putting jobs in places around the country, will he lead, with all of us in our constituencies, a campaign for sustainable development in every town, city and community in this country?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his first comments, which are widely shared across the House.

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point, I agree. I was recently looking, for example, at the Cabinet Office relocation plans for Peterborough, which were part of a much wider regeneration programme that will make a significant difference there. One of the key learnings from past attempts by previous Governments to relocate civil servants outside London is that one has to do it a way that builds a hub and spoke, so that there is a sustainable career and it sits within a wider regeneration, as in areas such as York. He makes an extremely important point, and it is a key part of the plans we are bringing forward.

I believe that Ministers have previously shown interest in suitable office space in my constituency to house Cabinet Office staff. Will the Minister provide an update on any plans to open civil service offices in Rutherglen and Hamilton West or the surrounding areas? He just mentioned areas of regeneration. That is an area that is being regenerated by Clyde Gateway.

A key component of the Places for Growth programme is that it is UK-wide. That is why, to take my Department, the Cabinet Office, we are having a second headquarters in Glasgow, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is committed to East Kilbride. It is a UK-wide programme, and that shows the values of working together across the United Kingdom.

House of Lords Appointments

2. If the Government will conduct a review of the process for appointing peers to the House of Lords. (904346)

The Government do not currently plan to conduct a review. The constitutional position in this country is that the Prime Minister is responsible for advising Her Majesty on appointments to the House of Lords. The House of Lords Appointments Commission offers the Prime Minister probity advice and can make Cross-Bench recommendations concerning these appointments.

About half the peers in the House of Lords have been ennobled since 2010, with most—I am being charitable—not for their sheer luminosity of talent but the generosity of their bank balance. Does the Minister not see that having a Chamber of cheque writers undermines the credibility of not just the House of Lords but the entirety of Parliament? Is it not time that we just got rid of it?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s final point is no. Peerages reflect long-standing contributions to civic life and a willingness to further contribute to public life. In Britain, taxpayers do not have to bankroll political parties’ campaigning. We must be transparent about donations, but those who oppose party fundraising need to explain how many millions they want taxpayers to pay for state funding instead.

The Minister may deny that the House of Lords is crony-stuffed, but 15 of the last 16 Tory treasurers gave £3 million to the Tory party to get a life peerage and 80% of the UK public think that corruption is fairly or very present in our politics. Does he agree that abolishing the House of Lords—this is another chance—would send out a clear anti-corruption message by ensuring that friends of a sitting Government are never again given life power over our democracy in exchange for their donations?

I have a lot of time for the hon. Lady, but we will not be abolishing the House of Lords any time soon. Peerages, as I said, reflect long-standing contributions to civic life and give these people an opportunity to put something back and contribute to public life.

At last week’s Liaison Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) asked the Prime Minister if he would

“stop sending big-value donors to the House of Lords”.

The Prime Minister replied:

“Until you get rid of the system by which the trades union barons fund other parties…we need to continue with the system by which public-spirited people give donations.”

Mr Speaker, I believe that the Prime Minister’s answer comes dangerously close to an admission of selling peerages, in direct contravention of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, and is worthy of further investigation. Will the Minister undertake that investigation or does he think it is sufficiently serious to involve the Metropolitan police?

Again, the answer is no. One of the most valued aspects of the House of Lords is the experience that Members bring to their work. The idea that successful businesspeople and philanthropists who contribute to political causes should be disqualified from sitting in the legislature is nonsense. There is no link between party donations and nominations to sit in the House of Lords. [Laughter.] The law has been followed at all times. The police have said that there is no evidence that the law has been broken.

I admire the Minister’s ability to say that with a straight face. It is disappointing but not surprising that he appears to believe there is absolutely nothing wrong with the system. Maybe he can take this opportunity to explain why, since 2010, no fewer than 22 of the Tories’ biggest backers, who have donated a total of £54 million to their coffers, have been elevated to the House of Lords. Will he explain why he believes that stuffing the House of Lords full of wealthy donors, cronies, political allies and those unwilling or unable to be elected somehow enhances and improves our democracy?

Again, successful businesspeople should not be disqualified from sitting in the legislature. The hon. Gentleman made a point about the number of people who have been appointed since 2010. I gently point out that there are just over 800 Members of the House of Lords and 408 of them were appointed by the Opposition when they were in power between 1997 and 2010.

It is good to have a bicameral Parliament, but is not the fundamental problem with the House of Lords simply that it is too large and not enough of them turn up? There are 800 peers compared with 650 MPs, and in the Divisions this month, the average turnout was 378, which is 47%. Will the Minister consider reducing the size of the House of Lords?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but given retirements and other departures, some new Members are essential to keep the expertise and the outlook of the Lords fresh. We continue to support and encourage the policy of Members of the House of Lords retiring. The Government’s 2019 manifesto, of which he will be aware, committed to looking at the role of the Lords, but any reform needs to be considered carefully and not done on a piecemeal basis.

“Track and Trace”: Transparency International Report

3. If he will make an assessment of the implications for his policies of the findings of Transparency International’s report, “Track and Trace”, published April 2021. (904347)

The Government recognise the importance of maintaining public confidence in how we manage taxpayers’ money. We are taking steps to improve the processes already in place and to ensure that public spending is fair and transparent. Proposals in our December 2020 Green Paper aim to improve transparency in procurement across the public sector and include specific measures to strengthen transparency through the commercial lifecycle from planning to procurement, contract award, performance and completion. We will publish our response to the consultation shortly.

Test and Trace has been muddled and expensive. Along with personal protective equipment provision, it has been a profiteers’ paradise for some. After inflation, NHS workers got no pay rise, yet Deloitte’s partners got 14%. We need answers: who did what and for how much? Does the Minister agree that the terms of reference for the covid public inquiry should include an analysis of the super-profits and juicy contracts for middlemen that have undoubtedly been made, so that the public can consider what opportunists have enjoyed at all our expense?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the National Audit Office noted that it

“found that the ministers had properly declared their interests, and…found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”

No PPE contracts were awarded by reason of who referred them. Clearly, in a national emergency, it is right that we as a nation can procure at speed. That ability has been critical in providing the emergency response that was needed. Those mechanisms predate the pandemic; they were not created for the pandemic. The public are right to demand that we spend our money with car—and, unlike Labour Governments, we do that. Proposals in the Green Paper on reforming public procurement aim to improve transparency, and we will continue to do that.

Transparency International’s report identified 73 covid contracts that raised red flags for corruption. Last week, after 18 months of deflection and secrecy, the list of the companies awarded contracts through the VIP lane was finally revealed. We can see now why it was kept secret.

It is curious that, of the recommendations from politicians to that list, only the recommendations of Conservatives—no other political party—were successful. Of the 47 companies awarded contracts worth £4.7 billion, 18—more than a third—were referred by Tory MPs, Ministers or peers. Can the Minister confirm that anti-fraud and conflict of interest checks really did take place for all the contracts in the VIP lane? If there were another emergency tomorrow, would the system still be jobs for mates, or is a new and better one ready?

Of course, the hon. Lady is conveniently forgetting that Labour Members of Parliament also recommended individuals and companies as far as PPE is concerned, and there is nothing wrong with that. There was a national emergency at the time, and everyone was asked to assist, and if they knew someone who might have been able to assist in supplying personal protective equipment, they were invited to say so. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, but it was a public service to do so. The National Audit Office has already looked at this, and it has said there was no evidence of involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.

I realise there is a political wish on the part of the Labour party to try to make something of this, but actually this is a matter of public service. It is right that proper due diligence is carried out on contracts, and that is why the information is available to the public and to the Opposition to have a look at Government contracts. That has always happened, and it will continue to happen. The Government take these checks extremely seriously, and we are being extremely transparent, but it is also absolutely essential that, in an emergency, we can procure at speed.

Covid-19 Public Inquiry

4. What steps he is taking to consult with covid-19 bereaved families on the public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic. (904349)

12. What steps he is taking to ensure that all ministerial correspondence relating to the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic will be made available to the public inquiry. (904360)

13. What steps he is taking to consult with covid-19 bereaved families on the public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic. (904362)

I am pleased to reiterate that the Prime Minister has already confirmed that bereaved families and others will be consulted on the covid inquiry’s terms of reference before they are finalised and that the inquiry will be established on a statutory basis with full formal powers.

The University of Liverpool this week released a report on the lived experience of those who have lost a loved one to covid-19, in collaboration with Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice. The report recommends that the public inquiry be brought forward without delay, stresses the importance of transparency and asks for bereaved families to be an integral part of the inquiry. Is it not about time that the Government listen to the bereaved families of covid-19 victims and adopt the report’s recommendations?

I thank the hon. Member for her question, and may I take this opportunity to express my condolences and sympathy to all of the many bereaved families who have suffered as a result of the pandemic? The Prime Minister announced in Parliament as early as May this year—on 12 May—that the inquiry into the pandemic would be established on a formal statutory basis, with all the requisite powers that go with that, under the Inquiries Act 2005. A chair of the inquiry will be announced by the end of this year, and the Prime Minister told the bereaved families group that in a meeting he had with them on 28 September. It is important that formal powers will be attached to the inquiry, and everything will be done to make sure the relevant material and oral evidence, for example, is given under oath.

The Prime Minister refused to meet bereaved families for nearly 400 days. When he eventually deigned to meet them in September, he promised them they would have a role in setting the terms of reference for the inquiry. Yesterday, these grieving families wrote to the Prime Minister asking why, yet again, they are being ignored. Can the Minister explain to them why they are being ignored?

As I just said, the Prime Minister met Bereaved Families for Justice on 28 September. He welcomed the opportunity to hear directly from them, and of course the areas they would like the inquiry to cover were mentioned. The importance of choosing the right chair was also mentioned. All commitments made to the Bereaved Families for Justice group will be met. The chair of the inquiry will be appointed by Christmas, and bereaved families and others will be consulted on the terms of reference before they are finalised.

This Christmas, many constituents of Members across the House will sit where they normally are, but their loved one will not be with them. Indeed, for some people it is two years, isn’t it? Could I press the Minister on announcing the chair, or having the Prime Minister announce the chair, not on Christmas eve, because that will wreck Christmas? As the end of the year is nearly here, could he speed that up, just for their sake?

I hear the hon. Lady’s question and absolutely recognise the importance of the matter. It is also of course important to go through the proper processes in selecting possible chairs, appointing one and so on. I know this will be given the considerable importance it deserves, and as I said, it will be disclosed before the end of the year.

For the covid-19 bereaved families two things matter above all: that the inquiry begins as soon as possible, with the families at its heart; and that the national covid memorial wall opposite Parliament must be preserved. The Government have indicated that they support a national memorial at St Paul’s cathedral instead, but this is not an either/or choice and the families’ agony must end. Both memorials deserve their place: will the Minister therefore support the bereaved families’ request to preserve the memorial wall, because it is their wall, their memories, their love?

The Government recognise the need for bereaved families to have a location, or locations, where the representation will take place, and of course there is a UK commission on covid commemoration, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It will carefully consider how communities across the country can remember those who have lost their lives due to this appalling pandemic, and recognise those involved in the response as well, in a fitting and permanent way. So there is a specific UK commission on covid commemoration, and we should let it do its job.

Supply Chains

We have put in place a number of measures to deal with the extraordinary set of circumstances brought on by the pandemic and the global economy rebounding from the disruption it caused. These include increasing HGV testing capacity by 90% to help get new drivers into the sector quickly, extending cabotage rights, making available boot camps to train up to 5,000 HGV drivers, and making available temporary visas for poultry workers and butchers.

As well as making the best use of our wide and varied natural resources in our energy transition to net zero, it also makes sense to make the best and most effective use of our existing supply chains that serve our maritime nation. Will my right hon. Friend therefore join me and the UK Marine Energy Council in welcoming the announcement yesterday of £20 million of UK funding for the tidal energy sector, and will this Government reinforce supply chains for the wider maritime economy?

I do welcome that announcement. As the Energy Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), said, the backing for tidal steam power is opening up a new chapter for Britain’s coastal communities and advancing the possibilities for Britain’s marine energy sector to play a significant role in delivering the UK’s green energy revolution.

A large number of small and medium-sized enterprises play a crucial role in the UK’s supply chain and many rely on imports from the European Union to keep that supply chain going. Such businesses were let down badly last year when import controls were introduced on the other side of the channel; what guarantees can the Minister give that when the UK starts to impose import controls in January the needs of small businesses will be kept in mind?

We are working in collaboration across the United Kingdom: I joined a call with the First Ministers, including the First Minister of Scotland, to discuss supply chain issues. We have also brought in expertise such as Sir Dave Lewis, former chief executive of Tesco, to work with us. How we maintain the resilience of our supply chains involves shared issues that we are working together on across the UK.

Business Bids for Contracts

6. What steps the Government are taking to increase opportunities for small businesses to bid for Government contracts. (904352)

11. What steps he is taking to increase opportunities for British businesses to bid for contracts on major infrastructure projects. (904358)

Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of the UK economy. We are increasing opportunities for SMEs in a variety of ways, from transparently publishing contract pipelines to simplifying the bidding process.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. I am always proud to see Stoke-on-Trent’s world-leading ceramics across the parliamentary estate when I am busy plate turning, but sadly, the same cannot be said for every Department. Under current Government and parliamentary procurement rules, purchases of less than £10,000 do not require an open tendering process. That freezes out many local ceramics companies, such as Churchill China and Steelite in my Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke constituency. Can my right hon. Friend advise me how we will improve procurement rules to ensure that Stoke-on-Trent’s world-leading ceramics have a fair crack of the whip and can be spread across Whitehall?

My hon. Friend is right to be proud of those industries, and he is also right to draw a distinction between contracts above £10,000, which need to be published, and those below £10,000, albeit of course that those below £10,000 still need to deliver value for money. We are looking, through the legislation that we are bringing forward on procurement, at how we can allow greater comparability in public contracts—that £300 billion of spend—so that we drive better value for money. We are also supporting SMEs through things such as Help to Grow: Digital and Help to Grow: Management in order that they are better enabled to bid for those important contracts.

The rows and rows of wind turbines off our shores have, historically, largely been imported from abroad. What are the Government and the Minister doing to ensure that onshore and offshore renewable technology is British made using British steel?

There are two aspects to that question. First, there is the investment we are making—for example, the £15 billion, increasing to £20 billion, in research and development so that we can make the most of innovation and technical opportunities, building on our university sector expertise. Secondly, covid has shone a light on the importance of resilience in supply chains and the benefits in certain sectors of onshoring more of our supply chains. I think that is one positive that has come out of the covid process.

Veterans’ Interests

8. What recent steps the Office for Veterans’ Affairs has taken to promote the interests of veterans. (904354)

The Government are determined to see a gold standard of care and support for our veterans. We are putting more money into bespoke mental health care and the NHS, we are putting more money into our brilliant veteran and armed forces charitable sector—it has doubled this year to more than £25 million—and we are putting in place practical improvements to the lives of veterans, such as railcards, armed forces champions in jobcentres, and tax cuts for those employing veterans.

Would the Minister like to congratulate the veterans of Leigh and Atherton on raising £4,000 for veterans charities at a recent event?

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in thanking veterans and the Royal British Legion in Atherton and Leigh for raising £4,000, which is a very significant sum. I know from my constituency of Aldershot the hugely important role that the Royal British Legion has in local life and, indeed, in our national life, and I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he does in his constituency to support its efforts.

Covid-19 Departmental Backlogs

9. What steps his Department is taking to support other Departments to tackle backlogs resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (904356)

As we come out of the crisis phase of the covid response, the Government have put the recovery of public services at the heart of their building back better and levelling-up agenda, and we have already laid the foundation for recovery. Earlier this year, in the 2021-22 spending review, the Government allocated £55 billion to the public sector through key initiatives such as the £1 billion elective recovery fund, the £30 billion plan for jobs, £3 billion in education recovery, the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, and almost half a billion pounds in criminal justice system recovery. This work continues at pace across Government, and the Cabinet Office continues to work closely with Departments as they all build the world-class public services the UK deserves.

I thank the Paymaster General for that excellent answer, and I thank the Government for all they have done for business and for every sector through the pandemic; it is much appreciated.

I want to ask specifically about education. Will the Paymaster General outline whether additional education funding, above the £3 billion that he referred to, has been considered to bring some of our children back to where they should be? I am very concerned, as all in the House are, about the education of children. How, specifically, can we ensure that the children who have lost out can still catch up and have time to do so?

As is so often the case, the hon. Gentleman is so right in his focus on education. Of course, the Government recognise the importance of education for all our young people, at primary, secondary and tertiary level. That recognition manifests itself in the extra funding that the Government have supplied, through the Department for Education, to the education sector. There is the £3 billion education recovery fund, and I will be very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with more details about the breakdown of those sums.

Government Agencies: Transparency of Decisions

10. What recent assessment the Government have made of the transparency of decisions taken by Government agencies. (904357)

The Cabinet Office’s tailored review programme ran from 2015 to 2020. The programme considered transparency in its review of over 100 bodies. Further, the public bodies reform programme was launched earlier this year. A key output of the programme is a new series of public body reviews, which will focus on four areas of assessment: governance, accountability, efficacy and efficiency.

I look forward to perhaps participating in those reviews with the Minister, and I thank him for his response.

On a recent trip to Berlin, the Transport Committee heard from German health and transport officials how they had formed the rules on international travel restrictions, the rationale behind them, and how they had explained those rules to the industry, which seemed to be working happily alongside them. In contrast, our own decision makers were, sadly, taken to court in order for those in the UK international travel industry to better understand the rationale. With this new review approach, will it be possible for us to better find a way in which the public and private sector can understand what the rule making and decision making is really about?

I thank my hon. Friend, the Transport Committee Chairman, for his question. I know how important this issue is to him and to the sector. Ministers and officials have engaged extensively with the aviation and travel industries throughout the pandemic, including through our global travel taskforce report, which set the framework for the safe return of international travel. The Cabinet Office continues to be a friend to industry. We will keep on engaging with businesses as we undertake a further review of our international travel policy early in the new year to provide certainty for the spring and summer 2022 seasons.

While calling for transparency from other public bodies, the UK Government need to lead from the front. It is a fact that the VIP lane allowed contracts to be given to Tory friends’ small businesses out of all proportion to their size, turnover and track record. If the UK Government believe in transparency, why did they fight tooth and nail to hide the VIP lane information?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but the National Audit Office did not find as he believes. We are committed to transparency, as per action 24 in the “Declaration on Government Reform”. A key output of the public bodies reform programme is a new series of Department-led public body reviews.

Covid-19: Emergency Procurement Powers

Existing procurement rules, which predate covid-19, rightly allow the Government to procure at speed in times of an emergency. The rules are not new and it is for contracting authorities to make their own determinations on when to use them. At the beginning of the pandemic, we issued guidance to set out the options available to Government Departments to buy at pace, bearing in mind the legal framework for procurement. We have since built on that with further guidance on the commercial risks inherent in direct awards. Our “Transforming Public Procurement” Green Paper sets out proposals to update the rules on procuring in times of extreme emergency or crisis, learning from the experience of the pandemic. We will be publishing our response to that consultation shortly.

The use of emergency procurement powers during the covid-19 pandemic has been a murky mess. The process has delivered multiple contracts to Tory party friends and donors, and hundreds of millions of pounds of public money has been spent on equipment that could not be used. The use of such powers might have been justified at the start of the pandemic, but 20 months on there is really no excuse for the continued use of accelerated procurement powers. It is now eight months since the consultation on the Green Paper closed and the Government still have not published a response. When will they end the use of emergency measures, and when will they clean up public procurement?

I do not accept the characterisation that the hon. Lady puts on the matter, and neither does the National Audit Office—it looked at this and said, as we have rehearsed in the Chamber, that it sees no evidence of the sort of the thing that she refers to. On emergency procurement, it is crucial in any society for the Government to be able to purchase items at emergency speed, for example if lives are to be saved as a consequence, or in other types of emergency. That is nothing new. The public interest was best served by being able to act quickly and decisively.

As for the point that the hon. Lady makes about the situation now, the public sector has reduced its use of regulation 32 powers—the emergency procurement powers. Their use peaked between April and June 2020 at the height of the initial wave of the pandemic. In central Government, the use of these powers has reduced by more than two thirds over the six months from April to September 2021 compared with the same period last year. The use of emergency contracts is rapidly declining.

We come now to topical questions; we will have quite a few free hits today, as we are moving on to them rather early.

Topical Questions

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday fast approaching, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the UK’s cyber professionals, who work tirelessly behind the scenes to help to keep us safe online. That is as important as ever, as the economy recovers from the impact of covid-19. Every day, cyber criminals target online retail, from scam texts, impersonating couriers and defrauding shoppers out of their money to damaging the reputations of small businesses by stealing their customer payment details. That trend has only increased during the covid pandemic as more and more trade has moved online. Indeed, since April 2020, more than 4,000 business sites have been identified as being targeted by cyber criminals.

Organisations such as the National Cyber Security Centre and the British Retail Consortium have spearheaded that work, providing tailored advice to businesses and citizens on how they can protect their activity online. Details of further steps to be taken will be set out in the upcoming national cyber strategy, which the Government will launch in December. The strategy recognises the increasing importance of cyber in our day-to-day lives, and it will underpin our democratic values and strategic alliances and ensure that the UK will be more resilient to the future cyber threats that we will no doubt face.

I was delighted to see the Prime Minister unveil plans to establish a new science and technology council—they are great plans. Does the Minister agree that that council will not only help us to realise the possibilities that research and technology have to offer and to tackle the great societal changes and challenges that we need to address, but cement our place in the world as a science superpower?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. We are committed to being a science superpower and to putting science at the heart of our public policy making. That is why the Prime Minister set up the national science and technology council and why we have established the office for science and technology strategy, which will support those strategic decisions and ensure that the research and development uplift in funding from £15 billion to £20 billion can be targeted in the most effective way.

I welcome the Minister’s comments regarding cyber-security and the measures that will be taken, because it is blight on many of our constituents across the United Kingdom.

Last week, the Government admitted that minutes of a conference call on 9 April 2020 between the former Member for North Shropshire and a Health Minister could not be located. Has this Minister been informed whether or not those minutes have now been located, and can he say when all the relevant documents will be given to the House?

As the right hon. Lady knows, the National Audit Office always has power to access all documents; it has rights of access, as any member of the Public Accounts Committee would know. As we have covered in a series of questions this morning, the National Audit Office noted that

“we found that the ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”

Simply repeating a point does not make it correct. The National Audit Office has access to the document, and that is the finding that it set out.

I am not sure that I got an answer to the question that I posed to the Minister. As I recall—forgive me if I am wrong—the Prime Minister even said at Prime Minister’s questions that he was “very happy to publish” the documents, and Ministers today have talked about the importance of transparency. What is there to hide? Will Ministers publish all the correspondence, the WhatsApps and the messages so that there is transparency regarding the covid contracts? Will the Minister also accept all the outstanding freedom of information requests about the documents? As we have heard, £3.5 billion in contracts was awarded without tender to companies with links to the Conservative party. By contrast, not one successful bid came from any politician or adviser of any other party. Spending £1 million a week on storage for dud PPE—can the Minister explain that?

Earlier at departmental questions, we were told that the act of referral to the high-priority lane was a bad thing, until hon. Friends pointed out that Opposition Members had made the same referrals. The right hon. Lady has now shifted the attack to Randox and the timing of the contract. I simply remind her that the meeting between Randox and the then Minister for innovation was on 9 April, after the contract was signed with Randox on 30 March. Not only does the National Audit Office have rights of access to Government papers, but there is a legislative framework that applies to papers through the Freedom of Information Act. We will, of course, abide with it in the usual way.

T4. COP26, hosted by the UK Government in Glasgow, was a fantastic showcase for technical expertise and capabilities in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom. What steps are the Government taking to continue promoting Scottish expertise and know-how on the global stage? (904399)

I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster attended that fantastic event as well. We launched the refreshed GREAT campaign on 9 June, which showcases all four corners of our nation internationally to inspire the world and encourage people to visit, invest, study and live in the UK. The campaign, which is used across 22 Departments and arm’s length bodies, has promoted the best of the United Kingdom in more than 145 countries worldwide.

T2. Let us return to some of the Tory treasurers who are now Lords and look at their performance. Lord Harris of Peckham has spoken just eight times in the Chamber since being appointed in 1996. Lord Kalms has made seven spoken contributions since 2004. Lord Lupton is prolific, with 10 contributions since 2015. Is that not further proof that it was their donations and party position that got them into the Lords? (904394)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not recognise quality over quantity. I think he ought to spend a little more time reading House of Lords Hansard; he would see a world-beating range of expertise on myriad issues. The House of Lords is a House of experts and he should spend more time listening to its debates.

T6. This Government have spent more taxpayers’ money than any previous Government on public opinion polling. Over the past 16 months since July 2020, I have asked the Government to publish the polling carried out at the start of the covid-19 pandemic. They refused to release that information under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that it was still being used to develop policy; the Information Commissioner struck down that defence as incorrect.The Government then claimed that it was too costly to release, so I asked written parliamentary questions on the subject. They again refused, using the excuse that polling is still developing policy; as the Information Commissioner pointed out, that is a bogus argument. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster change the policy on the matter today to ensure that the information is released immediately and that the Cabinet Office acts in line with both the letter and the spirit of the legislation? (904402)

Only a few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend was in the Chamber telling me that £4 billion was “a rounding error”. As a fellow former member of the Brexit Secretaries club, let me now welcome him to the value for money club, as that is the subject he seems to have raised in the context of the cost of FOIs and focus groups’ information.

The point of substance is that, with so many lives threatened by the pandemic, it was right that we commissioned insight into a range of factors in order to understand the impact of our messages and that of the Government’s response to the pandemic. I think the commissioning of insight to enable us to understand that was absolutely right and value for money. As for the disclosure, as I said a moment ago to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), responses to all FOI requests are handled in line with legislation, and that includes applying relevant exemptions where applicable.

T3. Let me return to the subject of York Central. When the Government are looking at strategic sites, cross-departmental work is important, but it is not happening across my constituency, and people are therefore viewing their interests in a silo rather than in a co-ordinated way. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the opportunity that the York Central development will provide for my city as well as the Government, to ensure that the site comes forward in the most strategic way possible and provides the jobs that the city urgently needs? (904397)

I can add to what I said in my earlier answer to the hon. Lady. I agree with her about the importance of York, and I also agree with her wider point. It is not simply a case of one Department moving to York; what is key—and this is one of the lessons that we learnt from previous initiatives of Governments—is the ability to build a career in a location, and that requires a number of opportunities. For example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is also considering placing 190 roles in York.

Now that the spending review has ended, there will be an opportunity to finalise departmental plans and see which other Departments can coalesce in York, but it is not only a question of Departments. I urge the hon. Lady to bear in mind arms’ length bodies that are often responsible for operational delivery across Government and are often located predominantly in London. Both Departments and arms’ length bodies will have the opportunity to consider how they might come together in areas such as York.

I realise that there is a political operation taking place on the Opposition Benches with regard to the House of Lords. It is entirely fair to look at our democratic process systems and propose reform; what is not fair is denigrating people who work incredibly hard to improve our legislation. I am thinking of, for instance, the Environment Bill and the impact it will have on sewage discharge in my constituency, and the help that was given to us by the House of Lords, whose proposals the Government agreed with and our side voted for. Does the ministerial team agree that a little more respect is warranted?

I do indeed agree. The fact is that the Labour party wishes to make cheap political points when in reality the House of Lords provides expert service to the nation, and does so extremely inexpensively compared to the second chambers in most western democracies.

T5.   It is hardly a cheap point when it is about expensive donations. More than two years since the first request, and more than a month since a judge refused the Government leave to appeal against the first-tier tribunal ruling, the Cabinet Office is yet to reveal the results and the details of its clandestine secret polling about Scottish attitudes to independence and the Union. Could a Minister—any Minister: I am not fussy—tell us when this information will be revealed, and what exactly it is that they are so scared of the Scottish people finding out? (904400)

We covered this a moment ago. It is right that, at every stage of the pandemic, insight was commissioned measuring a range of different factors. All insight and evaluation activity is assessed regularly for its appropriateness, impact and fitness for purpose. As I said earlier, responses to all FOI requests are handled in line with legislation, and that includes applying relevant exemptions where applicable.

Veterans in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington must often live with a range of conditions that our brilliant doctors are not used to treating. Does my hon. Friend agree that the £5 million veterans healthcare innovation fund will play a key role in helping our injured veterans to live life to the full once they have returned from active duty?

I do agree that the £5 million innovation fund will help us to allow veterans to benefit from cutting-edge technology to assist their recovery. It is also an important part of the bespoke pathway that we are crafting for veterans through the NHS system, including GP accreditation. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does in his own constituency to support the care of veterans.

Can I press the Veterans Minister a little further on the veterans card? The right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) announced it in 2019, and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), when he was Veterans Minister, said that it would be rolled out in 2020. That has been done for service personnel leaving our armed forces, but it has still not been completed for former personnel. I asked the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) some months ago to resolve this, as it is extremely important for many of our former service personnel to get the veterans card, so may I press him again on when this will be completed? It really does matter to so many veterans and their families.

I share the hon. Member’s sense of urgency and I recognise the importance of this issue. I can tell him that we have commissioned new work to look afresh at how we can urgently deliver this important measure.

The Prime Minister has backed a stronger code of conduct for MPs to ensure that an MP’s primary job is, and must be, to serve their constituents, and to represent their interests in Parliament rather than those of private businesses—or trade unions, for that matter. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the changes to the code of conduct suggested by the Prime Minister will create up-to-date, effective and rigorous rules?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. It is an MP’s primary job to serve their constituents and to represent their interests in Parliament, and indeed, the vast majority of MPs work tirelessly for their constituents. As you have said, Mr Speaker, it is for the House to decide whether MPs should hold second jobs, and that matter will be debated further in the Chamber.

It is completely fair for us in the SNP to raise concerns over Lords in an unelected position who have just happened to give significant sums to the Conservative party. With the entry requirements for the UK’s retirement home for failed Tory MPs or Tories who cannot win elections—otherwise known as the Lords—coming under increasing scrutiny, attention should be paid to the fact that that unelected institution is bigger than the UK’s elected Parliament in the Commons. Does the Minister not agree that having an unelected, crony-stuffed second Chamber undermines the UK’s ability not only to claim to be a functioning democracy but to lecture others on their own democracies?

As we have already discussed in this Chamber, the House of Lords provides expert counsel and excellent value for money. If the hon. Lady wishes to compare the cost of the House of Lords to the public expenditure with other second Chambers in bicameral legislatures, she will find that it is extremely inexpensive and extremely expert, and that it provides excellent value for money. She characterises it in one way, but she forgets that it also provides a service to all sections of our society, including those in the medical profession, the legal profession, the military service and across the range of society, and it will continue to do so.

May I welcome the recent appointment of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to his new role in co-ordinating efforts across the Government to tackle the cross-channel migrant crisis? In that role, will he persuade officials in his own Department, as well as those in the Foreign Office and the Home Department, to come up with constructive solutions that can be effectively deployed, rather than coming up with reasons why something cannot be done?

I, and I am sure all hon. Members, join the Prime Minister in saying how deeply saddened we all are by the terrible tragedy we saw yesterday.

The response to the challenge of small boats is a whole-of-Government endeavour, and it is therefore right that we work across the whole of Government to look at all aspects of that journey: upstream, our processing and our legal framework. My hon. Friend will be aware that progress has been made, and 20,000 crossings have been stopped so far this year. We will continue to work in partnership with the French to ensure we can avert tragedies such as we saw yesterday.

I do not want the Secretary of State to get away with it this morning. What is he doing about the “blob”? If he reads the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph, it says that the blob is stopping the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, getting their policies delivered in every Department. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell us a little more about what this blob is? If it is stopping the Government delivering their policies, could he do something about blobism?

Thank you for that, Mr Speaker.

On the substantive point raised by the hon. Gentleman, as was recognised in the declaration on Government reform signed by the Prime Minister, by my predecessor as CDL and by the Cabinet Secretary—and indeed by Ministers and permanent secretaries across Whitehall—we are committed to reform and modernisation. Covid has shown the opportunity to do things differently, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we have huge talent and capability within our civil service. I can point to numerous examples, but the furlough scheme was put in place at great pace by officials in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. There is already innovation within our civil service, but it is clear, as covid has shown, that there is opportunity to go further and faster. There is now a commitment from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary to do exactly that.

Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at least agree that any Member of Parliament whose gross misconduct has led to their being ejected from this place through a recall petition, or anyone who chooses to leave rather than face a recall petition, should not be considered a fit and proper person to be elevated to the Lords?

It is up to this House to regulate its disciplinary affairs. Of course, this House has done so and, under your leadership, Mr Speaker, will no doubt continue to do so.

I have previously written to the Minister for Defence People and Veterans about the delay that one of my constituents has experienced while waiting for a decision on his military pension. Will the Minister please look into this case and ensure that my constituent does not wait any longer than the year that has already elapsed since his application?

I confirm to the hon. Lady that I will pursue that again today and will get her an answer urgently.

Many banks and companies want to do their business online. Indeed, they insist on it. I am contacted daily by constituents who do not have the access or the technical ability to go online. What can Government Departments do to provide the option of a phone call, rather than the online service that is impossible for many people and therefore disadvantages them?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there needs to be a mix of delivery options. By facilitating safe business online, as schemes such as “Help to Grow: Digital” do, we are helping customers. Alongside that, he is right: it is important that there are training opportunities for those who are less familiar. It is also important that those who do not want to go online are not left behind. One of the key objectives of our national cyber-security strategy is to ensure that the many who go online for the first time do so safely by ensuring that we make our defences far more resilient.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have no wish to embarrass the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is an old friend of mine. As he says, we are both ex-Brexit Secretaries, but I am also an ex-Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I know a cost-effectiveness argument when I see it, and I know when it falls down. The questions I cited to him were tabled so as to avoid the Department’s cost restrictions. As a result, the Department has used arguments of policy involvement in the statistics, and those arguments have been written off as bogus by the Information Commissioner. The Department is not obeying the spirit of the law. In the light of that, this cover-up has gone on long enough. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the answers I have been given, I give notice that I intend to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. In answer to my question, the Minister told the House that the National Audit Office “always has power” to access any documents, but you were here last week when we heard from a Minister who said that those minutes were not available and they did not know where they were. My question was very clear: how can the NAO have access to documents where we do not know whether they exist or not? I was wondering whether we could get clarity on that matter.

I cannot continue the questions, but I am sure the right hon. Lady will not leave it at that and will pursue this matter in other ways.