Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 654: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2019

Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Public Services Delivery: Technology

1. What steps he is taking to encourage the use of innovative technologies to improve the delivery of public services. (909024)

Last month I announced five new public sector challenges, to be funded from the £20 million GovTech innovation fund. In the spring we will publish a strategy for the use of innovation in public services.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the GovTech fund is being used to identify technologies with the potential to improve medical care and deliver better services at a lower cost?

I am delighted to confirm that to my hon. Friend. There is huge potential here for improvement in public services. So far the GovTech Catalyst has funded two health-related challenges: the first seeks to improve the medication pathway for people entering custody, and the second will assess how machine learning could improve prediction and provision in relation to adult social care.

At the weekend, 70 Labour MPs and Members of the European Parliament signed my letter to the Government asking them to review the operation of the EU settled status app for EU citizens, which is currently available only on Android phones and not on iPhones. What advice does the Cabinet Office gives other Departments to ensure that no digital discrimination is embedded in the new technologies that the Government are rolling out?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the question of the digital verification system. It is perfectly possible to subscribe to it with any phone. The issue relates to the document verification, which can be carried out in respect of Android phones but not, currently, in respect of Apple phones. However, the Home Office is working on that as we speak.

I know the Minister will be aware that delivering public services in rural areas is particularly challenging. Will he consider how he could use tech and innovation to facilitate better public services in areas such as those that I represent?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the great aspects of the GovTech challenge fund is that it is often used in rural areas. In rural Scotland, for example, we are looking into how it could be used to help to ensure that the environment is properly managed, and we are working on other similar schemes.

Time and again, Mr Speaker, you have heard me raise the issue of deeply unsatisfactory broadband coverage in my constituency, which greatly impairs the delivery of vital public services. Responding to a question that I asked not long ago, the Prime Minister mentioned the shared prosperity fund. Might that fund be used to tackle the problem of very poor broadband coverage? If the Minister cannot give me an answer now, will he agree to meet me to discuss the issue?

I am always happy to meet all Members, and I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representation in respect of the shared prosperity fund. Our industrial strategy has already committed us to spending more than £1 billion on digital infrastructure, including £176 million on 5G and £200 million on broadband for local areas. There is, I know, an issue with the Scottish National party Government getting the money to the frontline, which is why my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has announced that in future, money will go directly to councils.

When it comes to the delivery of technology with the use of public money, we know whose side the Government are on: their mates in the megafirms. Their spending on Cloud provision with just one company, Amazon Web Services, has increased by 8,000% since 2015. The next time the Minister signs off another multimillion-pound tech contract, will he perhaps spare a thought for one of the UK’s incredible small and medium-sized enterprises?

The Government are committed to ensuring that SMEs win their fair share of Government contracts. Unlike the Labour Government, this Government have set the target of devoting a third of all spending to SMEs. However, the hon. Lady rightly raised the issue of Amazon Web Services. Let us look at the figures. AWS is a G-Cloud supplier. A total of £3.2 billion has been spent on G-Cloud. How much has been spent on AWS? Just £70 million, which amounts to less than 2.2% of total spending.

Public Sector Procurement

2. What recent progress his Department has made on its proposed changes to public sector procurement. (909025)

We are determined to deliver value for money for taxpayers through better procurement, and to support a healthy and diverse supply market. We recently announced measures including simplifying procurement processes, taking account of social value when awarding contracts, and excluding large suppliers from Government contracts if they cannot demonstrate prompt payment.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The number of businesses receiving late payments from the Cabinet Office has nearly tripled in the past two years. Does the Minister agree that this makes a mockery of the Government’s plans to crack down on public sector suppliers who pay late?

Prompt payment is important to all businesses, particularly small businesses. That is why we have set a target for 90% of undisputed invoices from small and medium-sized enterprises to be paid within five days. We are making good progress, and six Departments are already exceeding that target. I know that there has been an issue in respect of the Cabinet Office, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the latest figures, from December, which show that 95% of invoices are now meeting the 30-day target and that 82% are meeting the five-day target.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming moves to roll over the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement—the GPA—and in welcoming the access that that would give to UK companies competing abroad and the opening up of our own markets to foreign competitors?

I know that my right hon. Friend has a great deal of experience in this area, and he is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the GPA. I am pleased that we have made progress and reached agreement in principle for the United Kingdom to join the GPA, and I am confident that we will have that in place shortly.

Is not the Minister guilty of a bit of jiggery-pokery? [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] The fact of the matter is that if the Government looked at good examples such as Huddersfield University and Kirklees Council, they would see the way in which they emphasise local and regional procurement, which brings in jobs and wealth and retains them in our communities. Why do this Government not do the same?

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we get the very best suppliers, which is why we have introduced a balanced scorecard approach. That allows suppliers to take into account a wide range of factors, including environmental factors and factors relating to the quality of produce. Those are the sort of reforms that this Government are committed to introducing.

The Government give a very welcome emphasis to the employing of small and medium-sized enterprises in Government contracts, and that is very good stuff, but does the Minister not agree that in reality, Government procurement processes are so complex, so difficult, so massive and so expensive that it is actually companies such as the defence primes that get the contracts and then hammer down the prices they pay to their subcontractors? How can we find better ways to ensure that SMEs win some of those valuable contracts?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the issue of SMEs winning contracts. This is why we have abolished complex pre-qualification questionnaires on small-value contracts, for example, and in November I announced that if major strategic suppliers were not paying their small providers on time, they could face being excluded from Government contracts.

I am aware that current statute means that wage rates cannot be mandated, but it is possible to use the procurement process to encourage employers to consider paying the real living wage in the context of fair work policies. Indeed, that is the process undertaken by the Scottish Government. Will the Minister consider following Scotland’s lead and using procurement to ensure that employers pay the real living wage?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I hope that he will acknowledge the progress that this Government have made in introducing a national living wage for the first time. The effect of that national living wage, which will rise by almost 5% this April, is that an average person working full time on the national living wage will be almost £3,000 a year better off—and that is not counting the massive increase in the personal allowance that also cuts their taxes.

Of course, it is not a living wage; it is just a minimum wage re-badged.

The Government have repeatedly insisted that Interserve’s

“current intentions are a matter for the company itself.”

However, it emerged last night that Cabinet Office officials were playing an active role in talks to negotiate a rescue package. It seems that the Government cannot make up their mind whether they have a responsibility to intervene and protect public services and jobs or whether to let the market decide, so which is it?

The Government are absolutely clear that their principal task is to ensure the continued delivery of public services, and that is what we have ensured in respect of our strategic suppliers. The hon. Gentleman raises the case of Interserve. I welcome this morning’s announcement, which I am sure he has seen, which demonstrates that it is making good progress towards refinancing, but we are clear that that is a matter between the lenders to that company and the company itself. The Government are not a party to those negotiations.

Information Law

3. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the Information Commissioner’s January 2019 report, “Outsourcing oversight? The case for reforming access to information law”. (909026)

The Government are fully committed to transparency and openness across the public sector and have already introduced a range of measures to increase transparency in contracts. That means that we are publishing more data than ever before to the benefit of taxpayers. I am grateful for the Information Commissioner’s report, which we will consider carefully, but we have no plans at present to legislate further in this area.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply but, as the Information Commissioner tells us, the Government spend £284 billion a year on external suppliers that are currently beyond the scope of freedom of information laws. The Information Commissioner tells us that that would have made a difference at both Grenfell and Carillion, so why will the Government not commit to real transparency and adopt the Information Commissioner’s recommendations?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster set out an important package of measures last year to improve transparency in contracting. However, I do not think there is evidence that the collapse of Carillion could have been anticipated by the reforms in the report. Indeed, the relevant Select Committees said that Carillion’s directors were responsible, not the Government.

Public Life: Intimidation

4. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of intimidation faced by those in public life. (909027)

The increasing prevalence of intimidation in public life can seriously damage our democracy, which is why the Government have consulted on a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners. We are currently analysing the contributions to the consultation, with a response due to be published soon.

What progress is the Department making with online platform providers to ensure that they develop and implement automated techniques for content removal and address take-down times for offensive material?

My hon. Friend makes a good point that he has made strongly before, which is to his huge credit. We have been clear that much more needs to be done to tackle online harm. Too often, online behaviour fails to meet acceptable standards, with many users powerless to address such issues. A joint Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office White Paper is expected to be published in the near future and will set out legislative and non-legislative measures detailing how we can tackle online harm and set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe. We want to ensure that we do that in a fair and proper way.

10. Are the Government looking at the effects of social media intimidation on our democracy? A wide number of pieces on social media, involving both misuse of data and funding of unclear origin, are intimidating and influencing political debate in this country. (909033)

The hon. Lady makes a good point. We are looking at exactly that, because we must ensure that people have a clear view of what is true, fair and appropriate online.

Someone came to my surgery this week and clearly made an implied threat to me, a number of Members of this House and a former Prime Minister. However, if I report any of that, I am breaching the confidentiality of the person who came to see me, so I want to know the Minister’s advice.

I do not think that my hon. Friend would have been breaching confidentiality, because if such conversations are happening, that represents a threat that he would be well within his rights to report to the police.

I have been subjected to online intimidation. Does the Minister agree that we need to drive home the message that the secrecy of the iPhone or keyboard is not protection enough for people to spew vile, intimidatory statements and messages to anybody in public life?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. All of us in public life should call out such things when we see them. We must be clear about what is unacceptable and report it to the authorities where appropriate, so that people feel able to engage online in a proper and fair way without intimidation or abuse.

Tiers of Government: Collaboration

We are committed to working productively with all levels of government, including local authorities, directly elected Mayors and devolved Administrations across the UK. We will also work closely with the devolved Administrations to review the formal structure of inter-governmental relations.

People across the Tees Valley are delighted at the devolution model led by Ben Houchen, our excellent Conservative Mayor. Ben is delivering on his manifesto promises, which included rescuing Teesside airport and leading the regeneration of the steelworks. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to maintaining their excellent record of support for Ben’s work in getting Teesside on the front foot again?

I pay tribute to the leadership that Ben Houchen and his colleagues on the Tees Valley combined authority have shown. They have very ambitious plans, and we look forward to continuing our joint working with them on a local industrial strategy to drive productivity, growth and employment in the Teesside region.

In light of there being no Executive in Northern Ireland, what measures are being taken to ensure services can be delivered for Northern Ireland? Especially within the public sector, we have had difficulty in getting decisions across the line. We need ministerial intervention.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Parliament agreed to change the law late last year to give Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office greater powers in giving directions to the Northern Ireland civil service, but the answer is for the political parties in Northern Ireland to come together so that we can see the Executive and the Assembly restored. That is the way to give effective representation for effective decisions to be taken.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is no formal machinery for the Parliaments of the United Kingdom to work together and to scrutinise the work of the Joint Ministerial Committee and the Executive functions that work together. The Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit again met in January and called for this. Will he support this Parliament and provide it with the necessary resources so we can institute proper interparliamentary machinery in the United Kingdom?

We are very open to proposals from my hon. Friend’s Committee and from others in this House and the House of Lords. We are working together with the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies. If Parliament will lead, the Government will support it.

7. One way in which the Government are coming together across Departments is through the Leader of the House’s working group on the early years, which is supported by the right hon. Gentleman’s Department. Will he ensure that that review remains ambitious and radical in its proposals and does not become a victim of departmental-itis? (909030)

Having spoken to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about this on a number of occasions, I do not think anybody can doubt her determination to ensure that this issue is given proper priority. I expect proposals from that group later this year.


6. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the devolution of power to local authorities. (909029)

The Smith Commission was clear that the Scottish Government should work with the Scottish Parliament, civic Scotland and local authorities to develop ways in which greater devolution within Scotland could be provided.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Does he agree that local authorities are best placed to deliver local services, rather than taking a centralised approach?

I think that that is right. For example, it will be very important to involve local authorities in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in neighbouring constituencies in taking forward our ambitious proposals for an Ayrshire growth deal.

Voter ID Pilot Schemes

8. Whether his Department plans to conduct further voter ID pilots; and if he will make a statement. (909031)

A diverse range of local authorities have confirmed that they will be taking part in the voter ID and postal vote pilots for the 2019 local elections. These pilots will provide further insight into ensuring security of the voting process.

I know different local authorities are using different methods as to what constitutes ID, but does the Minister believe enough progress will be made so that, should this Parliament go the full five years, we will have voter ID available at the next general election?

Yes, I do. I am grateful to the authorities that are piloting voter ID this year. Their experience will help us to formulate the right policy to roll it out nationally.

Let me say to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) that the Cumbrian steak and kidney pie, the merits of which he commended to me, was of the highest quality.

Mr Speaker, I am incredibly grateful to you for those kind words and for coming along to Cumbria Day.

Is the Minister aware that voters in my constituency, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales cannot vote at all on planning and housing issues that affect them? What steps will she take to bring in democracy for those parts of our country that are under the aegis of a national park, which are not directly elected?

I am somewhat familiar with the issue because of my proximity to the Broads Authority in my constituency, but I suspect this question may be for a colleague to answer and I will ask them to do so.

Topical Questions

Last week, I announced new measures, as part of the follow-up action to the Government’s racial disparity audit, to improve outcomes for ethnic minority students in higher education; to ensure league tables reflect performance in addressing inequalities; and to encourage higher education providers to make their workforces more diverse.

Some 16% of the adult population of this country has some form of disability, yet when I look around this House, I see very few Members with a disability. When are we going to see an effective Access to Elected Office Fund? We need a Parliament that is representative of the public it serves. When are we going to be like that?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raises this issue. He is right to say that we need to raise that level of participation. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities is working on a fund that will help that to happen. Furthermore, a statutory instrument will be before the House next Monday that will help with this by addressing election expenses.

T7. Members discharge their duties in a variety of ways, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is not possible to discharge them properly from inside a prison cell? When will the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) do the right thing, stand down and give the people of that part of the country the representation they deserve? (909043)

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and it comes down to what the people of Peterborough need: a hard-working and present local MP. Of course we have passed legislation in this place to enable recall. I suspect that may be used in this case, but I hope it will happen promptly, for the sake of the people of Peterborough.

Let us consider these figures: 25,342 and 21,900. Those were the number of voters who cast their votes for me and for the Minister to serve as elected parliamentarians, yet just 100-odd votes secured a win in the most recent hereditary peer by-election in the other place. The winner was eligible to stand because his great-grandad’s cousin’s dad’s fourth cousin’s dad’s cousin’s great-great-great grandad was made a Lord by Charles I in 1628. What progress is the Minister making on reform of the other place?

May I first welcome the hon. Lady back to the Dispatch Box? It is a pleasure to see her here again. Two points need to be made: first, the legislation she cites was that of her own party; and. secondly, reform of the House of Lords is not a priority for this Government. We have been clear on that matter and I can be so again today.

What conversations is the Department having with local authorities in Scotland and the Scottish Government about relocating civil service jobs north of the border, specifically in areas such as international trade?

The Government have a policy of seeking to relocate Government offices and agencies outside London wherever possible. We are keen to work with Scottish local authorities, as well as local authorities from all around the United Kingdom, to secure that objective.

T2. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy reported last year that it was concerned that “the current complex arrangements for ministerial responsibility mean that day-to-day oversight of cross-government efforts is, in reality, led by officials, with Ministers only occasionally ‘checking in’.”Do the Government have a grip on cyber-security? (909038)

Yes. It is right that different elements of cyber-security report in to different Departments. For example, where this relates to an offensive cyber-capability, as part of our defences, that is rightly part of the Ministry of Defence’s responsibility. The relevant Ministers do co-operate regularly, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that this all reports back to the National Security Council where the relevant Cabinet Ministers take the decisions.

On the inter-ministerial early years working group, which is an excellent initiative, is the Minister aware that the cost of child neglect is estimated at some £15 billion per year? So when negotiating with the Treasury, will he be mindful that funding for this is not only the best way of giving kids the best start in life, but a good way of saving money?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be very glad of my hon. Friend’s support.

What with the £1 billion-plus of Northern Ireland contributions secured by the Democratic Unionist party, the knighthoods for the European Research Group, and now the cash-for-votes inducements that we hear are being offered to MPs, are the Government not a bit worried about sailing dangerously close to the wind of the Labour-introduced Bribery Act 2010? Will the Minister reaffirm that no votes in this place should be for sale? Especially not mine; I have not been offered anything.

I am deeply shocked that the hon. Lady has so little confidence in her own colleagues as to think that they would be capable of that.

Some of my most engaged constituents are expats who currently reside in France or Spain. Does the Minister agree that it is unfair and undemocratic to deny these British citizens the right to vote after an arbitrary 15 years?

Yes, I do, which is why we support the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), which will redress that injustice and deliver votes for life.

T4. Northern Ireland has required voter ID for 13 years. Why is it necessary to run a pilot programme when we have already evaluated it and found that it works effectively and has not affected voter turnout? (909040)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support on this matter. We should see such support throughout the House for a set of measures that are reasonable, proportionate and already used in countries around the world and in our own country, the United Kingdom, to help to protect voters and ensure that their vote is theirs alone.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


The right hon. Gentleman is a notable celebrity, not only in Aylesbury but here in this House.

I have been asked to reply, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland outlining the Government’s commitment to the people there and our plan to secure a Brexit deal that delivers on the result of the referendum.

I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in welcoming today’s announcement that the next meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government will take place in London in December 2019. This is fitting, as 70 years ago this year, the United Kingdom, led by those Atlanticist champions Clement Attlee and Ernie Bevin, was one of the alliance’s 12 founding members and London was home to the first NATO headquarters. We will continue to play a key role in NATO as it continues its mission of keeping nearly 1 billion people safe.

I have always considered the Leader of the Opposition to be just an unreconstructed Marxist. However, in the light of video footage that has emerged this week, I may well have to change that view. He clearly campaigned vigorously against repeated EU referendums in Ireland, and he declared forcefully that he did not wish to live under a

“European empire of the 21st century”.

In the spirit of cross-party consensus, will my right hon. Friend join the Leader of the Opposition and dismiss once and for all any prospect of a second EU referendum and reaffirm that we are leaving on 29 March?

The Government’s position is clear. We said to the British people in 2016 that we would accept their vote as decisive. The duty of politicians is to implement the result of the referendum and not to suggest that the public got it wrong and, I think, undermine trust in democracy.

The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is a notable celebrity, not merely in Islington but here in this House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am so glad to renew my acquaintance with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, or, as the newspapers always call him, “effectively the Deputy Prime Minister”—surely the only occasion these days when the words “Prime Minister” and “effective” are used in the same sentence.

Although there are many other important issues that I would like to discuss with the Minister for the Cabinet Office today, sadly none is more vital or urgent than Brexit, so I would like to use our time to have a sensible, grown-up discussion about what the actual plan is between now and 29 March. To that end, I ask him this: if the briefing is correct that there will not be a fresh meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement next week, when will that vote take place?

I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was completely clear on that at this Dispatch Box last week. She said that the meaningful vote itself would be brought back as soon as possible, and if it were not possible to bring it back by the 13th, next Wednesday, the Government would then make a statement and table a motion for debate the next day.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I take from that and from other briefings that the time for a fresh vote will be after the Prime Minister has secured what she called last week

“a significant and legally binding change”—[Official Report, 29 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 679.]

to the withdrawal agreement so that this House has something genuinely different on which to vote. If that is the case, will the Minister simply clarify what will happen if we start to approach 29 March and that significant and legally binding change has not been achieved?

The Prime Minister, as has been announced by No. 10, will be in Brussels tomorrow where she will be seeing President Juncker, President Tusk and the President of the European Parliament, Mr Tajani, to discuss the changes that she is seeking following the recent votes in this House both to reject the deal that was on the table and to support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady). I do think that the right hon. Lady needs not just, perfectly fairly, to question the Government, but to face up to the fact that if, as both she and I wish, we are to leave the EU in an orderly manner with a deal, it requires this House to vote in favour of a deal and not just to declare that it does not want a no-deal scenario.

Again, I thank the Minister. Does the Prime Minister seriously think that she will get anything different from the responses that we have heard from the EU over recent days? None of them has given us any encouragement that the EU is willing to reopen the withdrawal agreement unless the Prime Minister is willing to reconsider the red lines on which the agreement is based. Does he not agree that the sensible, cautious thing to do at this late stage is to seek a temporary extension of article 50 so that we have time to see whether the negotiations succeed, or, if they do not, to pursue a different plan?

The problem with the right hon. Lady’s proposition is that it would simply defer the need for this House, which includes the Opposition Front Bench team, to face up to some difficult decisions. She has criticised the approach that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has taken, but I have to put it to her that, last week, the Leader of the Opposition, having met the Prime Minister, went out in front of the cameras and demanded changes to the backstop as part of the approach that he wanted to see for the future. The right hon. Lady has said that she would be comfortable with the backstop. Does she agree with her leader, or is she sticking to her guns on this?

I hear what the Minister says, but he does not seem to give us any answers. I genuinely appreciate his attempts, but I hope that he will understand the concern that all of us have, not just in this House, but across the country, that we have a Government treading water in the Niagara River while the current is taking us over the falls. [Interruption.]

Order, be quiet. The Whip on duty, the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), has no useful contribution to make other than to nod and shake his head in the appropriate places. No chuntering from a sedentary position from him is required or will persist.

Can we go back to the central issue: there is no way that we can avoid a border in Ireland after Brexit without a full customs union, or a permanent backstop, or some new technological solution. Will the Minister tell us which of those options the Government are currently working towards?

The right hon. Lady again makes this commitment, saying that the Labour party wants to see a permanent customs union, but most people who support a customs union say that they want to ensure that businesses can expect to export to the EU without tariffs, quotas or rules of origin checks. That is precisely what the Prime Minister’s deal does, and it also allows this country to establish trade agreements with other nations around the world, so what part of that deal does the right hon. Lady actually object to?

If the right hon. Gentleman would like me to answer questions, I would be quite happy to hold a seminar for him at another stage regarding what a proper Brexit ought to look like, but let me continue with my job, and perhaps he can continue with his and answer some questions. The technological solution is a non-starter. A permanent backstop will never be acceptable to the European Research Group or the Democratic Unionist party, and the only solution that will actually work is a full customs union. That is what I said at our first encounter here in 2016. It is the answer that is staring the Government in the face. If they backed it, it would command a majority in this House. It would avoid the mayhem and chaos of no deal, and protect the jobs at Nissan, Airbus and elsewhere that are currently at grave risk, so can the Minister explain why the Prime Minister is so dead against it?

Even if we did take the right hon. Lady’s somewhat ill-defined description of a permanent customs union, it would not address issues in respect of Northern Ireland and Ireland regarding regulatory standards for industrial goods or phytosanitary checks for foodstuffs and livestock. Even in her own terms, her answer is inadequate. The right hon. Lady may well then go on to say that she also wants to be part of a single market. Indeed, she has said that she would be happy with the same position as Norway, but that means the continuation of free movement and her party’s manifesto explicitly said that free movement would stop, so is the right hon. Lady supporting a Norway model or is she supporting the Labour party’s manifesto?

Flattered though I am that the Minister feels it necessary to ask me questions, it is important to make it clear that the reason that I have asked these questions today is that the Minister for the Cabinet Office understands Europe, Northern Ireland and Brexit probably better than any of his Cabinet colleagues. If anyone from the Government could give us answers, it would be him. But the truth is that there are no answers. Plan A has been resoundingly rejected by Parliament, plan B was ruled out by the EU months ago, and the Government are in danger of sleepwalking the country towards leaving with no plan and no deal at all. With just over 50 days to go, may I give the Minister a final opportunity to tell us whether there is a better plan than this—or, for goodness’ sake, will they let Parliament take charge instead?

As I said earlier, the Prime Minister will be reporting back to this House next week following her discussions in Brussels and elsewhere. I have to say to the right hon. Lady that the two-year deadline—the 29 March deadline—stems from European law and the wording of article 50, which lays down the two years. As I recall, the right hon. Lady voted in favour of triggering article 50; perhaps it was one of those votes where she was present but not involved. If she and her Front Bench are worried about no deal, they have to vote for a deal. Every time they vote against a deal, the risk of no deal becomes greater. It really is time for the Opposition Front Bench, for once, to put the national interest first, do the right thing and vote for a deal.

Q5. Last Friday, the Health Secretary made a superb visit to Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, where he met inspirational staff doing outstanding work for patients. However, our hospital is crumbling. Sewage is coming into the operating theatres and our infrastructure is failing. Will my right hon. Friend lobby the Treasury to ensure that we get capital funding so that Harlow can get the new hospital that we desperately need? (909049)

My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary was very impressed by what he saw on his visit to Harlow, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) will remain a very ardent champion of the need for renewal of those hospital facilities. He knows that as part of the Government’s long-term plan for the NHS, NHS England will make decisions about its capital investments for the future, and I am sure that he will drive his case home with it.

I welcome the Minister to his place.

While the chaos of the UK Government’s shambolic Brexit negotiations has dominated the headlines, this Government have sneaked through a cut in pension credit that will see some couples up to £7,000 a year worse off. An estimated 300,000 more pensioners are now living in poverty than in 2012. Does the Minister agree that his Government need to change course and, instead of robbing pensioners, start supporting them?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the situation of mixed-age couples with one person over pensionable age and receiving a pension and the other of working age. What the Government have done—indeed, what this House voted for some years ago—is perfectly logical and in line with the intention of the benefits system.

We certainly did not vote for that. What we have seen from this Government is that they continue to put their hands into the pockets of the poorest in our society. In fact, this Tory Government are allowing a proposal to take free TV licences from pensioners. It is this Conservative Government who are denying women born in the 1950s their full rights to state pensions. It is this Tory Government who preside over the lowest state pension in any developed country—quite shameful. Pensioner poverty is not a myth; it is a reality. With Scottish pensioners being short-changed by the UK Government, the Minister must agree that the only way to end pensioner poverty in Scotland is to put fairness back into our pension system and give older people the dignity that they deserve in retirement— for pension reform to be taken on by the Scottish Government in an independent Scotland, where we take our responsibilities seriously.

The right hon. Gentleman has some nerve here. He knows that it is in the power of the Scottish Government, under devolution legislation, to top up social security benefits if they choose to do so. He knows—[Interruption.]

Order. There is a lot of wild gesticulation and very animated expressions, and people looking at me pleadingly. It is very difficult to hear what is being said. I was trying to listen to the erudition of the Minister, but there is too much noise—let’s hear the fella.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that he and his party have voted against this Government’s Budgets even though those Budgets have reduced tax upon the lowest-paid in every part of the United Kingdom. He knows that the budget set by the SNP in the Scottish Parliament last week has led to Scots being more highly taxed than people in any other part of the United Kingdom —and that in a year when the Scottish Government’s block grant as a result of the Chancellor’s Budget decisions was increased by £950 million. The SNP has squandered that Union dividend. The message that we get is that if you have an SNP Government, Scottish people pay more and get less.

Q9. Citizens Advice in Solihull has been a cornerstone of my community for over four decades. Does my right hon. Friend share my dismay at the fact that the council procurement process has seen 60% of its funding wiped out overnight? Will he join me in calling on Solihull Council to do everything to ensure the survival of my brilliant local Citizens Advice? (909053)

I certainly understand, not least from my own constituency, the valuable service that Citizens Advice provides in many parts of the country. As my hon. Friend knows, the funding available through the local government settlement is largely not ring-fenced. These are decisions for elected local authorities to take at their discretion, but I am sure that the local authority in Solihull has heard clearly my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Q2. My constituent Rachel wrote to me saying:“My husband can’t live day to day without insulin. He’s trying to build up a supply by putting in prescriptions early, but there are limits to how much he can order and keep and we have no idea how bad this could get. I’m also worrying about my son, who has serious food intolerances. I lie awake at night worrying about it.”As the Minister knows, 99.5% of insulin used in the UK is made in the EU, and that is the tip of the medicinal iceberg. The Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House all say that we need extra time. When will the Government allow our constituents to sleep at night and announce a delay to article 50? (909046)

Obviously if there are concerns about a particular case, the relevant Health Minister will be happy to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman. On his more general point, as part of sensible contingency planning, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and his Department have been talking to the suppliers of insulin and other key medicines and treatments to ensure that supplies will remain available to patients who need them, whatever the outcome of the current Brexit negotiations.

Q11. Health and safety is strictly followed inside schools, but we expect our children to cross dangerous roads to get to the school gate. Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing new minimum requirements, a funding pot to provide for pedestrian crossings and signage, and reductions in speed limits to ensure that our children are looked after and do not have to cross such dangerous roads? (909055)

I completely understand the concerns about that issue of not only my hon. Friend but many parents. Of course, a lot depends upon the location of a school and the circumstances of the roads around it, but I am sure that a Minister from the Department for Transport will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those ideas.

Q3. This is Children’s Mental Health Week. There has been a massive deterioration in children’s mental health, with one in seven children now having a mental health disorder, much of which is linked to rising poverty. There is a chronic shortage of trained psychiatrists to treat those children, and we rely on the EU for one in seven trained psychiatrists and much of the primary research. What will the right hon. Gentleman do to avoid a further deterioration of the situation if we brexit? (909047)

Does he agree that parents who voted to leave did not vote to leave their children in greater risk of mental disorder and deserve a final say to protect their future?

Order. If the hon. Gentleman sought my advice, I would have provided it. He was doing extremely well, but he should have cut it off about 25 words earlier.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about EU health workers, with the end of freedom of movement, we will need to put new arrangements in place. The immigration Bill before the House provides the framework within which those more detailed arrangements can be made for the future. Of course, the health service in Wales is devolved and a matter for the Welsh Government and Assembly, but NHS England’s long-term plan will see the largest expansion of mental health services in a generation.

I listened very carefully to the quiet and earnest exchange between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Foreign Secretary, on the subject of arrangements for Brexit. I have to say that I formed the impression they were trying to find detailed points on which they could disagree, and that if it was left to them, they would take about five minutes to agree a proposal that would take us smoothly through 29 March into proper negotiations. May I ask my right hon. Friend if he would arrange that, on 14 February, we can finally have some indicative votes in the House so that the sensible majority can express their opinion? We can leave smoothly and start proper negotiations, based on a customs arrangement and some regulatory alignment in the transition period, and stop being so dominated by Corbynistas and the European Research Group.

I have to say that, in the past couple of weeks, one of the things I have been spending my time doing is talking to right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House, including Labour Members, about their views regarding the way forward on Brexit. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) wanted to come and see me as well, I would be very happy to talk further to her. I just think it is a pity that the Leader of the Opposition waited a full fortnight before even opening discussions with the Government.

Q4. The people watching expect MPs to be working together at this time in the national interest. While the Prime Minister is away chasing political fixes, the Minister knows that this Brexit crisis could be resolved right here in this House, because many Members would support a deal that was then put to the public for their approval. Why will he not offer this public final say when he knows that it would break the deadlock? (909048)

The hon. Gentleman has been a completely open and honourable champion of the second referendum, and I respect that fact. He knows the Government’s concerns that that would lead to an erosion of public trust in our political process, and that it would not actually settle the question because there would then be demands from whoever lost a second referendum to proceed to a third. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he needs to persuade his own Front Benchers, because I find that opposition to a second referendum is quite deep in both major parties in the House.

I have just come from speaking at the launch of a draft EU-UK free trade agreement. It lays out 300 pages of what such an agreement would look like and invites the Government and businesses to engage, but it depends on our being outside a customs union with the EU. Notwithstanding the earlier exchanges on this very topic, will my right hon. Friend recommit himself today to our manifesto commitment to be outside a customs union with the EU in the future relationship?

My right hon. Friend, perfectly properly, made reference to the 2017 Conservative manifesto, but I could also refer him to many, many statements made from this Dispatch Box and elsewhere by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the same effect. I would say to him that, for the complex negotiations that would be needed to establish the detail of the future economic partnership between ourselves and the European Union, we need to have the implementation or transitional period that is specified in the withdrawal agreement. That is what businesses of all sizes in all sectors are asking us in this House to do, and that is why the House should come together and support a deal.

Q6. Will the Minister explain why councils such as Bury, with less availability of brownfield land, cannot use the most recent independent Office for National Statistics figures on household projections to determine local housing need, thus saving more of our precious green belt from development? (909050)

Of course, new tests of housing need have recently been introduced. They are designed to reflect the fact that under successive Governments of all political parties, we as a country have been building far fewer new homes than our country and particularly our younger generation now need. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that, representing one part of the country with some of the fastest housebuilding rates anywhere in England, I think this is a social justice challenge that we have to face up to, but the national planning policy contains within it very strong tests to protect against inappropriate development in the green belt, and the Government will stand by that approach.

Last week it was announced that emergency services and women and children’s services are going to be moved out of borough from Telford’s Princess Royal Hospital. I have asked the Health Secretary to call in that decision for review, because the needs and health outcomes of people in both Telford and Wrekin have not been considered. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the Health Secretary to review the decision and to listen to the concerns of people in Telford and Wrekin?

As I would expect, my hon. Friend is a very strong advocate for the health needs of her local area. I understand that she met the Secretary of State for Health yesterday, and I am sure that he will reflect carefully on the case that she put to him.

Q7. With fuel poverty on the rise thanks to this Government, it is important that everyone who needs cold weather payments receives them. My constituents who live less than 10 miles from a certain weather station—the majority—receive those payments when temperatures fall below zero. However, the arrangements for my constituents in a neighbouring ward are based on a measurement from another weather station that is 20 miles away. Will the Minister act to end the postcode lottery for cold weather payments for the good people of Bellshill, Coatbridge and Chryston? (909051)

The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that the most vulnerable people get support when they need it most. It is important, obviously, that people are able to keep their homes warm during any cold snaps, and the cold weather payments and winter fuel payment enable them to do that. I will ensure that the relevant Minister looks into the particular constituency issue raised by the hon. Gentleman.

On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who has been in his constituency this morning, I want to thank Staffordshire fire and rescue and Staffordshire police for their efforts in the horrific fire that occurred in Stafford this week. I also want to thank the local schools for the support being given to children who know the family. Will my right hon. Friend join me in expressing our condolences to the family and friends involved?

I do not believe that there is any Member of this House whose reaction to that ghastly news yesterday was other than horror and the most deeply felt sense of sympathy with the family and friends of the children and parents involved. Thinking through what that family have had to live through, and must face living through in the future, it strikes one that it must be almost unendurable. On behalf of the whole House, I hope, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the emergency services—let us not forget that, for those who were called out to the scene, this would have been a traumatic experience—and to the local schools. The fire and rescue service will lead an investigation into the causes of this tragedy, and obviously we will have to await the outcome of that before deciding whether any further lessons should be drawn.

Q8. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) opened her heart to share the story of her son Martin and the pain that she went through when he died as a child. The Prime Minister committed to establishing Martin’s fund, a children’s funeral fund that would mean that parents would not have to bear the cost of burying their child, yet nine months on, 3,000 families have had to find the funding to bury their children because the Government have not put the fund in place. When can we see the fund and, importantly, will the Government commit to backdating payments to the date on which that announcement was made? (909052)

As the Prime Minister has said, it is not right that grieving parents have to worry about how to meet the funeral costs for a child. We have confirmed that parents will no longer have to meet the costs of burials or cremations, and fees will be waived by all local authorities and paid for instead by Government. We have been working, as I think the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, on the most effective way to deliver the fund, because we need to make sure that we get this right, but I take his point about the need to step up the pace. We will provide an update to Parliament on implementation as soon as possible, and I will certainly draw his comments and the support that he has from other Members right across the House, on a cross-party basis, to the attention of the Ministers concerned.

I am proud to represent Penzance, which is at the start of the rail link to London and elsewhere. Five years after the track was cut off by both coastal erosion and landslides, the planning application has finally gone in to create a resilient rail link for Devon and Cornwall. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents and the House that adequate funds will be made available to avoid any further delays?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the critical importance of this stretch of line not just to south Devon but to the whole south-west, in particular people living in Cornwall. I have been told by the Department for Transport that the first phase of work to protect the sea wall at Dawlish began in November last year, with essential repairs to breakwaters. That is part of a £15 million wider investment to make the railway at Dawlish and Teignmouth more resilient to extreme weather. Top-quality engineers have been carrying out detailed ground investigations to develop a long-term solution to protect the railway and to minimise disruption for passengers. We are now talking to Network Rail about the long-term plan.

Q10. Last year, my constituent with cerebral palsy was awarded £55 a week in personal independence payment. She was then diagnosed as having fibromyalgia, an incurable and often severely debilitating condition. She was summoned for reassessment and the private profit-driven company this Government choose to make such assessments decided that she is healthier with fibromyalgia than she was without and stopped her benefit in its entirety. That leaves her £2,900 per year worse off than she was before, literally punishing my constituent for being ill. How do the Government possibly hope to justify such a travesty of justice? (909054)

The hon. Gentleman raises a constituency case. I do not know the details other than those he has just relayed to the House, but I will ask the relevant Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions to talk to him and to look into the details of the case in greater depth.

May I point out to my right hon. Friend that the House has already had some indicative votes? The House did not like the withdrawal agreement as it stands and would prefer not to leave without a withdrawal agreement at all, and the whole Government voted to replace the backstop. What progress is being made in the discussions led by a remarkable alliance of my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)? They are promoting what is known as the Malthouse compromise, which would replace the backstop with a perfectly viable scheme to secure an open border in Northern Ireland under all circumstances. What is holding it up?

There is no attempt to hold anything up. The Government are very determined that we need to make progress, not least because of the two-year deadline under article 50 and the importance to our businesses of leaving the EU in an orderly manner with a withdrawal agreement. The group to which my hon. Friend refers has been meeting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. Those talks continue.

Q12. ISS is a private contractor that employs some of my constituents as porters and cleaners at Kingston Hospital, but it will not pay them sick pay. One was refused sick pay after suffering a stroke, and coercing sick people to come into a hospital risks infecting vulnerable patients. ISS has now threatened to break off negotiations with the GMB trade union if there is any political campaigning on this issue, including contacting MPs. Will the right hon. Gentleman condemn ISS for undermining its workers’ basic democratic right to contact their MP, and will he call on ISS to pay its workers fairly, including when they are sick? (909056)

Two issues were raised there. On the point about access to a Member of Parliament, there is no excuse for any organisation or individual to try to stop a constituent approaching their Member of Parliament. While this is ultimately a matter for you, Mr Speaker, there have been previous occasions when such attempts have been ruled as a contempt of Parliament, so I hope that message will go back. On the substantive point about the operation of the contracts, clearly the contract would have been let by the relevant part of the NHS, but the Health Secretary has indicated to me that he is very willing to sit down with the hon. Gentleman to talk through the details.

Following on from the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), I remind the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that the House passed the so-called Brady amendment on 29 January. Three hundred and seventeen Members were present and actively involved, as they all voted for it, including my right hon. Friend and the whole Government. The amendment said:

“and requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.

As the Government voted for it, will he confirm that that is still their policy, and if not, which bit of “replaced” was not clear?

The motion also said, of course, that subject to those changes, those who voted for it would be willing to accept the withdrawal agreement. Talks are continuing with the so-called Malthouse group, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spelled out in Belfast yesterday how she intends to take forward the work following the vote for the amendment in the name of our hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady).

Q13. The premise for the Oxford-to-Cambridge expressway has never been consulted on, yet this multibillion-pound, multi-lane highway is set to carve through the landscape between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge and will affect millions of people. A consultation is due to start on the route options later this year, but will the Minister guarantee today that there will also be a formal consultation on whether the expressway is the right thing to do at all? (909057)

The expressway is part of a strategic plan for the Oxford-Cambridge corridor, which is probably the best opportunity for economic growth, innovation and job creation anywhere in Europe at the moment. Like the hon. Lady, I speak as somebody who has a constituency interest—not just a Government interest—in this. There will be a public consultation on route options later this year. There will then be a public consultation on the preferred route, and communities will be able to comment on all aspects of the expressway during those consultations.

There can be no doubt that the people of Venezuela are really suffering: 40 of them were killed in recent protests, many more have been detained and many are simply voting with their feet and leaving—those who can. What more can we do as a Government to help these people, and does my right hon. Friend agree that sanctions are still a valuable tool?

What is happening in Venezuela is appalling. We have seen the suppression of democratic institutions and traditions, and we have seen 3 million people forced to leave their country and live as refugees. We and our EU partners have been clear that we need to put pressure on those around Maduro. We need to keep that pressure up, and we are looking at what further steps we can take to ensure peace and democracy, including through possible sanctions. It would be a help if, in this House, we spoke with a united voice, rather than having the Leader of the Opposition looking to Maduro’s Venezuela as a role model for this country.

Q14. The Prime Minister is on record as saying that she does not want a “business as usual” relationship with Russia. Will the Minister explain, then, why in the past year, the Conservative party has trousered £1 million in donations from individuals with strong links to the Kremlin, including a former Russian Defence Minister and the wife of President Putin’s former Finance Minister? (909058)

Party matters are not a subject of Government responsibility, but all donations to the Conservative party have been properly accounted for and declared to the Electoral Commission in accordance with the law. There are people of Russian origin who are United Kingdom citizens and as entitled as any other naturalised UK citizen to support and donate to the political party of their choice.

For parents across East Renfrewshire, the safety of their children online is an absolute priority, so I very much welcome the announcements from the Government of more steps in relation to social media companies, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that the online harms White Paper remains on track to be out on time and that, whatever happens with Brexit, this workstream will be a priority for the Government?

Yes, and I actually talked to the Culture Secretary this week about the need to press ahead with urgency on this task. We have heard the calls for an internet regulator and a statutory duty of care, and we are seriously considering these options. Our White Paper will clearly set out how responsibilities should be met and what should happen if they are not.

Q15. Falklands veteran Rory McCormick met his Russian spouse six years ago. She obtained a valid article 10 EU residence card in Ireland. Now he, his two children and his wife, who is lawfully resident in the UK under the Immigration Act 2014, are being refused private tenancy in Ipswich. Does the deputy Prime Minister believe that it is morally defensible for a British citizen and his family to be made homeless in their own country simply because the Home Office guidance wrongly rules out article 10 cards issued outside the UK as valid eligibility documents for letting agents? (909059)

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I am not familiar, as he is, with the details of his constituency case, and I was not certain from how he posed his question whether the problem was with the documentation alone or whether there was a more substantive problem, but the Immigration Minister or another relevant Minister will happily talk to him to try to sort this out.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Brexit provides us with the opportunity to introduce a controlled and fair immigration system that no longer discriminates against the rest of the world outside the EU and that that system should be the least bureaucratic possible?

I agree with my hon. Friend on both those points. It is important that in the future we have a system that is fair, makes it easy for the brightest and best in the world to come and work and study here and judges people not by the country they come from but on the skills they bring to this country and their commitment to this country.

The Minister will recall that my colleagues and I in the coalition introduced the naming and shaming of companies that fail to pay the minimum wage. This practice has ceased since last summer, apparently because civil servants are tied up on Brexit duties. What does this tell us about the Government’s new-found enthusiasm for labour rights, and when will these lists be published?

I would have hoped that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged that the Government have continued to take forward and strengthen further the policies on the national living wage, which we worked together on during the coalition days, but I will look into the point he has made, discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and perhaps a drop him a note to say what we have concluded.