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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 683: debated on Thursday 12 November 2020

Cabinet Office

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

Covid-19: Local Discussions

What recent discussions the Government have had with local leaders on tackling the covid-19 outbreak. (908664)

What recent discussions the Government have had with local leaders on tackling the covid-19 outbreak. (908670)

What recent discussions the Government have had with local leaders on tackling the covid-19 outbreak. (908686)

At every stage of the pandemic, the UK Government have engaged with the devolved Administrations, metro mayors and local councils. Local resilience forums are at the frontline of providing the response to tackling covid-19, and the Government will continue to engage with local authorities to beat the virus.

With covid cases in York now well below the level they were when the city went into tier 2, can the Minister reassure me that the Government are listening closely to the feedback and case numbers they are receiving from the city authorities, and that York’s restrictions from 2 December will be based on the local virus situation and local judgments, not based on decisions imposed by central Government or on wider regional figures?

First of all, let me acknowledge the immense sacrifices that people in York and elsewhere around the country are making, and what people are having to endure. As the Prime Minister has made clear, the current restrictions will end on 2 December, and we will then return to a local and tiered approach. The Government will work with my hon. Friend and other local leaders in the area to determine the most appropriate response. We will be tailoring any tiers that people have to go into, as we have done previously, depending on what is needed locally.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the strong local agency working and local resilience forums, such as our own in Hampshire? Will the Government commit to working with local areas to really understand the pressures that, sadly, will persist even after this time? I am thinking in particular of areas such as children’s services.

I am very pleased to join my right hon. Friend in sending thanks to Hampshire LRF and all the LRFs around the country, which are doing an incredible job in such difficult circumstances. We very much understand that they are in the frontline of this fight, and communications with them and with local authorities are vital. That is why we put in liaison officers at the early stage of the crisis. We know and understand very well the additional pressures that they are under, particularly, as he says, with regard to children’s services, and children going into care or being in care for prolonged periods because of pressures on the family courts.

Will my right hon. Friend let us know what Government discussions are taking place about an exit strategy for lockdown, so that local businesses such as pubs and close contact businesses such as Skinderella in Broxtowe can plan ahead?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in recent weeks to stand up for individuals and businesses in his constituency. The Government do listen to all representations that are made, as we have seen in recent weeks—for example, over takeaway beer, which was a suggestion as to how pubs and related businesses could help themselves throughout this period. The Government are always keen to hear ideas from business and hon. Members about how we can best ensure that our economy comes through this strongly. We will continue to listen to all representations made as we leave the current restrictions on 2 December and return to the tiered system.

Transition Period: UK Preparedness

What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s preparedness for the end of the transition period. (908665)

The Government have been clear that the transition period will end on 31 December, when the UK will be outside the single market and the customs union. There is a guaranteed set of changes and opportunities for which the Government, businesses and citizens all need to prepare. The vast majority of the changes that will come into effect will take place regardless of the outcome of negotiations with the European Union on our future trade relationship. Although we have seen a significant increase in readiness among businesses and citizens, there is still more to do, which is why I encourage everybody who needs to do so to go to, where there is a range of tools to help people to make the changes they need to for life after the end of the transition period.

I have every confidence that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—and all Government Ministers—wishes to continue to prioritise the protection of children online after we leave the transition period. Over the past decade, the UK Safer Internet Centre has removed millions of child sexual abuse images and videos from the internet. Its work costs the UK Government 10p per child under the age of 15 in the UK. What assurances can the Minister give me that the UK Government will continue to fund this work, and will work with the centre, after the EU funding it receives ceases at the end of the transition period?

The hon. Gentleman raises a critically important question. The online exploitation and abuse of children is one of the most horrific crimes, and the more that we investigate, the more we are aware that its scale is even greater than any of us feared. That is why it is so vital that we continue to fund all the organisations that are fighting this scourge. Funding will be maintained. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area.

The Marine Management Organisation has stated that about 700,000 tonnes of fish caught in UK waters are landed by other member states. We catch a tiny amount in their waters by comparison. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that fishing businesses are ready to take advantage of a rebalance once we have finished the transition period?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Under the common fisheries policy, it is not just the case that environmentally we have lost out, but that the coastal communities that she stands up for so brilliantly have lost out as well. As an independent coastal state, we will be able to rebalance the opportunities in our waters in order to ensure that our coastal communities can benefit more financially. We will replace the European maritime fisheries fund with new funding to ensure that there are facilities onshore to help with the processing of the fish that we catch, and of course we will enhance our maritime security capability as well.

We left the EU in January and there are now less than 50 days to go until the end of the transition period. Labour Members have been clear that failing to achieve a deal with the EU would be a disaster for the British economy, but deal or no deal, preparations need to be in place for whatever our new trading relationships are on 1 January. In February this year, the Minister recognised the need for 50,000 customs agents trained and ready to go by the end of this year, and in July he announced a £50 million new fund to make this happen. So can he update the House: how many customs agents are now trained and ready to go?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and also for the emphasis that she quite rightly puts on the need for all businesses to prepare, whether or not we secure a deal. Of course we are determined to secure a deal, and that is why our negotiators, under Lord Frost, are working hard with Michel Barnier to close the remaining gaps in the negotiations. As to the number of customs agents, 50,000 was always an estimate. There has been a significant increase in the number of customs agents who are being employed, both by companies themselves with in-house capacity, and through intermediaries who have been scaling up their activities as well.

It is frustrating that the Minister cannot answer this basic question. One minute he wants to channel his inner Roosevelt and the next minute he says that this should all be left to markets, but businesses are demanding leadership and demanding action. Last week, the National Audit Office expressed its concerns about a lack of preparation, and now more and more businesses are expressing their concerns that crucial technology like the customs declaration system is just not ready. Is the Minister actually in control, and will he stake his own reputation on there being no delays, disruption or lost orders due to this Government’s gross incompetence?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to the National Audit Office report of last week. I would encourage everyone who cares, as she does, about making sure that we make the most of the success that life outside the European Union can offer us, to read that report. One of the points it makes is that there are many IT systems for which the Government are responsible. Progress on all those systems has been good. The customs declaration system is essential to making sure that we make a success of life outside the European Union. That is why we have invested, particularly, hundreds of millions of pounds in making sure that businesses that will use CDS when they are transferring goods to Northern Ireland can do so with the support of the Trader Support Service.

It is now some 50 days until we go over the Brexit cliff edge, and in the meantime the covid death rate in the UK reaches 50,000. England is in the middle of another national lockdown, unemployment is on the rise, and the faceless characters that actually run this country at No. 10 are at each other’s throats. Should Scotland be celebrating this incoming Brexit, and whose side is the Minister on—Dom’s or Carrie’s?

I am on the side of people from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth who voted to leave the European Union. They want us as a United Kingdom to make a success of these new opportunities. I know that the Scottish Government are total strangers to behind-the-scenes intrigue and briefing wars, so I can imagine his shock and amazement to see these things reported in the newspapers, but let me assure him that the Government continue to make decisions in the interests of the whole United Kingdom. The people of Perth and North Perthshire can have confidence that they have not only a gamesome representative in the House of Commons, but a Government committed to their welfare.

May I tell the right hon. Gentleman what Scotland is in fact doing? Scotland is quickly determining that it wants no part of this incoming Brexit nightmare after the transition. Independence and a European future is now the new settled will of the Scottish people. We are now the majority, so can he think of an example anywhere in the world where another dilapidated, finished Government are attempting to deny a majority in a democracy?

I think that the hon. Gentleman might be referring to Belarus, of course, with his last question, but let me assure him that the United Kingdom Government remain strong, resolute and committed to delivering on the will of the British people. In particular, the Union, which has provided for 300 years an example of people coming together in a spirit of solidarity to proclaim the values of democracy, human rights and liberalism, will endure for many decades to come.

We now learn that the First Minister and her deputy have said that there is a “real threat” to the continuity of food supplies in Northern Ireland. The Road Haulage Association has described border preparations as “frankly pathetic”. The customs declaration service probably will not be ready in time, and the NAO has warned that widespread disruption for 1 January is likely. Given that the right hon. Gentleman has repeatedly assured the House that it will all be fine, why does he think so many other people do not share his optimism?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. His Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union has done extensive work drawing attention to the preparations that are required to be made. There are still significant preparations that we and businesses need to make to conclude our preparedness, which is why later today, I will be meeting representatives from business representative organisations, including the CBI and others, to ensure that everything possible is being done to prepare for the changes. I do not shirk from acknowledging that there are challenges we all face in the run-up to the end of the transition period, but there are also significant opportunities for which the British people voted and which we are pledged to deliver.

Transition Period: UK-EU Relations

What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Government Ministers on preparations for the end of the transition period in the event of no agreement on the UK’s future relations with the EU. (908673)

What recent discussions he has had with Scottish Government Ministers on preparations for the end of the transition period in the event of no agreement on the UK’s future relations with the EU. (908677)

I and other Ministers have regular discussions with representatives of the Scottish Government and also other devolved Administrations to ensure that we can be prepared across the United Kingdom for the challenges we face as we end the transition period and the opportunities that will follow.

A shared prosperity fund is by its very name inclusive. Why then, given the proximity to the end of transition, are not just Scottish businesses but the Scottish Government excluded from its details?

The Scottish Government, unlike the hon. Member, will not be in the dark about the future of the UK shared prosperity fund. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that outside the European Union, we will be able to take back control of the billions that currently we give to the European Union, and we can invest that money in our shared priorities—for example, making sure that his constituents in East Lothian are better connected digitally, by rail and by other means to other parts of the United Kingdom, so they can enjoy the shared prosperity that comes from a strong United Kingdom working for all.

We now know, through leaked Cabinet papers, that this Tory Government hid their Brexit plans from devolved Governments, including on state aid and food supply availability. How does the Minister expect these Governments to prepare when those crucial details are blocked from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland? Does he agree that this level of ignorance and contempt is helping to deliver record levels of support for independence and a consistent majority over the last 12 polls in a row?

I have no secrets from the hon. Gentleman. We take an open-book approach to our preparations for leaving the European Union, which is why, later today, the Cabinet Sub-Committee that deals with the preparations—

I can see the hon. Gentleman making goldfish-type movements of his lips and teeth. Now he is breaking into a smile. That smile, of course, welcomes the fact that later this afternoon, the Government Sub-Committee that deals with our preparations for leaving the European Union will have Ministers from the devolved Administrations, including my friends from the Scottish Government, taking part. It is one of the pleasures of this role that I have the opportunity every week to talk to excellent colleagues such as Mike Russell, Humza Yousaf and others, who do such a good job in working across the United Kingdom in the interests of all.

Regional Equality of Economic Opportunity

The Government are doubling down on levelling up opportunity across the United Kingdom, ensuring that everyone benefits from economic growth. That includes longer-term measures such as £1 billion for local projects to boost local economic growth, alongside unprecedented support for businesses, workers and local authorities in every nation and region of the United Kingdom in the light of covid-19.

Cornwall has been in receipt of funding through the European regional development fund for many years. I am delighted that the Government have committed to continue to support the Cornish economy at a similar level through the UK shared prosperity fund, which will be vital for continuing to level up our country. With the current ERDF programme coming to an end shortly, it is vital that the replacement fund is put in place as soon as possible. Can the Minister update the House on when we can expect the Government to come forward with details of the shared prosperity fund?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question about Cornwall. I was delighted to have the chance to support the Cornish economy as part of a south-west visit over the summer, which included visiting him in his seat of St Austell and Newquay. As we said in our manifesto, we will introduce a UK shared prosperity fund that will match at a minimum the current levels of funding to each nation from EU structural funds. The arrangements for the fund will be confirmed following the upcoming spending review.

In order for us to truly level up, we will need to mobilise billions of pounds of private capital. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as part of the national infrastructure strategy, we should launch a new financial institution such as a British development bank to make that happen?

The Government are committed to ensuring that businesses and infrastructure projects continue to have access to the finance they need. The UK has a range of existing tools to support investment, including the UK guarantees scheme. The Government will bring forward further measures to boost investment in UK infrastructure as part of the national infrastructure strategy.

This year has presented many challenges, but as my right hon. Friend will know from her visit to my constituency in the summer, there remains a strong desire to see a levelling-up agenda in constituencies like mine, with better infrastructure, better educational standards and more affordable housing. Can she assure me that this Government remain committed to levelling up constituencies like Bolsover?

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend once again on his historic election victory in Bolsover exactly 11 months ago. I was delighted to visit him in Bolsover during the summer. I can assure him that the Government are as committed to levelling up opportunity across the UK today as we were last December.

British Nuclear Test Veterans: Service Medals

Whether his Department has made an assessment of the potential merits of service medals for British nuclear test veterans. (908668)

I appreciate how important medallic recognition is to so many of our veterans groups. There is an independent process that looks at the consideration of historical medal claims. That sub-committee restarted in 2018, and I know that it has received representations from nuclear test veterans. Those review recommendations will be made public as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister for his response. My constituent John Ward was one of many veterans sent there in 1957, and he has campaigned for many years for recognition of his work and also for acknowledgement through a medal. May I encourage the Minister to continue to do what he can to acknowledge the service of those veterans and to confirm that the recent Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which was passed, has no bearing or impact on their cause?

I have for some time been a supporter of his campaign, and I would urge him to continue in that vein. When it comes to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, there were a huge number of misunderstandings about this. It deals with people who are deployed on overseas operations. The nuclear test veterans were not deployed on overseas operations, and their ability to claim compensation for what happened to them is unaffected by this legislation.

Civil Service: Apprenticeship Targets

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on apprenticeship targets for the civil service. (908671)

The Cabinet Office has been working closely with the Department for Education to deliver on our ambition of 30,000 new apprentices by the end of 2020 and of 2.3% of the civil service workforce in England as apprenticeship starts. We had been on track to meet those targets; unfortunately, because of the pandemic, that has been delayed slightly to April, but we will be publishing further performance data as it becomes available. In the past fortnight, I have written to the skills Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan)—and the Minister for Universities about how we can broaden the apprenticeship supply market and use apprenticeships to attract ever more talented people into the civil service.

Will my hon. Friend just make it absolutely clear that all public sector bodies must fulfil the legal requirements to fill the 2.3% apprenticeship target, and will she ensure that every new appointment, where possible, is advertised as an apprenticeship to the civil service, whether at level 2 or degree level? Will my hon. Friend also make certain that all Government sector employment contracts have a significant percentage of employees as apprenticeships before the jobs of procurement are offered out?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I wish to assure him that apprenticeship recruitment is an absolutely core part of Departments’ resourcing plans. We want to make sure the apprenticeship route is used for all recruitment activity, where it is appropriate. I shall look into some of the other issues that he raises.

I am also very keen that we as MPs play our part in highlighting to our constituents some of the absolutely incredible civil service apprenticeship opportunities on offer. In that vein, I am going to host an online apprenticeship event to advertise some of the civil service apprenticeship opportunities, and I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend joined me in that event so that he can advertise them to places such as Harlow College in his constituency.

Civil Service Jobs outside London

What steps he is taking to increase the proportion of civil service jobs based outside London. (908676)

We want to make the administration of government much less London-centric and more reflective of the country as a whole, with an ambition to relocate 22,000 civil service roles out of the capital and into the regions and nations of the UK by the end of this decade. Our Places for Growth programme is an incredibly exciting one, working with Departments and public bodies to establish a series of hub locations that we hope will deliver on our levelling-up ambitions, strengthen the Union, reduce estate costs, support our industrial strategy, and take advantage of untapped talent and expertise.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Can she confirm that, as well as civil service reform, this Government will use the opportunity to level up all parts of the UK? With a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs site already in Workington, does she agree that we are perfectly placed to take this forward and ensure that the north-west does not get left behind?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We hope to be able to announce where we are going to place hub locations shortly. I am afraid that I am not in a position to confirm that now, but I am very confident that the north-west will benefit from the programme. I hope that he will engage with that and contribute in his role on the levelling-up taskforce.

The purpose of moving civil service jobs out of London is not simply to relocate jobs from one part of the country to another, but to place policy makers in communities that have been left behind for too long, such as mine in Redcar and Cleveland. Can my hon. Friend confirm that she has seen the plans presented by Ben Houchen to relocate civil service jobs to Teesside, and will she commit to meeting me and my Tees Valley colleagues to progress these plans further?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have heard the Mayor of Teesside mentioned in this place perhaps more than any civic leader in the country, and I find myself in awe, once again, of the raw power of the Teesside parliamentary caucus. I am pleased to say that I spent last night eagerly reading the Mayor’s plans for the international campus in Teesside, and I particularly enjoyed the value-for-money comparisons with the London housing market. I understand that he has already met the lead official for Places for Growth, and I will be asking for an update on those discussions so we can make sure that the north-east benefits from this agenda.

In 2018, just 9% of the civil service fast stream came from a working-class background, which was higher than some previous years, but still low. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as improving the locations that civil servants work in and come from, we need to improve the social backgrounds they come from for better policy making and delivery?

My hon. Friend’s commitment to opportunity for people from less wealthy backgrounds extends back many years to his tremendous work at the Social Mobility Foundation. We are looking at how we can get a more diverse array of people via the Places for Growth programme, but it is not just limited to places for growth; we are looking at the whole human resources strategy in the civil service so that we look at diversity in a much broader way than previously.

We now head up to Jonathan Gullis in Stoke-on-Trent. No, he is unavailable, so I call David Simmonds.

Future Relationship with the EU

Negotiations are continuing in London this week, and this of course is a continuation of the intensive talks that both sides agreed to on 21 October. Progress is being made, but divergences remain. That said, the UK will continue to engage in negotiations on a free trade agreement, and the UK’s negotiation team, led by Lord Frost, will continue to work hard to find solutions that, of course, fully respect the United Kingdom’s regained sovereignty.

In pursuit of the levelling-up agenda, which we are so passionate about, will my right hon. Friend provide an update on the progress being made to ensure that powers that are being released from EU treaties are devolved to local and regional government, where they may most appropriately sit?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point and, as a distinguished former local government leader, he knows the power of good local government to make a difference for the better for all our citizens. That is why, as we take power back from the European Union, we are working not just with the devolved Administrations in Holyrood and Cardiff and Belfast, but also with local government leaders and metro Mayors—including, of course, the superb metro Mayor in Teesside, Ben Houchen—to ensure that we exercise the distribution of power in a more equitable and progressive fashion.

These negotiations are not going well and time is running out. The best the UK can now hope for is a very basic trade deal with the EU. The Minister knows that in all negotiations there needs to be concessions and some give and take on all sides, so what exactly, if anything, is the UK willing to concede or compromise on?

The UK has already shown a great degree of flexibility in these negotiations, but it is that the European Union shows flexibility too, and in particular there needs to be full recognition that we are sovereign equals, and any attempt to continue to tie the UK into EU processes or to extend EU jurisdiction by other means will be quite wrong.

May I remind the Minister that the Road Haulage Association described the Government’s preparations for the transition as not only “chaotic” but “pathetic” and said that

“logistics may not be able to deliver”?

The Minister has a deserved reputation for politeness, but can he also be candid and give us a guarantee that there will be no jobs lost and no goods not delivered, particularly to and from Northern Ireland, when we hit the end of the transition period?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and in his time in this House he has been a distinguished champion of the rights of the people of Northern Ireland. It is very important in the discussions that we have in the Joint Committee that we make sure that we implement the protocol on the future of Northern Ireland in a way that ensures that its people can continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the UK, and in particular that we can maintain the flow of goods that are so vital to the life of the Province. That is why I am confident that the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, who is the co-chair of the Joint Committee, will work pragmatically, as he has in the past, to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have a secure future.

When the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made his statement to the House on the negotiations on 19 October, his former boss, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), was left incredulous when he told her that without access to previously shared databases, the UK could act

“more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 761.]

So can he explain precisely how without that access we will get the real-time information needed to pick up foreign criminals at the point of entry in ports and airports?

One of the things that we will be able to do when we take back control is to have total discretion over who comes into this country. One of things that we will be able to do, for example, is to end the abuse of ID cards, which are easily forged, easily used by organised criminals, and utilised in order to gain access to this country. Once we are out of the transition period, we will take back control of our borders, a precondition of greater security for all.

Frankly, we are at a stage of this process where empty reassurances and dodging questions just will not do. Earlier this week, the president of the Police Superintendents Association said that without this access, information sharing will be “less effective”, and highlighted his concern about the implications for policing and security. So let me try again. At the Home Affairs Committee on 4 November, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), was asked repeatedly by the Chair to state which real-time system will be available for Border Force to identify foreign criminals, without access to SIS II. Repeatedly, the Minister was unable to give an answer, so can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster simply answer that question?

Yes, of course; it is the case that Border Force will be in a stronger position to be able to detect a criminal—[Interruption.] Well, if the hon. Gentleman keeps asking the same question, I will give him the same answer, which is that Border Force will be able, through the deployment of safety and security declarations, to have a more effective means of monitoring organised criminals. The truth is that when we take back control of our borders, we enhance our ability to deal with criminality.

Covid-19 Vaccines: Logistics

What recent discussions he has had with (a) other Departments and (b) local leaders on the logistics of distributing covid-19 vaccines; and if he will make a statement. (908679)

The Department of Health and Social Care is working closely with Government Departments and bodies and the NHS, as well as local leaders, on all aspects of vaccine deployment, including distribution logistics.

In his response to the urgent question on Tuesday, the Minister for Defence Procurement said that it is not for the Ministry of Defence to suggest that it should do the logistics. I think he was being unusually shy. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will know how good the armed forces are at logistics, so will she ask the Ministry of Defence to definitely get involved in the deployment of the covid-19 vaccine when it is available?

I thank my hon. Friend for affording me the opportunity to pay tribute to the work that our armed forces have done across many aspects of this, often visibly but also behind the scenes in providing planning expertise. They have provided in an incredible service to every aspect of the response. This is a massive undertaking—the largest vaccination programme, I think, in the NHS’s history—but, as the deputy chief medical officer has said, plans for it have been under way for some time. That includes logistics, transport and personal protective equipment, but also an expanded workforce so that we can deploy it rapidly. Every part of Government is going to be making a contribution to that, and as soon as the vaccine is approved, we want to be in a position to deliver it to as many people as possible.

Covid-19: Government Use of Consultants

What plans he has to review the (a) Government’s use and (b) value for money of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (908680)

What plans he has to review the (a) Government’s use and (b) value for money of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (908683)

Working effectively with the private sector is a vital part of our response to tackling the covid-19 crisis, allowing us to procure quickly and innovatively and to obtain specialist solutions to the myriad challenges that are facing us. Rapidly obtaining PPE is the most obvious example, but we have also turned to the private sector to help us operate things such as the virtual courts service and video services for families wishing to see loved ones in intensive care units.

We are clear throughout that contracting authorities must use good commercial judgment and continue to achieve value for money for taxpayers, and we are engaged in both internal and external audit to satisfy ourselves that that has been the case. Through “The Outsourcing Playbook” we are also improving the decision making and quality of contracts that the Government place with industry, and we are building our internal civil service capability, as we believe it is important that we invest in our in-house capacity and expertise so that we rely less on external consultants and contractors.

The Government failed to publish any information about £4 billion-worth of covid-related contracts, all awarded to private companies, in what appears to be a flagrant breach of the law. Will the Minister hold an independent inquiry—and if not, why?

I am unaware of the details of the allegations that the hon. Lady makes and I would be grateful if she wrote to me about them. As I mentioned in my earlier answer, the National Audit Office will conduct an external review of the procurements during the pandemic, but we are also doing our own internal review. I note some of the criticisms that are made by the Opposition and I wish to satisfy ourselves that those have no basis, because it is very important in this time of crisis that we maintain public confidence in everything that we are doing.

Some £175 million of taxpayers’ money has been shelled out so far on covid consultants. There has been £252 million for face masks from a company specialising in currency trading and offshore property—more than half the masks were not even fit for purpose because they had the wrong straps on—£43 million for hand sanitisers from a company that was previously dormant, 11 PPE contracts for a pest control company, and so the sordid list goes on. All aboard the covid Tory gravy train. It is no wonder that across our country, there are accusations of corruption and cronyism, with contracts handed down to Tory firms that have links to Tory chums and donors. Does the Minister think that it is right that consultants should be paid up to £7,000 a day to work on test and trace, which, in itself, is a world-beating failure?

We are going to have to have shorter questions for other people to get in—it is only fair.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points he raises. As I mentioned, we wish to reassure the public through the use of external and internal audits on some of the issues that he raises, but when it comes to some of the contracts that have been let, we were advised by Labour that we should be looking into a number of different companies, from people producing costumes to a number of other interesting leads that actually led nowhere. We were trying to procure at speed and I have a good degree of confidence in the PPE contracts that were let during this time.

I understand what the Minister is saying about trying to procure at speed, but it does seem that some of the agencies that the Government have chosen to do this are completely not fit for purpose and inappropriate. I cite Deloitte, which was appointed to set up a testing centre in south Leamington in my constituency. It took six weeks for a couple of portakabins and a couple of gazebos. How difficult is it? Why was Public Health England not more involved? It could have done this better.

There is some naivety from Labour Members about how easy it is to do some of these very complex operations at the speed at which they need to be done. We have to thank the private sector for the support that it has given us. We do not have huge volumes of public sector workers sitting there ready to be deployed, and if we did, they would have to be sucked out of other important frontline services. I think we should thank the private sector for the support that it has given us in this very difficult time.

£1,040,585,807—that is the value of Government contracts that have been directly awarded without competitive tender to companies that have links to the Conservative party’s friends or donors during the covid crisis. Will the Minister explain why, with the Tory party, it seems to be all cheques and no balances?

The hon. Lady makes a very serious insinuation about some of the ways in which contracts were let. As I said, we have external and internal audits to make sure that those allegations are investigated and that we are confident that they are baseless. I am happy to continue to engage with her on these issues, but the challenges that have faced us in this time have been substantial and a lot of people have dedicated substantial amounts of time, often for free, to giving their services at a time of crisis. To have insinuations about their character and integrity is very damaging to public confidence.

Covid-19: UK-wide Response

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (908684)

We have extensive discussions across Cabinet and with representatives from the devolved Administrations as we co-ordinate an appropriate UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. Only yesterday afternoon I was discussing with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales how we can ensure that we can co-ordinate effectively the roll-out of mass testing.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. Building on that answer, what steps is he taking to ensure that, as the guidance and lockdown measures change, the public are fully informed about what is expected of them across the UK?

My hon. Friend makes a vital point. Of course, devolved Administrations have the right and responsibility to tailor solutions to their geography and their populations, but unity of communication is important. That is why, in the call we had yesterday, we also talked about the vital importance of having an aligned approach towards relaxation of restrictions for the Christmas period so that people can be with friends and family across the United Kingdom, confident that they are following rules that have been agreed by all.

Topical Questions

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 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.