Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 709: debated on Thursday 24 February 2022

I begin by welcoming an excellent new ministerial team. This includes an expanded role for the Paymaster General to include Minister for the Cabinet Office. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler) is the new Parliamentary Secretary, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) is the new Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency.

As right hon. and hon. Members will also know, the Prime Minister has pledged to make changes to the way Downing Street and the Cabinet Office are run so that we can better respond to delivering across the UK and to the issues raised by parliamentary colleagues across the House. In my role as a Minister and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, I will be supporting Cabinet colleagues in delivering for the British people, uniting and levelling up across the UK.

I am sure the Minister will have been as appalled as I was to see the scenes of Russian aggression on our televisions. We should be equally concerned, however, about the Russian aggression that we cannot see. The Minister has responsibility for cyber-security. Can he give the House some assurance that his Department is now taking urgent steps to ensure that Government and commerce in this country will be protected against what we should reasonably expect to be coming from that direction?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. It is one that I touched on in my opening remarks about Cabinet Office plans for domestic resilience. It is something that we are working on across the United Kingdom, including with the Scottish Government. Through the excellent work of the National Cyber Security Centre, we are ensuring that the new national strategy that I launched before Christmas and the Government strategy on cyber that we launched shortly after Christmas are taken forward. They are about building resilience to the cyber risk for the whole of society while also recognising the huge opportunities that online platforms offer.

T2. I thank my hon. Friend for his commitment to making the United Kingdom the best country in the world in which to be a veteran by 2028. Will the Minister outline for me what he and his Department are doing to improve employment opportunities for veterans in my constituency of Dudley North and across the United Kingdom? (905646)

We know that veterans make brilliant employees, and the picture on veteran employment is good, with 83% of veterans employed full time six months after leaving service. However, we are not complacent; we are putting in place further practical support, such as tax breaks for those employing veterans, guaranteed job interviews for those seeking to join the civil service, and brilliant armed forces champions in jobcentres across the country, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), may I urge the Minister to give more detail on civil resilience, especially in light of what is happening with cyber-attacks and threats emanating from Russia. What extra support is being offered to businesses? I know national infrastructure is important, but many businesses across the UK are concerned about this. Has the national security cell done an assessment, and will that assessment be published?

This is an area of common ground across the House. I know the National Security Adviser has shared briefings with Opposition leaders, as referred to earlier in the week, and we continue to work closely across the House. The clear message being sent by all parties today is extremely welcome. On the specific question of cyber, we will set out further details of the work that the Cabinet Office is doing. We had a Cobra meeting this morning and that was one of the topics focused on.

I thank the Minister for that response. My heartfelt sympathies go out to Ukraine and my support is there with its people. The tragic events of this morning show that there is no space, excuse or justification when it comes to Putin’s continued influence in the UK’s democracy and national infrastructure. We have seen this week that Russian oligarchs and Kremlin-linked organisations have begun intense lobbying of Government Ministers in an attempt to avoid sanctions if Moscow invades Ukraine. Will the Minister confirm that none of his Conservative colleagues have accepted donations from anyone with links to the Kremlin currently lobbying the Foreign Office?

Again, the right hon. Lady raises an important point. She will well know that there is a long-standing principle that permissible donors are those who are on the UK electoral register: in essence, if people can vote in the UK for a party, they are able to donate to it. It is important in our discussions in this House that we remember—although I do not think that is what she was saying—that people in this country of Russian origin are often British citizens.

T4. My constituents and I were shocked by some of the revelations that came out of the Grenfell inquiry on building products manufacturers. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that none of those manufacturers will be used for Government contracts and that we have robust processes in place to ensure that Government contracts only go to honourable companies? (905649)

My hon. Friend is a champion for everything that has gone on since the Grenfell fire tragedy, and I completely understand and share her concerns about the information that has come to light through the Grenfell public inquiry. Current Government policy is to take into account suppliers’ past performance when awarding contracts. We are currently in the process of transforming the way Government procedures work, which will mean that in future poorly performing suppliers can be more easily excluded from procurements and buyers will have more scope and discretion to do so where suppliers have performed poorly in previous public contracts. Furthermore, the Government’s Building Safety Bill will establish a new regulatory regime for construction products and of course we continue to take action against specific companies where we can.

T3. The job of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is a huge one. The Cabinet Office has responsibility for some very important projects, from the covid-19 inquiry to cyber-security, emergency response and national security. Those all matter to people in Newport West—national security more so than ever today. How will the Minister reassure my constituents that their concerns will be listened to and acted on without dither or delay? (905648)

In part, by physically going to areas such as the north-west—I referenced my visit to Preston earlier—working on a cross-party basis to look at creating a cyber-corridor across the north-west, bringing the talent and skills agenda through schools into the universities with courses such as those at the University of Central Lancashire, and ensuring a better pipeline of apprentices into both the business community, such as BAE in that part of the world, and Government itself.

T5. On a day like today a celebration is perhaps not at the forefront of our minds. However, Her Majesty the Queen’s 70th jubilee this year does mark the unwavering devotion that she has had towards this country and the service therein. Across the United Kingdom—and not just in this country but of course around the world as well—people will be very keen to celebrate this historic milestone. Will my right hon. Friend elaborate on what he plans to do about putting this momentous occasion forward? (905651)

I welcome the opportunity to celebrate the extraordinary contribution Her Majesty has made to the United Kingdom, the realms and the Commonwealth during her 70-year reign. May I also wish Her Majesty a very speedy recovery? I know the thoughts of everyone in this House are with her. In addition to the four-day UK bank holiday weekend, which includes the platinum jubilee pageant, the Cabinet Office is marking this historic occasion by leading a competition for the award of a number of prestigious civic honours, including city status, and we will announce the results of that later this year. Also, the good people of North Norfolk and those across the UK will be as excited as I am that the ballot for tickets to a platinum jubilee party at Buckingham Palace on 4 June has opened today.

T7. I would like to begin by sending my thoughts and prayers to the people of Ukraine at this impossibly difficult time.There has been a great deal of controversy regarding the Cabinet Office’s handling of public procurement during the pandemic, and we have all read the reports of cronyism and contracts being dished out to Government friends. With this in mind, my constituents in Coventry North West want to know what steps the Cabinet Office is taking to clean up procurement processes going forward. (905653)

I think this issue has been well rehearsed at pretty much all the Cabinet Office questions that I have participated in. As was touched on earlier, the purpose of the high priority lane was to efficiently prioritise credible offers of PPE, and that is what we did. The priority was to ensure that our frontline services had the PPE they needed. That is what we invested in and that is what we secured.

T6.   I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new role as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff in addition to his role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Will he commit to ensuring that No. 10 drives forward levelling up places such as North Devon, whose variation in opportunity is often hidden due to the averages of a large county such as Devon? (905652)

I very much agree that levelling up is a UK-wide endeavour and there are often pockets of variance within regions, as I know with a constituency in the fens: North East Cambridgeshire has a very different set of issues from Cambridge. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of levelling up from the skills, health and transport infrastructure perspectives, which impact differently within different regions of the UK.

I want to put on record my fullest support and solidarity for the people of Ukraine as they face the unlawful, aggressive and unprovoked invasion by Russia.

The Minister will know that the recently published national action plan does not include a commitment on aid transparency, which is critical for all of us in ensuring that taxpayer money goes to those who need it most. Bond, the network of development and humanitarian organisations, is calling on the Government to engage in meaningful and inclusive consultation on this. Will he commit to meeting Bond to create an ambitious target to ensure that we remain a world leader on the transparency of our aid budget?

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks. The theme this morning has been the unified voice with which this House has spoken on the troubling events in Ukraine. In respect of transparency in the aid budget, I am happy to highlight his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and ask whether she or one of her Ministers would be willing to meet him to discuss the issue he raises.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the cross-departmental work to tackle illegal immigration across the English channel, and specifically the plans for the establishment of an offshore immigration detention and processing centre?

As part of taking back control of our borders, this is an issue of huge concern. That is why, through my role in the Cabinet Office, I have been working closely with the Home Secretary and other colleagues on a whole-of-Government response to the challenge of illegal migration. The Home Secretary has set out a number of areas of that work and we will be saying more on that in the weeks ahead.

How many staff is the Downing Street chief of staff the chief of? How many of them are civil servants? How many of them are political appointees or Spads, and how many of them are employees of the Conservative party?

In terms of how many people currently work in No. 10, it is slightly over 400. Within the Cabinet Office, the number is much larger, but that depends on whether we cut the data to include fast-streamers, who sit on the Cabinet Office headcount, or to include the Government Commercial Function, which is located with different Departments. In short, one can have a wider answer depending on how we want to analyse the data. The wider point is how we have very clear lines of accountability, how we ensure that the issues raised by the House are addressed and in particular how we empower the Cabinet and Cabinet Government. That is something I am keen to help facilitate through my engagement with Secretaries of State.

Earlier this month, a former civil servant was awarded a large pay-out after suffering a prolonged and sustained campaign of racial abuse, hinting at a systemic problem in the Cabinet Office and its agencies. What steps is the Minister taking to tackle racism in his Department?

There are two issues there. The first is the issue of pay-offs when people leave roles, and we have a manifesto commitment. It is something I was committed to in the Treasury, and I know that the current Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), is taking forward proposals on the size of payouts. We had a manifesto commitment to cap those at £95,000. The issue the hon. Lady raises is slightly different, because it pertains to employment law, and as the House knows, it is not appropriate for Ministers to comment on individual cases. Where there is common ground between her and me is that it is important that the civil service is an exemplar in how it supports colleagues across the civil service and how it champions diversity, which again is a theme that has come out of the discussion this morning.