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Cabinet Office

Volume 686: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020

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

Strengthening the Union

What assessment he has made of the effect of trends in the level of support for Scottish independence on his policies on strengthening the Union. (910453)

Mr Speaker, may I wish you and the whole House a safe and happy Christmas, on this, the last scheduled day of the Session?

The Government are committed to protecting and promoting the combined strengths of our Union, building on 300 years of partnership. It is vital that we continue to work across the UK on the challenges that we all face together, such as our recovery from covid-19, and to focus on issues such as protecting jobs and supporting the NHS.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Perhaps he will agree that there can be no better example of the strength of our Union and of all four nations—the awesome foursome—working together than the successful funding, deployment, roll-out and creation of covid-19 vaccines, keeping communities safe across all four nations.

My hon. Friend makes a vital point. Across all four nations of the United Kingdom people are being vaccinated thanks to the energetic efforts of the vaccine taskforce, my right hon. Friend the Secretary State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and, of course, our superb NHS. It is a source of particular pleasure to me that Scotland is enjoying that vaccine thanks to the efforts of the UK Government: proof that our NHS means that we are stronger together.

Today, a poll revealed that 58% of Scots would vote for independence. This is the 17th consecutive poll to show a positive result and we are seeing a rise in support for independence across all age groups. The Cabinet Office can hoist as many Union flags as it wants, but what part of “We are leaving” does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster not understand?

Of course, surveys of opinion are always fascinating, but the figures that I am interested in are those which show that the UK Government are spending more per capita in Scotland than they are in other parts of the United Kingdom and that thousands of Scots are now being vaccinated thanks to the efforts of the UK Government. If we look at a map of the world to see which countries are having their citizens vaccinated, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England are ahead of the pack: stronger together.

You most certainly can, Mr Speaker, and thank you.

I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s answer, and yes, we are grateful for the vaccine, but I did not hear a response as to why he thinks that Scottish independence has now become the settled will of the Scottish people. This is not like him. He is usually quick to give his views about certain things, so why does he think that Scottish independence has sustained majority support, reaching a height of 58%, and is now the settled will of the Scottish people? Why is that the case?

It is great to have the hon. Gentleman here, live and unplugged, rather than having to rely on a distant video screen, because his performance is always one that we savour. Sadly, however, I fear that his reliance on opinion polls is no substitute for his aversion to hard arguments. Why will he not engage with the facts? The facts show that, in Scotland, per capita spending including on our shared NHS is greater as a result of the broad shoulders of the UK Treasury. As I pointed out earlier, but as he declined to acknowledge, folk in Scotland are being vaccinated now, thanks to the efforts of the UK Government in a world-leading programme. I hope that, in the spirit of Christmas, he will acknowledge that this is a time for giving, and that he will, just once, give the benefit of the doubt to the UK Government.

I am likely to be the ghost of Christmas future, because it is not going the right hon. Gentleman’s way. Let me try to give him a few reasons. Let us see if he agrees with any of these: the disastrous Brexit that Scotland did not vote for; the attacks on our democracy; the undermining of our Parliament; and the Prime Minister—him. Maybe they are some of the reasons that we are now in the lead, but the main one is the arrogantly Trumpian way in which the right hon. Gentleman says no to a majority in a democracy. Does he think that constantly saying no to a majority in Scotland will drive support for independence down, or will it only further drive support for independence up?

The Scottish Parliament is enjoying more powers now as a result of our departure from the European Union. Those powers allow the devolved legislature to have its own agriculture and environment policy, to supplement the leadership that it has been showing in other areas. As we move towards the elections that are coming next year, many people will focus on the record of the Scottish Government. Of course there are admirable Ministers in the Scottish Government, but people will be asking why the UK Government are responsible for vaccinating people in Scotland and yet the Scottish Government are responsible for a decline in educational achievement in Scotland’s schools and a growing divide between the well-off and less well-off. Social justice matters, and that is why, in the forthcoming Scottish parliamentary elections, the Scottish Conservatives will be making gains at the hon. Gentleman’s expense.

UK-EU Negotiations

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (910431)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (910433)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (910443)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 5, 6 and 7 together, because they are such good questions. They really are superb questions, and it is only right that they be taken together, in a one-er, in a group, as a collective. Intensive talks are ongoing, with both negotiating teams working day and night to reach a deal. We are going the extra mile and continuing the negotiations to see whether an agreement can be reached, and we will of course continue to keep Parliament informed on our progress.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his slightly delayed answer. He showed last week how successful the UK Government can be in negotiating with the EU, in their successful agreement in the Joint Committee. Will he therefore confirm that, although he has shown that the UK can do a deal with the EU, the Government will only conclude a deal on a free trade agreement that is in the best interests of our country and will be willing to walk away if they have no other choice?

My hon. Friend is right; even if sometimes results are coming later than we might have wanted, I know that we will be doing everything to secure a good free trade agreement in the interests of the whole United Kingdom. The electors of Bishop Auckland, whom she represents so brilliantly, were clear when they voted to leave the EU that we need to do so by 31 December, and we will.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition’s apparent position of agreeing a deal no matter what is a ridiculous one to take during any negotiation?

My hon. Friend is right; the Opposition party has taken a number of different position on Brexit over the past few months, weeks and perhaps even days, but one thing that has never been clear is where exactly its red lines are. Ours are clear: we will always stand up for the United Kingdom. May I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the magnificent way in which she stood up for our coastal communities and fishing sector? Outside the common fisheries policy they will prosper, thanks to her.

Fishing is reportedly a sticking point in the negotiations. My local fishermen in Hastings and Rye need to have faith that this Conservative Government will not sacrifice them, as previous Governments have, for free trade with the EU. Can I be confident in reassuring them that this Government will provide the basis for trust to be restored and built upon?

Yes; my hon. Friend does an excellent job in standing up for her constituents in Hastings and Rye. The fishermen she represents so effectively know that we, as an independent coastal state, will be in control of our waters at the end of the transition period. Of course we want to make sure that we manage shared stocks in an appropriate way with all of our neighbours, including those outside the EU, but as an independent coastal state we are in control.

We all wish the negotiators well in this final stage, as they demonstrate that sharing sovereignty—gaining benefits by accepting obligations—is what will be required in order to reach the agreement that the Government say they want and which we all want. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether the legislation that will be required to give effect to any agreement will need to pass all of its stages in Parliament by 31 December this year in order to provide clarity to individual businesses about what they can do from 1 January next year, which is, after all, only 15 days away?

The right hon. Gentleman reminds us all of the importance of seeking to conclude these negotiations as quickly as possible. If they are concluded satisfactorily, we will request that the House returns in order to make sure that we can legislate effectively. We believe we can pass the necessary legislation before 31 December to give businesses legal certainty for the future.

This is how the Prime Minister described his oven-ready deal last November:

“put it in Gas Mark 4, 20 minutes and Bob’s your uncle.”

The Minister is nodding. Clearly, the Government have delivered half of it—leaving the European Union—but we have now passed six of the Prime Minister’s deadlines for the other half, which is the agreement on our new relationship with the EU. In those same comments last November, the Prime Minister promised to end “dither and delay”. This week, we have heard of companies that have stopped exporting to the EU because of the uncertainty created by the Government’s handling of these negotiations. Has the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made an assessment of how many jobs have been lost through their incompetence?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us that the Prime Minister not only secured a handsome election victory just over a year ago but did so on the basis of having secured a withdrawal agreement that passed this House, which meant that we left the European Union in January. Part of that withdrawal agreement was a protocol on Northern Ireland; some doubted that we would be able to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but we did. Others doubt that we will be able to have a satisfactory cause for celebration at the end of this year, when the transition period ends; I invite the hon. Gentleman to wait and see on that.

I think we are all waiting to see.

Let me ask the Minister about a different part of the negotiations. When I have asked him previously, he has been unable to confirm that we will have access to the real-time information systems that we need to identify foreign criminals at our borders. We both understand why the Government’s position has prevented him from giving that confirmation. This morning, speaking on Radio 4 just over an hour ago, the Home Secretary was pressed on the issue and said:

“All the type of channels that we have used in the past we will continue to use going forward.”

Was she right? Anything less than an unequivocal endorsement will indicate that she was not.

Blind and Partially Sighted People: Voting

What assessment his Department has made of the accessibility of voting for blind and partially sighted people. (910432)

The Government are committed to ensuring that elections are accessible for all those eligible to vote and have been working with the Royal National Institute of Blind People to improve the voting process for blind and partially sighted people.

What steps is the Minister taking to introduce the recommendations made in the RNIB’s most recent report, which found that only one in 10 blind voters and less than half of partially sighted voters could vote independently and in secret in the 2019 general election?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and for the work she has done on improving the situation. We have been working intensively with the RNIB. Any systems and reforms that are brought in do need to be tested, and it is unfortunate that the cancellation of the elections this year has meant that we have not had that opportunity. But we will do next year. We are determined that, whether someone wants to vote in person or via post, they have a method of doing so that meets their needs and is secure.

UK Preparedness: End of Transition

If he will negotiate a phased period of implementation for new trading rules after the end of the transition period. (910434)

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the UK’s preparedness for the end of the transition period. (910437)

What steps the Government are taking to (a) maintain jobs and (b) support businesses at the end of the transition period. (910470)

The Government have been clear that the transition period will end on 31 December. We have made extensive preparations for a wide range of outcomes, including through a package of support for border infrastructure and the customs intermediary sector, and, of course, the phased implementation of border controls. A trader support service is also in place to help businesses trading under the Northern Ireland protocol, and we are scaling up the provision of Government helplines.

A great deal of concern has been expressed to me by local businesses in Edinburgh West, and there are national concerns among industries such as the whisky sector, about the difficulties businesses are having with things like not knowing how they should label products given that there is, as yet, no clarity about our future relationship with the European Union. Anything that the Government can do to extend the period of adjustment would be appreciated by businesses and would help to offset the Scottish National party drive towards breaking up the United Kingdom, about which I know the Government share my concern.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right; we need to do everything we can to support businesses in Scotland and elsewhere. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade is doing everything she can to help the whisky sector, not least through discussions with the US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer. More broadly, we want to make sure, in the free trade agreement that we seek, that there can be a smooth glide path for businesses in Scotland and elsewhere. I look forward to continuing to work with the hon. Lady. She has been a consistent voice for Scotland’s businesses, both in the House and before she came to the Commons, and her advocacy, free of any partisan agenda, is something of which her constituents should be proud.

The Minister is forever the smooth talker, as we saw in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), but how exactly will our police access those real-time Schengen most-wanted criminal databases in 14 days’ time? With 15,000 UK extradition requests in both directions last year alone under the European arrest warrant, how can he guarantee that, when we leave, Britain does not become a safe haven for murderers, rapists, terrorists and other cross-border criminals? People want precision on prosperity and security and, frankly, his one-liners are not good enough.

I try not to weary the House with over-long answers. On the hon. Lady’s substantive point, it is the case that we have extensive security and law enforcement and justice co-operation with our friends in the European Union and, indeed, beyond and we will make use of all the instruments necessary in order to keep people safe.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will know that, last week, my Ogmore constituents received a hammer blow with the news that INEOS has decided to pull out of building their 4x4s, which had been promised by the ardent Brexiteer, Jim Ratcliffe. The irony that INEOS’s owner was such a vocal supporter of Brexit and has now fled to France to build his 4x4s has not been lost on any of my hard-working and highly skilled constituents. What assurances can the Minister give me that he is working to try to bring about more support for job growth in highly skilled manufacturing that can work for the people of south Wales?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. It is the case that, in South Wales, there is a concentration of skilled workers in advanced manufacturing who are the pride of the world. It is also the case, of course, that General Dynamics in Merthyr Tydfil, which is new to his constituency, is receiving support and investment from the defence industrial strategy. I look forward to working with him and indeed with the Welsh Government to ensure that his constituents can prosper in the future. It is absolutely vital that we work together to ensure that the skilled workers of the valleys have the bright future that they deserve.

UK-EU Negotiations: Devolved Administrations

What recent discussions the Government have had with the devolved Administrations on the UK’s trade negotiations with the EU. (910435)

It is the case that I have regular contact with Ministers in the devolved Administrations in order to ensure that we can work effectively together in our negotiations with the EU, the last of which was on 3 December, when the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations met.

Despite its warm words about being pro-trade, the Scottish National party has consistently voted against or abstained on trade deals coming before this House. Does the Minister agree that international trade is essential for supporting jobs across Scotland, and that by failing to support these trade deals the SNP is letting down workers across Scotland?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As has been pointed out by the Minister of Trade at this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions and, as he has reminded us, the SNP has never found a trade deal that it could vote for or like at any point. It is also the case that it wants to erect barriers between Scotland and its biggest trading partner—the rest of the United Kingdom. Trade brings prosperity. The SNP is not in favour of trade and therefore not in favour of Scotland’s prosperity.

Regional Equality

It is just over a year since the general election and this Government are as committed to regional equality and creating economic opportunity as we were last December. In the face of covid-19, the Government have taken unprecedented fiscal action to support all regions and nations of the UK through the crisis, working to ensure that we protect jobs and businesses, minimise damage to the economy and deliver the right support as needed.

The Calder Valley has more than 19% of its workforce in the manufacturing sector and a further 26% in the financial sector. Both sectors have been hard hit by the pandemic. Can my hon. Friend say what steps the Government have taken to boost employment in the Calder Valley and in West Yorkshire, particularly as we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question on the importance of employment in the Calder Valley. I am sure that he will be pleased to learn that the Conservative party will be personally boosting employment in West Yorkshire when we open our new headquarters in Leeds next year. More broadly, the Government have announced unprecedented support across the whole of Britain to help unemployed people find a job, including the £2 billion kickstart scheme for young people and the £2.9 billion restart programme to help those unemployed for more than a year. We are doubling the number of work coaches.

High Peak has a covid case rate lower than the national average yet is in tier 3. This is having a very severe effect on our local hospitality industry, which is so central to our economy. Can the Minister assure me that she is working with colleagues across Government to provide all necessary support to those businesses and to work to get High Peak out of tier 3 as fast as possible?

My hon. Friend is a very strong voice for his constituents in High Peak. Tier 3 restrictions were introduced based on evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies about what was required to bring the R rate below 1 in a targeted way, thereby bringing transmission under control and reducing pressures on the NHS. Local authorities under tier 3 measures such as those in High Peak also receive additional funding for local public health initiatives to help to contain the spread of the virus and pave the way for local restrictions to be eased.

Covid-19: Consultants

What plans he has to review the value for money of the Government’s use of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (910438)

What plans he has to review the value for money of the Government’s use of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (910450)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Government outsourcing during the covid-19 outbreak. (910457)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will croak through these Questions together.

Working effectively with the private sector, including external consultants, has undoubtedly helped us to address some of the huge challenges the pandemic served up, but contracting authorities must extract value for money for taxpayers when working in this way. The outsourcing playbook updated in June includes many key policies to improve the quality of contracts in place with industry, but also to build internal civil service capability to reduce our reliance on external consultants.

The National Audit Office’s investigation into Government procurement during the pandemic reflects the chaotic culture of outsourcing across Government. Contracts have been awarded after work has begun without competition and without any meaningful due diligence checks. How can the public have any trust in the Government’s response if the Government are not transparent with them?

The National Audit Office set out a number of recommendations that we will be looking into, but the idea that we did not need to contract under emergency terms during the pandemic is inaccurate, and there are rules in place to allow us to do that. We have been slow to publish contracts because we experienced some problems, which I set out in the Westminster Hall debate last week, but we now have 100% of those contracts for the relevant bodies.

The Good Law Project estimates that £1.6 billion-worth of contracts for covid-19 services have yet to be published, and details of contracts are consistently being published late. This is despite the fact that there is a legal requirement for those details to be published no more than 30 days after the contract is awarded. The Government are clearly failing in their duties. What is the Minister going to do to improve transparency in Government procurement?

We have now published in full all the contracts for personal protective equipment. There are some difficulties in doing that, which, as I say, I set out last week in the Westminster Hall debate. This week we have launched a Green Paper on public procurement, and we will be introducing a number of changes to our existing procurement regime when the transition period is over, which will improve the way we do things in future.

The Minister mentions the Green Paper on procurement, which the Government published this week. The foreword to the Green Paper acknowledges the need to

“strengthen our longstanding and essential principles…of transparency, ensuring value for money and fair treatment of suppliers.”

With serious concerns being raised about the multiple contracts awarded by the Government, with no competition, to companies with strong connections to the Tory party and no clear track record of delivery, will the Minister put those warm words into action now and extend the Freedom of Information Act to all private companies, such as Serco, delivering public services?

I am not sure what the implications of extending FOI would be in terms of commercial confidentiality, but I am happy to look into that for the hon. Lady. The Green Paper is there to reassure and to deal with some of the problems we have had during the pandemic, where we have either had a full-fat tender that takes far too long in an emergency situation, or a situation of direct award. I am happy to look into her suggestion.

Let us head back to Norwich South and hope Alan Partridge does not get in the way of me hearing Clive Lewis.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; I can be heard at last. Given that this Government have doled out £10.5 billion of our money without any competition, according to the National Audit Office, and frittered hundreds of millions on consultants and individuals whose main qualification seems to be that they are friends with members of this Government, does the Minister agree that in any other part of the world it would be called corruption, plain and simple?

I would not agree. It is very important to understand that every contract went through the same eight-stage process, where it was looked into. The contracts were done on the grounds of commercial sense, rather than anything to do with any connections. As the NAO report said, Ministers declared all interests and there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.

May 2021 Local Elections: Covid-19

What plans the Government have to ensure that the May 2021 local elections are covid-19 secure. (910439)

The UK Government are working with local returning officers, the Electoral Commission and public health bodies to identify and resolve the challenges involved in delivering the elections next May.

The May 2021 elections will see a record number of different elections with various different voting systems all taking place on the same day. In normal times this would pose an immense logistical challenge, without the added complications brought about by the pandemic. Will the Minister outline why the Government have ruled out an all-postal ballot and refused to make any legislative changes to consider any new forms of voting, as we have seen across the globe?

I thank the hon. Lady for pointing out the extreme challenges that exist to ensure that the elections can take place in a covid-secure environment. They are considerable, but they cannot compromise the security and integrity of the ballot, and we feel that by moving to an all-postal system, that may be the case. We want people to be able to vote in person or by post, and we want them to do that in a covid-secure way, and that is what we and our partners are working towards.

I know from my own experience that a large proportion of electoral staff and volunteers is made up from the demographic that would be considered vulnerable, with many retired and older people volunteering. If the Government have refused to provide any more funding for the running of the May 2021 elections, what steps are they taking to ensure that there is not a huge shortage of electoral staff?

One of the partners we are working with is public health organisations and authorities, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we want to ensure that everyone, whether they are officers or volunteers, is safe. We also anticipate, for example, that we will have extra demands on postal votes and so forth, and we are determined to ensure that we have the supply to meet that demand, but the issues that he raises are at the forefront of our minds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) set out the scale of these elections very clearly. With less than five months to go until these major polls right across the United Kingdom, I hope the Minister will be able to respond to some questions that are on the minds of electoral administrators, campaigners and, most importantly, voters. Will voters be required to wear face coverings in polling stations? If so, will polling clerks be expected to enforce that, and what resources will they get to do that? If they are not required to wear face coverings, what protections will be put in place to protect staff in polling stations? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we have adequate staffing at polling stations? As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) set out—and I do not think the Minister adequately answered his question—so many of our volunteers are from an older demographic, and if the vaccine programme is not sufficiently rolled out, we face a shortage of staff.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising those issues. Hopefully, we will be in a happier place when the elections arrive because of the vaccination programme, but she raises some important issues. Just as retailers, healthcare settings and so forth have put in place measures to make them covid-secure, whether those are public health-related measures or the enforcement and policing of them, we will do the same at polling stations and at counts. We will ensure that there will still be the transparency that people want through scrutineers and so forth. We will also introduce some slight legislative changes to enable, for example, somebody who has to isolate very close to the election to still be able to cast their vote. We are working through all these issues with those organisations methodically, and we will have those elections. They will be safe, and they will still have integrity.

Electoral Fraud

Ministers and officials engage with the Electoral Commission on a regular basis about work to support the effective and secure running of elections at a local and parliamentary level. We will continue to work with the Electoral Commission to ensure that all elections that take place in the UK are both fair and free of any electoral fraud or attempted electoral fraud.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. In his judgment against the former Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman for electoral fraud, Richard Mawrey QC found that one council candidate had, in the space of six weeks, fought two wards in the same borough using two different names and two different false addresses. That fact came to light not through investigation by the authorities but because local residents were able to inspect copies of the electoral register under supervision. That right seems to have been thrown into doubt because of confusing guidance issued by the Electoral Commission. Could my right hon. Friend get in touch with the chief executive of the Electoral Commission to ensure that clear guidance is issued, so that members of the public looking into these measures do not find themselves prevented from accessing copies under supervision and that further cases they are looking into can come to light?

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. Let me be crystal clear: the law is absolutely clear on this. Anyone can inspect copies of the current register under supervision. The register is a public document to enable concerned citizens, such as those he refers to, to check that registers only include those who are properly eligible. I will, of course, look into the matter that he raised, because we want clarity on this very important point.

British Nuclear Test Veterans

What criteria was used by the Advisory Military Sub-Committee to inform its decision not to recommend a service medal award for British nuclear test veterans. (910442)

The independent Advisory Military Sub-Committee first considers whether there are exceptional circumstances that merit a review. The criteria for historical recognition are the exposure of deployed personnel to a significant degree of risk to life and limb and to arduous conditions, in excess of what might be expected as part of normal service duties.

The UK is the only country that performed nuclear tests that has not formally recognised the contribution of its 20,000 nuclear test veterans. These elderly veterans, who were exposed to ionising radiation with no protection, have heard decades of rhetoric about their bravery, but without formal recognition, those are simply hollow words. Members on both sides of the House know that these veterans deserve a campaign medal, but his Department continues to refuse that modest request. Why does the Minister consider these veterans unworthy of a medal?

I am afraid that there were a number of inaccuracies in the hon. Member’s question. It is not my Department, and we are not the only country in the world that has this view. Only this summer, I met the chairman of the veterans group concerned and asked Veterans UK—this is separate from the medallic recognition scheme—to revisit and redesign the support available to our nuclear test veterans. I understand the disappointment at this decision. It is not within my gift. My job is to make sure these people are looked after properly. I am confident we are doing that. Again, I am happy to meet campaign groups to see what more we can do.

Civil Service Jobs

We want to make the administration of government much less Whitehall-centric and more reflective of the country as a whole. The Government are committed to 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 envisages a series of hub locations, with additional aligned offices within travelling distance of those hubs, and we hope this will deliver on our levelling-up ambitions.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the west midlands is the perfect place to welcome a Government Department, and will she pay tribute to the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, who has been working with Cabinet Office Minister Lord Agnew to make sure that we can take advantage of the economic investment and employment opportunities that relocation would bring to the west midlands?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has a fantastic record of championing employment and investment in his region from his time with the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce and with the launch this month of his business forum. It is great to see him working hand in glove with the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, and I am very confident that, when we are ready to make the announcements on Places for Growth, the west midlands will benefit from this very exciting agenda.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that for Government to be able to make the best decisions for local communities, civil servants and Government Departments should be based across the whole country, including in Blackpool, as this will allow the Government to truly represent the diverse nature of many of the communities across our United Kingdom? In that vein, will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the different opportunities that relocating Government Departments can bring to Blackpool?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a fantastic champion of Blackpool, and it has been great to see icons of civic pride, such as the Tower ballroom, secure culture funds thanks to his efforts. I wholeheartedly agree with him that the Government must be better connected to the communities we serve, and that really is the thrust of the Places for Growth programme. I am happy to meet him if he wishes to set out how his town can help in that agenda.

Office for Veterans’ Affairs

The Office for Veterans’ Affairs has fundamentally changed this country’s offer to our veterans, pulling together all functions of Government to really understand the veterans’ experience in this country. Briefly, I would like to pay tribute to all my colleagues who have supported us in that endeavour this year, particularly in this most difficult of years, during which I am confident that we have changed more than ever as we try to do our duty by those who have served.

I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing for veterans. Service leavers since 8 January this year will have been given their veterans ID cards to mark their time in the armed forces, but will veterans who left before December 2018 still be able to apply for their card by the end of 2020? Will he update the House about those veterans who are looking forward to getting their card?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The veterans ID card is an important policy that this Government have brought forward. He is absolutely right that those who leave now will get an ID card. What we have struggled with is the verification of those who have served. The military, unfortunately, has been dealing with paper records for a number of years. That is changing, with the significant investments that we have funnelled into organisations such as Veterans UK. The ambition is to deliver this project once we have got to a place where we can prevent fraud and similar things, so that every veteran who has served gets their veterans ID card and is recognised in the way that this Prime Minister would want.

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill: Strength of Union

What assessment he has made of the effect on the strength of the Union of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. (910455)

For centuries, the ability to trade freely without barriers across the United Kingdom has been the cornerstone of our shared prosperity, and the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill will help to maintain this integrated market to ensure the free flow of goods and services throughout the UK.

The majority support for independence in the last 17 polls in a row—58% this morning—is in part due to how Scotland has been treated by the Minister and his colleagues since the Brexit referendum. It is exemplified by the dictatorial United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which rips the devolution settlement apart and is now the subject of legal challenge. Why are the UK Government unilaterally legislating without legislative consent with the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill when the required common frameworks could have been negotiated with the devolved nations, as they are still at the table?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows, I am a great admirer of him and of his colleague Alex Neil. One of the things about the approach that we are taking is that common frameworks work alongside the internal market Bill. Indeed, the House of Lords confirmed that approach just this week.

Topical Questions

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.