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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 678: debated on Thursday 16 July 2020

Cabinet Office

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

Covid-19: UK-EU Negotiations

What steps he is taking to ensure that the outcome of UK-EU negotiations on arrangements after the transition period will not be detrimental to the UK’s ability to respond to the covid-19 pandemic. (904834)

The coronavirus is a global pandemic, and the UK is collaborating extensively with international partners, including the EU. The UK has been leading the way to find a vaccine, with the University of Oxford and Imperial College undertaking the research that will be available to the UK and the rest of the world. The UK is also seeking a deal with the EU that would facilitate continued trade in all medicinal products, but of course the United Kingdom will be ready for all scenarios after the end of the transition period.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I welcome the news out of Oxford regarding a vaccine, but the Government’s border delivery plans announced on Monday bring into stark relief the extent of new barriers to trade in goods and services and movement of people across the border from 1 January. How will he ensure that during covid and in the event of future health emergencies or a second wave, that will not result in any delays to supplies reaching patients or interruption to the flow of vital machinery and equipment?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Of course, the health of citizens is the first concern of Her Majesty’s Government, and we will be working with the Department of Health and Social Care and other Departments to ensure that category 1 goods, which include vital NHS supplies, can reach those on the frontline.

Covid-19: Regional Economic Growth

What steps he is taking to support regional economic growth as part of the recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (904835)

What steps the Government are taking to ensure equal distribution of Government funding throughout the UK in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (904836)

What steps he is taking to support regional economic growth as part of the recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (904845)

The Government have taken unprecedented steps to support people and businesses across the country during this period. So far, we have helped 1.1 million employers across the UK through our coronavirus job retention scheme and 2.7 million self-employed individuals, and we have provided £10.5 billion in small business grants. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has set out our vision to double down on levelling up, unite the country and spread opportunity. As part of that, the plan for jobs announced by the Chancellor supports all regions through upgrades to local infrastructure, with £1 billion of investment for local projects to boost local economic recovery in the places that need it most.

In the light of the Government’s avowed intent to build, build, build our way towards economic recovery, will my right hon. Friend put her full support behind key infrastructure projects in Eddisbury in the north-west, including the roll-out of full-fibre broadband and the construction of the Knights Grange women’s and girls’ football national centre of excellence, which will bolster Winsford’s jobs and economy for many years to come?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. His constituency is one I know well, as he is my mother’s MP.

The Government remain committed to delivering nationwide gigabit connectivity as soon as possible. We want to become a world leader in connectivity, increasing the UK’s productivity and competitiveness and boosting the economy in the aftermath of covid-19. I welcome the Cheshire Football Association’s commitment to provide a new world-class facility for women’s and girls’ football in Cheshire, and I am confident that the pros’ centre will become an excellent sporting asset for the local community.

We have a golden opportunity for much-needed investment in Broxtowe. We have a shovel-ready project: the Toton link road. Toton is the site of the new High Speed 2 east midlands hub. The road would link to houses that we are building in Chetwynd barracks and then on to the A52 and M1. The whole development area will create up to 4,500 new homes, and it is linked to an innovation campus, where we are creating up to 6,000 jobs, many in the high-value area of research and development. Will my right hon. Friend commit to explore this £30 million shovel-ready project, which will support the economic renewal of Broxtowe and help to level up the economy?

I agree with my hon. Friend that shovel-ready projects will play an important part in our economic renewal and the levelling up of the UK. I congratulate him on setting out the case for the Toton link road. I encourage him to work with his local highway authority, so that such schemes are ready to seek funding when suitable opportunities are available following the next fiscal event.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that schemes such as the River Thames scheme not only provide flood defences for Runnymede and Weybridge but will be a huge boost for the local economy and our natural environment?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing that issue to the attention of the House. I recognise that the proposed River Thames scheme might have the potential to better protect thousands of homes, contribute to the local economy and increase the social and environmental value of the river. I understand that the Environment Agency has offered to brief him on the progress of the scheme, and I encourage him to take up that offer.

During the pandemic, certain sectors and regions have been disproportionately hit by this economic downturn. In many cases, this is falling on the shoulders of those who are least able to carry it. In Lancashire, 82 businesses have collapsed in May alone and almost 19,000 jobs in the county have been lost during the pandemic. A failure to provide sector-specific, regionally focused support for those most at risk could end up costing many more jobs. What steps are the Government taking to apply a regional lens to this crisis and, in particular, to provide vital investment in counties such as Lancashire?

Mr Speaker, you will know that I know Lancashire very well, having lived there for 15 years myself. We recognise that every region and community will be feeling the impact of covid-19. That is why the Government have introduced unprecedented support for businesses and workers across the country to support them through this economic crisis.

Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act led to parliamentary paralysis at a critical time for our country. It is for that reason that the Government made a commitment in our manifesto and in our Queen’s Speech to take forward work to repeal it. An announcement about that legislation will be made in due course.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. She is absolutely right to highlight the fact that the paralysis of the previous Parliament, which dithered, delayed and blocked the democratic will of the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke—who overwhelmingly voted for us to leave the EU—should never be seen again. What assurances can she give my constituents that this reform can be achieved quickly and with support from all parts of the House to ensure that the kind of Brexit-blocking Parliament we saw last year will not be seen again?

There are two points to make to my hon. Friend. The first is that repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had cross-party support. It was in the manifestos of both the Government and the Opposition, so I hope that that gives it a good wind, but it is also the case that the policy needs to be carefully developed and well scrutinised so that we do not repeat past mistakes with an important part of our constitution.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer and associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). The problem we had last year was that we had a Government who were manifestly unable to get their core legislative agenda through. They did not have the confidence of the House for that, but the House voted that it had confidence in the Government. I understand that repealing the Act will not necessarily get us back to the status quo ante, so what mechanism my hon. Friend she envisage to ensure that we can never again be in that position, where the Government do not have the confidence of the House on their core legislative agenda?

I thank my hon. Friend for putting his finger on a very important part of what was wrong with that scenario and what is wrong with that legislation: it divorces the issue of confidence from the issue of calling an election. One thing we want to do as we look at its repeal is to make sure that that central tenet of the constitution and of parliamentary operation can be properly functional.

I look forward to the appearance of my hon. Friend before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee next week to discuss this matter at length. She will know that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act requires, by the end of November, a review committee to be established to review the Act in its entirety, so can she describe the arrangements for this committee and its remit?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, and I look forward to discussing more on this subject with him and his Committee next week, because it is very important and we have already begun to identify in these exchanges some of the things that need to be put right.

Of course the Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right in that the Prime Minister is required, between June and November this year, to make arrangements for a committee to undertake a review of the operation of the Act. Again, I look forward to bringing details about that forward in due course, and, as part of that, answering the particular points that he put about its composition and arrangements.

Covid-19: Government Contracts

The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented national emergency, and Labour understands that in response there has been a need for the Government to procure goods and services at speed, but the flexibility required by extraordinary circumstances is no excuse for reducing transparency or abandoning any attempt at due diligence. How does the Minister explain reports that contracts to the value of more than £830 million have been awarded to at least 12 different companies for personal protective equipment that has never materialised; that £108 million of public funds has been handed to PestFix, a company with just £18,000 of assets; and that £830,000 for communications advice has been given without any tender process to Public First, which is owned by friends of the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser, and although the payment was justified as part of the coronavirus response, it appears to relate to Brexit? How are we to believe that this Government have any kind of a grip on public spending during this crisis?

Authorities are allowed to procure goods and services in extreme emergencies, but that does not mean that scrutiny or value-for-money principles go out of the window, and the hon. Lady will understand that. I am shocked to hear that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster may know people in Public First; I wish further offences to be taken into account and confess that I, too, know people who work for Public First—as does every Member on the Front Bench and every Member on the Back Bench on both sides of the House, because one of Public First’s associates is a much-loved former Deputy Speaker of this House. If the hon. Lady has serious concerns—other than insinuation—about any contracts, there are clear processes to go through, and I urge her to do so.

Government Planning: End of the Transition Period

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the Government’s preparations for the end of the transition period. (904852)

What steps the Government are taking to ensure business readiness for the end of the transition period. (904854)

What recent progress the Government has made on negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (904891)

Earlier this week, we launched a communications campaign to ensure that people and businesses know what they need to do to prepare for the end of the year. Most of the actions will need to be completed whether or not we get a negotiated outcome. While a negotiated outcome remains our preference, our priority is to provide timely and comprehensive guidance on the changes that businesses and citizens will need to make in any scenario.

The leaked letter from the Secretary of State for International Trade demonstrates the alarm and confusion at the top of the Government. Despite Monday’s announcement, the Minister cannot convince his own Cabinet that the border will be ready by 1 January. Does he recognise the concerns expressed by the Institute of Directors, which found that only one in four businesses are ready for the end of transition because

“preparing for Brexit proper is like trying to hit a moving target”?

I understand the frustration that many businesses will have felt as deadlines that were set during the previous Parliament shifted as a result of votes in Parliament, but we now know that, as a result of the general election, the transition period will end on 31 December. There are many “no regrets” actions that businesses should undertake, and I had the opportunity to talk to the chief executives of a number of leading businesses yesterday to make sure that that message was put across in a collaborative way.

The withdrawal agreement stated that both parties would endeavour to conclude equivalence decisions by June 2020. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an update?

I appreciate how hard my hon. Friend works on behalf of businesses, including financial services, in her constituency. We have completed our side of the bargain—we have provided the European Union with the information that it needs for its own autonomous decision on equivalence—and we await that decision with eagerness.

Universities throughout Wales and the UK are working flat out to cope with the effects of covid and Brexit. Some stability and reassurance would be provided by Horizon Europe and Erasmus. Has the Minister now secured full, rather than associate, membership of these valuable programmes?

Continued participation in Erasmus is one of the negotiating requests that our team are making. We will find out from the EU the terms on which it is happy to grant continued access. We have acknowledged that we may continue to be a net contributor to schemes such as Erasmus and Horizon 2020, but it is also important that we continue to collaborate with other countries beyond the continent of Europe when it comes to education and science.

On Monday, when asked about a lorry park in Ashford, the right hon. Gentleman told the House:

“It is not the case that any specific site has been absolutely confirmed. We are in commercial negotiations with a number of sites”.—[Official Report, 13 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1278.]

So can he answer a specific question: how many sites in Kent is he looking at to put infrastructure on? How many of those sites will be to check the paperwork of goods leaving the UK and how many will be to check goods coming into the UK, because, as we all know, there is no space to do that at Dover?

We were looking at five sites, and yesterday the Department for Transport confirmed that a site at Ashford has been secured. These sites are there to facilitate traffic management and the flow of goods out of the country. When it comes to the appropriate checks on goods coming into the country, at Calais the French authorities will be seeking to check export declarations.

Continuing on the theme of lorries, the Government’s border operating model sets out the obstacles to trade from 1 January, but it promises jam tomorrow on support for businesses. For example, it warns:

“HGV drivers without the correct documentation risk being stopped from boarding services”

or being

“fined, or sent back to the UK”

on arrival in the EU. It also highlights the risk of long queues on the roads to UK ports. The Government’s solution, the smart freight service technology, is only in development and there has been no consultation on its use in Kent. The Minister often talks about providing certainty, which is important, so can he confirm to business that the smart freight service technology will be ready in time for companies to test it and train their workers on it so that it can be operational on 1 January?

That is a very good point. The smart freight technology of which the hon. Gentleman speaks does need to be tested before it goes live, but it is important to stress that it is just one piece of the range of measures we are putting in place to ensure the free flow of trade. Businesses have the information now, as a result of the border operating model, to make sure that they have all the details they need and are in compliance with the rules governing trade.

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman dodged giving a direct answer yet again. Ambiguity and confused messaging are becoming a trademark of this Government, and his answer certainly will not reassure the Road Haulage Association, which has said that this technology will not be much use unless it has the opportunity to test it and train its people before January.

Let me raise another issue. The NHS Confederation and others in the Brexit Health Alliance have warned of potential disruption to the supply of healthcare products. The border operating model says:

“For imports of medicines, regulatory licensing information will need to be included as part of new customs declarations”.

But it goes on to say:

“The requirements for regulatory licensing information are subject to negotiations”.

Recognising that we are in the middle of a global pandemic that has already put enormous pressure on existing medical supply chains, will the right hon. Gentleman say when the details of those requirements will be ready?

The details of almost all requirements are, on a no-regrets basis, available, but of course the hon. Gentleman is right, in that we seek a negotiated outcome that will mean that there are neither tariffs nor quotas, and indeed that there can be a degree of confidence on the part of all businesses about exactly what they need. He talks about ambiguity and uncertainty. We had a vivid example of that in the Chamber yesterday when the Scottish National party, on its Opposition day, requested an extension to our transition period. The Government voted against it, but the Labour party was conspicuous by its absence. I am afraid that allegations of ambiguity sit ill with the Labour party’s decision to be ambiguous on the biggest question this country faces.

Covid-19: Local Lockdowns

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on plans for potential further local lockdowns in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (904842)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on cross-Government planning for a potential second wave of the covid-19 outbreak. (904849)

The Government’s recovery strategy, published on 11 May, stated that we would move from a series of national restrictions to a more targeted set of local measures. We have put in place tools to help us do that, including the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

Although areas in the Jarrow constituency are not currently at risk of going into a full lockdown, like the one that we have seen in Leicester, it is vital that the Government take proactive measures to prevent further local lockdowns. Councils are getting testing data that is sometimes nearly a fortnight old, and they have little information, which is often of little or no help. Will the Minister provide assurances that the Government will improve communications and that data from any test and trace app, when it is operational, will be shared with local authorities to enable them to respond effectively to outbreaks in local areas?

The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I hope that I can give her those reassurances. I gave evidence earlier this week to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, where I emphasised that sharing local data—whether on testing or other planning assumptions—with local authorities, but critically also with the local resilience forums, is vital. They are in the frontline of this fight.

The report on preparing for a challenging winter produced by the Academy of Medical Sciences makes for sobering reading. It warns of a reasonable worst-case scenario in which the R rate rises to 1.7 from September onwards, leading to a second wave of hospital admissions and deaths similar to or worse than that in the spring. But it also offers hope. As Professor Stephen Holgate says, with relatively low numbers of covid-19 cases at the moment, this is a critical window of opportunity to help us prepare for the worst that winter can throw at us. I am confident that the Minister will have read the report. Will the Cabinet Office and the Government grasp that opportunity and act now to implement the report’s recommendations?

It is vital that we do prepare, and we all know the challenges that the NHS in particular faces in winter months. Clearly, with the prospect of a second wave, that will be intensified. Yes, we must prepare, but it is also a reason why we still all need to follow the chief medical officer’s advice to ensure that we minimise the chances of a serious second wave.

Northern Ireland Protocol

What recent representations he has received from businesses on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (904843)

We continue to engage intensively with business as we take forward our implementation work, and that includes the important work of the business engagement forum, which has now met seven times, most recently on 3 July.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Many business sectors across Northern Ireland are extremely concerned about the challenges for their individual areas. May I urge the team over the summer to work as hard as possible to ensure sector-specific approaches to implementation so that we do not just go for a one-size-fits-all policy?

I can give my right hon. Friend those assurances. Departments across Whitehall will be liaising in particular with individual sectors. In addition, in the next few weeks, we will bring forward guidance on the protocol for traders, which will set out details of the extensive end-to-end support that we will offer those engaged in those new administrative processes.

SMEs: Public Contracts

We are ensuring that SMEs are awarded public procurement contracts. Last year, we spent £14.2 billion with SMEs, nearly £2 billion more than the previous year. We have gone further to help to ease the procurement process by introducing a range of measures to tackle the barriers faced by SMEs, such as simplifying pre-qualification questionnaires. We now have the opportunity to make procurement even simpler for SMEs following the end of the transition period.

An SME in my constituency has recently redeployed to the manufacture of PPE equipment in response to the covid-19 pandemic, but it is finding it very hard to secure public contracts and, indeed, is in competition with international suppliers that actually cost more. What can be done to support SMEs that have redeployed to meet the national effort as we tackle coronavirus?

We have received an extraordinary response from people offering to supply PPE and UK manufacturers wanting to make equipment from scratch, including the firm my hon. Friend mentions, and we are hugely grateful to everyone who has come forward. As a result, we have now contracted for over 3 billion items of PPE through UK-based manufacturers alone. Although further personal protective equipment offers are not needed at the moment, we continue to invite other forms of support from industry.

Border Planning: End of Transition Period

What progress the Government have made on border planning for the end of the transition period. (904846)

On Monday, I made an oral statement to the House announcing the publication of the Government’s detailed border operating model, following extensive consultation. This will allow the border industry and traders to help prepare for the end of the transition period. We have also made available £705 million for upgraded border systems and infrastructure, and we have launched a new communications campaign.

I thank the Minister for his response. What support will the Government provide to business ahead of those new processes taking effect in order to help with the transition?

My hon. Friend is quite right to speak up for his constituents and for the businesses that need support. That is why we have devoted £84 million to making sure that customs intermediaries can be there for businesses, small and medium-sized as well as large, to ensure the free flow of goods, so that his constituents can be certain that their efforts are rewarded in the market.

Promoting and Protecting the Union

This Government will never be neutral in expressing our unequivocal support for the strength of our United Kingdom. In the summer economic update last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced millions of pounds of additional support for businesses across the UK through his VAT cut and other measures. We have also announced an additional £8.9 billion for devolved Administrations through the Barnett formula. The Union is stronger for the contribution that all of its four nations make, and this Government will continue to support its strength.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware of the support on the Conservative Benches for the Union, nowhere more so, perhaps, than in north Wales, where seven of the nine Members of Parliament are from the Conservative and Unionist party. In the recent Ditchley annual lecture, my right hon. Friend said:

“We need to be more ambitious for…North Wales.”

Will he agree to meet me and my colleagues in north Wales to hear just how ambitious I am for Aberconwy and they are for north Wales?

Absolutely. From Ynys Môn to Wrexham, there is a team of fantastic Conservative and Unionist Members of Parliament representing the interests of north Wales with vigour and energy. I would be delighted to meet them. We need to do more to ensure that the businesses and people of north Wales get the support they need from this UK Government, working alongside the Welsh Government, to strengthen our Union.

There is no doubt about the right hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for the Union, but perhaps he could answer me this. Why does he think that support for independence has now reached 54% among the Scottish people and reached a sustained majority in the past year?

Opinion polls come and go. I am always interested in what opinion polls tell me, but I am rather more interested in real votes cast in real ballot boxes. The last time the people of Scotland were asked if they wanted to remain in the United Kingdom they decided that they did want to by a whopping 10 percentage points—facts are chiels that winna ding—and since then we have seen how the strength of the United Kingdom has supported Scotland’s economy. Indeed, I was very interested to see earlier today that one of the economic advisers to the First Minister said that the support of the UK Government would be vital to Scotland’s economic recovery.

The right hon. Gentleman might not like opinion polls, and of course they are transitory, but let me tell him about another couple of opinion polls. Support for the Scottish National party is now at 55% and we are seeing support for independence growing month by month. He did not give an answer to my question, so I will try to answer it for him and he can tell me which one of these he agrees with. Support for independence is rising because of the Government’s Brexit and the way that they are imposing on us their Brexit that, as a country, we rejected; the disrespect; the condescension; the power grab; the barely hidden contempt for our nation from his colleagues behind him on the Conservative Benches; the mistreatment of our Parliament and our democracy; and, of course, the chaotic leadership of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Which one of those does he think is raising support for independence most?

I am very grateful for that multiple-choice question from the hon. Member. It reminds me that when I sat my O-levels and multiple-choice exams when I was a schoolboy in Aberdeen, Scotland’s schools were stronger than England’s schools. Now, after 10 years of SNP Government, Scotland’s schools have fallen behind. The record of the SNP in government, I am afraid, has been one of complacency and neglect. That is why I believe we need to have a strong UK Government working alongside MSPs from every party in order to make our United Kingdom stronger than ever.

Civil Service Reform

If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of reductions in civil service headcount on the ability of Government to implement its policies. (904848)

If he will make an assessment of the potential effect of reductions in civil service headcount on the ability of Government to implement its policies. (904869)

What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the Government’s plans to reform the civil service. (904870)

The Government were elected with an ambitious agenda. The civil service must continue to change to deliver that agenda, which means focusing laser-like on improving citizens’ lives. I was proud to be able to talk to civil servants yesterday at Civil Service Live and to be able to share with them an ambitious reform programme that has the support of public servants across the United Kingdom.

A number of my constituents are civil servants, and they have written to me to express their understandable shock and upset about the recent announcement about their jobs, which will be cut. Given the extraordinary challenges that our public sector now faces—dealing with covid, the economic downturn and Brexit—can the Minister tell me why the Government have chosen to shrink the civil service at this crucial time, and will he commit to reviewing this decision?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that question on behalf of her constituents. We value everyone who works in the civil service. I will look at the specific cases she mentions, because we want to ensure that everyone who has talent and commitment, and who wants to serve the public, has a chance to do so. If she would be kind enough to write to me about the specific cases, I will respond as quickly as I can in support of her constituents.

One of the justifications for demolishing Richmond House was that we needed extra places for civil servants working for us and generally for the national machine. Now that we have had covid and the civil service is so successfully working from home—and there are long-term plans to move to a three-day week and to allow civil servants to work two days a week—would the Minister accept that we no longer need all this office space in central London, and we can actually make some money by leasing it out to the private sector?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. People have been working more flexibly as a result of the covid pandemic, and that is something that we would like to encourage, support and facilitate. We also want to ensure that more decision making is taken closer to the people, which means more civil service jobs—particularly senior civil service jobs—being located outside London, and that does create commercial opportunities for the Government.

In his recent Ditchley speech, my right hon. Friend referred to transferring energy sector civil servants and policy makers to Humberside. Will he outline what progress he is making with that, and will he push forward and ensure that the Cleethorpes constituency plays its part?

My hon. Friend is right. I said that there were at least three possible locations for the relocation of jobs in the energy sector: Teesside, Humberside and, of course, Aberdeen. There are already civil servants in Aberdeen working in this area, but we want to ensure that more jobs are dispersed to areas at the forefront of the green energy revolution—and, of course, Cleethorpes is right at the heart of that.

On the important subject of civil service staff, what does it say about the Government’s approach to bullying that it now appears that the director general of propriety and ethics, who investigated serious allegations about the conduct of the Home Secretary, is to be moved?

I am not aware of any plans for the extremely distinguished deputy Cabinet Secretary and head of propriety and ethics to be moved. Just because the story appears in The Guardian, that does not sadly these days mean that it is true.

List of Ministerial Responsibilities

The list of ministerial responsibilities document was last updated in October. It is taking longer than usual to compile a new document, and that is in part because Ministers have been focused on responding to the challenges of covid-19. An update will be published when possible.

I am grateful to the Minister for that update, but of course it is not just the booklet; the responsibilities of individual Cabinet Office Ministers have not been available on the website, so perhaps that could be updated too. The Cabinet Office has been particularly resistant to transparency and slow to share information in recent times. It is one of the worst— performing Departments in responding to freedom of information requests, despite being responsible for FOI policy. In 2019, the Cabinet Office was the Department that was referred the most to the Information Commissioner’s Office. What is the Minister doing about this?

I hope it is the case that Cabinet Office Ministers—the team here today—have accounted for ourselves and our responsibilities adequately. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I, and all the Ministers, look forward to coming here to do exactly that, and ensuring that all our correspondence, parliamentary questions and all sorts of other things are properly answered. I hope that hon. and right hon. Members can use the contact details that are already available and those that have been updated during covid to ensure that Parliament can rightly get the information that it requires from our Department.

As for the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman refers to on transparency and freedom of information, of course the Cabinet Office proudly leads the way in assisting the rest of Government in our duties under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and other proactive transparency measures that we have put in place over the years to ensure that citizens can get the information that they need and deserve. We intend to continue leading the way, and we think it is very important to do so.

National Security Adviser: Appointment

What assessment he has made of the effect of the recent political appointment of the National Security Adviser on their ability to carry out the full functions of that role. (904862)

As with previous National Security Advisers, David Frost will be the principal adviser to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on national security strategy, policy, capability and civil contingencies. He will be supported by the civil service in the same way as any other political appointee, with openness, honesty, integrity and impartiality.

Yesterday, MPs stopped someone clearly unsuitable becoming Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Sadly, no such mechanism exists to prevent an ill-judged political appointment to the post of National Security Adviser. When will the Government stop putting the Prime Minister’s political fortunes before our national security?

I think that is very unfair to one of our colleagues, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on that. I know that following last night’s events he tweeted that national security should always be placed ahead of politics, and he is right. On that basis, I urge him, as a fellow Portsmouth MP representing that great garrison and naval city, and as a shadow Defence Minister, to work to build a constructive relationship with the new National Security Adviser. If he actually met him, he might be pleasantly surprised. For the sake of our city and our armed forces, he owes them the opportunity to build that constructive relationship with the person who will lead the independent review.

Internal UK Market

What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the proposal for an internal UK market after the transition period. (904873)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will outline the United Kingdom’s White Paper on the internal market later today. Not only will this approach deliver more powers to the devolved Administrations, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, but it will allow business and trade across all parts of our United Kingdom to prosper and flourish.

The head of the Vote Leave campaign in Scotland was quite clear about the automatic devolution of powers to Holyrood after Brexit, saying:

“Any repatriated power that isn’t already explicitly denoted as ‘reserved’ in the Scotland Act 1998 is assumed to be the remit of the Scottish Parliament.”

Why is that promise being reneged on by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, just as his own promise of migration powers for Scotland is being reneged on?

No promise is being reneged on; a power surge is occurring. Scores of new powers are going to the Scottish Parliament and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) pointed out yesterday, no Scottish National party MP, MSP, councillor or activist can point to a single power currently exercised by the Scottish Parliament that is being taken away. There is no power grab; there is simply an example of SNP myth-making, which this internal market Bill finally puts to bed.

Government Supply Chains: Sustainability

The Government prioritise the environment at every step, investing in sustainable infrastructure to fuel economic growth and to create green jobs. Contracting authorities are already required to consider social, economic and environmental impacts of their procurement. This year we will take a step further, implementing a new social value model so that those impacts are monitored in Government procurement and our high standards are maintained through effective contract management.

I was thinking particularly of economic sustainability, which also affects the private sector, not least the Scottish whisky industry, which has suffered a 65% downturn in trade to the United States, 30% of which is because of the tariffs. Can we have some clarity from the Government on how they will protect that and make it sustainable in this trade war?

I am sure we are all aware, as many people have spoken in this House about it, of the importance of the Scottish whisky industry. I am sure we will continue to have discussions on the matter.

Topical Questions

As I mentioned earlier, it was a privilege to be able to join the new permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office, Alex Chisholm, yesterday for the Civil Service Live event. I had the opportunity then, and I would like to repeat it now, to thank all public and civil servants across the United Kingdom, in the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, for the amazing hard work they have put in to helping us to deal with the covid crisis. I am sure the whole House would want to take this opportunity to thank our brilliant civil service.

[Inaudible.] the Home Secretary [Inaudible.]. The chairman of the [Inaudible.] has raised concerns about its lack of [Inaudible.] and the Leader of the House has [Inaudible.] to be impartial. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Electoral Commission should be scrapped and replaced by [Inaudible.] that the people [Inaudible.]?

The technology may have been faulty, but my hon. Friend’s judgment is not. Questions have been raised about how the Electoral Commission operates, and those are matters that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission will investigate with appropriate consideration.

The right hon. Gentleman said in his recent Ditchley Park speech that

“Government needs to be rigorous and fearless in its evaluation of policy and projects.”

On that we agree. During the covid crisis, the Government have published details of outsourced contracts worth about £3 billion, while the true figure is likely to be many multiples of that. Today I have written to the National Audit Office, asking it to review the Government’s approach to public procurement during this pandemic. Will the right hon. Gentleman, to ensure the rigour that he desires, join me in asking the National Audit Office to take a look and to help the Government to ensure value for money and the very best possible public services?

That is the best answer I have had from the Minister so far. I welcome his support, and I hope he will follow up with the National Audit Office and encourage it to do that work, particularly to help us if we face a second wave or more local lockdowns. On the theme of the privilege of public service, can he inform the House when the report the conduct of the Home Secretary will be published, following the resignation of the permanent secretary, citing a culture of bullying?

Can the right hon. Gentleman also explain or justify the decision of his party to withdraw the Whip from the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), a Conservative MP for 23 years, former Royal Navy reservist and Chair of the Defence Committee, for the crime of being elected Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee? Losing the Whip used to be the result of serious misdemeanour, not independent thought. What does this say about the Government’s approach to expertise and scrutiny?

The hon. Lady asks about two very important matters. On the first, the inquiry is quite properly independent, and Ministers such as myself have no role or oversight. It is the case that the deputy Cabinet Secretary, the director general of propriety and ethics, with the help of the Prime Minister’s external adviser on the Ministerial Code, will be conducting the conversations required. I am afraid I can say no more, because I know no more.

On the second question, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s membership was chosen by this House and an election has appropriately taken place, but whipping matters are quite properly matters for the respective Whips Offices of our parties and not for those who, like myself, exercise a different constitutional role.

Over 73% of my constituents voted to leave the EU and four years later we are finally going to have control of our own destiny. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that businesses and citizens are not only ready for the end of the transition period, but ready to embrace the new relationship with the rest of the world with hope, optimism and determination to succeed, in the same way as my constituents? (904895)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is important that we all work together. That is why throughout this week I have been talking to businesses large and small about the changes, challenges and opportunities as we leave the transition period at the end of this year. The Government’s information campaign should provide all businesses with the details they need in order to get going. If more needs to be done, this Government stand ready.

I am sure the Government understand the importance of clear and consistent messages during a pandemic, so I would therefore like to ask how the Cabinet Office will promote to the public not just the requirement for shoppers to wear face masks, but the good reasons behind the policy, too. (904897)

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and when the legislation comes in on 24 July, I hope that everybody will comply with it, because one of the reasons for making sure we can have this law is to give confidence to people that they can shop in the knowledge that public health comes first.

It was an honour to serve as Secretary of State for Wales, where every day I saw the benefits of the Union. Research and development in Wales is used throughout UK. Welsh businesses trade without barriers in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Indeed, even our Welsh Guards protect and defend the rights of us all in the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the value of the Union will remain at the forefront of the Government’s mind? Will he ensure that after Brexit we move forward more united than ever? Will he resist any new trade barriers emerging between the four nations of the United Kingdom? (904896)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is vital that, for example, Welsh lamb can be sold across the United Kingdom. It is vital also that we recognise that the labelling requirements that relate to Welsh mineral water, which enable Welsh firms to sell a superior product with confidence across the United Kingdom, are respected as well. Making sure that we work hand in glove with the devolved Administrations strengthens the Union for all its citizens.

With the east midlands among the regional economies hardest hit by the pandemic, I am sure that the Secretary of State is looking at Nottingham as a potential location for additional civil service jobs and perhaps even Parliament, but what other additional support will the Government offer our region? (904899)

It is a very important point. Nottingham has an outstanding university, great MPs, a superb location and much to offer, and it is the case that close to Nottingham we have world-leading companies such as Boots that play a critical role in the economy of our country. We need to ensure, as the Chancellor has, that we provide financial support and the regulatory environment for business to thrive. The Government have a role to play, and I look forward to discussing with the hon. Lady the many opportunities for relocating parts of the civil service to that beautiful city.

The Secretary of State plans to announce today constitutional changes that will roll back devolution—devolution that was decided in a referendum—on the basis of debates that exclude 250 MPs who are shielding from coronavirus. Will he ensure that before those debates occur, a hybrid online democracy and equal rights for MPs are restored in accordance with an early-day motion submitted yesterday by 49 MPs? (904901)

I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman, but I am not quite sure to what he refers. If he is referring to the UK internal market White Paper, there is a consultation that starts today. I thank him for the thumbs up. That consultation will take place over the summer. Arrangements in the House on how Members participate and vote are decided by the Leader of the House through the usual channels and, of course, with the blessing or not of the Speaker.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the announcement of unprecedented investment in our border infrastructure and security, reducing the burden on traders going forward. With our access to trade being through not only land borders but also Heathrow and Gatwick, does he agree that Runnymede and Weybridge remains one of the best places to set up a business? (904905)

I absolutely do. One of the main advantages of Runnymede and Weybridge is that it is adjacent to Surrey Heath, and therefore in one of the best parts of the country to do business. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many of my constituents, like his, work in and around Heathrow, and it is absolutely vital that we do everything we can to ensure that trade flows, but also that aviation and aerospace continue to get the investment that they need.

Why did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster allow a political messaging contract worth over £800,000 to be awarded without competitive tender to the company run by his former political director of communications on 3 March, before any emergency covid legislation was actually enacted? (904902)

It is difficult to know where to begin with that concatenation of invention, innuendo and mistake. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has completely the wrong end of the stick.

I warmly welcome this Government’s commitment to investing in the poorest and most disadvantaged parts of our country. Cornwall, for too long, has been seen as the poorest part of England and is set to face a very severe impact from the current crisis. Can my right hon. Friend therefore confirm that Cornwall will be a major part of this Government’s levelling-up agenda? (904907)

Absolutely. Cornwall has many, many attractions, but of course the reliance of a large part of the Cornish economy on tourism and on seasonal trade renders parts of it uniquely vulnerable, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. That is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer took the steps that he did in order to support hospitality, but more of course requires to be done. Cornwall has amazing people and so much to boast about. We do need to do everything we can to make sure that my hon. Friend and other Cornish MPs play a role in our economic recovery.

The White Paper on the UK internal market that the Government are launching this morning will have far-reaching consequences for each of the UK’s nations. The Minister said earlier that he would work hand in glove with devolved nations, so why did the Government not have discussions about the White Paper with the Welsh Government or share the paper with them? (904903)

The paper has been shared with the Welsh Government and with other Labour colleagues as well. One of the things that frustrated our capacity to have discussions on this area was the withdrawal of the Scottish Government from some of those discussions. However, I have had fruitful discussions and will continue to have fruitful discussions, including later today with representatives of the Welsh Government. I am sure that the hon. Lady would recognise that Newport’s position on the border of England and Wales gives it, in many respects, the best of both worlds, and ensuring that her constituents continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the UK market must surely be in their interests and in hers.

Blyth Valley has been largely left alone by boundary changes for 40 years, but such changes can cause anxiety and concerns within local communities. Communities are bound by a well-established sense of local identity. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that maintaining community identity is an important part of the boundary review? Will he confirm that he will do his utmost to ensure that all boundary changes are carried out in a way that is both transparent and sympathetic to the local community? (904910)

Absolutely. Northumberland is a fantastic county. To my mind, the communities of Blyth and Cramlington are particularly important because the solidarity they have shown over generations is wholly admirable. Anyone who follows football cannot help but be inspired by the giant-killing achievements of Blyth Spartans. The fact that Blyth Valley has an articulate local boy here in the House of Commons as a Conservative MP is a reminder of what a fantastic part of the world it is. We must do everything possible to ensure that the community spirit, which my hon. Friend embodies, is celebrated and protected in future.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. 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.