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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 672: debated on Thursday 27 February 2020

Cabinet Office

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

Small and Medium-sized Businesses: Government Contracts

1. What plans he has to support small and medium-sized businesses in bidding for Government contracts. (900971)

7. What plans he has to support small and medium-sized businesses in bidding for Government contracts. (900978)

13. What plans he has to support small and medium-sized businesses in bidding for Government contracts. (900984)

17. What plans he has to support small and medium-sized businesses in bidding for Government contracts. (900990)

We have introduced measures to tackle barriers faced by SMEs in the procurement process. In the last financial year, we spent almost £2 billion more with SMEs than we did in the preceding year.

In my constituency of Bridgend in south Wales, the SME market will be absolutely key to making a success of Brexit. Will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the devolved Administrations, so that all parts of the UK will see progress when it comes to SMEs accessing Government contracts?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that he has been doing to open up opportunities for his constituents, and particularly SMEs and entrepreneurs. I can commit to, and have already had, conversations with the devolved nations. The contract finder that the Department has set up, offering greater transparency about those opportunities, is just one way that we are assisting, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss other ways that we can support his efforts to ensure that all his constituents have maximum opportunity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her previous answer and it is great to see her on the Front Bench. Ninety-nine per cent. of businesses registered in Guildford are SMEs. What steps is the Minister taking to simplify the bureaucracy involved and minimise the cost to SMEs of quoting for Government business?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she is doing for all the businesses in Guildford. We have committed to removing barriers to small businesses in our commercial arrangements, and have already removed the complex pre-qualification questionnaires that people used to have to fill out for even low-value contracts. We will continue to look at other ways that we can ensure that SMEs have maximum opportunity to bid for work.

I welcome the Minister’s comments. Does she recognise the role that business support organisations play—such as the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce and local enterprise partnerships, which lead on the growth hubs—in helping to bridge the knowledge gap for SMEs that have to deal with such difficult processes?

I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to pay tribute to those business organisations, and it is great to see him in this place, with all his expertise in this area. Those organisations play a critical role, and we must listen to what they are saying and look at ways to increase the opportunities for all their members. We want to improve our communications and relationships with those organisations.

Small businesses often tell me that late payments are a significant concern when bidding for not just Government contracts, but all contracts with large companies. What steps can my right hon. Friend outline to ensure that there is a level playing field for small businesses applying for Government contracts?

We want SMEs to have confidence that they can bid for work. The prompt payment measure, which was introduced last September, has been a key part of the Government’s work to focus on breaking down those barriers for small and medium-sized enterprises. Suppliers that do not comply with that will be struck off, and we have done that. There is more that we are looking at; my hon. Friend will know that there is debate about channelling some of the fines for those with poor practice into compensation for small enterprises.

All the friendly questions from the Whips Office do not hide the reality, which is that the Government have had 10 years to get this right. More small businesses than ever have given up trying to win Government contracts, and I am afraid that the figures do not stack up; they are worse now than when the Government came in. When will they stop giving the lion’s share of lucrative Government contracts to the Carillions of this world and start treating our excellent small businesses fairly?

I notice that there were no facts in that question. If the hon. Member looks at the facts, he will see that a greater and growing number of small and medium-sized enterprises are registering to become suppliers. He will see that 12 Departments in particular are massively increasing the amount of work that they are doing with small enterprises. Rather than criticising my Government colleagues, he might like to start standing up for small businesses in his constituency.

I think there is unanimity across the House about the need to improve access to Government contracts for small and medium-sized enterprises, but I would prefer it if they were British small and medium-sized enterprises. What action will the Secretary of State take to amend Government procurement regulations so that Departments can start to prioritise British firms, British products and employment of British workers?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He knows this Administration are focused on increasing opportunities across every part of this country. Now that we have left the EU, we will have new opportunities as we design the future procurement rules. I hope that both sides of the House can come together behind that work, so that we have maximum opportunity for every part of the UK.

Can the Minister confirm that post Brexit, contracts’ scoring metrics will be able to add weight for local builders, so that we can keep the money in the local economy?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are considering what reforms we can bring in. We have set out clearly the principle that this is not just about the immediate return on investment; it is about the long-term opportunities that procurement would open up for every part of the UK.

Voter Identification: Voting Fraud

2. Whether his Department has made an assessment of the extent to which the use of voter identification will tackle voter fraud. (900972)

The Government are committed to introducing voter ID, as well as extra postal and proxy voting measures, to reduce the potential for electoral fraud in order to give the public greater confidence that our elections are secure. Evaluation by the Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office of the pilots we ran shows that they were a success, and that public confidence in the electoral system was higher in the areas involved.

The Minister will be unsurprised to hear that I am unimpressed by this illiberal idea. The Electoral Commission says that fraud relating to proxy voting, postal voting, bribery, undue influence or tampering with ballot papers, on which voter ID will have no effect, accounts for three quarters of electoral fraud, so what are we doing about that?

As I mentioned, we are looking at a range of measures, including ways to improve the security of postal and proxy voting. It is important to recognise that electoral fraud in any form is a crime, which is why we should stand by measures to deal with it. We should be on the side of the victims of that crime, whose voices are taken away—indeed, stolen—by such fraud. That is a good reason why this was in our manifesto, on which, I gently remind my right hon. Friend, we both stood.

Of course those citizens whose voices are taken away because they do not have photographic ID are also victims. As the Minister is concerned about fraudulent votes, can she tell the House how many fraudulent votes were prevented in each of the pilot areas?

As I have already said, evaluations of the pilots set out a range of data. The hon. Gentleman’s question is not the sort that can easily be answered, as I hope the more cerebral Members of the House will understand. That is because it is hard to put a figure on crime that is deterred. The question Labour Front Benchers really have to answer is: in the dying days of this Labour Front-Bench team, whose side is Labour on, given that the Leader of the Opposition employed a convicted electoral fraudster in his office?

May I say what a pleasure it is to see such a well stocked Treasury Bench for Cabinet Office questions, and how much I am looking forward to working with these Ministers? I am sure the feeling is mutual. In the excellent Conservative manifesto, the Government said they would set up a constitution, democracy and rights commission to address these matters. Will my hon. Friend expand on the scope, remit and timing of that commission?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his post as the new Chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs. I look forward to working with him, as do all the members of the team here this morning. The commission will examine broader aspects of the constitution in more depth and make proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates. Full details will be announced in due course. Careful consideration is required, and I am confident that there will be high-quality discussion of the proposals with the Select Committee.

European Union: Future Relationship

Now that we have honoured the wishes of the British people and got Brexit done, we will publish later today detailed aspects of our future relationship with the European Union, and I shall be making a statement after these questions. Formal negotiations will begin next week.

When it comes to the negotiations that will begin next week, no one knows what the Government’s bottom line is, and we will not find out until later this year, but will the Minister explain to the House today why on earth the Government believe that the reputational damage that will be inflicted, not just in EU capitals but around the world, by our casual reneging on a number of commitments set out in the political declaration, which was signed in good faith with the EU after the recent general election, is a price worth paying?

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that his question is wholly misconceived. We have absolutely no intention of doing anything other than honouring the withdrawal agreement, honouring the protocol that we have signed, and making sure that we achieve the political declaration’s aim of ensuring that we have a comprehensive free trade agreement with no tariffs, no quotas and no quantitative restrictions.

Does my right hon. Friend think the EU has spotted that we have actually left and no longer need to negotiate our terms of release?

My right hon. Friend has made a very good point. There are a range of views—a spectrum of opinions—in European capitals, but I think that the pennies, the pfennigs and the centimes are dropping as a result of the Prime Minister’s speeches and the lecture given recently by the Prime Minister’s sherpa David Frost.

Veterans: Employment

21. What steps the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is taking to support veterans to gain employment in the public sector. (900995)

Veterans offer a vast range of skills and talent to employers, and we want to see more of them working throughout the economy. We are making it easier for them to join the civil service, introducing a national insurance break for their employers, and investing £5 million in Jobcentre Plus armed forces champions.

It is concerning that 18% of UK businesses surveyed said that they would be unlikely to take on former armed forces personnel because of negative perceptions of those who had served in the forces. Both the Minister and I know that the armed forces actually provide skills for life that can be brought into different sectors. I warmly welcome the decision by the Cabinet Office to guarantee interviews to former armed forces personnel if they meet essential criteria, which is already being done in my Bridgend County Borough Council area. What more can the Minister do—including making representations to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—to ensure that the scheme is implemented across Government?

The whole concept of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is about making experience of being a veteran equal across the country. We are introducing the scheme that the hon. Member mentions later in the year, and we are also introducing legislation to ensure that the armed forces covenant is implemented correctly throughout the country, so that no veteran suffers disadvantage because of his or her service. The Prime Minister has shifted the dial in respect of what it means to be an armed forces veteran in this country, and I am determined to make this the best place on earth in which to be one.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the ex-service personnel already working in the civil service bring invaluable skills and experience learned from the armed forces, and that guaranteeing veterans interviews for civil service jobs will boost the employment prospects of residents of Broxtowe and improve the civil service?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and thank him for his question. It is clear that in this country we are moving away from the idea that we should give veterans a job just to keep them busy, and are recognising the incredible skills and attributes that they bring to any job in society following 10 or 15 years of what has been pretty hard combat over the last few years. I pay tribute to those in the civil service, and to those who lead the way so that others can come through behind them.

Let me begin by saying that, with permission, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and I will be leaving this Question Time early to take part in an armed forces parliamentary scheme visit. I am sure the House will understand that no discourtesy is intended.

The Forces in Mind Trust reports that veterans experience a postcode lottery when looking for work, and fewer than half of those in the north say that it was easy to find employment. Is the Minister assured that support for veterans is being sent to where it is needed most in order to tackle that regional inequality?

Regional inequality is a key factor in what the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is trying to do. Today we have the latest figures from the career transition partnership, and we have more people going into work and education than ever before. In fact, people are now more likely to be in employment if they are a veteran, but we are not complacent about that in any way. There is no reason why anybody coming out of the military cannot go into a job, which is the single biggest transformative factor in improving their life chances.

Relocating Public Bodies

The Government are committed to levelling up across the UK, and relocating roles to the regions and nations of the UK. The Places for Growth programme in the Cabinet Office is driving the necessary planning within Departments and public bodies, and a commitment to relocating 3,000 roles within public bodies has already been secured.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, and I welcome her to her place. Darlington remains a transport hub for our entire region, thanks to the hard work of our excellent combined authority Mayor, Ben Houchen. Teesside airport has reopened Tees Valley to the rest of the country and to international interest. Given the area’s international links and its excellent rail, road and air connections, will my right hon. Friend consider Darlington and Tees Valley as a location for public bodies?

I would like to start by paying tribute to Ben Houchen and all his excellent work as the Tees Valley Mayor, and also to my hon. Friend for highlighting the strengths of Darlington. There are already approximately 800 civil servants in Darlington, and 29,000 across the north-east. Given this strength, the north-east region will certainly benefit from the relocation of civil service roles under the Places for Growth programme.

I welcome the Minister to her place. Cornwall has 650 miles of the most beautiful coastline in the country and a fishing industry desperately keen to make the most of the opportunities of Brexit. Does my right hon. Friend share my view that Cornwall would be a great location in which to base the Marine Management Organisation?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on making sure that Cornwall’s voice is well and truly heard. Our focus is on relocating civil service roles in public bodies across the UK, and as part of this we are ensuring that any functions that are repatriated following EU exit are established in the regions and nations of the UK. My hon. Friend will be reassured to hear that the Marine Management Organisation already has several offices in the south-west, including one in Cornwall.

Office for Veterans’ Affairs: Staff

The Office for Veterans’ Affairs is staffed by civil servants, two of whom, including the director, are veterans. I myself am a veteran, and I have seen at first hand the need to support our veterans. The OVA is also setting up a veterans’ advisory board, which includes veterans and representatives from academia, business and the charity sector.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Minister will recognise that veterans represent the very best of selfless service to our country, and no one understands veterans’ needs better than veterans themselves, so what plans does he have to increase the number of veterans, including disabled veterans, in his Department?

People come and work in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs based purely on what they can add to the organisation. A number of veterans are working there at the moment. We are still conducting a recruitment process for certain roles, but it is an embryonic organisation that is finding its way through Government, and I look forward to giving my hon. Friend an update in writing later in the year.

Office for Veterans’ Affairs: Mental Health Support

8. What steps the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is taking to ensure that veterans can access mental health support. (900979)

The Government are providing the best mental health support for veterans, spending £10.2 million a year on veterans’ mental health services through the transition intervention and liaison service and the complex treatment service.

I thank the Minister for his answer. May I ask him how the Government are helping veterans to transition back into civilian life? Will he also tell the House about any new initiatives in the pipeline?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to his service. Veterans’ mental health care in this country is changing fundamentally, and the nation is finally realising its inherent responsibility to those who have served. We are rolling out a comprehensive NHS treatment programme through the complex treatment service and the transition, intervention and liaison service, which is the high-intensity service. Beyond that, there will be space for every brilliant third sector organisation to contribute. I am determined that this country will have the world’s best mental health care for veterans, and I look forward to updating my hon. Friend in due course.

I am sure that the Minister will recognise that veterans’ mental health also carries on into retirement. Does he agree that it is time to exempt the war disablement pension for veterans who access it in order to improve their income, opportunities and mental health in the long term?

Pensions are a complex area that we are constantly examining. Several schemes over the years have advantaged certain groups and disadvantaged others. I am having continual conversations to ensure that the armed forces covenant means something in this country, that those who have served have a special place in this nation’s heart, and that we look after people in the way that they deserve.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), I have an excellent idea that should be in the pipeline. The single biggest barrier to some veterans improving their mental health is getting and keeping a place to live because, disgracefully, we have some veterans who are homeless. Will my hon. Friend and the Cabinet Office, together with the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions and, indeed, the Ministry of Justice, consider supporting a pilot project to turbocharge the excellent work already being done by the Community Self Build Agency in this area?

It will be of no surprise that I am a huge fan of the CSBA, which does incredible work in my Plymouth constituency. We must be careful about this idea of homeless veterans. In my experience of extensive studies, the situation is not quite as it is represented in the media, but one is one too many. Along with the rough sleeping initiative that is being announced today, I am determined to zero in on the issue. No veterans should be sleeping rough on this country’s streets, and we are determined to get there.

I am aware that suicide is normally lower among veterans than among their civilian cohorts. However, I have noticed that that has changed in the past six months, as the Minister will be aware, with my old platoon commander and several other people I served with having committed suicide. What is the Minister doing to support veterans in this area?

I thank my hon. Friend for his service. Suicide is an immensely complex area, and I work on it every single day. He is right that, traditionally, someone is less likely to take their life if they have served in the military, but we are experiencing a cluster of events, and we are working every day to understand why they are happening. I meet with the families of those who have been through this journey, and we are determined to ensure that we have done everything possible in every situation. Each one is a tragedy not only for the family and the individual, but for the military as an institution. I assure my hon. Friend that we are spending every waking moment trying to deal with this current series of events.

EU Nationals: Voting Rights

No, we do not intend to grant that right. The Representation of the People Act 1918 sets out which non-UK nationals resident in the UK can vote in our parliamentary elections. The right is restricted to citizens from Commonwealth countries, including Malta and Cyprus, and to those from the Republic of Ireland who meet UK residency requirements.

We currently give Commonwealth citizens, who may have been here only one month, but there are no reciprocal rights for British citizens to vote in Commonwealth countries. Why do we not give the right to vote to EU citizens, who may have lived here for 20 years, paying tax throughout that time? Do the Government not believe in representation and taxation?

First, it is right to pay tribute to the contribution to this country that EU citizens make, have made and will continue to make in the future. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and other Ministers have set out, we welcome that contribution to the life of our nation, and we are making the settled status scheme available in order to further it. However, as far as we are aware, no other EU member state currently allows non-nationals to vote in national elections—besides Ireland, which has a long-standing bilateral agreement with the UK—so we think our approach is reasonable.

The Minister acknowledges the contribution that EU citizens have made here in Britain. Of course, during the transition, EU citizens currently have the right to vote and stand for election at local level. Many EU nationals are currently serving as local councillors up and down the country for all political parties. What commitment can she make that EU nationals who currently serve in local government as locally elected councillors will be able to complete their term of office? Can she give them any guidance on whether they will be able to seek re-election and whether the communities they serve will be able to re-elect them?

I am absolutely confident that the hon. Lady is a close reader of all parliamentary questions that are answered in this House, and she will know that we have already answered that question on the record. Those who are elected to office will be able to serve their full term, including those elected before 2020. As I say, I am repeating my answer to an earlier parliamentary questions so the House is clear that EU citizens will be able to vote and stand in the May elections.

Code of Conduct for Special Advisers

11. What recent assessment he has made of compliance by Government special advisers with the code of conduct for special advisers. (900982)

The code of conduct for special advisers clearly outlines the standards of behaviour and conduct required of special advisers throughout their appointment. Where it may be suspected that an individual has failed to meet those standards, agreed disciplinary processes are carried out in line with the terms of the model contract for special advisers.

The code of conduct says that special advisers must not involve themselves with controversy. After calling for weirdos, misfits and “PJ Masks”, Dominic Cummings hired someone who has promoted eugenics. How is that acceptable?

There is little to add to what the Prime Minister said on this matter yesterday, which is that those views of Mr Sabisky have no place in this Government. Mr Sabisky has left the employment of the Government, and I do not think there is more to be said on the matter other than that they are not my views either.

Talking of Mr Sabisky, the Minister no doubt agrees with the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), that his views are offensive and racist. How come such a man was employed to work in Downing Street?

I do not think there is anything to be gained by going into individual instances of employment. I assure the House once again that those views are not shared by anybody on the Treasury Bench, and I am sure we would all agree on that.

That is all waffle, isn’t it? The truth is that a right-wing extremist sat in official meetings with the Prime Minister and with defence staff—that is a fact. When the political operation in No. 10 is out of control, it is a problem for politicians and the Government Front Bench. But when the vetting system breaks down or is sidestepped, is it not a problem for national security?

Does the Labour party honestly expect me to say from this Dispatch Box that the vetting system does not work? That would be a breach of national security, and I am not going to do any such thing. The hon. Gentleman ought to ask better questions.

Is not one way to solve the problem this question raises to have pre-appointment scrutiny of special advisers—or at least of senior special advisers, who, in some cases, are more powerful than Cabinet Ministers—by making candidates appear before a Select Committee before their appointment, as we do with other appointments?

As I have already said in my opening answer, the code of conduct is very clear about what is required, and the model contract likewise. The appointment procedure for special advisers is found in those documents, and the fact is that Ministers take decisions. The Prime Minister takes decisions about who is to be appointed to his team, which is as it should be—Ministers decide and advisers advise. Although I welcome my hon. Friend’s considered point on the processes that could be added, I think the current processes are adequate. Again, this was answered by the Prime Minister yesterday.

The Minister has just been clear that Ministers and the Prime Minister decide. She will be familiar with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the code for Ministers and the code for special advisers, which states clearly in section 9 that

“all appointments of special advisers require the prior written approval of the Prime Minister”.

So did the Prime Minister give prior written approval for the appointment of Andrew Sabisky—yes or no?

Infrastructure Investment: Value for Money

18. What steps his Department is taking to ensure value for money in infrastructure investment. (900991)

The Government are committed to delivering value for money, including from the additional £100 billion of investment in infrastructure that we have recently announced. That means that spending will not just be narrowly focused on where it brings the highest immediate economic return; it will also be focused on where it may unlock productive potential in the future.

In London, under the stewardship of Transport for London and the Mayor of London, Crossrail is £2.5 billion over budget and two and a half years behind schedule. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that those mistakes are not made elsewhere in the country?

I know that this is a frustration for my hon. Friend’s constituents. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority has worked with the Department for Transport and across Government to identify and implement the key lessons to be learned from such major projects, and the IPA provides challenge that is fair and accurate, through an independent assurance review of major Government projects.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me of the Government’s commitment to vital rail infrastructure funding for Dorset and the surrounding counties, given that we have a three-hourly rail frequency in our county and it takes us almost three hours to get to London?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his election and, as the whole House is aware, for going above and beyond the call of duty in ensuring that his constituents could use train services during the recent strikes. As I say, we are investing an additional £100 billion in infrastructure, and we are seeking to ensure that we prioritise the right projects, taking a whole-network and whole-life-value approach. His representations have been well made, and they are being listened to.

Now that HS2 has been approved, how will my right hon. Friend ensure, if necessary working with Ministers from other Departments, that costs are firmly controlled, so that all taxpayers nationwide, including in my constituency, through which this line unfortunately runs, can be confident that they have received value for money?

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Obviously, the DFT is leading on the delivery of HS2. The IPA will continue to work with the DFT to support the delivery of this initiative, through expert advice and challenge in independent assurance reviews. The recent review of and recommendations on HS2 are very focused on ensuring that costs are controlled and that there will be no further delays.

Import Controls: EU

14. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on the introduction of import controls on goods from the EU from 2021. (900985)

I have regular meetings with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade covering a number of issues, not the least of which is our border arrangements. Import controls are necessary to keep our borders safe and secure, and to ensure that we treat all partners equally, especially when it involves collecting the right customs, VAT and other excise duties.

I am grateful to the Minister for answering this question. During the referendum, he said that we would be part of a

“free trade zone…from Iceland to the Russian border”,

with

“full access to the European market”.

However, this month he has been clear that we will lose frictionless trade, and that will introduce red tape and vast impacts on our businesses. How can businesses trust his future pronouncements? Will he clarify when he abandoned the idea of frictionless trade?

The whole point of our negotiations with the European Union, now that we have left, is to ensure that we do have a comprehensive free trade agreement that will ensure there are no tariffs, quotas or quantitative restrictions. That is entirely consistent with the broader approach towards free trade, which does indeed exist from Iceland to the Russian border.

Voting at 16

As the Minister will be aware, my country of Wales has, along with Scotland, already passed legislation to give young people aged 16 the vote. It is a positive move and the right thing to do; it will enable young people to engage in the political process and influence decisions that affect their lives. Surely it is time that the Minister followed our excellent lead and listened to what young people want; it is their future, after all.

If it is good enough for the Welsh and the Scottish, why on earth are 16 and 17-year-olds in England and, indeed, Northern Ireland not entitled to the vote? It is a question of equality. If someone can go to war for their country and pay their taxes for the country, we should extend the franchise to them. From Peterloo to the extension of the franchise to women through the women’s suffrage movement, the north-west has a proud history of extending the franchise. Come on: do the right thing for the English, Minister, and give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote and, indeed, those in Northern Ireland as well.

That was a brilliant question in the style of orator Henry Hunt at Peterloo, but I am afraid we have to accept that in the United Kingdom the devolved Administrations quite rightly make decisions within their competence but the UK Government have no intention of altering the franchise in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. We are getting on with the people’s priorities: investing in our NHS and fighting crime, improving education and levelling up the economy. Those things are more important than constitutional changes.

Government Suppliers and Subcontractors: Payment

20. What steps he is taking to ensure that Government suppliers and subcontractors are paid on time. (900994)

The Government have a commitment to pay 90% of valid and undisputed invoices from small and medium-sized enterprises within five days. Departments also have a non-executive director responsible for prompt payment, and suppliers now risk being excluded from winning large Government contracts if they cannot demonstrate prompt payment in their supply chain.

I thank the Paymaster General for that answer. Following on from her responses to my hon. Friends’ questions earlier regarding small and medium-sized businesses, the cash flow of those businesses is the most important factor in their survival, so what assurances can my right hon. Friend give that the timely payment commitment will always extend further down the chain so that small and medium-sized businesses in my Delyn constituency are able to plan ahead with confidence?

I can give my hon. Friend those assurances: we do take those things into account. As far as the Cabinet Office is concerned—of course, it is similar for many other Departments across Government —we are meeting the five-day payment target, and in 99% of cases all invoices are paid within 30 days.

Topical Questions

Next week, we will start negotiations with the EU on our future relationship, and I will shortly make a statement to the House on our approach. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the transition period will end at the end of this year. We are working closely with businesses and border groups on preparations for the end of the transition period, and I will be meeting representatives from our ports, freight and haulage sectors later today.

I take this opportunity to welcome to the Front Bench my strengthened and hugely talented ministerial team. I look forward to working with them to deliver on our priorities in the months ahead: overseeing the transition period, strengthening the integrity of our precious Union, ensuring that our constitution is fit for the 21st century, and reforming our civil service and public sector in line with the people’s priorities.

The SNP Scottish Government’s groundbreaking legislation ensures that everyone who chooses to make their home in Scotland, including refugees and EU citizens, can vote. That follows up on the enabling of votes at 16, which the Government here continue to oppose. Will the Minister now look to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament towards a more inclusive democracy, or have this Government given up entirely on democracy?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for outlining the approach to the franchise that the Scottish Government take, but one of the most important lessons that democracy teaches us is that we must respect votes. Of course, Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in the referendum in 2014, and I am afraid his party still refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of that referendum.

T4. I am delighted to hear my right hon. Friend confirm his commitment to strengthening our precious Union. Would he be happy to expand on how he would like to do that? (901000)

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. The truth is that our United Kingdom is proof positive that a union of nations is stronger together, and it is important that we ensure that the benefits of our Union are spread equally. That means making sure that public sector jobs are deployed effectively in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. It also means that the strength of our Exchequer is the foundation that our economy provides for human flourishing across these islands. All these things are reflective of the strength of our Union, the single most successful political union and enterprise that anyone has seen on this earth, and that is why it is so important that we fight for it from Fermanagh to Forfar and to every part of England and Wales as well.

As the father of a 16 and a 17-year-old, I can assure the hon. Lady that I am not in the least scared of them.

T6. I am very proud to be part of a party that is delivering on leaving the EU and that is investing billions in our health and education sectors. Will my right hon. Friend outline the steps that his Department is taking on public procurement to make sure that that money is spent wisely? (901002)

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent question. She will be aware that leaving the EU is a golden opportunity to reform our procurement rules. We must cut red tape. We must drive innovation and make it easier for small businesses to win those public sector contracts. We will achieve that by creating a bespoke system for British businesses that also complies with our international obligations.

May I ask the Secretary of State, and explicitly him on this question, what role does Dominic Cummings have in the Cabinet Office, and will he outline his professional and personal relationship with him?

The gentleman concerned is a special adviser who works for the Prime Minister. All special advisers work for the Prime Minister. I have the highest regard for the special advisers who do such a wonderful job, supporting the Government in the delivery of the people’s priorities.

Yesterday, the former Chancellor said that he had resigned because of the interference of Dominic Cummings and the working arrangements of what is the second office of state. Never before has such a senior member of the Government resigned because of the dictates of an unelected official. Is it now Mr Cummings and his weirdos and misfits who are running this Government? How many other Sabiskys are lurking around in Departments, and how does the right hon. Gentleman now fit in to the operation and mechanics of government?

Again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. [Interruption.] Forgive me. It is only a matter of time, I suspect. The broader point is that the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and No. 10 work seamlessly together to ensure that the wishes of the British people, as expressed in the last general election, to strengthen our United Kingdom, to level up our economy and to make sure that people have the opportunity to excel in every sphere are carried out with harmony, unity and energy.

T8. Given the ridiculous bluster and sabre rattling that we have heard from the European Commission in the past few days, what assessment have the Government made of the damage the European Union would do to its own economy if it denied itself access to the United Kingdom market? (901004)

My right hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. It is the case that the European Union exports more in goods to the UK than we export to the EU. Were some voices—I stress that it is a minority of voices in the European Union—to prevail and were they not to progress these negotiations in the way that, I am sure, we would all want to see, there would be damage to the EU’s economy, and that is the last thing that I want to see.

T3. Does the Government intend to legislate for the proposals in the 2018 review of parliamentary constituency boundaries, or will they conduct a new review? (900998)

We were clear in our manifesto that we are committed to equal and updated boundaries, and we will bring forward proposals in due course on how to meet that commitment.

In February 2019, the deputy national statistician said that, for the census to go ahead as planned in March 2021, the legislation needs to be passed this April. Does my hon. Friend agree that delays to the laying of the census order now means that it is impossible for that legislation to be passed before April, and what is being done to ensure that the census will take place in March next year?

My hon. Friend has clearly already got himself into the detail of the Department in the most admirable way, which is what we would expect from the new Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. He is right that this legislation is pressing and that behind it sits a very large programme being delivered by the UK Statistics Authority, with which I work closely. We will bring forward the order shortly to Parliament, and I look forward to its scrutiny in this place so that we can have a successful census in 2021.

T5. Was Andrew Sabisky recruited to work on the defence and security review that the Prime Minister announced yesterday? (901001)

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster not think it odd that the very people who want votes at the age of 16 changed the law so that 16-year-olds cannot buy cigarettes or go into a tanning salon, and does that not reveal just how empty their aspirations are?

My hon. Friend, in typically pithy fashion, draws attention to the fact that when we consider the whole question of when people reach the age of maturity, the landscape is complicated. The previous Labour Government—this was led by Ed Balls—raised the participation age in education to ensure that 17 and 18-year-olds had to be in employment, education or training. That was a welcome recognition of the need to support young people to be everything they can be at the appropriate moment. This Government are committed to ensuring that young people have the right opportunities, but it is important to acknowledge that, for example, even though young people can apply to join the armed forces at 16, they cannot be deployed in a battlefield situation until they are at least 18. It is important, when discussing 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, to appreciate the complexity of the situation and to show sensitivity.

T7. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that, when it comes to Andrew Sabisky, we should call a Spad a Spad. Can he confirm whether someone appointed as a Government political adviser, even on a contractor basis, can in any way be exempt from the Spad vetting process or the requirement for prime ministerial approval? (901003)

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, pointed out earlier, there is a difference between special advisers, who are appointed by and work for the Prime Minister, and contractors, who exist in all Departments.

Why does my right hon. Friend not prevent enterprises from bidding for Government contracts unless they can demonstrate a record of having paid their suppliers on time?

Companies do have to demonstrate that, and if existing suppliers do not comply with the targets we have set, they will be booted off the supplier list.

T9. This morning, I did a quick Google search—other search engines are available—for “Government jobs”, which came up with dozens of Government positions described as being inside IR35. That is the worst of both worlds, because an individual would be taxed as an employee but would have no employment rights. Does the Cabinet Office agree that that is an untenable state of affairs for people working for the Government? (901005)

The hon. Gentleman raises a thoughtful point. He will be aware that Her Majesty’s Treasury has led a review of those rules. I think that we all agree that we want to see employees treated accurately and fairly, whichever category they fall into, and of course that the public purse is protected by taxes being brought in and made available for public services. I am happy to look at the matter in slightly more detail if he thinks there is something beyond that.

I pay tribute to Combat Stress for the immense work it has done over many years for those who suffer with mental health challenges when they return from operations. The situation is difficult. There is no doubt that the model of healthcare for our veterans is fundamentally changing, to a realisation of the responsibility that the NHS has towards those who serve. Within that model of care, there is a role for everybody. As we undergo that transition, services are available and their uptake is being monitoring every single day.

T1. Apologies, Mr Speaker, for not being in my place earlier.Since 2017, and under successive Tory Governments, civil service leaks have apparently become commonplace. Have the Government carried out an assessment of why so many civil servants now seem to believe that it is in the public interest to go behind the backs of Ministers and leak information? (900996)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that question. Civil servants must of course abide by the civil service code, and we deprecate the leaking of any Government information. I will reflect hard on the point behind her question.

I declare an interest as a vice-president of Combat Stress. May I point out that Combat Stress is facing a crisis because the Government are withdrawing funding for the 1,200 or so veterans who use its services every year? There is now an instance of a veteran taking their own life because they were refused treatment by Combat Stress and referred back to their GP. This is a very serious situation. Will my hon. Friend please ensure that Combat Stress gets the funding it needs to deliver the care to the veterans it looks after?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his work with Combat Stress. The reality is that Combat Stress is facing challenges at this time, and not exclusively because of issues with Government contracts. These challenges are reflected across the third sector because mental health care is changing. We must always be driven by the evidence about what works when it comes to accessing and treating more and more people, as the awareness of mental health goes up. I have met Combat Stress a number of times, and I have met my hon. Friend to discuss this issue. I am happy to continue meeting to find a solution to this very difficult problem, the answer to which is not always throwing money at it and hoping that it gets better.

In response to my earlier question, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, said that no other European country grants non-citizens voting rights. I think that might have been slightly erroneous. Portugal grants Brazilians who meet a certain threshold voting rights at the national level, and there is a similar arrangement in Scandinavian countries through the Nordic Passport Union. Will the Minister think again about our out-of-place system, whereby people who may have lived here for 20-odd years, people who pay tax here and even people who may have been born here, are not able to vote here? At least, let us open the conversation.

To be clear, I said that that was the case as far as I was aware, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for adding two further examples to the debate. He is right that we should be aware of such examples and have that conversation, but the Government’s stance is as I set out earlier—that it is reasonable and right to focus on the voters who are currently enfranchised by the Representation of the People Acts. I think that citizenship restrictions are commonplace for participation in national elections across not only the EU but most democracies, and the weight of evidence is with the Government’s position.

We intend to take forward policy to ensure that British citizens around the world—who may have travelled far from Britain but are none the less still British citizens—can vote in elections. That is how our democracy should be run. I look forward to speaking further with the hon. Gentleman. I understand from this morning’s Order Paper that he has joined the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, so I look forward to further such discussions in time.

Some Welsh companies wishing to bid for public contracts in Wales frequently find themselves unable to do so because of EU procurement requirements. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that procurement regulations will be changed post the implementation period to enable Welsh companies to bid for contracts in Wales?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are some big opportunities for us to change those procurement rules. I have already had conversations with the devolved nations, and I will visit them shortly to take forward and listen to the ideas of businesses so that we can ensure that the new rules and regimes reflect their needs.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster might want to be very careful with the answers he gives to the House about Mr Sabisky in relation to the defence and security review—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) a moment ago—because he well knows that teams of civil servants have been working on that review for some time; it did not just start yesterday, when the Prime Minister announced it. Can he answer this question: did Mr Sabisky meet any of the officials working on the defence and security review—yes or no?

I welcome the veterans interview guarantee, but I have spoken to veterans in Stoke-on-Trent Central, where we have quite a number, and sometimes the issue relates to pre-employment in that they need help to prepare for being ready for an interview. Will the Minister give some idea of whether we can support them on that?

Preparing those who have served for civilian life is a huge part of what we do. We put a lot of money into the Career Transition Partnership. Its statistics out today show that veterans have an 86% employment rate, and that continues to rise year on year. They have a higher employment rate than the civilian cohort. We are not resting on our laurels. We will continue to do all we can in the “pre” phase before individuals leave service to make sure that they have the best possible opportunity to make the most of their skills when they rejoin civilian life.