The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Government Procurement: Small Businesses
Small businesses are the engine of our economy, and we are determined to level the playing field so that they can win their fair share of Government contracts. That is why, last month, I announced a range of new measures, including consulting on excluding bids for major contracts from suppliers who fail to pay their subcontractors on time and giving subcontractors greater access to buying authorities to report poor payment performance.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but I recently met small businesses at the Rugby branch of Coventry and Warwickshire chamber of commerce, many of whom told me that they were put off from tendering for public sector contracts by the complexity of the process. I know that Ministers have worked hard to break down barriers, so what steps is he taking to get the message across that there are real opportunities for business among small companies?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. As he says, we have already removed complex pre-qualification questionnaires from low-value contracts, but this afternoon I will again be meeting the small business panel, which represents small businesses up and down the country, and we will be discussing exactly how we can further simplify pre-qualification questionnaires and associated bureaucracy.
The UK’s fantastic small and medium-sized enterprises drive innovation and help to deliver our public services. What barriers has the Minister identified that he will tackle to ensure that we can see more small businesses from around the country tender for Government contracts?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right: I am committed to breaking down barriers for SMEs supplying the public sector. That is why, over Easter, I announced that we required significant contractors to advertise their contracting opportunities for SMEs on Contracts Finder. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appointed an SME champion in each Department, and I have personally written to strategic suppliers to remind them of their obligation to pay subcontractors on time.
A report that I published in conjunction with the TaxPayers Alliance earlier this year found that some public sector organisations are spending up to seven times more for a ream of photocopier paper than others. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that the public sector spends taxpayers’ money more wisely in everything that they incur and spend, and will he undertake to read my report?
I will, of course, undertake to read my hon. Friend’s report and will respond directly. It is precisely for this reason of getting good value for the taxpayer that we established the Crown Commercial Service to increase savings for the taxpayer by centralising buying requirements for common goods and services such as photocopier paper.
FCC Environment has public sector contracts across 160 constituencies, yet it refuses to pay its workers sick pay. The workers in Hull have been out on strike for more than 30 days after one of their colleagues developed cancer and had to return to work after a month because he could not afford to be off work. Will the Minister please look at reforming the rules for procurement so that no companies can exploit workers in this way and not pay them the basic right of sick pay?
Clearly, all suppliers are subject to the general law of the land, which covers many of those points. In addition, we have introduced a supplier code of conduct, which looks exactly at those corporate responsibility points, and we review it continuously, and we will review it with such cases in mind.
Today’s Carillion report clearly demonstrates the urgent need to deal with the late payment culture in the construction industry, which is hitting many subcontractors. Most important and pressing for me today, four months after the Carillion collapse, is the ongoing shutdown of the Midland Metropolitan Hospital. I have raised the matter with the Cabinet Office several times, with Health Ministers, and even twice here in the Chamber with the Prime Minister, so when will the Government stop dithering and start work again on this much-needed hospital?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very passionate about this issue. I can reassure him, rightly again, that we remain absolutely committed to getting the new hospital built as quickly as possible, and we are supporting the trust to achieve that while ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent appropriately.
Although we warmly welcome moves to open up Government contracts to SMEs, the fact is that they are still being crowded out by big suppliers that regularly fail to deliver, including G4S with its youth custody provision; Capita with its failing Army recruitment contract, among many others; and, of course, Carillion. Will the Government introduce a new requirement that firms cannot bid for new Government contracts while they are still failing to meet quality standards on their existing public sector jobs?
Individual contracting Departments clearly keep the performance of all contractors under review. The hon. Gentleman says that we should ensure that small businesses can bid for Government contracts. I announced a range of measures over Easter precisely to deal with that issue. Indeed, we have introduced a requirement for all subcontracting opportunities by principal contractors to be advertised on the Contracts Finder website, which gives SMEs a great chance to bid for work.
House of Lords Reform
On 20 February, the Prime Minister wrote to the Lord Speaker to respond to the Committee’s recommendations. The Prime Minister has committed to do her bit to reduce the size of the House of Lords by continuing the restrained approach to appointments that she has taken so far.
Does the Minister agree that the size of the House of Lords now makes it ungainly, that it is politically unbalanced and that it has become democratically very detached? Is not it time that we looked in more general terms at the future of the House of Lords?
Does the Minister realise that her Government’s refusal to reform the upper Chamber combined with the provisions of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill mean that, for the first time ever, the unelected House of Lords will have more power over devolved matters in Scotland than the elected Scottish Government. As a democrat, how can she justify this outrageous situation?
I have two points. First, I am actually very pleased and grateful to the House of Lords for the consideration that it has given to the EU withdrawal Bill. It has provided important scrutiny, in particular of the devolution clauses for which I and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster are responsible. Secondly, I think that many Members of this House would agree that there are many fine representatives of the Scottish people in this very Chamber who do a very fine job, and I welcome them to their places.
My hon. Friend has it exactly right. There are many more important issues in the minds of the electorate. These issues were of course discussed at length during the last general election, when, as I have said, our manifesto was very clear that we did not think that reform of the House of Lords was a pressing priority.
In any discussions that the Minister may have with the Lord Speaker’s Committee, would she be able to impress on its members the need to ensure that the will of the people of the United Kingdom in leaving the EU ought to be uppermost in the minds of the lords and that they overlook that at their peril?
This sits with the theme to which I already alluded, which is that we think that the House of Commons should have rightful primacy. Indeed, that is where we see elected representatives of the British population who are able to carry forward—in the instance to which the hon. Gentleman refers—the will of the British people in leaving the European Union.
UK Constitutional Integrity
The constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is vital to the security and prosperity of all four nations. That is why the EU (Withdrawal) Bill respects devolution, while allowing common approaches to be maintained to secure the common market of the United Kingdom.
Mr Russell has always been perfectly constructive and sensible in his approach to negotiations, and I am obviously disappointed that so far the Scottish Government have not felt able to join the Welsh Government in agreeing to the sensible compromise that is on the table. What has been made very clear to me by Scottish businesses, however, is that the UK common market matters a great deal to their prosperity.
Is the Minister aware that we can have integrity and maintain integrity as well as having access to this vital £600 million market? Is he further aware that a small businessman in my constituency, after hearing him on the Radio 4 “Today” programme, phoned me and said “I feel suicidal.”?
I am sorry if constituents feel that way after talking to the hon. Gentleman. The important point about small businesses is that they need to be able to sell freely to customers and to get supplies from contractors in all parts of the United Kingdom freely without erecting new internal trade barriers within our kingdom. That is what the EU withdrawal Bill makes possible.
Constitutionally, nationalist politicians are quite entitled to pursue their political objectives. The Government’s responsibility is to ensure that Scottish businesses and Scottish consumers are protected and that they do not risk extra burdens or higher prices as a result of obstruction in the UK internal market.
Order. Mr Linden, I have high hopes of your prospects of statesmanship in due course, which are not aided by you waving an Order Paper in an eccentric manner. [Interruption.] Order. The same goes for Scottish Conservative Members. Mr Kerr, you are a most amiable individual, but you do tend to become very over-excitable. Calm yourself, man, calm yourself.
Last night, four out of five parties in the Scottish Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to withhold legislative consent for the EU withdrawal Bill. How would this Government, in ignoring the decision of the democratically Scottish Parliament, preserve the integrity of the United Kingdom?
I have been very heartened by the degree of cross-party support in the Welsh Assembly and in the House of Lords for the sensible compromise that the Government have put on the table. As I have said repeatedly to Scottish Ministers, my door remains open to consider any practical proposal they want to bring forward, even at this stage, but I would urge the Scottish Government to think again.
Our world-leading national cyber-security strategy is supported by £1.9 billion-worth of investment. It sets out measures to defend our people, businesses and assets, to deter our adversaries and to develop the skills and capabilities we need.
With cyber-attacks on public services in other countries and a highly publicised attack on our own NHS, does my hon. Friend agree that cyber-security is not just the responsibility of people at the top of our businesses, public services and agencies, but is actually the responsibility of every single employee, and that we have to get that culture across our public service estate?
It is undeniable that the UK is in the grip of a digital skills gap, yet despite the Government’s national cyber-security programme, the problem is getting worse. Fewer students are taking up technology-based A-levels, and those who do are underperforming compared with their counterparts in other subjects. What conversations has the Minister had with his Front-Bench colleagues to ensure that digital technology is integrated across the curriculum and that teachers of all subjects are given the training to help them inspire the next generation into closing the digital skills gap?
I do not recognise the picture that the hon. Lady paints. We are a world leader in digital technology, as I repeatedly see when I visit the Government Digital Service, which has an extensive training programme. In addition, one of the first three of the Government’s new T-levels will focus on digital.
I received a letter last week from Greater Manchester police that informed me that on 18 April I was involved in a vehicle collision in Salford and that, if I am convicted, I will face a fine of £1,000 and get six points on my licence. As many Members will testify, I was in this place on 18 April. This is a clear example of identity theft. Greater Manchester police have been most helpful and told me that it is likely that a drug dealer in Manchester has stolen my identity. You will be interested to know, Mr Speaker, that he has put down my occupation as “cobbler”. I would be interested to know what the Minister has to say.
The hon. Gentleman’s profession should have been orator and statesmen; that would have been a better description. He is absolutely right that we should be working with the police, and that is why one of the measures in our strategy is to deter and disrupt our adversaries, which includes states, criminals and hacktivists.
Public Life: Intimidation
The trend of increased intimidation can seriously damage our democracy. That is why we will be consulting on recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life to undertake legislative changes, for example, to remove candidates’ addresses from ballot papers and create an electoral offence of intimidating candidates. An electoral offence will reflect our view that elections and candidates need to be better protected.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will be aware of incidents designed to intimidate people from being involved in public life, including a recent incident where a brick was thrown through a Conservative candidate’s window in Liverpool. Does he agree that it is vital that all involved in public life seek to encourage a culture of respect and tackle those who seek to intimidate people?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. That was a shocking incident, which I hope all of us on both sides of the House would find abhorrent. The candidate had her one-year-old daughter in the room when the brick was thrown. That is a salutary lesson to us all. Such conduct deters people from participating in politics. That is why we have to look at removing the requirement on local addresses, but we also need leadership from the top. That is why we have introduced a respect code, which I hope the Labour party will eventually follow.
People who intimidate those in public life are thugs, wherever they are on the political spectrum. Can the Minister tell us what he proposes to do about the Daily Mail calling several of his colleagues “traitors” when they spoke up with their views on Brexit?
My right hon. Friend has great experience, and he is absolutely right that we have to crack down on that kind of behaviour and make it clear that we must allow debate with respect, so that people want to and feel confident to get involved in politics. I just hope the Labour party will get its house in order and bring in a respect code as well.
People with no fixed address can register to vote at an address or place where they spend a large part of their time. The Government have and will continue to work with homelessness charities to make sure that the paperwork required to register without a fixed address can be easily accessed.
The voter ID pilots in the recent local elections required people to produce a passport, bus pass or utility bill with their address on it—you will see the irony, Mr Speaker. How likely is it that someone of no fixed abode could produce those documents, and what will the Government do to avoid their disenfranchisement?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. We had those pilots just a few weeks ago, and I look forward to a full evaluation of their impact. We believe they have been successful and that very few people were negatively affected by them. I look forward to working with the Electoral Commission on the next steps.
People with no fixed address can register to vote through a “declaration of local connection” form. Will the Minister look at reforming that form so that, given the stigma associated with its name, it is no longer called that? The form also states that if people have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, they have to report it. That requirement is a disgrace and needs to be removed.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in looking at such things—not only the form he mentions, but paperwork to assist people with a visual impairment or those who need to register anonymously. This Government can be proud of those achievements, and I would be happy to discuss his points further with him.
Three thousand eight hundred: that is the number of people nationally with no fixed abode who are registered to vote. Does the Minister agree that that is woefully under-representative of the number of homeless people and families in this country? One way to make it easier for people with no fixed abode to register to vote would be to remove the requirement to print the form. Why is the group of voters with the least access to a printer the only one that has to print out their paperwork?
As I said in my first answer, homelessness charities and other organisations that assist homeless people are very able to help them with the form, and that is very important. I would also say that this Government are working across the breadth of what we need to do to support those who are homeless, and I regard the ability to register to vote as just one of those pieces of work. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office chairs the taskforce that is looking at how to reduce and eliminate rough sleeping, and that is important work.
Since our last Cabinet Office questions, the Government have reached an agreement with the Welsh Government on changes to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and an inter-governmental agreement on the establishment of common frameworks. I welcome yesterday’s decision by the National Assembly for Wales to grant consent to the Bill, and I place on record the Government’s commitment to act along the lines of the inter-governmental agreement respecting devolution, and to seek consent in our dealings with all three devolved nations.
Groucho Marx once said, “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them—well, I have others.” In homage to Groucho, the Scottish Conservatives used to have principles on clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but they have abandoned them to become isolated, as theirs was the only party to vote for legislative consent in the Scottish Parliament yesterday. Is the right hon. Gentleman ashamed—not just a tad embarrassed—on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives?
The hon. Gentleman has a question to answer. He and his party support continued membership of the European Union. The powers in the Bill allow for the temporary carrying forward, for a time-limited period, of the frameworks that already exist, and to do so when that is in the interests of Scottish jobs and Scottish consumers. What is the hon. Gentleman’s objection to that?
We believe that the recent trials have been successful. As I said earlier, we will be evaluating the pilots fully and then taking careful decisions about next steps. We remain of the view that voter fraud is a crime that should be stamped out, and it would be very good if other parties in this place joined us in that belief.
As a matter of fact, I took up this office on 8 January 2018. I do not think the picture the hon. Gentleman paints is an accurate one. It was only in January that we were presented with details—full details—of what Carillion proposed. It would have been wrong for the Government to bail it out for private sector failures of judgment.
My Department supports consistent standards of devolution awareness across the civil service. The Cabinet Office runs a cross-Government learning campaign, in partnership with the devolved Administrations, to ensure that there is good practice throughout the United Kingdom.
As I set out in detail in my evidence to the Liaison Committee, three of the contracts were actually awarded before the profit warning. The two from HS2 Ltd were part of a joint venture. The other joint venture partners stepped forward, in line with their contracts, to ensure that the project continues with no additional cost to the public purse.
The data so far from the successful five pilots does not seem to provide evidence to support the Opposition’s scaremongering. Most people’s experience of the pilots was very positive. We will evaluate the next steps before returning to the House with the way forward.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. We are determined that the public sector uses technology to improve services. Indeed, just last week I announced the first GovTech challenges to help tech firms to create innovative, cutting-edge solutions to public service challenges. The first seeks to use artificial intelligence solutions to identify recruitment images that are created by Daesh and spread online.
We are now in an unsustainable and inconsistent position whereby 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland and Wales can be trusted to vote in local government elections, yet their counterparts in England and Northern Ireland are denied that right. Does the Minister agree that if we are to maintain the integrity of our electoral process, we must have equal voting rights across the UK?
First, the Government stood on a manifesto in which we agreed to keep the voting age at 18. Secondly, we believe in devolution. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has told the House very strongly, our work on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and elsewhere supports devolution. That, I am afraid, is the real answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Colleagues, today the two extremely brave police officers who apprehended the killer of our late friend and colleague Jo Cox are in the Gallery for Prime Minister’s questions. I am referring to PC Jonathan Wright and PC Craig Nicholls, both of the West Yorkshire police. Gentlemen, we honour your public service. We thank you for it and we offer you the warmest of welcomes here to the House of Commons today. [Applause.]
We are also joined by the former Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly, Dame Rosemary Butler, and her husband Derek. Rosemary and Derek, you too are very welcome. Thank you for coming.