Topical Questions

Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons am ar 29 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Ceidwadwyr, Harrow East

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

Later today, I will set out how we are putting more artificial intelligence experts at the heart of Government to drive the adoption of AI right across the public sector. We will not only revolutionise services but increase productivity, cut inefficiencies and save taxpayers millions of pounds. Earlier this month, I launched the Pall Mall Process alongside international allies, which will combat the proliferation of the irresponsible use of cyber-intrusion tools that are commercially available. I am determined that the Cabinet Office will lead the way in seizing the opportunities presented by these new technologies, while guarding against the risks.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Ceidwadwyr, Harrow East

I thank my right hon. Friend for his update. Every day this place is combating cyber-security challenges. What action is he taking to ensure that not only this place but the whole of the United Kingdom is safe from Iran, Russia and other hostile elements that want to intrude on our security?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is entirely right to raise that risk. We live in a more dangerous and hostile world. I am particularly mindful of the risks posed by hostile foreign states such as Iran. We rely heavily on the National Cyber Security Centre, with which we work closely to ensure the security of Government, this House and the private sector. In addition, I chair a ministerial cyber board, where we constantly challenge Departments to improve their cyber-security—which we are improving, but the risks continue to arise.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden National campaign co-ordinator, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

As the Minister has seen, many questions have been asked today on the infected blood scandal. Will he confirm that it is no part of the Government’s decision-making process on the timescale of granting compensation payments to create the fiscal headroom needed for the much anticipated pre-election tax cuts in next week’s Budget?

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden National campaign co-ordinator, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Baroness Mone and her husband made a £60 million profit on a £200 million contract for personal protective equipment, much of which the NHS deemed unusable. The couple, reportedly, have had £75 million of assets frozen, but they also have a horse running in Britain’s favourite horserace, the grand national. That is not racing’s fault, but would it not be a grand national disgrace if the owners were able to walk away with winnings while taxpayers are still waiting to get their money back from being sold a mountain of unusable PPE?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

The Government continue to take robust action to recover any misused funds. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, both criminal and civil proceedings are ongoing, so there are limited things I can say in respect of the allegations that he has made. As the Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office and Deputy Prime Minister, my remit runs to many areas, but unfortunately not to the outcome of the grand national.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Ceidwadwyr, Ynys Môn

Dedicated people such as Kath Eastment of SSAFA, Piers Beeland from the Royal British Legion and the RAF Valley Padre Mike Hall work tirelessly to support veterans across Ynys Môn. I am delighted that a veterans hub is to open at RAF Valley on Friday 22 March, which will give local veterans a place to meet and access support. Will my right hon. Friend extend his congratulations to the team responsible, and will he come to RAF Valley to visit the hub?

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)

I would love to come to RAF Valley at some point. I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency before she was a Member; it is a beautiful part of the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to everybody who works in this sector and who steps into the breach and works hard to ensure that those coming out of service with particular needs are supported, and that we look after them in the manner that I want to see.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

In response to the question from Munira Wilson, the Minister stressed the importance of Ministers being accountable to this House, particularly for breaches of the ministerial code, but neither the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests nor the Prime Minister are truly accountable to the House when it comes to the ministerial code—and the Foreign Secretary is not accountable to this House at all. Trust is at an all-time low, and breaches of the ministerial code are rife. When will the Government revise the code to include appropriate sanctions, so that Ministers can no longer break the code with impunity?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

The Government continue to keep the ministerial code under review. The Prime Minister of the day has to be able to determine who the Ministers will be in the Government that he leads on behalf of His Majesty. That is an important constitutional principle, but the Prime Minister will not hesitate to take action if there have been inappropriate breaches. On the accountability of the Foreign Secretary, discussions continue on the best way to ensure that this House holds him to account, in the same way that he is already accountable to, for example, Select Committees.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

In July 2019, the Minister’s Department issued new guidance effectively outlawing gagging clauses across Government Departments. Does the Department have any plans to extend that to local authorities? I am sure that the Minister would, like me, be appalled that Labour-run Rossendale Borough Council has issued a gagging clause against its elected representatives, backed up by a threat of legal proceedings, because it wants to cover up a £12 million fraud, in which Labour councillors may have been complicit, and about which they certainly have questions to answer.

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend rightly raises some very concerning allegations. So-called gagging orders should not be used in that way, and I undertake to look into the matter on his behalf.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Llafur, Easington

I have raised the subject of the pressures facing prison officers on a number of occasions. Prison officers are part of the civil service pension scheme and must work until the age of 68 to retire on a full pension. Does the Minister recognise that that is unrealistic, given the number of assaults on them and the pressures they face? Will he work with me and the Prison Officers Association to seek an exception for prison officers, so that they can retire at 60 after 30 years’ services, as is currently the case for firefighters and the police?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the matter of the enormous contribution of prison officers. They are often under-sung members of our public services, risking their life day in, day out, to protect us all from dangerous and violent criminals. Of course, as Ministers, we have a duty to protect the public purse. We have set out a clear principle on the age of retirement from government roles. We would be reluctant to start varying that for a further group of people, because it is very difficult to draw the line once we start unpicking that principle.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Ceidwadwyr, Heywood and Middleton

It has been reported in The Daily Telegraph that the Starmerite think-tank Labour Together has had to pay a fine of just over £14,000 for failing to declare hundreds of thousands of donations. The rationale it gave was that it did not want to name some of its donors. Does my right hon. Friend think that simply not wanting to do something is a reasonable basis on which to break the law?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

The short answer is clearly no. Indeed, it really worries me that things have come to a state where the Labour party allegedly did not want to declare donations because of concerns about growing antisemitism. That is a very worrying allegation.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Employment Rights and Protections)

The independent review into the Teesworks project found there to be a lack of

“transparency and oversight across the system to evidence value for money,” as well as

“a persistent theme or culture of excessive confidentiality”.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities does not seem to be interested in pursuing those matters, and refuses to refer them to the National Audit Office. Can the Minister explain what his Department is doing to make sure that public money is spent properly?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

The Government remain committed to ensuring value for the taxpayer across all projects. As the hon. Gentleman highlights, this is principally a matter for DLUHC.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Ceidwadwyr, Christchurch

What is the latest position on a review of the impact of the statute of limitations on the ability of people injured by covid-19 vaccines to bring civil claims? More than 3,000 claims have not yet been dealt with by the Government’s compensation scheme, and people’s ability to begin civil litigation will be prejudiced unless something is done quickly.

Photo of Esther McVey Esther McVey Minister without Portfolio

My hon. Friend is a champion and a campaigner on behalf of all those people who have suffered covid vaccine damage. We have met, and I have taken the issue to the permanent secretary to see what we can do, whether it would involve extending the timeframe that he was talking about or not starting the clock ticking until a decision had been made.

Photo of Tonia Antoniazzi Tonia Antoniazzi Opposition Whip (Commons)

Given that Ministers are piloting the use of artificial intelligence in Departments to answer parliamentary questions, which Ministers will the Secretary of State wish to replace first?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Until this moment I had not thought of drawing up a list, but as the hon. Lady will have heard us say on a number of occasions, artificial intelligence provides a remarkable opportunity to create supplementary capacity and capability for the civil service and the Government. I have been very pleased to pilot a new programme called “red box”, devised by a fantastic young crack AI team, which summarises long documents and makes the work of my private office easier. However, it is enhancing capability, not replacing it.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister talked earlier about protecting our borders. I am sure he will know that Dover Port Health Authority has seized worrying amounts of contaminated meat over the last few months, but in just the last few days, we have learned that the Government are withdrawing the funds that make it possible for the authority to do that. Why are the Government ignoring the advice of experienced public health officials?

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

There is absolutely no question of ignoring the advice of experts. Indeed, only yesterday I had relevant meetings to discuss adjacent matters. As I said in an earlier answer, meat is circulating—particularly pork and chicken—that is not fit under either EU or UK rules, and we will continue to take steps to ensure that our borders are protected.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Social Care)

Sir Brian Langstaff recommended in April 2023 that before the publication of his final report, interim payments should be made to parents who had lost children, and to children who had lost parents. Why is this Minister such a “computer says no” man?

Photo of John Glen John Glen The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I respectfully reject that characterisation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have spent £400 million of taxpayers’ money since October 2022. The arrangements for the distribution of further compensation payments are obviously being considered at this point, and, as I said during the extensive exchange that opened this questions session, that work is continuing apace, so that I can produce a comprehensive response from the Government as soon as possible.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Llafur, Birkenhead

How does the Secretary of State expect the civil service to function effectively for the public if the Government go ahead with headcount cuts of up to 70,000, which aim to return civil service numbers to pre-pandemic and pre-Brexit levels, and which will mean a huge loss of expertise and knowledge? What discussions has he had with trade unions about these proposals?

Photo of John Glen John Glen The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I met several union leaders a few weeks ago. On 2 October, the Chancellor announced that the civil service would be capped at the levels that were current at that time, which would save up to £1 billion against the trajectory that was then in place. As of September 2023, there were 496,150 civil servants. It is an important Government responsibility to ensure that we have the right number of civil servants performing effectively and efficiently in public service, and we will continue to work on that.[This section has been corrected on 11 March 2024, column 2MC — read correction] (Correction)

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

What discussions has the Minister had with charities back home in Northern Ireland, such as Beyond The Battlefield and SSAFA, about improving mental health support for veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles? I have extended this invitation in the past, and I extend it again now: will the Minister join me in visiting Portavogie to see the wonderful work of Beyond The Battlefield, which is conducting a project there? We really want to see him there.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind invitation. I would love to come, and I was in Northern Ireland a couple of weeks ago. Health is clearly devolved, but I made it very clear that I want the same standard in Northern Ireland that we have achieved with Op Courage in England: a single, dedicated mental healthcare pathway for veterans, with 19,000 referrals in its first year. Where were all these people going before that? It is an incredible story. I want to see that standard achieved in Northern Ireland, and we will keep working at it until we do.

Photo of Damien Moore Damien Moore Ceidwadwyr, Southport

May I ask my hon. Friend what work is being done to ensure that the Government give value for money for the taxpayer when it comes to the Government estate?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am pleased to say that one of our major Government functions, the Government Property Agency, is constantly looking at how we can refresh the Government estate to make sure not just that our offices are fit for purpose and are wonderful working spaces for our excellent civil servants, but that we are not hanging on to outdated buildings that are expensive to run. We are very mindful of achieving value for money in this area.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

Interim payments are, by their very nature, interim; they are paid before final payments. Perhaps the Minister might be able to help me to understand. He just said that works are going on at pace, so when will the interim payments, recommended by Sir Brian Langstaff in April 2023, to parents who lost children and children who lost parents be paid before the final payments are made?

Photo of John Glen John Glen The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

As soon as possible, and when the Government’s position is clear.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Ceidwadwyr, East Worthing and Shoreham

On the efficiency of Government Departments, I am sure that Ministers want report by inspectorates that are the responsibility of their Department to be produced in a timely manner. Is the Minister aware that the now sacked chief inspector of borders and immigration has produced 15 reports, which have been sitting on the Home Secretary’s desk, in some cases for over a year? There is complete confusion about how they can be published in the absence of the inspector and his deputy. Will the Minister look into that, and give reassurances to the House that these reports will be published in a timely fashion?

Photo of John Glen John Glen The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. I will look into it urgently and come back to him as soon as possible.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Domestic Violence and Safeguarding)

The experience of the last two years has taught us that energy security is now national security. The more we can generate our own renewables, the less reliant on tyrants we will be. Has the Secretary of State asked the National Security Council to report on the national and energy security implications of the Prime Minister’s decision last year to scale back his Government’s energy transition targets? If he has not, why not?

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, Deputy Prime Minister

We continue to monitor energy security, principally through the National Security Council resilience committee, which I chair. I say gently to the hon. Lady that if she is concerned about energy security, why does her party consistently vote against granting new licences for North sea oil and gas, which would enhance our energy security?

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

Why do this Government think it is right that Church of England bishops in the House of Lords can have greater say on legislation affecting Scotland than the Scottish Parliament, and when will there ever be meaningful reform to the bloated House of Lords?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say in a Westminster Hall debate not so long ago, it remains a great pity that the SNP refuses to play in the House of Lords. The fact is that the people of Scotland rejected the idea of an independent Scotland some time ago, and it would have been to the benefit of his constituents and others around Scotland if his party had had the good sense to ask for people to be put in the upper House.

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Opposition Whip (Commons)

On the contaminated blood scandal, why have the Government not named the experts?

Photo of John Glen John Glen The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

We have given details of the appointment of Sir Jonathan Montgomery, and a number of other individuals are working on clinical and other matters. It is really important that we get on with this work, and we will report back on their conclusions as soon as we can.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

We know that the Cabinet Office is often focused on making sure that procurement contracts go to small and medium-sized enterprises, but can my hon. Friend tell me what work is being done to make sure that female-led businesses get a chance at those contracts?

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I think my right hon. Friend is referring to social value, which is obviously an important part of our procurement regime. Social value was discussed extensively during the passage of the Procurement Act 2023, and contracting authorities in local areas must pay regard to it.