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Topical Questions

Volume 683: debated on Thursday 12 November 2020

As a number of hon. and right hon. Members have reminded us, there are just 50 days to go before the end of the transition period. That is why I am pleased to be able to discuss with the CBI and other business representative organisations this afternoon exactly how we can ensure that we are all ready for both the challenges and the opportunities that that will bring.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Even senior Tories are accepting the inevitability of a second referendum. As Parnell once said:

“No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.”

Scots have learned, as the Secretary of State will know, from the trickery of 1979 when even the dead were counted against. Does he not then realise that the people of Scotland will not accept political chicanery on the number or the nature of the question to be asked?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. It is vital that we have confidence in the integrity of our democratic institutions. That is why the Electoral Commission and other bodies play such an important role. Of course, it is also important that people can have confidence in the promises made by politicians, and it was the case in 2014 that Nicola Sturgeon and leading Scottish nationalists made the point that that referendum was for a generation. Just six years later, I do not believe a generation has passed.

Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke are rich with industrial heritage, from the pits of Chatterley Whitfield to the pots of Middleport Pottery. We are also a UK-leading city, having installed a full-fibre network that will connect every home and business to gigabit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are the perfect location for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s new hub?

I cannot think of anywhere better to put DCMS Ministers than Stoke-on-Trent: a jewel in the heart of Staffordshire, home to industrial innovation for generations and boasting three of the finest Members of Parliament in the House of Commons.

During the Brexit campaign, my right hon. Friend wrote an article in The Sun stating that we would be able to reduce VAT on energy bills, saving the taxpayer a considerable amount of money per year. Can he set out the progress we are making on that and confirm that we will be able to cut VAT on energy bills, therefore cutting the cost of living for hard-pressed families across the country? (908635)

Yes, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. While taxation matters are questions for the Chancellor, who will be updating the House shortly on a variety of important fiscal matters, it is nevertheless the case that outside the European Union we can lower VAT in a way that we could not within the European Union—one of the many benefits of Brexit.

The right to vote independently and in secret should be enjoyed by every voter at an election. I draw the Minister’s attention to the recent report by the Royal National Institute of Blind People about the last general election that found that just one in 10 blind voters and less than half of partially sighted voters were able to cast their vote independently and in secret. What steps are the Government taking to turn around those terrible statistics so that blind and partially sighted voters can enjoy the right that sighted voters have to vote independently and in secret?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and it is important that everyone’s vote counts. Those who are living with a disability, blind or partially sighted must feel that they can have confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. We have forthcoming legislation on electoral integrity, and I know that the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), has been working with charities to ensure that we have a fully inclusive and modern voting system.

Can my right hon. Friend reassure fishing families in my constituency and around the Cornish coast that in the remaining stages of the negotiations with the EU, our negotiators absolutely will not compromise our fishing waters and that we will have the ability to act as an independent coastal state come 1 January? (908637)

My hon. Friend does a fantastic job speaking up for the fishermen on both the north and south coasts of Cornwall, and I can absolutely reassure her that in the negotiations we are standing firm on ensuring that her constituents and the coastal communities that she represents can benefit from our exit from the common fisheries policy.

We need to have inclusive education across society, including the teaching of the less glorious parts of our history, that extends beyond Black History Month. Memorial 2007 is campaigning for an enslaved Africans memorial to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, to ensure that present and future generations learn about this part of our history. Will the Minister meet me and campaigners to discuss how we work together to build this important memorial? (908641)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that levelling up is not just about increasing expenditure but about changing mindsets and creating a better understanding of the everyday issues faced by people in the north of England. Moving senior civil servants out of Whitehall and into places such as Blackpool will help to achieve this, so will he meet me to discuss the opportunities that moving Government Departments up north will help to deliver? (908638)

Yes. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it was one that was emphasised earlier. The relocation of parts of Government to different parts of the United Kingdom is not just about distributing economic opportunity; it is also about ensuring that, as we think about the future, we represent in particular those undervalued communities and overlooked families in coastal communities just like Blackpool, who for generations now have not been at the centre of our thinking about how to ensure that we truly represent every citizen. One of the lessons of the Brexit campaign and its aftermath is that far too many people in the United Kingdom felt that the values and instincts of those who governed them were out of tune with their own sentiments and beliefs, and we have got to ensure, as we restructure government, that their values and instincts are at the heart of everything.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only because of this Government supporting business and the private sector that the Government have been able to secure the personal protective equipment, medical supplies and treatments that are needed for us as a country to beat this virus and return to the way of life that we are all looking forward to? (908640)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Listening to some of the questions from the other side of the House, you would think that the only way in which we could ever procure vaccines, testing or personal protective equipment was by having some sort of Gosplan Stalinist approach in which no private sector individual or organisation could ever be involved. I think that most people looking at, for example, the contribution of—

Order. I do not think we need more political broadcasts. We have had a good day today. We are meant to have short, punchy answers to these questions, not rhetoric.

Speaking of political broadcasting, I understand that the Government are going to spend £217 million in this financial year promoting adverts, mostly on covid, such as “We’re all in it together” in our local papers and so on. They are very fluffy ads, featuring bakers and so on. How are the Government going to measure the success of that campaign when we are clearly not all in it together, as demonstrated by the north of England? (908647)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we enjoy the freedoms we have today only because of the sacrifice of those in our UK armed forces who gave their lives? Does he also agree that the UK forces are playing a vital role in protecting us against coronavirus and showing how much stronger we are as one United Kingdom? (908642)

Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. There is no better representation of how we work well together as a country than the shared sacrifices made by those in our military, and they are doing an outstanding job in supporting us in the fight against coronavirus, as they did in all the challenges we have faced in the last 100 years.

Last night, the immigration Bill was signed into law, ending freedom of movement from 31 December and allowing us to create our points-based immigration system, delivering on our promise to get Brexit done and take back control of our borders. Can my right hon. Friend outline what he envisages our future travel arrangements will be with our European Union partners? (908643)

My hon. Friend makes absolutely the right point—we will be able to control who comes into this country—but we will also have visa-free travel with the EU.

The Government have had four and a half years to negotiate a future deal with the EU, yet 50 days before we leave the transition period we still have no deal. Businesses are not only furloughed, so the staff are not there, but fragile, such as in my city of York, so what additional support will the Government bring to business both before the end of the year and to meet the additional £7 billion-worth of customs costs that they are going to have to pay? (908650)

As I mentioned earlier, I will be meeting businesses this afternoon to make sure we provide all the support necessary for businesses, in York and elsewhere. The hon. Lady makes an important point about working together, but she prefaced her remarks by reflecting on the length of time from the referendum to the conclusion of the transition period, which would have been shorter had her party been committed to implementing the results of the referendum. I commend to her the words of the hon. Members for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery)—wise men indeed.

The south-west is home to some of the most innovative and cutting-edge companies in the UK, with the Exeter science park, in my constituency, home to many highly skilled jobs. But there are still more fantastic opportunities ahead, with a potential free port at Exeter airport and formal recognition of the Great South West, to give our region a louder, unified voice. What plans do the Government have to ensure that we continue to invest in the south-west and to ensure we are not left behind? (908646)

With excellent advocates such as my hon. Friend the south-west will always be heard and never left behind, and it is indeed crucial that we make the most of the opportunities that Exeter and Devon can provide for a bright economic future.

Now that the Lords have overwhelmingly opposed the UK Government breaking international law in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, as have the United States President-elect and the EU, will the Government now honour, not renege on the EU withdrawal agreement, in order that we can support our trade, underpin the Good Friday agreement, restore our reputation and bring sunshine in place of Frost to our negotiations? (908651)

Whenever I see the hon. Gentleman, I am irresistibly reminded of the words of “Bring Me Sunshine”. I do not know whether he is Wise, but he is certainly one of the reasons the Conservatives represent Morecambe.

The Minister will be aware that even with a vaccine coming on stream and passing safety tests quickly, a roll-out will take many months, and we have local and mayoral elections coming next May. What steps is he going to put in place to ensure that vulnerable and older people are still able to vote? Will he consider, in that process, encouraging local authorities to register people to vote by post? (908652)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and he has been a consistent and effective advocate for the rights of older and vulnerable citizens in all his time in the House. We must make sure, both through effective voter registration and through the effective roll-out of our vaccination programme, that older and vulnerable voters are in a position to take part in the democratic process, and I will work with the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution to do just that.

Thank you for getting through topicals on time—we have done well. 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.