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Topical Questions

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 8 July 2021

My Department, along with the Leader of the House, has been reviewing the English votes for English laws procedure. The procedure has been suspended since April 2020 and, having reflected on the procedure, the Government believe that it has not served our Parliament well and that removing it would simplify the legislative process. It is a fundamental principle that all constituent parts of the United Kingdom should be equally represented in Parliament. Any changes, of course, would be for the House to decide and we will bring forward a motion in due course.

How would the right hon. Gentleman reassure a member of the public who thinks that a Minister using a personal mobile phone to conduct Government business is trying to evade scrutiny because they have something to hide?

I would reassure them by saying that all Government business is transacted through civil service colleagues, and that in order to ensure that a single penny of taxpayers’ money is spent, or that a single decision is taken, that might infringe, or enhance anyone’s liberty, it has to go through the process of review, legislation and action, which civil servants and Ministers do together in a way that is always clear, transparent and publicly accountable.

In the inquiry by the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs into the collapse of Greensill Capital, many of our witnesses so far have prayed in aid the advice given to them by Sue Gray, who at the time was director general for propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office. She was invited to attend our Committee on Tuesday; her office initially accepted that invitation, but I am told that she has now declined it on the advice of those more senior at the Cabinet Office. It is vital that the Committee be able to hear from Ms Gray, given that she was mentioned so many times by others. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to ensure that she will attend on Tuesday as planned?

My hon. Friend chairs the Committee brilliantly, but there are rules—the Osmotherly rules. They stress that serving civil servants act only in accordance with the wishes of Ministers and therefore it is rarely appropriate for them to appear to be questioned in the way that my hon. Friend would like. So I am ready, willing and able to appear in front of the Committee, but it is my view that it would be inappropriate for a serving civil servant to appear in the way that my hon. Friend requests.

Football is indeed coming home, but I also think that the chickens are coming home to roost for this Government. The Government’s spokesperson said last week that

“there was no high priority lane for testing suppliers…and there was no separate ‘fast track process’”.

Can the Minister for the Cabinet Office tell me what exactly the role was of the consultant to the testing procurement programme who described his role as

“to lead VIP stakeholder engagement with…Lord…Bethell”,

who is still somehow a Minister. If there is no fast track, why did the right hon. Gentleman’s own procurement director order officials to mark bids that came from Ministers’ email addresses as “fast track”?

There were lots of interesting questions there. The first thing that I should say is that Lord Bethell is doing a fantastic job in the Department of Health and Social Care. I think that it is quite wrong for the right hon. Lady to cast aspersions on his dedicated public service and the work that he has done as Minister for Innovation.

The second thing that I should say is that every single procurement decision went through an eight-stage process in order to ensure that every single piece of personal protective equipment, or everything—[Interruption.] Useful commentary there from the Alan Hansen of politics, but the truth is that actually we have always been in compliance with the rules, unlike the Scottish Government. Audit Scotland has pointed out to the Scottish Government that they need to do better, and indeed they must.

I listened to the Minister’s answer, and I can tell him that Lord Bethell is no Sterling. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson stated last week that no Ministers had used private emails to conduct Government business. Surely the Minister now accepts that that is untrue. Will he tell us when the Prime Minister will correct the record?

I listened to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). We have already submitted freedom of information requests to seek the publication of emails, but will the Minister agree now to publish every such email about Government contracts? Can he make a guarantee to the House today for bereaved families—including my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who made a very passionate speech at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday—that every single one of those emails is secured for the public inquiry?

The right hon. Lady quite rightly refers to the very powerful question from the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and I think all of us deeply sympathise with the family loss that he has had to endure, as so many others have had to. It is precisely because we take these things seriously that we took steps to ensure that we could source personal protective equipment as quickly as possible. Of course, we did so in a way that was entirely consistent with good procurement practice. We used the measures that were used by the Labour Government in Wales and by the SNP Government in Scotland to ensure that we could get things to the frontline as effectively as possible and in accordance with fair procedure.

I was pleased to see the Elections Bill introduced to the House earlier this week. Like many of those who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, I was concerned by the actions taken by the Electoral Commission following the referendum and the malicious way in which it treated individuals, completely casting into doubt its impartiality. Does my right hon. Friend share those concerns? Will he outline how the reforms in the Bill will seek to address them? (902358)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we reflect on how public-spirited individuals such as Alan Halsall and Darren Grimes were treated, I think it was quite right for the new head of the Electoral Commission to issue an apology. The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission is a means by which parties across this House can ensure that the Electoral Commission does its important job, and the Elections Bill will ensure that the Speaker’s Committee and others play an important role in making sure that the Electoral Commission does its job properly.

I have heard from a number of HGV drivers in Newport West who are deeply concerned about the shortage of drivers and the impact this shortage is having on the movement of food and goods from Europe to the UK. The Government have now announced that they will extend the driving rules from 12 July, which will mean overworked drivers working even longer hours and getting more tired, which is no help at all. What discussions has the Minister had with our European neighbours and his colleagues across Government about how to get this serious driver shortage sorted? (902356)

The hon. Lady raises an important question. Action is being taken by the Transport Secretary, and the issue was discussed earlier this week at Cabinet. I am also working with Lord Frost to ensure that we can have free-flowing freight and that we get the goods that we need to consumers in a timely fashion.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, alongside civil service reform in terms of places and personnel, digital and data reforms are also at the heart of the Government’s agenda to drive real improvement and deliver on the Government’s priorities, which will transform our communities? (902360)

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. In a former life he was a distinguished leader of West Sussex County Council and, as such, he knows how important it is to the delivery of public services to ensure that one has appropriate metrics, one shares data and that one uses digital innovation to improve service delivery. I look forward to working with him to improve Government delivery in just that way.

A simple question: can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell us how many Government Ministers have been using personal email addresses for Government business? (902357)

It is not my job to monitor the personal emails of all my colleagues. If I did, I suspect—[Interruption.] Well, it might be quite interesting, actually; quite entertaining. The key thing is you cannot conduct Government business from private email to private email. The only way you can conduct Government business is through civil servants.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that relocation of Government Departments is a key part of levelling up? Could I ask him to encourage his friends in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to consider placing the Advanced Research and Invention Agency in the new county hall being built in Durham, which the new administration are reviewing the options for, as stated by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) earlier? This could be the perfect location, linking Durham University and the innovative businesses on NETPark in Sedgefield. Doing this could encourage the local team to share more of their staff around places such as Bishop Auckland, Consett, Crook, Newton Aycliffe and, of course, Sedgefield. (902362)

And indeed Peterlee. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As we heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, it is a pity that the Labour administration in County Durham have squandered County Durham taxpayers’ money in the way that they have, but the point that my hon. Friend makes about the Advanced Research and Invention Agency’s potential location in the north-east and in Durham is a very good one, and I will discuss it with the Business Secretary.

The Government tell us that voter ID will secure our elections against apparently rampant voter fraud. That is a worrying claim indeed, so as a matter of urgency will the Minister provide the Government’s data on how many ballots have been confirmed to have been fraudulently cast in recent elections? (902359)

We are only following what the Labour party does. It was the Labour party that introduced the requirement for voter ID in Northern Ireland, as the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) pointed out earlier. It is also the case that one can vote in internal Labour elections only by using voter ID. I do not know whether there is an internal Labour election coming up soon. The shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), will be better informed on that question than me—[Interruption.] Sorry! Anyway, to vote in a Labour election, you need voter ID.

I know that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues are all passionate feminists, and I am sure that he would agree that it is difficult to justify the fact that an eighth of the seats in the upper House are reserved effectively for men, because of the laws of primogeniture and the hereditary peers. Does he have plans to reform that anomaly? (902364)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We do not currently have plans to do that, but she makes a fair point. As everyone knows, for the remaining hereditary peerages in the House of Lords, when an hereditary peer in any one of the party or Cross-Bench groups passes away, there is a by-election among those who are eligible, but at the moment in nearly every case the franchise and candidacy is restricted to men. That is something we should definitely look at.

With many lacking ID, the Government’s voter ID plans are set to systematically exclude Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. Why are Ministers, instead of working to improve accessibility, putting their energy into creating barriers to voting for this already marginalised community? (902361)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. There is much that we need to do to ensure the more effective inclusion in civic life of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals. First, we must start with making sure that they receive a higher quality of education than is currently the case. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are among those with the worst educational outcomes and we need to address that in order to make sure that they play their full part in public life. But there is absolutely no evidence that the requirement for voter ID will do anything to discriminate against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals.

On his recent visit to Scotland the Minister will probably have heard concerns that the Scottish Government have not made full use of the additional funding provided by the UK Government to support businesses, individuals and communities through this pandemic. Will he outline what mechanisms are available to the UK Government to ensure that the Scottish Government make full use of the support available? (902367)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. When I was in the north-east and the Western Isles recently, I heard individuals and businesses crying out for economic support. When I explained that the UK Government had given significant sums to the Scottish Government in the covid crisis to deal with the emergency, the question was, “How has it been spent?” Because there has been no accountability and no transparency on the part of the Scottish Government. We have no idea how that money has been spent and the Scottish Parliament does not yet have the powers necessary to get that information. However, Her Majesty’s Treasury can ask tough questions and require information to be shared, and unless the Scottish Government are more transparent, I will have to consider how I can work with Ministers and with my hon. Friend to make sure that Scottish taxpayers know where their money has gone.

Polled public attitudes towards the Union may be hidden, but the private attitude of the Prime Minister to devolution is clearly known and is hostile, as shown by his former senior adviser Dominic Cummings. Does that not confirm that the choice for Scotland is between an integrating Union under the Tories and independence? (902380)

No. This Government are committed to devolution. Like the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, we believe in a United Kingdom that gets the best of both worlds: a strong Westminster Government working with strong devolved institutions. Of course, I recognise that, in the spirit of providing the Scottish people with a choice, the hon. Gentleman decided to leave the Scottish National party in order to set up, with Mr Salmond, the Alba party. One reason he did so is that he believed that the Scottish Government were doing a poor job, that they were not making the case effectively for independence and, indeed, that the way in which they were discharging their responsibilities actually corroded the case for independence. On the final point, the hon. Gentleman and I are as one.

Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outline what collective approach has been taken by BEIS and the Cabinet Office to address some of the issues affecting small businesses with regard to the import of hundreds of products to Northern Ireland? I know that he has a particular interest in this issue. Businesses are being prevented from trading normally, as things were pre-31 December 2020; they are under stress and it has reduced their income. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree to grant funding for a loss of income, as business have been impacted through no fault of their own?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As a result of the particular interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol on which some in the European Commission have insisted, businesses in Strangford and elsewhere have faced additional costs. We have already devoted money through the trader support service and other means to support businesses, but I will talk to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Treasury and Lord Frost to see what we can do to ensure that businesses in Strangford and elsewhere in Northern Ireland are not further disadvantaged.

I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.