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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 681: debated on Thursday 1 October 2020

Cabinet Office

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

Future UK-EU Relationship

What recent progress he has made on negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (906869)

What recent progress has been made on negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU in relation to financial services. (906871)

This week the ninth round of negotiations with the European Union is taking place. Since the last round of negotiations, as set out in the terms of reference, UK negotiators have continued informal discussions with the Commission in both Brussels and London. Differences, of course, still remain, but we are committed to working hard to reach agreement within the timeframe that the Prime Minister has set out. On financial services, we are still seeking to provide a predictable, transparent and business-friendly environment for firms that undertake cross-border business.

Stopping illegal crossings of the English channel must be a top priority, but my understanding is that, while we are still in the transition period, our ability to tackle this issue at sea in a robust way is significantly curtailed. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that a plan is in place to deal with this issue swiftly as soon as the transition period is over?

My hon. Friend raises a very important question that is of concern to constituents across the United Kingdom. We are actively looking at the steps we can take after we leave the transition period to ensure that we can both maintain our commitment to providing a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution and safeguard our borders. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has appointed Dan O’Mahoney to lead the United Kingdom’s response in tackling illegal attempts to reach the United Kingdom.

Financial services are this country’s biggest export sector. The Treasury Committee heard evidence from the Bank of England last month that equivalence could be a real problem, as it could be withdrawn quickly. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster update the House on how negotiations on financial services regulations are going?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question, as a former Treasury Minister and a very effective advocate for one of the most successful parts of our economy. The granting of equivalence is an autonomous process within the European Union, but we are confident that the high standards of financial services regulation in this country command confidence not only in the EU but elsewhere. It is also the case that it is in the interests of EU citizens and companies that they have access to the broad and deep capital markets in London and across the United Kingdom.

Vauxhall Motors in my constituency exports the majority of its vehicles to the EU, but at the moment it does not know where it stands on rules of origin, and it does not look like that will be a priority in the next round of negotiations. Is it not time that the Government actually supported the UK automotive sector and made that a big priority in the next round of negotiations?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. If I may gently correct him, we do put the interests of the automotive sector front and centre. When it comes to rules of origin, diagonal cumulation or seeking a tariff-free and quota-free deal, that is at the heart of our negotiating approach, and the interests of his constituents are at the heart of the approach that Lord Frost is taking.

Yesterday, the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union was told by representatives of the UK chemicals industry that the cost to the sector of registering all chemicals under the new UK REACH system after 1 January will be about £1 billion because of the Government’s negotiating decisions. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why, in the midst of an economic crisis, the Government have chosen to impose such enormous costs and red tape, to no benefit whatsoever, on one of our most important and successful industries?

The right hon. Gentleman is right that the chemicals sector is one of the many economic success stories of the United Kingdom. It is an inevitable consequence of leaving the European Union single market and customs union and freeing ourselves from the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union that we have to have our own regulatory systems in place. They will enable us to be competitive and to take advantage of increased autonomy and independence in the future. One of the great prizes of leaving the European Union is that, when it comes to life sciences and other areas, we will be freed from the often anti- science and anti-innovation approach that the EU has had hitherto.

The Government have said repeatedly, and I have heard the Minister say it many times, that they want a Canada-style deal. The Minister will know that Canada’s deal with the EU—the comprehensive economic and trade agreement—contains many commitments on a level playing field, with both parties signing up to an entire chapter on workers’ rights and two chapters on environmental standards. Could he try a straight answer to this question: will the Government be prepared to sign up to similar commitments in their deal with the EU?

Absolutely—we are totally committed to ensuring that there can be reassurance on workers’ rights and environmental protection. In a previous life, I was the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and as a result of our endeavours in the Environment Bill, the creation of the Office for Environmental Protection will mean that the UK is a world leader in upholding environmental standards. We will be upholding them to a higher level than the European Union does. What we cannot accept, however, is the European Union seeking to tie the United Kingdom to its laws and its jurisdiction. We are an independent country. The people voted in a referendum and a general election for us to reclaim our sovereignty. It is a pity that the Labour party thinks that the British people, when they have the freedom to choose, will choose lower standards. That is a lack of faith in this country and a lack of faith in democracy.

Policy on International Law: Strength of the Union

What assessment he has made of the implications for the strength of the Union of recent differences in UK and Scottish Government policy on international law. (906870)

What assessment he has made of the implications for the strength of the Union of recent differences in UK and Scottish Government policy on international law. (906875)

What assessment he has made of the implications for the strength of the Union of recent differences in UK and Scottish Government policy on international law. (906893)

Given that the Cabinet Office refused to answer my written questions within the agreed timescales, will the Minister confirm whether his Department undertakes opinion polling and research into public attitudes to the Union? If that is the case, will he commit to putting that information in the public domain, since it is paid for by the taxpayer?

First, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for any delay in answering his written questions. I will take that up with the team in the Cabinet Office.

Of course, Government do undertake research, and that research reinforces to us the vital importance of serving every part of the United Kingdom effectively. The research that we undertake, for example, reveals that, across the United Kingdom, people believe it is vital that Governments work together to deal with the current covid pandemic, and it is important that the good co-operation that we have recently enjoyed with the Scottish Government continues.

It seems to be the approach of a slippery fish from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. How much money—UK taxpayers’ money—is he spending on this private polling? Given that all public polling shows that there is an increase in support for Scottish independence, is it not correct that support for the Union is pretty weak at the moment and it is only a matter of time before Scotland becomes an independent country?

Talking of fish, slippery or otherwise, one of the benefits of leaving the European Union is that we will be taking back control of our territorial waters. As the Scottish Government have pointed out, and as I know the hon. Gentleman is aware, there will be hundreds of thousands of new jobs and millions of pounds of new investment in the north-east of Scotland as a result of leaving the European Union. We do not need any opinion polling to tell us that that is a Brexit boost for the north-east. These are facts, and facts are chiels that winna ding. Therefore, that is a ding-dong for the Union.

This House has approved a Bill that allows the democratically elected Scottish Government to be overruled by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government—happy to ignore laws they have not made, happy to break treaties and hungry to take power from everywhere they can. Alongside this appalling level of respect for the law and for Scotland, can I at least highlight one silver lining and thank him for the contribution he is making towards Scotland’s independence?

It is always flattering to receive compliments from colleagues across the House and across parties, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the gracious compliment that she pays me, but it is one that I am afraid I must gently turn down, because the Scottish Parliament will be receiving additional powers—a power surge—as a result of our departure from the European Union. That proves that devolution works. I think, and I think the majority of people in this House think, that devolution provides the people of Scotland with the best of both worlds—a strong Scottish Parliament and a strong UK Parliament. The Scottish National party, I am afraid, would force people to choose between being Scottish and being British, and I do not think that people should be forced to make that choice. They should, as Andrew Wilson, the author of the Scottish Government’s growth commission report, recently pointed out, take pride in being both Scottish and British.

If the right hon. Gentleman’s Union is so strong, as he contends, can he tell me why he thinks Scottish independence is at a record high of 55% and has been at a sustained majority all year?

The evidence of my eyes is that support for our United Kingdom across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in England, is strong. People recognise that it is the broad shoulders of the UK Treasury that have been responsible for helping to ensure that we can borrow money cheaply and invest in the people of Scotland’s welfare. In the conversations that I have had with Scottish Government Ministers, they always express their thanks and gratitude for the support the Treasury is giving. Whether it is the furlough scheme, eat out to help out or the support we have been giving to investment in hydrogen technology in Glasgow and in Aberdeen, the United Kingdom Government work with both the Scottish Government at Holyrood and Scottish local government to strengthen our United Kingdom. This has been a partnership for good for hundreds of years, and I know it will endure for many more.

The right hon. Gentleman will not produce his own opinion polls and he will not believe actual opinion polls, so maybe I will give him a few suggestions as to why support for Scottish independence is so high. He can see if he agrees with me in this. How about this? The power grab; the attacks on our democracy in Parliament; the contempt this place shows for our beautiful country; the constantly saying no to a majority of our people in Scotland; taking our nation out of the EU against our national collective will; the Prime Minister; him. Do any of them sound familiar to him at all?

What an impressive list. What a pity that so many of the items in it sadly do not stand up to scrutiny. There is no power grab; there is a power surge as the Scottish Parliament receives additional powers as we leave the European Union. I think the hon. Gentleman used the phrase “contempt”. Actually, one of the things that the beautiful country of Scotland has achieved throughout our time in the United Kingdom is improved productivity, improved competitiveness, improved employment and a stronger health service. Sadly, over the last 10 years, some things have blighted progress in Scotland: a declining level of educational attainment as Scotland has gone down international league tables; a failure to procure the basic ferries that will mean that Scotland’s islands are connected to its mainland; and a failure to invest in the sick kids’ hospital in Edinburgh and elsewhere. All of those are failures of the Scottish Government. It is a sad state of affairs when the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government, who have so often committed to working together, are faced with a situation where the Scottish Government have comprehensively failed in these areas, but we stand ready to help the people of Scotland do even better in the future.

End of Transition Period: Ports

What steps the Government is taking to prepare ports for trade with the EU after the end of the transition period. (906872)

We have created a £200 million port infrastructure fund to provide financing support directly to ports. Furthermore, in July, to help the whole of the border industry prepare, we published a border-operating model for the border. An update will be published shortly, providing further details on policies and processes for the end of the transition period.

Can the Minister assure me that, when it comes to imports, we can actually get our ports ready and get imports through? When it comes to exports, this is much more difficult. Of course, our French cousins have form on this. They have stopped British lamb and British beef in the past, when we have been part of the European Union. What reassurances can we have that we will be able to get exports out, so that our great farming, food and all businesses can export into Europe through France successfully?

We think it is sensible to agree reciprocal arrangements to allow road transport operators to move to, from and through the UK and the EU. We hope to secure those arrangements; we do not want unnecessary burdens to be placed on hauliers or other road transport operators. It is in everyone’s interests that we do that.

Cross-Government Communications: Covid-19

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of cross-Government communications during the covid-19 outbreak. (906873)

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of cross-Government communications during the covid-19 outbreak. (906874)

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of cross-Government communications during the covid-19 outbreak. (906882)

We evaluate the effectiveness of Government communications. We constantly monitor and gain insights on public awareness and compliance from regular evaluations. This question affords me the opportunity to pay tribute to the Central Office of Information for its work not just on covid-19, but in preparation for the end of the transition period.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The Cabinet Secretary said that consistency commands confidence. We all heard the Prime Minister last week on TV telling us to work from home again where possible to slow down the second wave of coronavirus. However, according to the Public and Commercial Services Union, civil servants, who have managed stoically, even heroically, during the crisis to keep the machinery of state running while mainly working from home, have now been instructed to return to their offices in order for the Departments to hit arbitrary and outdated Cabinet Office targets. The Government are saying one thing to the country and something entirely different to their workforce. Can the Minister correct this anomaly?

I would be very interested to hear whether the hon. Gentleman has examples of that. As far as I am aware, there are certain areas of government that do require people to come into work. For example, some of the things that the Cabinet Office deals with have to be done in a secure environment, but we are following the same rules and guidelines that the rest of the UK workforce are. If he has specific examples that he wants me to look at, please send them to me.

Genuine concern has been expressed by the First Minister of Wales about the lack of engagement from the Prime Minister in terms of cross-Government discussions. May I raise a specific point with the Paymaster General? In England, people in restricted areas are able to travel into Wales to go on holiday. In Wales, people in a restricted area, such as in my constituency, are not allowed to travel to go on holiday. This has been asked of the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister this week. Could the Paymaster General, or indeed the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, urge the Prime Minister to say to people living in England, “If you are in a restricted area, please don’t go on holiday, please don’t travel into Wales, please don’t spread the virus”?

I will certainly take that up on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf. One of the benefits of the four nations working together is that we try to have as much consistency as possible and anticipate the impact of one set of rules on others, particularly communities living near the borders. I will follow that up for him and be in touch.

Government communications this week have been quite shambolic. My constituents have been writing to me to ask for more clear messaging. The Cabinet Office has spent more than £50 million on untendered contracts for media and consultancies, yet Ministers have found it hard to explain local measures this week. It has been reported that mask wearing in shops is going down instead of up, in contradiction to communications, and more people have been told to get the flu jab yet cannot get one. How are members of the public expected to understand and keep up with the changes if Ministers cannot?

I fully recognise that the rules have got more complex—were Matt Lucas recreating the “Baked Potato Song” now, he would have to write an opera. They are more complex because we have regional and local lockdowns, as opposed to a blanket lockdown, and I think that is what the nation wants: we want to keep our economy going and to give people as much freedom as we possibly can, while fighting this virus. By and large, although the public are fed up, they are following the rules and they are working together, with collective responsibility, to beat this virus. All Members of this House can help to deliver the messages by putting them on their Twitter feeds and by communicating them. Only by working together are we going to defeat this virus.

Regional Economic Opportunity

What steps the Government is taking to promote regional economic growth to support recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (906884)

What steps the Government is taking to promote economic growth to support recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (906889)

What steps he is taking to promote regional economic growth to support recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (906898)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This Chamber has changed in many ways since I went on maternity leave, but I am glad to say that the atmosphere has markedly improved for the better thanks to your warmth and good humour.

The Government are committed to levelling up opportunity in every corner of the United Kingdom, including as we respond to the economic impacts of covid-19. This work has many strands, from the winter economy plan to protect jobs and businesses to the lifetime skills guarantee and the investment we are making in major regional infrastructure. In the Cabinet Office, we are playing our part through our Places for Growth strategy, locating more high-quality civil service jobs beyond the capital so that the Government are better connected to all the communities we are here to serve.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place on the Government Front Bench.

The Government plan to bring decision making “close to people”. Peterborough is a city just 50 minutes from London. It is on the east coast main line and has a bustling hospitality and retail sector and a hard-working and skilful population, and a university is coming. Can my hon. Friend think of a better place for a civil servant to work than Peterborough? Will she consider the city in the latest round of civil service moves?

I thank my hon. Friend for his passionate pitch for his city. We completely agree with him that Peterborough, with its fantastic transport links, entrepreneurial people and broader economic offering, would be a great place for a new Government hub. That is why we are locating one at Fletton Quays, where I hope to visit next week to demonstrate our commitment to locating more civil service roles in the regions and nations of the UK.

Constituencies such as mine have for too long been left behind, with London taking the lion’s share of infrastructure and small and medium-sized enterprise finance. That means that good, viable businesses in Burnley are left to grow at a slower speed than if they were elsewhere in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that development banks, which are such excellent mobilisers of capital, could prove a solution to that problem?

My hon. Friend has been a fantastic champion of Burnley’s small businesses since his election. The Government are determined to reduce imbalances in access to finance for smaller firms. Some 83,000 SMEs outside London have already benefited from programmes run by the British Business Bank, which is the UK’s Government-owned economic development bank. Infrastructure is also central to our economic plan, providing opportunities for SMEs throughout the supply chain. We will publish a national infrastructure strategy, including our ambitions on levelling up across the whole UK, later in the autumn.

Pubs and restaurants in Bolton have been harder hit than those in nearly any other of the UK’s 650 constituencies, largely due to an unfairly enforced economic lockdown. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government are doing everything they can to support businesses in Bolton? I urge the Government to align our restrictions with those in the rest of the region.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is an incredibly challenging time for constituents in Bolton North East and in many other areas of the country, and I know they will appreciate his advocacy. Local lockdown decisions are determined following advice from national medical experts, local leaders and directors of public health, in accordance with data provided by the Joint Biosecurity Centre. We consider case rates, trends in the data and causes, but also local geography, before making judgments about whether restrictions are needed. We of course keep all these measures under constant review.

I share my hon. Friend’s concern for the hospitality sector, and I have spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), about the taskforce he is setting up as Business Minister to work through some of the issues for the night-time economy in particular.

In Beaconsfield, many of my constituents work in aviation or other sectors directly affected by covid-19. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that anyone who finds themselves unemployed due to businesses having to adapt or close because of covid-19 can find the education and qualifications they need for the future?

The new Member for Beaconsfield is another very refreshing change in this Parliament, and I thank her for her question. She might wish to point her constituents to the Chancellor’s plan for jobs, which is designed to help unemployed people find work through training to develop their skills. That support includes incentive payments for employers to hire new apprentices and funding to triple the uptake of traineeships. The Prime Minister also set out his commitment this week to lifelong learning. As part of that, adults who do not have a full level 3 qualification will be able to take level 3 qualifications in high-value subjects for free from next April.

I also welcome the Minister to her place. Economic growth in the regions will be maximised by the public and private sectors working in partnership. Currently, there are 92,000 civil servants in London, 56,000 in the north-west and only half of that in the north-east—and two thirds of those are in Newcastle, leaving negligible numbers in Durham and the Tees Valley. Does she agree that any relocation of Government Departments to the regions can be a critical lever and that it is important that they do not all now just move to another metropolitan centre? It is imperative that Departments such as the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government consider locating to areas such as Sedgefield, which sits on the intersection of the Tees valley and County Durham and has all the rural challenges, but also has excellent connections to London.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He also makes a passionate pitch for his constituency. The Government are committed to levelling up across the UK, ensuring that this Administration are much less London-centric. The Places for Growth programme is working with Departments on their relocation plans ahead of the spending review and continuously exploring opportunities to build clusters of civil servants across the whole UK. I welcome my hon. Friend highlighting what Sedgefield has to offer, and I am sure the north-east will benefit from the relocation of civil service roles.

There is an amazing world of opportunities, talents and skills outside London, and nowhere more so than in Teesside. We are on the up. Our airport is reborn. We are leading the green technology revolution. We have the brightest and best entrepreneurs, manufacturers and exporters. We are fighting for a freeport and gagging for growth. Could my hon. Friend confirm not if but when civil service jobs from Whitehall will make their way to Teesside?

Another very passionate case—perhaps a bit too passionate. It is incredible to see how firmly Teesside has been put on the map over the past few years because of its Mayor and hon. Friends in this place, and it is great to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) join their number. The Government are committed to relocating 22,000 civil service roles out of central London within the next decade, with the majority going to other regions and nations of the UK. We will continue to engage with the Mayor and others to ensure that the north-east benefits from our ambitions.

Government Contracts: Covid-19

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of (a) supplier performance and (b) value for money achieved under Government contracts issued in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (906877)

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of (a) supplier performance and (b) value for money achieved under Government contracts issued in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (906878)

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of (a) supplier performance and (b) value for money achieved under Government contracts established in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (906888)

The private sector has played a vital role in the Government’s response to the covid-19 outbreak, such as delivering over 15,000 ventilators in under four months to support the NHS and changing production facilities so that by December we expect that UK manufacturers will be meeting 70% of the demand for personal protective equipment, compared with just 1% before the pandemic. Being able to procure at speed has been critical in providing that response. However, we have been clear that all contracts, including those designed to help tackle coronavirus, must continue to offer quality public services and achieve value for money for taxpayers.

The Minister’s response says more about the Government’s failure to implement the recommendations of Operation Cygnus than it does about their ability to implement an effective response to the pandemic. The Government have bypassed the NHS, outsourcing billions of pounds-worth of contracts in back-room deals with their mates that then failed to deliver—failed to deliver PPE that fits on time, failed to deliver the testing capacity that is needed and failed to deliver a national tracing programme that contacts everyone affected. The Government’s actions are not just incompetent; their failure to comply with transparency obligations is potentially unlawful. Therefore, will they stop wasting more taxpayers’ money defending the indefensible and provide my lawyers with the information on these contracts that my co-complainants and I have requested?

The DHSC has procured over 32 billion items from UK-based manufacturers and international partners—an incredibly difficult task at an incredibly difficult time. We received over 24,000 offers of help from 15,000 individual suppliers, and all were prioritised according to volume, price, clinical acceptability and lead time, meaning the time from an offer being accepted by the DHSC to a supplier delivering the items. Of course I am happy to look into any offer of help from a business that was found wanting, but I refer the hon. Member to the view outlined by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who praised the Department’s response to procurement.

Track and trace services, when led by experienced public health teams, have been more effective, and at lower cost, than the outsourced system in NHS England. In Wales, the contact rate for track and trace is over 90%, whereas in England, it hovers at a little over 70%. When will the Government recognise the importance of value for money and redirect their multimillion-pound procurement towards long-established local health networks?

It has been an extremely challenging time, as I have said, and the private sector has been a valuable partner in everything we have done. The contracts awarded have been extremely valuable in ensuring that we can deliver capacity at pace. If the hon. Lady has any concerns, I am happy to look into them.

The Minister will be aware that the Competition and Markets Authority is now investigating the proposed merger of two outsourcing giants in the facilities management industry: Mitie and Interserve. Given that both companies hold Government contracts worth over £2 billion, what steps is she taking to review the implications of the merger, considering the clear risk to public funds, as well as to the terms and conditions and future employment of over 80,000 workers?

I am afraid that the Competition and Markets Authority is not within my remit, but I am happy to look into any concerns, because contracts and procurement performance are within my remit, and I want to ensure that we receive value for money for the taxpayer in everything we do.

I understand that the Government’s contract with Sitel for test and trace is renewed on an eight-week basis, with a two-week notice period. The next deadline for renewal is this Sunday, 4 October. Will the Minister publish all the renewal dates for Sitel and Serco’s contracts, and will she explain what justification the Government could possibly have for continuing with the failed privatised, centralised model of test and trace, by contrast to the effectiveness of local councils and public health teams, who are denied the full funding that they require?

As I have said, without the private sector, we would have struggled to deliver the testing capacity that we now have. Serco and Sitel are approved suppliers on the Crown Commercial Service’s contact centre framework, and they gain their places through fair and open competition via Official Journal of the European Union procurement. Value for money and capability were part of the assessment criteria. But if there are other suppliers that would bid well for the contracts, we are happy to look into that.

Government spending on consultants has risen sharply in recent years, up by around £1 billion since 2016, with contracts worth at least £56 million awarded without competitive tender during the covid crisis. Does the Minister agree with her colleague Lord Agnew that the Government are reliant on consultants who are providing poor value for money because of their vastly inflated cost when carrying out services that could be conducted more efficiently in-house? If so, can she tell the House when the review into current controls and spending limits will begin, and when it will report?

Consultants play an important role in what the Government try to achieve on particular projects, but the hon. Lady is right: we have concerns about the cost of those consultants and whether we are too reliant on them, and we are actively reviewing that. I am working with my colleague Minister Agnew on these matters.

Transition Period: Visas

What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in the EU on visa arrangements for British workers at the end of the transition period. (906880)

We want to see visa-free arrangements for tourists and short-term business visitors as part of our future relationship with the European Union. Temporary entry for business purposes, or mode 4, sets out terms under which a business person can move between trading partners. On short-term business specifically, we are only seeking to lock in on a reciprocal basis arrangements that the UK already offers to third-country nationals.

I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for that answer. He will be aware, because I wrote to him about it, that some European Union countries, such as Portugal, require people to be on a professional register before they can be issued with a visa to work in that country on a short-term contract. Can he give me some assurance that that problem will be resolved before the end of the transition period?

The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important question. He is an assiduous advocate for workers and for his constituents. We are working in these negotiations to ensure that, whether in Portugal or elsewhere, those who have skills have the opportunity to work in the European Union to the benefit of both. I am really grateful to him for being so vigilant on their behalf.

Strengthening the Union

The Government have an unwavering commitment to our Union, as demonstrated by the £190 billion of measures that the Chancellor has already introduced to protect jobs throughout the UK. We are strengthening our Union even further by taking steps to ensure the free flow of trade and ensuring that powers return from the EU directly to the devolved Administrations. In addition, we are committed to concluding the review of intergovernmental relations, to ensure that our structures are improved and adaptable for our Union, both now and in future.

The rich tapestry of our precious Union is woven together by the threads of our individual cultures, languages, traditions and values, creating the most successful political, social and economic Union in the world. So what steps is my hon. Friend taking to reach out to the devolved nations to show how much we value them as part of our great United Kingdom, on a cross-party basis?

My hon. Friend makes the point extremely well. We have confronted the recent pandemic as one United Kingdom and have achieved more together than we could have done as individual nations. That unity has been reaffirmed through the joint statements of 25 September. As I said, we have taken significant steps to protect the economy, providing billions of pounds to protect lives and livelihoods in all parts of the UK. As I mentioned in my earlier answer, the way in which we are taking our intergovernmental relations forward will show how committed we are to those relationships and to making sure that they are positive today and tomorrow.

Local Elections: Registration and Participation

What steps he is taking to ensure high levels of (a) electoral registration and (b) participation in the May 2021 local elections. (906883)

We will be working safely with the Electoral Commission to support its voter registration and public information campaigns ahead of the next elections next May, as we do for every election. Together, we will be able to ensure that people can participate in the polls safely and confidently and in a way of their choice, whether by post or proxy or in person.

It is a great pity that this spring’s elections were postponed because of covid. To reduce uncertainty about the management of our democracy next May, how seriously are the Government considering all-postal voting, which could be a good way to boost safe participation in the coming elections?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He and I both know that he is an experienced hand at election matters. I welcome his scrutiny of this question because it is important. We want the elections in May next year to go ahead, because it is extremely important that we are able to continue with our normal way of life as a country, rather than seeing any further postponement of important elections.

I do not take the view that all-postal elections would be a wise move, however, for the following reason. It is principally that we have already seen around the world that elections can be run in person safely during this pandemic. We are confident that that can be the case here as well, and I am doing all the work necessary with the electoral community to make sure that is so. Indeed, I published evidence of that only recently, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has already seen.

Furthermore, it is an important part of our elections that people can actually choose the way in which they vote—as I have already said, by post, by proxy or in person. We think that it is important to maintain that and that there is not a good enough reason to do otherwise.

This week, we have seen thousands of Czechs who are quarantined at home participating in regional and Senate elections by voting at drive-in polling stations. From the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), it is clear that this Government have run out of ideas about how to make sure that the May 2021 elections are both covid-secure and innovative to ensure that voter participation is high at these elections. Is it the case that this Government have really just run out of steam?

Miners’ Strike 1984-85

What discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the establishment of a commission on the policing of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. (906885)

I am aware that this question was also put to the Home Office earlier this week. I can confirm that there are no plans to establish an independent inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strike in 1984-85 in England and Wales.

More than 11,000 UK miners were arrested during the bitter dispute of 1984-85, and I declare an interest as I was among that number. There were 6,000 put on trial and 7,000 injured, while many were blacklisted—never ever to work again—and others died with an unjust criminal record. There was an independent review in Scotland, where miners convicted in the Scottish coalfield are set to be pardoned. Justice is being served. Can the Minister say if the miners in the UK can expect a pardon from the Government, and does the Minister acknowledge that a full inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strike is the only means of justice for those miners who were the backbone of this nation?

I admire the passion and experience with which the hon. Member speaks. I will say straight off that the report produced for the Scottish Government is a matter for them. I understand that it has reported, but that is not for me to comment on.

The core point is this: since the strike of 1984-85, there have been very significant changes in the oversight of policing at every level. I am not sure that it would be worth the efforts of an inquiry to be able to make sensible comments on that, given the quantity of change, and that the focus should instead be on continuing to ensure that the policing system is the best that it can be. I can also add that all the 33 files the Home Office had held relating to that strike have now been transferred to the National Archives and that these are available for the public to review.

Public Service Changes

With reference to the speech he made at the Ditchley annual lecture on 27 June 2020, what progress he has made on implementing changes to the public service. (906886)

Since the Ditchley lecture, I have been working closely with our colleagues in the civil service to ensure that the Government can deliver our ambitious agenda for this country. Like all institutions, the civil service and, indeed, Ministers must constantly seek to improve how they deliver, and our plans for reform for both civil servants and Ministers will be set out in due course.

There is a vital democratic connection between the manifesto commitments that we stand on at elections and the formulation of policies to enact those commitments. In what ways is my right hon. Friend looking to make better use of data and to have better interpretation of data in that vital task?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. One of the things that we need to do is to transform the way in which we use data in the public sector in order to best deliver for all voters. It is crucial to democracy that Government fulfil their manifesto commitments. We are currently advertising for a new Government chief digital officer to help to lead that transformation. If my hon. Friend were not in his current role, then he would be an ideal person to fulfil that very important job.

Covid-19: Discussions with Devolved Administrations

What recent discussions the Government have had with the devolved Administrations on tackling the covid-19 outbreak. (906887)

We and the devolved Administrations recently published a joint statement showing our commitment to work together to protect the health of our citizens, to protect our communities, and to enhance our economic recovery. Ministers from all the devolved Administrations attended Cobra on 22 September following bilateral discussions with the Prime Minister the day before. Of course I have regular meetings with the First Ministers of all the Administrations.

If the effort against covid is a war, then the first principles are the selection and maintenance of the aim. In March, the aim was to flatten the curve and protect the NHS. Has it changed?

No. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, as a distinguished Territorial Army officer as well as a very successful former Defence Minister. Yes, our aim is to flatten the curve, to protect the NHS and to save lives.

Topical Questions

On Monday, the Paymaster General and I were in Brussels for the latest meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, which I co-chaired with my EU counterpart, Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. We made progress on a number of areas, and specialised committees will meet in the coming weeks to conclude further work.

The Government have confirmed that they are adopting a public health approach to tackling youth violence. This involves a cross-departmental, multi-agency approach, and a long-term strategy over a minimum of 10 years. Can the Minister therefore offer any explanation as to why the serious violence taskforce has not met for over a year?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this question. She has been a consistent voice in this House, and beyond it, for new, imaginative and effective ways of dealing with the scourge of youth and gang violence. Her attention and focus on this issue has helped to improve the work of Government and others. Some of the issues that she mentions are subsumed within the work of the broader criminal justice taskforce that the Prime Minister has set up. I will ask the Home Office to make sure that there is an opportunity for her to be briefed on its work, and if there is more that can and should be done, then we will benefit from her involvement.

We are told that the two sticking points in the Brexit negotiations are state aid and fisheries, but we have now learned from a leaked letter—not from Ministers—that cars made in Britain are likely to face tariffs from 1 January next year, deal or no deal. Detailed negotiations on automotives or on crucial rules of origin requirements are not on the agenda for the crunch talks taking place this week, and there are no further rounds of negotiations planned. So can the Minister tell the House at what point precisely do the British Government give up on the British car industry?

The hon. Lady, not least during the time when she was Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, was a strong champion for manufacturing, and indeed this Government are strongly committed to manufacturing, not least in the automotive sector. Of course we are fighting for the best possible deal on rules of origin and diagonal cumulation, and we are seeking a no-tariff and no-quota deal with the European Union. That has always been our consistent aim.

The complacency is staggering. It is the responsibility of the British Government to stand up for British industry. The letter from the Government’s chief negotiator says that they “obviously cannot insist on” tariff-free trade. But our Government should be insisting on the very best deal for car manufacturing and for British industry. There are 150,000 jobs that depend on car manufacturing. I can tell this House that a Labour Government would do that. Will the Minister get out of first gear and prioritise and protect the jewels in the crown of British manufacturing? Will he agree to urgently meet representatives of the automotive sector and the trade unions Unite and GMB to ensure that we do not do away with this vital industry and the vital jobs that depend on it?

The hon. Lady knows how to wound with her reference to getting out of first gear. I suspect that she knows, as many Members know, that it took me seven attempts to pass my driving test and therefore I am not an expert—

I took my final successful test in Aldershot, not County Durham, but still.

On the hon. Lady’s serious and substantive point, she is right and I will happily meet representatives of the manufacturing sector, including representatives of the trade unions. It is our aim to secure tariff-free access. Officials from the Cabinet Office talked to Ford Motor Company only earlier this week to make sure that we could support them through the end of the transition period. The hon. Lady is right to emphasise the importance of the sector, not least as we move from internal combustion engine manufacture and towards electric and other zero carbon vehicles.

We have heard from the First Minister of Wales in the past few months that he has had no engagement or meetings with the Prime Minister about covid. He is clearly trying to make out that there has been no contact with the UK Government. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been significant discussion between the UK and Welsh Governments? What discussions has he had recently with the devolved Administrations about the upcoming end to the transition period? (906930)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, there was a Cobra meeting just last week at which the First Minister of Wales was an important and constructive participant, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister talked to the First Minister prior to that. I enjoy my regular conversations with the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. I think I have probably spoken to the First Minister of Wales more often in the past couple of months than I have to my own mum and dad, and that is a reflection of the high regard in which I hold the First Minister of Wales, not of any lack of regard for my parents in Aberdeen.

Last week the right hon. Gentleman told the House that the two IT systems that will be crucial to enabling goods to move across the border from 1 January—namely the goods vehicle movement service and smart freight—“are in operation.” Later that day, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association wrote that these were “absolutely not in operation.” I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would like to clarify what he meant. (906931)

Yes of course. I have found that the Road Haulage Association, valuable organisation though it may be, has not always necessarily been the most constructive partner at every stage in the conversations that we needed to have. Nevertheless, I think it is the case that we are having conversations with it and others to ensure that these and the other IT systems that we need for the end of the transition period are in place.

What steps are the Government taking to ensure that businesses in Basildon and Thurrock are ready for the end of the transition period, regardless of the outcome? (906941)

The Government’s campaign to ensure that businesses are ready for the opportunities and to meet and master the challenges that come at the end of the transition period has seen an uptick in the preparedness of UK business, but there is much more that needs to be done. We published our reasonable worst—case scenario last week to demonstrate the consequences if we do not all work together to ensure that we are ready for 1 January.

Can my right hon. Friend outline what steps are being taken to deliver the much-needed Whitehall reforms that he outlined in the Ditchley speech earlier this year to ensure that the Government can deliver effectively for all corners and communities of the UK? May I welcome his call for the civil service to return to Whitehall? (906942)

We are undertaking a number of strands of work. One is making sure that we can more effectively disperse key decision makers across the UK—to Teesside and other parts of the UK—and my colleague Lord Agnew is leading work to ensure that new senior civil service posts are located outside central London. Work requires to be undertaken to make us more transparent and effective in how we deliver for all parts of the UK. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), we are doing more to use data and digital tools to make transparent the work of Government.

    As was discussed in the Blue Collar Conservatives session in Sedgefield, opportunities for UK growth post-covid and Brexit are aligned by doing everything that we can to support Made in Britain. Will my right hon. Friend support that agenda and encourage HS2 in particular to do so rather than placing orders for steel and bridges overseas? We have great companies in Sedgefield such as Ebac, Cleveland Bridge, Hitachi and indeed Roman showers, of which David Osborne, one of the joint chairs of Made in Britain, is the managing director. I invite my right hon. Friend to come with me to visit Roman and others to see for himself the passion behind a Made in Britain agenda? (906944)

Hon. Members for Sedgefield have always been powerful advocates for the north-east, but none more so than my hon. Friend the current Member. He is absolutely right that Teesside, with Sedgefield in particular and County Durham as well, is at the beating heart of the economic future of this country. We need to invest in the next generation of manufacturing excellence; it is the young men and women of his constituency who will be at the cutting edge of that revolution, and they have no better advocate for manufacturing, for growth and for smarter government than him.

I come now to the hon. Member for Bedford, whose birthday it is. Happy birthday, Mohammad Yasin.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that over his dead body would he accept United States food standards, so will he take the opportunity to protect our farmers and keep our food clean and safe in a post-Brexit future by enshrining our standards in law when the Agriculture Bill returns to this place?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and I wish him a happy birthday. I also take the opportunity, while at the Dispatch Box, to wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) a happy birthday. It is her birthday as well today, and I hope that she has an enjoyable day and a relaxing weekend. On the broader question of food standards, it is already the case that in law we uphold very high animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety standards, and there will be no compromise on those.

Like many small and medium-sized enterprises, Hydro Cleansing in Carshalton and Wallington provides very specialist services that are not available on the open market, yet it still has trouble getting access to public sector contracts. What more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that SMEs such as Hydro Cleansing can get access to those contracts?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of our economy, and in Carshalton and Wallington there are a number of SMEs, effectively represented by him, who deserve a squarer go when it comes to getting access to Government contracts. We need to simplify the process of procurement, and outside the European Union we can do precisely that.

Given that today we have heard a number of very positive comments from Ministers about the effectiveness and the quality—sorry, I am trying not to laugh here—of the delivery of test and trace by the private sector, is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster aware of the recent survey that showed that 74% of the public want those services delivered by local public health teams, which have proven to be far more effective in stopping the spread of the virus?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. The important thing to say is that, when it comes to the delivery of all public services, what is right is what works. We need to ensure that we have an effective mix of public sector and private sector delivery. It is the case that we would not have been able to increase testing capacity to the current levels that we have without the involvement of the private sector, and it is central Government, local government and the private sector working effectively together that ensures that we can both test, and track and trace, in the way that is best guaranteed to keep our respective constituents safe. So we look at the evidence, but we also ensure that we do everything we can to have the innovation of the private sector and the compassion of the public sector working hand in hand.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is in the interests of both Unions—the EU and the UK—for the EU to return to the negotiating table, end its games of brinkmanship and sign the deal?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One reason that David Frost is in Brussels today is to seek to ensure that we can get the best possible deal. Progress has been made in a huge number of areas, but, as the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) pointed out earlier, there are still one or two sticking points—on state aid, the level playing field and fisheries. With good will on both sides, we can achieve resolution. I certainly know that the Government are determined to do that, but of course we have clear red lines that we will not cross. It is vital that we maintain our faith with the British electorate, and ensure that on 1 January we leave the European Union, single market and customs union, and take back control.

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.