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Topical Questions

Volume 686: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020

The House will know that last week I made a statement confirming that vice-president Maroš Šefčovič of the European Commission and I had reached agreement in principle on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. As set out in my written statement issued yesterday, I am pleased to say that vice-president Šefčovič and I shall be meeting again later today in a formal session of the withdrawal agreement Joint Committee. I look forward to updating the House on the outcome of that meeting.

I was contacted late last night by a businessman in my constituency who is reliant on imports from the continent. He cannot find a haulage firm willing to carriage on his behalf, due to the current delays at the ports. He is very concerned; unless this issue is resolved, his business will not survive into the new year. What is the Minister’s advice to my constituent?

I know what a diligent constituency Member the hon. Gentleman is. If he gets in touch with my office, I will be directly in touch with the business concerned.

The recent announcement by the Chancellor of a £220 million pilot scheme for the shared prosperity fund is a welcome step forward. However, there are some in Cornwall who claim that this is a sign that the Government will break their commitment to match the funding that places such as Cornwall received through the EU. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to replacing EU funding, which amounted to £1.5 billion per year, in full, and that, as the Prime Minister has stated, Cornwall will receive its share in a dedicated pot? (910400)

I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that, as set out at the spending review, funding for the UK shared prosperity fund will be increased so that it at least matches the EU receipts on average, which reached around £1.5 billion a year. We will publish a UK-wide framework in the spring, which will set out full details, and to help local areas prepare for the introduction of the SPF, we are providing the additional £220 million that my hon. Friend referred to. Of course, we will work closely with Cornwall to ensure that it gets the funding that it needs and for which he is such an effective advocate.

The UK’s ports are our gateway to the world. Yesterday, the port infrastructure fund was finally announced. We found out that Dover did not get the £33 million that it asked for; instead, it got just £33,000. Portsmouth faces a shortfall of £8 million. The Minister recently visited that port, so he knows its huge importance. Why have the Government short-changed vital infrastructure critical to the everyday economy, while at the same time wasting millions of pounds on consultants and middlemen as part of Tory cronyism?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. The funding in the port infrastructure fund was specifically available for projects that were due to be delivered by July next year, when full import controls will be in place. Dover was bidding for some infrastructure that would be complete by 2023, which is intended, of course, to take advantage of the new opportunities that control over our borders will bring. We are working with Dover to ensure that a new approach towards juxtaposed controls can be in place.

We are also working with Portsmouth. Portsmouth port is not unique, but it is certainly singular in that it is owned by the local authority, which does a very good job. We are working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Transport and others to ensure that not just the port but the broader infrastructure in Portsmouth and that part of Hampshire is sufficient for the needs of port users.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he needs to give greater assurances that there will not be the delays and disruption that we all fear. A letter from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) states:

“Ministers…decided that all bids which are recommended to be supported will be funded to 66%”.

Not 100%, but just 66%. What a false economy given the cost to British businesses and consumers of delays and disruption at the border. Will the Government publish the full rationale for each of their 53 port decisions, not least since some companies received next to nothing while one port company, which coincidentally pays a former Tory Cabinet Minister £100,000 a year, was awarded £26 million yesterday by this Government?

Of course, we would be delighted to make sure that the full assessment criteria are shared with the hon. Lady and with all constituency Members. The port infrastructure team had an independent team to look at the eligibility of all the ports that applied and to assess all the bids. They were done on the most rigorous of bases. It is the case that a number of ports have welcomed the additional funding and the additional infrastructure support it will give, but we will continue to work with all ports to ensure we can have a world-class border. The publication today of our future border plan for 2025 lays out the means by which we will do so.

The year 2021 will bring significant opportunities for coastal communities such as Lowestoft to drive forward the covid recovery in the energy, fishing, food and trade sectors. Will my right hon. Friend outline the steps he is taking to ensure that the promotion of investment in ports, manufacturing and processing infrastructure is fully and properly co-ordinated between his and other Departments, including the Departments for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for Transport and for International Trade? (910401)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Lowestoft is a hugely important port. All the ports in Suffolk and those that serve the North sea are ports in which we wish to invest, because, as he rightly points out, their potential, not just when it comes to increased access to our own fishing waters but new investment in renewables, is growing all the time. Our border strategy, which we published today, has been published in consultation with other Government Departments. He is absolutely right that we need to continue to work with them to take advantage of the opportunities of the future.

Happy Christmas, Mr Speaker. We will not be in the single market or the customs union, but the deal on the table offers free trade without tariffs, minimum environmental and worker protection, and sovereignty to diverge for selective adjudicated tariffs if, and only if, we undercut EU standards. Why then, on the last day of Parliament, is the Minister continuing to threaten UK business with no deal, plunging them into immediate tariffs for no divergence in just two weeks’ time? (910405)

Bore da, Mr Speaker, and to the hon. Gentleman. It is the case that the UK Government have been clear about the importance of maintaining sovereignty, the right to diverge and full control over our waters. We shall not be ambiguous about that, but we are determined, if we can, to reach a free trade agreement. Our negotiators are working hard to that end.

I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and colleagues across the Chamber are aware that the world’s finest ceramics are made in the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent, and that the ceramics industry, both traditional and advanced ceramics, are integral to the UK’s economy. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, whether the outcome of the talks with the EU is Canada or Australia, Stoke-on-Trent companies such as Churchill China and Steelite will continue to remain world leaders in manufacturing and production? (910402)

Not just the company my hon. Friend mentions, but Royal Doulton, Wedgwood, Spode and of course more recently Emma Bridgewater. Those are names that are known across the globe. They shine a light on the brilliant ceramics sector that is housed in Stoke-on-Trent and the potteries towns. We will ensure in the future, as we leave the European Union, that across the world people have the chance to dine off and to drink from the first-class products made in his and his neighbours’ constituencies.

Under the coalition Government, great progress was made to improve Government procurement practices. There is still much more that can be done, particularly in the NHS, by taking advantage of national procurement where it does not currently exist. Given the scale of the debt that our country is now in following the covid crisis, will my right hon. Friend the Minister reassure me that the Government will redouble their efforts to improve Government procurement practices going forward? (910403)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. May I take this opportunity briefly to thank him for the work he has undertaken as vice-chairman of the all-party group on coronavirus and the work he continues to do on the NHS frontline. He has shown real leadership in the fight against this dreadful virus. He is absolutely right that we need to improve procurement. The procurement Green Paper published earlier this week is a part of that, but I hope to work with him and others on the frontline to ensure that the Department of Health and Social Care does even better in the future.

In his previous response to me, the Minister talked about looking after the nuclear test veterans. Since they have not received compensation for their exposure to ionising radiation, this is frankly laughable. Is not the real reason these veterans have not received their medal that this would be an admission by the UK Government that they were placed in an extremely hazardous situation? (910417)

That is not the real reason at all. This is a very clear process that is rightly outwith the control of Ministers. There is an independent committee that looks at medallic recognition. They have looked at this again and come to the decision that they have. It would be worthwhile funnelling energies into how we look after this special cohort of people. This decision does not diminish their service in any way and, again, I am happy to meet both the hon. Lady and the chairmen of the campaign groups to make sure that we are doing all we can to look after those who have served.

Matt Vickers—not here. Oh dear, it is not a good day. Dr Rupa Huq—not here. It is definitely not a good day.

Yesterday, Emma McClarkin, the chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the frustration in her industry at not being privy to data or being involved in the drafting of guidance related to restrictions on hospitality. Seventy million pints were lost in the first lockdown. As brewers and publicans try to understand changing and complex data, will my right hon. Friend consider ways to involve the industry at as early a stage as possible and share as much data as possible so that clear guidance can be issued and the industry can plan ahead? (910407)

May I, first, join you, Mr Speaker, in lamenting the absence of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq)? I hope that she is well and—[Interruption.] Anyway, we are all rooting for her.

You are absolutely right. I lament all these absences, but I am even more grateful for the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall), who has asked his second question in this session. It is a very good one because he is absolutely right. The increasing and welcome support for the spread of real ale has meant that necessarily, as pubs have closed and moved towards takeaway, we have lost some of that production, and those in the hospitality sector have faced very difficult times. He is absolutely right that we need to work more closely with the hospitality sector to understand the pressures that they face at this very difficult time, and I am grateful to him for raising this issue.

Derbyshire is a fantastic place to live and work. It has an all-round economy and great culture. Will the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to increase the proportion of the civil service based outside London and when they will be coming to Derbyshire? (910408)

I can only agree with my hon. Friend: Derbyshire is a great place to live. It rivals Lancashire in the many attractions that it has for people of good taste. Early in the new year, we will be announcing steps that we are taking to move more jobs and more civil service responsibilities out of Whitehall and into locations such as Derbyshire, Lancashire and, of course, Teesside.

Listen, Dominic Cummings, the man who single-handedly destroyed the nation’s trust on covid-19, was booted out of No. 10 with a £40,000 pay increase. This is at a time when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have lost their livelihoods, and many more will follow. Millions of other people are facing a real-terms pay freeze. Does the Minister agree that this is totally and utterly immoral—in fact, obscene? And at a time of good will, does he recognise that good old British saying, “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”? (910421)

I am very grateful for the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He is a brilliant campaigner and a doughty fighter. He has been at the frontline of the trade union movement and at the heart of the Labour party for many years. He puts his case very, very well. I respectfully disagree with him on the particular case that he mentions, but I do agree with him on the broader need for us all to recognise the significant sacrifice that the working people across this country have been making during the covid pandemic, and I thank him for the way in which he has fought for his constituents to ensure that our NHS is there for them. I look forward to working with him outside the to and fro of this Chamber because I know what a great-hearted man he is.

Several businesses in my constituency of Kensington are major importers; I think, for example, of Innocent Drinks, which is a large importer of fruit juice. Clearly such businesses do not want to have to pay tariffs. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that no stone is being left unturned in trying to negotiate a free trade agreement with Europe?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The constituency she represents is home to a variety of innovative businesses, many of which trade successfully with Europe. This is why we are doing everything we can to secure a free trade agreement, but of course it cannot come at any price. I am grateful to her for endorsing Innocent Drinks, although at this time of year I hope we all have the chance to indulge in some not-so-innocent drinks as well.

The Government’s plans to mimic the Republican party’s voter suppression tactics risk denying millions of people the right to vote. Hardest hit will be already marginalised groups such as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Despite their already being one of the most discriminated against groups in the country, neither the Government’s equalities impact assessment nor the Electoral Commission’s evaluation of voter identification pilots make reference to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Instead of at best ignoring those communities, and at worst demonising them, will the Government scrap plans to create further barriers to their democratic participation?

We will continue to work with charities and civil society organisations, including those that represent Traveller and Roma communities, to ensure that voter ID is inclusive of all eligible voters, but we have no plans to scrap it. It is extremely to protect the integrity of our democracy and I fully support it.

In order to ensure 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 a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.