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Topical Questions

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 27 May 2021

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.

Everyone, no matter where they grow up, should have access to the same opportunities in life. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that a key part of the levelling-up agenda will be to improve teaching and provide support for schools and skills programmes in disadvantaged areas, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential? (900626)

There are real concerns that bereaved parents who lost their children to the contaminated blood scandal could be omitted from future compensation packages for victims, as they were with the ex gratia payments. I have written to the Paymaster General about this. Please will she meet me and the Smith family, who tragically lost their son Colin, aged just seven, after he was infected with blood from Arkansas prison? This is about acknowledging their loss, and it is the very least they deserve, given the injustices that they have endured. (900628)

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.

Following Lord Pickles’ report “Securing the ballot: review into electoral fraud”, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to support the introduction of voter ID. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that this will be delivered by the local elections next year? Furthermore, he can be reassured of the support of Bolton West’s vibrant LGB, trans, BAME and working-class communities for this effort, because it might surprise Labour that they actually participate in the modern world. (900627)

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.

Earlier this week, the Conservative party finally published the much delayed Singh report on Islamophobia and discrimination within its own ranks. The report is a damning indictment, but the findings come as no surprise. The poison of Islamophobia continues to rise unabated in our society and the latest hate crime figures reflect this, yet for years the Government have refused to meaningfully engage with the Muslim Council of Britain. Will the Minister correct this and meet me and the MCB to discuss what action is required to truly root out Islamophobia from our society? (900631)

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.

It is inevitable that, as we continue to unlock, we will see the odd pocket of covid hotspots and variants spread throughout the country, so will my right hon. Friend say now that, wherever possible, we will try to use local, well-communicated, regional measures to suppress those hotspots so that, thanks to the fantastic vaccination roll-out, we can avoid at all costs delaying the road map and ensure that we keep away from national restrictions? (900629)

I congratulate the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on being one of the few Ministers in the thick of things somehow to avoid being mentioned in Mr Cummings’ evidence to the Select Committees yesterday. Nevertheless, the “About us” section on the Cabinet Office website starts:“We support the Prime Minister and ensure the effective running of government.”Given what Mr Cummings said about the chaos at the heart of this Government, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster commission an independent inquiry into the operation of the Cabinet Office during the pandemic? (900633)

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 right hon. Friend highlighted earlier how levelling up is central to the Government’s agenda. I have seen it portrayed as a north-south question, but it is not: there are left-behind communities right across the United Kingdom and there are left-behind pockets within communities such as towns and cities that would equally qualify. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is working right across all Government Departments to ensure that the commitment to levelling up is reflected in their policy agendas right across the UK? (900630)

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.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster knows that politics is a question of priorities. The Government have insisted that they simply cannot find the money to give our NHS heroes anything more than a 1% pay rise, but in the past year the same Government have spent £250 million on unusable facemasks, £133 million on faulty testing kits and £2.6 million on a briefing room at No. 10. The Government’s priorities are all wrong, are they not, Minister? (900645)

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 right hon. Friend will know that the UK steel sector is interconnected and that removing steel safeguards on certain products could affect UK steel businesses and jobs. At this crucial time for the UK steel industry, will he outline what steps his Department is taking to promote the use of our world-class UK steel in Government projects and down the supply chain? (900632)

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.

I was rather taken aback by the Minister saying earlier that the Government are doing all they can to support small businesses. The collapse of the construction giant Carillion in 2018 saw 780 businesses go into insolvency, while the thousands that survived—including that of Neil Skinner, whose business is in my Oldham constituency—averaged losses of more than £140,000. If the Government had implemented project bank accounts, they would have prevented many of the losses. Given that, and the Minister’s response to my written questions, why is the Cabinet Office no longer monitoring the extent of the use of PBAs across Government? (900649)

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.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I am a strong proponent of the enormous new benefits that Brexit brings all of Yorkshire in international trade and funding, which we see more and more every day. Will he give his thoughts on what Brexit means for Yorkshire in the long term, particularly what it means for Rother Valley? (900634)

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.

Perhaps the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster should have read the warning signs when Dominic Cummings used to sign in at his Department, when he was Secretary of State for Education, under the name Osama bin Laden. That might have been the moment when he could have dealt with the issue. On the right hon. Gentleman’s responsibility on public appointments, what is going on with that of Ofcom chair? We read in the paper today that, apparently, the appointment process has been scrapped and is to be restarted because Paul Dacre failed under the current rules, so those rules are being rewritten so he can apply a second time and be appointed. (900651)

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.

Yesterday, Mr Cummings said the Prime Minister was not fit for office and had been lying. I believe and support the Prime Minister. Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that the Prime Minister is right, or Mr Cummings? (900635)

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.

Changing Faces has convinced the Welsh Government to sign up to its Pledge To Be Seen campaign on including people with visible differences and disfigurements in Government publications. Will my right hon. Friend consider doing likewise so that Government information campaigns across the UK are as inclusive as possible? (900636)

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.

Sitting suspended.