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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 658: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2019

Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

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

Government Subcontractors and Suppliers: Payment

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that all Government suppliers and subcontractors are paid on time. (910471)

It is important to all suppliers, not least small businesses, that they are paid on time. That is why I have announced that, from this September, we will exclude suppliers from winning contracts if they fail to pay their subcontractors on time. Just this month, I contacted all suppliers to remind them of this intention.

I welcome what the Minister has just said, but a significant proportion of Government procurement is on construction projects, where there are often poor payment practices, such as those exposed during the collapse of Carillion. The Federation of Small Businesses’ “Fair Pay Fair Play” campaign, which carries the message that everyone deserves to be paid on time, is asking for those projects to be made the subject of separate project bank accounts. Is the Minister considering that?

Yes. My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government already use project bank accounts on all construction projects, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. That is just one way of ensuring our underlying objective of prompt and fair payment. It sits alongside initiatives such as paying our suppliers on time, excluding late payers and appointing prompt payment non-executive directors in all Departments.

Bearing in mind that small businesses are the backbone of our economy, will the Minister outline when we can expect to see the follow-through of the proposed policy whereby suppliers will be unable to win Government contracts unless they are seen to be making prompt payments?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to remind the House of that commitment. I announced in November that we will be bringing that policy into practice from September this year. The policy will mean that companies will face being excluded from Government contracts if they fail to pay their suppliers on time in two consecutive quarters.

Which Government Departments have the best record in paying their suppliers on time, and which have the worst?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the latest data shows that 10 of the 16 Government Departments were meeting the target of paying 90% of suppliers within five days, and 10 were also meeting the target of at least 96% of invoices within the 30-day target, so there is a good record overall.

The Minister’s own Department has seen a threefold increase in late payments over the last couple of years. As we know, the Government are diverted from their day jobs with daydreams of a new Prime Minister, and this distracted Government are raising incompetence to a completely new level. We have seen that they are careless when paying small and medium-sized enterprises that provide services to the public, and those SMEs are the backbone of our economy. Yet the Government are very careful when it comes to outsourcing to wounded giants such as Interserve or failed dinosaurs such as Carillion. Is it not time that the Minister and his Department got their act together?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am dreaming of nothing but securing my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in her continued position as Prime Minister.

Sadly, I do not have a note on that point.

I can also reassure the hon. Gentleman on his point regarding prompt payments in my own Department, the Cabinet Office. According to the latest figures, in March we paid 88% of all our suppliers within five days and 98% within 30 days—a perfectly credible record.

Nancy Astor: Centenary of Election

2. What plans the Government have to use the centenary of Nancy Astor’s election to encourage more women to stand for public office. (910472)

We are all indebted to this groundbreaking Conservative Member of Parliament, who won her seat the year after women first got the vote. The Government are using the suffrage centenary fund to support some 350 projects, including training in political leadership in Bradford and Birmingham, and skills sessions in the east midlands, west midlands and London.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming plans to commemorate Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, with a statue in Plymouth?

Absolutely. I welcome the extraordinary efforts of the campaigners who have achieved funding for a statue of Nancy Astor through public donations, particularly as there are—let us be frank—too few statues celebrating and commemorating the amazing contribution that women have made in helping to shape our nation. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done to support this project.

Can we also remember the two pioneering women who closely followed Nancy Astor: the Liberal Margaret Wintringham and the great MP for East Ham, Susan Lawrence?

Absolutely—I am happy to do that. As I said, there are too few memorials and commemorations of the great efforts and contributions made to society by women throughout the ages, and I am very happy to congratulate all those who do their bit for public service.

Two years ago, we celebrated 50 years since Winnie Ewing was elected to the House of Commons; perhaps that should be reflected here. I do not know what the Government would do to celebrate Nancy Astor that they would not do to celebrate Constance Markievicz, who was the first woman to be elected to Parliament. The Scottish Government recently held a consultation on electoral reform that specifically included ways to improve gender and minority representation. Will this Government do the same thing and bring forward real proposals?

If I remember correctly, Constance Markievicz did not take her seat, but as I said, I congratulate anyone who contributes to public life. We must all work to highlight and promote the fantastic work done by women across our country over the years in a range of public service roles, which would be a good way to encourage more people to contribute in the future.


3. What steps his Department is taking to help improve the cyber security of public and private sector organisations. (910473)

While the Government can manage and have been managing the security risk, it is essential that the cyber-security and engineering flaws in Huawei products are fixed. The National Cyber Security Centre has set out the improvements we expect the company to make and will not compromise on the improvements we need to see, in particular sustained evidence of better software engineering and cyber-security.

Will the Minister update the House on the distinction the Government make between different types of infrastructure equipment from Huawei, and how that will be used to respond to the centre’s recommendations?

We have the independent Huawei cyber-security evaluation centre to look at what the company is doing to meet the commitments we require of it. Looking to the future, the Government are committed to taking decisions on the 5G supply chain based on evidence and a hard-headed assessment of the risk. We have undertaken a thorough review of that supply chain; the decisions based on that review will be announced in due course, and to this House first.

Given the concerns about Huawei’s involvement in our 5G network, what more can the right hon. Gentleman say about the steps the Government are taking to secure our critical national information infrastructure?

From the Government’s point of view, the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks are of paramount importance. We think we have robust procedures in place to manage any risks to national security today. Looking forward to the roll-out of 5G, we have three clear priorities: stronger cyber-security practices across the entire telecoms sector, greater resilience within individual telecoms networks, and—crucially—diversity in the supply chain for 5G. These are matters that go beyond any single company.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will know that the Government are about to award a £300 million contract including requirements to host British citizens’ biometric data. To protect the security and privacy of British citizens, can he guarantee that that data will not be held by foreign companies subject to foreign Government laws giving foreign Government access to British citizens’ private data?

Clearly, any tendering exercise that the Government undertake has to be subject to the normal rules on open public procurement, but I know that the Home Secretary, who is responsible for the proposed database, will give the highest priority to ensuring the security of that sensitive personal data.

It has been reported that the Prime Minister has given Huawei the green light to help to build the UK’s 5G network, against the advice of Ministers, our international allies and our security services, yet Huawei has itself said that it will take up to five years to secure its equipment. Why do the Government have more confidence than Huawei has in its ability to build our 5G network safely and securely?

As I said in response to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), the security and resilience of our telecommunications networks are of paramount importance in every decision the Government take on these matters. We have undertaken a thorough review of the entire 5G supply chain, which is designed to ensure that we can roll out 5G in a secure and resilient way. We will announce our decisions about that to this House in due course.

House of Lords Membership

The Government are committed to supporting measures to reduce the size of the other place on which they can command a consensus across both Houses, such as the positive trend in retirements. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is also committed to maintaining her restrained approach to appointments.

The Minister mentioned consensus, but the reality is that due to Brexit and the PM’s failed leadership, this House is completely gridlocked, which gives the bishops and hereditary peers in the unelected Lords more power than ever and a greater say in Scotland’s future than the Scottish Parliament itself. Does he agree with his Scottish Tory colleague, MSP Murdo Fraser, that the other place needs to be scrapped?

In the last week we sat, the Scottish National party was praising the House of peers. This week it is calling for it to be scrapped again. The focus now, with the issues facing this country, is to get on with delivering a Brexit deal that works for the whole United Kingdom, rather than spend our time building constitutional grievances, as the separatists wish to do.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to the Front Bench and his outstanding responses so far. Notwithstanding any reservations we may have about the unelected place, is it not the case that on occasion, the standard of debate there can be a lot higher than here?

I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure that over his 27 years in this House he has seen plenty of very high-standard debates. In fact, he has contributed to raising that standard on many occasions. The House of Lords plays a special part in our constitution as a revising Chamber, subject, as always, to the supremacy of this elected House.

I welcome the Minister to his place. Unelected, out of touch, unresponsive—the House of Lords is not only a relic from a bygone era; it is a stain on our modern democracy. When will the Cabinet team live up to its public duty and lead a serious constitutional debate in this country to modernise our democracy and get rid of the House of Lords?

As I touched on earlier, the vast majority of people in this country—certainly in Torbay, and across the rest of the UK—would not see this House spending months on constitutional navel-gazing as the top priority at the moment. Many people have talked about reforming the House of Lords over the last century, and the Government will look at proposals that could enjoy a broad consensus, but for now, with the pressures on the legislative programme, few would understand if we decided to dedicate months to this.

Government Departments: Real Living Wage

5. If he will make it his policy to (a) introduce the real living wage in all Government Departments and (b) seek accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation. (910475)

I am pleased to tell the House that from 1 April, the Government increased the national living wage by almost 5% to £8.21 per hour, which gives an annual pay rise of almost £700 to full-time workers on the national living wage. That is our preferred approach to addressing low pay across both the public and private sectors.

Of course, the national living wage is not a real living wage, and it does not apply to under-25s, so that is a load of mince, frankly. Why would the Government want to perpetuate age inequality in terms of pay? Is the Minister proud of the fact that this Government actively discriminate against young people, including his own civil servants?

I find it extraordinary how the hon. Gentleman denigrates the national living wage. The national living wage has handed a pay rise of £3,000 to the lowest-paid workers since it was introduced, and it is rising faster than the real living wage. In respect of under-25s, we need flexibility for younger workers, to help them get into the labour market. That is a sensible compromise.

The reality is that the Government’s living wage is not the living wage set by the Living Wage Commission, but putting that aside, can the Minister set out what representations he has made to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to ensure that Members of this House can become living wage employers? My understanding is that it will not let us do that.

Relations with IPSA are a matter for the Leader of the House, not for a Cabinet Office Minister such as myself, but I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representations and I am sure the Leader of the House will have heard them as well.

What I can add, which I hope will be of some reassurance to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), is that the House of Commons is indeed an accredited living wage employer and has been for some time. I hope that that warms the cockles of the hon. Gentleman’s heart.

European Parliament Elections: Candidate Intimidation

6. What steps his Department is taking to prevent the intimidation of candidates in the event that the UK participates in the upcoming European Parliament elections. (910477)

The Government will work closely with the police and electoral administrators to tackle any reports or allegations of intimidation, as we do in the run-up to all elections.

I am very glad that the Minister is taking this seriously. There will be so many of us in this House who have seen an escalation of threats and abuse in the current political climate, and there is a real fear—when we have the likes of Nigel Farage saying that the European elections are an opportunity to put the “fear of God” into politicians—that such people run the risk of stoking up that kind of intimidation and aggressive behaviour. What can the Minister do to try to ensure that everyone conducts the European elections in a moderate, temperate, professional way?

I think there is a responsibility on politicians of all political parties—left, right and centre—to try to conduct elections in a spirit, yes, of democratic argument and debate, but also in a spirit of mutual respect for the fact that, in a pluralist democracy, we are entitled to disagree and to express our disagreement; and then to accept the election result however that turns out and to get on with people of other parties, who have an equal democratic mandate to our own.

I recently had the honour to co-host a conference on misogyny and antisemitism. May I urge the Government to do everything they can to make sure these two forms of hate crime do not prevent women from participating in elections and making their voices heard in the democratic process?

I agree wholly with what my right hon. Friend has just said. I think one of the most shocking features I have found about life in the House of Commons in the last few years is to learn, in particular from women MPs of different political parties, how they have often been singled out for the sort of misogynistic, brutal abuse that far too many have suffered.

May I ask the Minister what support he can give to local authorities, and particularly to polling station staff, who in fact may be the most vulnerable during the European election campaign?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been consulting on creating a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners. As far as the staff are concerned, any intimidation or abuse is prima facie a breach of existing criminal law, and I hope that political party representatives and presiding officers would have no hesitation in reporting such things to the police.

I am very clear and I think the Government are very clear that it is the duty of all politicians of all parties to call out abuse and intimidation wherever and whenever it happens. However, in this particular instance, would it not just be better to keep our promises, and call off these farcical elections?

It would indeed be the Government’s hope that, even now, we could agree and ratify the withdrawal agreement and give effect to it, which would make it possible for these elections not to take place, but the only way to stop these elections taking place is to bring into effect the withdrawal agreement or to pass primary legislation through Parliament disapplying our international obligations.

I am very worried about the fact that other candidates are already trying to intimidate candidates. Using language like “fear of God” is not a good way to go about our democracy. I was at a conference this morning at which a country, Eritrea, was trying to discuss how to build a democracy. Surely the Minister for the Cabinet Office will wish to be stronger in his language in condemning the outrageous language of other candidates using words such as “fear of God”?

I think I was very clear in my earlier comments that there is a profound responsibility on politicians, particularly political leaders, of any party to show moderation and restraint in the language they use about political opponents.

Topical Questions

May I start by welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) to his new ministerial role, and by wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) the best of luck as she starts her maternity leave and thanking her for the work she has championed to stop intimidation in public life?

The CyberUK 2019 cyber-security conference begins today in Glasgow. I am pleased that I will address that conference tomorrow, where I will outline our work to ensure that the UK remains a global leader in cyber-security.

Ministers will know that I never miss an opportunity to talk about jobs and opportunities for my Southampton, Itchen constituents. More people are in work than ever before, but not all jobs are well paid with good opportunities. A Government relocation to Southampton would help to give my constituents more opportunities. Has the Minister considered relocation to Southampton as part of the Places for Growth programme? If not, why not?

I know what a strong champion my hon. Friend is for the city of Southampton. I have heard his representations and am very happy to extend him an invitation: officials from my Department can meet him and representatives from Southampton to see what we can do in that area.

There are currently 2 million European citizens registered to vote in the UK, many of whom will be using their votes in the local elections next Thursday. However, in order to be eligible to vote in the European elections on 23 May, they will need to complete some paperwork. So far, fewer than 300 of those citizens have completed the paperwork, which would usually have been distributed by electoral registration officers from January onwards. Due to the short timescale for the administration of the European elections, I have heard that many European citizens are considering taking legal action against the Government. What consideration has the Minister given to that, and what measures could the Government take to help European citizens use their vote in the European elections here in the UK?

I appreciate that the shadow Minister’s point is about the time to make a declaration rather than the registration deadline. She will appreciate that the Government’s approach needs to be determined by the law and what affects it, but I am happy to look at the issue, respond to her in writing and lay a copy of that response in the House Library.

T3. What steps are Ministers taking to encourage the use of innovative technology for the delivery of public services? (910489)

This is a major priority for the Cabinet Office, which is why earlier this month I announced £1.5 million in funding for 10 projects that will use location-based data to improve public services, and why I will shortly publish a strategy outlining how we will harness the power of innovative technology across the whole of Government.

T2. Millions of people are not registered on the electoral roll, and they are much more likely to be from an ethnic minority, young or from a lower demographic class. Does not it say everything about this Government that at a time when we should be trying to get more people on to the register, they are doing everything they can to keep people off the register? (910488)

This is the Government who introduced online registration, which has made it much easier for people to get on the register and has resulted in among the highest numbers of registrations, so the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question is completely wrong.

T5. Does the Minister agree that, as the Institute for Government has recently pointed out, the Government have outsourced many public services precisely because the public sector was delivering them poorly, and that any plans to end outsourcing are motivated by political ideology, not by what is best for the taxpayer? (910491)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight those recent comments, which were clear that Labour’s outsourcing policy risks creating major implementation problems and losing the benefits that outsourcing has brought for taxpayers, without any guarantee that services would improve. This Government will continue to make decisions on outsourcing based on the evidence, not on ideology.

In congratulating the hon. Member for Huddersfield on the birth of his 12th grandchild—another Sheermanite in the world—I call Mr Barry Sheerman.

T4. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will pass that message on to the new baby. Yesterday another little girl—a little Swedish girl—came to this place and reminded us how we must act dramatically to face up to climate change and the challenges of climate change. What is the Minister doing to totally re-energise every Department of State on climate change? (910490)

I think the young woman to whom the hon. Gentleman refers spoke for her generation. All of us who go into schools and colleges in our constituencies know how the issue of climate change inspires and drives political priorities among many of our young constituents. Every Department in this Government is committed to delivering the ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions and secure our environmental objectives by the 2050 deadline. There is no difference between any Ministers about the need to get on with that.

T6. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that disabled candidates in the forthcoming local elections will, thanks to this Government, be able to access dedicated disability-related funding to support the specific needs they face, without it counting towards elections expenses? (910492)

It is vital that those who stand for office are representative of our society. As a Government, we are taking action to achieve that through a £250,000 fund for disabled candidates in the forthcoming English local election in May. That will help to create a level playing field for disabled and non-disabled candidates.

T7. Will the Minister further outline what discussions have taken place with social media outlets, such as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and others, to strike the delicate balance between freedom of thought and opinion, and security and freedom from cyber-bullying? (910493)

The hon. Gentleman alludes to the fact that there is a delicate balance to strike between ensuring that people can freely express opinions and ensuring that the Government do not get involved in regulating opinions. It is about making sure that facts are accurate. That is why we are working with colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the online harms White Paper to ensure that we can tackle those challenges and strike the right balance on freedom of speech.

I have met several innovative small businesses in Fareham recently, for example the IT business Silver Lining. Many such small and medium-size enterprises would like more opportunities to work closely with the Government. What steps are the Government taking to enable greater contracting with SMEs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important challenge. We have set a demanding target of 33% of all Government business going to SMEs, and our forthcoming innovation strategy will look at exactly that point—how we can make it easier for SMEs to win innovative Government work.

Does the Minister agree that we need to eradicate fake news at source, and that that includes a more ethical approach to Government advertising spend to ensure it does not go on online fake news sites?

The Government take disinformation very seriously. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading cross-Government work to tackle it, including through the online harms White Paper. The role of Government is to make sure that electors have the facts in public debate, not to regulate opinions people may form on them.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is today in Belfast attending the funeral of Lyra McKee. This was a brutal, cowardly murder of a young woman, a brilliant journalist, who represented all that is good in Northern Ireland. Those responsible for her murder have nothing to offer anyone from any community in Northern Ireland. I am sure that Members right across the House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to Lyra’s partner Sara, her other family members and her friends. As her family have asked, we today say that we stand with Lyra. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

The attack on three Christian churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday was a horrific and cowardly act. The House will know that a number of British citizens were killed. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka to send her condolences to all affected and to offer his Government any assistance they may need. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending sympathy and condolences to all who were caught in that horrific attack, but I hope, too, that the House will perhaps reflect on the fact that that atrocity, committed on Easter Sunday, came just a couple of weeks after an equally brutal and appalling attack in Christchurch, New Zealand upon the Muslim community worshipping there. As we stand today between Easter and, next week, the beginning of the solemn month of Ramadan for our Muslim fellow citizens, I hope that this will be a time for not just Members, but all our fellow citizens of all faiths and none, to come together and stand up for the values of mutual respect, tolerance and religious diversity, which embody what is best about our country.

I echo those thoughts of sympathy and condolence.

Rejuvenating our town centres in Stoke-on-Trent is absolutely essential. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Open Doors pilot that was recently announced for Fenton in my constituency and agree that our future high streets fund bid for Longton must also succeed?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the Open Doors pilot in his constituency. We very much welcome bids from places such as Longton town centre for this fund. My right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary is going to study all the bids carefully before making a decision later this year, but he and I know that my hon. Friend will be a doughty champion of the claims of his constituency in particular.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and I usually enjoy trading a few jokes at these sessions, but sadly, this really is not a week for laughter. We on the Opposition side join him in standing in solidarity and shared grief with the people of Sri Lanka and all those who lost loved ones in the Easter Sunday slaughter of peaceful worshippers and innocent tourists, at least 45 of them children. Among them was the eight-year-old cousin of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). It was an act of utter depravity and evil, which stands in sharp contrast to the words of love written by Ben Nicholson about his wife and the children that he lost.

Yesterday we also celebrated the life, but mourned the loss, of Billy McNeill, the first Briton to lift the European cup and a man who spent his life fighting against sectarian hatred. And last Thursday, we mourned the senseless murder of the brilliant young journalist Lyra McKee, whose funeral the Prime Minister is right to attend and whose death was a horrific reminder of where sectarian hatred ultimately leads. We stand with Lyra. In her name, can I ask the Minister to tell us what the Government are doing to bring her killers to justice and protect Northern Ireland from a return to terror?

I very much welcome both the tone and the words of the right hon. Lady. I also share in her tribute to Billy McNeill, who died on Monday. He made no fewer than 790 appearances for Celtic, and it is a testament to an extraordinary career that he also won 31 major trophies as a manager and a player. Our thoughts and sympathies are with his family and friends.

As the right hon. Lady will fully understand, decisions about criminal investigations in Northern Ireland are a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the independent Public Prosecution Service. We very much hope as a Government that any member of the public who has information that will lead to Lyra’s murderers being brought to justice will come forward. I am hopeful, given the sense of community solidarity that there has been in Londonderry/Derry and in Northern Ireland generally, that that information will be forthcoming.

I thank the Minister for his answer, and I know that he speaks with huge authority and passion on this issue. Reading the statement from the so-called New IRA last week, with its talk of “attacking enemy forces” and its “sincere condolences” for Lyra’s death, was a sickening throwback to the days that we thought that we had left behind 20 years ago, from despicable individuals whose only desire is to turn back the clock and destroy the progress that has been made. Does the Minister agree that that is one of the central reasons why we must find an answer to the Northern Ireland border question rather than give these evil terrorists the divisions that they crave?

I would draw a distinction. I regard both issues that the right hon. Lady raises as important, but I do not think those murderers in Derry were motivated by any thoughts about the border or customs arrangements, important though those issues are. I agreed, however, with what she said about the utter unacceptability of references to police officers in Northern Ireland as if they were somehow a legitimate target. One of the great achievements of the peace-building process in Northern Ireland has been the very difficult and controversial reform of the police service whereby young men and women from both Unionist and nationalist communities now serve gladly together, upholding law and justice in Northern Ireland. All of us in this House should continue to send every officer in the PSNI our full support.

I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, but can I bring him back to the issue of the border? I agree with the ends he is trying to achieve, but the fundamental problem remains the means. We all know that his own party and the Democratic Unionist party will not accept the current backstop, but the only way the Government plan to avoid that backstop is by delivering a so-called invisible border. Last week, we saw a leaked Home Office presentation stating: “No government worldwide” currently has such a system in place; that current

“realisation for a…technological solution in the UK is 2030”;

and that there

“is currently no budget for either a pilot or the programme itself.”

Is the Home Office wrong?

I will not comment on alleged leaks from Government Departments, but I can tell the House that the Government have allocated £20 million to invest in work on alternative measures that would bring benefits in terms of seamless trade to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and that, if successful, could be applied more generally to give us smart borders on all the United Kingdom’s external borders, and perhaps offer us some export opportunities for that technology as well.

It is interesting what the Minister says, but the Home Office also says there are six problems with deploying these technological solutions: one, it is expensive and there is no budget; two, it has to operate with 28 different UK Government agencies; three, it needs to operate on both sides of the border; four, it will not be deliverable until 2030; five, the Government have a poor track record—to say the least—on big tech projects; and six, no one in the world has done anything similar. That is hardly a recipe for success.

The real answer to the Northern Ireland border question is staring the Government in the face. Twenty-eight months and two Brexit Secretaries ago, I told the Minister from this Dispatch Box that the only way to avoid a hard border was to stay in the customs union and to align all rules and regulations. He himself said three years ago that for anyone to pretend otherwise

“flies in the face of reality”.

That was the truth then, and it remains the truth today, so why will the Government not wake up to it?

I told the right hon. Lady in my previous answer that a £20 million budget had already been earmarked for this work. Whatever she may be reading in the newspapers about timetables, it is also the case that not just the United Kingdom but the European Union has committed itself to trying to get these alternative measures agreed by 2020. The European Commission has not entered into that undertaking and commitment lightly or without some thought and analysis of the chances of achieving it. The solution she identifies for a frictionless border on the island of Ireland would be delivered by the Government’s withdrawal agreement, so she should be urging her right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the Government’s proposal, instead of rejecting it and therefore blocking the Brexit that her party’s manifesto commits her to.

Let’s face it: we have heard it all before. The only point that the Minister did not make this time was that Britain must be able to establish her own international trade agreements. Perhaps he was listening to Nancy Pelosi last week, when she made it clear that if the UK Government disrupted the open border in Northern Ireland, we could forget all about a free trade deal with the United States.

So the Government are going to spend millions on giving Donald Trump the red-carpet, golden-carriage treatment in June. The state banquet might even be worth it, so long as he is forced to sit next to Greta Thunberg—or how about this? He could have Greta on one side and David Attenborough on the other. That would be three hours well spent. The truth is, however, that it will all be a giant waste of taxpayers’ money, because the US Congress will never agree to a trade deal unless we have a solution to the Irish border issue that will actually work, and this Government simply do not have one.

Just two short years ago, the right hon. Lady said that we should

“welcome the American President…We have to work with him.”

I wonder whether something has changed about the United States Administration or something has changed about the right hon. Lady’s own leadership ambitions to alter her words in this way.

I thought that both the Government and the Labour party wanted to see no tariffs, no quotas, no rules of origin checks and a seamless border on the island of Ireland, yet on three occasions the right hon. Lady and her colleagues have voted against a deal that would deliver those things to which they claim to be committed. It is about time that she put principle and the national interest ahead of party advantage.

I think we will find that there is only one side of the House that is engaged in a leadership contest at the moment, and it is very active as we speak.

In a week like this, when we have all been shocked and saddened by horrific acts of terrorism at home and abroad, we remember that the first job of any Government is to keep our country and our citizens safe. Even before our concerns about the economy, the main reason we need to keep an open border with Ireland is to preserve the peace and security on which millions of British and Irish citizens have come to depend, but which, in a week like this, seem to hang by a thread. If the Government are serious about putting the country first—the whole of our country—will the Minister accept that that means finally getting serious about the cross-party negotiations, and putting the option of a customs union on the table?

I appreciate that the right hon. Lady has not been in the room at times—I think she is now being described as being in the “outer inner circle” around the Labour leadership—but I can say to her that the substance and the tone of the conversations between the Government and Opposition teams have been constructive. I think that there is a genuine attempt to find a way through. However, I will not hide the fact that this is very difficult, because if it is going to work it will mean both parties making compromises and our ending up with a solution which, unlike any other proposed so far, will secure a majority in the House. So far, the House has rejected our deal; it has rejected the Opposition’s proposals; it has rejected a referendum; it has rejected revocation; it has rejected a customs union; and it has rejected common market 2.0.

This is not just a matter for the Government, or even for the Opposition Front Bench. It is a matter for every Member of the House to take our responsibilities to the country seriously, and to find a way in which to agree on an outcome that will enable us to deliver on the referendum result and take this country forward.

Q11. May I also associate myself with the sentiments so eloquently expressed by Members on both sides of the House? Far from what some would have us believe, those of us who voted to leave knew exactly what we were voting for. We were voting to control our own borders, to spend our own money, to make our own laws, and to have those laws judged by our own judges. Labour’s policy now appears to be to hold a second referendum. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that on his watch and that of the Prime Minister, there will be no second referendum? Yes or no? (910504)

The Government are very clear indeed that we do not agree with a second referendum, and we have voted against a second referendum. All of us recall telling our electors in 2016 that their decision was going to be final and would be accepted, whatever the outcome of that referendum would be. I think it would do harm to the fragile confidence in our political institutions, were that commitment to be set aside.

The Scottish National party joins in saying that we are horrified by the atrocious attacks in Sri Lanka. The Minister for the Cabinet Office is right to say that all of us, from all religions and none, should be considering religious tolerance and ensuring that we champion it. Also, as her funeral commences shortly, our thoughts are with the family and friends of Lyra McKee, and we would like to make it clear that we stand with Lyra. We would also like to join the celebration of Billy McNeill’s life and work. Of course, in addition to being the manager of Celtic, he was previously the manager of Aberdeen.

Climate change is the biggest crisis facing the world today. Even the Environment Secretary has admitted that this Government have failed to do enough. Yesterday, he promised that the UK Government would take action. This Government have spent millions on nuclear power, cut support for renewable energy projects and continued to pursue fracking. Does taking action include reversing those damaging policies?

As my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary said yesterday, there is clearly more that needs to be done. All of us who are of an age to be here would probably recognise that our generations have not done sufficient to meet this challenge, but I think the hon. Lady underestimates how much work has been done by the United Kingdom. Since 2010, we have reduced CO2 emissions faster than any other G20 nation. Between 2010 and 2018, we reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about a quarter overall. Our renewable energy capacity has quadrupled since 2010, and the proportion of our electricity coming from low-carbon resources has increased from 19% to more than half in 2018, a record year for renewables. There is a lot more to do, but I think that that is a good record on which to base that future action.

I do not think that that answer recognises the scale of the challenge that we face. The Scottish Government have already brought forward a Climate Change Bill with some of the most ambitious statutory targets of any country in the world, with the aim of Scotland being carbon neutral by 2050. If we need to go further, we will. The UK Government commissioned new advice from the UK Committee on Climate Change on what the UK’s targets should be, and that advice is due next week. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that when the advice is published next week, the UK Government will adopt the recommended targets immediately and in full?

I am going to wait to see what the advice is, and I am sure that the House could want to do that, as well as to learn from the Government directly what their decisions are going to be. Passing legislation can get us so far, but actually we need not just legislation but a change in attitudes and approach that runs right across society and industry. The UK has cut its emissions by 40% since 1990, but I am encouraged that in that same period our economy has grown by two thirds. Greater prosperity and green policies are not incompatible; they can and should be made to work together.

Q12.   May I associate myself with the words of those on the Front Benches? To ensure that the British summer appetite for strawberries and Scottish raspberries is fulfilled, will my right hon. Friend encourage the Home Office to extend the seasonal agricultural workers scheme from 2,500 to 10,000 this year and to open it up to between 30,000 and 40,000 next year? (910505)

As I would have expected, my hon. Friend rightly champions both the produce of his constituency and the needs of businesses there. We have established a two-year pilot that provides for a six-month scheme for non-EU migrants to work on UK farms. Although specifically designed to help the horticultural sector, the pilot was never designed to meet its full labour needs, so we will need to evaluate what happens in practice. However, the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be looking closely at the impact on the north-east of Scotland.

Q2. In 2015, when she was Home Secretary, the Prime Minister said that the Police Federation was crying wolf about the impact of police cuts. Now, teachers, specialist children and youth workers, and others are warning that Government cuts are making it harder to protect young people from knife crime. In my current constituency crime survey, many constituents are saying that cuts to services that support young people and to policing need to be reversed. Will the Minister for the Cabinet Office tell me whether he thinks that children and youth workers and my constituents are crying wolf, too? (910495)

The facts are that the Government have increased police funding by more than £970 million for the next year, and the Labour party voted against that increase when the order came before the House. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that this situation is not only about policing and new laws, but about early intervention. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has secured £220 million for early intervention projects to try to steer young people at risk of knife crime and other violent crime away from the gangs that can seduce them into that appalling way of life.

Q13. Passions, including my own, are running high about the devastating effects of climate change. While this Government have made great strides, including decarbonising faster than any other country in the G20, we must do more, faster and sooner, for a sustainable future. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Prime Minister to join me in supporting a cross-party call to achieve net zero emissions ahead of our current target of 2050? Almost 200 MPs have signed the letter that was instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke). Will my right hon. Friend also ask the Prime Minister to meet me and other colleagues to discuss enshrining the proposal in law, as proposed by the forthcoming ten-minute rule Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk)? (910507)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which she has championed this and other environmental issues during her time in the House. I can certainly say that a Minister—I do not know whether it will be the Prime Minister—will be happy to see her and other parliamentary colleagues. I hope that she will understand that we will want to look at the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change to understand what would be needed to achieve that net zero emissions target early and the practical steps that that would involve. However, I can assure her that we are investing more that £2.5 billion to support low-carbon innovation in the UK over the next six years alone. Clean growth is a priority for the Government and will remain so.

Order. I am afraid that we have managed to get through only 13 questions in more than 25 minutes. We need to speed up, because I wish to accommodate the Back-Bench Members who are patiently waiting to put their inquiries.

Q3. The proposed closure of Cumbernauld tax office will see 1,300 good-quality jobs lost to the town, with many others under threat as millions of pounds of spending disappear from the local economy. That is just one of over 150 tax office closures being overseen by the Treasury. If the Government genuinely want to build stronger towns and are concerned about towns like Cumbernauld, surely they must now put a stop to HMRC’s damaging tax office closures. (910496)

I completely understand the concern, particularly among hard-working civil servants in Cumbernauld who expected to be reassigned. There is now a difference in the way in which citizens choose to interact with HMRC, with fewer people wanting or needing to access an office and more people being willing and choosing to work with the taxman online, which is clearly going to have implications. It seems to me that the priority has to be to maintain a high quality of service for businesses and individual taxpayers.

The Minister will be aware of the wildfires burning across the country, including one in Moray that started near Knockando on Monday and continues despite the efforts of more than 50 firefighters. Will he join me in congratulating and praising incident commander Bruce Farquharson, all the teams involved and the other emergency services that have made this a multi-agency response? Will he also urge people to assist the fire service by keeping away from the area to allow the dedicated and committed firefighters to bring this blaze under control?

I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend’s tribute to the fire and rescue service in his constituency and to support his words encouraging members of the public to co-operate fully with those services.

Q4. Is it the Government’s intention to bring forward a withdrawal agreement implementation Bill and to prorogue Parliament if they lose on Second Reading? Would it not, in fact, be far safer for the Government simply to link the Prime Minister’s deal to a people’s vote and to bring that forward to Parliament? (910497)

The problem with that proposal is that, so far, whenever the idea of a second referendum has been brought before the House there has been a majority against it. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal would actually deliver the outcome he seeks.

I associate myself with the remarks about Sri Lanka. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he thinks it likely that we will leave the European Union by 22 May? Does he agree with me that both the major political parties are likely to suffer at the polls if we do not? What does it say to my Leicestershire constituents about the democratic process if this House cannot get the withdrawal agreement to leave the European Union over the line?

I completely understand and share the sense of exasperation that my hon. Friend expresses. It has been made very clear from this Dispatch Box on several occasions that the consequence of the House voting to reject the withdrawal agreement and in favour of an extension is that the Government would need to make preparations, as required by law, for those European elections. The way in which we solve this problem is for Parliament to assemble a majority behind a deal, to vote for it, to get the legislation through and to give effect to our departure from the EU.

Q6.   Having experienced their average salary fall by over £2,000 a year since 2010, and expecting just a 1% pay rise this year, civil servants in the Public and Commercial Services Union are rightly being balloted for industrial action. Will the Minister tell the House when these civil servants will be free of austerity measures and receive a substantial pay rise, which is long overdue? (910499)

There has been, because of the scale of the deficit that was inherited in 2010, a need for severe restraints on public expenditure, including public sector pay. Where we are today is that there is flexibility within the overall pay ceiling, Department by Department, for Departments to negotiate arrangements with their workforces that permit higher wage increases than the ones to which the hon. Lady refers.

On Sunday, more than 40,000 people will take part in the London marathon. Many of them will be supporting the dementia revolution on behalf of Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Society, and some of them are sitting on the Government Benches. The UK is the world leader in dementia research. I visited the Dementia Research Institute with members of the Science and Technology Committee today. Will the Government continue to support dementia research, encourage more people—especially those in their 30s, 40s and 50s—to take part in research trials, and wish the very best of luck to everyone in the marathon on Sunday?

I join my hon. Friend in wishing success and strength to everybody taking part in the marathon on Sunday, particularly to Members from all parts of the House and, I suspect, one or two people in the Press Gallery as well. My hon. Friend makes an important point about dementia. One of the welcome changes we are seeing is that as a society we are more open about the fact that many of us will live with dementia at some stage in our lives. The Government commitment to which she referred, to dementia research and to trying to remove the stigma from dementia, will be maintained.

At the last count, I was aware of no fewer than 16 hon. and right hon. Members of the House intending to take part in the London marathon, including the Secretary of State for Wales and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), from whom we heard earlier, but who was too modest or self-effacing to mention her prospective involvement.

Q7. I do not think I could run the London marathon, Mr Speaker, so you need not include me in that. While the McKee family today bury their daughter, who was murdered by IRA terrorists, hundreds of people in Sri Lanka are burying their loved ones who were brutally murdered because of their faith. Christians across the world are now the most persecuted religious group, with nearly 300 million living in fear of discrimination and persecution, and 4,000 being killed every year because of their faith. The Government have said that Britain is on their side. How are the Government using the UK’s soft power, economic power, contacts with other Governments and aid budget to help those who are persecuted daily simply because they believe in Jesus Christ? (910500)

The aid budget and the Foreign Office diplomatic expenditure budget give, and will continue to give, priority to human rights, including the rights of Christians and people of other faiths. The right hon. Gentleman is quite correct in saying that in many countries Christians face persecution and discrimination. We work to try to improve standards of justice and civil rights in those countries, and we work with Christian and other religious communities who are under threat. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has recently commissioned a review of our work to help persecuted Christians overseas, to make sure that we are focusing the right degree of resource and effort on delivering the improvements in outcome that the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly seeks.

Current immigration requirements oblige Commonwealth service- men and women to pay £2,389 to apply for indefinite leave to remain after four years’ service, or almost £10,000 for a family of four. That considerable cost does not reflect the nation’s respect for those who are prepared, in extremis, to give their lives for our country. I have therefore written a cross-party letter with the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), signed by 130 Members of Parliament, to the Home Secretary to seek his support to abolish these visa fees. At a time when the UK is chair of the Commonwealth, will my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister give their support to this great non-party political cause, which is supported by the Royal British Legion?

I want to pay tribute to men and women from Commonwealth countries who serve in our armed services. That service is something that this and previous Governments have valued enormously. On the particular point that my hon. Friend makes about immigration requirements, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will take very seriously, and look very carefully at, the representations that my hon. Friend is making.

Q8. When last month a football referee in Nottinghamshire had to flee a game, lock himself in the car and call the police, the Football Association responded with a six-match ban and a £50 fine. If we bear in mind what is happening to Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose, who have called for a national forum, and the growth of racism at every level in football, is it not clear that without our help and Government help the football authorities are not capable of getting on top of the problem of racism in football? Will the Government take a lead, just as the Prime Minister did on Hillsborough, and help to convene, using their auspices, such a forum as Mr Sterling and others have requested this summer? Perhaps, Mr Speaker, you might offer this location as an appropriate venue for such a forum. (910501)

Every Member of this House will condemn without reservation the behaviour to which the hon. Gentleman referred; it should be regarded as completely beyond the bounds of acceptability in our society. My hon. Friend the Sport Minister will want to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and any other colleagues in the House who make this issue a priority, to discuss what more might be done.

Yesterday, Jane Golding, who chairs British in Europe, which represents more than 1.3 million British nationals in the EU27, reminded me that Michel Barnier’s letter in response to the House’s requirement that we carve out the citizens’ rights element of the withdrawal agreement is almost one month old. Given the absence of the passage of a withdrawal agreement, will my right hon. Friend inform the House of what actions the Government have taken since they received Michel Barnier’s letter?

As I recall, my hon. Friend was successful in seeking that the Government should make representations to the European Commission to ask it to carve the citizens’ rights elements out of the overall withdrawal agreement. There are legal problems with that, in that the withdrawal agreement stands together as a package, and as a package has been submitted to the European Parliament, having been formally and legally approved by the European Council. To separate elements of the agreement might therefore mean having to go through those European procedures again, assuming the political willingness to do so were there. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to speak urgently to my hon. Friend to update him on where we are on the issue.

Q9. It is complacent to claim that we are on target to meet our climate change obligations when emissions from air freight and the shipping of imports and exports are excluded from the figures. Will the Government be honest about the scale of the challenge of climate change? We need to invest fully in renewable energy, drop the fascination with fracking and declare a climate change emergency, because that is the reality of what we face. (910502)

The rules on emissions from shipping are not unique to the United Kingdom: the standards of measurement are global. As I said in earlier exchanges, the Government are the first to say that more needs to be done, but the hon. Gentleman does us an injustice in not acknowledging that we have a better track record on this issue than any other member of the G7. He asked about investment: our annual support for renewables will be more than £10 billion by 2021. We have opened the world’s largest offshore wind farm, which is capable of powering 600,000 homes, and the world’s first ever floating offshore wind farm. Some 99% of the solar power we have in the UK has been deployed since 2010. That is a good track record.

Do the Government accept that the telecommunications firm Huawei is intimately linked with the Chinese communist Government and their deeply hostile intelligence services?

Legally speaking, Huawei is a private firm, not a Government-owned company, but my right hon. Friend takes us to the question about the proposed roll-out of 5G networks. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has commissioned a wide-ranging and thorough review of this matter. We are giving priority to stronger cyber-security practice across the entire telecommunications sector, greater resilience in telecommunications networks and, critically, diversity in the entire 5G supply chain, because this question goes beyond any single company. When we have taken decisions about that review, we will announce them to the House in the proper way.

Knowing the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) as I do, I think the Minister will have to recognise that he will probably hear from him on this matter a few hundred more times in the coming weeks.

Q10.     The Government continue to chronically underfund the Welsh railway network with planned spending running at 6% despite its having 11% of the network. Will the Minister set out when the Government will start investing in Welsh railway infrastructure and give Welsh commuters the investment that they deserve? (910503)

We are investing record amounts in Wales’s railway infrastructure. Network Rail investment in the Wales route for control period 6, which takes us up to 2024, will be more than £1.5 billion. It will deliver improved journeys for passengers in Wales on the most advanced new trains. In south Wales, passengers and commuters are already experiencing real improvements thanks to the new Intercity express trains, each of which have 130 extra seats compared with the typical high-speed train. I really wish that the hon. Gentleman had paid tribute to that achievement, rather than carping.

I will, if I may, add a few words of tribute of my own to Billy McNeill, who was a childhood hero of mine and a truly legendary Celt. His family have described his brave struggle with dementia—a subject reminiscent of the question that was asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). My own mother passed away earlier this year owing to the effects of dementia. Scottish universities are doing world-leading research into the prevention of dementia and they currently receive about £100 million of funding each year from the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that funding will be maintained and that this research will be protected as we leave the European Union?

If we get the implementation period that is envisaged by the withdrawal agreement then those funding arrangements will continue until the end of that period. At that point, there will need to be decisions by Government as a whole about their spending priorities, including on medical research, but, as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), the Government’s commitment to dementia research and to ending the stigma of dementia is something that will continue.

Q14.   Average wages have been stagnating for more than a decade, in-work poverty is rising faster than employment, and we are hurtling towards a climate disaster. What a mess, Mr Speaker! In Midlothian, enterprising renewable firms and organisations are doing sector-leading work and providing good jobs, but they tell me that they are not getting enough support from the Government. The Minister has boasted about renewables in this session, but will he recognise that that is not enough and say what more he and the Government will do to support leading work on renewables in my constituency? (910508)

What we are seeing in this country is not only the £10 billion that I spoke about in the earlier exchange, but enterprising innovative companies—large and small—seizing the opportunities of developing green technology and renewable energy technology in a way that will take advantage not just of the change in the domestic market, but of that growing export market globally as well. Through their industrial strategy, the Government will continue to work for green growth, and I hope very much that businesses in Midlothian and elsewhere in the UK will benefit from that.

At the most recent indicative votes, the Opposition did move one of their key red lines and supported a proposal that did not specify a permanent customs union. In fact, they supported customs arrangements—a temporary customs union followed by alternative arrangements. Now that the Government and Opposition are virtually on the same page, is it not time to put party politics to one side and agree a deal in the national interest?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As we look to the future relationship with the European Union, we are looking at the customs arrangement that would be in place as part of that future relationship. We have already indicated—as reflected in the existing text of the political declaration—that we want to retain the benefits of a customs union, with no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin checks. We remain focused on agreeing an approach that delivers on the result of the referendum, which was for the UK to leave. I hope that it would be possible to bring Members from all parties of the House together in support of a customs arrangement as part of a wider approach to our future relationship with the European Union that enables us to get on with this task in the way in which the British people expect.

Let me go back to the subject that the Minister started this session with. In a few minutes, the funeral of Lyra McKee will begin in Belfast. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are both there, and rightly so. We extend our deepest sympathies to Lyra’s partner Sara, and to her family and friends, at this terrible time. The message across Northern Ireland is that violence is not acceptable and will never succeed; it has never been acceptable and it never will be. Does the Minister agree that it was an utterly repulsive statement from those who carried out this terrible atrocity that, somehow, the murder of police officers is totally legitimate and it was just an accident that Lyra was killed? In standing with Lyra today, we stand with everyone—journalists, police officers and all who serve the community in Northern Ireland. An attack on any one of them is an attack on us all.

I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman just said. I thought that the finest riposte to those sickening claims by the terrorists was that the leaders of both the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin came together, there in the Creggan estate in Derry, and put aside the real differences between them to reject the path towards violence and terror—the joint statement by all party leaders in Northern Ireland rejecting terrorism. The visible expressions of grief and anger towards the terrorists by the communities both of nationalists and of Unionists in the city of Derry/Londonderry has been a visible riposte—but also the most compelling and moving one—to the evil claims of those behind that terrorist act. Those political leaders and communities in Derry spoke for the reality and for the heart of the people of Northern Ireland.