Topical Questions

Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons at on 18 January 2024.

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Photo of Ashley Dalton Ashley Dalton Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

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

This week, I signed an agreement on biological security between the United Kingdom and the United States. This strategic dialogue will mean sharing more data, collaborating on research and co-ordinating action, preparing for a whole spectrum of biological threats. I also signed a memorandum of co-operation on cyber partnership with Japan, helping to fulfil a key element of the Hiroshima accord.

This week, the Government are making available a free portrait of His Majesty the King. Available to all public buildings, this portrait will hang in schools, police stations and local authorities, serving as a reminder of the country’s ultimate public service. I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in wishing His Majesty the King and Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales very swift recoveries.

Photo of Ashley Dalton Ashley Dalton Shadow Minister (Equalities Office)

It emerged this week that Avanti West Coast bosses were recently caught giving PowerPoint presentations bragging about receiving free money from the Government. Is this value for money?

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

I am not aware of those allegations, but they sound very concerning and I am very happy to look into them on behalf of the hon. Lady.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

Last year, the Government trialled their emergency alerts system. This summer, I had the joy of going to South Korea. Unfortunately, I was caught up in the typhoon, but there were many such alerts telling people where roads were closed or flooded. Recently in Leicestershire, the likes of Shenton and Witherley came under the cosh of flooding, and my constituents are wondering whether the alert system could be used for something like this, as the Government website states that it can.

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

Yes, the service is available, but it is up to local responders to determine whether to put in a request for it. In this case, they did not do so. I would commend the local responders—whether the Environment Agency, the police or the fire service—for their response. That tool is available to them should they need it.

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

I echo the condolences that have been given to the family of Tony Lloyd.

Further to the question about flooding, yesterday the Public Accounts Committee said that over 200,000 properties in England were vulnerable to flooding, and the budget for flood protection is now expected to cover 40% fewer properties than the Government originally said it would. We have seen the devastation that flooding can do in recent weeks and the terrible consequences for those affected. Given the Cabinet Office’s responsibility for resilience, can the Secretary of State explain why the plan is so far behind schedule and what the Government will do to protect the 200,000 properties that may now be left without adequate flood protection?

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

As the right hon. Gentleman highlights, the Cabinet Office has responsibility for resilience under a lead Government Department model, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for individual flood defences. We have put record sums into flood defences and we have provided record flood defence building. Clearly, there is more to do to allocate those resources, but we have made considerable progress.

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

This week, Gareth Davies, the head of the National Audit Office, said that Ministers could save up to £20 billion a year of taxpayers’ money by modernising IT systems, tackling fraud and better management of major projects such as HS2. He also said that out-of-date IT exposes the UK to a greater risk of cyber-attacks, and we have heard reference this morning to the cyber-attack on the British Library. Why is it that time after time, the Government reach for tax rises—such rises will leave a typical family paying £1,200 a year more in tax—instead of saving money by getting a grip of these IT projects and major infrastructure projects, as has been called for by the National Audit Office?

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

That is precisely why we have created i.AI—the Incubator for Artificial Intelligence—under my leadership to make sure that we apply artificial intelligence to drive down the cost of public services and to improve outputs. I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that it is a bit rich to be taking lectures from the Labour party, which wasted over £26 billion when it was in government on failed IT projects—failed IT projects in the NHS, the Ministry of Defence and DEFRA. And where was the right hon. Gentleman? He was sat in Downing Street while that happened.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Chair, Treasury Committee, Chair, Treasury Committee, Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee on Financial Services Regulations, Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee on Financial Services Regulations

May I first associate myself with the Deputy Prime Minister’s words about the royal family?

On 23 February, this House has the opportunity to correct the constitutional sexism that means that one eighth of the seats in the other place are reserved for men only. Will the Government support and work with me on my Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill to ensure that the succession of peerages moves in line with that of the Crown?

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

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and the work she has done in this area; I know she has thought about it a great deal. I will be writing to her in due course. It is a complicated area of constitutional law, but we appreciate the position from which she is coming.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

In light of the shocking revelation that only 2% of the tip-offs received by the Government’s covid fraud hotline are being actively pursued, can the Secretary of State explain to an increasingly despairing nation what steps the Government are taking to recover every single penny of that fraudulently claimed taxpayer money?

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

That is precisely why we set up the Public Sector Fraud Authority and I can update the House that in its first year it met more than double its target. In addition, there are both civil and criminal investigations ongoing to bring every person responsible to justice if they have defrauded the taxpayer.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation

My constituency boasts the highest number of veterans of any in the UK, with about 12% of people having served, but the veterans agency is not assisting me and other MPs like me in serving my constituents, because when I raise issues with it, it insists on responding via ministerial correspondence from the Ministry of Defence. There can therefore be no direct interface with it, making it very time-consuming and frustrating for my constituents. Will the Minister get the veterans agency to introduce an MPs helpline so that veterans’ concerns can be answered quickly and efficiently?

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

I believe my hon. Friend is referring to Veterans UK, which is being retired because I am well aware of the plethora of issues. We have staff there who work incredibly hard but with very poor resource, and consequently the experience of veterans has not been what I want it to be. We are retiring that brand and completely revamping those services—I take on board the point about an MPs hotline, which exists in other Departments. I can confirm that we are looking to establish the same thing in the new organisation to meet these claims.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

Given the Paymaster General’s answers to colleagues earlier, may I remind him that Sir Brian Langstaff said yesterday that compensation proposals were published in April 2023 and must be dealt with urgently? Can he confirm that Sir Brian Langstaff’s proposals are being accepted by the Government in full and that there will be no watering down of the decision of this place when the other place discusses the Victims and Prisoners Bill?

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

The next stage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill in the other place will be the week after next, and that is where the Government will make clear their response to what the Commons has decided. As I said to my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley a few moments ago, the issue of further interim payments will need to be considered in the round as the Government consider the recommendations of the second interim report. We are very aware of the urgency of this. However, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand, there is a lot of complexity with respect to the different cohorts and we are working on those as rapidly as we can with the experts now in place.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk

Ending veteran homelessness and rough sleeping has been an absolute passion of the veterans Minister. Can he give us an update on how this is faring after the festive period?

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

We made a commitment that this Christmas we would end rough sleeping for veterans in the UK because of a lack of provision, and we met that promise. We housed 407 of the most desperate, most vulnerable veterans across the UK and I am incredibly proud of that. The charge towards ending all homelessness across the UK is clearly something we are all engaged in, but I am incredibly proud of the team at Op Fortitude. I pay tribute to Lee Buss-Blair and the Riverside Group who worked throughout Christmas to achieve that objective. It is a fantastic base to build from and I look forward to the day when these services are no longer required.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

This week, the head of the National Audit Office told Parliament that between £4 billion and £8 billion of annual efficiencies could be achieved by better use of competition. When so many areas of our public services are on their knees and would benefit from that funding, can the Secretary of State set out what steps he is taking to stop this colossal waste of taxpayers’ money?

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

Better competition and better procurement are at the heart of the Procurement Act 2023, which the hon. Lady will have seen go through the House of Commons and the House of Lords last year. The Act creates a world-leading framework for the good use of public money in acquiring goods and services.

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Shadow Minister (Wales)

As others have said this morning, every week victims of the contaminated blood scandal will die as we wait for the final report. We know the will of the House on this. Why do constituents have to wait any longer for the compensation scheme? Yes, it is complex, but the Government have been repeatedly challenged on getting on with this and they are still not doing it. We need it urgently.

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

As I have said, if the House of Commons has indicated its will by the amendment, that piece of legislation moves to the House of Lords and the Government will respond at that point. That is the week after next. That is the process of the House. I have recognised the need to ensure that we get the clinical, legal and care experts in place. They are in place, and they are working on some of the complex issues the hon. Lady alludes to. The psychological support is now in place, but I am doing everything I can in every dimension of this complicated problem to deliver as quickly as I can.[This section has been corrected on 5 February 2024, column 2MC — read correction] (Correction)

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I have just listened to the Minister’s response, and I appreciate that the situation is complex, but people are dying. My constituent contacted me earlier this week. He has renal failure and cirrhosis of the liver. He wrote asking for

“faster resolution to the infected blood scandal compensation before it is too late for myself and others to see full and final resolution”.

It might be too late for my constituent—he cannot wait two more weeks—but can the Minister outline how many people have received interim payments and how many are still outstanding?

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

A large number of payments were made available quickly in the last quarter of 2022. I fully recognise the absolute tragedy that this is. Every death is a tragedy. This is the biggest scandal in the NHS’s history. I recognise and acknowledge that. The victims’ organisations said that there were 141 deaths last year, and I am doing everything I can to find solutions as quickly as possible.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Arm’s length bodies across Government spend more than £200 billion a year, and my Committee has been looking at that issue. The Government launched the public bodies review programme as part of their latest drive to look at quangos, but there is little in the public domain. Will the Minister commit to publishing the review of individual quangos as it goes through? What will the final publication date be for the outcome of the review?

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

In the spring statement in March 2022, the review of public bodies was announced, as the hon. Lady knows. That will give us significant savings. There are 125 arm’s length body reviews, covering 90% of arm’s length body expenditure. Honestly, I am not familiar with the exact protocols around publication, but I am happy to look into it, and I will come back to her.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Reclaim, North West Leicestershire

In 2012, the Cabinet Office rejected my request that it fund the forensic investigation into the Horizon IT system by Second Sight. Indeed, the Cabinet Office insisted that the Post Office pay for its own investigation, which ultimately allowed the Post Office to try to control and coerce the lead investigator Ron Warmington, thus delaying justice for the sub-postmasters. Will the Minister look into the reasoning behind this historic decision and write to me about it, please?

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

What discussions has the Minister had with the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s cyber protect team in relation to learning the hard lessons that have arisen from the numerous data breaches of office information across the PSNI and throughout the United Kingdom?

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

This was an appalling incident, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and it highlighted big flaws in how data is handled in respect of freedom of information requests. We have issued further guidance on how such requests should be handled, but I continue to work with officials in my Department and across Government to make sure that that sort of incident never happens again.