The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Barriers to Trade Between EU and UK
We have been working closely with businesses to help them adjust to any new requirements for trading with the EU. Monthly Office for National Statistics trade figures have shown that exports to the EU have rebounded strongly and have been above average monthly 2020 levels.
On top of the impact on our local fishing fleet, Brexit is driving businesses to move operations to Europe. Foxglide, a sportswear company, is not just facing shipping delays and having to pay VAT on the materials it imports, but, due to rules of origin, facing tariffs on the garments it exports to the EU. So does the Minister accept that, contrary to the Prime Minister’s claims, the deal does not deliver tariff-free trade and is damaging local economies?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that particular case. As she will know, we are always happy to talk directly to businesses, or through their Members of Parliament, to see what we can do to help their particular circumstances, but all the issues that she raises are being worked through by my noble Friend Lord Frost. We are also setting up new structures to work with our counterparts in the EU. We have opportunities with member states to resolve these matters.
UK trade exports to the EU fell 23% in the first quarter of the year, compared with 0.8% to non-EU countries. It is clear to everyone that that is a consequence of the Tories’ Brexit deal—everyone that is except this Government. Will the Minister finally accept that her Government’s deal has harmed exports—in other words, harmed business in my constituency, in her constituency and right across these islands?
I do not accept that. Businesses have had to contend with a huge amount and they have done a tremendous job to get this far. There are remaining issues, but, on the trade figures, as I said in my opening remarks, they have rebounded; they are actually above average compared with what they were at the beginning of last year. What the hon. Lady does not refer to is the 63 trade deals that we have done elsewhere in the world and that will bring huge opportunities for businesses in her constituency and across the UK.
Five months ago, I raised with the Cabinet Secretary the case of a local business facing significant problems importing from Belgium. It is now reporting a doubling in time before products arrive, significant extra costs and significant extra red tape. These are not just teething problems. Is it not clear that the task requires wholescale dental treatment, starting with a far closer alignment with the single market, starting with an urgent veterinary agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary rules?
I would be very happy to look at any cases that hon. Members raise. We can put them in touch with the subject matter experts to work through what mitigations we can bring and what financial support we can give to make sure that businesses are accessing the schemes. As I say, my noble Friend Lord Frost is very focused on these issues. We have done a huge amount of work with businesses directly but also through their trade bodies, and we will bring forward new support for them as we go further to give them the bespoke advice that they need.
In February, I raised with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster the issue of Wilde Mode, a company in my constituency, and the increases in shipping costs it has had. In the past week or so, it has confirmed that it is still being quoted about €1,000 to ship in from Poland, when pre Brexit it was effectively zero. What concrete action are the Government going to take to resolve these problems, to end this uncompetitiveness and to mitigate these massive Brexit-driven cost increases?
In addition to the work that my noble Friend Lord Frost is leading on, which the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of, and the financial support we have put in place, we are monitoring what businesses are being charged, whether it is through trader support services or through particular aspects of the supply chain. We are monitoring those costs, and that is factored into our work and the work that Lord Frost is taking forward.
Monitoring is fine, but we need action. Let me raise the issue of another business: ATL Turbine Services, which brings into Scotland for repair turbine parts from around Europe and the world. It has told me that its post-Brexit admin costs are now 10 to 15 times greater than they were last year. It cannot use the Revenue’s post-VAT accounting processes. It is encountering significantly more shipping errors, not just costs. Most damningly, it has said that, while the high-level structure has been put in place, the details of how it works in practice are basically non-existent and, where they do exist, have fallen short. Cost increases, administrative burdens, shipping errors, no useful guidance—when will this Government finally take these issues seriously? Would it not be better to admit, finally, that the truth is that, for business, Brexit is not working?
I have been doing a large amount of work with Lord Frost to look at what advice and support there is for businesses and what their needs are. They now need at this stage more bespoke support, and we are standing that up and putting it in place. We will be informing Members of this House about that in short order. As well as mitigating the difficulties that we are having, as a nation, to work through, we want people to maximise the opportunities. The trade deals that I referred to represent £217 billion-worth of business. We want all businesses across the UK to maximise that and we will provide the space for them to do that.
UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement
Following the ratification of the trade and co-operation agreement, we are working with the EU to set up the Partnership Council and the specialised committees that form part of the treaty infrastructure to ensure that new trading arrangements are implemented and are working effectively.
From the testimony we heard at the Joint Committee session yesterday and the answers we have had today, we know that the Government are in complete chaos on all of this. They went into Brexit with their eyes wide shut. Is it not the case that, once we are clear of the covid pandemic, the chaos and true costs of Brexit will become clear?
I would gently say to the hon. Gentleman that Lord Frost and his team are working through these issues. Only next month, we will hopefully be having the first Partnership Council meeting. Those structures will be stood up, so we will have other methods where we can work through these issues. When Lord Frost goes into bat on those issues, it would be helpful if Members of this House stood up for all nations of the United Kingdom in the negotiations and got behind him. I think that would improve our chances.
Covid-19: Public Inquiry
On 12 May, the Prime Minister confirmed to the House that a public inquiry into covid-19 would be established on a statutory basis with full formal powers. It will begin its work in spring 2022, and further details will be set out in due course.
Earlier this week, I visited the covid memorial wall opposite Parliament to remember those I have lost to this crisis, including my mum and both my parents-in-law. Yesterday, grieving families like mine watched in horror as Mr Cummings detailed the litany of failures and gross incompetence right at the heart of this Government, which the proposed statutory inquiry will no doubt examine in much more detail. Given the importance of this inquiry to bereaved families, will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice as soon as possible, to ensure that their voices are heard?
First, may I pass on my condolences to the hon. Member for the sad loss of members of his family? I know that the whole House will want to pass on sympathies and condolences. So many people have lost those dear to them. That is why it is so important that, at the inquiry, we ensure that the voices of victims are heard and their questions are answered properly and fully.
The healing will not start until the public inquiry begins. Yesterday’s Select Committees’ damning evidence clearly caused significant pain to grieving families. They need answers now—they need to know whether decisions by this Government could have avoided the death of their loved ones, and that includes 396 families in my city of York. Does the Minister understand why the commencement of the public inquiry must not be delayed until next year, especially following yesterday’s evidence? Will he bring it forward and ensure that bereaved families not only are consulted on the scope of the inquiry but have their questions answered?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. A statutory inquiry is obviously the right way to ensure that all the right questions are asked and that full answers are arrived at. To ensure that the inquiry works, the experience, voices and views of those who have suffered so much must be a critical part in ensuring that it is set up appropriately.
Jane Roche from Erdington tragically lost her father Vince and her sister Jocelyn within five days of one another last April. This devastating loss has driven Jane and thousands like her to be tireless campaigners for justice for those who lost their lives. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative that the public inquiry has the full confidence of the relatives who are grieving to this day? Will he therefore commit to ensuring that the bereaved families groups are fully consulted on who is the chair of the inquiry and the inquiry’s terms of reference? Finally, will he commit to the Prime Minister meeting personally the covid-19 bereaved families? They want to meet with him. Will he meet with them?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the case of his constituents who have suffered so much and who, understandably, want to ensure that the inquiry provides them with answers at a time of grief and not only contributes to the healing process but ensures that appropriate lessons are learned. I look forward, as everyone in the Government does, to working with victims’ groups to ensure that the inquiry can command their confidence.
Civil Service Jobs Outside London
The Government are committed to the relocation of 22,000 roles from London to every part of the United Kingdom by the end of this decade. It is all part of our Places for Growth initiative, and it will ensure that the civil service is more representative of the communities it serves, bringing more diversity of thought into policy making. The Cabinet Office has recently announced that our second headquarters will be located in Glasgow, and a number of other Departments have announced their plans to increase their presence across the UK. Just last week, the Home Office announced that there will be 500 new jobs in Stoke-on-Trent, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced that 865 roles are relocating to six locations across the UK, including Darlington.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have been fighting for the decentralisation of the civil service to the north, particularly to my constituency of Rother Valley, and the Leader of the House responded to me positively on this only last week. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the civil service jobs relocating to northern areas will be high-quality, high-powered roles, rather than simply backroom processing positions, which I fear would be a purely cosmetic change and would not constitute a real shift in power to the north? Can I invite him to come to Rother Valley to discuss those opportunities and all new job opportunities in Rother Valley?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and it is absolutely critical that the jobs relocated include those in the senior civil service responsible for decision making. Not only do areas such as South Yorkshire and his constituency provide a very high quality of life for individuals, but it is important that the talent there is deployed at the very heart of decision making. I hope to be able to visit Rother Valley to see my hon. Friend and others in his constituency next month. [Interruption.]
Order. Members should not walk in front of a Member during the answer to their question.
This Government’s levelling-up agenda will transform our nation, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot deliver this agenda unless we level up both cities and rural areas such as Rutland and Melton? Can I invite him and his officials to visit the rural capital of food, Melton Mowbray, to see why nowhere in the country makes a more compelling offer for a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs office and the transformative Places for Growth programme than Melton, and why this will show the Government’s commitment to the east midlands and to rural areas?
Rutland and Melton could not wish for a more effective advocate than my hon. Friend. She talked to my colleague Lord Agnew and me in the Cabinet Office just last week to press the case for a relocation of jobs to Melton. It has a superb agricultural college, is at the heart of our food-producing countryside, produces superb products and also has many of the facilities, logistical and otherwise, that would recommend it to Government Departments, and I look forward to working with her on the prospect of relocation.
On behalf of the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, I want to thank my right hon. Friend, his colleagues in the Cabinet Office and the Home Secretary—the former Stokie and Keele University graduate—for passing our litmus test on the Government’s commitment to levelling up in delivering over 550 high-skilled and well-paid jobs by making Stoke-on-Trent the second home for the Home Office. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that this major investment from this Conservative Government shows that the people of Stoke-on-Trent will never be forgotten or take for granted again, as they have been previously?
One of the regular features of the last few months has been the near daily popping into my WhatsApp, email or SMS box of messages from my hon. Friend pressing the case for Stoke-on-Trent and for the relocation of senior civil service jobs, and can I say that his persistence and advocacy have paid off? My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has recognised that Stoke-on-Trent—an amazing place—is absolutely the right home for the second Home Office HQ.
Now here comes my pitch!
My Stourbridge constituency is the jewel of the urban west midlands, full of talent and ambition, and some may say it is the perfect “location, location” for any future proposed civil service moves outside London. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that of course Stourbridge should be top of the list? Of course, the Cabinet Office would be more than welcome to locate there.
I am tempted to say that it is rather like the judgment of Paris. In choosing between Stourbridge or Wolverhampton or Walsall, it is almost as though one is choosing between three beautiful divines or deities. All I would say is that Stourbridge is a fantastic location not just for future Government jobs, but for the private sector. It is part of a west midlands undergoing a revival, with new, energetic Members of Parliament like her and of course a re-elected metro Mayor in Andy Street.
Voter ID: Enfranchisement
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take these Questions together, if that is okay.
Some 3.5 million people in the UK do not have the type of ID papers that this Government have deemed suitable to allow them to participate in a vote, so what are the Government going to do to ensure that people will not be denied their basic human right to take part in a democratic, free and fair election in the UK by these Government changes?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. It is integral to our democracy that everyone has the chance to vote and to have their voice heard, and research commissioned by the Cabinet Office shows that 98% of the electorate already hold an accepted form of photographic identification, and for those who do not currently a free local voter card will be available from their local authority.
The Bromley wards in my constituency were part of a voter ID pilot in 2018 and the council’s own figures suggest that 154 people were turned away from polling stations because of the requirement for ID. If this was scaled up nationally the overall number of those disfranchised would be huge, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission says it would disproportionately impact ethnic minority communities and older people, yet there were only 33 allegations of voter personation at the 2019 general election. Can the Minister not see the huge disparity here?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is incumbent on local authorities like her excellent local authority in Lewisham to work to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to vote. I should say, because her question gives me an opportunity to do so, that in recent local elections, not just for the London Assembly and the London Mayor but across the country, those who work in local government—returning officers and others—did a sterling job in challenging circumstances, and I know that as we introduce reforms to ensure the integrity of the ballot, local authorities such as hers will be at the forefront of delivering those changes.
The Prime Minister once said:
“If I am ever asked…to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am…then I will…physically eat it”,
so why the change of heart? It is not because of evidence of voter ballot fraud, because just six cases were confirmed at the last election while millions of people risk losing their vote because they do not have photo ID. Might it instead be because the Conservatives want to copy voter suppression tactics used in the USA, disproportionately disenfranchising black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, working-class people, trans people and young people—all groups less likely to vote Conservative?
We are not seeking to emulate America; we are seeking to emulate the Labour Government who introduced a form of photographic identification for voters in Northern Ireland when they were in power. I should say that the hon. Lady made reference to working-class people, and overwhelmingly, working-class people now are much more likely to vote Conservative than Labour.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster knows fine well that there was evidence of voter personation in Northern Ireland, which was why we needed to see a change in legislation there, but he also knows that there have been only four convicted cases of electoral personation in Britain. So with £4 million of taxpayers’ money already down the drain on testing this policy, that is £1 million per conviction; I have got to ask him, does he think this is really a good use of taxpayers’ money?
Oh yes, absolutely.
I have to question whether the right hon. Gentleman thinks that is a good use of taxpayers’ money when there are people waiting for mental health beds up and down this country; I have to ask him whether it is the Government’s priority when we have children needing to catch up on the education that they have been denied over the past year. If the Government want to spend this money on electoral matters, why not get the 9 million people who are not registered correctly in this country registered on the electoral rolls, allow them to use their vote and consider introducing universal voter registration?
The hon. Lady makes two important points. Obviously, as we emerge from covid concentrating on recovery in public services is important, and she is absolutely right to say that there is work to be done not just in mental health but in the NHS and education, but fundamentally the integrity of our democracy is an important issue. As she knows, and as she has been reminded by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the Labour party’s own internal democracy depends on the production of voter ID and—[Interruption.] Facts are chiels that winna ding, as we say in Aberdeen, and on that basis we are delighted to be emulating Labour party policy, in this regard at least.
Government Contracts: Bids from Small Businesses
Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of our UK economy. That is why it is vital that we are ensuring that the power of Government spending supports that vital sector, as part of both the economic recovery from covid-19 and our levelling-up agenda. We are increasing opportunities for SMEs in a variety of ways, and our measures are working. Those measures include breaking up contracts into smaller chunks, transparently publishing contract pipelines and removing complexity from the bidding process. Additionally, our new social value model explicitly allows greater weight to be given to those bids that help drive post-covid recovery.
Hastings and Rother Federation of Small Businesses has highlighted the need for small business-led levelling up. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that small businesses in places such as beautiful Hastings and Rye have opportunities in public procurement processes, in line with a rebalancing of local economies?
I agree that SMEs play a vital role in our levelling-up agenda. We want to see a greater variety of companies delivering Government contracts from every corner of our country. I am sure that our new social value approach will mean more opportunities for SMEs and social enterprises to win Government contracts by demonstrating the full extent of the value that they will generate, not just economically but taking into account the additional social benefits that can be achieved from the delivery of contracts.
In its last report, the women and enterprise all-party parliamentary group found that women-owned businesses added £115 billion to the UK economy, despite securing only about 5% of Government and public sector contracts. What more can the Government do to encourage more female-owned small businesses to come forward to apply for contracts and have the confidence that they will have an equal chance in the procurement process?
I thank my hon. Friend for everything that he does as chair of the APPG on women and enterprise. I share his concern that SME owners of all backgrounds should be benefiting from the investment that Government contracts bring. We are doing more than ever to encourage all SMEs, including those owned by women, into public procurement. Government spending with SMEs continues to rise, with 26.7% of the £58 billion spent by the Government in 2019-20 going to SMEs.
Levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s agenda to build back better after the pandemic and to deliver for citizens in every part of the United Kingdom. Later this year, the Government will publish a landmark levelling-up White Paper, which will set out bold new policy interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunity in every part of the United Kingdom.
The levelling-up agenda set out by this Government will ensure that long-forgotten communities across the midlands finally get the investment they deserve. Levelling up in order to regenerate our town centres and high streets, support individuals into employment, improve local transport links and invest in local culture will have a hugely positive impact across our country and in my constituency of Broxtowe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that having the HS2 east midlands hub in Toton is the only choice in line with the Government’s agenda to level up the east midlands?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He is a brilliantly effective advocate for Nottinghamshire and the people he serves. Indeed, investment in HS2 is critical to levelling up. The case he makes for Toton is one that I know resonates in the Department for Transport, and I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of his dedicated advocacy for that particular outcome.
I welcome the Government’s action so far on the levelling-up agenda to spread opportunity across the UK in order to support jobs, businesses and economic growth. However, I urge my right hon. Friend to pay special attention to the under- achievement of working-class boys, many of whom are not reaching their full potential. In particular, it is essential to ensure that people who work in the civil service come from all walks of life.
My right hon. Friend, as ever, is spot on. As well as being a brilliantly effective advocate for business, he is also someone with a distinguished former career in education, particularly further and technical education, and in advancing the careers of young people from working-class backgrounds. He is absolutely right. We need to do more in the civil service, as the recent Social Mobility Commission report points out, echoing points that he has been making for some time.
I very much welcome the levelling-up fund and the transformative difference it can make to constituents such as mine in Hyndburn and Haslingden. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is only a small part of our levelling-up agenda and that it is important that investment in local transport infrastructure continues, such as looking at the scope for freight terminals and the reopening of railway lines?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and Accrington and Oswaldtwistle could not have a better advocate. She is absolutely correct to point out that we need not just new investment in improved rail —indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has been reversing some of the Beeching cuts, with more to follow—but to ensure that local bus services and other transport routes are invested in. I know that she is a particularly passionate advocate for improving local bus services as well.
It is very welcome that north Wales is set to benefit from the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda, but will my right hon. Friend confirm what actions he is taking to ensure that it benefits not only the region as a whole, but areas of particular localised need?
I am looking forward to visiting north Wales and, I hope, my hon. Friend’s constituency, later this summer. One of the things I want to do is make sure that every aspect of levelling up—not just macro infrastructure projects but the micro projects that contribute so much to making communities cherished and attractive—are part of the levelling-up fund. I look forward in particular to working with local government in north Wales to make sure that our funds are spent as effectively as possible.
Cornwall has been recognised for decades as one of the most disadvantaged parts of our country. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that Cornwall will be at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up agenda? Can he say what plans the Government have specifically to invest in the Cornish economy and the jobs of the future?
My hon. Friend will know that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was in Cornwall earlier this week. He spoke from Cornwall at the Cabinet meeting emphasising the vital importance of investment not just in improved health care in Cornwall, but of making sure that jobs and opportunities for people in Cornwall were extended as well. The message is already being heard in the heart of Government, but my hon. Friend’s continued advocacy for Cornwall makes the point that, while it is perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom, it also contains areas that desperately need Government and private sector investment and support for citizens to flourish.
Covid-19: Government Contracts
It is already Government policy to adopt and encourage greater transparency in their commercial activity. Of course, central Government buyers must publish all their qualifying tender documents and contracts with a contract value over £10,000 on Contracts Finder. We recognise, however, that there have been delays to publishing some covid-19-related contracts, and teams continue to work on publishing them as soon as possible.
Seventy-two per cent. of covid-related contracts awarded between February and November 2020 were reported after the 30-day legal deadline, with £7.4 billion-worth of that total reported more than 100 days after the contract was awarded. In comparison, it took Ukraine, which was trying to deal with a major conflict at the same time, less than one day to publish information on more than 103,000 covid contracts. I appreciate that the Good Law Project, EveryDoctor and other activists have taken the Government to the High Court, which confirmed that the Government acted unlawfully, but is it because of incompetence or because they are so imbued in cronyism that the Government lag so far behind on transparency? When will all public contracts finally be published?
All contracts will be published. As I mentioned earlier, we are doing our very best to do that. I would say two things. First, the hon. Gentleman talks about cronyism. There is no evidence of that. What there is evidence of is people in the public sector and in Government working incredibly hard to make sure that personal protective equipment and other goods were there at the frontline. I am sure that on reflection he will consider that that particular choice of language might need revisiting.
Secondly, on the point he makes about Ukraine, one of the things the Department for International Development and others were doing in the past was making sure that we invest in civil society capacity in Ukraine. I am delighted that Ukraine is making strides forward, but that is partly thanks to the work done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), working with others, when she was Secretary of State for International Development.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said in the last Cabinet Office questions:
“Transparency drives everything that the Government do”.—[Official Report, 25 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 1039.]
However, research by Transparency International found that 20% of the UK’s PPE procurement between February and November last year raised one or more red flags over possible corruption—there are too many secrets. Will the Government now restore public trust and publish all communications between Ministers and their business contacts over these PPE contracts? Will they publish the details of all the contracts that were awarded in the VIP lane and end the secretive emergency contracting?
The emergency contracting procedure, to which the hon. Lady refers, was one that was used by every Administration across the United Kingdom, including the Labour Administration in Wales, and that was because of the pressures that all of us were under. I remember Front Benchers from the Labour party pressing us at an earlier stage in the pandemic, quite rightly, to move even faster to secure that PPE. But, of course, even as were moving more quickly to secure it, there was a seven-step process supervised by civil servants in order to make sure that procurement was handled appropriately. If the hon. Lady has any specific cases where she feels that the process was faulty, I look forward to hearing from her about them, but so far there have been no specific charges from her. More broadly, I welcome emphasis on greater transparency overall.[Official Report, 7 June 2021, Vol. 696, c. 1MC.]
Civil Service Apprenticeship Targets
I have been having lots of discussions with relevant stakeholders on apprenticeship targets. We must do much better on getting more apprentices into the civil service.
Will my right hon. Friend consider ensuring that all new recruits to the civil service are offered apprenticeships? Will he also make certain that, unless there are specific related reasons, all Government sector employment contracts have at least 5% of employees as apprenticeships before they are offered any contract by Government?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are currently reviewing, as part of preparation for new procurement legislation, exactly how we can ensure that there is a higher proportion of apprenticeships in contracts that Government allocate as well as making sure that the civil service extends the use of apprenticeship schemes, of which he has been such an effective champion.
Ministerial Code: Potential Breaches
The independent adviser on Ministers’ interests publishes an annual report setting out the work he has undertaken.
This week, the Home Secretary said on “The Andrew Marr Show”:
“I think at this stage…this isn’t about breaking codes and things of that nature. We’re all just getting on in government doing very difficult jobs actually.”
Given that the ministerial code sets out an overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law, does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that even if a Minister does have a difficult job, they should follow both the ministerial code and obey the law?
That seems to me a very good point—yes.
Digital Services across Government
The pandemic must be a catalytic moment when we use digital transformation to sharpen up how we deliver services to citizens and drive leaner, more efficient and, indeed, more insightful Government.
The past year has accelerated the digital marketplace very significantly and people are much more familiar and comfortable with doing business online. From a Government perspective, the efficiencies and service resilience have been obvious, so will my right hon. Friend ensure that all Departments across Government focus on improving digital access wherever possible, focusing not only on simplicity and security for users, but in the back office where significant savings may be made?
My hon. Friend is spot on. He is absolutely right that the digital transformation of Government should make it easier for citizens to interact with Government, and to receive services quickly—everything from the renewal of passports to making sure that they can book appointments—but it is also the case that back-office functions in Government can be made even more efficient through the effective deployment of GDS’s superb cadre of civil servants. He has championed this quite rightly and I hope to work with him in future to make sure that we do even more.
Office for Veterans’ Affairs
The Government and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs are committed to delivering the veterans strategy. By doing so, we will establish a gold standard of care and opportunity for veterans in the UK. We will address historical issues that have negatively impacted some groups of veterans and we will ensure that all veterans are celebrated for their skills, their courage and their magnificent contribution to our national life.
It is a real pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box for the first time since he took his post. Will he join me in thanking all our veterans who have committed their lives to protect and defend us, and to whom we will always owe a debt of gratitude? Will he confirm that it will be the Government’s unwavering ambition to ensure that the UK becomes the best place in the world to be a veteran, whether that veteran resides in Brighton, Buckie or indeed Bishop Auckland?
I can absolutely confirm that that is our ambition. I look forward to publishing the updated veterans action plan later this year. May I put on record my thanks for my hon. Friend’s magnificent work in Bishop Auckland to celebrate the important role of veterans in her community?
Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in order to advance plans for a meeting with the Prime Minister to discuss the vital importance of covid recovery. I was grateful for the constructive work across the United Kingdom.
Mentioning that conversation gives me the opportunity, which I am sure the whole House will want to share, to thank Arlene Foster for her leadership as First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive. Arlene will be stepping down shortly. She is a lovely, wonderful person who has done an amazing job. She is a brilliant advocate for the people of Northern Ireland. I know that we will all wish her very well for the future.
We have all heard already this morning about the importance of levelling up in our covid recovery, but in constituencies such as mine, Edinburgh West, it is also important to reinforce and remind people of the strength and support available from the UK Government. Does the Minister for the Cabinet Office agree that it is vital that we remain focused on that and on recovery, and that we do not get side-tracked by the SNP’s damaging obsession with independence?
The hon. Lady puts the case in absolutely the right way: we need to focus on recovery. It was good to hear the First Minister stress in our conversation yesterday that she appreciated that that was a priority. I know that people in Edinburgh completely find the hon. Lady’s arguments compelling, which is why her colleague and friend Alex Cole-Hamilton secured more than 50% of the first preference votes for Edinburgh West in the Scottish Parliament; obviously it was for a different party from my own, but it is a reflection of the fact that he and she are really good local representatives.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, following yesterday’s Wagnerian-length Committee session, the proper place for learning from the pandemic will be in the independent public inquiry announced by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister? Given that the chair of that inquiry will require the confidence of the nation—and not least that of this House—does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that that chair should be subject to a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing by the relevant Select Committee?
I am a great fan of Wagner, but I also recognise that the young tenor voice of my hon. Friend as Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is one that deserves to be heard in the debate about how the inquiry should go forward. How exactly that voice is heard and amplified, and as part of which chorus, will be a matter for the whole House, I think.
I welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to our first exchange at the Dispatch Box, but I only wish that it were in better circumstances. The testimony that we heard yesterday has left families across the country wondering what happened to their loved ones and how they died. It has left all of us fearing that the Government have not learned the lessons or taken the action needed to prevent more avoidable loss.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster once said that he had
“reluctantly but firmly”
concluded that the Prime Minister was
“not capable of…leading the party and the country in the way that I would have hoped.”
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster knows Dominic Cummings very well as his former chief of staff—better than anyone else in this House. Does he believe him to be a credible and truthful witness?
First, may I welcome the right hon. Lady to her place? She is someone who started her working life on the frontline of social care, who has been a highly effective trade union representative and who has spoken passionately and movingly in this House about the need for greater social mobility and educational reform, and it will be a pleasure, I hope, to work with her over the weeks and months ahead.
As far as yesterday’s testimony went, people will make their own judgment on everything that was said then. I would say only two things. It has been a privilege to work closely with both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health over the course of the last 12 months. They have given unstinting service. It is thanks to their leadership, for example, that we have a world-beating vaccination programme, and it is a privilege to serve alongside them. I think the Prime Minister is doing a fantastic job, and I also think the Secretary of State for Health has shown unstinting—
Order. Can I just say that topical questions should be short and punchy? They are not for making statements. Of course we all welcome the right hon. Lady to the Front Bench, but we really need to get answers to the questions that have been posed.
I thank the Minister for his comments, but learning the right lessons could save lives and the truth matters to us all, so can he tell us which, if any, of the claims made by Dominic Cummings he is now prepared to refute at the Dispatch Box?
I have not had the opportunity to read all the evidence that was given yesterday, and indeed the Speaker has enjoined brevity on me, but I think that the public inquiry that we have been discussing is the right place to review all the evidence from every individual.
That is exactly it. My hon. Friend is completely right.
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and any of the victims of this appalling scandal. I raised this issue at the recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, and I want to let all those people who have lost children know that just because we published the written ministerial statement, which made reference to other support for other individuals, that does not mean that they are not at the forefront of our minds. The compensation study that we recently announced will obviously be looking at many of the issues that they have raised, but I would be happy to meet them.
It is a great ten-minute rule Bill, Bolton West is a wonderfully vibrant and diverse community, it has a brilliant local MP, and we are on it.
And Bolton Wanderers got promoted.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Singh report—of which I have not read every word—is clear about the steps that we need to take to root out anti-Muslim prejudice, and it is absolutely critical that we do so.
That is a very thoughtful point with which I completely agree.
The broad public inquiry that we have set up—with, of course, consultation with the First Minister of Scotland—will, I hope, look at every aspect of our pandemic response. Although I did not hear all the evidence history, I understand that I was mentioned and the point was made that I got some things wrong. I have got lots of things wrong, but of course we will all reflect on those in due course.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) about the particular challenges in Cornwall. Challenges exist across the United Kingdom, and as part of our levelling-up drive we are committed to meeting them.
I do not think so, but the hon. Gentleman raises an important point: we should thank those at the frontline of the NHS for the amazing work they have done. Part of supporting them is making sure that they have the right personal protective equipment. This Government, like Governments around the globe, were under great pressure to make sure that we had the right PPE in the right places at the right time. More than 99% of the PPE that we procured was directed, usable and effective.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a proud tradition of steelmaking in Scunthorpe and she is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of the issue. My colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have established a new joint industry and governmental steel procurement taskforce, which was launched on 12 March. Of course, as the Government Department that helps to co-ordinate procurement, we are working with BEIS to achieve the goals that my hon. Friend rightly points out on behalf of her constituents.
The hon. Lady raises an important point and I look forward to the opportunity to perhaps meet her to discuss exactly how we can improve the way in which the Cabinet Office supports small businesses.
Rother Valley is a centre of enterprise in South Yorkshire, and it contains brilliant businessmen such as Mr Don Wightman, who is a manufacturing superhero. He, like his Member of Parliament, recognises that the new trade opportunities that Brexit brings, and indeed the new opportunities for smarter regulation, mean that enterprises in Rother Valley and across Yorkshire have a very bright future.
Public appointments to Ofcom are of course a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I should say that the hon. Gentleman would be a superb chair of Ofcom, given the range of experience that he brings. That would mean, sadly, having to stand down from his position in the House, but I think we would all welcome that sacrifice for the greater good.
I think the Prime Minister is absolutely right. I think my right hon. Friend has been doing a great job as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Looking at the last 12 months—everything we have done from the roll-out of the vaccine programme to the support that we have given those on the frontline—we should celebrate the fact that, at a time of challenge, we have in the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care a dedicated public servant.
My right hon. Friend is a great champion of widening opportunity and has done a fantastic job in ensuring that equality is taken more seriously across Government. The campaign that she mentions is absolutely right, and something that I will ensure we embrace in Government publications.
I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.