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Topical Questions

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 27 October 2022

The Cabinet Office sits at the very heart of the British Government, supporting our new Prime Minister to co-ordinate and deliver for the British people. Like the rest of the country, I was deeply moved by public commemorations for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and I am proud of the work undertaken by officials in my Department to co-ordinate those efforts and make them such a success. Of course, planning has already begun for a safe and successful coronation of His Majesty the King in May. I welcome the opportunity to debate with Opposition Members, and indeed Government Members, the issues in my Department.

Constituents involved in the contaminated blood inquiry want to know when the arm’s length body to administer payments will be ready, whether independent legal support will be available for those making claims and, crucially—this is on behalf of the Smiths, whose harrowing evidence was a key part of the inquiry; I ask Ministers to watch it—whether parents who lost children will be included in future compensation schemes. When will we know? These people have waited far too long already.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady on what happened to those people, the suffering they endured and the length of time that they have had to wait. I hope that they can draw some comfort from the fact that interim payments will be made by the end of the week. Of course, that is the beginning of an ongoing process and I do not want to prejudge its outcome, but she raises important points that will be considered as part of the process. I hope to respond positively to all of them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me welcome the newest Ministers who have made it through the revolving door to the Government Front Bench—and may I say that it feels like the Spice Girls versus the Backstreet Boys? When their latest Prime Minister was campaigning in the leadership election—the one before last, that is—he said that reappointing an independent ethics adviser would be one of the first things he would do, but the first things he did were to bring back a Home Secretary a week after she resigned for breaking the ministerial code and an Immigration Minister who admitted that they had acted unlawfully in office. When will there be someone in place to investigate the new Cabinet?

First of all, I welcome the right hon. Lady’s question and her kind words. In fact, as we were discussing previously, we have more in common than people might think: not only are we both gingers, but we both come from good working-class stock and we both rather enjoy a trip to Glyndebourne to see the opera —just to prove that nothing is too good for the working people.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the question of the independent adviser. I have discussed it with the Prime Minister. He will make an announcement shortly and a person will be in place.

I absolutely welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s comments. I listened to him earlier with regard to the Home Secretary. I am sure he heard last night that the former Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Sir Jake Berry), revealed that the Home Secretary was involved in multiple breaches of the ministerial code, that these were really serious and that the Cabinet Secretary had expressed concern. Perhaps the new Minister can tell us what they were, how will they now be investigated and what action will be taken over them. If the Government had an ethics adviser, does he really think they would have sanctioned the return of this Home Secretary?

Once again, to restate it to the right hon. Lady, the Home Secretary did accept that she made errors of judgment in her conduct. That is why she resigned. Of course, the Prime Minister, on appointing her, sought assurances to ensure that that would not happen again. In respect of private advice given by the Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister on making appointments, it has never been the case, under any Administration, that that advice is made public. I would, however, gently say to the right hon. Lady, and to Opposition Members, that this is the third occasion the House has had the opportunity to discuss an issue of process, and I wonder whether it is because they do not want to discuss the strong record of the Home Secretary, whether in tackling migration—

Order. This is topical questions. We had a good love-in at the beginning, but answers are meant to be short and punchy, not a full debate. Laurence Robertson, show us the example.

T5. On the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s replacement of electronic countermeasures, can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster advise me on whether that process has reached the end? If it has not, will he reconsider the bids that were made by a number of companies, two of which are in my constituency, which do not feel that the process was carried out as thoroughly, in terms of investigations, as it might have been? (901906)

This is a matter for the FCDO, as my hon. Friend will understand, but I am informed that its view is that the correct procedures have been followed and that it determined that both suppliers failed to satisfactorily provide answers and documentation following classification questions. The existing procurement remains in compliance with all procurement regulations and will, I am informed, be concluded within the original timeframe outlined.

T2. Doncaster Sheffield airport is part of our critical national infrastructure, both as a major regional economic asset and as a base to emergency and national security services. Despite the risk to those essential services, it is due to close within days. Will the Minister meet me and other hon. Members to discuss how the Government could step in to save the airport if the owners refuse to sell, including through the use of their powers under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004? (901902)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are always keen to see thriving regional enterprises. This matter has been discussed frequently in the House, and I refer her back to the debate earlier this week and what the Minister said.

T6. As you know, Mr Speaker, the National Cyber Force is to be located in Lancashire, which is a great boost for local high-skilled jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to level up the country, it is important that young people can gain the skills and qualifications that they need locally to feed into those high-skilled jobs? (901907)

I know what a strong champion my hon. Friend is for the National Cyber Force in Samlesbury. Thanks to the efforts of her and others, 6,000 jobs were created just last year and more than 52,000 people are now employed in cyber-security. Crucially, more than half of them are outside London and the south-east.

T3. Further to the comments on the Home Secretary, we have learned today from reports in the media that she was the subject of an inquiry by the Cabinet Office security group and MI5 in January into security leaks. Given what we have heard about the circumstances of her resignation, this would surely be the time to reopen that inquiry, both to give the security services confidence in her and, actually, for the Home Secretary’s sake. (901904)

The hon. Lady, as a former colleague of mine in Downing Street during the coalition days, will remember that we do not ever comment on issues in relation to the security services. However, in all leak inquiries, as she may recall, everyone is interviewed, so I would not read too much into some of those reports.

Poor mental health costs the economy £118 billion per annum, obesity-related diseases cost the NHS £6.5 billion every year and ill health in England’s most deprived communities costs £30 billion, yet schemes that would improve the nation’s wellbeing and reduce those sums are scattered across Whitehall Departments and buried low down in their priorities. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how his Department can lead a wellbeing strategy to improve the physical, mental and economic health of the nation?

I know my hon. Friend’s passionate commitment to that cause, and I would be delighted to meet her to discuss it.

T7. If a civil servant were to use their private email to send confidential Government business, they would rightly be expected to face the harshest penalties and lose their security clearance. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that reappointing the Home Secretary just six days after she made significant breaches of the ministerial code in that way smacks of having one rule for them and another for our hard-working civil servants? (901908)

The Home Secretary has accepted that her conduct was not acceptable. That is precisely why she resigned and accepted that responsibility. However, I have to say that Labour Members’ obsession with a mistake for which she has apologised stands in stark contrast to their failure to answer questions on crime or immigration. That says it all about their priorities for the British people.

If an election result is declared and challenged, it can ultimately be settled in the High Court. If an election result is declared and a genuine mistake is spotted, even with the agreement of the returning officer and all the candidates, the only option to correct it is through the High Court, causing delay, great expense and distress. Will that anomaly be looked at by Ministers and corrected?

Once again, my hon. Friend demonstrates his in-depth knowledge of electoral issues. He raises a very important point; I will take advice on that and look into whether there is something that we can do.

Will the Minister do a root-and-branch review of the transparency of publications by the Government on ministerial hospitality received? Quite often, those lists are not even an accurate list of Ministers, let alone an accurate list of the hospitality that they have received. Why is it that ordinary Members of Parliament have to register and publish any hospitality that they receive within 28 days, whereas if someone is a Minister, they never have to provide all the details and it does not get published for at least nine or sometimes 12 months?

I am happy to look into the points that the hon. Gentleman raises. The standards of transparency in this country—and indeed, that have been introduced under this Government—are some of the highest in the world, but I will look into that.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to having move civil servants outside London. Leicestershire is a perfect place for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; we have a rural community, with big farming and concern for the environment. I would be surprised—amazed, actually—if Ministers had not heard about the campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) to bring DEFRA right to the heart of England. Is that something the Cabinet Office would support?

I hear a proper call from a Leicestershire MP for Leicestershire’s values to be recognised. It would not be for me to make determinations for DEFRA, but I wish my hon. Friend well in his campaign.

I wonder whether we might give Ministers a second chance and see whether one of them can explain what they understand the principles of the Sewel convention to be, and whether nowadays they are more easily observed in their breach than in their application.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as I am sure he realises, we will not normally legislate on a matter that involves the Scottish Parliament or another devolved Administration without consulting the devolved institution and letting it pass a legislative consent motion. I am sure that will continue. If he has any issues with any particular case, he is welcome to come and speak to us about it.

The inquiry into food security by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has identified a major problem, which is that British farmers who want to produce more food do not have good access to the right amounts of nitrogen fertiliser. As part of the Government’s resilience work, can Ministers look across Government at what more we can do to ensure access to the fertiliser that British farmers need to produce British food for British consumers?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point that I will take away. He is probably more of a farming expert than I am, but I believe we have already loosened some of the requirements in relation to fertilisers. However, it may well be that there is more to do.

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will have impacts that require a dedicated and well resourced workforce like the civil service to deliver its goals and prevent complications. What assessment have Ministers made of headcounts to ensure project deliverability?

We will always make certain that we have the right resources and the right civil service support to ensure that we continue to govern appropriately and that laws passed by this place and the other place are put into effect.

The Financial Conduct Authority has found that 13% of all people in Northern Ireland are finding it difficult to keep up with bills or loan repayments. Can the Minister reaffirm the commitment to maintaining support for the Northern Irish economy during this very difficult period?

Absolutely. There are problems across the UK, and indeed globally, and we are very mindful of supporting our citizens right across our United Kingdom.