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Cabinet Office

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2019

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

Scottish Local Authorities: Communication with UK Government

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that communication between the UK Government and Scottish local authorities is maintained. (911848)

We continue to work collaboratively with local authorities in Scotland. For example, the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city and region deal will deliver £45.1 million of UK Government investment to the region, demonstrating effective working between Governments, local authorities and stakeholders.

I thank the Minister for that reply and may I say how proud I was to stand up for the principle of devolution yesterday in this House? I know that the people of Stirling want their Governments to work together at all levels. Will the Minister tell us what meetings he and his officials may have planned with COSLA—the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities— so that the voice of Scotland’s local authorities can be heard in Whitehall?

My ministerial colleagues will continue to work with all levels of government in Scotland. I am certainly very happy, in my role as Minister for the constitution, to meet COSLA to discuss how much further we can take that level of co-operation.

Cyber-security

2. What steps his Department is taking to help improve the cyber-security of (a) public and (b) private sector organisations. (911849)

7. What steps the Government are taking to help ensure the security of (a) UK Government assets and (b) critical national infrastructure from cyber-attacks. (911854)

The National Cyber Security Centre is providing advice and practical guidance on how to improve standards of cyber-security to organisations in both the public and private sectors.

The Minister will know that the cyber-defence of the Government and industry is stronger when the best skills from around the country are deployed. With that in mind, what is he doing to encourage women and those from a black and minority ethnic background in the UK to develop their mathematical and IT skills from an early age, and to enter the cyber-security field, to protect our country and businesses?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We do need to improve our cyber-skills capacity. I am very pleased that more than 55,000 young men and women have now taken part in the CyberFirst and Cyber Discovery schemes that the NCSC helps to organise, but he is right that we need to make a particular effort with under-represented groups, including bright young men and women from our ethnic minority communities.

Given the shocking leaks we have seen from the National Security Council and of diplomatic telegrams, can the Minister for the Cabinet Office give some reassurance to our civil servants on the cyber-security of crucial confidential documents and their ability not to be compromised by foreign states or insider jobs?

The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment on individual cases, but he is right about the need both for the highest possible levels of technical cyber-security in protecting those systems, and for the highest standards of discipline and respect for the confidentiality of advice on the part of everybody who has access to such material.

Cyber-security is one of the biggest threats facing not only the Government, but our major and smaller companies. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that the private sector has access to the ability of state services?

The great strength of the NCSC is that it makes available the expertise developed by our agencies, in particular GCHQ, in a way that permits open access by private sector companies and third sector organisations. I held a roundtable in recent months with directors of FTSE 350 companies to highlight concerns and challenges, and to learn from their experience. There is a range of materials targeted particularly at small and medium-sized enterprises.

What assessment have the Government made on whether the leaking of Kim Darroch’s statements was the result of a cyber-attack by a foreign Government?

I hope my right hon. Friend will understand that I cannot make any comment about an inquiry that is in progress. I will say, however, that I hope the person or persons responsible will be found out and that they will be subjected to all appropriate disciplinary and, if necessary, legal sanction.

Strengthening the Union

Our commitment to continued work to strengthen the Union can be seen in practice through such initiatives as scrapping the Severn tolls, delivering city deals across Scotland and the entire United Kingdom, and investing in digital connectivity in Northern Ireland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the long-standing and hugely successful Union, which has seen the Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English standing shoulder to shoulder and taking on the world for generations, should not be trashed by those in other regions of this great country who seek to pursue their own populist and secessionist ends? We are stronger together, are we not?

Every part of the United Kingdom gains from the membership of each other member nation of the United Kingdom. It is important that those in Government now and those who will be in Government in the future work for an outcome that respects the devolution settlement and is confident about the United Kingdom and the great strength that that collective endeavour brings.

A number of my constituents have expressed concern that Scottish National party colleagues will use our departure from the European Union to justify their agenda of breaking the country apart. Can my right hon. Friend assure this House that everything is being done to anticipate potential devolution consequences of Brexit, in order that the SNP cannot exploit it to shore up its own narrow agenda of breaking up the United Kingdom?

There is no doubt that the success of the SNP agenda of separation would do enormous damage to businesses and living standards in Scotland. I can reassure my hon. Friend that there has been good co-operation on frameworks to ensure that the United Kingdom single market continues to function after we leave the European Union, but also that it is in the interest of every part of the United Kingdom that we leave the EU in an orderly fashion, in a way that protects jobs, living standards and investment in our country.

Regional Ministers right across England—not only in areas such as that covered by the northern powerhouse—were a successful initiative before 2010 and could be introduced virtually immediately. Will the Minister look at that idea, perhaps supplemented by regional Select Committees in the House of Commons?

I am always happy to look at evidence that is brought forward on how we can improve our arrangements further. As I have said before, both the devolved nations and individual areas within each of the four nations of the United Kingdom have a lot to contribute.

I have a lot of time for the right hon. Gentleman, but these answers are a disgrace. While he is giving us these platitudes, both Tory leadership contenders are willing to sell the rest of the country down by prioritising a no-deal Brexit over the rest of the Union. Will the Minister now give us the assurance that he has previously given, that no deal will cause potentially fatal damage to the Union and that he will fight against it?

I have been very clear in a number of public statements that I believe that a disorderly no-deal exit from the European Union would not only cause significant economic harm in all parts of this country, but place further strain on the Union. I believe it is in the interest of everybody in every party in this House and in every part of the UK that we deliver on the referendum result of 2016, but do so in an orderly fashion that protects jobs, investment and living standards.

My right hon. Friend told The Times last week that he feared that what he called “English indifference”, if I recall correctly, was something of a threat to the Union. The reports that my Committee has produced about devolution and Brexit have called, with the support of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, for much more concrete machinery to exist between the Government of the United Kingdom and the devolved Governments, and for there to be inter-parliamentary machinery. I must say that I have found the response of the Government to be slow and somewhat indifferent. I appreciate that he is battling on many fronts at the moment, but can he speed up his enthusiasm for dealing with these issues?

And in the process, we will try to ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s Committee’s reports become bestsellers. That is the ambition.

Much of the work of the UK and devolved Governments in the last year and a half has involved making practical arrangements for Brexit through the completion of work on the UK frameworks on the various matters that will come back from Brussels and intersect with devolved competence. I would have hoped that my hon. Friend, given his views on Brexit, would have welcomed that. It is important that we and the next Government press forward with work on the intergovernmental review. I would welcome efforts by this Parliament to work more closely with devolved Parliaments in the future.

Devolution

I have recently participated in events to celebrate 20 years of devolution, which has transformed the constitutional landscape of the United Kingdom. Devolution has successfully brought decision making on key public services closer to the people who use them while keeping the benefits that arise from the strength of our United Kingdom.

It is nice to hear the Minister say it like he means it. The Scottish Government are launching an innovative, engaging and participatory programme of citizens’ assemblies to look at what direction the devolution settlement in Scotland might go in. By contrast, this Government have appointed Lord Dunlop, an unelected peer, to review devolution. Does that not tell us everything we need to know about this Government’s attitude to devolution? They never really wanted it in the first place.

Dearie me! The SNP need to stop misrepresenting the review. A key part of its terms of reference states that it will

“need to respect and support the current devolution settlement”.

It is about how the UK Government can work better with the devolved Assemblies and Governments. The SNP should be welcoming the review, instead of trying to foster yet another false grievance.

The Scottish and Welsh Governments recently wrote to the Minister expressing disappointment that 15 months on a review about intergovernmental relations has stalled owing to the Government’s unwillingness to make reforms. Will the Minister commit to addressing in detail each of the points in that letter, including the one on a strengthened dispute resolution process?

Constructive discussions continue on the intergovernmental review and its structure, although it has been slightly hamstrung by the lack of a Government in Northern Ireland. We hope that that can be resolved in the near future. We will of course consider all submissions with respect, because ultimately we all need to agree the way forward.

Health and justice are both devolved areas, but the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is not. Will the Minister help to remove the blockage in the Home Office, which is preventing the Scottish Government from opening a drug consumption room? The drug death figure to be released next week is set to be over 1,000 for last year.

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be visiting to look at this issue. As we have discussed in other areas of common frameworks, there will clearly need to be some consistency on these types of issues, as crime does not respect political boundaries or borders.

I wish the Front Bench all the best in the coming reshuffle. We will be watching their futures and careers with interest. In recalling Labour’s achievement in introducing devolution, we are reminded that our country is still very over-centralised, power being concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite governing at the expense of the rest. For example, in the north and south-west alone, more than 1 million children are now living in poverty. If power was truly devolved, that situation would not arise. Basic social justice requires us to recast the constitutional contours of the British state. When will the Government finally abandon their top-down, old-fashioned ways and help to build a modern decentralised state based on a partnership with the nations and regions that reflects our diversity, instead of suppressing it, as they do now?

I do not recognise the shadow Minister’s description, not least given that we have been driving forward devolution settlements and devolving power to combined authorities in England, as well as what we have seen happen in devolution in the nations. Only this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales met those in the potential great western powerhouse to see how that could be taken forward. I find it ironic, however, to be lectured on control from the centre by a party whose leader wants to take control of the entire economy from Whitehall.

We understand that the Dunlop review is to look at the organisation of Departments and whether they are optimised for devolution. Do the Government have any plans or intention to review policy with regard to the constitution that underpins the Union and to the devolution settlement in particular?

As I said a few moments ago, the review will need to take into account and support the current devolution settlement.

I wish that, in my assessment of devolution, I could have said that it had produced better education standards in Scotland. In fact, however, Scottish schools have fallen in international rankings, and a smaller percentage of Scotland’s most deprived children go to university than in any other part of the United Kingdom. It is not devolution that is at fault; it is the Scottish National party.

Innovative Technologies: Public Services

5. What progress the Government have made on using innovative technologies to deliver public services. (911852)

Last month I launched the Government’s technology innovation strategy, which sets out how we will approach the use of emergent technologies in future. I also launched an artificial intelligence guide which will help Departments to build on areas in which artificial intelligence is already being used effectively across Government—for example, to improve MOT inspections and prison safety.

Chichester Careline is the only telecare monitoring centre in West Sussex. It operates Mindme, a service that GPS-tracks vulnerable people, usually those with dementia, so that families, friends, carers and Careline staff can locate them 24/7. It has saved lives, and countless hours of worry. Will the Minister look into how innovative technology of that kind can be used across Government to support the most vulnerable in our society?

It is very important to highlight that sort of work. It is just another example of the impact that innovative technology can have in improving people’s lives. The purpose of the GovTech Catalyst challenge is to explore the use of technologies for adult social care, and the Geospatial Commission is helping the Government and the private sector to make better use of GPS data.

Any innovative technology is welcome if it is applied appropriately, but will the Minister ensure that when such systems are being considered, account will be taken of whether or not they make a service less personal than it is already?

Experience of innovative technology suggests that it can make services more personalised and more tailored to individual circumstances. However, it is important for us to continue to make services accessible to everyone, which is why they will always be available in a non-digital format as well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while our country has always been at the forefront of innovation, to allow businesses to thrive and flourish we need a sound and successful economy, which would then result in innovative public services?

As ever, my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is only because we have a strong economy that we are able to invest in innovative technologies, which is why we have such a great track record.

Let us have a single-sentence inquiry from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron).

Will the Secretary of State oversee the innovative technology in radiotherapy that will be needed to meet the NHS long-term plan to diagnose more patients earlier?

I regret to say that I am not a Secretary of State; I am but a junior Minister. However, I will be looking into the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health examining precisely those issues, and the Government have set up NHSX, which oversees the use of innovative technology for that very purpose.

Devolution

Speaking at the Law Society of Scotland’s conference entitled “20 years of devolution and Scotland’s parliament”, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster set out the Government’s clear vision of a union of strong devolved Parliaments within a strong United Kingdom, and of Scotland’s two levels of government working together to deliver for its citizens.

Devolution means that Scotland’s two Governments can work together to deliver more, and city and growth deals are an example of that. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will visit Moray tomorrow, and we are eagerly awaiting news of the Moray growth deal. Will the Minister urge him to use his visit as an opportunity to confirm the UK’s commitment to a deal that will transform our area?

As we mark 20 years of devolution, the UK Government are committing more than £1.36 billion to support economic development in Scotland through city and growth deals. All Scotland’s seven major cities now have deals, and heads of terms are expected to be agreed for Moray very soon, thanks to my hon. Friend’s tireless campaigning.

Contaminated Blood Inquiry

I am pleased that the inquiry is now hearing evidence. Sir Brian Langstaff is right to put those who have been infected, and affected, at the heart of his inquiry, and I am glad that their voices are being heard. They have been waiting for too long.

The Minister is absolutely right, but with one victim dying every 96 hours and compensation still not being paid, I wrote to the Prime Minister, along with seven Opposition party leaders, to ask for compensation to be paid now. The Prime Minister has refused. I then wrote to the two Conservative party leadership candidates on 21 June, because they are making huge spending commitments, but I have not had the courtesy of a response. Perhaps the Minister could help me with that.

I am happy to try to prompt a response to the hon. Lady’s letter. She will know that the Department of Health and Social Care has announced a major uplift in the financial support available to beneficiaries of the infected blood scheme in England, and talks are now going on with the devolved Governments about trying to get a UK-wide agreement. Questions of legal liability fall therefore to compensation and are expressly a matter for the independent inquiry.[Official Report, 22 July 2019, Vol. 663, c. 12MC.]

Topical Questions

Last week the Government responded to Lord Holmes’s independent review into access to public appointments for disabled people. We have accepted in principle all of Lord Holmes’s recommendations and will use them to update our diversity action plan, which is aimed at increasing the number of people from under-represented groups on the boards of public bodies right across the United Kingdom.

Cornish minority status was granted in 2014. The Minister will be aware that the Office for National Statistics is resisting giving Cornish people the ability to recognise as Cornish on the census. The six Cornish MPs will be submitting an amendment to the census Bill. Will the Minister apply pressure on the ONS to ensure that Cornish people can recognise as Cornish?

I recognise the passion with which Cornwall’s champions in this House put the county’s case, but the Government will be guided by the ONS’s recommendations to Government and Parliament regarding the demand for particular questions in the next census.

This morning’s Committee on Climate Change report should make stark reading for the Cabinet Office, which has a responsibility to co-ordinate the cross-governmental response to climate change. What steps is the Department taking to meet the climate change demands on the country?

As the hon. Lady knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy leads within Government on climate change matters, but the Government have a good record of delivery, having overseen a cut in emissions of more than 42% since 1990 and with the United Kingdom being the first member of the G7 to sign up to a legally binding net zero target.

T5. We shall be leaving the European Union on 31 October. May I therefore ask the Constitution Minister if he will update the guidance on the flying of flags so that the European Union emblem no longer takes precedence over the national flags of Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand? (911866)

My hon. Friend asks a fair question, and I will update the House: the Government encourage Departments and other institutions to fly the Union flag on designated days, but no others. The flying of flags is deregulated outside planning controls, and as we will be leaving the European Union on 31 October I share what I suspect is my hon. Friend’s view: that it is unlikely that we will be seeing it flying anywhere, particularly with enthusiasm, after then.

T2. The Committee on Climate Change today sent a stark warning to Government over their abject failure to take urgent action and cut emissions fast enough. As Greenpeace said, the fire alarm has been sounded, but the Government have gone back to sleep. So when will the Government get on, show that they are serious about this, and take urgent action across every single Department on this matter? (911863)

I just wish that the Labour party had been less grudging in its response to the net zero target, which was a historic step by the Government endorsing explicitly a recommendation from the independent Committee on Climate Change. I was in south Wales just over a week ago, and I talked there to businesses and scientists who are working at the sharp end to deliver emissions reduction technologies that will make a real difference. We should all, regardless of our politics, get behind that work, welcome the achievements we have made so far and commit ourselves to future change too.

T7. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster explain what plans the Government have to increase support for small and medium-sized enterprises through Government procurement? (911869)

As my hon. Friend knows, small businesses are the backbone of our economy and we are determined to level the playing field so that they can win Government contracts. That is why, for example, we have introduced tough new prompt payment requirements and simplified the procurement process, and through our digital marketplace we have spent £2.5 billion, with £1.28 in every £3 going to SMEs.

T3. According to the recent Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission report on elitist Britain, there has been a 4% increase in privately educated permanent secretaries. With the civil service already massively unrepresentative of society, does the Minister agree that that figure should be going down rather than up? (911864)

I think the most important thing is that we encourage as many people as possible from the most diverse backgrounds as possible to enter the civil service and that we mentor them through, but at the end of the day it should be ability to do the job that wins out. Frankly, that matters more to the public interest than which school somebody’s parents sent them to.

The 5G testbed in the west midlands is working with the car industry in Coventry and with the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Will my right hon. Friend commend the work of the Mayor of the West Midlands, who brought the 5G testbed there, and visit the system?

I am delighted to congratulate Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, on that initiative. It is a telling example of the importance of business and academic professionals working closely together, and I would be delighted to accept my hon. Friend’s invitation.

T4. 2002 The Department’s response to the cross-party Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport report on electoral reform does not display the level of urgency required. Will the Minister convene an urgent cross-party meeting to discuss the reform of electoral law? (911865)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear that I was in the other place only last week, meeting Members there on a cross-party basis to discuss electoral funding issues. We have already announced a consultation paper on this, and we will look to achieve what broad cross-party consensus we can.

On the subject of strengthening the Union, does my hon. Friend share my determination to deliver Brexit and provide a new era of sovereignty and a sea of opportunity for fishermen across Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

We look forward to the powers that will be coming back from Brussels and going to Scotland’s Parliament. Of course, there is one party that opposes that and wants those powers to stay away from the devolved level of government, and that is the Scottish National party.

T6. Can the Minister assure the House that the proportion of businesses certified for the Government’s cyber essentials standard is higher than the dismal 4% reported in 2018? (911868)

I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with the latest figures as we have them, but I can assure her that the work that has been put in place on achieving higher Government cyber-security standards and on outreach to the private and public sectors is having a demonstrable impact on improving our resilience.