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Topical Questions

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 25 November 2021

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday fast approaching, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the UK’s cyber professionals, who work tirelessly behind the scenes to help to keep us safe online. That is as important as ever, as the economy recovers from the impact of covid-19. Every day, cyber criminals target online retail, from scam texts, impersonating couriers and defrauding shoppers out of their money to damaging the reputations of small businesses by stealing their customer payment details. That trend has only increased during the covid pandemic as more and more trade has moved online. Indeed, since April 2020, more than 4,000 business sites have been identified as being targeted by cyber criminals.

Organisations such as the National Cyber Security Centre and the British Retail Consortium have spearheaded that work, providing tailored advice to businesses and citizens on how they can protect their activity online. Details of further steps to be taken will be set out in the upcoming national cyber strategy, which the Government will launch in December. The strategy recognises the increasing importance of cyber in our day-to-day lives, and it will underpin our democratic values and strategic alliances and ensure that the UK will be more resilient to the future cyber threats that we will no doubt face.

I was delighted to see the Prime Minister unveil plans to establish a new science and technology council—they are great plans. Does the Minister agree that that council will not only help us to realise the possibilities that research and technology have to offer and to tackle the great societal changes and challenges that we need to address, but cement our place in the world as a science superpower?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. We are committed to being a science superpower and to putting science at the heart of our public policy making. That is why the Prime Minister set up the national science and technology council and why we have established the office for science and technology strategy, which will support those strategic decisions and ensure that the research and development uplift in funding from £15 billion to £20 billion can be targeted in the most effective way.

I welcome the Minister’s comments regarding cyber-security and the measures that will be taken, because it is blight on many of our constituents across the United Kingdom.

Last week, the Government admitted that minutes of a conference call on 9 April 2020 between the former Member for North Shropshire and a Health Minister could not be located. Has this Minister been informed whether or not those minutes have now been located, and can he say when all the relevant documents will be given to the House?

As the right hon. Lady knows, the National Audit Office always has power to access all documents; it has rights of access, as any member of the Public Accounts Committee would know. As we have covered in a series of questions this morning, the National Audit Office noted that

“we found that the ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”

Simply repeating a point does not make it correct. The National Audit Office has access to the document, and that is the finding that it set out.

I am not sure that I got an answer to the question that I posed to the Minister. As I recall—forgive me if I am wrong—the Prime Minister even said at Prime Minister’s questions that he was “very happy to publish” the documents, and Ministers today have talked about the importance of transparency. What is there to hide? Will Ministers publish all the correspondence, the WhatsApps and the messages so that there is transparency regarding the covid contracts? Will the Minister also accept all the outstanding freedom of information requests about the documents? As we have heard, £3.5 billion in contracts was awarded without tender to companies with links to the Conservative party. By contrast, not one successful bid came from any politician or adviser of any other party. Spending £1 million a week on storage for dud PPE—can the Minister explain that?

Earlier at departmental questions, we were told that the act of referral to the high-priority lane was a bad thing, until hon. Friends pointed out that Opposition Members had made the same referrals. The right hon. Lady has now shifted the attack to Randox and the timing of the contract. I simply remind her that the meeting between Randox and the then Minister for innovation was on 9 April, after the contract was signed with Randox on 30 March. Not only does the National Audit Office have rights of access to Government papers, but there is a legislative framework that applies to papers through the Freedom of Information Act. We will, of course, abide with it in the usual way.

T4. COP26, hosted by the UK Government in Glasgow, was a fantastic showcase for technical expertise and capabilities in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom. What steps are the Government taking to continue promoting Scottish expertise and know-how on the global stage? (904399)

I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster attended that fantastic event as well. We launched the refreshed GREAT campaign on 9 June, which showcases all four corners of our nation internationally to inspire the world and encourage people to visit, invest, study and live in the UK. The campaign, which is used across 22 Departments and arm’s length bodies, has promoted the best of the United Kingdom in more than 145 countries worldwide.

T2. Let us return to some of the Tory treasurers who are now Lords and look at their performance. Lord Harris of Peckham has spoken just eight times in the Chamber since being appointed in 1996. Lord Kalms has made seven spoken contributions since 2004. Lord Lupton is prolific, with 10 contributions since 2015. Is that not further proof that it was their donations and party position that got them into the Lords? (904394)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not recognise quality over quantity. I think he ought to spend a little more time reading House of Lords Hansard; he would see a world-beating range of expertise on myriad issues. The House of Lords is a House of experts and he should spend more time listening to its debates.

T6. This Government have spent more taxpayers’ money than any previous Government on public opinion polling. Over the past 16 months since July 2020, I have asked the Government to publish the polling carried out at the start of the covid-19 pandemic. They refused to release that information under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that it was still being used to develop policy; the Information Commissioner struck down that defence as incorrect.The Government then claimed that it was too costly to release, so I asked written parliamentary questions on the subject. They again refused, using the excuse that polling is still developing policy; as the Information Commissioner pointed out, that is a bogus argument. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster change the policy on the matter today to ensure that the information is released immediately and that the Cabinet Office acts in line with both the letter and the spirit of the legislation? (904402)

Only a few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend was in the Chamber telling me that £4 billion was “a rounding error”. As a fellow former member of the Brexit Secretaries club, let me now welcome him to the value for money club, as that is the subject he seems to have raised in the context of the cost of FOIs and focus groups’ information.

The point of substance is that, with so many lives threatened by the pandemic, it was right that we commissioned insight into a range of factors in order to understand the impact of our messages and that of the Government’s response to the pandemic. I think the commissioning of insight to enable us to understand that was absolutely right and value for money. As for the disclosure, as I said a moment ago to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), responses to all FOI requests are handled in line with legislation, and that includes applying relevant exemptions where applicable.

T3. Let me return to the subject of York Central. When the Government are looking at strategic sites, cross-departmental work is important, but it is not happening across my constituency, and people are therefore viewing their interests in a silo rather than in a co-ordinated way. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the opportunity that the York Central development will provide for my city as well as the Government, to ensure that the site comes forward in the most strategic way possible and provides the jobs that the city urgently needs? (904397)

I can add to what I said in my earlier answer to the hon. Lady. I agree with her about the importance of York, and I also agree with her wider point. It is not simply a case of one Department moving to York; what is key—and this is one of the lessons that we learnt from previous initiatives of Governments—is the ability to build a career in a location, and that requires a number of opportunities. For example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is also considering placing 190 roles in York.

Now that the spending review has ended, there will be an opportunity to finalise departmental plans and see which other Departments can coalesce in York, but it is not only a question of Departments. I urge the hon. Lady to bear in mind arms’ length bodies that are often responsible for operational delivery across Government and are often located predominantly in London. Both Departments and arms’ length bodies will have the opportunity to consider how they might come together in areas such as York.

I realise that there is a political operation taking place on the Opposition Benches with regard to the House of Lords. It is entirely fair to look at our democratic process systems and propose reform; what is not fair is denigrating people who work incredibly hard to improve our legislation. I am thinking of, for instance, the Environment Bill and the impact it will have on sewage discharge in my constituency, and the help that was given to us by the House of Lords, whose proposals the Government agreed with and our side voted for. Does the ministerial team agree that a little more respect is warranted?

I do indeed agree. The fact is that the Labour party wishes to make cheap political points when in reality the House of Lords provides expert service to the nation, and does so extremely inexpensively compared to the second chambers in most western democracies.

T5.   It is hardly a cheap point when it is about expensive donations. More than two years since the first request, and more than a month since a judge refused the Government leave to appeal against the first-tier tribunal ruling, the Cabinet Office is yet to reveal the results and the details of its clandestine secret polling about Scottish attitudes to independence and the Union. Could a Minister—any Minister: I am not fussy—tell us when this information will be revealed, and what exactly it is that they are so scared of the Scottish people finding out? (904400)

We covered this a moment ago. It is right that, at every stage of the pandemic, insight was commissioned measuring a range of different factors. All insight and evaluation activity is assessed regularly for its appropriateness, impact and fitness for purpose. As I said earlier, responses to all FOI requests are handled in line with legislation, and that includes applying relevant exemptions where applicable.

Veterans in Bury, Ramsbottom and Tottington must often live with a range of conditions that our brilliant doctors are not used to treating. Does my hon. Friend agree that the £5 million veterans healthcare innovation fund will play a key role in helping our injured veterans to live life to the full once they have returned from active duty?

I do agree that the £5 million innovation fund will help us to allow veterans to benefit from cutting-edge technology to assist their recovery. It is also an important part of the bespoke pathway that we are crafting for veterans through the NHS system, including GP accreditation. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does in his own constituency to support the care of veterans.

Can I press the Veterans Minister a little further on the veterans card? The right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) announced it in 2019, and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), when he was Veterans Minister, said that it would be rolled out in 2020. That has been done for service personnel leaving our armed forces, but it has still not been completed for former personnel. I asked the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) some months ago to resolve this, as it is extremely important for many of our former service personnel to get the veterans card, so may I press him again on when this will be completed? It really does matter to so many veterans and their families.

I share the hon. Member’s sense of urgency and I recognise the importance of this issue. I can tell him that we have commissioned new work to look afresh at how we can urgently deliver this important measure.

The Prime Minister has backed a stronger code of conduct for MPs to ensure that an MP’s primary job is, and must be, to serve their constituents, and to represent their interests in Parliament rather than those of private businesses—or trade unions, for that matter. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the changes to the code of conduct suggested by the Prime Minister will create up-to-date, effective and rigorous rules?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. It is an MP’s primary job to serve their constituents and to represent their interests in Parliament, and indeed, the vast majority of MPs work tirelessly for their constituents. As you have said, Mr Speaker, it is for the House to decide whether MPs should hold second jobs, and that matter will be debated further in the Chamber.

It is completely fair for us in the SNP to raise concerns over Lords in an unelected position who have just happened to give significant sums to the Conservative party. With the entry requirements for the UK’s retirement home for failed Tory MPs or Tories who cannot win elections—otherwise known as the Lords—coming under increasing scrutiny, attention should be paid to the fact that that unelected institution is bigger than the UK’s elected Parliament in the Commons. Does the Minister not agree that having an unelected, crony-stuffed second Chamber undermines the UK’s ability not only to claim to be a functioning democracy but to lecture others on their own democracies?

As we have already discussed in this Chamber, the House of Lords provides expert counsel and excellent value for money. If the hon. Lady wishes to compare the cost of the House of Lords to the public expenditure with other second Chambers in bicameral legislatures, she will find that it is extremely inexpensive and extremely expert, and that it provides excellent value for money. She characterises it in one way, but she forgets that it also provides a service to all sections of our society, including those in the medical profession, the legal profession, the military service and across the range of society, and it will continue to do so.

May I welcome the recent appointment of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to his new role in co-ordinating efforts across the Government to tackle the cross-channel migrant crisis? In that role, will he persuade officials in his own Department, as well as those in the Foreign Office and the Home Department, to come up with constructive solutions that can be effectively deployed, rather than coming up with reasons why something cannot be done?

I, and I am sure all hon. Members, join the Prime Minister in saying how deeply saddened we all are by the terrible tragedy we saw yesterday.

The response to the challenge of small boats is a whole-of-Government endeavour, and it is therefore right that we work across the whole of Government to look at all aspects of that journey: upstream, our processing and our legal framework. My hon. Friend will be aware that progress has been made, and 20,000 crossings have been stopped so far this year. We will continue to work in partnership with the French to ensure we can avert tragedies such as we saw yesterday.

I do not want the Secretary of State to get away with it this morning. What is he doing about the “blob”? If he reads the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph, it says that the blob is stopping the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, getting their policies delivered in every Department. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell us a little more about what this blob is? If it is stopping the Government delivering their policies, could he do something about blobism?

Thank you for that, Mr Speaker.

On the substantive point raised by the hon. Gentleman, as was recognised in the declaration on Government reform signed by the Prime Minister, by my predecessor as CDL and by the Cabinet Secretary—and indeed by Ministers and permanent secretaries across Whitehall—we are committed to reform and modernisation. Covid has shown the opportunity to do things differently, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we have huge talent and capability within our civil service. I can point to numerous examples, but the furlough scheme was put in place at great pace by officials in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. There is already innovation within our civil service, but it is clear, as covid has shown, that there is opportunity to go further and faster. There is now a commitment from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary to do exactly that.

Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at least agree that any Member of Parliament whose gross misconduct has led to their being ejected from this place through a recall petition, or anyone who chooses to leave rather than face a recall petition, should not be considered a fit and proper person to be elevated to the Lords?

It is up to this House to regulate its disciplinary affairs. Of course, this House has done so and, under your leadership, Mr Speaker, will no doubt continue to do so.

I have previously written to the Minister for Defence People and Veterans about the delay that one of my constituents has experienced while waiting for a decision on his military pension. Will the Minister please look into this case and ensure that my constituent does not wait any longer than the year that has already elapsed since his application?

I confirm to the hon. Lady that I will pursue that again today and will get her an answer urgently.

Many banks and companies want to do their business online. Indeed, they insist on it. I am contacted daily by constituents who do not have the access or the technical ability to go online. What can Government Departments do to provide the option of a phone call, rather than the online service that is impossible for many people and therefore disadvantages them?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there needs to be a mix of delivery options. By facilitating safe business online, as schemes such as “Help to Grow: Digital” do, we are helping customers. Alongside that, he is right: it is important that there are training opportunities for those who are less familiar. It is also important that those who do not want to go online are not left behind. One of the key objectives of our national cyber-security strategy is to ensure that the many who go online for the first time do so safely by ensuring that we make our defences far more resilient.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have no wish to embarrass the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is an old friend of mine. As he says, we are both ex-Brexit Secretaries, but I am also an ex-Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I know a cost-effectiveness argument when I see it, and I know when it falls down. The questions I cited to him were tabled so as to avoid the Department’s cost restrictions. As a result, the Department has used arguments of policy involvement in the statistics, and those arguments have been written off as bogus by the Information Commissioner. The Department is not obeying the spirit of the law. In the light of that, this cover-up has gone on long enough. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the answers I have been given, I give notice that I intend to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. In answer to my question, the Minister told the House that the National Audit Office “always has power” to access any documents, but you were here last week when we heard from a Minister who said that those minutes were not available and they did not know where they were. My question was very clear: how can the NAO have access to documents where we do not know whether they exist or not? I was wondering whether we could get clarity on that matter.

I cannot continue the questions, but I am sure the right hon. Lady will not leave it at that and will pursue this matter in other ways.