Skip to main content

Cabinet Office

Volume 677: debated on Thursday 11 June 2020

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

Leaving the EU: Transition Period

The transition period ends on 31 December 2020. Under no circumstances will the Government accept an extension. Indeed, we have a domestic law obligation not to accept. Extending would simply delay the moment at which we achieve what we want and what the country voted for: our economic and political independence.

I am keen to ensure that new arrangements following the end of the transition period work for small businesses in Broxtowe. Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps he is taking to support small businesses facing considerable uncertainty over their future because of the covid-19 pandemic and the end of the Brexit transition period?

My hon. Friend is right that small and medium-sized enterprises face particular challenges at this time, and that is one reason the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that customs intermediaries and others who can support small businesses to continue to export—indeed, to enlarge their export profile—are put in place.

Does the Minister agree that businesses, not just in Bury South but right across the country, simply want to remove the uncertainty that comes with prolonging negotiations and feel safe in the knowledge that a firm mandate for the negotiations will allow businesses to prepare properly and prosper?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that the businesses for which he speaks up so effectively in Bury South and elsewhere want uncertainty removed. That is why we are clear that we will end the transition period on 31 December, which is a position I understand the CBI is now in favour of.

The Minister talks about certainty, and he is right: businesses need certainty on the outcome of the talks. On Tuesday, the Paymaster General told the House:

“On… zero tariffs and zero quotas, our policy has not changed.”—[Official Report, 9 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 161.]

That was the pledge the Conservative party won the election on. But last week, the Government’s chief negotiator wrote:

“we would be willing to discuss a relationship that was based on less than that”.

Who is speaking for the Government—the Paymaster General or their chief negotiator?

The Paymaster General speaks eloquently and powerfully on behalf of the Government, and it is right that we seek what the political declaration also commits the European Union to, which is a zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangement.

EU Trade Negotiations

What recent assessment he has made of the state of trade negotiations between the UK and the EU; and if he will make a statement. (903079)

What recent assessment he has made of the progress of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (903090)

What recent assessment he has made of the progress of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (903091)

UK and EU negotiators held discussions last week via video conference and covered the full range of issues. Both sides engaged constructively, but sadly there was no movement on the most difficult areas where differences of principle are most acute—notably on fisheries, governance arrangements and the so-called level playing field.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not sacrifice access to our waters for any trade deal with the EU and will he make it clear to Mr Barnier that that is not negotiable?

Our excellent chief negotiator, David Frost, has made it clear to Michel Barnier that we will be an independent coastal state, that we will control who has access to our waters and on what terms, and that access to our waters will be subject to annual negotiations.

Is not the real problem that Michel Barnier has absolutely no room for manoeuvre because he has to do what has been agreed with the other 27 countries? Is not that lack of agility and flexibility the very reason we have decided to leave the EU and why companies such as Nissan and Unilever, which has announced this today, are centring their operations here in the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend puts it perfectly, and his question is its own answer. I do not think we have heard any sage of Lichfield since Dr Johnson who has put things quite so well.

With such slow progress on the talks, the Government somehow believe they can hold the EU bloc to ransom, but all they are doing is taking the country perilously close to no deal. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will do everything in their power to reach an agreement and translate legally what is written in the political declaration? On one specific point, will he push for the ability of the devolved Governments of Wales and Scotland to participate in the Erasmus programme and other schemes, so that students do not to miss out, if he will not stand up and do that for England?

We all want an agreement, and I am grateful for the support and help that the devolved Administrations have given. I talk regularly to them, as does my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General. We know how important Erasmus is to many, and we will continue to seek membership of those programmes across the United Kingdom.

The British people were promised an oven-ready deal, but given the speculation in recent weeks, what they have is half-baked. Will the Secretary of State therefore commit to no unpicking of the political declaration or the withdrawal agreement—the work of the past three years?

Not only was an oven-ready deal secured, but we had that oven-ready deal delivered and agreed to by this House earlier this year, which is why we left the European Union on 31 January. Of course, we will always honour the withdrawal agreement and, as far as the political declaration goes, it commits the European Union to use its best endeavours to secure a zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangement, and we hope that the EU will do that.

As my right hon. Friend knows, article 184 requires both parties, including the European Union, to use their best endeavours to reach that agreement. Will he update the House on the progress that has been made, and cite one significant thing that he thinks would help things further?

Progress has been made and, on a number of issues—on fisheries and on state aid—Michel Barnier has indicated that he is inclined to move. Some EU member states have been a little more reluctant. It would be in everyone’s interest—EU member states, the Commission and, of course, the United Kingdom Government—if Michel Barnier were able to use the flexibility that he has deployed in the past to secure an arrangement that would work in everyone’s interests.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s hard work in this area. He has been quite clear that we will have full control over our economic destiny in future. Does he agree that, now more than ever as we emerge from this pandemic, it is vital that we look to forming new trade relationships and partnerships around the world?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is one of the reasons why the Secretary of State for International Trade opened new trade negotiations with Japan this week and why she is in trade negotiations with the United States. However, it is not just trade deals that matter; it is also export promotion. The Department for International Trade is doing a superb job in making sure that businesses are equipped to take advantage of the new markets, which I know that he, as a strong voice for business, is committed to supporting.

The Government’s approach to trade negotiations with the EU and with the US will have huge implications for all of us. The Government’s election manifesto guaranteed that food imports would have to be produced at the same standards as in UK farming. The EU also says that a free trade deal depends on the UK maintaining those high standards. Does this remain Government policy in our approach to EU and other trade negotiations, and, if it does, why were such commitments not upheld in the Agriculture Bill?

It is absolutely our commitment to make sure that we uphold those very high standards. The Agriculture Bill will ensure not only that those high standards are upheld, but that public money is spent on public goods and that environmental enhancement is at the heart of how we manage our countryside alongside high-quality food production.

I am afraid that that does not quite answer the question about why the amendment from the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was not accepted. Let me push the right hon. Gentleman a bit further. He said on “Countryfile” in October 2018 that

“there is no point in having high animal and high environmental standards if you then allow them to be undercut from outside.”

When pressed on whether it would be a red line in any trade discussions, the Minister stated, “absolutely”. Yet on Tuesday in this House, in an answer to a question about such standards, the Paymaster General said that

“we should trust the consumer.”—[Official Report, 9 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 162.]

Are we, or are we not, able to trust the Government to maintain such standards? Can the Minister guarantee absolutely that there will be no dilution of environmental or animal welfare standards, and that the Government will not risk our ability to secure what is supposed to be an oven-ready trade deal with the EU for the sake of getting any deal with the US that would hurt British farming and water down environmental and animal welfare standards?

Not only was our deal oven-ready, but anything that goes into UK ovens will always meet high quality standards. More to the point, the Paymaster General and I, and the whole of Government, are like peas in a pod. We are committed to making sure that high animal welfare and environmental standards continue to characterise British farming, which is the best in the world.

We all know that the right hon. Gentleman is not very keen on economic forecasts, but given the growing warnings from business—the latest today has come from the CBI—he must be aware of the damage that would be inflicted on businesses by red tape, tariffs and loss of access if there is no agreement reached with the European Union in the next four months. We all want a deal, but, with British businesses already reeling from coronavirus, what does he propose to say to those businesses come January if the Government’s gamble does not pay off?

The Government are not gambling. The Government are holding the European Union to account for its commitment to secure a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal and to use its best endeavours, and I have confidence that the European Union will do that.

Digital Technology

The Government have implemented the technology code of practice and service standard, which provides Departments with technical support and case studies to improve how they design, build and buy digital technology to give citizens the best services. The Government Digital Service is also building digital capacity through the Digital Academy and applying the innovation that we might find in the private sector at public sector scale through the GovTech Catalyst fund, to support the use of emerging technologies.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply, and I add my thanks to the amazing work that Jen Allum and her team have done during this crisis. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a huge opportunity in the fact that the UK has moved quickly to cashless transactions and digital government, and that as we move beyond this crisis, it is important that we do not regress and that we unleash the opportunity for economic growth?

Yes, I do, and there are two points to make here. First, the Government have taken unprecedented steps to support the economy through the immediate crisis, looking towards a strong and sustainable recovery. Secondly, I think we all recognise that digital payments have positively transformed the way that many people buy things and transact, and we are committed to supporting those payments while protecting access to cash for those who need it.

Public Sector Frontline: PPE

What steps his Department is taking to support the procurement of personal protective equipment for frontline public sector workers. (903080)

What his Department’s role is in the procurement of personal protective equipment for frontline public sector workers. (903099)

We are supporting the Department of Health and Social Care to get personal protective equipment to those who need it. We have expanded both overseas supply and domestic manufacturing and scaled up our logistics network for delivering that PPE to the frontline.

I have been proud to join Carshalton and Wallington residents who are volunteering to deliver PPE, and, thanks to the voluntary sector in my area, St Helier Hospital and GPs are well stocked. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that as lockdown measures are eased, PPE will continue to reach the frontline, particularly in care homes and on public transport?

We have 400 officials working on ensuring that we have robust PPE supply chains. I thank my hon. Friend and all those who have volunteered alongside him. That last-mile delivery has been critical in getting equipment to the many hundreds of organisations that have needed it in our constituencies, and volunteers have been critical to doing that.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all the wonderful volunteers on my patch who have been making scrubs and all the local textile companies that have switched production to help produce PPE, including McNair Shirts in Slaithwaite, which has been producing gowns for my local hospital? It needs help in getting specialist material, which is being bought up centrally by Government and is sitting in a warehouse. Can my right hon. Friend see whether we can get some of that material to McNair so that it can make gowns for the local hospital?

I thank all those people in my hon. Friend’s constituency, no matter which sector, for the work they have been doing on PPE. It just shows what can be done when the private, public and third sectors work together and are facilitated in doing that. If he writes to me with the details of those organisations, I will see what we can do to get them those raw materials.

Boundary Review

What steps his Department is taking to ensure equal constituency boundaries for the next general election. (903093)

The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill received its Second Reading last week. It delivers our manifesto pledge of equal and updated parliamentary boundaries. The Bill determines that the next boundary review, due to start in 2021, will complete by 1 July 2023 at the latest, and after that boundary reviews will take place every eight years.

I thank the Minister for that response. The building blocks for all the new constituency boundaries are local authority ward boundaries. In London, the vast majority of local authorities have recently had boundary reviews within their boroughs by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, but they await orders in the House of Commons to implement them. When will my hon. Friend implement those orders, so that the new ward boundaries in London come into operation and the Boundary Commission can commence its review of them?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question, which allows me to clarify that the laying of the orders is the Local Government Boundary Commission for England’s responsibility. I understand that, following a pause because of coronavirus-related restrictions, the commission intends to resume laying the orders before Parliament this month. There are nine areas in which revised electoral arrangements are agreed but an order is not laid, all of which are in London, and the commission intends to lay those over the summer and autumn.

My constituency is one of 27 in Greater Manchester, where electorates range from 63,000 to 95,000, and it is under-represented in this place. Does my hon. Friend agree that more up-to-date equal boundaries will give people fairer access to their elected representatives?

Yes, that is exactly what they will do. That range in constituency sizes is unacceptable, and the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill will achieve not only updated but equal constituencies and fair votes. A vote cast in any part of Manchester should be just as good as one cast anywhere else in that city or the UK.

As a result of the Bill, England looks set to increase its number of constituencies at the expense of Scotland and Wales. What action are the Government taking to prevent the weakening of Scottish and Welsh voices in this place and to both strengthen and defend the Union?

There is an awful lot of action on those scores. The boundaries Bill does an important thing first—paying equal respect to all nations of our United Kingdom—because we on the Government side believe in the Union. We believe it is incredibly important, and we believe that people’s voices ought to be equal between and within the countries of our United Kingdom.

It is interesting that the Minister talks about the importance of equality and ensuring that every vote counts equally when her Government is pushing a policy that could see some votes count more equally than others. In the light of the Windrush scandal, where we discovered that some communities find it harder to access proof of identification than others, in the days following the Black Lives Matter protests, and knowing that, for instance, 76% of the white population hold a driving licence compared with 52% of black people, if she really wants to ensure that every vote counts equally, will she ask herself: why continue with these discriminatory policies?

Because they are not discriminatory. The hon. Lady sees evils where they do not exist. Everyone on the Government side of the House, and I hope everyone in the House, agrees that black lives matter. She is wrong and has been wrong every time she has tried to run that argument about voter identification. It is a reasonable thing that many other countries do, and it will improve the security of our voting. The evidence shows there is no impact on any particular demographic group.

Lockdown Easing: Public Confidence

What steps he is taking across Government to increase public confidence in the policy of easing the covid-19 lockdown. (903082)

We recognise the range of emotions that people are feeling about the lifting of restrictions. Tremendous sacrifices have been made to get the virus under control, and incredible patience shown. We published our recovery strategy on 11 May and each day our measures follow the approach it sets out. Protecting public health is, and must always be, our No. 1 priority.

We are determined to get the UK economy—including the hospitality sector—up and running again and our schools reopened. Research published in The Lancet last week showed that a physical distance of at least 1 metre—or, if my right hon. Friend insists, 1.09 yards—

I thought he might. That was strongly associated with a lowered risk of transmission, but a distance of 2 metres was likely to be more effective. The advice therefore remains that wherever possible the public should keep two metres from one another, but the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies keeps that under review.

Can the Minister think of one specific episode in the past few weeks that might have done more than anything else to undermine the Government’s public messaging on covid? If she is struggling, let me give her a clue: Specsavers.

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point, but if he thinks that that has undermined public health messages, I would strongly suggest he might like to stop banging on about it.

The failure of this Government to take the Cummings episode seriously has not just compromised the public messaging; it is worse than that for them—it has compromised their credibility and popularity, which have now taken the catastrophic nosedive they thoroughly deserve. The public anger over Dominic Cummings has not abated, as the right hon. Lady will see if she looks at her inbox. The whole battle against covid has been wrecked by the pathetic protection of this odd man. Is Dominic Cummings really worth all of this?

It is absolutely vital in every part of our United Kingdom that people follow the advice of our respective chief medical officers. They should do that not because I, the hon. Gentleman, any politician or any adviser asks them to, but because it is the right thing to do to protect our families, our communities and our NHS and to get the economy moving again. I know that the hon. Gentleman is angry, and many people are angry, but that is what we need to focus on and that is the message we need to deliver. I thank everyone in this country who has followed that advice, because they are beating the virus.

Special Advisers: Code of Conduct

What recent assessment he has made of the compliance of Government special advisers with the code of conduct for special advisers. (903083)

What recent assessment he has made of the compliance of Government special advisers with the code of conduct for special advisers. (903085)

What recent assessment he has made of the compliance of Government special advisers with the code of conduct for special advisers. (903095)

Paragraph 9 of the code of conduct for special advisers states:

“The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment.”

It is therefore for each appointing Minister to ensure that their special advisers operate within the terms of the code of conduct.

I hope you had a pleasant birthday yesterday, Mr Speaker.

Public health experts have voiced concerns that Dominic Cummings did undermine public trust in lockdown rules, going against the principle of integrity that is in the code of conduct. Will the Cabinet Office conduct an investigation into potential breaches of the code of conduct by Mr Cummings, or have Ministers yet again decided that they have had enough of experts?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady listened to the answer I gave, which was that the responsibility for those decisions rests with the appointing Minister. In this case, that is of course the Prime Minister, who has accepted Mr Cummings’s explanations and has defended that at this Dispatch Box and elsewhere. There is little further to add to that. Of course, if it helps you, Mr Speaker, I can also add that Durham constabulary has said that there is nothing further to do, and the Cabinet Secretary has responded to Opposition Members, including the SNP party leader in this place, to say he is also satisfied.

The Minister referred to the code of conduct for special advisers in her earlier answer. Paragraph 14 states:

“advisers must not take public part in political controversy”,

including speeches to the press. The Prime Minister says that, somehow, Cummings did not offer his resignation, and nor did the Prime Minister think about asking him. What does the Cabinet Minister think would be adequate sanctions for Dominic Cummings to face for breaking the code of conduct?

I have answered that question. It is extraordinary that we have heard four questions in a row from the Scottish nationalist party, who have little more to say on the subject of how, as a country, we should emerge from coronavirus and how we should continue, as my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General explained, leading people and asking them to follow the remaining stages of the plans, so that we can keep safe and move the country on. Have they nothing better to say?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, it is the Scottish National party—I would hope the Minister would at least get the political party correct. We know that Mr Cummings is in contempt of Parliament for refusing to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also said previously that Mr David Frost should be able to appear before Committees, but he could not guarantee it. Is it okay for this country to be run by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats?

Allow me to let the hon. Gentleman into a secret: the country is not run that way; the country is run by Ministers who are accountable at this Dispatch Box. I do, of course, accept that Scotland runs its affairs in respect of what is devolved to it, as does Wales and Northern Ireland. However, we have a huge opportunity here to be working together not only for the good of the Scottish people or people anywhere else in the country, but together as a United Kingdom. I am so sorry that we have not seen a better attempt to do that from the hon. Gentleman and his team this morning. They are focused on the past, not the future.

Weddings: Covid-19 Restrictions

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the extent to which covid-19 restrictions will apply to weddings taking place in (a) 2020 and (b) 2021. (903084)

In step 2 of our road map to recovery, we are committed to exploring how we can enable people to gather in slightly larger groups to better facilitate small weddings. My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary is exploring with ministerial colleagues a range of measures to do that.

Thousands of couples planning to tie the knot this year have had their plans postponed by the pandemic. The next few weeks, as we approach midsummer day, would of course have been peak season. Through no fault of their own, they will have none of the legal protections of marriage until next year—maybe longer—when they can reschedule. Will the Government consider creating a temporary declaration of intent for those couples, backed by the state, so that they are not prejudiced in law or taxation before they finally take the plunge?

May I thank my hon. Friend for the campaign he has been running? I have spoken at length with him on many Cabinet Office calls about the cases he has in his constituency. I know that some of his cases, and those of many hon. Members across the House, will involve older people who are taking greater risks. Many people will have gone back into work for the NHS and are deeply concerned, should they become infected, what that would mean for their fiancé/e. The Justice Secretary is apprised of the issue. I think there are some difficulties with the particular route my hon. Friend sets out, but I know that my right hon. Friend will be bringing forward measures very soon.

Test and Trace Application

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the (a) development of the NHS test and trace app and (b) trial of that app on the Isle of Wight. (903086)

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the (a) development of the NHS test and trace app and (b) trial of that app on the Isle of Wight. (903089)

The NHS test and trace service is already alerting the close recent contacts of everyone who tests positive for the virus, so that they can self-isolate to prevent the spread. The app is intended to complement that service and continues to be piloted on the Isle of Wight. Consideration is being given to next steps in light of the wider NHS test and trace programme.

Given that we have known for months about the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities across the UK, I am confused as to why the Government chose to trial the NHS contact tracing app on the Isle of Wight, an island with an overwhelmingly white population. We know that BAME communities are less likely to trust the app due to their experiences of discriminatory policing and there is potential for existing biases to be amplified by algorithms. With that in mind, does the Minister still think that the Isle of Wight was the right place to trial the app?

The hon. Gentleman makes a series of very important points. The Isle of Wight was an appropriate place in which to trial the app, because by definition trialling it in a geographically secure, as it were, community was one way to make sure that we could conduct that trial in an effective way and in a way that allowed us to learn lessons rapidly. Trialling the app in other parts of the United Kingdom would have posed significant challenges, but he is absolutely right to remind us that the BAME community is more affected by covid-19, and that there are elements within the BAME community that have concerns about the exercise of state power in maintaining public order and in other areas. We are very sensitive to both of those issues. It is absolutely critical that we continue to work to identify more effectively those factors among the BAME community and others which predispose them towards either catching the virus or suffering more adversely. Of course, when it comes to our proud tradition of policing by consent and the protection of civil liberties, we need to maintain those traditions in order to command the confidence of all our citizens.

It’s been a shambles, hasn’t it? Announced in May, hiring paused in mid-May, targets missed, tracers reporting that they have been paid to sit at home and watch television as there is no work for them—and now, changes to the app are being considered and it is not going to be working properly until the autumn. Does the Minister stand by his fulsome praise of the Health Secretary or agree with scientists who said only days ago that the Government’s whole test-and-trace strategy is simply not fit for purpose?

Well, I think it is fit for purpose—not just that but it is an effective way of ensuring that we can work together in order to contain the virus. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that the scientists are wrong. I disagree with her; I think the scientists are right.

Critical Infrastructure: Resilience

Each Government Department is responsible for the resilience of critical national infrastructure in their sectors. They report to the Cabinet Office on their plans through annual sector security and resilience plans. The Cabinet Office co-ordinates the work of Departments where risks require a cross-sector response.

While we welcome investment into the UK, our national security powers on the ownership and control of companies, including national infrastructure, urgently need strengthening. So when the Government bring forward measures, hopefully shortly, will they ensure that telecoms, nuclear and other critical national infrastructure, as well as our technology base, will be protected from hostile states and state-backed enterprises, including protecting assets such as intellectual property?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important and relevant point. I would expect nothing less from him given his experience in working at the Ministry of Defence. He will know from that time why it is appropriate that we bring forward the national security and investment Bill.

Covid-19 Services: Private Provision

What assessment he has made of the (a) effectiveness and (b) value for money of Government contracts with private companies to provide public services in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (903103)

What assessment he has made of the (a) effectiveness and (b) value for money of Government contracts with private companies to provide public services in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (903114)

The private sector has been absolutely vital to the covid response and continues to be so. Despite the speed that procurement has had to run at, value for money and quality remains our top focus.

Contact tracing is highly skilled and sensitive work. Does the Minister really believe that recruiting contact tracers to work for little more than the national living wage in call centres run by Serco, which in 2019 was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, is the best way to deliver it?

If the hon. Lady has concerns about any aspect, whether related to a company or practices within a company, she should please raise it with the Cabinet Office. People have raised questions about Serco which I understand have been answered, and it has self-reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Rather than relying on local authorities and public services, since the start of the covid crisis, well in excess of £1.7 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent by this Government on outsourcing directly related to coronavirus. Given that normal procurement rules have been suspended by the Government, there is no requirement for companies to go through the usual competitive bidding process to be awarded contracts. But lo and behold, major Tory party donors and prominent Members on the Government Benches—including Ministers, may I add—have major shareholdings in or are inextricably linked to many of these firms. So will the Minister commit to making public details of all negotiations pertaining to those companies?

First, procurement rules have not been suspended. One of the absolute key focuses is to ensure that the very many companies that have stepped forward to help this nation in this response are appropriate. We know that the quality of what they are offering to procure has been absolutely where it needs to be. A huge amount of work has gone into that. I pay tribute to the civil service, and particularly to the procurement team in the Cabinet Office, for the sterling work they have done.

With regard to any allegations the hon. Gentleman might make against Ministers— and if he is referring to my hon. Friend in the other place—the Cabinet Office has confirmed that there have been no breaches of rules, and I would urge caution that, having had those categorical responses, people are very careful about what they say in impugning the character of colleagues.

Covid-19: Government Contracts

What steps his Department has taken to remove potential conflicts of interest when awarding Government contracts in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (903094)

As we tackle the covid-19 outbreak, it is crucial that Government contracts are awarded efficiently and responsibly to business of all sizes. Paragraph 24 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 ensures this by requiring all contracting authorities to take appropriate measures to effectively prevent, identify and remedy conflicts of interest arising from the conduct of procurement procedures.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), it was clear that transparency is absolutely vital to public trust in Government. Given that the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Lord Agnew, is responsible for the Government’s policy on coronavirus procurement and is also a shareholder in Faculty, a company that has recently been contracted to provide coronavirus-related services to Government, should not the Government make public the details of the services that Faculty will be providing and Lord Agnew’s involvement in any negotiations?

I refer the hon. Lady to the previous answer from my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, which sets out the situation very clearly.

Voter Identification

The Government are, as I referred to, committed to introducing voter identification to strengthen the integrity of our electoral system and give the public confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century. As promised in the Queen’s Speech and our manifesto, we will bring forward legislation to do that.

Across this House we need to make sure that we trust the results of the ballot box to protect our democracy. What assurances can my hon. Friend give that every eligible voter, irrespective of their socio-economic background, is encouraged to vote?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. This touches on the answer I gave earlier, whereby the evidence of our pilots shows that there is no impact on any particular demographic group from this policy. Indeed, the experience of it in Northern Ireland shows that turnout and participation do not come down. Furthermore, I am doing work throughout this with various organisations that represent groups who may have anxieties on any of these scores, and I am extremely keen to make sure that we resolve those concerns and, as he says, encourage everybody to register to vote.

Future Relationship with the EU

What plans he has to change the size and strength of the negotiating team working on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. (903107)

We have no plans to change the size of the negotiating team working on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. As Eric Morecambe said of Ernie Wise, it is “small and perfectly formed”.

Some of us on the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union are very worried about the Secretary of State. He was very lacklustre when he gave evidence to the Committee recently, and we are very sympathetic. This is a tough job. In reality, we have only five months to get it right for the country. Is it not a fact that there is a rift between him and the Prime Minister? The Prime Minister is not good on detail. There is a rift between them—does he need more help to overcome that?

I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for offering to step in as a marriage counsellor. I have to say, notwithstanding my earlier reference to Morecambe and Wise, that the Prime Minister and I, when it comes to everything, are like the two Ronnies, so it’s goodnight from me and it’s goodnight from him.

Personal Protective Equipment

What proportion of personal protective equipment procured by the Government during the covid-19 outbreak was manufactured by UK businesses. (903112)

The whole country is facing an unprecedented crisis, and British businesses have risen to the challenge with offers of help. Businesses across the UK have stepped up to provide PPE including aprons, face masks, visors and gowns. We have now signed contracts to manufacture over 2 billion items of PPE through UK-based manufacturers, and we have already taken delivery of products from new certified UK manufacturers.

There is no doubt that the devastating consequences of covid-19 were exacerbated because the Government allowed stockpiles of PPE to be run down and were too slow to anticipate the level of need that there would be. Given that in a worldwide pandemic there will inevitably be worldwide demand for PPE, do the Government now accept that it was a mistake to place so much reliance on overseas investors?

The Government have been working around the clock to get frontline NHS and care workers the equipment that they need to do their jobs safely and to save lives. Since the start of the outbreak, we have delivered over 1.7 billion items of PPE across the health and social care system within England. Plus, tens of millions of items have been distributed to the devolved Administrations. We will continue to pursue every possible domestic and international option for PPE procurement.

Topical Questions

Tomorrow I will chair the UK delegation at the second meeting of the Joint Committee overseeing the withdrawal agreement, and I look forward to having productive discussions with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič.

It is marvellous here, Mr Speaker. Given the Cabinet Office’s unique role in co-ordinating across Government, will the Secretary of State commit to taking up the Leader of the Opposition’s call for a national mission to get children active, social and ready for learning this summer by using charities, clubs, theatres, musicians, libraries and others, given the damage caused by his Government’s mismanagement of school reopening?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She is very knowledgeable and committed when it comes to ensuring that our schools do better for all students. We will work not just with the Leader of the Opposition but with others across civil society and do everything possible to ensure that those children who have lost out as a result of not being able to be in school can benefit from appropriate learning in appropriate circumstances.

My right hon. Friend will know more than most that under the amended lockdown regulations, the Government must now review the need for those regulations periodically. Will he commit to publishing a statement at the end of each review period, explaining the reasoning for either amending the regulations or, indeed, keeping them as they are?

That is a characteristically good idea from the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and I will discuss it with my Cabinet colleagues.

The terms of reference for the Public Health England report on covid-19 disparities promised recommendations for further action to reduce disparities in risk and outcomes, yet the report did not include a single recommendation. The Government have since announced that the equality hub in the Cabinet Office will review existing actions, commission further data and undertake further engagement. I ask the Minister: where is the urgency? On what date will we see a clear, detailed action plan to stop further preventable deaths and address the appalling inequality of this pandemic? When will the Government demonstrate, with their actions, that black lives matter by putting in place the protections that black, Asian and minority ethnic workers and communities need to keep them safe from coronavirus?

The hon. Lady raises a very broad question. As the Secretary of State for Health has pointed out, many of those who have been in the frontline of the fight against coronavirus have come from BAME communities. We know that they have been disproportionately affected both by the spread of the virus and by its severity. It is vital that we not only develop a more sophisticated scientific and medical understanding of why, but also protect those communities and do everything to ensure that they are safe from the virus and supported if it affects them or their families. Every day, I and other Ministers are asking for more evidence and more action.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting children back to school is vital? Will he commit to marshalling all the resources of central Government to support the Education Secretary to do just that? (903136)

I know that my hon. Friend is a working mother as well as someone who is committed to improving social mobility. She is also an effective champion for the excellent schools in her constituency of Sevenoaks. She is right: we all need to do more to ensure that children can be in appropriate environments, learning, growing and developing. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is utterly committed to that. One or two people in the trade union movement have perhaps not been as constructive as they might be, but I hope that they heed the wise words of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell).

It is clear that, while sharing the same objective, the nations of the United Kingdom have taken differing approaches to dealing with the pandemic. To enable restart and recovery, the devolved national Administrations may require additional powers under the devolution settlement, particularly with regard to the economy. If the Scottish Parliament seeks such powers, will the UK facilitate that, or will it restrict its ability to act? (903142)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and to Ministers and officials in the Scottish Government for their work in helping us to co-ordinate a response to the coronavirus. The hon. Gentleman is right that because of different situations, geographies and considerations, at different times the devolved Administrations have fine-tuned or tailored their policies as appropriate. However, when it comes to the economy, one thing is clear: the strength of the United Kingdom, the strength of the UK Exchequer and the strength of Her Majesty’s Treasury has underpinned the economic resilience of the whole United Kingdom. We know that if Scotland were independent, as the hon. Gentleman fervently and honestly believes that it should be, Scotland would have the largest budget deficit of any country in Europe. It is only in the interests of the Scottish people to maintain our Union, and that is why we need to maintain the power of the Treasury to support Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and English citizens.

The exciting plans to revitalise the Lowestoft and East Anglian fishing industry are founded on the principle that my right hon. Friend set down with passion and skill when he was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the UK would control who fishes in our waters. I would be most grateful if he confirmed that that principle remains non-negotiable. (903137)

It absolutely does. I know that my hon. Friend has spoken up passionately for fishermen in Lowestoft and indeed for inshore fishermen across the United Kingdom. I look forward to continuing to work with him to ensure that they can benefit from the sea of opportunity that leaving the EU provides.

This morning, the Confederation of British Industry told the BBC that the resilience of British business to a no-deal Brexit in December is absolutely on the floor. The director general warned that if the Government insist on a political timescale that takes us to the last minute to get a deal in December, it will be catastrophic for British business. He finished by saying that just because the house is on fire, it does not mean that we should set fire to the garden shed as well. What economic analysis have the Government done on the likely impact of a no-deal Brexit in the middle of a covid crisis? (903144)

We cannot have a no-deal Brexit because we had a Brexit deal that was agreed and voted on in the House of Commons, which is why we left the European Union on 31 January.

Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that as we come out of the lockdown due to coronavirus and rebuild our economy, the Government will do so in a way that levels up and works for all parts of our country and society, especially those in Rother Valley, as we pledged to do in the general election campaign? (903139)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the sad phenomena of last two or three decades is the way in which divisions in our society have grown deeper. It is vital that we heal, unify and level up, never more so than after the coronavirus pandemic. The communities of Rother Valley and others in South Yorkshire are at the heart of the Government’s commitment to making sure that opportunity is more equal. That is why my hon. Friend is such an effective voice for those communities that have been neglected in the past.

The right hon. Gentleman will have read yesterday’s damning report from the Social Mobility Commission, which highlights a failure of coherence and effort across Government to address this important agenda. Will he put his personal authority and the weight of his Department behind developing and supporting a cross-Government strategy to ensure that we narrow inequalities and injustices? (903145)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I know that even before she was in this House she had a very distinguished career in speaking up for the disadvantaged, particularly children and young people, who need the helping hand of Government as well as the support of civil society in order to achieve everything they can. She is absolutely right: there is much more that we need to do. We have touched on schools, but there are many other areas where we need to improve what we do—from child and adolescent mental health services to making sure that those in care are better supported. She is absolutely right.

Would my right hon. Friend outline progress in setting up the joint biosecurity centre, and how can we ensure that its work in controlling localised covid-19 outbreaks extends across the United Kingdom? (903140)

The joint biosecurity centre is a very welcome addition to the armoury of weapons that the UK Government have in fighting this infection. It is the case that, for the JBC to work effectively, it needs to work across the whole United Kingdom. I can confirm that devolved Administration chief medical officers and Health Ministers have been working very successfully with the Secretary of State for Health in order to ensure that information can be shared in a way that benefits us all.

We know that test, track and trace has been slow to get to where it is, but we are glad it has started. However, the key thing, whatever happens centrally, is local tracking and tracing. Hackney Council is a pioneer borough, and we are really pleased that that is the case, but what is critical is that we are not getting the data that will help us track people. For example—forgive the long question, Mr Speaker—if an individual is tracked as having been close to someone who has tested positive, all Hackney gets is the information that they live in the borough of Hackney. That is not enough to act on. When will boroughs get that detailed localised information from central track and trace so that they can act and help attack this virus? (903147)

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. I will be talking to the team who are operating the JBC later today, and I will raise that specific point with them. I am really grateful to her for raising it with me.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the work of the UK Government during the coronavirus crisis has been hugely assisted by the excellent performance of local authorities across the UK, including, in my constituency, Wrexham County Borough Council and Denbighshire County Council, and all the town and community councils across Clwyd South? (903143)

I know that in both Wrexham and Denbighshire there have been recent incidences of the spread of infection that have been concerning, and I know that my hon. Friend, along with colleagues in local government, has been highly effective in making sure that we deal with those in the most appropriate way. He is absolutely right: it is joint working with effective local councils and energetic Members of Parliament like himself that is critical to making sure that we deal with this infection.

In order to save lives, the covid crisis has actually seen the Government take, I think, the most difficult decision—to deprive people of their freedom—since the second world war. Now, as central Government take a strategic lead to set out the road to recovery, would my right hon. Friend agree with me that the real heroes of the piece are local people, charities and public services, such as the new Buckinghamshire Council and the Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, and should they not be recognised for their amazing work, which has brought out the best in our society and helped everyone? (903146)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that people in Chesham and Amersham, and elsewhere in Buckinghamshire, have benefited from her advocacy and from the energetic work of the local authority. She is right that we will, in appropriate time, need to recognise the commitment of those in civil society and elsewhere. I know that her championing of their cause has been heard in other parts of Government, and more will follow later in order to recognise exactly the validity of the argument she makes.

It is lovely to follow my great friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan).What more can the Government do to encourage people from the private sector to become involved in the management of civil services and agencies such as Public Health England in order to give good management expertise to deliver services to the public? (903150)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Attracting people from a wide range of backgrounds into Government and into public service is essential for making sure that we have cognitive diversity, as well as entrepreneurial skills. When we look at how the Government use data, it is vital that we get people in from organisations such as Amazon who have experience in this area. When we think about how we communicate our intent to the broader public, it is also vital to have people who have extensive experience in local radio as entrepreneurs. They can often be some of the most effective communicators, managing to combine authoritative communication with a lightness of touch.

In order to allow the safe exit of vulnerable Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.