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Cabinet Office

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 22 January 2020

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

Infrastructure Investment

2. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure value for money in public sector infrastructure investment. (900324)

This Government are working to level up economic and social infrastructure, with an additional £100 billion investment commitment. We will ensure that all citizens across the UK benefit. The Cabinet Office works closely with Her Majesty’s Treasury through the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. This helps to ensure that taxpayers get good value for money. The IPA evaluates and assures major projects from their initial stages through to completion.

May I first congratulate the Minister on his appointment? He should be aware of the detrimental impact on Runnymede and Weybridge from our over- stretched road network, particularly the A320 and M25. What are the Government doing to target investment at the modern infrastructure that all our communities and businesses need?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words and congratulate him on his election to this place. I can reassure him that the Government are committed to investing across our regions and nations, including the south-east. A business case has been submitted for the A320 north corridor; it is at an early stage, and the Department for Transport is working closely with the local authority to develop the scheme. Between 2015 and 2020 the Government will have spent nearly £18 billion on England’s strategic roads. On the M25 this is delivering additional capacity, including through junction enhancements.

I too welcome the Minister to his place. He should be aware that Broadland needs the construction of the western link road, the missing link in Norwich’s answer to the M25. What steps is he taking to ensure that public money is spent efficiently so that all communities represented in this House get the infrastructure they deserve?

I thank my hon. Friend for what I believe is his first question in this place, and for his kind words. This is not just a concern of his Broadland constituents; by the sound of it, it is a concern shared by his constituency neighbour and my neighbour here on the Treasury Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). I understand that a business case for the link has been submitted and that officials from the Department for Transport are engaging with the local authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) is absolutely right that the IPA, through direct support, and independent assurance reviews and leading a network of project delivery professionals, helps drive cost-effectiveness across Government.

One of the biggest projects that the Government have to deliver is the restoration and renewal of this Palace, which is one of the most loved buildings in the world. If we are to do that, we need skills that currently are not available in the workforce. Does the Minister agree that this presents a major opportunity to ensure that in every constituency in the land young people are being trained in those skills so that everybody has an investment in this building?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is a great opportunity to ensure that we upskill our workforce. We are very proud of the fabric of this building, and very proud of what it symbolises for our country, and it will be great if we can make certain that we are engaging people across the United Kingdom in the work that needs to be done.

Yesterday it was established that the majority of supply chain contracts for the offshore wind farm Neart Na Gaoithe are going abroad. When are the UK Government going to incentivise the auction process so that bidders who use local supply companies such as BiFab and CS Wind in Scotland are awarded the contracts, creating further green jobs?

Throughout Government we are determined to ensure that we have the simplest possible process for procurement, and the Government Contracts Finder has made certain that we have more transparent procurement, which helps SMEs, among others. The hon. Gentleman raises a good point, but I will have to look into the specifics.

Civil Service Reform

This new Government are committed to delivering on Brexit and seizing on the exciting opportunities presented by our new manifesto, but in order to do this we need to build on the successful reforms of the civil service since 2010, going further and faster to ensure that it has the new skills, such as in data analytics, better training, greater accountability and the right pay and incentives to transform the United Kingdom.

The Institute for Government estimates that the number of civil servants based in London is growing, with two thirds now working in the capital. How does the Minister reconcile that with the Prime Minister’s statements about moving Whitehall Departments to the north of England and making Government more relevant to people in the north, for example my constituents in West Lancashire?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point about the need to move Government activity out of London. That is why, for example, we have created a default whereby when new agencies are created, they must be located outside London and the south-east. I know that the Prime Minister is determined to go further and faster with that agenda.

I welcome the manifesto commitment to offer guaranteed interviews for veterans—people for whom public service is so hugely important—in the public sector. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will be taking that forward with real energy as they consider wider reform?

As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important point. People who have served in our armed forces can also make an enormous contribution to wider life, including in the civil service. That is why I am determined that we deliver on that manifesto commitment, and I have already instructed officials to make that happen.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is the first time I have asked a question with you in the Chair, so congratulations.

The Government are right to press forward with looking carefully at how we can modernise the civil service, whose independence and professionalism, as I am sure we all agree, are essential to good governance. On current trends, it looks as though the Government are going to spend £50 million in this Parliament on political appointees. Is that a wise decision? Three of them earn as much as the Prime Minister, more or less, and one of them thinks it is okay to advertise on his blog for “weirdos and misfits” to apply for the civil service. Meanwhile, 40% of professional civil servants in the Department for Exiting the European Union have left in the last year—it is a shambles.

As Minister for the civil service, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance now that he will protect civil service professional standards, even though that may mean that from time to time he comes into conflict with politically inspired chaos from No.10 Downing Street?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a large number of points. First of all, I can of course reassure him that the independence and integrity of the civil service will be upheld. I notice that he has taken an interest in Dom Cummings’ blog; he is very welcome to register his interest in applying for such a role. However, the point that the hon. Gentleman was making is important: if we are to have a good civil service for the 21st century, it is essential that we harness all the talents of this nation. That includes, for example, people with data analytics skills and a diversity of talent.

I know that my right hon. Friend agrees with me that this is a Government for the entire UK—one of Scotland’s two Governments, in fact. In the spirit of civil service reform, what thought has he given to moving more civil service jobs out of London—to the north-east of Scotland, for example?

As ever, my hon. Friend raises an important point, and I look forward to joining him this Friday in the north-east of Scotland. I am sure that we will discuss exactly those sorts of opportunities. Recently, I saw a large new hub being created in Edinburgh so that we can bring together Government services for Scotland in one place.

Every Government should get the civil service that they deserve, and this oddball bunch of hard Brexiteers are possibly entitled to their army of weirdos and misfits. Given that Dominic Cummings practically runs this Government, let us celebrate this Government of all the wackos!

It is also rumoured that the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is to be made de facto Deputy Prime Minister. How does he fit into this talent pool agenda? Is he entirely sure that he has the approval of Mr Cummings?

I can think of no one whom I would rather work alongside in delivering reform of the civil service than my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has done so much to reform education and justice. I am sure that he will help do exactly the same in relation to the civil service.

Election Candidates: Protection

Everyone should be able to participate in politics without fear. The increasing level of abuse directed at those in public life is a worrying trend, which stops talented people standing for public service and puts voters off politics. We in Government work across a range of Departments and other bodies to ensure a thorough response to incidents and deliver the best security advice and support. We are also committed to introducing a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner in the run-up to an election.

I thank the Minister for that response, and I welcome her back from maternity leave; it is a pleasure to see her back in her place. Does she agree that at times during the last election the commentary and actions of others were misleading, inaccurate and vicious, and that there should be no place for that in our politics, regardless of political persuasion? What steps does she think we should take to ensure that, as leaders in our communities across parties, we conduct our engagement together in an open, respectful and honest way?

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words and welcome her to her place, along with all new Members. She is absolutely right to set the tone that we should aim to strike in the Chamber and in our work for our constituents. Robust political debate is fundamental, but threats and other forms of abuse are not acceptable. I extend to her the invitation that I have recently circulated to hon. Members, to talk to me about any aspect of the elections that they have recently experienced after this session at 1 o’clock, when I shall be delighted to hear more.

Now that we have a Government elected with a majority, can we please address the situation whereby people can post online abuse without having to have their names and addresses published?

First, I think that companies need to tackle such abusive behaviour and take responsibility for that on their services. That could include taking steps to limit the use or abuse of anonymity. The Government are also taking forward measures to put digital imprints on online political material. That will be a way to help voters to see who is saying what and hold them to account.

According to the international fact-checking agency, First Draft News, almost 90% of ads posted on Facebook by the Minister’s party in the first few days of December were misleading. Does she agree with the Information Commissioner—

Political Advertising

5. What assessment he has made of the level of accuracy of political advertising in the 2019 general election. (900327)

Thank you very much for that helpful clarification, Mr Speaker.

We do not assess or regulate political arguments, which can be rebutted as part of normal debate. In a free democracy it is for voters to decide on the value of those political arguments, but we think that our regulation should empower voters to do so and be modernised. That is why we are taking forward the digital imprints regime, which I just referred to.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—I will go again. According to the international fact-checking agency First Draft News, almost 90% of the ads posted on Facebook by the Tory party in the general election were misleading. Does the Minister agree with the Information Commissioner that the current electoral laws on digital campaigning are not fit for purpose?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place and back to Question No. 5. I think I dealt with the point about regulation in my response, but I am afraid I have to add that the report that he refers to is entirely discredited. I think he misses the point in another way as well: we trust voters to make their decisions on political arguments, and in the biggest decision of all voters chose the Conservatives to take matters forward.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that the UK should lead with best practice when it comes to political campaigning. If she is confident that the Tory party adverts were beyond reproach during the general election, why will she not ask the Electoral Commission to conduct an independent review of political advertising?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place on the Opposition Front Bench; this is the first time that I have engaged in questions with her. I think that, in her question, she misunderstands the fundamental nature of independence. I am not in a position, and neither is any Minister, to direct the Electoral Commission, and nor should we be. Moreover, she entirely misses the point; the voters took their choice on the validity of the arguments put at the general election, and her side’s were not good enough.

Leaving the EU: Departmental Preparedness

6. What steps he is taking to ensure the preparedness of Government Departments for the UK leaving the EU on 31 January 2020. (900328)

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Speaker.

In 10 days the United Kingdom will once more be an independent nation and ready to assert our international role with renewed confidence. Departments across Government are undertaking all the necessary work to embrace these new opportunities, and we will continue to do so during the implementation period, which ends on 31 December.

One of the most important things we can do as we approach independence day is to have a highly skilled workforce. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, when businesses and organisations bid for Government contracts, apprentices make up a high proportion of their workforce?

My right hon. Friend is right that one of the many benefits of leaving the EU is the chance to overhaul Government procurement to make it more efficient, more responsive and more flexible, and to ensure that British talent takes its place at the forefront of wealth creation, and at the heart of that must be more young British apprentices. This will develop the skills we need to succeed in the 21st century.

14. Those fine words will mean nothing if the contracts do not go to British companies, so will the Government take the opportunity at last to give priority to British firms and get local authorities and other public bodies to do the same? Let’s give business to British firms employing British workers. (900337)

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making the case that was made so eloquently by Vote Leave in 2016. There is more joy in heaven over one Member for Warley who repenteth than over many others who still take a different view. He is absolutely right; one of the many benefits of Brexit is that we can buy British and put British firms, British workers and the whole United Kingdom first.

Office for Veterans’ Affairs

7. What steps the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is taking to (a) support and (b) care for veterans. (900329)

No previous Government have been more committed to our armed forces, as shown by our creation of the new Office for Veterans’ Affairs. The Government are championing veterans and will ensure that the UK is the best place in the world to be a veteran. Today we are publishing our response to the consultation on the strategy for our veterans. This is the first stage of a step change in the nation’s relationship with her military and veterans community.

As a Royal Air Force veteran and president of the Huddersfield branch of the Royal Air Forces Association, I am delighted that the Government are cracking on in delivering the veterans’ railcard, which will leave more money in the pockets of those who have made a unique commitment to our country. Can the Minister confirm details of when the railcard will be available and confirm that discounted rail travel will also be available to veterans’ families?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the support he gives to veterans in the House. The veterans’ railcard will be available by Armistice Day this year, and the support will extend to families so that they can enjoy the advantages of discounted travel as well.

Constituency Boundary Review

8. Whether he has plans to bring forward legislative proposals to implement the recommendations of the 2018 review of parliamentary constituency boundaries. (900330)

As we set out in our manifesto, the Government will ensure that we have updated and equal parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote has equal value. We continue to monitor closely the current legal proceedings in relation to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland’s final report. The final reports of the four boundary commissions and the 2018 boundary review were submitted to the Government and laid before Parliament in September 2018. We will provide further details in due course.

Do the Government intend to legislate for the proposals in the previous review, or will they be conducting a new review with new parameters?

As I said, we will bring forward details in due course, and I can assure the hon. Member that those will follow our manifesto commitment to equal boundaries and equal vote values. I sincerely hope that her party believes in the same thing.

Topical Questions

The year 2020 will be one of growth and opportunity for our entire United Kingdom. The year has started positively with the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and I pay particular tribute to all the parties involved. I am delighted to say that the Prime Minister has ruled out a divisive rerun of the Scottish independence referendum and has encouraged our colleagues in the Scottish Government to concentrate on the day job and ensure that they improve health and education for the citizens of Scotland. I am glad that the political division and uncertainty that a referendum would cause have been ruled out, and I look forward to meeting Ministers from the devolved Administrations in Cardiff next week to see how we can work together in the interests of all.

Can the Minister take the necessary steps to confirm Heather Anderson as the new MEP for Scotland following the election of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) to this House, and can he confirm that the UK Government will not allow the voters of Scotland to be under-represented in their European Parliament when it votes on the withdrawal agreement that they have overwhelmingly rejected?

The hon. Lady has made a fair point, and it gives me an opportunity to congratulate the new hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who served with distinction in the European Parliament. We will, of course, do everything we can to ensure that there is appropriate representation for every part of the United Kingdom for the remaining 10 days of our membership.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend set out for the benefit of the House the work being done across Government and co-ordinated by his Department to ensure that farming communities like mine in North Devon climb, soar and succeed as a result of Brexit? (900340)

It was one of the joys of my previous job as Environment Secretary to visit farmers in North Devon. Theirs is some of the finest produce in the United Kingdom, and as we leave the European Union there will be an opportunity for us, on a global stage, to ensure that that Devonian produce reaches all the customers that it deserves to reach.

What plans have the Government to bring the House of Lords into the 21st century? If, as I suspect, the answer is none, may I remind the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that it was the House of Lancaster that won the Wars of the Roses, and may I suggest, if the Government are looking to relocate their lordships, that we have a fine mediaeval castle in the city of Lancaster which has recently been vacated by the Ministry of Justice?

I yield to no one in my admiration for the Duchy of Lancaster. I recognise that as the Government decide where agencies of both Government and Parliament should go we should think fondly of the north-west as well as Yorkshire and the north-east, but I cannot help saying to the hon. Lady that when she talks about fratricidal conflict in mediaeval times, when people were putting each other to the sword, she reminds me of nothing so much as the deputy leadership contest of the Labour party.

T4. Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, and may I say how lovely it is to see you in your place?The Government’s aim of creating a level economic playing field between the north and the south is laudable and much needed, but can the Minister assure me that, in the rush to create this much-needed equality, we will not overlook deprived coastal areas in the south, such as some in the Clacton constituency which have been overlooked so often in the past? (900341)

The reason that, in just 10 days’ time, we on this side of the House are getting Brexit done is so that we can drive growth across our United Kingdom. From Clacton to Caithness, from Holyhead to Hull, we will be investing millions of pounds in communities, not least £2.5 million in the coastal community of Clackers.

T2. I wonder whether the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster shares my concern about the lack of transparency in campaigns, and about rumours of wrongdoing in previous campaigns. Will he be responding to the recommendations of our all-party parliamentary group on electoral campaigning transparency, which include regulating the ability of campaigns to target voters on the basis of personal data, and streamlining national versus local spending with a per-seat cap on total spending? (900339)

T5. As office costs are substantially cheaper in Stoke-on-Trent than in London, and it is only an hour and a half away on the train, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be the perfect place for the relocation of civil servants? (900342)

First, let me thank my hon. Friend for being such a passionate and effective advocate for the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Let me also welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who have joined him on these Benches.

The Government have made it clear that the civil service needs to be less London-centric if it is to attract the best talent and do the best possible job. The Cabinet Office has established the Places for Growth programme to drive the necessary planning and preparation in Departments for the relocation of roles, including senior grades, out of London and into the regions in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker, and congratulations again.

More than 1,000 voters have lost the chance to have their say in local elections because of the identification requirements that have been highlighted over the past two years. That figure is 30 times higher than the total number of allegations made about polling station fraud in the whole of England in 2018 and 2019. Does the Minister agree with Professor Toby James from the University of East Anglia that there is no evidence to justify the introduction of voter ID requirements? I say that because the hon. Lady said earlier that we must trust voters when they make their decisions.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her seat. On this question, the evidence is on our side, the experience is on our side from pilots and Northern Ireland and, what is more, the British people are on our side as this was a core part of our manifesto. The Labour party needs to ask why it is not on the right side of this question.