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Topical Questions

Volume 678: debated on Thursday 16 July 2020

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 into 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 for 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 the 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 not only through 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 so therefore it is 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, therefore before any emergency covid legislation was actually enacted? (904902)

It is difficult to know where to begin in 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 invest 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.