Oral Answers to Questions Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Oral Answers to Questions

Alex Burghart Excerpts
Thursday 29th February 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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12. What steps his Department is taking to improve access to public sector procurement processes for small and medium-sized businesses.

Alex Burghart Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Alex Burghart)
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The landmark Procurement Act 2023, which this Government passed last year, will deliver simpler and more effective public sector procurement and help small and medium-sized enterprises across the country secure a greater share of that expenditure, which totals approximately £300 billion every year. The Act includes a new duty on contracting authorities to have regard for the particular barriers faced by SMEs and consider what can be done to overcome them.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey
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Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. There are 5.5 million of them in the UK, making up over 99% of all businesses and 61% of private sector employment. However, currently only a fraction of 1% offer their goods and services to the public sector. Could the Minister say a little more about the work that is being done to encourage more of them to enter tender processes?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I would be delighted to, because the Government are entirely committed to ensuring that SMEs get a bigger share of that pie. The latest published SME spend figures show that UK small businesses received £21 billion of work, which was an increase of £1.7 billion on the previous year’s figures. That is the highest since records began, and the fifth consecutive year that Government work won by small businesses has increased. Crucially, that is before the effects of the Procurement Act kick in.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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As my hon. Friend has said in his reply, the Procurement Act is I hope the solution to many of these problems, but it is not due to come into force until the beginning of October. Can he confirm that it will definitely come into force then, and that the necessary secondary legislation is in hand?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I am pleased to be able to report that, despite the fact that this is complex legislation that requires workstreams in a number of areas—not just secondary legislation, but learning and development for those working for contracting authorities, and a new online platform that will make procurement much easier and better for both those supplying services and those procuring them—we are on track to meet our targets.

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Sarah Edwards Portrait Sarah Edwards (Tamworth) (Lab)
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15. What recent estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of procurement fraud during the covid-19 pandemic.

Alex Burghart Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Alex Burghart)
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The Government’s “Cross-Government Fraud Landscape Annual Report 2022” includes data from the first year of the Government’s response to the pandemic. The report suggests that in 2020-21, Government Departments and arm’s length bodies reported a total of £124.6 million of detected procurement fraud. The same report showed that at the end of March 2021, some £88.2 million of fraud and error had been recovered within covid-19 schemes. Since then, crucially, further funds have been recovered and the Government will continue to update the House as fresh data becomes available.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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When people think back to the sacrifices they made during the pandemic, the greed associated with the personal protective equipment scandal really jars with them, so will the Minister commit to following the Labour party’s lead and appoint a covid corruption commissioner to chase down and claw back every penny of taxpayers’ money that was wasted?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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This Government take PPE fraud extremely seriously. To remind the House of the figures, 1.8% of expenditure on PPE was lost to fraud at a time when there was the most extraordinary public crisis in several generations and we were competing in an extremely overheated international market. To date, we have recovered more than a quarter of that 1.8% and the fight to recover more continues. PPE procurement is subject to ongoing contract management controls, active dispute resolution and recovery action. The law is on our side and we are using it.

Sarah Edwards Portrait Sarah Edwards
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The covid procurement scandal upset many people, and rightly so. I spoke with a fantastic local business in Tamworth, Wearwell (UK), which was manufacturing PPE as part of the regional procurement but was cut out of the process during the pandemic. The UK must be prepared in the event of another pandemic, and British manufacturing offers a greater response time and a more stable supply chain. When will we return to regional procurement to ensure that local businesses are prioritised when providing PPE for the nation?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I welcome the hon. Lady to what I think are her first Cabinet Office questions. She is right to draw attention to the fantastic textile manufacturing that exists in the region in which her constituency sits. She will have heard me talk about the Procurement Act 2023, which was passed last year and will make sure that small and medium-sized enterprises, which by their nature are often local enterprises, will have a bigger share of public procurement.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Jonathan Ashworth Portrait Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab/Co-op)
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We have not just had the infamous Baroness Mone scandal; at the time, there were reports of a hedge fund in Mauritius that got a £250 million contract for face masks that could not be used and a jeweller in Florida that got a multimillion-pound contract for gowns that could not be used. The Government had to incinerate billions of pounds-worth of faulty personal protective equipment. That is taxpayers’ money literally going up in smoke. In the pandemic the then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), told me at the Dispatch Box

“where a contract is not delivered against, we do not intend to pay taxpayers’ money”.—[Official Report, 23 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 758.]

But taxpayers’ money was spent, wasn’t it? Why was that promise not met?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I gently refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer I just gave. The fact is that, although problems arose with PPE procurement in this uniquely difficult environment in which officials were working unbelievably hard for the public good, PPE procurement is still subject to ongoing contract management controls, active dispute resolution and recovery action. The fact of the matter is that this Government took it seriously during the pandemic. The Department of Health and Social Care realised the risk of fraud early on, and the Government established a counter-fraud team to counter that threat. We are using all the legal tools at our disposal to get taxpayers’ money back. The House should be in no doubt that the Government’s speed of action during the crisis enabled many lives to be saved and for the country to overcome the covid-19 crisis.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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14. What steps he is taking to support veterans with the cost of living.

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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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18. If he will undertake a review of the effectiveness of gov.uk for the public and businesses.

Alex Burghart Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Alex Burghart)
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Gov.uk is among the UK’s most recognised and trusted digital services. It is constantly monitored to assure and improve the service it provides to its users through data analytics, user research and feedback, while the latest gov.uk strategy prioritises proactively reaching more people in more places.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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Government processes need to work if our democratic system is to have the trust of our constituents. We know that many people who use Government IT systems to manage their tax payments, national insurance credits or benefits experience errors in how their accounts of money are handled, which is unacceptable. Will the Minister accept that a cross-departmental review of how those IT systems work needs to be carried out so that constituents can trust that the Government are not losing their hard-earned money?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that polling at the end of last year found that 76% of respondents were satisfied with gov.uk, 78% agreed that they could typically find what they wanted and 74% trusted the information they found. Obviously, we keep all our systems under review, but gov.uk is a trusted brand and it is getting better every day.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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19. What recent discussions he has had with the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests on trends in the level of compliance with the ministerial code.

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Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower)  (Lab)
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T5.   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?

Alex Burghart Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Alex Burghart)
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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.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge)  (Lab)
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T6. 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?

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Damien Moore Portrait Damien Moore (Southport) (Con)
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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?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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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.

Diana Johnson Portrait Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
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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?

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Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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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?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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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.

Christian Wakeford Portrait Christian Wakeford (Bury South) (Lab)
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On the contaminated blood scandal, why have the Government not named the experts?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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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?

Alex Burghart Portrait Alex Burghart
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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.