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Topical Questions

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021

I would like to place on record my thanks to Lord Dunlop—Andrew Dunlop—for the report that he completed into strengthening institutions across our United Kingdom and, in particular, strengthening intergovernmental relations. It is a great report. Many of its recommendations the Government are already implementing. I commend it to the House, and I also commend Lord Dunlop’s selfless work to this House. He is the very model of a public servant.

The ministerial code makes it clear how important the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is, yet the post has remained unfilled since November last year, when Sir Alex Allan resigned on principle. Transparency International believes that, last year alone, there were a potential nine breaches of the ministerial code—I can share the information with the right hon. Gentleman. So can he advise the House when the unfilled post of Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests will be filled, and what guarantee can he give the House that this time, the Prime Minister will actually listen to their advice?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. First, may I place on record my thanks to Sir Alex Allan for his contribution both in that role and previously in public service? We are seeking to find someone who is suitably independent, experienced and authoritative for this critical role. I would be delighted to work with the hon. Lady to ensure that the broadest possible range of candidates can be identified, and that whoever is put forward for that role can appropriately be scrutinised by the House to ensure that we can satisfy ourselves about their appropriateness for the role.

It has been four months. A good way to find someone might be to advertise the position and seek a candidate. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman why this is so important. The Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests is responsible for producing the list of Ministers’ financial interests, including those of the Prime Minister. Page 16, paragraph 7.5 of the ministerial code, states that

“a statement covering relevant Ministers’ interests will be published twice yearly”

to avoid any conflicts of interest at the heart of Government. That list was published only once last year, in July, and there has been nothing at all since then. So can the Minister advise the House when that overdue list of Ministers’ financial interests will be published? If he cannot give us that date, should we conclude that the Government are deliberately delaying this to avoid much-needed scrutiny of this Government?

No, not at all. As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, it is the case that every Minister complies with all the expectations placed on them, not just by the ministerial code but by the Nolan principles on standards in public life. It is also the case that Ministers are transparent about the areas that she correctly identifies as of public interest.

Does my right hon. Friend still agree with himself in his opposition to covid vaccine certification to attend the pub, as he expressed on Sky News recently?

Consistency is often the hobgoblin of small minds, but my view on this issue is consistent. A system that relied purely on vaccination would not be appropriate, but what would be right was a system that ensured that we can open up our economy to the maximum extent, that takes account of vaccine status, but also recent test status and potentially antibody status. But the best thing to do is to be guided by scientific and clinical advice and then to subject that advice to proper, rigorous, ethical questioning, rather than taking an instant, off-the-shelf, instinctive approach.

It is important that the Government have the right priorities in these difficult times. But what does it say about the Prime Minister’s priorities that, while he is spending up to £200,000 refurbishing his flat, he is telling NHS nurses that they should receive a real-terms pay cut? (913954)

I cannot see the merit in that juxtaposition, but I do see merit in ensuring that the independent advisory body on public sector pay, which governs the NHS, should consider all the evidence. All Members of the House should make clear our solidarity, respect and admiration for those who work on the NHS frontline.

I recently met PFF, a fantastic, independent, family-run business in Keighley, which last year diversified and produced personal protective equipment, manufacturing over 360 million aprons for our frontline staff. It is also a proud member of the Made in Britain campaign. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government will do all they can to support British businesses such as PFF which have adapted to help the NHS, and that all procurement will be British-focused where it can be? (913950)

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us that Yorkshire is the home of ingenuity, enterprise and creativity when it comes to responding to all sorts of crises and challenges. In Keighley, the success of the business that he identifies is one that we should all seek to emulate. He points out that sometimes companies that have been strong in one area can adjust over time to produce other products such as PPE. Some people on the Opposition side of the House have sometimes said, “This company doesn’t have a track record, so there must be something sniffy about its producing PPE.” They seem not to understand that savvy, smart Yorkshire business people can actually adapt their business models to help this country at particular times. It is called the free market, and it exemplifies the best of British and the best of Yorkshire.

Further to earlier questions about basing civil service jobs in the regions, I am sure the Chancellor recalls that, in his previous Cabinet role, he very clearly committed to basing the new Office for Environmental Protection in Bristol. Would he like to take the opportunity to apologise to the people of Bristol for not delivering on that promise? (913955)

It is the case that the new Office for Environmental Protection will be in Worcester, which is to my mind an equally attractive location for civil servants and for those who will be working in that critical role. The most important thing is that we have good people, making sure that we maintain the highest environmental standards. That is what the OEP will do, but our commitment to making sure that there are high-quality civil service jobs in Bristol remains. Bristol is one of the principal locations outside London at the moment for civil service jobs, but it is only right that other areas, not least in the west midlands and Teesside, as well as Worcester, benefit, because let’s face it, when we have brilliant Mayors such as Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the west midlands, making a superb case for locations such as Darlington and, indeed, for Wolverhampton, it would be foolish not to pay attention to their brilliant advocacy and to hope—who knows—that they might be re-elected in forthcoming polls.

There are many small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency, particularly in the renewable energy sector. I know that the Government are eager to ensure that SMEs have assistance in securing Government contracts. Ahead of the COP26 conference, when there is a particular focus on this sector, is there anything additional that the Government could do to assist those SMEs? (913951)

Yes. I will talk to my right hon. Friend the President for COP26 and ensure that we have a joint roundtable for the companies that my hon. Friend has spoken up for in his constituency and elsewhere, to ensure that the international event taking place in Glasgow, thanks to the UK Government, also benefits people in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

Wylam Brewery in my constituency has a fantastic location—our old science museum—and wonderful beers, which I have personally researched. The EU accounted for half its business last year, but since the Government bungled the EU trade deal, Wylam beers have been stuck in ports or sent back. Official Government advice is to set up a European office, effectively moving jobs from Newcastle to the EU. This week’s Food and Drink Federation figures show that Wylam is not alone in seeing exports collapse, so will the Minister meet me and the brewery to get this sorted and Wylam beers once more enjoyed on the continent? (913957)

I absolutely will. I can think of no better contribution to raising morale, not just in Newcastle but in the European Union, than ensuring that people in the EU can enjoy beer brewed in Newcastle rather than the stuff that they brew elsewhere.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is excellent news to hear of so many Government Departments setting up offices outside London and the south-east? Is he aware of any plans for the UK Government to bring anything to south Wales from which my Bridgend constituency may benefit? (913952)

Bridgend’s position—brilliantly, close to Cardiff but with good transport links to Swansea as well—gives it the perfect opportunity to benefit from the additional investment that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has put into a new trade hub in Cardiff. Of course, it is already the case that Swansea is the home not only to an outstanding university, but to the DVLA. We continually keep under review how we can support civil service relocation, not just to north Wales, as I mentioned earlier, but to south Wales as well, making sure that, not just in Cardiff and Swansea but in communities such as Bridgend, people can benefit.

The delay in the implementation of the VI-1 forms has been welcomed by the wine and spirits industry, which has been lobbying on this issue along with wine importers across the UK—including Daniel Lambert, who runs a wine import company in Aberkenfig in my constituency. Will the Minister now work with the industry beyond January next year to find long-term solutions, so that these businesses and those who work in the sector are not negatively impacted following the UK’s leaving the EU? (913958)

The hon. Gentleman has always been a fair-minded and pragmatic Member of this House and a strong advocate for his constituents. I look forward to working with him, Mr Lambert and others in precisely the way that he mentions.

The G7 in Cornwall is fast approaching, and we are very much looking forward to it. Post summit, Cornwall looks for a legacy that will enhance a clean, green future for business. Will my right hon. Friend support me in establishing an ambitious blue growth plan for the port of Falmouth that ensures that Truro and Falmouth, and the whole of Cornwall, can feel long-term economic benefits from the summit? (913953)

It sounds like a brilliant idea. I know that this investment in Falmouth will not cost us a packet; I know that it will be a good investment for the future. Absolutely: we need to make sure that the G7, which is coming to Cornwall for all the right reasons, leaves a lasting legacy of environmentally sustainable investment. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend for precisely that goal.

Would the Chancellor describe the enforcement powers of the lobbying registrar as draconian or a bit of a soft landing? (913959)

I have not given the issue much thought lately, but I will look closely at it and write back to the hon. Gentleman.

With the development of the Cornwall spaceport and the Goonhilly earth station, Cornwall is set to become a major hub for the UK space industry. As the Government are looking to relocate Government Departments and agencies around the country, would my right hon. Friend look into moving part of the UK Space Agency to Cornwall? (913964)

I think it is a very good idea. I have to say that Shetland and Sutherland are benefiting from space investment as well as Cornwall. At this stage, I cannot make any firm commitment, but I do think that my hon. Friend has made a strong case for Cornwall.

We know that hostile foreign actors are spending more money and following more sophisticated methods than ever before when it comes to sowing disinformation, including here in the UK. The latest data from both Facebook and Twitter tells us that in particular Iran and Russia are giving the United Kingdom and politics in the UK a lot of attention. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster arrange a briefing for Members of Parliament and political parties, on appropriate terms, with the security services, so that we can all better understand the threat and ensure the integrity of our political discourse and democracy? (913963)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point; when it comes to many foreign defence and security questions, his is a sane and sensible voice. He is absolutely right that all political parties should be made aware of some of the potential attempts to subvert our democracy. Therefore I look forward to working with my colleagues to make sure that the material that we can share is shared and that everyone is aware of what we need to do to defend our democracy.

The calming influence of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is going to be missed in the post-Brexit discussions with the European Union. How does he see long-term sustainable solutions being found around the Northern Ireland protocol in the light of the damage done to trust as a result of the unilateral extensions of the grace periods? (913971)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The first thing that I would say is that it is important that we make sure that the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland come first. The decision on grace periods was taken in accordance with the freely expressed wishes of commercial operators in Northern Ireland. It is interesting that Northern Ireland retailers, businesses and so on, without prejudice to their views on Brexit or the protocol, welcomed these pragmatic steps.

I have enormous respect and affection for the hon. Gentleman, but this must be the first time ever, in this House or anywhere else, that I have been described as a calming influence, and I can only say thank you. All sorts of epithets have been flung at me, but to be described in such a way as to suggest that a former occupant of your Chair, Mr Speaker, might have described me as the equivalent of a parliamentary soothing medicament is perhaps the kindest thing that has ever been said about me.

On which basis, I am now suspending the House for two minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

10.35 am

Sitting suspended.