Topical Questions

Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons at on 23 November 2023.

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Photo of Kate Osamor Kate Osamor Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton

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

The accession of His Majesty the King marked a new chapter in our nation’s history. This month, the Cabinet Office launched a scheme to make new portraits of His Majesty available to all public institutions. After the splendour of the coronation, this is a fitting addition to the fabric of our public life.

The Cabinet Office has also led efforts on artificial intelligence, including setting up a new AI incubator made up of a team of technical experts. We will use our convening power to drive AI adoption across Government.

Photo of Kate Osamor Kate Osamor Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton

I asked my constituent, who is sadly personally affected by the infected blood scandal, what he wants to hear from the Government. All he wants is to see justice and receive assurances that nothing similar is ever allowed to happen again. Following on from Question 3, asked by my right hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson, and for victims’ peace of mind, can the Minister ensure transparency in implementing the inquiry’s final recommendations so that, ultimately, this House can hold him accountable?

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

The hon. Lady will have heard the answers given by my right hon. Friend, the Paymaster General. He has given a clear commitment, which I am very happy to endorse from the Dispatch Box, on both transparency and speed of response. That is the approach that he and I are pursuing.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

My constituents who run small and medium-sized enterprises constantly complain about their ability to get Government contracts. The passing of the Procurement Act 2023 will obviously make that a lot easier. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on when that will be enacted? What will be the benefits to SMEs not only in my constituency but across the country?

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Procurement Act is a landmark piece of legislation that is going to make life considerably easier for SMEs, and it will do that in a number of ways. A new online procurement platform will make it easier for people to enter information once and use it many times, and make it easier to see the pipeline of upcoming contracts. Crucially, contracting authorities will also now have to have regard to the needs of SMEs in order to break down barriers and give them a bigger share of the pie.

Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Paymaster General

I welcome the Paymaster General to his place. In his new role, he will have responsibility for the efficient delivery of Government services and entitlements on which our constituents rely. One such entitlement, of course, is the winter fuel payment. Earlier this week, he was reported as saying that some pensioners do not need the winter fuel payment, so can he tell us which group of pensioners he had in mind when talking about who should lose the winter fuel payment?

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

I was talking to a group of students and explaining the complexities of making choices in my then role at the Treasury. As the Chancellor set out yesterday, although the Government are fully committed to the full uplift, using the triple lock, and maintaining all those benefits, all Governments have to make choices. I was making known my views on some of those choices and the challenges in delivering them. I was not deviating at all from Government policy, and I am very happy to put the record straight on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

Mr Speaker, you may remember that, earlier this year, I referenced a 102-year-old constituent who had completed the Great North Run, having done a 1,000-mile bike ride the year before and a 100-mile walk the year before that. We were compiling a submission so that the gentleman could get an honour but, unfortunately, he passed away in the last couple of weeks. Given the extraordinary service that this veteran gave to the country, are there any routes we can still follow to get some recognition for him in this unfortunate situation?

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

May I begin by paying tribute to the extraordinary endeavours of my hon. Friend’s constituent, which I would never be able to achieve at any stage in life? I am afraid that it is a general principle that honours are not given posthumously, but we are in consultation with the palace to look at posthumous honours for people who have lost their lives in public service. We continue to keep this under review, but it is a complex area.

Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Alba, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

It may be true that the Cabinet Office’s Greensill inquiry established that Lord Cameron had not broken any lobbying rules or acted unlawfully, but a Treasury Committee report, in finding that he had not broken the rules, said that this reflected on the “insufficient strength” of the rules. So what progress has been made to strengthen them? What role will they play in measuring the past activities of Ministers who are to be appointed?

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

I refer the hon. Gentleman to a written ministerial statement I made to the House a couple of months ago, in which I explained how, at length, we have implemented many recommendations, for example from the Boardman review and others. That included strengthening the civil service contractual requirements in relation to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and introducing a deed of covenant for Ministers to uphold the findings of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. I continue to engage with Lord Pickles, who chairs ACOBA, about further such reforms that can be undertaken.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee, Chair, Science, Innovation and Technology Committee

The Deputy Prime Minister played a prominent role at the artificial intelligence summit in Bletchley Park earlier this month. One big question is whether open source should be encouraged and perhaps even required, in order to encourage openness and innovation, or whether it should be restricted, to keep the models in the hands of known actors. What is the direction of his thinking on that?

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

As ever, my right hon. Friend raises an erudite question. My disposition, and that of the Government, is that open source AI is an important basis upon which we can build many world-leading applications. We can see companies in this country growing at a fast pace by developing innovative AI off the back of open source. Of course, there are risks associated with it, but there is a high bar to be met before the Government would start imposing additional regulatory burdens on open source AI, given the associated benefits for economic growth.

Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth

Palantir has this week received one of the largest contracts imaginable. The company is based in silicon valley in California. It was established by the CIA and it has continuing links with the American defence network. It looks as though huge amounts of British NHS money and profits will be migrating back across the pond to California, but the most concerning thing is that information about millions of our fellow citizens—their health data—will be handled by that company. How can that be right?

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

Obviously, any contract of any size that the Government deal with—the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS in this case—goes through an extremely detailed and careful process in order to ensure that we get the best value for money for the British public, that we help our public services solve the problems they face and that national security is maintained. If the hon. Gentleman has a problem with a particular element of that contract, he should bring it before the House. Otherwise, I believe he is just scare- mongering.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Will my right hon. Friend help with a situation where Thales, the French defence contractor, and its UK subsidiary are insisting that materials should be procured not from the UK, but from India. How is that consistent with the Government’s procurement policy?

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

I cannot comment on a specific case on the Floor of the House, but I am happy to engage with my hon. Friend on the matter he raises. Frameworks are in place, but without knowing more detail it is impossible for me to comment here.

Photo of Mike Kane Mike Kane Shadow Minister (Transport)

The right hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) is the ninth Paymaster General since the contaminated blood inquiry reported. We have worked together on mesothelioma and other issues, so I know he is of good faith, but my constituent Fred Bates, who was a victim of the contaminated blood scandal, is now 74 and needs to know whether he will get compensation before it is too late.

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

I understand that and, through the hon. Gentleman, I say to Mr Bates that I am doing everything I can to update the House as quickly as possible. There are a range of activities that I am familiar with from the small ministerial group of which I was previously a part. There is a lot of complexity in securing the envelope of money and then working out how to allocate it, but I am doing everything I can to bring that forward as quickly as possible.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

The lives of all our constituents are greatly affected by public bodies that make decisions across a whole range of issues. Would it be better for many of those public bodies to delegate their powers to Ministers, so that Members of this House can question and scrutinise those decisions?

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

I will conclude my initial meetings this afternoon with a briefing on arm’s length bodies and the range of different entities that exist beyond Whitehall. I will think very carefully about what my hon. Friend has said and look at what more we can do to ensure that there is real accountability, maximum productivity and efficiency, drawing on my experience up the road at the Treasury.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

In thirteen and a half years in this House, I have barely known a time when foreign policy is more important, so will the Secretary of State confirm that he is working with you, Mr Speaker, to find a way for elected Members of this House to scrutinise the Foreign Secretary directly?

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

I know that the Procedure Committee has been examining this subject, and we continue to discuss it with you, Mr Speaker. There is a well-established convention whereby the office of Foreign Secretary has been held by a Member of the other place. That has worked well in the past, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is committed to further increasing his accountability to this place.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Independent, Blackpool South

What steps are the Government taking to reduce the number of civil servants in order to achieve value for money for the taxpayer?

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

I am looking carefully at where we are with the plans for this year—obviously, there is a half-way point in that cycle—and at what policies we can put in place. At the beginning of October, the Chancellor announced a freeze on recruitment.[This section has been corrected on 11 December 2023, column 5MC — read correction] I will be looking at what we need to do now to ensure that, as we move into future financial years, we use the benefits of efficiencies that exist and different ways of delivering services, which we can learn from across the globe and the private sector, so that we get value for money for all those who are employed and do a good job in the civil service.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister think it is acceptable that Baroness Michelle Mone has more ability to scrutinise the Foreign Secretary than Members of this House?

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

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous answer about the well-established principle that Ministers can serve from the other place, which I believe last happened when Lord Mandelson was in the Labour Cabinet. However, the Government and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recognise this House’s desire to scrutinise him and he has committed to further measures to ensure that happens.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Committee Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government, Chair, Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government

I thank the Government for publishing the report on governance and accountability in the civil service, which my noble Friend Lord Maude was commissioned to produce. May I point out that one of his recommendations in that very well drafted report is about learning from the experience of other civil services, such as those in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, where indeed they retain civil servants in post much longer by paying them better—

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

Yes, I acknowledge that the Maude report had some very useful contributions. I am reflecting on that and will give a more substantial response and comment in due course.

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

I listened very carefully to the Paymaster General’s replies to my colleagues about the contaminated blood scandal. Can he guarantee that we will have a statement to the House before the Christmas recess?

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

No, I cannot guarantee that, because I do not yet have collective agreement, but I am working towards that ambition and that is what I want to achieve.

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

Why have Scotland and Wales been able to set up psychological support services for the victims of the contaminated blood scandal, but England has not?

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

It is because I have not yet secured collective agreement to do so. The funds are available, and it is absolutely right that we bring that forward as soon as possible. Again, that is one of the activities that I will be engaged in resolving later this morning.

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

Further to the questions from Dame Diana Johnson and Kate Osamor, what assessment has the Minister made of the number of people who have sadly passed away this year due to infected blood before their compensation has been available for claiming?

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

I do not have that number for the hon. Gentleman, but the point he makes illustrates the urgency of the work in which I am engaged and the need to ensure that over the next 10 to 12 working weeks—by the expected date for the report’s publication—the Government can bring forward a comprehensive response.